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Lavra, a thousand-year-old monastery


There is a place in Kyiv which is called Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery. Neither “Kyiv”, nor “Monastery” in the name of this place needs an explanation. "Pechersk" stands for the pechery, or caves, in which the monastery originally started. “Lavra” requires a lengthier explanatory treatment, but even without any explanations, anyone, atheist or believer alike, who pays a visit to the monastery can hardly help being impressed by what they see. The visual impact is great, but even more significant is the spiritual impact the monastery has had on the life of Ukraine in general, and of Kyiv in particular.


Christianity which was adopted in Ukraine at the end of the tenth century, made big strides in the eleventh becoming more than an official religion — it gradually ousted the pagan beliefs gaining the status of a popular faith. Churches were built, monasteries were established, books were translated. Monasteries, particularly the big ones, quickly acquired the significance of cultural centres. The Monastery of the Caves dates from the first half of the eleventh century, and as such is one of the oldest surviving monasteries in the Eastern Slavic lands.

It is much more than the venerable age that gives the Pechersk Monastery its holiness. The history of the monastery is part and parcel of the history of Kyiv and of Ukraine, and the role it played far transcends the significance a religious community of monks may have upon society. This said, we’ll take a quick rundown on the roots of magnetisms and on whence and why it came to Ukraine.


“Love not the world, nor the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the father but is of the world. And the world passeth away and the concupiscence thereof. But he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.”

I John, ii, 15-17


Monasticism or monachism, literally the act of “dwelling alone” has come to denote the mode of life pertaining to persons living in seclusion from the world, under religious vows and subject to a fixed rule, as monks, friars, nuns, or in general as religious. The basic idea of monasticism in all its varieties is seclusion or withdrawal from the world or society. The object of this is to achieve a life whose ideal is different from and largely at variance with that pursued by the majority of mankind. The monastic ideal is an ascetic one, but it would be wrong to say that the earliest Christian asceticism was monastic. Asceticism is the struggle against worldly principles, even with such as are merely worldly without being sinful. The world desires and honours wealth, so the ascetic loves and honours poverty. The ascetic practises fasting and virginity that thereby he may repudiate the licence of the world. The truth is that the Christian ideal is frankly an ascetic one and monachism is simply the endeavour to effect a material realization of that ideal. It must be clearly understood that, in the case of the monk, asceticism is not an end in itself. For him, as for all men, the end of life is to love God. Monastic asceticism then means the removal of obstacles to loving God, and what these obstacles are is clear from the nature of love itself. Love is the union of wills. If the creature is to love God, he can do it in one way only; by sinking his own will in God’s, by doing the will of God in all things.

Monastic way of life took its rise among the monks who settled around St Anthony’s mountain at Pispir; he organized the monks and guided them. At first no one became a monk before he was an adult, but very soon the custom began of receiving the young. Even infants in arms were dedicated to the monastic state by their parents and in providing for the education of these child-monks the cloister inevitably developed into a schoolroom. Nor was it long before the schools thus established began to include children not intended for the monastic state.

Of the first hermits many lived in caves, tombs, and deserted ruins, but from the outset the monk has been forced to be a builder. Consequently skill in architecture was called for and so monastic architects were produced to meet the need in the same almost unconscious manner as were the monastic schoolmasters. During the medieval period the arts of painting, illuminating, sculpture, and goldsmiths’ work were practised in the monasteries all over Europe and the output, must have been simply enormous. As years passed by, the great monastic corporations accumulated archives of the highest value for the history of the countries wherein they were situated.

It is probably on Mount Athos that we find the greatest concentration of monasteries within one restricted area. It is from Mount Athos, often referred to as the Holy Mount, that the idea, ideal and practice of monachism came to Ukraine.

The Holy Mount is about 50 km in length, 8 to 12 km in width and rises to the altitude of 2,033 meters. Naked rock and evergreens on its slopes create an incomparable natural beauty. According to tradition, the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist, on their way to visit Lazarus in Cyprus, encountered a stormy sea that forced them to temporarily seek refuge in the port which is now the Holy Monastery of Ivira. The Virgin Mary, admiring the wild beauty of the place, asked God to give her the mountain as a present. Then the voice of Our Lord was heard saying: “Let this place be your lot, your garden and your paradise, a haven for those who seek salvation.” Since then, Mount Athos is considered to be “The Garden of the Virgin Mary.”

In the 5th century AD, the first monks came to Mount Athos, and in later centuries it was Mount Athos that by its example promoted the spread of monastic ideals and principles in the lands of Christian Orthodoxy. Fifteen hundred years later there are twenty monasteries on Mount Athos, one of which is called The Holy Monastery of Megisti Lavra. It tops the hierarchal list of Mount Athos monasteries and it is from the Greeks that the Pechersk Monastery in Kyiv borrowed an appellation of “Lavra.”

Incidentally, the name of the mountain itself goes down into the pre-Christian times. According to Greek mythology, the name was that of a Thracian giant. During a conflict between the Gods and the Giants, Athos threw a huge rock at Poseidon but the rock, doing no harm to the God of the Ocean, fell to the sea creating a huge block of land which is now Mount Athos. In a different version of the myth, it was Poseidon who threw the rock at Athos. The rock crushed Athos and buried him underneath.


Now back to “Lavra.” The Greek word laura was originally employed by writers from the end of the fifth century to distinguish the monasteries of Palestine of the semi-eremitical type. The word signifies a narrow way or passage, and in later times the quarter of a town.

Although the term laura has been almost exclusively used with regard to Palestine, the type of monastery which it designated existed, not only there, but in Syria, Mesopotamia, in Gaul, in Italy, and later among the Greek monks. It appears that on Mount Athos this type of life was followed till late in the tenth century. It gave way, however, to the cenobitic, and no monastery now extant can be said really to resemble the ancient lauras.

It is in the early Kyivan chronicles that we find the story of the foundation of the Pechersk Monastery. The two principle sources are the chronicles written by Nestor, who was a twelfth-century monk, and Kyivo-Pechersky Pateryk, a thirteenth-century book much revered in Ukraine through many centuries of its history. According to the twentieth-century historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth, Kobzar, a book of prophetic poetry promoting the national identity by the great Ukrainian poet Shevchenko, and Pateryk could be found in almost every Ukrainian house.

At the very end of the tenth century a church, dedicated to the Apostles, was built south of the then city of Kyiv, at a place known as Berestove. In the early tenth century, the priest of this church, Illarion by name ( in the middle of the eleventh century he became the first Kyivan metropolitan) devoted himself to prayer at a secluded place not far from the church where he conducted the religious services. His hermetic inclinations led to his digging up a cave in the ground on the slope of a hill. He sang psalms and prayed, thus turning his little cave into a cell of a hermit.

Several years later, the cave was occupied by Antony who hailed from the town of Lyubech. Antony had been to Mount Athos where he had stayed for several years at one of the monasteries as a monk; the superior of the monastery had encouraged Antony to return to his native land and found a monastery there. Antony did as he was bidden to do. As he settled down in Illarion’s cave, he enlarged it, subsisting on bread alone. Soon, he had several other pious men following his example and settling down in the caves. When it became clear that the new religious community needed some sort of an organization, father superior was chosen by Antony. The first one so chosen was Varlaam who, seeing that the number of monks was increasing fast and they, all of them together, would not be able to live in the caves, began the construction of buildings on the ground, churches and cells. The pious Kyiv ruler Izyaslav let the monks have the hill close to his residence in Berestove. Several other monasteries sprang up in the immediate vicinity of the original one, and Varlaam became father superior of one of them. Antony who continued to live in his cave, remained the spiritual authority but a person was needed to run the growing monastery. Antony blessed Feodosy for the job, and Feodosy’s contribution was so great that it was he who is considered to be the second founding father, alongside Antony himself.

Feodosy, taciturn and modest, proved to be an excellent manager and organizer. It is thanks to him that the first major buildings were erected in the territory of the would-be Lavra Monastery. It was Feodosy who set up an icon-painting shop in the monastery. Earlier, all the icons available at the monastery had been brought from Byzantium or the Balkans. The shop set up by Feodosy gradually turned into what was later called the Lavra Monastery school of icon painting, and icons created at the monastery made their way to many parts of eastern Europe.

Feodosy sent a young monk to Constantinople to get the proper rules and moral principles to be applied in the Pechersk Monastery. The young monk, upon his arrival in the Byzantine capital, found what he wanted and was allowed to copy the necessary texts. When he brought them back, Feodosy made it a point to regularly read them out aloud to all the monastic brethren. Feodosy taught the monks the correct way of praying in church, singing, taking communal repasts, and reading the Holy Writ. He never used coercion or pressure, relying on kind words and persuasion instead.

In the year 1073 the construction of a new big church began which lasted until 1089. The Uspenska (Assumption) Church became the second most important ecclesiastical building of the eleventh century after the Holy Sophia of Kyiv. Pateryk, mentioned earlier provides a colourful story of the foundation and construction of the Uspenska Church (later elevated to the rank of cathedral). Even if it is more legendary than factual, it seems to be worth retelling it here.

A Viking, the story goes, named Simon, had a vision during a storm on the sea. In this vision he saw a beautiful church and a voice told him to sail up the river Dnipro, find a monastery in the caves on one of the hills close to the city of Kyiv, and relate this vision to Feodosy, the monastery’s superior, to have such a church built. Many months and many adventures later, Simon did find the hill and the cave monastery on it. Feodosy paid heed to Simon’s narrative and asked Antony to designate a place where the church should stand. Antony, advised by God during a night prayer as to location of the site, followed closely the traditional procedure — the site should have no dew in the morning. And no dew meant that there was no underground water that could damage the foundation.

Feodosy invited architects from Greece who brought with them relics of four Christian martyrs and an ancient icon, The Assumption of the Virgin. The relics were placed into the foundation beneath the altar, and the icon was known to have the miraculous, healing properties. The size of the church was determined by so many lengths of the golden belt donated by Simon to the monastery — 20 lengths wide, 30 lengths long and 50 lengths high.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the Uspensky Cathedral went through major reconstructions and the original appearance changed beyond recognition; in the 20th century it was destroyed in a senseless, barbaric act of vandalism — only to be rebuilt several decades later.

Through many invasions, wars and foreign dominations, the Lavra Monastery steadfastly retained its Christian Orthodoxy. It grew in size and spread over a vast territory, Upper Lavra and Lower Lavra. The construction boom of the 17th and 18th centuries saw the rise of many buildings, including the 300-feet tall bell tower. In the later 16th and in the 17th century the monastery was a centre of book-printing and book illustration. Pilgrims flocked in hundreds of thousands from many parts of the East European Christian world. The two systems of catacombs and underground caves, Antony’s cave included, complete with underground churches were held in particular reverence. “The imperishable relics” displayed in coffins which were placed along the corridors of the underground passages, were the objects of veneration.

But by the nineteenth century the harmonious combination of national features and Christian culture had been undermined by the pressure on the part of the state to have the church support the imperial policies. The earlier ideals of monastic life seemed to have been abandoned, particularly by top hierarchs who lived in splendour much criticized by Ukrainian intellectuals who could accept the Lavra Monastery becoming part of the oppressive imperial mechanism. The arts practised in the monastery also declined, and the book released had little or no spiritual value.

The revolution of 1917 which toppled czarism and the consequent Bolshevik coup dramatically changed the position of the church in a state that became aggressively atheistic. The Ukrainian Orthodox church was particularly hard hit. Priests were arrested and either executed or imprisoned. It is nothing short of miracle that the Pechersk Monastery survived the horrors of the Civil War of 1918-1920 and saved most of its treasures accumulated through the centuries. Starting from the early 1020s, after the Bolshevik power had been firmly established, a massive drive against religion led to the closure of most of the churches and monasteries. Many churches were destroyed, church treasures were confiscated. The Pechersk Monastery was closed down as a religious community and the buildings in its territory were used for all kinds of different purposes, save the religious ones. Museums were instructed not to use words such as “church,” “cathedral,” or “monastery” and use instead descriptive terms such as “an architectural monument of the 17th century,” or “an architectural landmark of the early feudal period.” Among the museums which were set up, the central place was given to a museum of atheism. In one of the buildings a bakery was set up. All the monastery bells were taken down and “utilized” — that is melted and used for “needs of the national economy.” A great number of “items of religious use” were sold to foreign buyers at very low prices in the 1930s; some of “the items” were of unique historical importance and of great monetary value.

By the end of the 1920s, all the monks were moved out of the monastery and ensuing neglect and vandalism did a lot of damage to the thousand-year old cultural heritage. But surpassingly enough, not a single major building was destroyed like it happened with many other architectural landmarks. The Second World War brought devastation to the city of Kyiv and did not spare the Lavra Monastery. The Uspensky Cathedral was blown up and turned into a pile of rubble. According to the official Soviet after-war version, it was the occupying Germans who were responsible but in view of the fact that the Nazis allowed the Orthodox church to function the destruction of one of the its major shrines looked a nonsensical and illogical act. There is enough evidence that points to the Soviet resistance forces as the prime culprit. Several buildings were mined and blown up in the centre of Kyiv in September, shortly after the Nazis had captured the city, and on October 3 a visit of a Nazi top-ranking functionary was expected in the monastery. A religious service with many Nazi top bras was to be held but some time before the appointed time in the afternoon a devastating explosion reduced the cathedral to a huge pile of debris. A third version has it that the Germans, discovering that the Uspensky Cathedral was mined, preferred to detonate the explosives rather than attempt at a great risk to dispose them. Neither the Soviet totalitarian regime, nor the Nazi totalitarian regime — which were uncannily alike in so many respects — cared much for “the national heritage” and it does not matter really which of the regimes was more to blame for the destruction of the Uspensky Cathedral. Just another crime in a long series of other horrendous crimes.

A number of monks who had returned to the monastery during the war, were allowed to stay until 1961 when they were evicted once again, and the Lavra Monastery was turned into “a historical and cultural preserve,” not the worst fate for a monastery under the Soviet regime. Some restoration was done; new museums opened, among them the museums of historical treasures, of books and book printing, and Ukrainian decorative and applied arts. Such museums, it must be admitted, were the only way at that time of preserving the great Ukrainian cultural heritage. A great number of tourists, both domestic and foreign, came to Lavra in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s.

In 1981, a group of Ukrainian writers, Oles Honchar, Oles Sylyn and Petro Tronko, began lobbying the authorities to have the Uspensky Cathedral rebuilt. Architects and construction experts confirmed the viability of the project, but it was only twenty years later, after Ukraine’s independence, that it was carried out and the church stands where it used to be standing for centuries, in all of its former glory. But can it be regarded an architectural landmark? Surely, the Greeks could have rebuilt with or without help of the international community the badly damaged Parthenon but they have not done it so and it is highly unlikely that they will ever do it. There must be a reasoning behind it.


Lower Lavra has been given back to the Orthodox Church, but Upper Lavra continues to be “a historical and cultural preserve” with thousands of tourists milling around. There are no more museums of atheism but other museums continue to function.


By Myroslava Barchuk

and Oleksandr Panasyev


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