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14 March, 2012  ▪  Oleh Repan

Deep Into the Past

The national reserve for history and the arts has undergone some major changes over the past six years

When I first arrived here, the only things that could possibly lure a tourist to this place were the locale’s natural beauty and some ruins. Today, the reserve has it all. Petro Doroshenko’s bastion at Zamkova Hora or “Castle Hill,” the St. Peter and Paul Church, and the Hetman’s Residence have all been renovated—and those are just the changes made to the Chyhyryn complex. Improvements have been made to other parts of the reserve as well, including Subotiv, Medvedivka and the lesser-known Stetsivka, explaining the recent fivefold increase in tourist flow.

I came to love these places from a different angle. I’ve loved the Kholodnyi Yar or “Cold Ravine” located in the reserve for its tranquility and its forests, where one can lay out in a sleeping bag near the Illinska Church and enjoy its delicate moonlit domes. Once, as we hiked through the ravine loaded with backpacks, we came across a small forest lake. Even one of the students whose family has lived in this place for generations said, “I would expect a view like this somewhere in New Zealand.”

Today, the risk is running into a crowd of tourists. Most of them come here just to take pictures in the legendary Cold Ravine, eat some buckwheat pancakes and rush home.

More persistent tourists will find another, more intense path. Just walk a little farther from the popular trails and you are sure to meet some expert hikers who will show you a side of the Cold Ravine that average tourists never get to see.


Although no one really knows exactly when the locals began their prolific digging, one thing is certain: they’ve become quite good at it. The local territory is perfect for subterranean hideouts, since the underlying material is mostly composed of sedimentary rock. Tunnels dug in this soil can be preserved for centuries provided that they are well ventilated. The part of Motrona’s Monastery that is hidden from the average tourist’s eye is proof that the local builders knew this secret. The hill is pierced with ventilation holes, so tourists should be careful where they step.

Visitors cannot access most of the secret corridors as the entrances are blocked with earth. This is for the best, though. In the early 1930s, three curious tourists from the Lenin’s Testament commune got into the old monastery caves, and were found four days later. They got lost near the exit yet failed to find their way out of the underground labyrinth. Today, tourists can see only a small passage 20 meters long that hints at the monks’ skillful digging. Experts say there had once been several corridors leading to nearby ravines so that enemies couldn’t find anyone even if they broke into the monastery. 

Subotiv, the home village and residence of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, has underground tunnels as well. Modern cellars confirm the long-standing digging tradition. Some of them are masterpieces created by masters of pickaxes and spades. They feature the same proportions of width and height (i.e. one to two) and semi-oval vault form, as dungeons dating from earlier times. Often, new cellars were dug in the same spots where ancestors had created theirs a few hundred years prior. One local found a brick from the 17th century with a dog’s footprint on it when expanding his cellar.

The locals also have a longstanding tradition of creativity. Residents of Subotiv say that some underground tunnels from the Cossack era led both to Chyhyryn, which was 7km away, and as far as Motrona’s Monastery, which was 30km away! The tunnel to the latter was wide enough for a man to ride through it on horseback. 

As he designed the defensive system for his home village of Subotiv, Bohdan Khmelnytsky included some underground corridors there. According to Viktor Huhlia, director of the local reserve office, the hetman allegedly created three underground tunnels branching out from the Illinska Church. One of the tunnels certainly linked the fortified stone church, which served a military purpose in addition to its religious role, to the castle’s defense tower. The corridors were partly studied in the 1950s, but heavy rains around the turn of this century resulted in two chasms within 15 meters of the church. One of the corridor walls still features holes that once held torches. Underground corridors existed beneath the Subotiv Castle, too, causing the earth to sink here from time to time. A few of them have already been explored. Under the most pessimistic expectations, the corridors stretch for several dozen meters under the surface.

More recent tunnels were dug during the War for Liberation. The Cold Ravine partisans fought against the Red Army consistently until 1922, still attacking them sporadically in 1925. From 1919-1921, the partisans often killed Bolsheviks, although the latter avoided going to the Cold Ravine villages unless absolutely necessary. The most persistent Bolsheviks had the fate of the special “anti-bandit” unit of the Petrograd Emergency Committee to fear. Nearly 200 well-trained thugs from the unit entered the forest but none returned. Following the incident, partisans could be spotted wearing the unit’s cozy leather jackets. But that time passed and the partisans were eventually forced to hide underground to continue their struggle for survival.


First, an old “Jeep” from the soviet era carries us down the forest path. Then, the only way to get farther is to walk. One of our companions grew tired during the first day of the tour and said: “Poor Bolsheviks! Can you imagine how bad it was chasing our guys in these woods?”  As my friend Yurko and I continued through the thick forest, the phrase repeated in my mind. However, Yurko promised to show me some real hideouts he had learned about from elderly Cold Ravine partisans that he had met when they were still alive.

My impression of the first hideout was that Vasyl Shkliar had told the truth in his novel, Black Raven. It was really huge. It could easily house 50 or at least 30-40 people. A big room was cut into the slope with ventilation holes in the ceiling. Many parts of it were ruined because the hideout was dug in clay. Wooden pillars were put inside to support the ceiling and their fragments are still there. The Cold Ravine hideout was totally different from that used by the UPA, Ukrayinska Povstanska Armiya (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), in 1940s and 1950s. For enemies that reached it, the hideout was impossible to miss, so the partisans guarded it from nearby posts. 

There were also other underground arrangements could ensure safety at home. A man named Benedykt Panteliyovych once lived on the bank of a small river between the Kirovohrad and Cherkasy Oblasts. He had fought in the First World War, and when he witnessed the terror of the Bolsheviks, he joined the Cold Ravine partisans. To make sure the Emergency Committee officers did not catch him at home, he built three underground corridors from his house and yard. One began under his house, another was under his well and included a hideout, and the third one was under the barn. With all corridors interlinked, Benedykt’s yard looked like a chunk of cheese. The corridors did not lead to the ravine, which was far from the yard. Instead, they led to yet another smaller tunnel dug under the entire village, which plunged into the ravine. Eventually, the underground maze turned out to have been linked with virtually every village yard. These people must have loved digging – and they definitely knew how to do it well.


Next to the Onufriyivsky Monastery, crowning a hill near the village of Chubivka and the Cold Ravine are sacral underground tunnels. They pierce the entire monastery hill with only straight sections stretching some 300-400 meters based on the gaps in them. Nobody knows when the corridors were built. The first mention of the monastery traces back to 1604, but some ascetics might have settled here much earlier. From 1996-2000, Cherkasy archeologists cleared and explored 70 meters of the monastery caves. They included a small underground church, monastery cells and twisted circular corridors.

Our most recent visit to the Onufriyivsky Monastery was a pleasant surprise. Father Erast was kind enough to have the caves opened for us. The monks are slowly working there. They have already cleaned up 200 meters of the corridors. Now, they are laying brick on the walls and building a church there. Slightly confused by the unfinished work, they invited us to come back in spring when they will have “completed construction.” 


In the late 1990s, a group of “black archeologists” visited the Cold Ravine with state-of-the-art equipment. They discovered underground holes and descended into them. Professionals who earn their living with this sort of work should have been familiar with the risks inherent in working in old dungeons and underground corridors. However, this team of treasure hunters apparently saw something they had not expected! Having woken up in the caves the next morning, the terrified team rushed back to the safety of Cherkasy, never to return to the underground tunnel. 


“…two of their ‘homes’ were camouflaged. Each could easily house at least 50 people. Cossacks built an underground stable for 50 horses nearby. All three dugouts were interconnected with corridors so that people could visit each other without going outside for no reason.”

The Black Raven by Vasyl Shkliar 

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