For 500 years, the Russians dreamed of capturing the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the Bolsheviks organized communal flats in it, then Moscow popes built hotels and did business. Now the complex is (finally) being returned to Ukraine

Ghanna Mamonova
Yuliana Skibitska, Yevhen Spirin
For 500 years, the Russians dreamed of capturing the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the Bolsheviks organized communal flats in it, then Moscow popes built hotels and did business. Now the complex is (finally) being returned to Ukraine

Kyivo-Pecherska Lavra.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

The Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is one of the most important Orthodox shrines in Eastern Europe. Now there are more than 150 buildings and 26 hectares of land, but it all started almost a thousand years ago with one cave. Russians tried to get Lavra for about 500 years, and in the 19th century they succeeded. After the 1917 coup, the Bolsheviks threw the monks away, and in the 1930s communal apartments, a post office, and administrative buildings were organized in the Lavra. One of its main churches, the Dormition Cathedral, was blown up. After 1990, the Lavra became a museum complex. But even independence of Ukraine did not help to make the Lavra Ukrainian, from 1990 to 2023 Moscow priests served there. On January 7, Metropolitan Epiphany of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) held a service in the Assumption Cathedral for the first time. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (until recently the Moscow Patriarchate) was denied permission to worship in this cathedral and in the nearby Tabernacle Church, even though they had been doing so for over twenty years. President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the “cleansing of Ukrainian Orthodoxy from the Russian influence” and imposed sanctions against the leadership of the pro-Russian Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Antony and the vicar of the Lavra, Metropolitan Pavel, who believes in corruption and cannot resist luxury. The SBU searched the Lavra building, where the priests of the Moscow Patriarchy live, and found pro-Russian literature and a lot of cash in dollars, hryvnias and rubles. The events surrounding the church are developing very rapidly, and in order not to get confused in them, “Babel” journalist Ghanna Mamonova tells (very briefly) the thousand-year history of the main monastery of the Christian world in Eastern Europe and mentions (in great detail) why it was taken over by the Russian church during the years of independence.


The territory of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is 26 hectares and more than 150 buildings in the Kyiv center. Together with Saint Sophia Cathedral, they are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List and belong to the state. The Lavra began with one cave, where in 1051 the monk Anthony settled, looking for the most ascetic way of life. At that time, there were enough monasteries in Kyiv, but Anthony didnʼt want to live there. Later, other monks joined him. They lived according to the monastic rules of the Athos monasteries — very poor and strict.

“Several years passed, and the monks split into two groups,” says Kostyantyn Krayniy, deputy director of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra National Reserve. “There was a struggle between the sons of Yaroslav the Wise — Izyaslav and Svyatoslav. Some of the monks supported Izyaslav, Anthony supported Svyatoslav, so he moved to a nearby hill. This is how the upper and lower caves were formed in Lavra.”

View of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and Podil, beginning of the 19th century.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

“The final split between the brothers did not happen, because Antony died in 1073, and the following year his student Theodosius also died,” says Krayniy. “Although the split was temporary, it slowed down the development of the place. Assumption Cathedral has been building for 15 years — thatʼs quite a long time.”

The earliest history of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is well known to researchers, as it was described in detail by the monks Symon and Polycarp. At the beginning of the 13th century, they compiled a collection of stories Kyivan Cave Patericon — they recorded the oral stories that the Laura monks told about the life of the first monks, the construction of the Dormition Cathedral, and the miracles that happened.

Monks lived in built Lavra monasteries, and the most worthy were buried in caves. People in all the cities of Kievan Rus learned that there is a miracle in the caves — incorruptible bodies.

“They were surprising because it was natural mummification,” Krayniy explains. “In the caves, the humidity is always the same, there are no temperature differences, so the bodies of the dead dried up gradually. Pilgrims tried to touch or kiss the body and thus introduced germs. The bodies began to decompose, so the monks began to cover the relics with a special solution, and later closed the coffins with glass. Now there are 122 saints lying in the lower and upper caves. The Upper Lavra stands on a hill that is 90-100 meters higher than the Dnipro River, the Lower Lavra is 50-60 meters higher. All the most famous buildings are located in the Upper Lavra: the Dormition Cathedral, the Tabernacle and the Trinity Overgate Church, as well as the museum part of the complex. In Lower Lavra there are caves, churches, and monasteries.

Entrance to the distant caves of the Kyiv-Pechersk Monastery. Illustration of 1897.

Wikimedia / «Бабель»

Museum employees say that the entire history of Ukraine can be studied in Lavra. The era of Kyivan Rus — on the Trinity Gate Church. Paintings in it were made during the Cossack Baroque period. The Assumption Cathedral was built in the 11th century, but now it is as it was in the 17th century, behind it are buildings designed by the outstanding Ukrainian architect Stepan Kovnir. In the 19th century, many fortification structures appeared in the Lavra — walls, cave fortifications, and the Table Church.


The Russian Church tried to take possession of the Lavra as early as the 15th century.

“Lavra is the history of all Christianity in the territories of Central-Eastern Europe, because Saints Anthony and Theodosius are saints of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches,” explains historian Oleksandr Alfyorov. “Lavra is the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and other countries where there are Orthodox churches, and they are in Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova. This is a huge story in the context of historical heritage, so it was important for the Russian Church to capture it.”

At the end of the 18th century, monks from the Russian hinterland settled in the Lavra. And already in the next century, the Russian Empire almost ousted the Ukrainian church elite from the Lavra. Its final transition under Russian patronage was prevented by the Bolsheviks.

In 1918, they executed Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kyiv in the courtyard of the Lavra, and the property of all churches in Ukraine was declared “state property” — the confiscated jewels were sold abroad at auctions. Initially, the received funds were used to finance the Bolsheviks in Romania, Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic states, and in the 1930s, Stalinʼs industrialization. The Bolsheviks didnʼot sell all the Lavraʼs property at Western auctions — the most valuable items were sent to Moscow to the State Historical Museum.

Volodymyr Bogoyavlenskyi, who was shot by the Bolsheviks near the walls of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in 1918.

Wikimedia / «Бабель»

“The monks were finally expelled from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in the 1930s. Communal apartments and dormitories have appeared in Lover Lavra,” says Krayniy. “In the Upper Lavra there was a court, a post office, and institutions not related to culture.”

Lavra in the 1930s. The sign says: “Letʼs eliminate the religion with five-year plan.”

In 1990, Patriarch Pymen of Moscow and All Russia died in Moscow. Metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko) was appointed temporary acting patriarch. Religious scholar Dmytro Horevoi says that Filaret had good chances to occupy the patriarchal throne. He headed the Kyiv department of the church, the second most important after the Moscow department, and had close contacts with the Soviet political elite. But Filaret lost the election, because “everyone knew he is tricky to deal with and feared him,” Horevoi adds.

Honorary Patriarch of OCU Philaret.

УПЦ Київський Патріархат / Facebook / «Бабель»

Alexii II was elected Patriarch, and Filaret began to fight for the Ukrainian Church. First, he managed to have the Ukrainian Exarchate renamed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and to grant it wide autonomy. When Ukraine declared independence, Filaret convened the Local Council, where everyone almost unanimously voted for the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church.

“Onufriy, who in 2014 headed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, also voted for this decision,” Horevoi recalls.

In 1992, a Council of Bishops was convened in Moscow, where they forced Filaret to abdicate the metropolitan throne.

“They said that he is a monk, and he has a wife and children. Well, Filaret wouldnʼt be Filaret if he didnʼt answer,” says Horevoi. “This is not in the transcripts, but the participants of the cathedral recount that he said in Russian: "At least Iʼm married. And youʼre all husbands to each other here." He alluded to the same-sex relationships of the majority of the bishopric of the Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, he was not going to give up the metropolitan throne.”

Within a month, part of the Moscow Patriarchate convened a Council in Kharkiv. Filaret was not invited there, he was dismissed on his own initiative, and Volodymyr (Sabodan) was elected head of the UOC MP instead. Filaretʼs opponents tried to oust him from the Volodymyr Cathedral, where he served. The Metropolitan appealed for help to Dmytro Korchynsky, one of the founders of the Ukrainian National Assembly — Ukrainian Peopleʼs Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO).

Dmytro Korchynskyi (center) walks through Kyiv during the confrontation in the Lavra in 1992. / «Бабель»

“Our organization started guarding [Filaretʼs] residence and the Cathedral, and thatʼs how the idea arose to win back the Lavra for Filaret so that it wouldnʼt be captured by Volodymyr,” Korchynskyi tells Babel. “We got together and left. We were about a hundred men, without weapons. For a few hours, we took over the buildings of the menʼs monastery in the Lower Lavra, but Filaret was afraid to enter there. After that, the Berkut special police unit kicked us out of there. All were detained, but then released.”

As Korchynskyi recalls, capturing the menʼs monastery wasnʼt difficult. His team had a ladder and a rope with them — they climbed over the fence and went inside.

“When the boys walked through the rooms of the so-called monks, they were amazed. Itʼs 1992, times of factual famine. And inside there is plenty of food, vodka and brandy. There were also pornographic magazines there, I saw them myself,” says Korchynskyi.

It was at that time, adds Korchynskyi, that the idea arose for Filaret to unite with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), which existed in exile. This is how the Kyiv Patriarchate was formed.

“At that time, a large part of the clergy did not follow Filaret because of his despotic nature. As a leader, he was feared, and in some places hated. Therefore, most of the people in Lavra accepted Volodymyr,” says Dmytro Horevoi.

Joining the UAOC increased the number of Filaretʼs supporters, but in a few years they all quarreled. Therefore, for 25 years, the Moscow Patriarchate, the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church existed in Ukraine. The last two joined the OCU in 2018, when Ukraine received Tomos.


In 1994, Volyn priest Pavlo (Lebid) became the vicar of the Lavra. The vicar is like the head of the farm: he manages affairs so that the monastery works. According to Dmytro Horevoi, Pavlo got to the Lavra thanks to his main talent — to bring money to the parish, because in 1994 local monks lived in poverty. But since then Pavlo became a constant figure in church scandals.

Pavlo managed to have the infectious disease hospital evicted from the Lavra, because he “dislikes being around people infected with HIV/AIDS.” He compared ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to Jesus Christ, and himself with the Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom.

Vicar of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Metropolitan Pavlo.

Wikimedia / «Бабель»

In 2010, journalist Serhiy Leshchenko wrote that Metropolitan Volodymyr of the UOC MP drives a luxury Mercedes car. Pavlo called the journalist “mentally ill” in response. In 2011, journalist Mykhailo Tkach tried to make a television story about Pavloʼs car and the construction of a cafe on the territory of the Lavra. The governor of the Lavra forbade it, threatened to break the video camera and Godʼs judgment for criticizing him. In 2012, Pavlo lashed out at journalist Ksenia Karpenko, who tried to record his comment about the expensive cars of the leaders of the UOC MP. He gripped her hands and snatched the phone. And then he said that the “closet journalist” bit his finger and broke his leg. Pavlo was nicknamed “Pasha-Mercedes” for his love of expensive cars. For the sake of justice, it should be recalled that Filaret, the head of the UOC KP, also used an expensive Mercedes at that time, and journalists criticized him for it. In 2015, Automaidan filmed Pavloʼs luxurious residence near Kyiv from a drone.

“We know Pavlo from Volyn,” recalls Volyn priest Viktor Martynenko. “He was always rude to the parishioners, but they liked it. You know how it is in the village: people want the father to be strict.”

Pavlo became the vicar of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in 1994. Recently, NV published a long article about him. In it, the Volyn local historian and religious scholar Yuriy Velynets claims that Pavlo “bought” the position of governor of the Lavra for “thousands of dollars” by selling two canvases from the 17th century baroque iconostasis, which was in the Dormition Cathedral in Volyn.

“But thatʼs not true,” Martynenko tells Babel. “I canʼt imagine who he should have given a bribe to — Metropolitan Volodymyr? This simply cannot be. He did not sell the iconostasis, but destroyed it. Because that one did not fit into his idea of the beautiful.”

The Assumption Cathedral in Nyzkynychi village was founded by Kyiv voivode Adam Kysil in 1643. It declined several times, did not work for decades, until in 1988 Pavlo became its abbot. He began to gather around believers and renew the cathedral. He did not like the baroque iconostasis with towels and without gilding. He called the workers from the village, and they threw it in the garbage. It was there that its remains were found by the employees of the Novovolyn city historical museum and taken away.

“He installed a new iconostasis, where everything shone. Even the foil was on it, and he liked it,” says Martynenko. “Also, on the instructions of Pavlo, the family coats of arms of Adam Kysil were taken down from the cathedral. Pavlo said that they crumbled and fell on peopleʼs heads, but this isnʼt true. He also wanted to burn the 17th-century bell tower, but his hands did not reach it. I defended it, for which received curses from him.”

Before becoming a monk, Pavlo graduated from the Lutsk Technical School of Soviet Trade in 1980. “And forever remained a ʼtrade representative,ʼ” says Martynenko. Religious scholar Horevoi agrees with him.

“You can see from Pavlo that he is an uneducated person with no taste. For him, the more gold and glitter, the better,” says the religious scholar. “That is why all the restoration works in the Lavra, in particular in the Assumption Cathedral, were not carried out in such a way as to preserve the authentic Cossack Baroque style, but to be expensive and extensive.”

At the end of 2021, by order of Pavlo, a portrait of him appeared on the walls of the Assumption Cathedral, where he stands surrounded by two metropolitans of the UOC MP — Onufriy and the late Volodymyr. Kostyantyn Krayniy says that the painting was noticed in the reserve recently, because it is located on the second floor behind the choirs, where few people come. The reserve does not know what to do next. But while this portrait can be drawn over, itʼs no longer possible to return the architectural monuments that Pavlo destroyed during almost 30 years of management.

Portrait of Pavlo in the Dormition Cathedral (heʼs on the right in the first row). He stands surrounded by Metropolitans of the UOC MP — Onufriy (on the left in the first row) and Volodymyr (above).

Wikimedia / «Бабель»

In 2007, the reserve lost a lawsuit over the reconstruction of the 19th-century gate that leads to the Lower Lavra. Pavlo made it one and a half meters higher, they say, otherwise trucks could not enter the yard.

“And all this was done in one day. There was a big scandal,” recalls Kostyantyn Krayniy. “The restructuring was written into the documents, as if it was supposed to happen that way. This was at the time when the reserve came under the control of the Ministry of Culture, but the buildings remained under the authority of the city. Kyiv mayor at that time was Leonid Chernovetskyi.”

On the territory of the Lower Lavra, monks rebuilt hotel complexes — where the building had two floors, it became three, where it was three, it became four. In total, Lower Lavra currently has 20 hotels, only four of which are for pilgrims. Seminarians and students of the theological academy live in others. The reserve was also unable to deal with this.


In 2000, the construction of the Assumption Cathedral, which was destroyed in 1941, was completed. On Independence Day, the cathedral was consecrated by Metropolitan Volodymyr of the UOC MP. Then the locals gathered under the walls of the Lavra — they were outraged why the cathedral was being given to the “Moscow popes”.

“This is the only conflict that has been around the cathedral over the years,” Krayniy says. “Thousands of people came under the Lavra walls. The police did not let them through, and at the same time, representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate who were going to the consecration passed through the metal detectors.”

Assumption Church was blown up in 1941

In order to appease the people of Kyiv, at the level of then-President Leonid Kuchma, it was decided that the services of the Moscow Patriarchate would be held in the Dormition Cathedral, and the Kyiv Patriarchateʼs would be held in St. Michaelʼs Golden Top Cathedral. Since then, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate has never asked for permission to worship in the Assumption Cathedral. This happened only this year, when the OCU approached the reserve. On Christmas Day, January 7, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko) of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine conducted the service in the cathedral. In response, some priests of the Moscow Patriarchate burned two klobuks, the headdresses of metropolitans, on the grave of the late Metropolitan Volodymyr.

President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma (left) presents an icon to Patriarch Volodymyr (right) on August 24, 2000, during the consecration ceremony of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery in the Assumption Cathedral in Kyiv.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

“This definitely happened with Pavloʼs blessing. He believes that in this way it is possible to cause damage,” says religious scholar Dmytro Gorevoy.

There are two versions why they did it. The first, as Gorevoy thinks, is the corruption of Metropolitans Oleksandr (Drabynko) and Symeon (Shostatsky) — both were in the Moscow Patriarchate and students of Volodymyr, and now joined the OCU.

The second is that Epiphanius mentioned Volodymyr during the Christmas service. He said that he was happy about the penetration of the OCU into the Assumption Cathedral, because he “condemned the political Orthodoxy that is being planted from the north” and was taking “real steps towards reconciliation between the Orthodox and overcoming church divisions.”

Babel was told by the pre-service of the OCU that itʼs not the first time the metropolitan mentioned Volodymyr in the context of overcoming the church split.

“He was in favor of the reunification of churches, a commission on this issue was under him, and the UOC of the Kyiv Patriarchate met in the Lavra with representatives of the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate. Epiphanius was at the meeting, he was then the archimandrite of the UOC KP. Although at that time the Moscow Patriarchate treated the Kyiv Patriarchate as schismatics, the dialogue still took place,” Archpriest of the OCU Mykhailo Omelyan told Babel.

In the early nineties and until the end of Kuchmaʼs rule, Volodymyr did not want to hear about separation from the Russian Orthodox Church. However, he gradually changed his mind, and during the time of President Viktor Yushchenko, he went to Patriarch Bartholomew to talk about autocephaly for the Ukrainian church.

However, Volodymyr failed to radically change anything in the church of the Moscow Patriarchate. He kept with him the Lavra governor Pavlo, the clergy spread the ideas of “Russian world”. In 2012, Volodymyr fell ill and died two years later.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine served for the first time in the Assumption Cathedral of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. January 7, 2023.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine served for the first time in the Assumption Cathedral of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. January 7, 2023.

Герман Крігер / «Бабель»

The fact that the OCU held a service in the Assumption Cathedral in 2023 is considered a revolution in the church world, because now the monopoly of the Moscow Patriarchate has been destroyed. But this does not mean that OCU will take the Lavra. The Moscow Patriarchate has a lifetime lease agreement for everything located on the territory of the Lower Lavra — 16 hectares of land and 79 buildings. The lease agreement was concluded in 2013 with the government of Mykola Azarov. Now a government commission headed by the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy is looking for ways to break it up. Illegal construction may be the reason for this.

If this happens, two questions will arise: will the OCU have enough financial resources to maintain the Lower Lavra monasteries and where will Metropolitan Onufriy of the UOC MP go? Gorevoy believes that there is no need to worry about it.

“The church has donations, it can sell goods and rent premises. I donʼt see any reason why one denomination can do business better than another,” he says. “And Metropolitan Onufriy can be sent to Moscow as a patriarch. He is not the one to feel sorry about, they are not the ones to be sorry about, and he must be sent somewhere.”

The most optimal version of the development of events, according to Gorevoy, is as follows: the OCU takes the Lower Lavra, and part of the UOC MP joins it. Epiphanius conducts Sobor and announces the status of the patriarchate for Ukrainian Orthodoxy. But no one risks predicting when it might happen. Because even two months ago, no one could believe that OCU would one day serve in the Lavra.

Primate of the UOC MP Onufriy.

Wikimedia / «Бабель»


From October to December 2022, the SBU searched more than twenty monasteries and churches of the UOC MP throughout the country. It was the largest series of searches in churches in the entire history of Ukraine. The SBU called them counter-intelligence measures against the pro-Russian activities of the priests, who found Russian passports and anti-Ukrainian literature. The SBU charged some priests with anti-Ukrainian activities — inciting religious enmity and humiliating the national honor and dignity of Ukrainians.

The SBU searched the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra on November 22 and found pro-Russian literature, two million hryvnias, $100,000 and several thousand rubles. Metropolitan Klyment, the head of the information and educational department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Ukraine, stated that this sum is “barely enough for the monthly payment of utilities and other household expenses” of the monks of the Lavra.

On December 2, the National Security and Defense Council announced sanctions against ten representatives of the UOC MP. Among them are Metropolitan Antoniy, the head of affairs, and Metropolitan Pavlo, the vicar of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. After that, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy did not allow the UOC MP to hold services in the Dormition Cathedral of the Lavra and the Tabernacle Church.

At the beginning of January 2023, a commission was working in the Assumption Cathedral to describe the property. The commission consisted of employees of the reserve and the UOC MP.

“They checked to see if anything was missing, and they also made a list of what the church would take, because their belongings are there,” Krayniy explains.

It was agreed that the monks would take out of the cathedral only what would not destroy the interior: chairs, an icon bench, or church utensils. Everything else they found money for remains. One of these objects is the royal gate of the iconostasis. Therefore, the interior of the cathedral will not change in any way, but perhaps it will become more spacious.

“They did it for the church, so their memory will live on. The governor of the Lavra Pavlo agreed that it would be right,” says Krayniy.

By the end of January, the Dormition Cathedral will be opened for visitors to the reserve.

“Everything is peaceful here,” says Krayniy. “One monk, whose name I will not mention, told me: Priests are like cops. Some are good, and some are not.”

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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