St. Sophia in Kyiv. Photo: Emil Filtenborg.

Kyiv, sometimes called the City of Golden Domes, is famous for the churches. The good thing is that three of the most important ones are within walking distance. Two of them even sees each other. Ukraine Nu gives you a guide to the Golden Domes.

Christianity and the Orthodox Church plays an enormous role in Ukrainian society and culture. But historically as well, the Church has been a major and powerful entity at times inseparable from the throne. This is easily seen in pompous churches of Kyiv, that has swallowed huge amounts of gold. Here is a guided tour to three saints and three churches in central Kyiv.

We start at Saint Michaels Golden-Domed Monastery, which as the name suggests technically is a monastery. We start here, because it is easily accessible with public transportation. Visiting the churches can be done in any order with almost no changes to the route, as they are very close. A church was built here around the 1050’ies, presumably by Iziaslav the First, the oldest son of Yaroslav the Wise. When Yaroslav the Wise died, he left the entire Kyiv Rus to his sons who formed a Triumvirate that would rule for a 20 years.

As this map quite clearly shows, the three churches of St. Michael’s, St. Andrews and St. Sophia’s are located almost on top of each other. Map: Google Maps.

But the triumvirate fell apart. In a popular uprising, Iziaslav was deposed in 1068 and fled to Poland, where he got support to take back Kyiv. Unfortunately for Iziaslav, his brothers threw him out again few years later. With foreign help, he was able to take back Kyiv in 1076. He enjoyed power for two years before being killed in a war with two other princes.

15 years later, in 1093, Iziaslav’s son Sviatopolk II ascended the throne with approval of the other princes. While being busy fighting other Rus princes, he did spend a lot of the time campaigning. He was not always super successful and lost a lot of battles, but one thing he did manage to do was adding a monastery to the church his father had build.

In 1108-1113, he commissioned the monastery church to be built. The monastery was named after Sct. Michael. Michael of course was the archangel who led God’s army against Satan, according to Christianity. Michael also happens to be the Christian name of Sviatopolk II, but that has to be a coincidence. Right?

Soviets gonna Soviet 

Either way, a monastery with it’s own cathedral was built, and it remained that for around 100 years. In 1240, the Golden Horde – the Mongols – sacked Kyiv and presumably trashed poor Sct. Michaels. It was rebuilt, and in 1934 the Soviet Union demolished it again. They figured the address was pretty nice, and decided to make room for a head quarter of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Across from the monastery, the Foreign Ministry can be seen. This building was build on previous monastery grounds, but a head quarter building at the site of the cathredal was never built. Instead the place was turned into a sports complex. It took two years to tear down the church.

St. Michaels Golden-Dome Monastery in the background. The trained eye will notice a golden statue of St. Michael on the roof of the Cathedral. Photo: Emil Filtenborg.

When Ukraine got independence from the Soviet Union, they figured that the demolition was a crime and started reconstruction. The church was rebuilt in 1999 and the interior was completely finished in 2000.

It is free to visit St. Michaels. The tour starts there, because it is easily accessible by public transportation. Take the metro to Poshtova Ploshad and from there jump on the Funicular that climbs the hill right onto the doorstep of St. Michaels. When you are done with St. Michaels, walk back to the funicular and keep right. Go through the park, through the valley of artists, and you will reach St. Andrews Church.

To Saint Andrews

Shortly after Jesus died, St. Andrews the Apostle went to what would later be Kyiv. There was nothing there at the time, but he looked around, went to the top of a hill, thought for a while and then proclaimed that one day there would be a great city where he was standing, that should be the cradle of Christianity in Eastern Europe. According to legend, he then erected a cross at the place. At least that it was the legend says.

St. Andrews Church in Kyiv. Photo: Emil Filtenborg

Later, in 1086 it looked like St. Andrews might be right. At least, a city and an empire was forming around the place, where he prophetically put a cross. Grand Prince Vsevolod I decided that St. Andrews putting up a cross was a very monumental moment. He built a little church where St. Andrews Church is today. It was nothing special, and over the years several churches built by different leaders have been occupying this space.

The Russian Empress Elizabeth Petrovna decided that it was time for the spot to have a real church. In 1744 the work was begun with her placing down three foundation stones. Elizabeth wanted the church to be nice, so she hired Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who was a royal favorite. Rastrelli was also the architect behind more famous buildings like the Marinskiy Palace in Kyiv and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to name a few.

The view from St. Andrews Church. Photo: Emil Filtenborg.

From the church there is a magnificent view over Podil and the left bank of the Dnepr. Inside the church, which is very small, there is a lot of gold. The church is not taking up a lot of time, but it is still pretty and worth giving a look. Admissions are 70 UAH (around €2.2) for an adult.

From St. Andrew’s, you just keep walking uphill. Going left will take you to St. Michael’s, while going right will take you to St. Sophia, which is our next stop. As long as you do not go down the hill, you are on the right path.

The Church of Churches

We have saved the best for last. When it comes to churches in Kyiv, the one church that is absolutely necessary to see, is the St. Sophia. On the grounds of St. Sophia there is more than just the cathedral, there is also other churches, a bell tower with a stunning view and the gardens. Named after Hagia Sophia, the church was built by either Yaroslav the Wise or his father, Vladimir the Great. Both UNESCO and Ukraine has decided that it was in fact built by Vladimir the Great in 1011.

Like St. Michaels, the St. Sophia Cathedral has suffered a long and rough history. In the late 11 hundreds, the church was plundered and like St. Michaels, the cathedral was sacked by the Mongols in 1240, when the Golden Horde conquered Rus. It was later damaged by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and just like St. Michaels, the Soviets wanted to demolish the St. Sophia Cathedral.

St. Sophia and the bell tower in Kyiv. In front is a statue of Hetman Khmelnetskiy, who led an attack of Cossacks, that resulted in the formation of a Cossack Empire. Photo: Emil Filtenborg.

They never got so far with that project, and the cathedral was saved in the end. If you only have time to, or if you only want to, see one church in Ukraine, let it be St. Sophia. It is by far the most expensive of the churches to visit, as admission is 25 UAH to be allowed onto the grounds and 200 for the most basic ticket.

If you went and saw the churches but still want somewhere to go and see, you can easily go to the centre of Kyiv. If you simple keep right and walk down Volodymyrska Street, you will go straight to the Golden Gate. On your left will be Maidan. If you continue straight, walking parallelly with Kreshatyk Street, you will eventually be in Shevchenko Park.

Further reading

People mentioned in this article, like Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise, Hetman Khmelnetskiy, and movements like the Golden Horde formed today’s Ukraine. For more knowledge about the former rulers of what is now Ukraine, Serhiy Plokhi’s “Gates of Europe: A history of Ukraine” from 2017 and Anne Reid’s “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine” written in 1997 and revised in 2015 are both exemplary choices.

Not many high quality movies have been made about the Kyivan Rus. One exemption has been made though. In 2019, a production of the Ivan Franko book Rising Hawk was blasted onto the big screens. The film has impressive scenery, a lot of violence and a large budget behind it. As the book, Zakhar Berkut by Ivano Franko, which the movie is based on is historical fiction, Rising Hawk is pure entertainment. Not documentary. The movie is in English.

Cambridge Ukrainian Studies has a podcast that hosts all manners of discussions. From politics, to culture, to interviews and discussions about Taras Shevchenko, the podcast has a lot of historical content too. The podcast is a very well hidden thing, but the content is good, even though the number of listeners is often low.