Stove ornamental tile, 18th century

Every major medieval literature has an epic work that stands out as an achievement worthy to be classified as a remarkable contribution to world literature. In French literature it is The Song of Roland, in English literature it is Beowulf, in Ukrainian literature it is The Tale of Ihor's Host.

This poem was written in the 12th century by an anonymous author. The Tale describes the disastrous campaign of Prince Ihor against the invading hordes of the Polovtsy nomads; Prince Ihor is taken prisoner and a lot of his warriors are slain in a pitched battle in which the odds are greatly against Ihor; Ihor's wife Yaroslavna laments his plight. This is, in a few words the basic plot of the Poem.
Neither the Prince nor his town of Novhorod-Siversky are figments of the ancient poet's imagination. The town stands on the bank of the Ukrainian river Desna, a tributary of the mighty Dnipro. In fact, it has been standing there for about ten centuries now.
There is a museum in Novhorod-Siversky which is entirely devoted to the Poem and the times it describes and was written in. There must be a very few museums in the world of this kind - an entire museum devoted to one poem! The museum is to be found in the territory of the Spaso-Preobrazhensky (Transfiguration of Our Lord the Savior) Monastery which happens to be as old as the Poem itself. Archaeological excavations at the monastery have revealed the ruins of the ancient Spasky (Our Savior's) Cathedral, some of the stones of which bear the coat-of-arms of Ihor Svyatoslavovych, the Poem's protagonist. The museum does more than just opens before the visitor all the literary and historic aspects of the poem - it attempts, and quite successfully, to inform the visitor about the epochs long past in a manner that allows for an easy visualization. The monastery itself dates from the earliest times of Christianity in Ukraine. Although the exact date of the foundation of the monastery remains unknown, there is enough historical evidence to suggest that the corner stone was laid into the monastery's foundation around the year 1033, and many historians support this dating as quite valid. The founder of the monastery was Prince Mstislav, Ruler of Tmutorokan' who had it established after defeating his brother Yaroslav of Kyiv (nicknamed «the Wise», not for having ceded the victory to his brother but for being a learned man and a wise ruler) in a major battle. The monastery sits on a hill above the Desna River, and the view that opens from the hill on the town and on the undulating forested hills, meadows, covered in summer with lush grass and studded with wild flowers, and forests, stretching to the horizon, must have remained about the same for the last thousand years or so, though, no doubt, the town has changed beyond recognition.
Monument to Prince Ihor in Novgorod-Siversky. Engraving by V.Leonenko.


Both the town and the monastery have seen conflagrations, devastating invasions, lean years and fat years, but both have survived to remind us of the times past, and to serve as a firm link between past, present and future. In the year of 1185, Prince Ihor, the historical prince on whom the protagonist of the Tale was modelled, received a blessing in the monastery to sally forth and fight the infidels; in the 13th century both the town and the monastery were burned down by the merciless bands of the invading Mongols but years passed and both came back to life. In the year 1600, Gregory Otrepyev, alias Dmitry (he claimed he was the son of Ivan the Terrible who had not died at the hand of an assassin as was popularly believed but had escaped and come back to claim the throne «usurped» by Boris Godunov), found refuge in the monastery; four years later, however, when he returned with an army, mostly made up of Poles, in support of his claim, the town and the monastery, being hostile to the Poles, remained loyal to the czar and put up a stiff defense. The defenders were overwhelmed by the superior force and neither the town nor the monastery were spared. The 17th century saw the revival of both, but the town found itself under the Polish domination. The war of liberation in the middle of the 17th century, waged by the Ukrainians against the Poles with Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky at the head of the Ukrainian armies, started the process of forcing the Poles out. It was in the same century that a printing press was set in the territory of the monastery that began turning out books in Old Slavonic, Latin and Polish.In fact it was the first printing press to start printing books in the vast area, stretching along the left bank of the Dnipro River (characteristically of those times, it was not in the nearby town of Chernyhiv that the press was installed but in a monastery). The monastery acquired a new bell tower and new defensive walls. From the basement of the tower one can enter the underground maze whose subterranean passages run in all directions, connecting almost all the buildings of the monastery. The walls of some of the passages were faced with brick and the underground labyrinth could be used as sort of a warehouse and in case of an enemy attack as a shelter and hiding place.

Petropavlivska Refectory, 17th century.

Shopping mall, 19th century.



At the end of the 18th century a major renovation took place at the monastery: the prior's house was rebuilt and a new church erected. In 1787, Her Imperial Majesty Catherine II paid a visit to the town of Novhorod-Siversky and to the monastery.

Yaroslavna. Sculptured by A.Kushch.
A year earlier considerable pieces of land, in fulfilment of the Imperial order, belonging to other monasteries in the area, had been secularized, the monasteries closed down and a lot of ecclesiastical dresses, icons, books and other items had been collected and transferred to the only remaining monastery - the Spaso-Preobrazhensky monastery in Novhorod-Siversky.Naturally, it enriched the monastery enormously and the monastery was thankful to the Empress. During her visit she issued an ukase according to which the ancient 12th century Spaso-Preobrazhenskaya (Our Savior's) Church was to be pulled down and a big new church erected in its place (the old church was too small and far gone in dilapidation). The Italian architect of considerable fame Giacomo Quarenghy was commissioned to design this new church and by the end of the 18th century the construction of the church was completed. For some reason it was consecrated only in 1807. Unfortunately, the architect himself who had designed the church in a classicist style prevalent at the time, never visited the site and consequently could not supervise the construction work. Due to some errors that had emerged in the course of construction, soon after the completion of the church, cracks began to appear in the walls as the ground began to sag under the enormous weight of the building. The walls were reinforced, repairs were carried out but the church had lost some of its lightness. Nevertheless the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral had to a great extent retained its majestic and magnificent appearance. The grandson of the Ukrainian Hetman Kyrylo Rozumovych, Alexy Rozumovych, one of the first ministers of education of the Imperial Russia, was buried in the Cathedral.


Walking through the monastery one sees a number of other buildings dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, including the one that used to house the cells of monks. After the Soviet Regime proclaimed «separation of church and state» in 1918, the monks had to leave the monastery (and no one knows what actually became of them).

In the Soviet parlance the «separation» was tantamount to closure, and the Spaso-Preobrazhensky monastery shared the fate of thousands of other churches and monasteries throughout the land of victorious Bolshevism - it was shut down.For some time it was used as barracks for a Red Army unit, then it was converted into an orphanage; still later it was turned into a museum of local history and lore. The crushing blow of the Nazi invasion in the Second World War laid both the town and the monastery waste, the exhibits had been irretrievably lost. The Nazis, following in the footsteps of the Soviets, made the monastery into a concentration camp for prisoners of war where more than 20 000 people lost their lives.


It was only in the 50s of this century that some restoration work was started in the monastery but once again it was used for a purpose different from the one it had been intended for, though this time it was somewhat closer to God's ways - the monastery became «a house for the aged». The house expired in 1985 and after five years of deliberations and hesitations of what to do with it, the monastery was promoted at last to the status of a museum with a long name in the usual florid Soviet style («Historical and Cultural Preserve, Dedicated to the Tale of Ihor' Host»). In fact, a number of historical and architectural monuments in the town and in the monastery are now under state protection which, hopefully, will prolong their life into the next millennium.

Church above the gate, 17th century.


There is hardly a better place to plunge into history than in the ancient town of Novhorod-Siversky and Spaso-Preobrazhensky monastery. But why should one do it? Out of sheer curiosity? Not only. To understand the present one must know the past.


Reported by Yu. A. KARMANOV,
senior official of the Historical and Cultural Preserve
«The Tale of Ihor's Host».
1, Pushkin Street, Novhorod-Siversky,
251780, Ukraine.
Tel.: 380 (4658) 21-101
Photos by Stanislav POTANIN

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