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Lavra Monastery caves  legends and history


The Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery was founded in the eleventh century. Archeologists and historians continue their research into the historical and spiritual roots of this ancient monastery. Andriy PYROHIV looks at what has been done in this research, using the materials of the Department of the Preservation and Study of the Underground Section of the Kyiv Pechersk Monastery National Historical and Cultural Reserve.


In the early medieval times, the city of Kyiv sat right in the middle of the route which was known as from the Varangians to the Greeks (Varangians being the old name for those Scandinavians who, as merchants and warriors, migrated south to Kyivan Rus and further down the Dnipro to the Byzantine Empire). The Dnipro River was also the route the Kyivan merchants and monks took to go south to Byzantium. Monks and novices destination was mostly the monasteries at Mount Athos in Greece; some of them went further to Palestine and Sinai. After staying for some time at one of the monasteries of Mount Athos and confirming their monastic vows, many of the monks returned back to Kyiv and other lands of Kyivan Rus.

Antoniy Pechersky (Anthony of the Caves) was a monk credited with founding a monastery which was later called Pechersk Lavra (Laura of the Caves). He hailed from Lyubech in the Land of Chernihivshchyna but was not among those who went on pilgrimage to distant lands. One of the early chronicles (Hustynsky Chronicle) says that in the year of Our Lord 1013 a much revered monk named Antoniy came to Kyiv and settled down to live in a cave called Varangian.

The name of the cave suggests some association with the Varangians, or Vikings.

Vikings (also called Norsemen or Northmen), were Scandinavian seafaring warriors who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the ninth to eleventh century. Their disruptive influence profoundly affected European history. These pagan Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish warriors were probably prompted to undertake their raids by a combination of factors ranging from overpopulation at home to the relative helplessness of victims abroad.

The exact ethnic composition of the Viking armies is unknown in particular cases, but the Vikings expansion in the Baltic lands and in Russia can reasonably be attributed to the Swedes. The eastern Viking expansion was probably a less violent process than that on the Atlantic coasts. The greatest eastern movement of the Scandinavians was that which carried them into the heart of Kyivan Rus. The extent of this penetration is difficult to assess; for, although the Scandinavians were at one time present at Novgorod, Kyiv, and other centres in considerable numbers, they were rapidly absorbed by the Slavonic population. The Vikings in Kyivan Rus were mostly traders, and two of their commercial treaties with the Greeks are preserved in the Primary Chronicle under the years 912 and 945; the Rus signatories have indubitably Scandinavian names. Occasionally, however, the Rus attempted voyages of plunder like their kinsmen in the West.

In the nineteenth century, the controversial aspect of the Varangian-Viking presence in Kyivan Rus was much debated and some historians were of the opinion that the Vikings in Rus were responsible for establishing the Kyivan statehood. Such views became known as The Norseman Theory. The controversy continues with no consensus having been reached, though, a majority of local historians now hold the view of an independent emergence of the early Kyivan state.

There are not too many facts to base the Norsemen Theory on but enough is known from the written sources and archaeological finds to keep the flame of the Varangian controversy burning. It is known, for example, that the Viking chieftain Oleg invaded the lands of Kyiv and captured Kyiv in the middle of the nineteenth century, killing two local rulers, Ascold and Dir (incidentally, the tomb, though of much later date, still stands). One of the early chronicles says that because of the strife among the Slavs, it was decided to invite a ruler from Scandinavia, named Rurik, and it is from him that the lineage of the Kyivan Grand Dukes starts. Igor (also called Ingvar), presumably the son of Rurik, prince of Novgorod, who is considered the founder of the dynasty that ruled Kyivan Rus and, later, Muscovy until 1598, was successor to the great warrior Oleg. He assumed the throne of Kyiv in 912; at least half of his army was known to have been made up of the Varangians.

Thus, the Norsemen presence in the early Ukrainian history cannot be dismissed but the current historians opinion is overwhelming in favour of the independent origins of the state of Kyivan Rus.

When the Vikings began their movement from Scandinavia in the southern direction, they were still pagans but they found themselves among the Christians in Kyivan Rus, many of them converted to Christianity, taking new, Christian names. Among such newly converted Vikings were Ivan and Fedir, who died the martyrs death at the hands of the pagans  they were burned to death in their house for their refusal to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods.

They were later canonized thus joining the ranks of the earliest Kyivan Rus saints; apparently they followed the injunction of the Gospel, Lay not up for yourselves upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay for yourselves treasures in heaven for where your treasure is, there will be your heart also. Their heart was apparently in heaven but the heart of many of their fellow Vikings was definitely with their treasures on earth. To prevent the treasures from being stolen when they were away from home, some of the Vikings in the service of Kyivan rulers must have hidden their hoards in caves. Such caves at a place which in the eleventh century developed into the Pechersk Lavra Monastery were used as cells by monks.

From what some of the chronicles say we can gather that some of the hoards hidden in the caves were discovered. Thus, under the year 1098, we find a story about two monks, Fedir and Vasyl, who discovered a cache of gold and silver. The monks reburied the treasure at a new place but the word about a discovered and re-hidden treasure got around and reached the ears of the son (Mstyslav Svyatopolkovych) of the then Kyivan ruler. The monks were brought to Mstyslav who demanded that they disclose the place where the treasure was hidden. The monks said that the hoard was made up of church vessels and other items used in the religious service and as such belonged to the church rather than to a secular power. The monks were tortured  but they stubbornly refused to reveal where the treasure was hidden. Both monks died under the torture taking their secret into the grave. Incidentally, Mstyslav died soon afterwards.

If this story is true  and there is no apparent reason to doubt its veracity  then the treasure found by the ill-starred monks could have been one of those hoards that the Christians put away at the time of persecutions against Christians launched by the Kyivan Grand Duke Svyatoslav, the son of Igor.

There is evidence that the treasure hunting in the Lavra Monastery caves continued in later centuries. It reached such proportions that in the nineteenth century the Lavra monks had to brick up some of the passages to prevent unauthorized penetration into the caves.

Local lore produced a wealth of legends connected with the caves  the underground passages stretched as far as the Troyitsko-Illynsky monastery in Chernihiv, a hundred miles away; they were connected to the caves in the vicinity of the Vydubetsky Monastery in Kyiv, or to some other monasteries in the vicinity of Kyiv; the treasures hidden there are worth millions, to name but a couple of popular stories about the caves.

In recent years, the caves of the Lavra Monastery have been examined by certified archaeologists and historians (there are two systems of caves connected by underground passages to be found in the territory of the Lavra Monastery in Kyiv  The Near Caves, and The Distant Caves). The research produced a number of discoveries. It has become evident that originally the caves known as The Varangian Caves were not connected with The Distant Caves and differed considerably from the caves that were used by monks as cells. Among the discoveries were nine corridors dating from the eleventh century at the latest, two caves used as cells in the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, and a number of burials in the walls. In ancient times, The Varangian Caves could indeed be entered from the side of the hill that faced the Dnipro River. A depiction of the Cross on Golgotha which is carved into the wall and which was discovered in one of the cells is unique in its iconography; it dates from approximately early eleventh century. It is not improbable that this cell could have been the one where St Antoniy Pechersky himself lived and that the carving on the wall could have been done by his hand.

In spite of the recent discoveries we still know very little of the early years of the Lavra Monastery when its monks lived in the caves. We know but little about the origin of the caves; we do not know how many caves were there originally; we do not know whether the Varangian caves still contain hoards of silver and gold. Research goes on.


Photos by Maksym STRYKHAR


The imperishable relics (mummified
bodies of the monks) in the Lavra caves.


Archeologists examining the Varyazka
pechera (The Cave of the Varangians).


A seat for prayers cut
in the wall of a cave.


The cross that could have been cut
in the wall by Antoniy Pechersky,
the founder of the Lavra Monastery
in Kyiv in the eleventh century.


A view of the Lower Lavra Monastery.
Photo by O. Onishchuk


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