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From Rags to Riches — and Back to Rags
The Svyato-Hryhoriyivsky Bizyukiv Monastery in the Land of Khersonshchyna used to be the fourth biggest Orthodox monk community in the Russian Empire. Not too long after the Bolsheviks came to power, the monastery was “secularized” and became a part of a soviet farm. iN the 1990s, it was turned back into a monastery. Yevhen BUDKO went there to have a look.
The village of Chervony Mayak (Red Beacon) grew around the administrative center, formerly a monastic retreat, of the radhosp (a soviet collective farm run as an industrial enterprise rather than as a farm) that contained a school, a winery, a culture center. The cemetery accommodated a school; the cathedral was made into “a culture center“, soviet style, and a vinery functioned in one of the monastery buildings.
After Ukraine’s independence, most of the buildings that used to be part of the monastery complex, were returned to the Orthodox Church.
There are two major branches of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine — one of them is under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, and the other one is that of the Kyiv Patriarchate; there is a lot of rivalry between the two. The monastery we are talking about went to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Monks are back
I hail from the Land of Khersonshchyna, most of which is the endless steppe, sizzling under the hot southern sun. The Wild Field — this is how it was often referred to in the times of old. All sorts of migrants used to live in the steppe with, it seemed to me, very little in the form of artifacts or architectural landmarks left for the archeologists and history-minded people of today to study and wonder at.
During my visit to the monastery which has been freed from the destructive grip of the soviet militant atheism and now is slowly becoming what a monastic community is supposed to be, I saw quite a few pilgrims and tourists too. One of the buildings of the monastery, designed originally to accommodate pilgrims, has been turned into a more or less modern hotel facility. The central church of the monastery has been given new domes, shining in gold. The monastery garden provides excellent fruit. I spotted several local teenagers drinking beer in the cool shade — not a sight that you’d expect to see in a monastery.
I was somewhat surprised at the rather slow pace of reconstruction — the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is very rich and I thought there must be a reason why the Bizyukiv Monastery had not yet been fully restored to its former status.
The basic reason is, apparently, the number of monks — only four, including their Father Superior.
There is a tourist agency though that offers tours of the place — you pay 30 hryvnya (about $ 2.50) and you can join a group of tourists or be provided, if you so desire, with a guide who will take you around the monastery on an individual tour.
Looking back into history
The monastery dates to the late eighteenth century. Someone, named Fedir Maslov, before taking his monastic vows, was a son of a merchant who chose monastic life rather than trade as an occupation. During the Russo-Turkish wars, he caught the eye of Grigori Potyomkin, the all-powerful favorite of the Russian Empress Catherine II. Potyomkin talked the Empress into giving the monk Maslov a piece of land for founding a new monastery in the part of the country recently won from the Turks.
Maslov did what he had promised to do — and not surprisingly, the monastery, which sat on a hill overlooking the Dnipro River, was given the name of Grigory (Potyomkin’s first name), but conveniently, it was also the name of a saint, not only of that dashing courtier.
In 1787, the Empress on her way from or to the Crimea paid a visit to the St Grigory Monastery and praised the way things were run there. In 1803, the Russian czar Alexander I granted the Grigori monastic retreat the status of a fully-fledged monastery. It was then that the monastery, in addition to being named for Saint Grigory (in Ukrainian pronunciation — Svyato-Hryhoriyivsky), acquired the name of Bizyukiv. The thing is that after being granted the full status of monastery, this religious community was also provided with financial support from the state — all the revenues from the village Bizyuki in Belarus, a couple of thousand miles away, were to be directed to the monastery. This village also supplied the monastery with a 3,200 pound bell whose tolling was heard for miles around.
The monastery kept growing and getting richer and richer. It attracted a lot of pilgrims, many of them from Moscow and St Petersburg, the then Russian Empire’s two capitals. Quite a few of pilgrims were from noble families.
Viewed from the river, the monastery did make an imposing sight: high on a hill, surrounded by defensive walls with towers, stood churches and chapels, rose a very tall bell tower surrounded by many other buildings. The flat landscape around increased the visual impact of the monastery — hardly anyone of those who were coming for worship, remained unmoved by the majesty of the sight.
The riches of the monastery were vast indeed — hundreds of thousands of gold rubles in revenues; a couple of thousand horses, dozens of thousands of sheep, plus a thousand workers and assistants toiling for about two thousand monks. The thousands of acres of land that belonged to the monastery provided huge yields of corn and flax. Mills, oil refineries, wineries and numerous shops provided jobs for thousands of people who lived in that area.
On the more spiritual side, the two cathedrals of the monastery (one for winter services, and the other one for services held in summer) were richly decorated with frescos painted by Italian painters and displayed icons of excellent quilt.
The monastery supported and ran one civilian and one religious school, a hospital that provided medical services free of charge, and an orphanage. When, at the end of the ninetieth century the area was hit by several waves of highly contagious diseases of typhus and anthrax, only one case of death from these diseases was reported — thanks to the medical care provided by the monastery hospital.
The achievement was particularly impressive in view of the fact that there were no major urban or medical centers for hundreds of miles around.
My guide, Rayisa, a lay sister, took me on an extensive tour of the place. In addition to the obvious monastic landmarks, I saw the scars that the soviets had left in the monastery, among them a monument to Lenin, the Bolshevik leader who called upon the red military to “kill as many priests as possible”; the ruins of the “summer” Voznesensky (Resurrection) Cathedral. The cathedral survived the fires of the revolution and civil war, the destructive zeal of the soviets but took a direct hit from a bomb in WWII and was badly damaged. The local authorities knocked down what had remained of the ruined church but failed to destroy a huge arc that stood close by it. The site of the former cathedral was turned into a dancing ground and open-air movie theater.
The “winter” cathedral was turned into “a culture center” which evidently failed to promote high standards of culture among the locals.
I was astounded by the sorry state of the most things I saw in the monastery which is in bad need of a major restoration. Three monks, who make up the religious community of the monastery, headed by Father Feodosiy, are to guide the efforts of all those volunteers coming to help take care of the place. Neither the local civilian authorities nor the Russian Orthodox Church, to which the monastery nominally belongs, seem to be doing anything along the line of restoration.
The monastery had been thoroughly robbed and pillaged during the civil war of 1918-1920, by all the warring sides and regular bandits too. The basements of the buildings saw terrible crimes perpetrated by those who alternated in being in control of that area.
In the more peaceful soviet times, the buildings of the monastery were used for various purposes of the Chervony Mayak soviet collective farm, which, surprisingly enough, became quite prosperous and even in the early nineteen-nineties, before it was disbanded, still managed to produce something and even pay wages to its workers.
Now, in place of the radhosp farm, the land is tilled by individual farmers. The water supply system, built by the monastery decades ago, still functions and provides water for the irrigation of the fields, and water is a very precious commodity in the arid climate of the area.
Monastery as a tourist attraction
There has been no archeological digging done in or around the monastery, but there is some evidence that suggests that the monastery had had a predecessor — a religious community that had been found long before the one started by the monk Fedir. A small religious community at the site of the monastery could have appeared in the early Christian times. It is known that in its basements, the monastery held “imperishable relics” — mummified corpses of the monks. The hill the monastery stands on is known to contain underground corridors and tunnels in which Resistance fighters and locals were hiding during WWII.
There is a great deal to explore in and around the monastery. They say that there was a Scythian necropolis at the site now occupied by the village but only some illegal digging was done there by those who are locally referred to as “black archeologists” (that is, those who engage in illegal archeological digging and pocket whatever they find to sell the discovered artifacts to private collectors).
Local lore has it that the monastery in the old days used to have a gold mine somewhere in the vicinity but nobody has yet explored the basements of the monastery buildings to check whether they contain hidden entrances to secret corridors that would lead to the buried treasures.
The nearest towns are Boryslav and Nova Kakhovka (about 20 to 50 kilometers away, respectively). You can stay in one of the hotels of Nova Kakhovka or Boryslav and then travel by car to the monastery, or, if you are an adventurous person, you can stay at the monastery’s hotel — but then you will have to get up at about 6.30 am to attend the morning service — it’s obligatory.
Find more at www.bizukov.org.ua.
A 1902 postcard with a view of the monastery.
The arch above the altar of the monastery's cathedral has withstood all the soviet attempts to destroy it.
The crucifix on the wall of the wine cellar where priests were known to have been tortured by the Bolsheviks.
The ruins of the palace of the monastery's hierarch.
The staircase that has seen a great many pilgrims ascending it; among the pilgrims were the humble and the rulers.
There is a hotel at the monastery where pilgrims can stay.
There is a lot to be restored yet in the monastery.