Historic St. Michael's Golden-Domed Sobor is rebuilt

by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau

KYIV - With the placing of a two-meter Byzantine cross on its largest cupola, the construction phase of the rebuilding of the historic 12th century St. Michael's Golden-Domed Sobor in Kyiv was completed on November 21.

The restoration of the ancient church and monastery is one of two current efforts by the Kuchma administration to rebuild Ukraine's most important architectural and cultural symbols destroyed by communism and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during his reign of terror over Ukraine in the 1930s.

The other project is the reconstruction of the 11th century Uspenskyi (Dormition) Sobor of the Kyivan Cave Monastery complex (Pecherska Lavra). In a celebration of the beginning of construction of that Ukrainian landmark also held on November 21, the president placed a time capsule in the cornerstone of the edifice.

With his economic reform efforts continuing to sputter, the rebuilding of the two historic landmarks could well be the legacy President Kuchma leaves Ukraine.

Speaking before hundreds of onlookers on a brisk, sun-drenched November morning, with the six gilt-covered cupolas of St. Michael's Golden-Domed Sobor gleaming in the background, President Kuchma called on Ukrainians to unite around their common historical and religious past.

"Each one should choose his road to this church. Take the path, leaving along it manifestations of good will and generosity. Let everyone make their contribution to this holy matter, which will become the symbol of national unity among all the [government] branches of power, churches, entrepreneurs, bankers, regular citizens - a union of all Ukrainians of the world," said the president.

The national and local Kyiv governments have made it clear that they intend to return St. Michael's to its place as the center of spiritual life in Ukraine - a position the monastery held until it was first disassembled and then blown up on the orders of Stalin as he worked to crush Ukrainian culture and spiritualism, and its intelligentsia, in the 1930s.

The monastery complex was once one of the meccas of the Orthodox world, explained Ruslan Kukharenko, head of the Kyiv City Department for the Protection of Historical Treasures, during a tour of the monastery grounds organized for journalists. In the 16th to 19th centuries visitors on religious pilgrimages would stay at the monastery complex while attending services at some of the hundreds of churches located in Kyiv at the time.

Mykola Orlenko, who is in charge of the construction project, called St. Michael's "a pearl of Orthodoxy."

Today Mr. Orlenko is working to rekindle that legacy, to return the grounds to their appearance in the late 19th century, when the church was last rebuilt. The architectural design is 19th century baroque and mirrors that of the church that stood on this spot until it was mined in 1936 by fervent Communists on Stalin's orders. The design was computer-rendered based on 19th century photographs and drawings.

More than $12 million has been budgeted for the reconstruction of the monastery site, which in addition to the sobor will include two dormitories for monks and an already completed bell tower with a modern carillon system.

Also finished is Mykhailivskyi Square, in front of the 46-meter-high bell tower, alongside which stands a memorial to the victim's of Stalin's artificially induced famine of 1932, and a promenade that unites the monastery with the historic St. Sophia Sobor about 300 meters to the north.

The second stage of the restoration process, the painting of the interior walls and the construction of the iconostasis, will take a year and should be completed by late 1999, in time for the official opening of the monastery complex during celebrations of the second millennium of Christianity.

The church, unlike St. Sophia's which today is a museum, will hold regular religious services. For that reason, many of the icons, mosaics and frescoes that were saved during a three-day effort by Orthodox faithful in 1936 prior to the monastery's destruction will not be moved into the new church. Today these artifacts are held either at the Kyivan Cave Monastery complex or at St. Sophia.

However, other religious objects that belonged to the church, some of which were deposited in the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow after 1936, will be returned, according to Mr. Kukharenko.

Much of the church will be filled with new frescoes and mosaics, constructed according to the style and canonical techniques of the 12th century. The iconostasis will be built by experts out of linden wood, which is now being aged.

The six cupolas that adorn the top of the sobor's exterior were assembled using a unique design system. First, a metal structure was built and covered with wood, which was then overlaid with copper. Now a 12-step process is being utilized to gild the cupolas with more than four kilograms of gold.

The designers of the bell tower, which was opened to the public in May, decided that it should contain more than cold iron bells. "The bell tower is not simply a cultural object, it is a cultural symbol," explained Mr. Kukharenko. "We could have made it a hollow shell, but that was not the purpose, that it simply exist."

The planners filled the four floors of the structure with a museum devoted to the history of the monastery and old Kyiv; a chapel dedicated to the victims of the 1932-1933 Great Famine; and, of course, the bells, the largest of which weigh 84 tons, all of which can be rung manually or by a high-tech carillon system. The front exterior wall of the bell tower also contains a clock that is considered one of the most accurate in the Orthodox world.

Although the rebuilding of the church and monastery to their historical image is a remarkable feat, perhaps even more amazing is the archaeological trove that was discovered on the grounds during archaeological digs from 1994 to 1996.

Yurii Ivakin, chief archaeologist for the site, said that more than 260 valuable ancient artifacts were recovered during excavations. In addition, a portion of the ancient church still intact was uncovered, which today makes up a part of the current church's basement.

Another exceptional and unexpected find was the remains of another ancient church that stood between St. Michael's and the nearby St. Vasyl's Church (also known as Three Saints Church). Mr. Ivakin said that experts have yet to find any historical record that such a church existed.

The history of St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery is, in a sense, the history of Kyiv and Ukraine. The monastery has been ransacked and destroyed numerous times through the ages, including during the Tatar invasion of the 13th century.

Most recently, it was a decision by Stalin to transfer the capital of Ukraine from Kharkiv to Kyiv and make the area marked by the churches of St. Vasyl, St. Michael and St. Sophia the new government center, which once again doomed the church.

The plan envisaged the destruction of the three churches along with the monument to Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Two buildings placed in a half circle, between which was to stand a huge monument to Lenin, were to be built on the site of St. Michael's and St. Vasyl's. A huge demonstration promenade was to extend past St. Sophia Sobor.

St. Sophia was saved by an international group in Paris that effectively voiced its disapproval of the destruction of the oldest existing church of the Kyivan Rus' empire. St. Michael's and St. Vasyl's were not.

However, the plan for the government center was never fully realized. Only one of the two government buildings was ever built. Today it stands on the spot once occupied by St. Vasyl's and houses Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, November 29, 1998, No. 48, Vol. LXVI

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