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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Seat of the Christian faith

Pilgrims from Pidliashia and the road to Kyiv
9 October, 2007 - 00:00

In the stories recounted by elderly residents of Pidliashia, who are at least 80 years old or sometimes close to 100, one can hear legends and tales that for centuries the populace maintained as a kind of defense against foreign encroachments on their culture. One of these living monuments, which is still widespread in the Pidliashia area [region in the eastern part of Poland and western Belarus; located between the Bierza River in the north and its natural continuation to the south — the Polissia area — Trans.], is the saying, “Your tongue will take you to Kyiv.” This saying is especially important because the Ukrainian-speaking residents of this region, which has long been part of Poland, sometimes betray a low level of national consciousness and are thus particularly susceptible to losing their ancestral roots.

In addition, the use by the local clergy of the Russian language in divine services and the architecture of numerous Pidliashia Orthodox churches, built or rebuilt in keeping with the Russian “state style,” suggest grounds to assume that Orthodoxy, as the basis of the feeling of otherness from our neighbors, originated in our lands via Muscovy. However, a closer look at historical documents and the oral tradition is enough to convince us that Kyiv was the spiritual seat, the sparks of which lit the Christian faith in the area of the Buh and Narva rivers.

We know that the greatest spiritual shrine of Kyiv and all Ukraine- Rus’ is the Kyivan Cave Monastery (Pecherska Lavra) founded in the 11th century by the monks Antonii and Feodosii. Before long, this brotherhood became enveloped in an aureole of miracles, which gave rise among the faithful to the conviction that the monastery was a particularly sacred place where everyone who is buried there, even if a sinner, would be saved thanks to the prayers of SS. Antonii and Feodosii. And so, despite Kyiv’s continuing decline from the capital city of a huge empire under Volodymyr the Great and Yaroslav the Wise into an administrative center of a voivodeship of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (and “of Ruthenia”) in the 15th century, the importance and fame of the Kyivan Cave Monastery endured.

Orthodox aristocrats supported the monastery with generous contributions during their lifetimes and left significant sums of money in their last wills and testaments, thereby hoping for eternal salvation. Prince Fedir Sanguszko, the Ukrainized descendant of Grand Duke Olgerd of Lithuania, who owned estates in Volhynia and Pidliashia, wrote in his will that his body should be buried in the Dormition Cathedral on the grounds of the Cave Monastery, next to the graves of his ancestors, and authorized the payment of 3,000 groszy (100 zloty) and a gold chain to be donated for the decoration of the Icon of the Mother of God at the monastery. Another Volhynian magnate related to Sanguszko, Mykhailo Bohush Bohovytynovych, who also owned several estates in Pidliashia, also aspired to eternal rest at the Cave Monastery and left a large sum of money to the monastery in his last will and testament.

The Kyivan Cave Patericon Kyievo-Pecherskyi Pateryk) was extremely important to our ancestors. This is a 13th-century collection of stories about the founding of the monastery and its first monks. After numerous redactions it was printed at the monastery print shop in the 17th century, and a large number of copies were disseminated in Ukraine, spreading the glory of the Cave Monastery and emphasizing its special place in Orthodox Slavdom. Not surprisingly, it attracted masses of pilgrims from all over Ukraine and abroad, who asked for directions. Hence the saying, “Your tongue will lead you to Kyiv.”

This adage was near and dear to the hearts of the people of the Pidliashia region, who until the First World War continued to make pilgrimages to Kyiv, which exhausted the body but rejuvenated the spirit. In 1882 a contributor to the Kholmsko-Varshavskyi eparkhialnyi visnyk (Kholm-Warsaw Eparchial Herald), who signed himself as a “peasant from Bilsk County,” wrote: “Who is not aware of the immense importance of our religious centers in the life of our people in general, and particularly in the life of the common folk? It is known that in most cases the founders of such centers were the great devotees of the Rus’ land, whose lives epitomize the well- known ideal of the Christian monk. The people have not forgotten them over the centuries; they are accustomed to visiting places glorified by the feats of its Christian heroes.” The act of pilgrimage was also fostered by purely individual matters, like hope for a cure or the resolution of marital problems.

In Pidliashia, miracle-working icons were especially popular in the villages of Stary Kornyn (a local icon was brought in 1915 by refugees to Russia, where it was destroyed), Hodyshiv (today: the site of a Roman Catholic sanctuary), and, to a lesser degree, Bilsk. The bulk of pilgrims visited these places. In contrast, as the above-mentioned “peasant” declared, “only a few energetic individuals” braved a pilgrimage to Pochaiv and especially to Kyiv, which was a thousand kilometers away. Later, the railway construction boom, particularly the first railway connecting Bilsk to Kyiv in 1898, offered the opportunity for quick and easy travel, but few residents of Pidliashia could afford it.

The Putivnyk po sviatykh mistsiakh Kyieva (Guidebook to Holy Sites in Kyiv, published in 1877) reads: “Sometimes you look with sympathy at these pilgrims, completely exhausted by their journey, who have mustered their last bit of strength to reach Kyiv as fast as they can amid the sunny heat, across the hot sands. However, for them this toil is easy because they promised to endure all of this just so they could spend time in the holy city and bow down to its shrines. The mere sight of the city gives birth to noble feelings in the souls of the pious pilgrims. Many who have spent only a brief time here cannot leave it without grief and sorrow, and they consider the time spent in Kyiv as the happiest moment of their lives.”

In the interwar period, when the road to Kyiv was cut off by the Polish-Soviet border, Orthodox pilgrims from Pidliashia ended their pilgrimages in Pochaiv (today: Volyn oblast), and when this holy site also ended up on the wrong side of the border that was established in 1944 along the Curzon Line, Holy Mount Hrabarka assumed the role of the major spiritual center not only of Pidliashia but also of the general Orthodox community living in Poland.

Maria Misiiuk (b. 1909), from the village of Vydovo near Bilsk, where my father was born, told me: “We do not have any holy place besides Hrabarka. But since the tsar, none of us have ever gone to Hrabarka; we never heard. There were several men who walked from Vydovo to Kyiv, but they all died a long time ago. They made a donation and then they set out, mostly in the springtime, because they had far to go. I don’t remember if anyone went to Pochaiv Monastery. We went there under Pilsudski (i.e., in the 1930s — Author), I went on such a trip myself. There is such beauty in Pochaiv.”

Today, if you follow the route of the Pidliashia churches and listen to local stories, you will see that both pilgrims and the monks of the Kyivan Cave Monastery traveled the routes between the Narva, Buh, and Dnipro rivers, seeking refuge from the Tatar onslaught in the first half of the 13th century. On their way they were supposed to see Holy Mount Hrabarka and the village of Klenyky, the small town of Narva (on the banks of the Narva River), and the natural landmark Krynochka in Bilovezhska Pushcha.

According to local lore, Holy Mount Hrabarka, which the Polish media has dubbed the Orthodox Czestochowa (the monastery in Jasna Gora is the largest Roman Catholic shrine in Poland, founded after the miracle-working Icon of the Mother of God was transferred there from a castle church in the Ukrainian city of Belz in the 14th century) is closely associated with both the Kyivan Cave Monastery and the era of Galician-Volhynian Rus’. The Galician-Volhynian Chronicle states that there was a miracle-working icon of our Savior in Melnyk, a town in Pidliashia located on the banks of the Buh River in the 13th century, to which King Danylo Romanovych (of Halych) prayed in 1258: “He prayed for the Lord our Savior, and this is an icon that is in the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the town of Melnyk, and it hangs there today in high esteem — and King Danylo pledged to embellish the icon.”

Holy Mount Hrabarka and other places in Pidliashia, sanctified by the faith and the oral tradition, are additional proof that in every place where the Ukrainian people live one can find something that enriches our knowledge about our national past. Tradition and historical memory are to every community what an autobiography is to a person. Even though much of it has been lost here, because there is a chasm between generations of grandparents and grandchildren, quite a few traces of our forefathers remain, as well as of those pilgrims who once visited Ukraine’s sacred sites.

Yurii Havryliuk lives in the Bilsk Pidliashia area.