Saturday, October 14, 2017
Thoughts on the St. Michael Golden-Domed Monastery
Image: Views of the St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery complex, Kiev, Ukraine, August 2017.
This summer I visited the St. Michael Golden-Domed Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine. The vivid sky-blue facades and the glistening domes are a distinctive landmark on the slopes of the Dnieper River. To our surprise, however, we discovered that though the current impressive structures do indeed stand on a traditional Orthodox monastic site that dates back to 989 AD (and before the advent of Christianity, it had been a site of pagan worship), the current main building, reconstructed in the thirteenth century Ukranian Baroque style, was only completed in December 1999. It is, in fact, a nearly brand new building (albeit on ancient foundations) made to look old!
While there I picked a guidebook which I partly read as we toured the grounds and only fully read last week. The guidebook was originally written in Ukrainian and later translated into readable but slightly imperfect English.
The book explains the “period of decline and destruction” that happened under communism (pp. 34-35).
This story began with Bolshevik bombing of Kiev’s landmark churches January 17-26, 1918. “Seven heavy shells hit St. Michael’s Cathedral,” which “smashed one of the central arches, which kept the dome.”
When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1919 “the monastery buildings were transferred to other ‘owners.’” The guidebook author notes that the nationalization of the monastery was, in fact, “folly embezzlement of property” and that there was a veritable “scramble for it among the various Soviet institutions.”
In 1922 all residential buildings of the monastery were turned into dormitories for students at Kyiv high schools. After removing domes and the cross of the Refectory Church, and whitening the paintings [I assume this means painting over the church’s artwork and icons], a dining room was placed here. In the monastery was the Institute of Red professors, editors of several newspapers, and magazines, and various research institutions.
This was not the end, however, of the communist effort to erase the Ukranian and Orthodox Christian heritage represented by the monastic complex:
In 1934-1935 they quietly dismantled St. Basil (Three consecrators) church, and when it came to the Monastery, the public began to sound the alarm. The Cathedral was offered to eliminate on the grounds that it had no special historical or aesthetic value, as it had been in the Baroque style.
During 1934-1936 a bell-tower, most of the wall to the economic gate, the Bishop’s house, all commercial buildings of the court were dismantled. In the Spring of 1935 the Bolsheviks began to strip the church: the golden leaves of copper from the domes was removed, a silver sanctum of St. Barbara was given for melting, the baroque iconostasis was destroyed. The Cathedral was destroyed on August 14, 1937 at 9 pm.
Take note of that last line. The building had to be torn down in darkness for fear of the people’s reaction. One is reminded of Orwell’s depiction in 1984 of a socialist state, bent on secretly erasing history for the “good” of the people.
The account ends with Psalm 137-esque codicil:
History teaches that abuse of the Holy Temple of God does not pass with impunity, but the eyes of the destroyers were blinded. Most of the party functionaries, who had decided the fate of the cathedral –P. Postyshev, V. Balytskiy, V. Zatonsky, J. Pysmenny, G. Bordon—were shot by their accomplices in 1937-1938. The Head of People’s Commissars of Ukraine committed suicide. S. Kosoir was shot, the same fate befell the the head of Kyiv City Council R. Petrushansky.
The apostle Paul’s citation of the Scriptures in Romans 12:19: “for as it is written, 'Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord'” comes to mind.
I was struck by this account not because of any perceived inherent spiritual importance in St. Michael’s physical structures per se. Though I can appreciate the aesthetics of the buildings, as a good Particular Baptist I stand by our confession’s statement that “Neither prayer nor any other part of religious worship, is now under the gospel, tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or toward which it is directed; but God is to be worshiped everywhere in spirit and in truth….” (Chapter 22 “Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day,” paragraph 6). I was struck, rather, by what it says about the conflict between the socialist state and symbols of religion, history, and nation. Even when suppressed, at least in Ukraine, they seem to have come back.