Orthodox America

  The Kiev Caves Lavra: Then and Now

    The influence of the Kiev Caves Lavra upon the spiritual and cultural development of Russia can hardly be exaggerated. [1] It was founded not long after the Baptism of Rus', and nurtured the emerging Christian state from its very infancy. Even with the transfer of the capital first to Moscow and then to Petersburg, the significance of the Caves Lavra was only briefly eclipsed during the course of its long history, until it was forcibly closed by the Soviets in 1924.

    In the decades that followed, the atheist authorities fostered a deliberate lack of respect towards the Russian national heritage and tried--sometimes with the help of guns and bulldozers--to suppress manifestations of its strong Orthodox identity: priceless national treasures of art and architecture were destroyed or left to deteriorate. Nor could the Kiev Caves Lavra--such a stunning monument to Russia' s 1000--year Orthodox history --escape such a fate. But more recent times have brought an awakening of national consciousness: generations raised in an historical and cultural void are searching for their roots; stimulated by a spiritual hunger, there is a growing--almost frantic--appreciation for the past; and in the process, the significance of the Kiev Caves Lavra is being rediscovered.

    The Monastery's spiritual success was rooted in its humble beginnings. The chronicler justly observes that "many monasteries have indeed been founded by emperors and nobles and magnates, but they are not such as those founded by tears, fasting, prayer and vigil. Anthony had neither gold nor silver, but he accomplished his purpose through fasting and prayer."

    Upon this solid foundation there grew a whole host of spiritual warriors whose exploits are extolled in the pages of the Kiev Caves Patericon, where the early history of the Monastery is recorded. There, the monk Polycarp writes in his preface of the abundance of God's Grace in the monastery, "in which, at one time, there were about thirty men who could drive away demons by a single word."

    Originally a labyrinthion complex of caves with connecting passages, the monastery seen moved above ground where it grew to occupy nearly 60 acres. The monastery had its own bakery, candle factory, workshops of every description, icon painting studio, hospital, orphanage, guest house, power plant (although, until the Revolution only candles were used in the churches); it had its own gardens and an underground storehouse five stories deep! The monastery also had its own print shop equipped with the most modern presses which provided materials for the monastery's extensive missionary work. It possessed a superb library, and was distinguished as a center of theological study. From its ranks of monks came many of Russia's most illustrious hierarchs.

    For centuries, the Caves Monastery was a spiritual beacon which attracted thousands of pilgrims annually from all corners of Russia; many came on foot. They prayed before the relics of the dead who reposed in the caves, and received counsel from the living; they attended the long and majestic monastic services and refreshed their spirits in the atmosphere of peace and sanctity which reigned within the monastery's walls. 


    Obviously, the Soviets could not tolerate the existence of such a popular spiritual center which epitomized the Holy Russia they sought to trample underfoot. They did not risk an uproar by liquidating it at once. Rather, the monastery was submitted to a gradual process of closure, vandalism, neglect and decay. Its present state was exposed not long ago in the pages of the popular Moscow magazine "Ogonyok" (Sept. 1987). The article, written in the interest of cultural preservation, reflects the concern shared by a growing number of people that unless substantial measures are taken, and soon, this national treasure will be irrevocably lost to history. (The article, as it appears below, was condensed by Keston College.)


Lamentable Conditions 

    The "Kiev Caves state historical-cultural preserve" includes over 100 stone buildings, of which half are historical and cultural monuments. But their leasing to over thirty enterprises, many of which use vehicles and heavy machinery on the premises, has resulted in considerable damage.

    A bus garage now stands in front of the Church of the Saviour. The church's 12th century fresco of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes (first discovered during a holiday celebration when a nearby cannon salvo' dislodged the overlying plaster) is now threatened by water that has been allowed to accumulate in the church.

    The famous caves, in which medieval monks lived and were buried, have been damaged by throngs of visitors. Yet they have never been properly studied. When they housed a monastery, the monks would close them during foul weather; now, however, they are left open year round. Visitors must literally hop over piles of dirt and rubbish that have accumulated in the passages.

    The authorities' predilection for glamorous large-scale projects instead of fundamental work is exemplified by the attempted rebuilding of the Dormition Cathedral, destroyed by an explosion in 1941. It also illustrates another problem. According to project consultant O.P. Silin, experimentation with piles sunk into the ground in order to strengthen the foundations has apparently resulted in cracks in the walls of nearby buildings. The 24 piles have disturbed the underlying soil, causing damage to other structures. The museum of books has had to be evacuated from the building of the old printing press.

    The author suggests that geological studies be completed, and some unanimity on the question of reinforcing the Cathedral's foundations be reached, before rebuilding is begun. Furthermore, he asks whether it would not be more sensible to complete preparatory studies for the restoration of the entire Monastery complex, and to begin the over-all restoration itself, before re-building the Cathedral. Meanwhile, the excavated remains of the building have been left exposed to the winter weather and to the danger of landslide. 


An Appeal for the Return of the Caves Monastery to the Church 

To: The General Secretary of the CPSU, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev

Copies: His Holiness Patriarch Pimen; the episcopate of the Russian Orthodox Church; the chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs, Kharchev


Dear Mikhaii Sergeerich:

     In 1961 the major holy shrine and most ancient cultural center of our nation, the Kiev Caves Dormition Lavra, was closed, allegedly for repairs. More than a quarter of a century has passed since that time, yet the monastery stands with no visible signs of any repair work. Its main holy center and pride of our national architecture, the Cathedral of the Dormition, lies in ruins. The closer caves remain in an unsatisfactory condition, and many of the farther caves are boarded up altogether. To a believing heart, this is a place of particular pain. Wherever you look here, you see only spiritual neglect. Guides roam around with groups of tourists, recounting derisive, nonsensical falsehoods about monks, holy relic s and the Church. This may make the tourists laugh, but believers feel offended and angry.

    In the caves, holy relics lie untended and ignored: some have disappeared altogether, leaving only tombs and inscriptions. In some of the niches, unrelated relics are thrown together in an untidy, uncovered pile, drawing bewildered looks from foreign visitors who pass by--Poles, Frenchmen, Germans, Americans, Englishmen. They may be unaware of the significance of that which we deem holy, but in their own countries they do not make mock of the mortal remains of their forebears, nor would they allow others to do so.

    At all times and among all peoples, ancestors' graves have been sacrosanct, to the Scythians, too. Yet why is it not so among us now, why do we permit the desecration of that, which is holy?

    I have visited the Kiev Lavra many times since its closure, and each time I was outraged and grieved by what I saw and heard. Some believe wrongly that all these disgraceful activities are nothing more than a manifestation of atheist propaganda and anti-religious methodology, but I see it as sacrilege and, not least, an affront to the feelings of religious believers. Tour guides estimate that some 6,000- 8,000 tourists pass through the monastery each day. and in the summer months this figure can exceed 10,000. Overall, around 2 million people visit the monastery every year, and they all hear the unseemly commentaries of certain malicious tongued guides: what vile poison, what evil they pour into people's souls!

    By the Grace of God, the Russian Orthodox Church and our entire country will celebrate the millennium of the Christianization of Rus' in 1988. This is a great and sacred date for us all. Shall we greet this anniversary in the Kiev Monastery of the Caves to the sound of the disgraceful fantasies propagated by tour guides, or shall we, finally, pay due homage to our glorious forebears and show ourselves worthy of them? To the best of my knowledge, contemporary honest and conscientious historians no longer reject the fact that the Christionization had a positive influence on the development of our nation, on its culture, morality, politics, economics, on family life and other spheres of human endeavor. We would be guilty of unforgivable ingratitude if, at the time of this great jubilee, we neglected to pay due respect to those, whose mortal remains lie in the Kiev Caves, those humble monks and honest toilers who labored selflessly to bring the light of book learning to our people, the light of peace, love and unity of Holy Russia. Truly, we shall be unworthy of them if we leave the monastery in ruins and ashes at such atime.

     In 1946, when the Rila monastery was celebrating its millennium, the Bulgarian leader Georgi Dmitrov stated: "Beyond any shadow of doubt, there would have been no democratic Bulgaria of the people's front today were it not for our monasteries, such as this one. In the dark times of bondage it was they who safeguarded national feeling, national hope and the national pride of the Bulgarian people." The Kiev Monastery of the Caves has done a great deal more for us, for our nation, for its national development, character and national awareness than the Rila monastery ever did for the Bulgarians.

   Our first historians, scientists, doctors, craftsmen and artists lived and worked here: Nestor, Iakov, Nikon, Ioann, Agapit, Alipi, Damian. Over the centuries, many prominent public figures, writers, men of learning and painters had close links with the Kiev Lavra: Yelisei Pletenetsky, Zakhari Kopystensky, Igor Boretsky, Petr Mogila, Innokenti Gizei, and many others. It was the source of spiritual strength for the Ukrainian cossacks who time and again defended not only the Ukraine, but Russia, too, against Tatar, Turkish and other aggressions from without. Now this shrine waits for the appearance of its own Georgi Dmitrov, someone who will express gratitude instead of insult and calumny.

    I have heard that lay believers and clergy have already appealed to you for the reopening of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves in conjunction with the jubilee marking the millennium of the Christianization of Rus', a date which has direct relevance to the Lavra. I venture to join my voice to theirs, for I feel that it would be unseemly to exclude from the festivities those, who are their primary cause.

    By reopening the Kiev Caves Monastery you, Mikhail Sergeyevich, would present a splendid gift not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, but to our country as a whole, and we would offer grateful prayers to the Lord for peace through the world, for your well being and long life, and wish you success in all your commendable deeds and peacemaking endeavors.

    I should also like to take this opportunity to suggest that as well as reopening the above-mentioned monastery, it is vital to give the Church leadership the possibility to preserve those monasteries already in the possession of the Church. Many of them are in dire straits because local authorities have reduced to the barest minimum the number of residence permits issued to those wishing to embark upon monastic life within their walls. It requires tremendous effort to secure one or two residence permits for monks and nuns to replace ten or twelve who have died. The Florovsky convent in Kiev and the Pochaev Lavra are cases in point.

     It is my sincere belief that you, Mikhail Sergeyevich, will do everything possible for the triumph of truth and for a worthy celebration of the glorious thousandth anniversary of the Christionization of Rus'.

                      With deep respect, Feodosi, Archbishop of Astrakhan and Yenotayevsk

(Translation courtesy of Keston College)

[1]See the excellent article, "The Kiev Caves Monastery" by Liudmila Koehler, in Orthodox Life No. 6. 1985 and No. 1, 1986

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