PART 1: Ukraine’s Rich Religious Legacy Beckons The Faithful

Words by Peter Johansen
Photos by Oxana Sawka

After a turbulent few years of internal political change and tense relations with Russia, Ukraine is on the hunt for tourists seeking off-the-beaten-track experiences. The savviest of them will go before an inevitable boom leads to overcrowding and higher prices. That’s the takeaway for Open Jaw’s Peter Johansen after a week-long visit to three of Ukraine’s top destinations—Kyiv, Lviv and Chernobyl. He’ll share tips for travel advisors and their clients in a multi-part series.

testing titleChurch spires dominate the skylines of Kyiv, the national capital, and Lviv, the jewel of western Ukraine. For tourists who like exploring the great cathedrals of Europe—and some who’ve had their fill, thank you—these cities offer a fresh experience. After all, their churches arise from religious traditions seldom seen in more visited parts of Europe. 

A good starting point in Kyiv is St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, honouring the man who brought Christianity to Ukraine in the 900s. The neo-Byzantine building, capped by seven domes, was spared during the Soviet era; the Communists turned it into a museum for anti-religious propaganda instead. It’s now the main worship centre of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It took 30 years to build.  The original architect suffered a mental breakdown when the initial work began to crack.  

The cathedral that took 30 years to build features an elaborate interior meant to recreate the grandeur of ancient Kyivan Rus temples, with work by the leading painters of the day gracing walls and ceiling. Among the relics on display: the remains of St. Barbara, a 12th-century woman killed after refusing to renounce Christ. Today, single women touch her crypt in hopes she’ll find them a husband. 

The 11th-century St. Sophia Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the oldest Christian church in the city.  It survived raids, fires and other dangers. “I always tell people when they touch the walls, they touch eternity,” said our city guide, Anastasia Lazo of JC Travel. After a 1934 attempt to blow it up failed, she added, the faithful claimed that God intervened.  

In the 18thcentury, renovators painted over the original interior frescoes. Today, about half the original art has been successfully uncovered, so visitors can see two eras of décor at once. I was particularly impressed by an ancient six-metre mosaic behind the altar. It’s of the Virgin Mary, hands aloft to protect both church and city. It’s something of an artistic triumph. From the first floor, Mary appears to be standing; from the second, she’s kneeling.  

More than 7,000 graffiti in a dozen languages, dating back as far as the 12thcentury, give historical information written nowhere else—proving graffiti is nothing new.   

St. Andrew is the patron saint of Ukraine, just as he is of Scotland, and the church named for him is one of the most popular tourist experiences in Kyiv. Located at the end of Andriyivs'kyi Uzviz, Kyiv's answer to Montmartre and one of Eastern Europe’s oldest streets, there’s a bit of a climb up a broad staircase, as the Russian baroque building is built over a hill housing a water extraction system. A round-the-clock security guard ensures no one steals the copper plates covering the stairs. 

Designed by Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli between 1747 – 1754, it’s arguably the best example of a Baroque church in Ukraine. The pretty teal exterior is calming after running the gauntlet of straw-market stalls along the street below. Because of shifting ground, the foundations are cracking; it’s not open for the foreseeable future. But an exterior visit is a delight for the views alone.

Kyiv’s most unusual experience is undoubtedly Pechersk Lavra, another UNESCO World Heritage site. The sprawling organization played a key role in national historiography, music, publishing, medicine and more. It was established as a monastery in 1051 in a labyrinth of hand-carved caves, though the monks eventually moved to ground level to accommodate growing numbers of pilgrims.

The pious still traipse through the caves, where 126 saints are buried, some with well-preserved hands sticking through richly embroidered shrouds; the faithful bend to kiss the glass-topped coffins.  Tourists are permitted to join them, lit tapers in hand to provide visibility. It’s especially busy on weekends and just before mass is performed.

The Russian Orthodox cathedral was blown up by the Soviets in 1941, so what you see today wasn’t completed until 2000. Still, it’s a stunning artistic achievement, decorated inside and out with religious scenes reflective of an earlier era—but vivid and fresh. The front of the church has 19 portraits of religious figures, from Biblical figures to saints; the interior has ornate gilded walls and a dome fresco depicting heaven that’s worthy of Da Vinci. 

In Lviv, there’s much of special interest from Jewish traditions. At one time, one-third of Lviv’s population was Jewish. Today it’s just 1,900 in a city of 730,000. All but four of the city’s 35 synagogues were destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Janowska, one of Ukraine’s numerous slave labour camps, was nearby. One of the interns there was Simon Wiesenthal, who helped track down Adolf Eichmann.    

His story is just one of those examined beside the gates to Lviv’s former Jewish ghetto on Chornovola Street.

On one side of the street is a plaza carrying stories of  Holocaust victims and Nazi officers implicated in their persecution. Behind it is the Territory of Terror Museum, scheduled to open by year’s end. In addition to reproducing a typical labour camp, complete with watchtowers, barracks and an authentic rail car used to transport prisoners, there will be small exhibits.  

Across the street is a memorial to the Holocaust. Israeli sculptor Luiza Shterenshtein designed the imposing copper centrepiece, a statue of an allegorical figure looking skyward in both suffering and supplication.  Symbolic gravestones lie nearby.

One of Lviv’s demolished synagogues was the Golden Rose; on the ground it once occupied, another memorial to Holocaust victims opened two years ago. It was controversial—some wanted to rebuild a synagogue there instead—but I was moved by the multilingual stories carved into a series of black marble slabs, reminiscent of tombstones. 

A number of companies offer tours of these and other sites related to Jewish history.

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