Chernihiv: Black and Gold Pages


Every old and big city of Europe seems to have its “shadow” — for Rome it is Ravenna, for Moscow it is Novgorod, and for Kyiv it is Chernihiv. There were times when it would be difficult to say which of them was the shadow and which — the real thing. But woe to the vanquished! Nobody seems to remember them anymore, except for chroniclers and their own inhabitants. They drift through the routine of time, but as the centuries flow by, a moment comes when travellers whose numbers swell begin to make discoveries, and some of the discoveries are akin to the discoveries made by the Impressionists — the shadows are not black, they can be of various shades and colours. It begins to dawn upon people that the shadows of the great cities are like poems which are hardly less exciting and significant than their luckier rivals.

History is not an endless scroll in which events are unrolled in a set sequence. In the collective memory of the humankind only the most important and interesting events are preserved. History should be rather compared to a library with an infinite number of books, in which black pages alternate with golden ones. Such books are written for every person, for every nation, for every town and for every country. Let us pick a volume or two from the shelf, on which books about Chernihiv are lined up; let’s leaf through them, stopping at some of the pages of different colours.

Chernihiv is a town of ancient glory, it is an ancient rival of Kyiv; it has its own unique style, it has its own culture and traditions.

The first written reference to it dates to the Year 907 but there is enough archaeological evidence to suggest that it is much older. Even if you are not an archaeologist, you can feel the antiqueness of the place if you come to the centre of the city, to a place locally known as Chorna Mohyla — it is said to be the place where Prince Chorny, the legendary founder of the town was buried.

There was a point in time when the drama of rivalry between Kyiv and Chernihiv began and there was a point when Chernihiv lost the race to supremacy. The dense forests around Chernihiv both helped and hindered the city’s development, protecting it from enemy attacks but at the same time isolating it. Chernihiv has suffered less damage than Kyiv in the course of a long history of wars, invasions, rebellions and revolutions, and there are quite a few architectural landmarks that have survived to excite our admiration. They were reconstructed several times and have become architectural palimpsests, with glimpses of older layers that can be gleaned in their exteriors and interiors. Some of the art historians are of the opinion that the seventeenth-eighteenth-century Baroque reconstructions, which changed the original churches beyond recognition, were a loss rather than a gain, but there are landmarks in Chernihiv which have changed but little since the time they were built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries — the Pyatnytska Church and the Borysohlibsky Cathedral, for example. There are several architectural examples of Ukrainian Baroque, varying from the naive to the refined, and several examples of the Classicist style.

Christianity came to Ukraine at the end of the tenth century and churches began to be built during the reign of Volodymyr the Great, the prince who converted his state to the new religion. But in the land of Chernihiv, as in many other lands that were ruled by Kyiv, the construction of churches came to a standstill in the early eleventh century because of “the first civil strife,” in the words of a chronicler, that swept through Ukraine. In the year 1024, the strife ended with all the warring sides getting a land to rule.

Mstyslav, the ruler of Chernihiv, was the first to begin a large-scale construction work. In the year 1033 the foundation of a church was laid in the centre of his fortified city. The Spasky (Saviour’s) Cathedral was not completed by the time of his untimely death three years later, but what had been built makes it the oldest church in Ukraine, older than the famous Holy Sophia of Kyiv, the construction of which was begun by the Kyiv Grand Duke Yaroslav the Wise four years later.

The Spasky Cathedral in Chernihiv, which was later renamed Spaso-Preobrazhensky (Saviour’s Transfiguration), was the first in a series of churches and monasteries built in many other parts of Ukraine bearing the same name. Even in Moscow there is a tower in the Kremlin which is called Spasky. The Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral in Chernihiv witnessed many historical events, one of them was of a particularly tragic nature for Ukraine — it was in this church that the blessing for the union with Russia was given in January 1654; the union proved to be disastrous for Ukraine and over three centuries passed before Ukraine regained her independence. The Cathedral stands in all of its majesty on a hill above the Desna River, cleansed of human foibles.

The Illinsky Monastery, situated on the southern slope of the Boldyn Hills, dates to the eleventh-twelfth centuries, with the Antoniyevi Pechery (St Anthony’s Caves) being the oldest part. There are underground churches in the Caves that date to the late eleventh century. It was St Anthony, the same monk who had been one of the founders of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery, who began to use the caves as a cell to live in, the same thing he had done in the Kyiv Lavra Monastery. The underground churches in the Antoniyevi Pechery differ considerably from those in the Kyiv Lavra or from any other similar churches in Eastern Europe. Their ceiling is eight meters (about 25 feet) above the floor, much higher than anywhere else.

Chernihiv and its lands flourished in the twelfth century. It was then that the city looked and felt a capital on a par with Kyiv. The churches and other buildings erected at that time acquired maturity of style, and their perfection made them models to copy in other towns of Ukraine. The twelfth-century Yeletsky Monastery is located right opposite Chorna Mohyla. Its foundation is also related to St Anthony — it was built to honour the event of a profound spiritual significance when an icon of The Virgin had been miraculously revealed to the saint. The central building of the Yeletsky Monastery is the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral which was built in the mid-twelfth century at the place where the icon had been revealed to St Anthony. There must have been something special about the site because the church built there turned out to be of great beauty — the elongated windows, the perfect proportions and balance, the majesty combined with simplicity produce an impression of superb lightness, almost of soaring.

In the seventeenth century the Uspensky Cathedral went through a major reconstruction and acquired typical features of Ukrainian Baroque which, in this particular case, only heightened the overall effect. Uspensky was not the only church that went through such transformation, but the results were different. In the seventeenth century, Chernihiv once again became a cultural centre, with the arts and crafts on the rise. It was also a centre of book publishing, rivalling Kyiv in this respect.

One of the major contributors to the reconstruction of Uspensky was buried in this church. Vasyl Dunin-Borkovsky was a Cossack colonel of considerable prominence and his portrait adorned one of the walls of the church. In the picture, the Icon of The Virgin — the one that had been revealed to St Anthony — could be seen in the background. The colonel was known to have donated a lot of money to having a costly frame, studied with precious stones, made for the icon. Curiously enough, in popular memory the colonel remained not only as a pious person but paradoxically enough as a vampire. Another picture in which Dunin-Borkovsky appeared as this hellish creature was said to have hung close to his portrait. The historian Mykola Markevych wrote down the local legend about Dunin-Borkovsky the vampire: “When he died, he was buried in the monastery, but the next day he was seen riding in a carriage drawn by six sturdy black horses across the Chervony bridge. The driver and the lackey and three other people with him in the carriage were all women. But they never crossed the bridge — a spell that was put on them caused them to fall through the boards that gave way under the carriage and horses and they were plunged into the river Stryzhen. When the vampire was dragged ashore he was of red-blue colour and looked dead though his eyes were open. An aspen stake was driven through his heart…” What promoted this legend to emerge is difficult to say now but never again there was a donor in Chernihiv who was also reputed to be a vampire.

For a couple of centuries Chernihiv went into a provincial sleepy state to waken up only at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Cultural life in Chernihiv produced several outstanding figures, among whom two are geniuses in their respective field of creativity — Oleksandr Dovzhenko, the film maker, and Pavlo Tychyna, the poet. Both of them lived at the time extremely unfavourable for art in any form but both of them managed, each in his own unique way, to tell the story of those years and reveal their true nature. It was done in a roundabout rather than in a direct way, you have to read between the lines, you have to discern it in the sequences of films or in the dairy entries, but it is still there. There were thousands of vampires around ready to pounce upon Dovzhenko and Tychyna but the film maker and the poet, these two tragic and in a way angelic figures, were not overpowered by the forces of evil.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko described in his diary in September 1944 one of the most devastating blows dealt to culture of Chernihiv and of Ukraine: “The exhibits of the museum (in whose collection were unique paintings of the Ukrainian patron of art and collector Vasyl Tarnavsky — tr.) were moved into a dirty cellar and they were under lock and key, imprisoned. The prisoners were portraits dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, executed by master painters. They peered through the darkness at me and I felt as though I had been transported to a nether world. It seems to me that the people in the portraits climbed down out of the frames and talked to each other at night.

Once in a while someone came down to check whether all the prisoners were in place and ready for a roll-call… Then the doors were shut again, and a huge padlock was fastened on it. The silence reigned… One day a German bomb set the building on fire. The local communist party boss told me that, ‘when I saw those paintings burning I told my boys not to bother with putting the fire out. Let’em burn to hell, I said. And they did!’ The boss laughed, convulsing in mirth at the memory of the seventeenth and eighteenth masterpieces turning to ashes…”

Chernihiv, its landmarks and its culture, has survived the vandalism of the barbarous regimes. The history is alive in monuments of architecture and in poetry.

The river is flowing, noisy and playful,
Springs come and go, adorning it and fading
You weep, your heart is broken, mournful
Man is a beast, and it’s raging.

Don’t be sad, my dearly beloved:
Man is a beast, but there is Love
That lives in you, to be discovered.
All of you are paths lost in the wholly grove,
The paths to the Church, and to the Dove
Pavlo Tychyna

The Rev. Andriy Vlasenko for Welcome to Ukraine Magazine

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