A favorite and frustrating expression often uttered when something beloved is destroyed is, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” There are actually many reasons why we can’t have nice things, and two on the national or global scale are war and development. Both of those are happening in the center of Kyiv, the war-torn capital of Ukraine, where nice things are being demolished by bombs as well as developers. A young man in Kyiv was recently affected by both in an unusual discovery – while his grandmother’s house was in danger of being torn down, he found a cave system filled with hieroglyphs and rock carvings from Kievan Rus' – the 9th century state that led to the countries of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. He fears this new and significant discovery will disappear before the world can see and appreciate it. Will he be able to save the nice things in the Kyiv caves?
The story of these ancient caves of Kyiv begins with Dmytro Perov, an expert at the Center for Urban Development. As reported in Rubryka (in Ukrainian), Perov’s job is to evaluate request to the Kyiv City Council to transfer land to developers. The latest request was for permission to tear down a dilapidated building at 25 Voznesenskyi Uzviz. Perov was reluctant to grant the request because Voznesenskyi Uzviz Street is a thoroughfare to the historical areas of Old Kyiv and Podil. Something else caught his eye – the address “25 Voznesenskyi Uzviz” was familiar to him. It was once the home of his great-great-grandmother Daria Volosova. However, the family lost most of it at the start of the 20th century.
"In 1919, the communists came and made a 'sealing'; they settled the family in one room on the top floor and occupied the rest of the rooms. My grandmother and great-grandmother lived there until 1979."
The family was evicted in 1980. While he never lived there, Perov remembered something else about the house that would change the way he ruled on the request for development.
"Grandmother said about that house that there was some cave. But it was more like a children's legend. That somewhere there, in the mountain, there was a big stone house, and next to it, an ancient cave. No one knew where it was located. We lived in a different area, but I never explored the estate or the plot near it."
On his own, Perov went to the property a few weeks ago with some friends. Having no idea where the cave might be – of even if it existed – they stumbled around until they found a hole behind a wall that still remained. That hole opened to what turned out to be a network of four small caves – the ceiling is barely four feet tall and the total length is 35 meters (144 feet) … but this was a case of big things coming in a small package. What Perov and his friends found on the walls of the small caves were pictures of animals. One he recognized was of an Algiz or chicken's foot from the ancient Varangians or Slavic Vikings who ruled the state of Kievan Rus' between the 9th and 11th centuries. The chicken’s foot was a symbol of protection and life, and Perov knew he had to show this to an archeologist. Before they left, Perov and his friends also found artifacts – remains of ceramics he suspected were from the Late Rus period and could indicate this was part of an ancient settlement outside the city walls. (Photos on his Facebook page.) Even with this evidence, find an expert to verify it was difficult.
"The professor was skeptical, saying that the cave in the center of Kyiv is a fantasy. We brought him and showed him the cave. Then Mr. Timur asked us to wait while he made some notes. More than 3 hours passed, and it was getting dark when the professor came out. He was amazed by the treasure in the center of Kyiv."
Perov returned to the cave complex a week later with professor of archeology Timur Bobrovskyi, who knew they had found something of historical significance. Bobrovskyi put the age of the cave to the Kyivan Rus of the 9th to the mid-13th century when invasions and infighting between the various groups that were forming brought it down … although the professor also saw some signs the caves could possibly pre-date this to or may even belong to the pre-Christian period of the 800s before the Byzantine Patriarch Photius sent missionaries to convert the Rus' and the Slavs to Christianity. That may be why Rubryka refers to the complex as “The Ascension Cave.”
"Existing historical sources regarding this origin and neighboring sources have not been found. However, according to the parameters, location, and nature of the vaults, the cave can be classified as a special group of historical Kyiv dungeons."
Professor Bobrovskyi points out that these caves are located near a large complex of monastic buildings of the 14th and 16th centuries – the historical areas of Old Kyiv that first alerted Dmytro Perov to look at the area before giving a developer permission to turn it into houses or businesses of the 21st century. After the analysis by Bobrovskyi, Perov brought in more historical and archaeological experts who agreed with the professor’s analysis. Based on that, Rubryka reports that at least one small street in Kyiv can still have nice things.
“After the corresponding appeal, the issue of transfer of the plot for development was removed from the agenda of the Kyiv City State Administration.”
Now that it has been saved from the developers, let’s hope Ascension Cave will escape the bombs of war so that archeologists and historians determine who carved the hieroglyphs and rock drawings. Perhaps they can provide a lesson to the powers in the current war. The Kievan Rus' state at its peak in the mid-11th century stretched from the White Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south to the headwaters of the Vistula River in the west to the Taman Peninsula in the east, and united East Slavic, Norse and Finni tribes. Its demise came as infighting weakened the state from within, leaving it vulnerable to invasions and destruction from both without and within.
Will we ever be able to have nice things?