Dmytro Perov was at his day job, analysing planning applications for Kyiv city council, when he saw a familiar address – the derelict 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 made the unlikely claim that their office was based at the house, which Perov knew had no roof and collapsed walls.
When he was a child, his grandmother said somewhere on the land around the former family home were rumoured to be ancient caves. He described it as a “small family legend”. Ukraine is home to a few cave complexes, most of which were built by monks, the most famous being Kyiv’s Pecherska Lavra – or Cave Monastery in English.
Perov decided that this might be his last chance to discover whether his grandmother’s tale was true. He and his friends, who like him are preservation activists, went to the site and climbed around the ruins of his grandmother’s house. Perov spotted some bushes and a pile of bricks in one corner on the hillside. There he found the entrance to a tunnel burrowing into the hill. He and his friends climbed in, 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, stretches for 40 metres, and the lower one, said Perov, is twice as long. Inside the tunnels are rooms and cubbyholes which leading archaeologists believe may have been used to place lanterns.
Timur Bobrovskyy, head of archaeology at the St Sofia state museum in Kyiv, has hailed it a significant and special discovery and concluded that it must be preserved for its “indisputable and cultural value”. Bobrovskyy assesses that the caves are more than 1,000 years old and have similarities to “medieval monastery cave complexes”. Judging by some of the markings, the caves have had visitors before Perov, but he surmised they had not realised their significance.
Etched into the walls of one of the upper cave are runic symbols used by the Varangians, the Swedish Vikings who settled in Kyiv, including the Algiz, (“chicken’s foot”), used for protection and defence.
Despite the find, the developers and their allies in Kyiv’s city council are continuing to push for planning permission and the vote on the site has not been removed from the agenda. Perov, together with Kyiv councillors, archaeologists, and the deputy head of Ukraine’s culture ministry, are gathering the documents necessary to classify the area as protected before the council’s next vote.
But efforts of this kind are not always successful. Perov’s fight is part of an bigger effort by civil society actors against the rampant corruption among the country’s elites, a longstanding problem in Ukraine that has endured despite the war. Bobrovskyy has described it as a “second front”.
Ukraine’s parliament just adopted a controversial new urban planning law, which has already garnered enough complaints via an online petition that it may be soon been repealed.
Its advocates believe it will reduce corruption by digitalising much of the process. But critics say it gives power to a single ministry and excludes scrutiny by NGOs and local councils.
Kyiv deputy Ksenia Semenova, who regularly campaigns to halt the destruction of the city’s cultural heritage, has said under the new law would she will have no tools to stop Kyiv from turning into a “concrete jungle”. Unfortunately, she said, developers “don’t know how to make a restored building commercially valuable”.
Emerging from the other end of one of the tunnels, which runs through the hillside, Perov pointed at the tall, multi-storey apartment building opposite. In 2008, a similar set of caves was found and construction work of the apartment block was halted. But when state archaeologists arrived at the site, the construction workers told the archaeologists the caves had collapsed.
Unfortunately, Perov’s grandmother is not well enough to absorb the news that Perov found the caves. Perov has said he hopes the site will be turned into a museum, which could include his former family home if it was restored.
“I just know that if my great-grandfather was around today, he would know more. I’m sure he found them,” said Perov.