‘A second front’: Fight to save 1,000-year-old caves from Ukrainian developers | Ukraine

Dmytro Perov was at his day job, analyzing town planning applications for the Kyiv City Council, when he saw a familiar address – the abandoned house in central Kyiv built by his family in the late 1800s that was confiscated by the Bolsheviks. The owners of the site now wanted to build on it and had improbably claimed that their office was based in the house, which Perov knew had no roof and the walls had collapsed.

When he was a child, his grandmother said that somewhere in the grounds around the old family home were rumored to be ancient caves. He described him as a “little family legend”. Ukraine is home to a few cave complexes, most of which were built by monks, the most famous being that of Kyiv Pecherska Latrue – or Cave Monastery in English.

Perov decided this might be his last chance to find out if his grandmother’s story was true. He and his friends, who like him are conservation activists, traveled to the site and climbed the ruins of his grandmother’s house. Perov spotted bushes and a pile of bricks in a corner of the hill. There he found the entrance to a tunnel dug into the hill. He and his friends climbed up, using their phones as torches.

So far they have discovered the entrances to four tunnels in and around the hills behind the house. The upper tunnel, which is the most accessible, is 40 meters long, and the lower one, Perov says, is twice as long. Inside the tunnels are rooms and cubbyholes that leading archaeologists believe could have been used to place lanterns.

Timur Bobrovskyy, head of archeology at the Hagia Sophia State Museum in Kyiv, hailed it as an important and special find and concluded that it should be preserved for its “undoubted and cultural value”. Bobrovskyy estimates that the caves are over 1,000 years old and bear similarities to “medieval monastery cave complexes”. Judging by some of the markings, the caves had visitors before Perov, but he surmised they had not realized their importance.

Carved into the walls of one of the upper caves are runic symbols used by the Varangians, the Swedish Vikings who settled in Kyiv, including the Algiz, (“chicken’s foot”), used for protection and defense.

Despite the discovery, developers and their allies in the Kyiv City Council continue to push for planning permission and the vote on the site has not been taken off the agenda. Perov, together with Kyiv advisers, archaeologists and the deputy head of Ukraine’s culture ministry, is gathering the documents needed to classify the area as protected ahead of the council’s next vote.

But such efforts are not always successful. Perov’s fight is part of a larger effort by civil society actors against endemic corruption among the country’s elites, a longstanding problem in Ukraine that persists despite the war. Bobrovskyy described it as a “second front”.

Ukraine’s parliament has just passed a controversial new planning law, which has already sparked enough complaints via an online petition that it will soon be repealed.

Experts say the cave complex should be preserved for its “undoubted and cultural value”. Photo: Isobel Koshow/The Guardian

Its supporters believe it will reduce corruption by digitizing much of the process. But critics say it gives power to a single ministry and excludes control from NGOs and local councils.

Kyiv MP Ksenia Semenova, who regularly campaigns to end the destruction of the city’s cultural heritage, said under the new law she would have no tools to prevent Kyiv from turning into a “concrete jungle”. Unfortunately, she says, developers “don’t know how to commercially value a restored building.”

Emerging from the other end of one of the tunnels, which runs through the hill, Perov pointed to the tall, multi-story building opposite. In 2008, a similar set of caves was discovered and construction work on the building was halted. But when state archaeologists arrived at the site, construction workers told the archaeologists that the caves had collapsed.

Unfortunately, Perov’s grandmother isn’t well enough to absorb the news that Perov has found the caves. Perov said he hopes the site will become a museum, which could include his former family home if restored.

“I just know that if my great-grandfather was here today, he would know better. I’m sure he found them,” Perov said.

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