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Chernihiv

This city-fortress on the bank of the Desna River tenaciously argued with Kyiv for the leading place in the Rus state in course of several centuries. Medieval Chernihiv was the capital of a large, strong, and rich principality. It was, in a sense, a forest empire stretching in the thickets inaccessible for enemies, on the banks of picturesque rivers. Its capital city was famous for the grandeur of its temples and fortresses, the wisdom of its men of science and the mastery of its craftsmen.

This city-fortress on the bank of the Desna River tenaciously argued with Kyiv for the leading place in the Rus state in course of several centuries. Medieval Chernihiv was the capital of a large, strong, and rich principality. It was, in a sense, a forest empire stretching in the thickets inaccessible for enemies, on the banks of picturesque rivers. Its capital city was famous for the grandeur of its temples and fortresses, the wisdom of its men of science and the mastery of its craftsmen.

People appeared in these lands as far back as six thousand years ago. Most likely they were Trypilians – the creators of the great proto-civilization, which has not been thoroughly researched hitherto. It disappeared as enigmatically as it appeared. Old Slavic tribes inhabited this area in first centuries A. D.The oldest reference to Chernihiv dates back to 907, and it was made in the “Chronicle of Bygone Years” by Nestor the Chronicler. At the earliest stage of the young and quickly developing Rus state Chernihiv was not mentioned just incidentally. The beginning of the 10 th century was the time of the victorious campaign glorified in legends and bylinas of Kyivan Prince Oleg against Byzantium. The campaign took place in 911, so Nestor was a little mistaken in his chronicle. Among Rus cities whose host under the command of Oleg Prophetic approached the walls of Constantinople and made the proud Byzantine emperor pay tribute to the Rus barbarians, Chernihiv goes second after Kyiv as an important city of Kyivan Rus. Many centuries later this peculiarity was noted by the prominent statesman Mykhailo Hrushevsky: in Rus chronicles of the 10 th-13 th centuries Chernihiv was mentioned approximately as many times as Kyiv, which reflected its status of a city no less important than Kyiv itself.

Rampart, or a Weary Fortress

The origin of the name of Val (Rampart) is quite transparent: it was there, on the high right bank of the Desna River, where it flows together with the Stryzhen River, that the local citadel, Dytynets, was founded. Okolnyi grad – merchants’and craftsmen’s streets, trade warehouses, and workshops – appeared later. It occupied a large area. Peredhradia, encircled by a ditch and ramparts, also appeared at that time.

An excursion through Dytynets (now it is M. Kotsiubynsky park of culture and rest) is jokingly called a “trip from cannon to cannon.” In 1911 Val, the area of the main fortifications in the past, was decorated with twelve cast-iron cannons placed on decorative gun-carriages. The cannons are by far older than the gun-carriages – according to a local legend they were presented to Chernihiv by Peter I for the valor displayed by the Chernihiv Cossacks in battles with the Swedes. In 1799 the fortress was liquidated for, thanks God, there was nobody to be at war with. The past centuries have gone by, when Chernihiv fortress had three gates and thirty four towers with cannons. The fortifications were leveled and in their place appeared a boulevard, the Rampart, a favorite place for walks. So while being on the Rampart it seems that the formidable stronghold of a thousand years of age just got tired one day, and disappeared, leaving behind only ancient cannons on amusing gun-carriages, and the picturesque Rampart.

The Transfiguration Cathedral remains the best known memorial of Chernihiv Rampart-Dytynets, and Siverska land as a whole. For a long time this five-domed cathedral was the highest structure of the city, the most revered church of the principality, and the burial vault of many secular leaders and ecclesiastics, in particular one of the heroes of the famous epic about Igor’s campaign, Prince Vsevolod Sviatoslavich. Today, a thousand years later, the cathedral remains the main temple of the Chernihiv eparchy.

According to researchers the Transfiguration Cathedral was founded in 1031. Chronicles mention yet another church, the construction of which was not completed, and where its founder, Grand Prince Mstyslav Volodymyrovych, was buried. It was the year 1036, and the first corner stone of the famous St. Sophia Cathedral of Kyiv was laid a year later.

Compositionally Chernihiv’s Cathedral represented a very felicitous (and very rare) combination of a classic Byzantine construction with a strong west European, Romanesque “accent.” The interior was richly decorated with mosaics and wonderful frescoes. The cathedral was also adorned with carved slabs of Ovruch rosy slate. Attacks and fires of the past were not merciful to the Cathedral’s beauty. Its interior was severely damaged. Reconstruction of 1 792-1 798, begun of noble motives and executed extremely poorly, mutilated the majestic appearance of the Old Rus miracle.

Judging by old miniatures the Transfiguration Cathedral of the times of grand princes was surrounded by many stone and wooden structures – churches and boyar chambers. In course of time all of them disappeared. Today it has only one contemporary neighbor – the Cathedral of SS. Boris and Hleb.

Its construction was begun by Prince David Sviatoslavich in 1123. Less than the majestic Transfiguration Cathedral, it was built, however, with a special luxury: according to the prince’s intention it was to become a new family necropolis, the burial vault of Chernihiv rulers. For this purpose six niches for the future princely sarcophagi were made under the vault of the church. The interior volume was decorated with frescoes and stone carving. The floor of the cathedral was covered with ceramic tiles. In the center there was a colorful mosaic. Unfortunately, today we can judge of the Cathedral’s former luxury only by fragments and wreckage that have survived to our time. Judging by the fragments, of special beauty was the white stone carving executed in the famous Old Rus “zoomorphic” style.

After centuries of devastation and almost incessant wars Chernihiv flourished anew in the latter half of the 17 th century, when Cossacks won it over from the Poles once and for all, and Chernihiv became a regimental town. In the hetmanite Ukraine it was a particular, and rather privileged status. In spite of the fact that the city remained on the eternally troublesome Russian-Polish frontier, life in the city began to seethe again.

Noteworthy among other structures on the Rampart is the stone building built in the late 1 7 th century for Chernihiv Colonel Yakiv Lyzohub. It is not distinguished for something particularly beautiful, like Chernihiv temples, but for specialists it is a unique example of secular architecture of the Cossack period, or Mazepa’s baroque (even Kyiv has nothing ofthe kind). The architectural idea of the colonel’s residence was solved in an original manner: according to the design his mansion was a classic Ukrainian cottage, though, naturally, a big one, and built of stone of good quality. The biography of Lyzohub’s house is also quite prosaic – later it became an office, then, archives… However that may be, but it is certainly of interest to experts.

Chernihiv region is the native land of the prominent film director Oleksandr Dovzhenko and the well-known Ukrainian writer Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky who was in love with the city and died there. Colonel Kochubey who headed Chernihiv Cossacks in the victorious war of Azov lived only two years, and his widow sold the estate to nobody else but Hetman Mazepa himself. Shortly thereafter the building was named “Mazepa’s house.” Later a legend was born: they say that it was here that the mighty hetman hid the young Motria Kochubey who loved him to distraction, and that the ghost of unfortunate Motria is roaming around here at night…

Naturally, this is just a folk fib. The sorrowful love story of the gray-haired hetman and his god-daughter gave birth to many conjectures and versions. They say Motria’s father, judge martial Kochubey, notified Peter I about Mazepa’s secret treaty with the Swedes and their alliance in the future war, just to take revenge on Mazepa for his daughter’s dishonor… They say Mazepa inflicted capital punishment (by decapitation) upon his old friend Kochubey, also because of Motria… Let’s forget it. All this was just dirty politics.

In reality Mazepa didn’t hurt Motria in the least – he only sent her tender poetic letters and gifts at the cost of a good estate. The loving couple, the old man and the young lady, could not be together. Age was not the problem – a fifty-year difference between the newly-weds was not a wander at that time, and by their noble origin they were equal. The problem was that Mazepa was Motria’s godfather, and according to

ecclesiastical law any intimacy in such a case was for both an awful and deadly sin. Meanwhile, Mazepa, a courageous warrior, strict ruler, and skillful diplomat, was a profoundly religious man. Nobody else but Mazepa exalted the Ukrainian Church so high, building on his money so many temples and schools. So the sincere mutual love of the elderly hetman and the young beauty could not have any continuation at that time…

Shortly after the Poltava catastrophe Motria was given in marriage; soon she became a widow, and took the veil. So if the ghost of wretched Motria is really roaming somewhere, it is far away from Lyzohub’s house in Chernihiv… However, the Chernihiv legend turned out a good one…

Chernihiv collegium is one of the most original structures in Dytynets. It was founded in 1 700. During the Polish rule in the 16 th century the Dominican order appropriated the buildings of the old ruined SS. Boris and Hleb Monastery, but now they were returned to Orthodox believers. In the 18 th century inventive architects united three structures of different times into a single complex. The collegium was famous as one of the best educational institutions of that time, on a par with Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Today the “Ancient Chernihiv” Reserve has placed there its exhibitions.

The former archbishop’s palace is located nearby. It was built in 1780 in classical style. There are still many similar pompous structures of the 18 th-19 th centuries on the Rampart, formerly administrative and public buildings.

Krasna Square and its Surroundings

It may seem that all Chernihiv’s relics have been concentrated on the Rampart, but it is not so. It is just impossible to enumerate everything that you can feast your eyes upon. Let’s descend from Dytynets to the central part of town, which is located around Krasna Square and the adjoining boulevards and public gardens. You have to walk about 200 meters along Myr Avenue to get to the ancient “Okolnyi grad.” In the Middle Ages it was Chernihiv’s ”¬† craftsman’s town.” With time the cultural and administrative center of the city moved there.

In the 19 th century respectable administrative buildings typical of a principal town of province were built in the square. Most of therm are used for the same purpose today. In the present-day building of the oblast state administration, which used to be province zemstvo, worked the famous Ukrainian writer Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, statesmen Borys Hrinchenko and Volodymyr Samiylenko., put up Nikolay Gogol, Aleksandr Pushkin, Taras Shevchenko and other outstanding figures put up at the hotel with the pompous name of “Czargrad” (has not survived), which was located in Myr Avenue.

Today Chernihiv’s business and secular life is seething around Krasna Square, but its finest adornments remain two beautiful churches. St. Catherine’s Church was built in 1715 in honor of the Cossack victories over the Turks. Well-proportioned and exquisite, it is a perfect example of Ukrainian baroque. Another old, magnificent, little temple is located in Bohdan Khmelnytsky public garden. It is the Church of St. Paraskeva Piatnytsia. In the past a large market place was found in its place. The church was built in the late 12 th -early 13 th centuries most likely by the outstanding architect Peter Miloneg. The church was named after Saint Paraskeva, the protectress of trade. It is said that during the Mongol invasion it became the last refuge for citizens, where they died.

Later the church was restored and reconstructed. Thereafter it was reconstructed more than once, losing its original appearance altogether. The Church of St. Paraskeva Piatnytsia was damaged badly during the Second World War. Restoration of the temple was made after the design of architects P. Baranovsky and M. Kholostenko and completed in 1962. The result was a real miracle: Paraskeva-Piatnytsia appeared in the form of the temple created by the great Piotr Miloneg – a slender, single¬≠ domed, sky-rocketing church… It seems a miniature from an old Rus chronicle has returned to life.

Walking around old Chernihiv, and admiring its beauty and memorials, something mystical occurs to your mind: how this city, despite all calamities, inroads, plagues and even earthquakes, managed to preserve its inimitable image. Today almost half of the Ukrainian temples surviving from the pre-Mongol period have been preserved exactly in Chernihiv. Perhaps it’s really true that there is something special in the air of the second capital of the Rus State, or it has been really guarded by numerous saint protectors.

Holy Cloisters

Beyond St. Catherine’s Church there is a wonderful view of the Desna River. Two old cloisters – Yelets and the Holy Trinity monasteries – are situated on two hills. The best route to the first one runs through the so-called Tretiak, one of the three oldest “districts” of Chernihiv of the grand princes’ period.

Yelets Monastery was founded in 1060 by Prince Sviatoslav Yaroslavich, an outstanding Chernihiv ruler. A hundred years later the monastery was adorned with the Assumption Cathedral, which became its main temple. The 12 th century was the period of the highest architectural upsurge in Chernihiv, characterized with specific expressiveness and laconicism inherent exclusively in it.

Nearby, on passing the valley, you get to the Boldyn hills glorified in bylinas. Among other burial mounds there is the so-called Hulbysche, the grave of the Siversky warrior the giant. According to local oral tradition the epic hero Ilia Muromets was buried there. But it is not quite true. Ilia Muromets is a real historical person, a “military and political figure of Kyivan Rus.” His imperishable relics (canonized) were buried in Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in compliance with Orthodox rite. Chernihiv burial places refer mostly to pre-Christian times. The unknown Chernihiv pagan-giant was really a giant! His sword was 126 centimeters long, whereas an ordinary sword was”80-90 centimeters. According to some researchers the Chernihiv giant was about 2-2.15 meters high; his chain mail and helmet were respectively big. The bucket from which his horse had been watered was placed into the grave of the warrior together with arms. It is one and a half times as big as an ordinary one.

Naturally the horse under the giant had to be an extraordinary horse… It is obvious that Ilia Muromets had more than one prototypes, and the Chrnihiv epic hero is one of them.

We pass the oak-wood. Opanas Markovych, a prominent ethnographer and specialist in folklore, husband of the well-known writer Marko Vovchok, was buried in the cemetery here in 1867. Not far away there is the grave of the prominent Ukrainian writer Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky who died in Chernihiv in 1913. From the tiresome school textbooks meaningless, standard phrases about revolutionary motifs, class struggle, and some “elements of socialist realism” recur to our memory… My personal advice is: forget all about this nonsense and read some masterpieces by the maestro – say “The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” or some short story. You will make sure that Mykhailo Kotsubynsky is the most delicate and elegant master of Ukrainian prose of the turn of the 20 th century.

Among century-old or thousand-year-old oaks there is the small and modest Church of St. Elijah of the St. Trinity Monastery. It is situated before the entrance to the underground monastery of the caves, yet another wonder of the old forest empire. It was founded in 1069 by the famous Ukrainian saint, Reverend Anthony Pechersky, founder of monasticism in the lands of the Rus state.

There are many more unique memorials, temples, monasteries, and museum in the “little” city of Chernihiv that are worth visiting, but one day will not be enough. If you decide to become acquainted with this wonderful city over the Desna River in detail, you can avail yourself of the guide “Chernihiv and its Environs” offered by “Baltia-Druk” publisher.

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