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Kyiv Fortress — formerly a stronghold, now a museum
The Museum Historical and Architectural Landmark Kyivska Fortetsya (Kyiv Fortress) sits on a tall hill right in the centre of Kyiv. It is part of defensive works that now include 31 “items” scattered over a vast territory of Kyiv, which makes it the biggest city fortress in the world. Kyiv defences began to be built in the fifth century and the construction continued, with interruptions, until the nineteenth. Advanced fortification technologies — advanced for their time — were used in the construction. Many of these defensive structures are extant.
You can get to the Museum Kyivska Fortetsya easily from one of the central subway stations of Kyiv, but you’ll have to climb rather a steep slope along the road with a heavy traffic, breathing the air mostly made up of the exhaust gases. But when you get up there, you’ll be rewarded with a great panoramic view of the city and of the fortress. And it comes at the moment when you begin to doubt, and even despair, you’ll ever be able to climb to the top of that dratted hill.
I went there in spring. The green grass lawns surrounded a neat square, paved with gray flagstones. It’s a big square too, so big in fact that it looked empty even though it was dotted with hurrying figures in white coats medical personnel usually wear in this country. The place I walked in is not a fortress anymore though it retains something of a military function — it is a military hospital, that is a medical institution for the military. I had read a plaque affixed to the gate saying something to that effect and I was thus prepared to see medical people scurrying around. All around the place I saw rectangular and e-shaped squat buildings, evidently with very thick walls, narrow passages between them, some with arches. The geometrical exactness of the place had a beauty of its own — everything was architecturally balanced, there was nothing that could be regarded as redundant or out of place. I came to have a good look, to ask questions and to write an article about Kyivska Fortetsya. I did not think at first it would be a difficult task.
The museum curator, Vyacheslav Kulinich, was of a different opinion. His attitude to his museum was much more respectful — I could not help noticing it — than to an arrogant and much too self-confident journalist.
“No, it’s not at all an easy thing to do,” he said categorically, ruining my hopes of an easy job of writing about the old fortress. “It’ll take you quite a lot of time just to see the place in its entirety. Then you’ll have to read quite a lot. There’s so much to see and so much to learn. We held a conference recently which was attended by many historians and fortification experts, and they were amazed at what they saw — that’s the biggest city fortress of its kind in the world, they exclaimed. They were very impressed with what they had found here. So much has been preserved — and in such an excellent condition. Quite unique! That’s what they said. And you say — an easy task. No easy task for you here!”
“But how much time,” I asked meekly, “it’ll take to get enough information to write about Kyivska Fortetsya? A month?”
“If you were writing a scholarly book it’d take you much more than that, but since you’ve been commissioned to write an article for a magazine, then several days might do. My deputy and researcher Olena Ivanivna will take you around and show the most important things. Then come back and we will talk some more.”
Olena Yushchenko put on a bizarre-looking jacket with golden braiding, golden buttons and of a cut that could be described as early nineteenth century, and signalled me to follow her. As she began to show me the defensive walls, it suddenly dawned upon me that the jacket my guide was wearing, in fact, was a part of the Hussar ornate uniform. She went on to explain that out of the many buildings around only two were actually turned into museums — Kosy Kaponir and Druhy Kaponir. Kosy in Ukrainian means, among other things, skew, or slanted, and Druhy is just “the second,” but I surely did not know what “kaponir” was. It was patiently explained to me that kaponir was a sort of a gun emplacement which was built of bricks and situated between the concentric defensive walls of a fortress; they were connected with the central part of the fortress by means of underground passages.
A brief look into the history of Kyiv fortification
“The halls of the museum Druhy Koponir are mostly devoted to the history of fortification in Kyiv, from the earliest times to the present,” my guide told me. On the way to the museum we crossed a wooden bridge over a ditch whose walls and bottom were paved with bricks. The ditch went all around Druhy Koponir. “It’s not just a ditch,” I was told. “It’s a fosse that was filled with water. Castles also had moats around them, to make the access even more difficult.”
When we at last walked in, we found ourselves in a spacious hall which was used mostly as a venue of concerts and seminars. I was told that recitals and music soirees were particularly popular, and the performers were from the Opera House or students of the Music Academy. The acoustics of the place was really exceptionally good — I checked it by whispering a few words which were easily picked by my guide who stood at the other end of the hall. A black grand piano testified to a very peaceful nature of the gatherings in this place, formerly designed for a military purpose. Probably, the military had also enjoyed music concerts in that hall.
When we entered the museum proper, the lights had to be turned on — the windows were narrow loopholes which did not let in enough daylight. The first hall was given to the artifacts of the Trypillya Culture that dates to the fifth-third millennia B.C.E. — earthenware, decorations, ritual objects decorated with something that could be ornaments or characters of an alphabet of a long-dead language. Most of these artifacts were discovered in archeological digs in the southern regions of Ukraine but it is known for a fact that the settlements of the Trypillya Culture existed in the territory of today’s Kyiv. There also was a Trypillya fortified settlement on one of the hills of modern Kyiv, and if more evidence is unearthed, it may push the age of Kyiv several thousand years back, from the mid first millennium C.E. to the fifth millennium B.C.E.
“If the Trypillya people built a fortified place, it means they wanted to protect themselves from some enemy — which?” I asked.
“Trypillya settlements could be warring with each other, but the nomads were more likely enemies. Most of Europe was still in a barbaric state, and the Trypillya Culture was much advanced, with a high level of civilization that included permanent settlements and land tilling. We still know very little of their life though quite a lot of artifacts, indicating a very high level of development, have already been unearthed.”
It is known that the Trypillya settlements were large enough to be called proto-towns, with concentric circles of houses. You’ll see such circles if you drop a pebble into the calm water. The houses, made of wood and clay, were two- or even three-storied, long and narrow; they were placed so close to each other that they formed a sort of a wall which could play a defensive role too. Access to individual houses was only from inside the circle, with the outer walls pierced only by loophole-like narrow windows. The circles of adjoining houses provided several levels of defence — if the enemy stormed through the first circle, they faced the second, and so on, with most of the population fleeing to the central circle. Such a concentric plan of Trypillya settlements seems to suggest that they had to fight enemy incursions quite often.
The nomadic Sarmatians and Scythians who roamed the Ukrainian lands in the first millennium B.C.E. did not build any fortifications to speak of — they did not erect them for a simple reason of being nomads — they were most of the time moving from place to place. Those who were more settled built wooden palisades and earthworks. When Darius I, the Persian ruler, invaded the Scythian lands, the Scythians retreated, devastating the country and ignoring the Persians’ challenge to do battle. When it became clear that any further advance might prove to be disastrous, the Persians were forced, for lack of supplies and lack of combat morale, to abandon the campaign and ignominiously return home, with a better part of their army obliterated by the Scythian arrows and by diseases.
In the early medieval times two major fortresses (archeologists called them Starokyivska, or Old Kyivan, and Podilska) were built within the limits of today’s Kyiv. Both date to the fifth or sixth centuries C.E. In the eleventh century a new one, Kyivo-Pecherska, was built. In the course of the centuries, these fortifications were raised to the ground more than once — only to rise again. In the nineteenth century, all the remnants of the earliest fortifications were finally and completely removed, but the Kyivo-Pecherska fortress was enlarged and largely rebuilt.
In the times of Kyivan Rus, when Kyiv ruled a vast territory stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, in addition to the defensive walls, called zmiyevi valy, or “snake walls” (more precisely — “snaking earthworks”) were built to provide additional defence. These defensive walls, similar, to a certain extent, in the way they were constructed and in purpose to Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, stretched for dozens if not hundreds of kilometers, following the contours of the terrain. They “snaked” among the hills, and later were referred to as “snake walls.” The guards posted on them would light fires in case they observed massive enemy movements to signal to the other defenders of the walls of the enemy approach. Within a very short time, it would be known in Kyiv and the defence forces would be alerted.
“These snake walls were high enough to stop the cavalry — only the foot soldiers could scale the wall, and they were dealt with by the defenders. Anyway, the advance of the enemy would be greatly slowed down,” said Olena Ivanivna, pointing to the model of a stretch of the snake walls.”
“Was it just earth piled up to create obstacles?”
“No! They had a wooden structure inside, filled with crushed stone. Some sections of these walls are still extant, but unfortunately, for lack of funds, not much archeological work was done to learn more about them.”
During the reign of Volodymyr the Great (10th century), fortifications were built around the central part of the then city of Kyiv which sat on Mount Kyivska. In the eleventh century, Volodymyr’s son Yaroslav expanded Kyiv and had defensive walls built all around the city (on the map of the present-day Kyiv they would stretch from Maydan Nezalezhnosti Square to Lvivska Square and to Zoloti Vorota in Volodymyrska Street; there were three major gates — Zoloti, Lvivski and Lyadsky). This citadel occupied a territory of almost one square kilometer. The central street of modern Kyiv, Khreshchatyk, had it existed then would have been outside the fortress’ walls. In fact, there was no road of any kind there, only a small stream running all the way down to the Dnipro River. But the stream was called Khreshchata from the Khreshchata Dolyna (valley) through which it flowed.
Podilska Fortress that sat at the foot of the hill upon which the Kyiv citadel stood, protected the Podil section of Kyiv with massive, strong walls, mostly made of wood, and other defensive works. It occupied a territory of two square kilometers, and was maintained until the early nineteenth century when, whatever was left of it after many fires it had suffered, it was demolished.
The Kyivo-Pecherska Fortress began as the palisade around the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery, the oldest and biggest monastery of Kyiv. The original wooden fence was soon replaced by sturdy defensive walls which were ruined during the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. Only one gate remained, which was later turned into a church, Troyitska nadvratna (The Church of the Holy Trinity, Above the Gate). The Monastery had its own defensive works erected in later centuries, and several times the Kyivo-Pecherska Fortress was rebuilt, but mostly in wood, and thus was easily damaged or even destroyed by fires. As a result, nothing of the Kyivo-Pecherska Fortress was preserved to our days, except for that one Church Above the Gate.
The year 1679 saw large-scale construction work launched by Hetman Samoylovych who had the three fortresses united into one, by erecting a continuous wall, made of earth and wood all around them. Thus a major reconstruction of Kyiv’s fortifications was begun and it continued in the next two centuries. The city itself underwent a major reconstruction as a result of which not only it acquired new fortifications, but new streets as well (one of them, Prorizna, is still there; originally it cut through — prorizala — the defensive walls). The three old fortresses were fortified by new walls; they remained their original size, except for Podilska, which shrank a little.
In the nineteenth century the construction work on the Kyivo-Pecherska Fortress was at last complete. Its territory of over ten hectares included: the Pechersk Citadel, built at the beginning of the eighteenth century under the hetmanship of Mazepa (the then popular French system of fortifications was used as a guiding principle; it took into consideration the peculiarities of the terrain; part of the Mazepa wall with loopholes is still extant); two fortified areas with barracks and towers; two other separate fortified places, Vasylkivske and Hospitalne, plus a number of separate fortifications. There were several other fortified structures and places which were built in the nineteenth century. They included: the Zvirynetske stronghold built shortly before the war with Napoleon (designed by the Prussian engineer Opperman, it was connected with the Pecherska Citadel by earthworks; at present, the Central Botanical Garden is situated in the former territory of the stronghold); the Lysohirsky Fort, built in the 1870s in accordance with the most advanced military technologies — it was the biggest in the world, occupying a territory of over a hundred hectares; the Minikh Bastions in Podil; a fastness on the left bank to protect a chain bridge across the River Dnipro (in the twentieth century it was replaced by a new bridge for subway trains). The fortifications also included three cable roads to move the ammunition and troops.
But what a cruel twist of fate — soon after the work on the Kyiv fortifications had been completed, they lost their military importance whatsoever — earthworks and brick walls were obstacles easily dealt with by new powerful, long range guns. Some other use had to be found for the fortresses and their premises were begun to be used mostly as warehouses.
Detention instead of defence
Kosy Kaponir was put to a different use though. When in 1830, a major insurrection against the Russian Czarism flared up in Poland, it soon reached Kyiv, but was mercilessly crushed. There was not enough room in prisons to accommodate all those who were arrested in connection with the insurrection, and Kosy Kaponir was quickly reconstructed and provided with prison cells. In the Museum Kosy Kaponir you can still see one of the cells for imprisoned officers with four metal beds and a couple of chairs in it. It was quite a comfortable place compared with the cell for soldiers which had bunk beds with straw instead of mattresses. A small room without windows served as a punishment cell. The floor level was sunk a couple of feet below the threshold level so that it could be filled with water — thus the prisoner was forced to be standing all the time, without respite. A little yard was surrounded by the wooden palisade — the prisoners were allowed to take walks there. There is a plaque on the wall with the names of the Polish officers who had taken part in the insurrection, then were captured and later executed by firing squads. But the shootings took place elsewhere — Kosy Kaponir served only as a place of pre-trail detention.
Every year, a delegation from Poland comes to Kyiv on November 1 to pay homage to their countrymen who died in an attempt to free Poland from Russian domination. Alas, no one else seems to remember other political prisoners — of whom there were quite a few — incarcerated in Kosy Kaponir. Particularly turbulent (almost like these days) were the times following the Revolution of 1917, when Kyiv changed hands many times and each new power would release its imprisoned supporters and imprison its opponents.
Dislocation in time
When I walked out of the museum, I found myself in a totally different world — new high-rise houses of expensive apartments; big stands with colouful advertisement, cars, all chrome and shining metal swishing by… And I suddenly realized I liked that place, the museum of Kyivska Fortetsya, that had miraculously preserved the unhurried atmosphere of the past. I felt that these walls with narrow loopholes which had seen so much, were ironically looking at us, the people of the twenty-first century, and at the city that had sprung up around them. Probably it is what I should write about, I thought. Do I really need so much time for that?
By Olesya Sandyha
Photos by Oleksiy Onishchuk and Ivan Dudkin
We express our gratitude to Vyacheslav Kulinich, curator of the Museum Historical and Architectural Landmark Kyivska Fortetsya, and to all the staff of the museum who helped, Olena Yushchenko, deputy curator, in particular.