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St Volodymyr's Cathedral in Kyiv
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St Volodymyr's Cathedral in Kyiv

    Grey domes of the cathedral can be seen from afar. St Volodymyr's does not seem lost among the high-rises of Kyiv. In the 19-th century, it was even more conspicuous among much lower houses in its neighbourhood. The site for the church was carefully chosen - right in the centre of "the Mother of all Russky towns," as Kyiv is often called in the mediaeval chronicles. Such a central place was meant to emphasize the importance of a church that was to be devoted to Volodymyr, the Kyiv ruler who brought Christianity to the lands he ruled.
St Volodymyr's interior with the central iconostasis     St Volodymyr's architecture bears witness to several cultural influences. One can find in the cathedral's design stylized elements of the Byzantine, ancient Rus-Ukrai-nian, Russian (of the second half of the nineteenth century) and West European architecture. Most surprisingly, all these disparate elements coalesced into an integral union which makes true a popular Kyiv saying: "If you have not seen St Volodymyr's, you have not seen Kyiv."

Under the threat of destruction
     This marvel survived two world wars, one revolution and one civil war. But it almost succumbed to the atheistic zeal of the top Soviet communist party officials in 1934.
     In the twenties and early thirties the capital of Ukraine was Kharkiv, not Kyiv. In 1934, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, decided that the status of capital should be returned to Kyivand the Ukrainian government was moved from Kharkiv to Kyiv. When one of the top communist party officials saw from the railroad terminal square a majestic church sitting proudly on top of the hill and towering above all the structures Virgin Mary and Child by M. Nesterov around it, he asked what kind of "monastery" it was. When he was told that it was StVolodymyr's Cathedral, he said: "We don't need any churches in Kyiv. It must be a truly socialist town." It is not known for sure what prevented the local authorities from fulfilling "the ukase." One of the stories has it, that it was Mikhail Nesterov, one of the artists who took part in decorating the cathedral with wall-paintings several decades before, who interceded with Stalin for the cathedral, and Stalin called off the demolition (Nesterov by that time had be come a thoroughly Soviet painter abiding by the laws of "socialist realism"; he painted much admired complimentary portraits of Soviet and communist party officials, for which he was even given a special award named after Stalin).
Baptism of the Kyivans by V. Vasnetsov      Though the cathedral was not demolished, it did not mean it could function as a church. First, it was turned into a "museum of atheism," then archives of the local authorities were kept in it. Still later, it was used as a book depository of a teachers' training college. The outrage against the church, perpetrated by "the builders of the glorious communist future," stopped only in 1944, when "the best friend of physical culture enthusiasts, father of nations" (that is how Stalin was often referred to by the then servile press; there were hundreds more of appellations in the same vein) realized that the hardships of war called for a partial reestablishment of the Orthodox Christian Church. St Volodymyr's was given the status of "the Cathedral Church of the Metropolitan of Kyiv and of Halychyna, Exarch of Ukraine. "Certain restrictions were imposed though on the priests who were not free to conduct religious service whenever the church traditions demanded them, but had to inform the authorities first of "such a necessity." It was only in 1992, after Ukraine gained independence that St Volodymyr's at long last resumed fully functioning as a house of worship. Now it is "the Cathedral Church of Filaret, Patriarch of Kyiv and all Rus-Ukraine of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate."

Design and decoration
Virgin Mary with Child; icon, 19th century      The original design was presented by I.Shtorm who envisioned St Volodymyr's as a giant building with thirteen domes. The design was rejected for several reasons. Some other architects, among them O.Beretti, one of the leading nineteenth-century architects of Kyiv, and V.Nikolayev, a talented architect of vast experience, were commissioned. The construction began in 1862 and it took 34 years to complete all the work. A.Prakhov, an art historian and archaeologist, was commissioned to take care of the interior decoration of the Cathedral. It was Prakhov who worked out the general principles of interior decoration for St Volodymyr's. Prakhov commissioned excellent painters, who could cope in the best way possible with an extremely difficult task of creating on the interior walls of the cathedral religious art that would be 'modern' and yet would not part with the established traditions. V.Vasnetsov, known for his religious and fairy-tale pictures, was entrusted with painting the Virgin Maria with Child in the cen tral apse of the cathedral. M.Nesterov created a number of wall-paintings in the side naves and in the gallery. He Jesus Christ the Saviour by M. Nesterov was a master of elegant compositions full of lyrical feeling, executed in refined colours. Decorative elements in the right nave were painted by M.Vrubel. Among the painters invited to help with the interior decoration of the cathedral were also V.Zamyraylo, S.kostenko, M.Pymonenko, two Polish painters - V.Kotarbinsky, P.Swedomsky, and others.

The great aesthetic value
Baptism of Grand Duke Volodymyr by V. Vasnetsov     The religious wall painting and architecture of St Volodymyr's are visual attractions of this church. The aesthetic qualities are enhanced by the fact that the relics of two saints are kept in the cathedral. St. Varvara was a Greek girl martyred in the early 4th century, and St Makariy was a fifteenth-century Ukrainian Metropolitan.
    Varvara was an 18-year-old beauty and a devout unwavering Christian, the only daughter of a wealthy and prominent pagan. Torture was used to make her abandon her Christian faith but she did not. Her stoic and adamant persistence enraged her torturers and her own father cut her head off. After her death, Varvara's body remained imperishable. Ailing worshipers reported cases of miraculous healing in the presence of the relics, and soon the fame of St Varvara spread throughout the Christian world.
    Makariy, who was the Archimandrite of the Troyitsky (Holy Trinity) Church in Lithuania, was promoted to be Metropolitan of Kyiv. On the way to Kyiv, he stopped in a Belorussian village to rest and pray in the local church. Right after he started the liturgy, the village was raided by a horde of the Crimean Tartars. The courageous priest urged the congregation to escape and hide. He himself stayed in the church and tried to negotiate with the raiders but was mercilessly slain right near the altar. His holy imperishable remains were brought to Kyiv and placed in the Holy Sophia Cathedral of Kyiv. When the atheistic Bolshevik authorities turned Sophia into a museum, the relics were transferred to St Volodymyr's where they have been resting ever since.
Last Judgement by V. Vasnetsov     All the patriarchs and many top hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church conducted religious service in St Volodymyr's. Hardly any other church in Ukraine can claim the same. And the choral singing in St Volodymyr's on religious holidays is unparalleled in its magnificence and moving power in the whole of Ukraine. Opera singers are invited to join the choristers and priests in singing during the service on big religious holidays. The service is conducted in Ukrainian and it annoys the enemies of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church who think that this church should have stayed within the Russian Orthodox Church.
    The St Volodymyr's Cathedral has withstood all the calamities and remained a beacon of faith. It is evidently under God's protection. Its architecture, its religious art, its sanctity gives the worshipper and casual visitor alike an emotional and devotional uplift.

By Andriy VLASENKO, Orthodox priest,
Viktor KYRKEVYCH, expert in the history of Kyiv,
Serhiy KARDASH, historian
Photographs by Serhiy POZHARSKY