In the Wild Heart of Kiev – Kiev, Ukraine

In the Wild Heart of Kiev

Kiev, Ukraine

Rodina Mat and Cave Monastery from Dnipro River
Rodina Mat and Cave Monastery from Dnipro River
This is our first full day in Kiev. From the left bank of the Dnipro river on the 19th floor of our “Hotel Turist” my wife Irene and I could watch the shining cupolas of the Pechersk-Lavra, the Cave Monastery, which is not only the sacred heart of the city of Kiev, but also the nucleus of the Russian culture, making the Ukrainian capital the “mother of Russian cities.” Throning high above the banks of the river, surrounded by dense, green forest, the holy buildings conjure up an orchard of golden apple trees.

The metro train takes us downtown, from where we walk to the monastery. The walls in front of the Gate Church of the Trinity, which forms the main entrance, are covered with frescoes depicting saintly old men in magnificent robes with many brethren clad in black and a few female figures behind them. They are reminiscent of the days when a few monks came here to live their lives dedicated to God, arriving in a kind of jungle on the banks of a mighty river. Their homes where a few caves in the promontory jutting out from the endless plains in the east, thus giving the place its name “Cave Monastery”.

The impression we get from this place today is a far cry from the home in the wilderness, which the monks Anthony and Theodosius found here in the middle of the 11th century. Today the place looks more like a separate city in itself, surrounded by high walls with lots of cell buildings, bell towers, churches and cathedrals, the latter all clad in white marble with colourful frescoes of saints and biblical heroes. The big bell tower occupying the center of the northern part of the place looks a bit like three white wedding cakes one put on top of the other. The Dormition Cathedral with its five golden domes makes me take photos of it again and again, and it is difficult to stop looking at it, because the view from each different angle is like the different courses of a celestial banquet for the eyes. This overkill of golden domes, white marble and frescoes starts getting a bit tiring, though, after a certain time.

So, longing to give our minds a diet, we have a look at where the whole thing began, namely the caves. There are the “near caves” and the “far caves”, suggesting that the ground below our feet must look a bit like a piece of Swiss cheese. After paying a hefty fee, our guide Irina takes us into the near caves. Before entering we pass by a huge, long fresco depicting the steeplechase the souls have to absolve, before being allowed to enter the heavenly fields. There are 20 “steeples”, each representing a sin which automatically excludes one from paradise. Though each soul is accompanied by its guardian angel, the chances to get through this ordeal seem slim. I, for instance, would have had my dark moment when it came to the question: “Are you choleric?” But there is hope: if you confess your sins to a priest, or if friends or relatives pray for you.

Inside the caves there are long galleries, together with small chapels hewn out of the rock and the coffins of the monks who founded the place and the following generations of holy men.

Dormition Cathedral, Cave Monastery
Dormition Cathedral, Cave Monastery
The fact that the “holy, incorrupted bodies” were mummified in the belly of mother earth is regarded as a miracle. And in fact, from time to time one can see a mummified hand creeping out from below the heavy, colourful brocade cloth covering the bodies. For Irina this is no tourist place, she murmurs the name of each saint, kisses the glass above the faces of the monks and keeps whispering her stereotype prayers. She unfolds a kaleidoscope of bizarre biographies before us, where each mummy has a certain importance and function for the living.

There is, of course, Nestor, who, by his “Tale Of Bygone Years” became the chronicler of the young Russian Orthodox Church. More down-to-earth figures are, for instance, the monk, who was on hostile terms with a former friend. Before he died he felt the need to reconcile himself to his enemy, but the latter refused to do so. The enemy died, the dying monk recovered and visiting his mummy helps quarreling people to make peace with each other today. Or the “joblover”. He was never seen idle in his life, and the unemployed of today hope to find a job when coming near him.

A special sort of monks had themselves locked into a dark cell below the earth for years. An idea hard to comprehend, because Irene and myself have a feeling of claustrophobia after one hour only. It is dark and warm down here, the many candles of the pilgrims heat the place up. From time to time we see biblical figures crouching in a niche trying to read their holy texts in the light of a flickering candle, and the still and white faces of young women in headscarves makes us believe that Virgin Mary is standing in front of us.

At the end of the tour Irina points out the icon of St. Nicholas to us. Having learned that we are Protestants, she somewhat pities us a bit for not being able to rely on the help of the many saints of this holy place. “St. Nicholas is good for people of all denominations,” she consoles us. “Especially for travelers.”

We walk towards the nearby “Museum of the Great Patriotic War”, commemorating World War II, with lots of military gear standing around in a huge, hilly field: planes, tanks, guns. A special feature is an underground passage with groups of bigger-than-life bronze figures, representing groups of soldiers and guerillas fighting the fascist invader. These broad-jawed figures are perfect specimens of what was called “Socialist Realism”, and there is a controversial debate about whether they depict the events of the war in a adequate way. To us they seem only able to express one feeling: grim determination. They are all like superhuman figures knowing no fear, no sadness. Little children use them as a kind of climbing-frame, moving hand over hand between the bronze machine guns, legs and arms, while a young couple is taking advantage of the semi-darkness for petting.

Not far from here stands the 62-meter-high statue of “Rodina Mat”, the “National Mother”, thrusting a huge sword into the sky. Irreverently nicknamed “Tin Tits” by the local population, she stands high on the top of a hill. The view from here over the River Dnipro is breathtaking. From the steppe the wind blows huge dark bag of water across the sky, and then it starts raining cats and dogs. Has the monstrous mother pierced the skies with her sword?

View of Dnipro River
View of Dnipro River
The rain having stopped as fast as it came, we make up our minds to descend the promontory down to the river banks in order to reach the metro-bridge taking us back to our hotel. We follow a path through the woods, which eventually peters out and leaves us in a kind of urban jungle. Suddenly a pack of semi-wild dogs, led by a big black brute, come towards us yelling and barking. I keep shouting at the black one, which first seems to impress it. But little by little the beasts are closing in, forming a semi-circle around us. We keep retreating. At one point the foot of the slope is bounded by a wall towering about three meters above our heads. The black brute is running along atop of it, eyeing us with bad intent. Fortunately it misses the very moment to jump at me from up there and finally the wild pack is staying behind, happy enough to have driven us out of their territory.

“So there is still some of the wilds left, which the first monks must have encountered here, when they hid in the safe womb of the earth,” I think. And another thought crosses my mind: “St. Nicholas seems to have done a perfect job protecting us.”