Chernihiv Region: a Hero City, Subterranean Temples, and Outstanding Inventors

Chernihiv region (Ukr. oblast) is an ancient province boasting a wealth of history, architecture, and, of course, people who have significantly affected the world history. Natives of the region asserted influence over space technology, filmmaking, and even Beethoven’s music. Today this region once again nurtures outstanding personalities. They were the ones who prevented the enemy from conquering that land, situated right in the way of the invaders.

The Hero City

Chernihiv is one of the oldest cities in Ukraine, with its first written record dating back to 907 AD. Branded as the City of Legends for its ancient history, it has its citizens retelling, with a certain degree of self-deprecating humor, the local tales about ghosts, ghouls, and mysterious silver idols. The river of Desna and the surrounding forests only add to the atmosphere of enchantment. For centuries, the city was in the whirlwind of life, being the heart of the shire that made a worthy competition to even Kyiv and went on to blossom in the Cossack era. In the final decades of the Russian Empire, Chernihiv was one of the strongest nurturers of Ukrainian culture. In the times of Ukraine’s independence, the city actively developed, with the downtown undergoing restoration and cafes and restaurants popping out here and there. That, however, was about to change in 2022.

After the full-scale war broke out, Chernihiv halted the advance of Russian troops headed for Kyiv. Effectively besieged, the city had been suffering shelling bombardments for weeks. The Russian army annihilated several iconic locations in the city, including the Central Stadium, a children’s library nearby, and the famous Hotel Ukraine in the very center. Chernihiv repeatedly lost power supply, water supply, and communication, while several city districts and suburban villages were half destroyed — yet the city stood strong, and the Russians were forced to flee the region. On March 6, 2022, in order to celebrate the feat, mass heroism, and resilience of the citizens, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy bestowed the title of Hero City upon Chernihiv.

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Coined Importance

Rus, with its capital in Kyiv, was one of the most powerful medieval states. However, it had long been unclear whether the state minted its own coins, invoking lasting arguments among scholars. Those disputes ended with a discovery of a treasure in Nizhyn, near Chernihiv, the city of utmost importance in that ancient state.

In 1852, a son of a local peasant unearthed a pot containing about 200 coins, which a local government official started selling out. One of those coins found its way to scholars, who hurried to Chernihiv region with a mission to recover the scattered treasure.

It turned out that the pot contained the largest collection of sribnyks, unique silver coins minted in Rus over the 10th and 11th centuries, nailing the proof that as early as a thousand years ago there was a powerful and developed state on the territory of Ukraine. Furthermore, sometime later a treasure of zlatnyks (gold coins minted in Rus) was found. However, only two of such zlatnyks remained on the lands that produced them, as the rest of those coins were, at different times, taken away to Russia, even though the earliest Russian coins were minted only four centuries later after those minted in Kyiv.

Noteworthy, the tryzub (Ukr. trident) was one of the most oft-used symbols on those silver and gold coins. It was also found on seals, weapons, manuscripts, etc. Today, this symbol is the basis of Ukraine’s coat of arms.

Unique Church Architecture

The ancient land of the Chernihiv region boasts dozens of magnificent temples, some of which being a thousand years old. Take the 11th-century Spaso-Preobrazhenskyi (Eng. Transfiguration) Cathedral, one of the oldest monumental masonry buildings in Ukraine. Another almost-millennium-old temple is the Uspenskyi (Eng. Dormition) Cathedral of Yeletskyi Monastery, where Chernihiv’s first printed book Perlo Mnohotsinnoie (Eng. Pearl of Many Values), a collection of reflections on morals and religion, was published in 1646. It was written in old Ukrainian literary language, with speckles of vernacular language here and there. 

The 12th-century Saints Borys and Hlib Cathedral is also known for its 1702 Holy gate commissioned by Hetman Ivan Mazepa. The legend goes that silver for the 3.5 m [~11.5 ft] masterpiece was obtained by smelting a silver pagan idol found on the construction site.

The town of Sedniv, in turn, is home to a remarkable incarnation of old Ukrainian architects’ ingenuity, a wooden St. George’s Church erected without a single nail. When the Bolsheviks took over Ukraine, the place of worship endured the tragedy — the parish was forcefully dismissed and the church was closed down. The clamor from academic circles was disregarded, and for almost seventy years the church just stood there, unattended, falling into decay. It was only after Ukraine’s independence that the church finally underwent reconstruction.

A Millennium-Old Subterranean Complex

Chernihiv boasts another unique temple merely visible from the outside.

In 983, a man named Antony, destined to become a prominent church figure, was born in the Chernihiv region. Twice he undertook a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the center of monastic life, and then returned to the Ukrainian lands and settled down in a cave near Kyiv. His clothes were coarse, his diet consisted of plant food, and his lifestyle was exceptionally humble and solitary. Still, that’s exactly what drew people to him, and soon disciples started coming in flocks and making caves for themselves. Today, this place is known as one of the most important Christian sanctuaries, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.

However, Antony later resettled to Chernihiv and, out of habit, dug himself another cave, later expanded to an entire subterranean monastery complex, known as St. Antony’s Caves. The 350-m [1,148.3 ft] underground passages branch out to living quarters, necropolises, and several churches. One of those churches, the Feodosius Totemsky Temple has a ceiling height of 10 m [~33 ft] and is considered Ukraine’s largest subterranean temple.

Antony of the Caves lived a life of almost 90 years and was revered as a saint almost immediately after his death. Today, he is canonized by both the Orthodox and the Catholics. A semi-legendary story goes that they once tried to move the famous ascetic’s remains to Moscow, but when it came to bringing that plan to life, flames and water reportedly burst from the ground, preventing the relics from being taken.

The Entire Town’s Massacre

At present, the town of Baturyn has a small population of 2,000, but in the old days it used to be one of the Ukrainian cities of utmost importance. In the early 18th century, Baturyn served as the capital city for Ukrainian Hetmans, and so that was the period of its greatest prosperity. Magnificent temples were built, workshops and manufactures were established, and trade flourished — until one day everything changed.

Hetman Ivan Mazepa was looking towards strengthening Ukraine’s ties with Europe by allying himself with the King of Sweden. As a reprisal for that alliance, Peter I, the Tsar of Muscovy, ordered to seize Baturyn. Today, this event is known as the Baturyn Massacre, as the city was basically reduced to rubbles, with almost the entire population executed. The event was covered in the European press of the time as follows: “In Ukraine, terrible, bloodthirsty tsar… Every resident of Baturyn was put to the sword without the distinction of age and sex, in line with the inhuman Muscovite customs.” What took place in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns and cities temporarily occupied by Russia is clear evidence that even three centuries later the Russians remain true to those customs.

As for Mazepa himself and his struggle, he impressed Europe so much that many prominent people dedicated their works to him. Mazepa can be found in Hugo’s prose and Byron’s verses, in music pieces by Franz Liszt, and in the paintings by Géricault, Delacroix, Vernet, and Boulanger.


A Cucumber of International Importance

Can a cucumber be iconic? It can, if that cucumber is from Nizhyn.

It’s the unique taste palette and aroma that make Nizhyn cucumbers so special. The locals of the Chernihiv region began growing and bringing them in the 17th century, and started doing that commercially in the 18th century. As early as 1897, Nizhyn prepared 100 train carloads of brined cucumbers to be exported to about 50 countries. Until this day, this snack is still popular in dozens of countries, while in Ukraine, Nizhyn brined cucumbers became a cultural phenomenon of sorts. In 2005, a monument depicting a root cellar and a barrel of brined cucumbers was erected in Nizhyn. 

Other authentic snacks of the Chernihiv region include bulaný (a traditional dish, potato doughboys) and hartanáchka (a traditional porridge made from meat or lard, millet, potatoes, eggs, scallions, and parsley).

Creativity, Acting Skills, and the Homer of Filmmaking

Natives to the Chernihiv region contributed to the world history greatly, in a variety of fields. For instance, Mykola Kybalchych was the first to formulate the idea of a jet aircraft — as early as 150 years ago! Besides, he did it while imprisoned.

As early as the age of 20, this talented chemist was imbued with revolutionary ideas and became an active figure in the resistance to tsarism. He discovered special printing ink for clandestine publishers, and a more powerful version of dynamite (compared to that of its original inventor, Alfred Nobel). In 1881, Kybalchych constructed a bomb that basically became a prototype of present-day hand grenades, and it was that bomb that fatally wounded the Russian Tsar Alexander II, known for his policy of forced Russification.

It is for that attempt on the Tsar’s life that Kybalchych was executed in a month. However, while in a cell, he managed to produce a concept of a jet aircraft, and scratched its blueprint on the wall of his jail cell with a button fragment. On the verge of dying, Mykola Kybalchych laid out those exact principles that modern rockets operate on.

Another technical breakthrough was made by Petro Prokopovych, a descendant of a Cossack bloodline. Having retired from the army, he took up beekeeping, and, trying to find ways of increasing his efficiency in it, he designed a so-called frame hive. This method allowed for harvesting honey without having to kill all the bees with smoke, as it had been done before, and Prokopovych himself finally succeeded in creating the world’s largest apiary. That symbolic legacy of the inventor didn’t go in vain, as in 2020, Ukraine ranked the world’s second-largest honey exporter.

While Prokopovych took over the world with his technical ingenuity, Maria Adasovska did the same with her acting skills. Born in a small village in the Chernihiv region, she was married in due time, yet opted to flip her script when offered to join a drama group. Her husband, as well as her family, strongly objected, so she filed for divorce and changed her surname. From then on, the world knew her as Maria Zankovetska (derived from the name of the village of her birth, Zanky). The actress was quick to raise to the leading theatrical performer of the entire Empire, and, while off tour, still kept her primary residence in the Chernihiv region. The Russian Emperor offered her to pay a hefty sum of money (24,000 roubles in gold!) for her relocation, yet she declined: “Something dear, something of my own had me gravitating towards the Ukrainian stage, to its sorrows and prayers.”

Another native of the Chernihiv region, one of the world’s most outstanding film directors Oleksandr Dovzhenko, always spoke of the region fondly. Born to a poor illiterate family on a small farm, it was his talent that brought him to an institute. It was there where his first acquaintance with Ukrainian books occurred, still, he could only read them in secrecy: “Among us, speaking Ukrainian was banned. We were trained as teachers supposed to russify our land.”

Dovzhenko’s later life is much like a script to an action movie: he fought against Bolsheviks during the Ukrainian liberation struggle (for which he was sentenced to a concentration camp as “the enemy of the worker-peasant government” but was later condoned), he was captured by the Poles who were about to execute him (but the rounds were blank), and he served as a diplomat in Poland and Germany.

Over time, he made his way to filmmaking, where he became world famous. His Zvenyhora sold out movie theaters in Europe, and his Earth would be banned in the USSR but praised after screening in Berlin (with about fifty articles dedicated to Dovzhenko being published in the aftermath of that screening, and the director being nicknamed as ‘Homer of Filmmaking’ in Italy). It was only after the film was voted number 10 on the prestigious Brussels 12 list at the 1958 World Expo that the masterpiece celebrating the Ukrainian countryside was allowed for screening in the director’s homeland. Later, after another film “encouraging Ukrainian patriotism instead of the Soviet one,” he was banned from living in his homeland. When he died in 1956, a Ukrainian delegation took the risk of facing the same accusation when they brought a sheaf of rye, a lump of Ukrainian soil, and some apples (as symbols of Ukraine depicted by Dovzhenko in his film Earth) to his grave, to bid their final farewells.

The House That Transformed Chernihiv Region and Impressed Beethoven

Chernihiv region is the native land of one of Ukraine’s most famous dynasties, the House of Rozumovskyi. This family boasts a considerate number of outstanding personalities, the most famous of them probably being Kyrylo, the last Hetman of Zaporozhian Host, who put a lot of effort into developing the Hetmanate’s autonomy, only to have the Hetmanship abolished in 1764 by the Russian Empress.

Others from the Rozumovskyi bloodline also have a bearing on the developments of world history. For instance, during the Napoleonic Wars, the Hetman’s granddaughter Varvara followed her husband to his military deployments. When he ended up getting wounded and becoming a prisoner of war in the battle of Austerlitz, the woman personally came to the French camp to provide care for her husband and other prisoners. Napoleon was so impressed that he personally met the couple and used them as his messengers with an offer for peace negotiations. Subsequently, the couple spent many years living in Poltava, where Varvara commissioned hospitals, shelters, and an Institute for Noble Maidens.

The Hetman’s son Andriy, on the other hand, spent most of his life abroad, in Vienna, where he became one of Beethoven’s best friends. The composer even dedicated to Andriy his Fifth and Sixth symphonies, as well as three string quartets (later known as The Rozumovskyi quartets). Moreover, it is in his friend’s sheet music library that Beethoven got himself acquainted with Ukrainian music, which resulted in the composer writing not one, but two arrangements of Yikhav Kozak Za Dunai (The Cossack Rode beyond the Danube). Besides, in his quartets and sonata No. 8, he incorporated tunes from Ukrainian folk songs Oi, Na Dvori Metelytsia (Oh, There’s a Snowstorm Outside), Vid Kyieva do Luben Nasiyala Konopel (I Sowed Hemp In The Field as Wide as The Distance From Kyiv to Lubny), and Kozachok (Little Cossack).

The Chernihiv region has proven, time and again, its strength and indomitability.

All because Ukrainians native to that region know what they stand for. They are defending their millennia-old culture, their language that many prominent people spoke and wrote their works in, and their land that nourished those people. In 2022, the Chernihiv region prevailed in yet another challenge to its freedom and is ready to prevail again, should anyone, anytime attempt to bring evil.

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Last updated 11.03.2024

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