Drive is on to save wooden churches in western Ukraine
Ukrainian architect Andrij Kutnyi hopes his research on the nation’s wooden churches will bring the country closer to ensuring it does not lose one of the most recognized symbols of its cultural heritage.
“The churches need to be preserved, they are important for Ukraine,” Kutnyi said, referring to the many wooden churches that dot western Ukraine’s landscape. “The restoration of wooden churches has been problematic in recent years. But you have to understand them. It’s like dialysis.”
Kutnyi, who teaches architecture at Munich’s Technical University, has spent years traveling western Ukraine to learn about the complex architectural construction of the country’s wooden churches and documenting their centuries-old histories.
On June 11, Kutnyi was rewarded for his efforts when he received the prestigious European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Awards at a ceremony held in Istanbul, Turkey. One of 29 awardees from 15 countries, Kutnyi is the first Ukrainian to be presented with the honor.
Established in 2002, the prize is awarded annually. It highlights some of Europe’s best achievements and showcases remarkable efforts made in safeguarding Europe’s landscape, archaeological and artistic heritage. Kutnyi was awarded for his research project entitled, “Sacred Timber Architecture in the Carpathians: Building Archaeology of Selected Objects in Western Ukraine.”
Internationally recognized, Ukraine’s wooden churches have become one of the country’s most iconic symbols. Although their exact number is unknown, the wooden churches are found in a relatively small geographic area – in western Ukraine, parts of Romania, notably in the Bukovyna region, and areas of Russia. Many of the churches are centuries old and have served as spiritual centers for often remote communities.
The wooden churches are known for their unique architectural style, as well as construction methods that include using few nails.
Largely through human neglect, and sometimes arson, however, Ukraine’s churches are disappearing. The country is losing an average of 5 to 8 churches annually. Lviv Oblast alone lost 17 structures in recent years, according to Kutnyi.
One of the big problems is that, instead of restoring the wooden churches, communities are tearing them down to build new elaborate brick buildings.
“There is a very low culture in our people,” said Mykhailo Kubai, assistant head of restoration at the State Historical Architectural Preserve in Zhokva, which is located 22 kilometers outside Lviv. “They disregard what they have.”
Priests can also create problems because they are the ones who oversee the churches, said Mykola Bevz, who heads the department of restoration and reconstruction of architectural complexes at Lviv’s Polytechnic University.
“In one church that was burned down, we suspect the priest was involved,” he said.
Sometimes, priests will encourage arson in order to cover up the theft of icons or the iconostasis, the wall of icons and religious paintings which separate the nave from the sanctuary in a church. Many of these objects are centuries old and were built for each church respectively.
Additionally, reconstruction efforts are expensive and are beyond the financial means of many communities. When conservation efforts are undertaken, though, communities will often choose the cheapest option and use a building firm that has no background in restoration practices.
“The wooden churches are not restored properly and those that are being restored are not professionally done,” Kutnyi said. “If conservation efforts are not done correctly, a church can fall apart.”
The movement to seriously begin conserving Ukraine’s wooden churches began in 2002, after members of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) began discussions about adding 10 Ukrainian wooden churches to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List. The list includes 890 properties world-wide that form part of the cultural and natural heritage that UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value.
Several Ukrainian sites are currently on the list, including Lviv’s historic center ensemble, Kyiv’s St. Sophia and its related monastic buildings and the Kyiv-Pecherska Lavra.
The wooden church initiative, however, did not receive adequate support from the Ukrainian government, Kutnyi said. Since 2002, two of the churches that were meant to be included on the UNESCO list have been removed: a church in the small town of Horodok was burned down in January 2009, while another church in Potelych was badly restored.
The Troitska Church in Zhokva, however, is an example of how a wooden church can be saved, said Kubai. Unlike many of Ukraine’s wooden churches, this particular structure is owned by the state, but is run by the local community. The priest, Vasyl Batiuk, has done significant outreach to the community to ensure people understand the church’s importance; he is personally involved in its upkeep.
“We’ve had all the appropriate inspections,” he said on a warm June evening, as the smell of warm wood and field flowers filled the church chamber. “We want to be part of UNESCO.”
Vohneborets, a firm from Lviv, donated time and resources to treat the building with the proper chemicals so it can withstand a fire, Batiuk said. The proper wiring has been installed and alarm systems are in place to ensure priceless 17th and 18th century icons are not stolen.
“This is our historical legacy and it must be taken care of,” Batiuk said.