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Svyatohirsk is one of the major tourist attractions in the eastern part of Ukraine. It is also a place much respected by the Orthodox Christians. Tourists are attracted by the scenic landscape and the faithful come to worship at the Svatohirska Lavra Monastery.
Denys KUSHNARYOV also went there and now tells about that charming place.
Svyatohirsk is located close to the place where Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk Oblasts of Ukraine meet. The first written mention of what we now call Svyatohirsk dates from the sixteenth century. Then it was known as Svyati Hory — that is, Holy Mounts. The National Nature Park that occupies a territory of over 40,000 hectares preserves the old name.
The “Holy Mounts” are in fact hills which are made up of chalk which dates from about 150 million years ago. This chalk is the same that students used in schools to write on chalkboards before the advent of modern technologies (in many schools of Ukraine, chalk is still widely used in class). There is no other place in Ukraine where chalk can be found in such enormous concentrations. Some of the chalk cliffs rise up a height of over three hundred feet. What is locally called “chalk pines” flourish on the chalk foundation. As a matter of fact, they can grow on no soil other than calcite.
The scenic effect of the place is enhanced by the River Siversky Donets which in its widest places is up to four kilometers (over two miles) wide.
The Svyato-Uspenska (Holy Assumption) Svyatohirska Lavra Monastery sits on one of the high calcite hills adding its own spiritual touch to the scenery.
It is not known exactly when the monastery was founded. Recent historical and archeological research has revealed that early Christians could have lived on the Svyatohirsk hills even before the state of Kyivan Rus went Christian in the tenth century. There are indications that these early Christians must have been those who continued to worship icons when the use of icons was banned in Byzantium in the iconoclast times, and who fled from the Byzantine Empire wanting to preserve their beliefs and rituals intact.
These Christian fugitives who traveled as far as the present-day location of Svyatohirsk, dug caves in the calcite rock and connected them with corridors, thus settling down for the life of quiet prayer and meditation.
There is more data concerning the Christian community in Svyatohirsk in later times. It is known that during the ruinous Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, Slavic fugitives were hiding from the invaders in the Svyati Hory caves. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the monastery was an Orthodox Christian outpost in the turbulent times of fighting against incursions of the Crimean Tartars and the religious pressures of Poland which was a Catholic state and which had under its control most of Ukraine.
When in the seventeenth century, Ukraine besieged on many sides, went into an alliance with Muscovy and soon after that lost the last vestiges of its independence, the monastery continued to be a stronghold against the Tartar raids, during one of which all the monks perished except only two old monks.
There are about a mile of underground corridors which connect monks’ cells, underground churches and refectories which are situated at three different levels. The first church on the ground and other monastery buildings were erected in the valley of the river rather than on top of the hill where monastery construction began as late as in the seventeenth century.
Roads were built to provide an easier access to the monastery whose location away from big population centers encouraged the reclusive monastic life.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the Russian Empress Catherine II closed down many monasteries and expropriated the monasteries’ lands and property, thus considerably enriching the state treasury.
The Svyatohirsky monastery, which had lost its strategic importance after the Russian conquest of the Crimea, was among those that were closed — only to be reopened in 1844.
The Svyatohirsky monastery lived through an active construction phase in the second half of the nineteenth century. The number of monks kept on growing as well as the number of pilgrims.
The beauty of the surrounding landscape drew hordes of poets, writers, painters, composers and nature lovers. Tourists began coming from abroad. One of such early tourists wrote home: “It is an amazingly beautiful place, with the monastery sitting on the top of a white hill. The steep slopes are overgrown with age-old pines and oaks. It’s a wonder how they manage to grow there at all in such profusion. The trees seem to be hovering above the ground. Cuckoo birds and nightingales provide incessant musical accompaniment.”
Among the artists who were fascinated with the beauty of Svyati Hory was Ilya Repin, a well-known Russian painter of the late ninetieth – early-twentieth century who was born in Ukraine. His many landscapes poeticize the river and the surrounding hills.
The revolutions, political upheavals and civil war that followed the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 hit the monastery badly. The militantly atheistic Bolsheviks who came to power in the country that came to be known as the Soviet Union, turned the monastery into a rest home, with the Uspensky Cathedral used as a movie hall. The monks who survived the Bolshevik pogroms, dispersed.
Many of the monastery buildings were destroyed, including the churches. Svyatohirsk was renamed Slavyanohirsk, the hills became Chervoni (Red), and the monastery was renamed Budynok vidpochynku imeni Artema (Rest Home named for Artem). A monument to Artem who was a Bolshevik revolutionary and later a communist party boss who died in 1922, was erected in defiance of the religious significance of the place.
The monument still stands and serves as an additional tourist attraction rather than a reminder of the atrocities of the soviet regime (revolutionaries in the czarist times assumed all sorts of names for reasons of conspiracy to cover their true identity; Artem was one of them; his real name was Fedor Serheyev).
After Ukraine regained independence in 1991, religious life began to revive. In 1991 the Svyatohirsk monastery was reopened. In 2004, the monastery was given the honorary title of “Lavra” and it further increased its popularity among the faithful. Pilgrims, many of whom come from afar, flock to the monastery on big religious holidays.
The town of Svyatohirsk has grown to be a thriving tourist center, complete with rest homes, health improvement and entertainment centers.
The pine forests provide balmy fragrances and the salubrious air; the countryside pleases the esthetic eye. The hills create a local microclimate which is known for its mildness and absence of strong winds. The truly warm season lasts for about four months.
In other words, Svyatohirsk has all the ingredients necessary for a bustling tourist business.
The panorama of the Svyaty Hory seen from the hill
The interior of the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral
The promenade along the river which was laid out
The River Siversky Donets, flowing through the scenic Svyati Hory
The decorated arch of the church cum bell tower.
The monastery was originally founded in caves;
The part of the monastery for reclusive monks which is
An excellent view of the Svyatohirsky monastery