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 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
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).
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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