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The Troyitska (Trinity) Church Above the Gate, 12th century.

The city of Kyiv was founded on the bank of the Dnipro river which was the water route taken by the Scandinavian warriors and tradesmen to travel all the way down to the shores of Byzantium. The ancient chronicles called it “the route from the Varangians to the Greeks” (Varangians-members of a Scandinavian people, mostly Swedes, who settled in East Slavic lands in the 9th century). The fact that Kyiv commanded this very important trade route contributed eventually to its rise and predominance over other East Slavic towns. Kyivan monks and merchants used the same route in their travels. The merchants travelled both north and south and monks only south, on their way to Mount Athos in Greece and further, to Palestine and Sinai.

Antony Pechersky (Anthony of the Caves), the founder of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery (Lavra - from “laura,” a big Orthodox monastery), one of the sacred places of the all the Eastern Orthodox Christians, was reported to have travelled to the southern lands but according to recent historical findings he did not go further that the town of Lyubech in the lands of his native Chernihiv. In a sense, he visited the “lands of the Varangians.” The Hustynsky Chronicles, probably the most authoritative chronicles of the ancient Ukraine has this to say: “In the year 1013 our most reverend Father Antony arrived in Kyiv and settled in a Varangian cave.”

It is a well-established fact that the Lavra Pechersk Monastery was originally founded in the caves (pechery - “caves” - in its name is evidence of that) but the cave mentioned in the quoted Chronicles had evidently something to do with the Varangians who played a significant role in the early history of Kyivan-Rus - Ukraine (in Western tradition Varangians are better known as Vikings or Norsmen). There was even a controversial theory, much discussed in the nineteenth century, that it was only thanks to the Vikings that ancient Kyivan-Rus - Ukraine emerged as a mighty state of Eastern Europe. Another theory treated the Vikings in Kyivan Rus only as usurpers and plunderers. As it is so often is, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

There were nine waves of southward migrations of Scandinavians from their severe northern lands in the period from the 6th to 11th century AD. Many parts of Europe were affected. The Vikings, these intrepid and fearless warriors, reached the distant island of Newfoundland and shores of North America, made their presence acutely felt in French Normandy, conquered Sicily and penetrated as far as the Volga river. Eric the Red Beard, William the Conqueror, Oleg the Oracular are remarkable figures of the world history. The Vikings-Varangians’ role in the early history of Kyivan-Rus - Ukraine had been a particularly significant one. They exercised their influence mostly in the military and religious spheres. Take, for instance, the murder of Kyiv Princes Ascold and Dir, committed by the Varangian Prince Oleg in the 9th century after his troops stormed and captured Kyiv (this event has been described in the chronicles and later commemorated by the erection of the tomb at the grave of the slain Ascold; the tomb has survived to the present day). About a hundred years after Oleg's capture of Kyiv, in the times of Prince Igor (judging by his name, a Varangian too), the Prince's troop was made of the Varangian and local warriors in equal measure. The Varangian and Slavic warriors took their military oaths separately because the Varangians were already Christians and the Slavic warriors were still pagan (incidentally, the texts of both the oaths have been preserved for us in the chronicles). Scandinavia had gone Christian two centuries before the Eastern Slavs. Christianity had turned some of the belligerent Scandinavians to pious believers. It is not hard to find evidence of this. Ivan and Fedir, two Varangian martyrs, became Orthodox Christian saints. Actually they were among the first saints of Kyivan-Rus - Ukraine. These two Christian warriors were burned alive in a locked house by the furious pagans who were enraged by their refusal to surrender a man given to the heathens to be sacrificed to the pagan gods.

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Holy relics of the Reverend Fathers of the Caves in the Far Caves.

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An archaeologist in the Varangian Cave.
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The Varangian caves. A seat for praying in the cell of St. Antony.
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Cross-Golgotha, cut into the wall by St. Antony.   

No doubt the martyrs Ivan and Fedir collected their treasures, to paraphrase the words of Jesus Christ, in Heaven. But similarly there is no doubt that there were Varangians whose main interest was to collect earthly treasures. And these amassed treasures were usually hidden and kept in caches. And what is a better place for a cache than a cave in a secluded place? There is some evidence suggesting that the “Varangian cave” in which St. Antony was reported to have settled, had been used as a cache. There are two, somewhat conflicting stories as to how this cave in the slope of a hill above the Dnipro river not far from the site of the future monastery, was used. The first story has it that it was a sort of a warehouse for a Varangian garrison stationed in the village of Berestovo which was a summer residence of Kyiv princes. And the treasures kept in the cave were the spoils of war, that is, earned in an “honest way.” The other story comes from a more reliable source - the chronicles of the Lavra Monastery, called Paterik. According to Paterik, in the year 1098 a monk named Fedir was ordered by the father superior to live in the Varangian cave. There he found a cache with a rich Varangian treasure. He immediately hid it in the ground again in order to avoid “being tempted by the Devil.” Another monk, named Vasyl saw Fedir doing it. It so happened that the son of Kyiv Prince Mstyslav Svyatopolkovych had somehow learned of a treasure hidden in the cave. Fedir was cross-examined and he admitted that there was indeed a cache with a treasure made up mostly of church ritual vessels of “Lati”, that is of Varangian kind. Both the monks were put to torture but they refused to let the Prince's son have the treasure. Neither did they reveal the hiding place. They died under torture. Their torturer was soon afterwards punished by God and he died a cruel death. Today, scholars believe that the church vessels had been hidden by the Varangian Christians who were persecuted by Prince Svyatoslav in 971 AD for their Christian faith.

Centuries later the Varangian cache still evoked a greedy interest and in the 17th century a treasure seeker, having found no treasure, left a graffiti on the wall of the cave expressing his regret over his bad luck. The number of those who paid visits to the cave increased with the passage of time so considerably that in the 19th century the monks of the Lavra Monastery were forced to erect a brick wall that blocked the access to the Varangian caves from the side of the Dnipro river.

In popular opinion, the caves, underground passages, all the “spooky” places were full of secrets waiting to be revealed. Even today one might hear incredible stories about “secret passages” connecting the Lavra Monastery with the Troitsky-Illinsky Monastery in the town of Chernihiv, a hundred miles away. Fantasies of similar kind continue to circulate, the fantasists being encouraged by such things as the opening to public of the Zvirynetsky Caves of the Vydubetsky Monastery and the Feodosiyevsky Monastery in a secluded place in the vicinity of the village of Khodosivka (not far from Kyiv), or the discovery of the underground cavities in the territory of the Mykhailivsky-Zlatoverkhy Monastery in Kyiv.

In recent years the Varangian caves were thoroughly examined by scholars. It was a welcome change from the treasure seekers. The whole network of caves, now connected to the Distant Caves of the Lavra Monastery (there are two major labyrinths in the territory of the Lavra Monastery usually referred to as the Near and the Distant Caves), was investigated. The archaeologists found amazing things there. The Varangian Caves do differ in many respects from the other monastic caves of the Monastery. There are nine passages dating to no later than the 9th century, two cells for monks of the 11th and 15th centuries, and a burial place in a side niche. And no treasures. The Varangian Caves had been in no way linked to the Distant Caves and had been accessible from the side of the Dnipro river, in full correspondence with what the chronicles have to say. In one of the cells the archaeologists discovered a cross carved in the rock of the wall. It is also dated to the 11th century. It is very likely that the cross was carved into the wall by the hand of St. Antony himself and the cell could have easily be the one he settled in! In other words, it is one more proof of reliability of the Hustinsky Chronicles. Probably the cross on the wall is the greatest treasure hidden in the Varangian caves. So the archaeologists were in no way disappointed by their failure to discover the Varangian gold and silver.

By the end of the 11th century the Varangians were completely assimilated into the Kyivan-Rus population. There are still some words in the Ukrainian language that had been borrowed from the Scandinavia languages. And probably the cache with the Varangian gold and silver is still there, in one of the Varangian caves in the steep slopes of the Kyiv hills facing the Dnipro.
The search for treasures, spirituial and mundane, continues.

Based on the materials supplied
by the Kyiv Pechersk Historical and Cultural Preserve.

Text by Andriy Pyrohiv
Photos by Maksym Strykhar

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