Travel 2018 – Chernihiv, Ukraine

Thursday, 30th August 2018 – Chernihiv, Ukraine

I have to say I would have been massively disappointed to go all the way to the north of the Ukraine and then not see anything other than the road from the airport, and the resort hotel. On the way to our destination on the Tuesday, as we hit a beautifully smooth and newly Tarmacked stretch of road in the town of Chernihiv, I’d looked dead ahead and been more than a little struck by what I could see right in front of us, on a grass-covered bluff.

My research prior to coming out had suggested Chernihiv was potentially interesting. If this was anything to go by, the guidebook was right. Chernihiv (Чернігів) or Chernigov (Чернигов) is listed as a city of regional significance, and is apparently also known as the City of Legends. It has a population of around 300,000 and a history that dates back to 907 (though the city may well be older), and the shiny-domed structure that had stopped me – though not the bus – in my tracks is the Church of Saint Catherine, built in 1715 during the second of two phases of prosperity that have gone a long way towards shaping what you can see today.

Lonely Planet describes the town as “modestly receding into provincial obscurity for the past millennium,” but points out that “Ukraine’s most northerly city was once a Kyivan Rus heavyweight frequented by 11th-century royalty”. Actually the first part is not wholly true. However, we had yet to discover that for ourselves. A quick canvas of opinion, and a short discussion with the organiser of our meeting, saw 17 of us lining up to get on a bus from the hotel at 16:30 on the Thursday evening. We wouldn’t have much time, but it was better than nothing!

The bus dropped us off in the Dytynets (“citadel” in old Russian), which is now a park full of historical buildings, most of them of religious origins. The group split up and myself and a couple of colleagues headed over towards the first building we could see, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, the oldest cathedral in Ukraine, built in the 1030s, though the original building is long gone. It was commissioned by Mstislav the Bold and completed several decades later by his brother, Yaroslav the Wise.

It’s possible therefore that the city had its own rulers by the end of the 10th century is likely correct. This theory is also supported by the nearby Black Grave, one of the largest and earliest “royal” burial mounds in Eastern Europe, excavated in the 19th century.

At one stage the city was the second most important (and wealthy) city in the Kievan Rus realm. From the early 11th century it was the seat of the Grand Principality of Chernigov, whose rulers vied for power with the Kievan Grand Princes. The golden age of Chernihiv, when the city population was 25,000, lasted until 1239 when the city was sacked by the hordes of Batu Khan, and fell into a long period of relative obscurity. Many of the buildings we found date from that original golden age. We might have found our way into the Cathedral but we got side tracked by the museum next door, in another cathedral, that of Boris and Gleb, the first saints canonized in Kievan Rus after the Christianization of the country. They were said to be the younger children of Vladimir the Great, who liked them more than his other children, and they were both murdered during the internecine wars of 1015–1019.

The building dates from 1120-1123, and contains the tombs of princes of the Davidovich family. It’s apparently typical of 12th Century church architecture in the region, though there is an older structure underneath it. Walls and foundations found under the floor are presumed to be those of a more ancient church or cathedral. However, the place has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, finally being reconstructed in its original form between 1952 and 1958, and as written records for the time are hard to come by, this is probably just educated guesswork.

The museum charges 15 hryvnia to get in (around 45p) and is surprisingly interesting, considering just how small it is. For one thing, there are still some 12th century frescos in place.

For another there is the main attraction of the silver-plated Holy Gates, all 56 kilos of them. These date from the 18th century and were produced in the second phase of Chernihiv’s prosperity for hetman Ivan Mazepa. They come from Augsburg, where most of the best silverwork was being produced at that time.

Also of interest are a renovated ancient floor of slate slabs and mosaic sections which can be seen clearly from the upper level of the building.

I especially enjoyed the “famous carving of the capital with a picture of “Chernihivbeast”, which some researchers relate to the Iranian deity Semargl”. I’m not much wiser about this than I was but these “beasts” seem very Viking to me, thus tripping into a whole discussion of whether the Kievan Rus were of Viking origin or not. Having dug around in the whole controversy, I’ve decided to stay out of it! I’m also staying out of the argument as to whether a “pagan” symbol should be displayed in a Christian building, on the grounds that as I’m not religious, it’s none of my business. I’m just happy to have seen it.

The town returned to prominence in the middle of the 17th century during and after the Khmelnytsky Uprising, and as part of the Hetman State, under Polish control, Chernihiv was the city of deployment of the Chernihiv Cossack regiment (both a military and territorial unit of the time). The very lovely – if stark – Saint Catherine’s Church dates from this time.

There was a service going on, but the congregation was tiny (3 women), and one of the waved me in, possibly because I’d taken the precaution of taking a scarf with me and was thus able to cover my head, a requirement for women wanting to enter a Ukrainian church. She also waved encouragingly at me to indicate that it was fine to take photos.

With a gloriously blue sky setting it off, the church, which was consecrated in 1715, looked lovely if unreal. The information I was able to find suggests it’s one of the greatest examples of “Ukrainian Baroque”, and it may apparently have been intended as a memorial to the Chernihiv Cossack regiment’s exploits during the storming of Azov in 1696 during the Russo-Turkish War (1686-1700).

The Cossack-era architecture doesn’t end with the church either.

There are a couple of residential buildings which date from the late 17th century, a when the Cossack regiment was deployed. These include the former mansion, popularly known as the Mazepa House, which used to contain the regiment’s chancellery.

We couldn’t find a way in, so we moved on. From the same period, and one of the most profusely decorated of the Cossack structures is the ecclesiastical collegium, which is topped by a ridiculously ornate bell-tower.

Apparently it was also one of the first secondary educational establishments in western Ukraine, having been founded in 1672. It educated its students in Latin and Russian, but they could also study Polish, Greek, German, French, poetics, rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics and geography. Those who completed their studies would become translators, writers, church leaders, and physicians.

We found one more landmark on our way back to the bus, a handful of twelve cast-iron cannons that, so the story goes, were presented to the Chernihiv Cossacks by Peter the Great as a reward for their courage in the war against the Swedes.

As we prepared to get back on the bus (we’d had around 90 minutes) we spotted a man playing a multi-stringed instrument.

This turned out to be a bandura, which is a Ukrainian musical instrument similar in construction and appearance to a lute, but with between 32 and 55 strings. The oldest record of a bandura-like instrument in Ukraine is an 11th-century fresco of court musicians which I hope to see in a few days time in the Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Kiev when I’m back for more meetings. The instrument has had a colourful and not always happy history, being regarded as the national instrument of Ukraine, and thus being suppressed first during the Tsarist period, and again, even more brutally during the period of Soviet rule, with around 300 musicians being gathered together under the guise of an ethnographic conference and then mass-executed.

There’s a lot more history to Chernihiv, but in the end that was all we had time for. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in Kiev with time to spare since it’s apparently only a two-hour train ride away.

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