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Kozelets, a small town with a rich history


Indefatigable Olena KRUSHYNSKA takes a trip to the town of Kozelets, where time itself seems to be moving at a much slower pace than in megalopolises, and where architectural landmarks and scenic landscapes bring peace and harmony to the soul.


The town of Kozelets does not look any different from any of its sisters, provincial Ukrainian towns To put it briefly, the little town does not have anything particularly remarkable in it, but any traveler who passes through this town will surely admire it  unless he will be sleeping during the stop there when the horses are changed, or happens to have dinner at Mr Tykhonov's place  the sight of a graceful church that was designed by Rastrelli himself and built by Natalya Rozumykha. Taras Shevchenko


If you travel from Kyiv to Chernihiv along the main highway that connects these two cities, you can spot the silhouette of a majestic church with a bell tower in the hazy distance when you reach the 70th kilometer from Kyiv. If you have time, itd worth your while to take a closer look.

I tell those who have not been to Kozelets yet that its only an hour ride from Kyiv  you dont have to get up early in the day to get there while the sun shines, and you dont have to be in a hurry to return before dusk. The magnificent five-domed church and the fifty-meter tall bell tower next to it are things any culturally mined person should see. The church is surrounded by small houses  in fact, the church is the only building of such an impressive, if not to say, overwhelming size in a vast territory of miles and miles around, dotted with one-, or two-story peasant houses. It seems to have been transported to the place where it now sits by mischievous angels.

But in truth, it was through human agency that the church was erected at what now looks rather an unlikely site for it in a small town.


From rags to riches

Once upon a time, or to be more precise about three hundred years ago, there lived a poor Cossack named Hryhoriy, nicknamed Rozum (Wit, or Brilliant Mind). He earned this nickname for using one and the same phrase  Hey, shcho za holova, shcho za svitly rozum (Ah, what brains, a brilliant mind!) whenever he talked about someone he respected for wisdom. The nickname stuck and became the family name. Hryhoriy himself was rather a rowdy man, given to excessive drinking; by contrast, his wife was sober-minded, sensible and clever. The Rozums lived in the village of Lemeshi, not far from the town of Kozelets. Two sons, out of their six children, became famous.

Oleksiy Rozum, the eldest, was tall, well-built, intelligent, handsome and had a fine voice. He began his working career at an early age, looking after cattle, not his familys but of other people in the local community. His voice qualified him for singing in a church choir in the neighboring village of Chemer. During the Christmas season of 1731, Fortune, in the shape of Colonel Fedir Vysnevsky, smiled, probably in the literal sense too, upon Oleksiy.

Colonel Vysnevsky who was in charge of delivering certain amounts of Tokay wines from Hungary to the Imperial Court of Russia, stopped on his way to the Russian capital at the church in Chemer to attend the service. He heard Oleksiy sing; he was greatly impressed  and he invited the young man to go with him to St Petersburg to join the church choir at the Imperial court.

Oleksiy did not take long to make up his mind  with or without his parents blessing he accepted the proposal. As promised, Oleksiy was admitted to the choir of the church at the Imperial court. The young Elizaveta (Elizabeth) Petrivna, the daughter of Peter I, did not fail to spot the handsome 22-year old youth among the choristers, and What happened next is not too difficult to guess. She took Oleksiy for a lover; he took part in an active part in a palace revolution and was instrumental in getting Elizabeth to the throne. She was so much infatuated with him that she conferred the title of a count upon him, then elevated him to Field Marshal, and gave him vast stretches of land in Ukraine. Rozum was not a fitting name for count and Field Marshall, and Oleksiys last name was refashioned into Rozumovsky. The Empress and Count Rozumovsky were secretly married and Oleksiys clout was greatly boosted by this circumstance. Thanks to him, his mother Natalya, brother Kyrylo and sister were given noble titles. Oleksiy talked the Empress into visiting Ukraine and restoring some autonomy and the rule of hetmans. It was his brother who was to become the last hetman of Ukraine (in fact, the last but one  the last hetman of Ukraine was Pavlo Skoropadsky, but in 1918, in a totally different epoch).

Kyrylo, Oleksiys younger brother, received an excellent education at several European universities. He spoke several languages, was a connoisseur of art, architecture and music. He had a number of buildings built, among them a palace in Baturyn, and an office building in Kozelets. This building still stands, and now houses a library. Kyrylo was promoted to presidentship of the Academy of Sciences. In 1750 he was elected Hetman of Ukraine and he left St Petersburg for Ukraine. Following in his brothers footsteps, he took part in another palace revolution in 1762 (by that time Elizabeth had been long dead), which placed Catherine, the German wife of Peter III, on the throne. Later, Catherine II rejected Kyrylo Rozymovskys appeals to grant more autonomy to Ukraine. Kyrylo was forced to resign and Catherine abolished hetmanship in Ukraine together with all the last vestiges of autonomy. Kyrylo lived for some time in St Petersburg, then abroad; the last nine years of his life he spent in Baturyn where he died in 1803.

Kyrylos son, Andriy was a diplomat in the service of the Russian court, who spent a lot of time on diplomatic missions in foreign capitals. He was a great lover of music and was acquainted with Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. He died in Vienna in 1836, and one of the Viennese streets was named for him.

Now, what does it all have to do with the church in Kozelets? The church came into being thanks to the Rozumovsky family.


The Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi

The Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi  Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God in Kozelets, was built in 17521763. It is surely a very impressive architectural landmark. Much praise was lavished upon it by fascinated laymen and art historians alike. The architectural and decorative elements, elaborate white stucco on the white background in particular, give the church a festive, ornate appearance. This church is probably one of the last that was built in the Baroque or rococo style in Ukraine  classicism began to take over.

The story of who designed the church is far from clear. Architecture and art historians used to think that the church was designed by Rastrelli, a court architect, but recently discovered documents point to the Russian architect Andriy Kvasov as the author of the design, Kvasov was also known for doing designs for palaces in Moscow and Tsarske Selo (in the vicinity of St Petersburg), and to have worked in Ukraine, in the Land of Chernihivshchyna. Some architectural elements of the church (the style of the domes, for example) suggest that Ivan Hryhorovych-Barsky, an architect from Kyiv, might have taken part too.

The interior of the church, which is predominantly white, decorated with rococo-style stuccowork, is graced with an iconostasis, which is a masterpiece of wood carving. It is 27 meters tall and contains 5 rows of icons, full of color and rich in decorative elements, and the contrast of the colorful iconostasis and the white walls of the church create a powerful visual effect. It is believed to have been originally made for the Smolny Monastery in St Petersburg, but then found its way to the church in Kozelets thanks to the Rozumovskys efforts  the Empress Elizabeth gave this iconostasis to one of the Rozumovsky brothers. It is likely that the church was actually designed to be fit to contain this marvel of wood carving and icon painting. Icons were painted by Hryhoriy Stetsenko who was commissioned by the Rozumovskys. However, there are not only icons to be seen in the iconostasis  there are portraits of Natalya Rozumovska, the mother of Oleksiy and Kyrylo Rozumovsky, of Empress Elizabeth and priest Kyrylo Tarlovsky. This priest was said to have once been a Cossack and have taken part in battles, wielding the saber with a greater dexterity than the censer. He was also said to have been the very priest who officiated at the wedding ceremony of Elizabeth and Oleksiy.

It was largely thanks to Natalya Rozumovska that the church was built and was made to look the way it looks. She was buried in the crypt of the church. The church can be regarded as a marvelously artistic way to thank God for Natalyas sons amazing careers.

Religious services are regularly held at the church and tourists pay visits to it. Unfortunately, only 50 icons of the original 80 have been preserved and most of them are to be seen at a museum in Chernihiv. Their substitutions in the iconostasis are not as good as the originals but is does not spoil too much the overall effect.

In Kozelets, it will not be a waste of time to see the five-domed Voznesenska Church (18681874) that graces the central street, and the Baroque-style Mykolayivska Church (1784) that stands not far from the River Oster.


An old house in Lemeshi

Taras Shevchenko, the great nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet, mentions an old, dilapidated house in the village of Lemeshi in his novelette Knyahynya (Grand Duchess); the inscription above the door read: This house was built by Gods slave Natalya Rozumykha in the year 1710 of Our Lord. There is a mention in Knyahynya of the church in Kozelets too; the marble plaque on the wall of the church said: This church was built by Countess Natalya Rozumovska. Shevchenko writes, Isnt amazing that both buildings were built by the same person? One of the most remarkable poets of Ukraine today, Lina Kostenko, devoted a poem, Stara tserkva v Lemeshakh (An Old Church in Lemeshi), to these architectural landmarks and the amazing destinies of the Rozumovsky family.

The old house in Lemeshi which is mentioned by Shevchenko in Knyahynya, has long disappeared but the Tryokhsvyatytelska Church there, built in 1755, still stands. Natalya Rozumykha had it built over the grave of her husband, Hryhoriy. It is much smaller in size than the church in Kozelets and its architectural decor is much more subdued too. The name of the architect who designed the church in Lemeshi is not known but he must have been one of a considerable talent. In the nineteenth century the Russian-style bell tower was built nearby (similar bell towers were built by the side of many other Ukrainian churches at that time) and as far as I am concerned, it is an unfortunate addition.

Lemeshi boasts another architectural landmark  the building of a former school. It was built in 1909 1910 and the design was provided by the architect M. Yakubovych who combined features of the Ukrainian architectural styles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the style of Art Modern (known also as Art Nouveau, or Secession) which was prevalent then. During the construction, which was financed by one of the descendants of the Rozumovsky family who lived abroad, the new building material  reinforced concrete  was used, probably for the first time in Ukraine, with great success. At present, the building houses an agricultural company which had been established in the soviet times and named after Lenin  it still incongruously carries the name of this Bolshevik, the founder of the soviet state that brought so much suffering to Ukraine.



In the village of Danivka, located not far from Kozelets, there is an old estate, Pokorshchyna, which dates from the eighteenth century. It used to belong to Oleksiy Rozumovskys sister Vira, who was married to Colonel Darahan.

It is not that easy to find Pokorshchyna in Danivka unless you know what you are looking for. The origin of the name Pokorshchyna is obscure, and as obscure are the few traces left there to remind us of the estates former opulence  the modest gate, the old park, an old wooden building in the depth of the neglected park are practically all you can see. This building that sports toy-like columns made of linden trunks, has retained a bit of charm and some of the decorative features of the old times. Around the windows one can see decorations in the shapes of old, pre-Christian symbols  circles and rhomboids  which were to protect the house from the evil spirits. Inside, the tiled stoves may have come down form their former owners.

I found it very surprising that a building like that has withstood over two centuries of wars, revolutions, negligence and vandalism.

Another building that must have come from the old times is that  supposedly  of the treasure house. It looks like a miniature fortress, complete with thick walls, but there is little else to attract tourists  except, maybe, a plethora of graffiti, old and pretty recent.



The Heorhivsky (St George) Monastery in the village of Danivka, which is situated within a short ride from Kozelets and thus will not require much time to make a detour on the way back to Kyiv, is a seventeenth-century architectural landmark, whose domes can be glimpsed above the trees from a considerable distance.

The Heorhivsky Cathedral of the monastery was built in 17411756, with the Empress Elizabeth being the donor. Her decision to have this church built was, no doubt, prompted by Oleksiy Rozumovsky.

Though the church in Danivka was built at about the same time as the Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi in Kozelets, and in a similar style, it produces a very different impression. The church looks very solidly built, like a fortress, and small narrow windows look like loopholes in defensive walls. The stuccowork is not in a very good state of preservation but you still can make out representations of cannon, cannon balls, spears and banners which lend a certain military spirit, but which is softened by plump Baroque-style putti smiling from ornamental clouds.

The Heorhivsky Church carries only three domes, which are lined up along the axis of the central nave. This is an unusual feature for Baroque churches of the eighteenth century but typical for wooden churches.

The monastery and its churches have been put to many tests  those of time and soviet atheism proving to be more damaging than wars (for period of time, it was converted into a home for the elderly). In 1995 it was returned to the religious community and now it is a nunnery, with all the buildings and walls painted virginally white. It is closed for visiting from noon to 4 p.m., so it is best to come to see it in late afternoon.

Kozelets and its environs are only a tiny part of Ukraine, and yet it contains so many historical and architectural landmarks  imagine what a great number of such landmarks are to be found across the whole of Ukraine.


Photos by the author


The 27-meter tall, five-tier iconostasis matches

in grandeur the Cathedral itself.


Detail of the iconostasis which is lavishly

decorated with wood carving.


The Tryokhsvyatytelska Church in Lemeshi dates

from 1755. The church is reflected not in the pond

near the church but on the roof of the car.


The building of a school which was built with the

money donated by Natalya Rozumovska

in the 18th century.


The portrait of Natalya Rozumovska which was

painted by the artist Hryhoriy Stetsenko who

created many other pictures for the Rozumovsky

family. Its a portrait of a self-confident person

who knows her worth.


A 19th-century lithograph shows the whole complex

of the Monastery of St George in the village of

Danivka. The photo below shows the monasterys

cathedral today.



The central building of the Pokorshchyna estate in

Danivka; it has miraculously survived from

the 18th century.

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