At stake are Kiev shrines, memorials with powerful symbolic value

Kyiv, which is preparing for a potentially catastrophic attack by Russia, is the spiritual heart of Ukraine.

Among the endangered sites in the Ukrainian capital are the country’s holiest Orthodox shrines, dating back almost 1,000 years to Christianity in the region.

These objects, along with other iconic shrines in Kiev, have religious significance for both Ukrainian Orthodox and Russian Orthodox. They are also strong symbols in the debate over whether the two groups are part of the same people, as Russian President Vladimir Putin said, or whether they are separate but related Slavic peoples.

Among the attractions – St. Sophia Cathedral with a golden dome and the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra – a wide underground and terrestrial complex, also known as the Cave Monastery. Among others – the multi-tower St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery and St. Andrew’s Church.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had damaged another monument, the main Holocaust memorial in Ukraine, Babi Yar, which has sparked international condemnation.

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“What will happen if even Babi Yar (suffers),” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked on Wednesday. What other “military” facilities, “NATO bases” threaten Russia? St. Sophia Cathedral, Lavra, St. Andrew’s Church? ”

There is no indication that the Russians deliberately attacked Babi Yar. There is also no evidence that the Russians plan to attack any sacred places in Kiev. But civilian buildings have already been affected in other cities, and Kiev’s main shrines are on the hills, which could make them particularly vulnerable.

Example: The Assumption Cathedral in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, was damaged in recent attacks reportedly with broken stained glass windows and damaged other ornaments. The cathedral, located near the Moscow Orthodox Church, was the tallest building in Kharkiv until the 21st century.

In Kiev, the risk is even greater.

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“We’re talking about a very old city,” said Jacob Lassin, a doctoral student at the Center for Russian, Eurasian and Eastern European Studies at Arizona State University. “The central part is tightly packed. Even if you try to hit one thing, you can easily get into something else. ”

The symbolic value of shrines is significant even for people who do not share the religious faith they remember.

“The idea that the main symbol that has stood in your city for 1,000 years could be threatened or destroyed is very frightening,” Losin said.

Symbols are important not only for the Ukrainian people, but also for Putin. He justified the invasion with baseless allegations of “neo-Nazism” in Ukraine, a country with a Jewish president.

Babin Yar, a ravine in Kiev, where in 1941, when the city was under Nazi occupation, in 48 hours more than 33,000 Jews were exterminated. The assassination was committed by SS troops along with local collaborators. According to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the United States, it was one of the largest mass killings in one place during World War II.

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It is “both a cursed and a holy place,” said David Harris, director general of the American Jewish Committee. Only last year Zelensky took part in the opening ceremony of the memorial.

Whether Kiev’s Orthodox shrines are under direct attack or side damage, such actions would be a “complete rebuttal” to another of Putin’s claims – the protection of Orthodox Ukrainians loyal to the Moscow patriarch, Losin said.

“According to his own rhetoric, this would literally destroy the core of Russian Orthodoxy,” Losin said.

The oldest parts of the shrines date back to the medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus, shortly after the adoption of Christianity under Prince Vladimir in the 10th century. Putin said that the kingdom is the common ancestor of today’s Russia and Ukraine. Ukrainians claim that their separate nation is now under fratricidal attack by its Slavic neighbor.

The cathedral and the nearest monastery complex are “a masterpiece of creative genius of man both in its architectural concept and in its magnificent decoration,” – said in a summary of UNESCO, in which they are included in the World Heritage List.

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The cathedral, built under Prince Yaroslav the Wise in the XI century, was modeled on the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople, the spiritual and architectural heart of medieval Orthodoxy. Kiev Cathedral includes mosaics and frescoes about 1,000 years old, and it was a model for later temples in the region, according to UNESCO.

“The huge pantheon of Christian saints, reflected in the cathedral, has an unsurpassed number of Byzantine monuments of the time,” – said UNESCO.

According to UNESCO, the Cave Monastery, including underground monastic cells, tombs of saints and above-ground churches built over nearly nine centuries, has had a huge impact on the spread of Orthodox Christianity.

Both complexes were threatened with extinction and were sometimes damaged by centuries of war.

Sophia, sacred to both the two main rival Orthodox churches in Ukraine and to Catholics, is now a museum and is not commonly used for religious services.

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The two landmarks are related to opposing sides in the split within Ukrainian Orthodoxy.

The monastery complex is under the supervision of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is associated with the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, although it has broad autonomy. Mikhailov is the basis for a more nationalist Orthodox Church in Ukraine. But Ukrainian leaders of both Orthodox groups harshly criticized the Russian invasion.

If the sights of Kiev are damaged or destroyed, “could it potentially damage morale? Yes, ”Lasin said. “Could this potentially encourage people to be more cohesive? Absolutely. … I can say that the Ukrainian people are extremely resilient and are fighting through all this. “

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Associated Press reporter Jim Heinz of Kyiv contributed to the report.

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Religious Coverage Associated Press is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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