'Jerusalem of the North', 1835
An American explorer in Kyiv
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Long before reaching it, its numerous convents and churches, crowning the summit and hanging on the sides of the hill, with their quadrupled domes, and spires, and chains, and crosses, gilded with ducat gold and glittering in the sun, gave the whole city the appearance of golden splendour…
It’s not my place or purpose here to delve into international politics in these forlorn times, but what I can do is look through the lens of history to underline what a beautiful and notable city Kyiv (Kiev) is,1 and I have found an excellent account of a visit there by a notable American travel writer.
John Lloyd Stephens (1805–1852) was an explorer, diplomat and writer, born into a prosperous family in New Jersey, although he mostly grew up in New York, which is also where he died. But in between, he certainly got out. After training in and practising law, he developed an itch to travel, and on the premise of poor health he set out for Europe in 1834 in a packet boat, the Charlemagne.
His two-year journey took him to Britain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Poland and Germany; then, when returning to France and intending to go home, on a whim he took a steamer at Marseilles for Malta and Egypt. Some of his letters about his travels were published in magazines, then more detailed accounts appeared as Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837) and Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland (1838), both very successful books and the latter providing our text this week.2
In 1839 he was appointed a special ambassador to Central America, and it was there that he became a key figure in the rediscovery of the Maya civilisation. In later life he was also a founder of the Panama Railroad Company. Sadly he died from malaria while still only in his 40s. You can read a more detailed biography here.
Stephens’s eastern European journey took him from Istanbul to Odessa on the Black Sea shore of Ukraine, and thence across the steppes to Kiev and on to Moscow. He describes the challenges of transport, eventually settling on a calêche, a light, low-slung and open horse-drawn carriage, and of finding a suitable manservant. Here is his description of Henri, perhaps the Passepartout to Stephens’s Phileas Fogg:
At length came a Frenchman, with an unusual proportion of whiskers and mustaches, and one of the worst of the desperate emigrés whom the French Revolution, or, rather, the Restoration, sent roaming in foreign lands. He had naturally a most unprepossessing physiognomy, and this was heightened by a sabre-cut which had knocked out several of his teeth, and left a huge gash in his cheek and lip, and, moreover, made him speak very unintelligibly. When I asked him if he was a Frenchman, he drew himself up with great dignity, and replied, “Monsieur je suis Parisien.” His appearance was a gross libel upon the Parisians; but, as we could get no one else, we took him upon little recommendation the day before our departure, and, during the same day, threatened half a dozen times to discharge him.
Here are some extracts, then, of their visit to Kyiv. (In modern times there are political issues over how the city’s name is spelled and pronounced but Kyiv is the Anglicised form of the version its own people use. Stephens himself discusses the etymology, although spells it Chioff, which I assume reflects his interpretation of its pronunciation.)
[We] saw at a great distance the venerable city of Chioff, the ancient capital of Russia.3 It stands at a great height, on the crest of an amphitheatre of hills, which rise abruptly in the middle of an immense plain, apparently thrown up by some wild freak of nature, at once curious, unique, and beautiful. The style of its architecture is admirably calculated to give effect to its peculiar position; and, after a dreary journey over the wild plains of the Ukraine,4 it breaks upon the traveller with all the glittering and gorgeous splendour of an Asiatic city. For many centuries it has been regarded as the Jerusalem of the North, the sacred and holy city of the Russians; and, long before reaching it, its numerous convents and churches, crowning the summit and hanging on the sides of the hill, with their quadrupled domes, and spires, and chains, and crosses, gilded with ducat gold and glittering in the sun, gave the whole city the appearance of golden splendour. The churches and monasteries have one large dome in the centre, with a spire surmounted by a cross, and several smaller domes around it, also with spires and crosses connected by pendant chains, and all gilded so purely that they never tarnish. We drove rapidly to the foot of the hill, and ascended by a long wooden paved road to the heart of the city…
Ascending the hill, we passed the fountain where St. Vladimir baptized the first Russian converts; the spring is held sacred by the Christians now, and a column bearing a cross is erected over it, to commemorate the pious act and the ancient sovereignty of Chioff.
The early history of this city is involved in some obscurity. Its name is supposed to be derived from Kiovi or Kii, a Sarmatian word signifying heights or mountains; and its inhabitants, a Sarmatian tribe, were denominated Kivi or mountaineers. It is known to have been a place of consequence in the fifth century, when the Suevi, driven from their settlements on the Danube, established themselves here and at Novogorod. In the beginning of the tenth century it was the capital and most celebrated and opulent city in Russia, or in that part of Europe.
[Stephens gives more details of the early history, which I’ll skip here.]
For a long time Kiev was the prey alternately of the Poles, the Lithuanians, and the Tartars, until in 1686 it was finally ceded by the Poles to Russia. The city is composed of three distinct quarters; the old, with its Polish fortifications, containing the palace of the emperor, and being the court end; the Petcherk fortress, built by Peter the Great, with ditches and high ramparts, and an arsenal capable of containing eighty or a hundred thousand stand of arms; and the Podolsk, or business part, situated at the foot of the hill on the banks of the Dnieper. It contains thirty thousand inhabitants besides a large military garrison, partly of Cossack troops, and one pretty good hotel; but no beds, and none of those soft couches which made the hardy Poles sleep away their senses; and though a welcome resting-place for a traveller through the wild plains of Russia, it does not now possess any such attraction as to put in peril the faith and duties of husbands. By its position secluded from intercourse with strangers, Kiev is still thoroughly a Russian city, retaining in full force its Asiatic style of architecture; and the old Russian, wedded to the manners and customs of his fathers, clings to it as a place which the hand of improvement has not yet reached; among other relics of the olden time, the long beard still flourishes with the same solemn dignity as in the days of Peter the Great. Lying a hundred miles away from the direct road between Moscow and the Black Sea, few European travellers visit it; and though several of them have done so since, perhaps I was the first American who ever passed through it.
We passed the morning in riding round to the numerous convents and churches, among which is the church of St. Sophia, the oldest in Russia, and, if not an exact model of the great St. Sophia of Constantinople, at least of Byzantine design; and toward evening went to the emperor’s garden. This garden is more than a mile in length, bounded on one side by the high precipitous bank of the hill, undulating in its surface, and laid out like an English park, with lawn, gravel-walks, and trees; it contains houses of refreshment, arbours or summer-houses, and a summer theatre. At the foot of the hill flows the Dnieper, the ancient Borysthenes, on which, in former days the descendants of Odin and Ruric descended to plunder Constantinople. Two or three sloops were lying, as it were, asleep in the lower town, telling of a still interior country, and beyond was a boundless plain covered with a thick forest of trees. The view from this bank was unique and extraordinary, entirely different from anything I ever saw in natural scenery, and resembling more than anything else a boundless marine prospect.
At the entrance of the garden is an open square or table of land overlooking the plain, where, every evening at seven o’clock, the military band plays. The garden is the fashionable promenade, the higher classes resorting to it in carriages and on horseback, and the common people on foot; the display of equipages was not very striking, although there is something stylish in the Russian manner of driving four horses, the leaders with very long traces and a postillion; and soldiers and officers, with their splendid uniforms, caps, and plumes, added a brilliant effect.
Before the music began, all returned from the promenade or drive in the garden, and gathered in the square. It was a beautiful afternoon in June, and the assemblage was unusually large and brilliant; the carriages drew up in a line, the ladies let down the glasses, and the cavaliers dismounted, and talked and flirted with them just as in civilized countries. All Chioff was there, and the peasant in his dirty sheepskin jacket, the shopkeeper with his long surtout and beard, the postillion on his horse, the coachman on his box, the dashing soldier, the haughty noble and supercilious lady, touched by the same chord, forgot their temporal distinctions, and listened to the swelling strains of the music till the last notes died away. The whole mass was then in motion, and in a few moments, except by a few stragglers, of whom I was one, the garden was deserted. At about ten o’clock I returned to my hotel. We had no beds, and slept in our cloaks on settees stuffed with straw and covered with leather. We had no coverlets; still, after four days and nights in a carriage, it was a luxury to have plenty of kicking room…
After breakfast… we visited the catacombs of the Petcherskoi monastery… The Church of the Catacombs, or the Cathedral of the Assumption, attached to the monastery, stands a little out of the city, on the banks of the Dnieper. It was founded in ten hundred and seventy-three, and has seven golden domes with golden spires, and chains connecting them…
In the immense catacombs under the monastery lie the unburied bodies of the Russian saints, and year after year thousands and tens of thousands come from the wilds of Siberia and the confines of Tartary to kneel at their feet and pray. In one of the porches of the church we bought wax tapers, and, with a long procession of pilgrims, bareheaded and with lighted tapers in our hands, descended a long wooden staircase to the mouth of the catacomb. On each side along the staircase was ranged a line of kneeling devotees, of the same miserable description I had so often seen about the churches in Italy and Greece. Entering the excavated passages of the catacombs, the roof of which was black from the smoke of candles, we saw on each side, in niches in the walls, and in open coffins, enveloped in wrappers of cloth and silk, ornamented with gold and silver, the bodies of the Russian saints…
We wandered a long time in this extraordinary burial-place, everywhere strewed with the kneeling figures of praying pilgrims. At every turn we saw hundreds from the farthest parts of the immense empire of Russia; perhaps at that time more than three thousand were wandering in these sepulchral chambers.
The last scene I shall never forget. More than a hundred were assembled in a little chapel, around which were arranged the bodies of men who had died in peculiar sanctity. All were kneeling on the rocky floor, an old priest, with a long white beard streaming down his breast, was in the midst of them, and all there, even to the little children, were listening with rapt attention, as if he were preaching to them matters of eternal moment. There was no hypocrisy or want of faith in that vast sepulchre; surrounded by their sainted dead, they were searching their way to everlasting life, and in all honesty believed that they saw the way before them. We ascended once more to the regions of upper air, and stopped a few moments in the courtyard of the monastery, where the beggar pilgrims were eating the hard bread distributed to them by the monks from the bounty of government…
See below about the issues with the city’s name.
The older British appellation ‘the Ukraine’ is not used now, partly because it erroneously implies Ukraine is a region rather than a state.