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IDEAS

This ancient monastery in Kyiv is at the heart of Putin’s spurious rationale for the war in Ukraine

Rich in lore and steeped in mysticism, the 11th-century Caves Monastery is a treasure of unparalleled cultural importance.

The 1,000-year old Caves Monastery, one of the world's holiest sites for Eastern Orthodox Christianity, in Kyiv, Ukraine.Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

With its priceless relics and sacred past, there is arguably no holier place in Kyiv than the Kyivan Caves Monastery. Below a cluster of golden onion domes aboveground, monks lived, worked, and died in a labyrinth of caves. A place of constant prayer since the 11th century, it remains an active Eastern Orthodox Christian monastery. “The significance of the site cannot be overstated,” says Susana Torres Prieto, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute. “Regardless of which politician wants to claim it in the 21st century, all the culture that illuminated that part of the world came from that little cave — it is phenomenal.”

The complex of buildings above the cave network includes churches and museums that house holy relics. It also contains such historical artifacts as a 4th-century-BCE Scythian breastplate, excavated in 1971 and made by ancient Greek masters. Its intricate depiction of animals, nature, and daily life is considered one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

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A UNESCO world heritage site and one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine, the Caves Monastery is rich with lore and steeped in mysticism. Though I have never been to the monastery — a source of particular heartbreak for me, given the time I devoted to studying it from afar and the war that now threatens to destroy it — one can “visit” virtually. Glimpses reveal that monks’ remains line the grotto walls in glass coffins. Their bodies are covered in green burial shrouds. Here and there, a shriveled arm sticks out. In Orthodox tradition, this is evidence of holiness, as saints don’t decay.

Harlow Robinson, emeritus professor of history at Northeastern University, remembers visiting the Caves Monastery in 1971 as part of the Yale Russian chorus. “It was one of the most otherworldly experiences I’ve ever had,” he says, recalling the narrow maze of underground cells illuminated only by candlelight.

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Earlier this month, a priest lit a candle in the catacombs below the Caves Monastery. LYNSEY ADDARIO/NYT

Despite the Soviet prohibition against the performance of Orthodox music, Robinson’s chorus braved a spontaneous rendition of “Blessed Is the Man,” an Orthodox liturgical chant. A guard smiled and gave the group a thumbs up. “It was incredibly meaningful to be singing this hymn that had arisen on that spot 1,000 years ago,” says Robinson.

After Muslims recaptured Jerusalem at the end of the 12th century, the caves became a vital pilgrimage site for Christians. It was from the caves that the idea of Kyiv as a “second Jerusalem” emerged. The monastery was also a key component of the political sphere, with princes taking monastic vows at the end of their lives, according to Olenka Pevny, associate professor of premodern Slavonic and Ukrainian studies at the University of Cambridge in England.

“By overcoming worldly desires, the monastics achieve not just closeness with God but also a power to speak in their society. To stand up for the regular people and for good,” Pevny says.

That we know so much about the Caves Monastery is because of the “Paterik” (“Pateryk,” in modern Ukrainian), a 13th-century collection of tales written by monks. The colorful narratives feature demons and temptations, miracles and magic. They include stories about the monastery’s founding that count among my personal favorites.

In one of them, the Viking Simon, who converted to Christianity, has two visions of building a church, one while at sea during a storm and the other on a riverside battlefield. The twin visions emerge in the sky and foretell the construction of the monastery in this 1989 translation by Muriel Heppell:

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Consider, brethren, the church’s foundation and origin: our Father from on high gave His blessing through the dew, the pillar of fire, and the translucent cloud; the Son gave the measurements with His belt . . . and the Holy Spirit with immaterial fire dug a trench for laying the foundations. On this rock the Lord founded this church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

“Gates of hell” seems an apt metaphor for the present day in Kyiv. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, capturing the city is of paramount importance because it is home to two of the founding institutions of the ancient federation known as Kyivan Rus’ — the Cathedral of St. Sophia and the Caves Monastery. As his war transforms Kyiv into a hellscape, I have contemplated the centrality of Kyivan Rus’ to Putin’s thinking.

Kyivan Rus’, a collection of principalities of which Kyiv was capital, emerged in the 9th century and endured until Mongols sacked the city in 1240. Diverse and multiethnic, it has its own distinctive history, one that is marked by close ties to the West and the North. The princes of Rus’ embraced their Viking origins and maintained close connections with Scandinavian rulers. Kyivan Rus’ was also tied to Western Europe through trade and intermarriage. “It was thoroughly integrated into Europe,” says Paul Hollingsworth, a specialist in medieval East Slavic history affiliated with Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute.

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Despite the fact that Kyivan Rus’ existed centuries before Moscow did, Putin has an obsession with portraying ancient Rus’, including the Caves Monastery, as “belonging” to Russia. This is as preposterous as it would be for the United States to try to take over the United Kingdom on the grounds that it’s where our culture comes from, Pevny says. The lands that formed Kyivan Rus’ are part of not only modern-day Russia and Ukraine but also Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus, a fact that causes many in those countries to wonder if they could be next on Putin’s list.

As Putin wages war on the ground in Ukraine, he is fighting a war of disinformation at home, attempting to delegitimize Ukrainian sovereignty by making connections between Kyivan Rus’ and the modern Russian state.

“This is the key question of this war,” says Pevny. “In the Middle Ages, there were no modern nations, there was no Russia. The problem is that for a very long time, we tried to simplify things. We referred to the Soviet Union as Russia, to Rus’ as Russia. So in a way, we propagated this narrative.”

Putin is animated not by facts or chronological history but by the idea that there is a mythic, unified Russia that has been fragmented and must be pieced back together. How reducing Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine to rubble and causing widespread slaughter — including sacrificing his own soldiers — advances the Russian president’s imperialist goals is lost on me.

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There is not much I can do to quell my anxiety about what happens next in Ukraine. But every day, I check the livestream from the Kyivan Caves Monastery. The monks’ chanting is a soothing — and unbroken — river of voices that reaches back 10 centuries. I watch, and I listen, and I hope.

Julie Zigoris is a San Francisco-based writer with a PhD in Slavic languages and literature.