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Forgotten history: What tour guides at Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra aren’t saying…

Assumption Cathedral of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra
Forgotten history: What tour guides at Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra aren’t saying…
Article by: Iryna Kostenko, Maryna Ostapenko
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
On the night of April 21 to April 22, 1718, a huge fire destroyed most of the buildings in the Kyiv-Pechersk Complex, including the main church, printing house, library and archive, which housed precious books, manuscripts and documents from the Kyivan Rus period. Material restorations lasted over ten years, but the spiritual and cultural losses are irreparable.

Immediately after the fire, Moscow “scholars” began rewriting the historical chronicle of the ancient monastery in full compliance with the interests of the newly-proclaimed Russian Empire (it was in 1721 that that Peter I decided to re-name the Duchy of Muscovy as Russia). Their writings faithfully mirrored the policy of the newly-named Russian Empire, but removed the most important facts about Ukrainian presence in the history of the monastery.

300 years have passed from the day of this terrible fire, but important information about the Lavra’s ancient past has been forgotten and buried to this very day. If you tour Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra today, here are some key “facts” that you will hear from the tour guides:

  1. Visitors are informed that the fire was caused by a candle in the abbot’s cell. However, it’s common knowledge that the fire broke out in several places of the monastery. Moreover, it’s also known that it was Tsar Peter I of Moscow who commissioned this tragedy.

Doctor of Historical Sciences Ihor Hyrych notes the following:

“According to eyewitness accounts, which were recorded by famous Kyivan historian, Archpriest Petro Lebedyntsev, couriers from Moscow disguised as monks set fire to the Lavra. The archive and library were completely destroyed; letters and documents were lost … missives from princes, feudal lords and hetmans.

In fact, the fire destroyed the written memory of independent Ukrainian political and spiritual life in the Lavra.”

  1. It is assumed that that the lost documents showed that Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and the Kyiv Archdiocese were independent of the Moscow Patriarchate from the very beginning and for many centuries thereafter.

Here is one of many testimonies that that have survived in the writings of Syrian archdeacon, traveler, and writer Paul of Aleppo, who visited Pechersk Monastery in 1654. He noted that Ukraine “is subordinated to the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Archimandrite of Pechersk showed us ancient missives from former patriarchs of Constantinople, almost 500 years old. The texts testify to the fact that the monastery is independent.”

Paul of Aleppo* also described Ukraine as a highly cultured land: “In the entire land of the Ruthenianans,  that is, the Cossacks (Paul referred to the Russians as Muscovites), we noticed something strange but wonderful: all of them, with minor exceptions, even the majority of wives and daughters, know how to read and know the order of the church services and church songs.”

(The original text of Pauls account does not exist, but several partial and complete Arabic manuscript copies have survived. The most complete copy is preserved at the National Library in Paris-Ed)

Historian Ihor Hyrych explains:

“The Metropolitans of Kyiv were completely independent, standing equal with the Moscow Patriarch. They were elected by the Kyiv council and confirmed in Constantinople. The Metropolitans of Kyiv bore the names of “Metropolitans of All Rus.”

Despite these historical facts, the image of the Metropolitan of Kyiv, Halych and All Rus Petro Mohyla in the Pechersk Museum describes him by a more modest title – “Metropolitan of Kyiv”.

Petro Mohyla (December 31, 1596 – January 1, 1647) was a Ukrainian political, church and academic figure. Metropolitan of Kyiv, Halych and All Rus (1632-1647). Archimandrite of Kyiv-Pechersk Monastery (as of 1627)

We asked the tour guide why Petro Mohyla’s title was not complete. She replied: “Это так по-современному.” (It’s more modern this way…)

The description of Petro Mohyla at the Assumption Cathedral and in the Lavra Museum is incomplete. The title “Metropolitan of All Rus” was removed although it was used by Kyiv Metropolitans until the 17th century
  1. Tour guides don’t mention the fact that the Metropolitanate of Kyiv was transferred to Moscow with the help of a bribe.

For many years, the Muscovy government had sought to obtain spiritual power over Ukraine from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Finally, the Moscow ambassador gave Patriarch Dionysius of Constantinople a hefty bribe – “200 gold coins and three forty sables (120 pieces of sable-Ed)”. When Dionysius mentioned that other top officials should also be rewarded, Moscow didn’t hesitate and covered all additional expenses. That’s how, “canonically-speaking”, the Ukrainian church was sold to Russia.

As of January 1688, the Metropolitan of Kyiv was officially called “the Metropolitan of Kyiv, Halych and Little Russia” and his property rights were restricted. The largest monasteries were withdrawn from the Metropolitan’s jurisdiction and subordinated directly to the Moscow Patriarchate.

“The Ukrainian clergy was generally outraged that they’d been handed over to the Moscow Patriarchate on a silver platter.” explains historian Mykola Arkas.

Reputed Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky writes:

“This is how Ukraine’s church autonomy was destroyed and placed under Moscow’s ecclesiastical authority, and Ukrainian education and culture soon followed suit.”

  1. Several “incumbency certificates”, that is land grants, disappeared during the fire. They confirmed that the Pechersk Monastery owned numerous lands and estates. These assets contributed to the monastery’s economic stability and independence. They enabled cultural and educational activities, and the development of architecture and monumental art. Traditionally, these “incumbency certificates” were donated or willed to the monastery by benefactors, and for centuries, the last will and testament of the deceased did not undergo any major changes. However, in 1786, by order of Empress Catherine II of Russia, all monastic estates and lands were confiscated and transferred to the royal treasury. Later, the same Empress, as recorded by her private secretary Alexander Khrapovitskiy, generously rewarded her many lovers for their sexual prowess with monastic lands and estates.

It was in such a disgraceful and utterly blasphemous manner that the economic independence of an ancient monastery was totally wiped out. Russian officers started taking part in monastic activities, the monks received their salaries from the state treasury and the monastery was ordered to service and obey the Russian empire.

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Complex
  1. The last point concerns the Ukrainian language. Today, the language clearly demonstrates the ancient national (that is, Ukrainian) foundation of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Lavra books were printed in ancient Ukrainian until the fire of 1718. However, tour guides forget to mention this. Let’s examine some of the words:

– “Pechersk” comes from the Ukrainian language, and not Church Slavonic, as the tour guides imply. It means “cave”.

– the names of saints, for example, “преподобний Марко” (venerable Marko). This form is common in Ukrainian even today – Sashko, Levko, Yurko

– in general, Ukrainian names and words in the famous “Tale of Bygone Years” written and compiled by Nestor the Chronicler: Prince Volodymyr (not Vladimir), Princess Olena (not Elena), and such Ukrainian words as: “колодязь, стріха, сором, посаг, свита, сварити, туга, рілля, подружжя” (well, roof, shame, dowry, suite, scold, anguish, arable land, married couple).

Church Slavonic text “Tale of Bygone Years” by Nestor the Chronicler in the Hypatian Codex. (The Hypatian manuscript dates back to ca. 1425, but it incorporates much precious information from the lost 12th century Kyivan and 13th century Galician chronicles-Ed)
Memorial plaque on the wall of the Assumption Cathedral. There’s a flagrant mistake in the Church Slavonic text: the name of Prince Volodymyr of Rus is written in old Russian script – “Vladimir”

One of the most distinguished connoisseurs of the Rus chronicles, and in particular of Nestor’s “Tale of Bygone Years”, Academician Oleksandr Shakhmatov, wrote the following in the Encyclopedia of Slavic Philology (1915):

“The direct descendants of the Polians, Derevlians, and Siverians are the people of Kyiv, Volyn, Chernihiv and Poltava regions … they have preserved their language to this very day.”

16th century tombstone; the inscription begins with the Ukrainian word “року” (year) and not the Russian “лет”

By spreading more complete historical information, Ukraine can disable and destroy the main principles linked to the “Russian world”- the so-called “common origins of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy, language and history”.

Moreover, we should never forget that Russia has been using this same “Russian world” concept to justify its war against Ukraine and all things Ukrainian.


Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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