This iconic Kiev monastery survived the Mongols, the Nazis, and the Bolsheviks – can it withstand Zelensky?
Tensions continue to mount in the standoff between the clergy and the Ukrainian government over the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra
Believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who are accused of maintaining links with Moscow, and pro-Ukrainian activists confront each other at the historic monastery Kiev-Pechersk Lavra in Kiev on March 31, 2023. © Sergei CHUZAVKOV / AFP
The Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, a major Orthodox shrine regarded as the third of the Four Earthly Domains of the Most Holy Mother of God, has lived through both bright and dark times in its thousand-year history. The monastery has survived the Mongol invasion, Polish religious persecution, Napoleon and Hitler’s wars, and the rule of the fiercely atheist Bolsheviks. The walls of the monastery preserved their centuries-old heritage and the monks persevered in prayer.
However, today the Lavra faces new trials.
Today, the monastery is undergoing another siege – this time by the Ukrainian state. The authorities are attempting to snatch away the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra from the canonical church and evict the monks. A state commission has been sent to the monastery to make an inventory of the property, including the relics of the saints. To prevent this, hundreds of believers have gathered at the monastery each day. But the Ukrainian state also has its supporters – columns of young people in balaclavas line up in front of the Lavra, threatening to forcefully evict the clergy.
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The fate of one of the great monuments of Russian history remains uncertain. At this point, no one knows how the confrontation will end.
A shrine on the banks of the Dnieper
The Kiev-Pechersk Lavra was established in 1051 – ten years earlier than St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, three centuries before the world-famous Notre Dame Cathedral, and four centuries before the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The Russian Orthodox shrine is twice as old as St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
The monastery was established on the banks of the Dnieper River by two monks – Saints Anthony and Theodosius during the reign of Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev. They came to devote their lives to prayer and leading an intensely spiritual life. Living in underground caves, they abstained from worldly pleasures. The remote place of prayer attracted many believers and the number of monks increased, with donations to build churches and other monastic buildings at the site.
One of the monks was Nestor the Chronicler, author of ‘The Tale of Bygone Years’, the famed chronicle of the emergence of Russian statehood. Another was Ilya Muromets, the hero of the Russian epics who, according to legend, settled in the Lavra after his heroic feats. His remains are said to rest in the monastery’s caves.
The Lavra survived many wars and sieges. It was attacked by the Pechenegs, Polovtsians, and Poles, but each time it withstood the trials and sprang back to life stronger than before.
It soon became the main shrine for Russian Orthodox believers, but the history of its ‘legal’ status was more complicated. For many centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church had been subordinate to the Patriarchate of Constantinople and was called the Moscow Metropolis. The Russian church gained independence only in 1589, when Moscow established its own patriarchate. This practically made it equal in status to Constantinople. However, for almost a hundred years, the Lavra remained subordinate to the Patriarch of Constantinople, not the local church authorities. Finally, in 1688, the monastery came under the jurisdiction of Moscow and that’s where it has remained until the present conflict.
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Ukraine did not exist in the 17th century. At the time, Russia, Lithuania, and Poland competed for present-day Ukrainian lands.
Two historical figures hold a prominent place in modern Ukraine’s political mythology and played a part in the history of the Lavra. Hetman of the Zaporozhye Cossacks Ivan Samoylovich encircled the monastery with a rampart, and Hetman Ivan Mazepa (the symbol of Ukrainian statehood seen on state banknotes) constructed the stone wall. Both leaders were subjects of the Russian Tsar, but Mazepa betrayed Emperor Peter the Great in 1708 and defected to the Swedish side. This turned his name into a household term for traitor – the analogue of ‘Judas’ in Russian culture.
Beginning with the reign of Peter the Great, the Lavra became one of the main shrines of the Russian Empire and took on its present appearance. The monastery opened up educational institutions and a library, established its own primary school, theological college, and created a special scholarship for poor students of the Kiev diocese. All Russian emperors came to bow down before the Lavra’s abbott and passed gifts to the church. Pyotr Stolypin – the great Russian politician and prime minister during the reign of the last Russian emperor – was buried on the grounds of the monastery following his assassination in Kiev.
The history of the Lavra is inseparably bound to the history of Russia and in fact, to the tragic history of the 20th century.
Postcard “View of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra”.
Soviet period: divide et impera
The establishment of Soviet power was accompanied by wide-scale persecution of the church. Priests were killed all over the territory of modern-day Russia and Ukraine, monasteries were closed, and believers were forced to renounce their faith. The Kiev-Pechersk Lavra was no exception. In 1918, the Bolsheviks killed the abbot of the monastery, Metropolitan Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky), while the state snatched away church valuables, and propagandized “militant atheism.” This seemed to be the demise of the Lavra.
Until 1924, the monastery belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate. But sensing a conservative threat from the church, the Soviet authorities adopted the ancient principle: divide et impera – divide and rule.
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Backed by the Bolsheviks, a new church of ‘Renovationists’ came into existence and claimed ownership of the monastery. It was then that the Orthodox Church Council was first named ‘All-Ukrainian’. By the decision of the new council, the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra was transferred to the jurisdiction of the All-Ukrainian Holy Synod.
In 1926, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic recognized the monastery as a state reserve and established the All-Ukrainian Museum Town on its grounds. Coincidentally, the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Reserve is at the center of today’s church conflict.
Shortly thereafter, national politics in the USSR altered its course and the authorities tried to eliminate the Orthodox Church entirely, including the Renovationist organization. At that time, the monks were evicted, with some sent into exile, and others executed.
During World War Two, Nazi Germany restored the monastery, but this did not prevent the Nazis from committing crimes on its territory. They killed about 500 civilians and blew up the Assumption Cathedral first built in 1073.
The ruins of the main temple of Kiev-Pechora Laura– Assumption (Uspensky) Cathedral, a gem of ancient Russian architecture. The cathedral was destroyed on November 3, 1941. © Sputnik/Anatoliy Garanin
After liberation from the Nazis, the Lavra finally had a period of respite and remained open in the 1950s. However, a new wave of persecutions began in 1961 when Nikita Khrushchev came to power, and the monastery was closed once again.
The condition of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra greatly deteriorated during the Soviet period. What used to be a large, rich monastery and one of the centers of Russian Orthodoxy became a complex of neglected, outdated historical buildings and a nature reserve.
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The alternative church of Ukraine
In post-Soviet Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) was the most popular and, importantly, the most legitimate church in the country. It theoretically submitted to Moscow, but in fact had the power to independently choose its leader and bishops, as well as establish and abolish dioceses. The clergy of Russia and Ukraine were united by the figure of the single Patriarch of Moscow and had close ties at the highest level. The UOC-MP, which recently shed the prefix MP, is the historical canonical church of Ukraine. Its history goes back to Saints. Anthony and Theodosius, the Lavra’s first monks and educators.
However, the last century left its imprint on Ukraine’s religious life, changing it beyond recognition and laying the foundation for the current conflict. What happened was that several other Orthodox churches existed in Ukraine, and all of them made a sudden comeback when the USSR collapsed.
In western Ukraine, there was the Greek Catholic Church. It formed as a result of the Union of Brest in 1596 when some of the Orthodox parishes swore allegiance to the Pope. This church has always been regional and in different times existed in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Austria-Hungary, and the Russian Empire. In the USSR, the Greek Catholic Church was abolished after World War Two, but its parishes and adherents remained. When the USSR collapsed, the church openly declared its rights.
The Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk officiates a funeral service. © Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The second church in Ukraine was The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. It appeared in the Soviet Union in the 1920s during the repressions against the Russian Orthodox Church, and was motivated by national sentiments. By the 1930s, it had been abolished by the Soviet authorities, but it too was revived in the 1990s.
Another church – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) – was established ‘from scratch’ in 1992. At that time, some of the priests, led by Metropolitan Filaret, who was later excommunicated, declared independence from Moscow and elected Filaret as their patriarch.
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However, the current conflict around the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra involves another, very young religious organization – the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was created in 2018 as a result of former Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko’s policies.
The OCU formed from the union of two schismatic churches – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). This happened with the aid of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who in fact didn’t possess the authority to interfere in the issues of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church severed ties.
Although the broader Orthodox world didn’t follow the example of the Russian Church, it generally didn’t side with Bartholomew either. Out of the 15 Orthodox churches, only four (the churches of Constantinople, Hellas, Cyprus, and Alexandria) recognized the legitimacy of the OCU. Most Orthodox churches do not have official ties with Ukraine’s new religious organization. However, pushed by the Ukrainian authorities, it is precisely the OCU that is now laying claim to one of Orthodoxy’s premier shrines.
The schismatic church has already made an appeal to the authorities and even appointed its own abbot of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra. For this new church that is barely five years old, the thousand-year-old monastery appears to be a matter of vital importance.
Archimandrite of the Schismatic Orthodox Church of Ukraine Avraamiy ‘appointed’ abbot of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra. © Orthodox Church of Ukraine
One of the issues for the OCU is that despite its growing popularity in the wake of nationalism and the seizure of UOC parishes, the new church has almost no monasteries. In 2022, the OCU had 6,981 parishes and 4,572 priests but only 79 monasteries and 233 monks across Ukraine. In contrast, the UOC had 12,148 parishes, 12,551 priests and 262 monasteries with 4,620 monks.
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The status of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra has been a pressing issue for quite some time. In 2022, raids were held on the territory of the shrine. The Security Service of Ukraine called this a necessary step to “prevent the use of the Lavra as a cell of the ‘Russian world’.”
By early spring of this year the situation had worsened. The Ukrainian authorities demanded the monks leave the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra by March 29 and to hand over all valuables so they could be inventoried. A petition was published on the website of the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers to support the clergy. The document noted that the Lavra’s current inhabitants have lived there since the Soviet times and rebuilt the shrine from ruins. Many of them put their lives and health into this endeavor. “The brutal eviction of the Lavra monks is an act of great injustice,” the petition stated.
Unfortunately, the appeal to the government was unsuccessful. The Ukrainian authorities said that since Soviet times the Lavra has been a nature reserve managed by the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine. The UOC has long rented the buildings, but the officials have now unilaterally terminated the lease agreement.
An aerial photo of the thousand-year-old Monastery of Caves, also known as Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the holiest site of Eastern Orthodox Christians, taken through morning fog during a sunrise in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. © AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka
After the eviction deadline specified by the Ukrainian authorities passed and the monks refused to leave the Lavra, tensions began mounting.
As early as March 30, a lawsuit was filed against the UOC for disrupting the work of the commission of the Ministry of Culture, which attempted to take an inventory of the Lavra’s property. On the same day, the Kiev Economic Court, to which the UOC appealed regarding the unilateral termination of the lease agreement, refused the church’s request not to evict the monks until the court verdict. Also on that day, the authorities declared invalid the order of Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers from back in 2013, which granted the UOC free use of the buildings and structures of the Lavra.
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However, the Ukrainian authorities dealt their main blow to the Lavra on April 1, when the abbot of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, Metropolitan Pavel, was sentenced by the Shevchenko Court of Kiev to 60 days of 24-hour house arrest and forced to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. He was charged with inciting interreligious hostility because of statements against the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ecumenical (Constantinople) Patriarch Bartholomew. Metropolitan Pavel faces up to eight years in prison.
Word for word
Mikhail Podoliak, adviser to the head of the office of President Zelensky, recently compared the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to “an abscess that needs to be removed.”He believed that at the outset of Moscow’s military operation, the Ukrainian government could have “physically removed the pro-Russians” with ease. Presently, he claims that it is more difficult to do so, but it is still possible.
Andrey Danilov, secretary of the National Security Council of Ukraine, gave public assurances that the Ukrainian authorities “will not physically drag the priests away by the beards,” but that the Lavra will be handed over to the state. Apparently, the faithful didn’t believe these assurances because several hundred people have kept vigil at the monastery to prevent the eviction of the monks.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian nationalists and supporters of the OCU keep gathering around the Lavra, provoking the monks and believers and disrupting their prayers. Their statements are growing increasingly radical. For example, commenting on the arrest of Metropolitan Pavel, one member of the mob said that this measure is insufficient: “He ought to be tied like a sheep, put on his knees in a forest, and shot in the head. And this video has to be shown in all the Russian media. There should be no talks, no house arrests, no law.”
Father-superior of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra monastery Metropolitan Pavel leaves the monastery, in Kiev, on November 30, 2018, following a statement. © Genya SAVILOV / AFP
However, despite the threatening situation, the monks have no intention of surrendering the Lavra. As the actions of the Ukrainian government and its supporters become more aggressive, the Church is becoming more courageous and outspoken.
Metropolitan Clement, one of the clergymen defending the Lavra, said that the OCU has no right to take ownership of the monastery. “Why should we hand it over to the people who have nothing to do with it? They did not establish it, they did not reconstruct it, they only destroyed it throughout all the previous years, and now they want to take it away from us.”
The Lavra’s arrested abbot hasn’t been shy about speaking out either. He addressed Zelensky with quite severe words: “To you and your pack I say – our tears will not fall to the ground, they will fall on your heads. Do you imagine that, coming to power on our backs, you are allowed to do such things? The Lord will not forgive either you or your families!”
By Georgii Tkachev, a Russian journalist from Moscow focused on politics and religion