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Then & Now: Velyka Zhytomyrska Street still missing its grand church

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Aug. 2, 2012, 11:14 p.m. | None — by Denis Rafalsky

This 1900 postcard shows Stritennya Church as it was on Velyka Zhytomyrska Street before its destruction in the 1930s in Soviet times.
© courtesy

Denis Rafalsky

Editor’s Note: The Kyiv Post feature “Then & Now” takes a look at how places in the city have changed over time.

Kyiv is famous for its churches. But attempts by the Bolsheviks to deprive the city of its rich spiritual and architectural legacy have had grave consequences that linger today.

Stritennya (Meeting of the Lord) Church, at the intersection of Velyka Zhytomyrska and Stritenska streets, was one of dozens of temples demolished during the campaigns against religion in the U.S.S.R. It was believed to have been destroyed during Josef Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s.

It is rumored that this church dates back to the age of the landmark St. Sophia Cathedral and St. Michael’s Cathedral, with roots in medieval Kyivan Rus. But Kyiv historian Mykhaylo Kalnytskiy finds no evidence that Stritennya dates back that far – either in the Primary Chronicles of the time or in archaelogical reports. Kalnytskiy said that, according to scientists, the original wooden temple on this site did not appear before the 17th or 18th centuries.

One undisputed historical distinction is the church’s status as the historical home for the honored Icon of the Mother of God – the “consolation for all who have sorrows.” It attracted many pilgrims who believed contact with the icon would improve their health. The holy image also had other miraculous properties, according to legend, even helping unmarried women find husbands.

An old photo on a postcard from 1900 shows Stritennya Church after being rebuilt. Its beauty clearly lit up the part of Velyka Zhytomyrska Street near Senna Square (modern-day Lviv Square). During reconstruction, the church was widened as much as the surrounding streets would allow. A bell tower in front of the church arose, and the temple itself was covered by a huge Byzantine dome. 

Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, a construction boom shook the area up.

New mansions and tenement houses sprung up along the route. Though many are but husks of their former selves, their elegant silhouettes still adorn the street.

A four-storied building at 32 Velyka Zhytomyrska Street, erected in 1911 in art-nouveau style, is the work of architect Ignatiy Ledokhovsky and is known as the “house with chestnuts” or “house with snakes” because of its molding in the form of chestnut leaves and interwoven serpents. The house, still owned by the Interior Ministry, has been standing deserted for several years, despite attempts by activists who want to save the masterpiece.

The four-storied house seen in the 1915 postcard is 38 Velyka Zhytomyrska Street. Built in 1899, it remains home to both apartments and street-front shops. This house adjoins a neighboring century-old building at 40 Velyka Zhytomyrska Street, the site of Kyiv’s oldest cinema, which opened in 1913 and since Soviet times has been named after Red Army commander Vasyl Chapayev. 

Today, looking at the narrow Velyka Zhytomyrska Street and its regular traffic jams, it is hard to visualize the tramway rails that once ran through the middle of the street. They appeared in 1892, after horse-drawn trams were replaced by electric ones running from Khreshatyk to Senna Square. They left after World War II.

Today, some 80 years after Stritennya Church’s destruction under Josef Stalin’s reign of terror, the hole remains – with the neighborbood's scenery clearly missing the Byzantine-style temple. (Sohei Yasui)

Stritennya Church became an object of particular irritation for the Bolsheviks in 1923 when rumors surfaced that the temple’s domes began to shine miraculously. Perhaps that is the reason the Soviets demolished this church in the 1930s, along with other beautiful temples.

A public garden was built on the spot.  In the 1970s, the former churchyard became a construction site for the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which stands there to this day.

Hopes to reconstruct the church live on. Among others, the idea was supported by ex-President Viktor Yushchenko. He twice visited a small chapel that exists there, built on the site of the former church.

Many obstacles have to be overcome, however, before anything like Stritennya Church can rise again. Aside from the lack of money, there’s not enough space for the church today. So the foundation trench has grassed.  

Kalnytski, the Kyiv historian, thinks it will be better for the city not to attempt kStritennya to reconstruct the church as it was, but rather design a scaled-down version on the site. But even this idea appears to be going nowhere fast.

Editor’s Note: The priest who serves in the chapel on the site of former Stritennya Church on Sunday mornings  is archpriest Serhiy Tkachuk. His mobile telephone number is (067) 508 45 33. 

Kyiv Post staff writer Denis Rafalsky can be reached at rafalsky@kyivpost.com

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