A brief outline on Chernihiv's history

Saint Mykhailo

Prince Mstyslav


On the territory which is occupied by the modern Chernihiv they found traces of human activity of the 4th millenium B.C. At the beginning of the 1st millenium A.D. Slavonic tribes settled in this area. Their settlements grew and became stronger and by the second half of the 7th century several of these settlements fused and thus formed a town. Chernihiv was mentioned in the first time in a Chronicle, which gives an account of the first treaty of Rus with Bysantium. This treaty was concluded in summer 860 by the Prince Askold after a successful campaign of the Kyiv army against the armies of Constantinople. In the list of the Russian cities, to which according to the treaty, the Greeks were obliged to pay tribute, Chernihiv stood on the second place after Kyiv and this is an evidence importance of the main city of the Slavic tribe Siveryane as an economical and cultural centre of the Russian land.

Many ancient chronicles and other writings confirm the Ancient power of Chernihiv. There are many interesting monuments which date back to the 9th and 10th Centuries-the burial places of princes and boyars-men-at-arms. During their excavations they unearthed objects, which characterize social relations, lifestyle and culture of the townspeople. A unique monument is the burial mound Chorna mohyla (the Black Grave), which according to legends is the burial place of the Prince Chornyy. In the burial mounds, many articles were located including swords, sabres, spears, chain mails, a shield with a copper mount, tableware, but the most precious find were two horns of an aurochs with silver ornamentation. Boldyna Hill, located near the center also, is dominated by two ancient and large burial mounds, Hulbishche and Bezimennyy. A sword, a shield, a chain mail, a battle axe and other battle equipment, which were founded in the Hulbishche mound. Due to the enormous proportions of these mounds, compared to the many smaller mounds surrounding them, is evidence that it was a burial place of a great and mighty warrior-bogatyr.

Early in the 11th century, Chernihiv became the capital of a huge and mighty principality. At the end of the 10th century the Grand Duke Vladimir of Kyiv completed the unification of the Eastern Slavic tribes in the Old Russian State Kyiv Rus. To strengthen his power, the Grand Duke Vladimir replaced the local princes, who were in vassalage from him, by his sons, who were appointed deputies. After the death of Vladimir Svyatoslavich in 1015, the effort to succeed him degenerated into a bloody battle for power. All began when Svyatopolk the Damned ordered the assassination of his brothers Boris and Gleb and seized the throne of the Grand Duke. As Yaroslav the Wise, who reigned in Novgorod, was informed about the bloodshed. He sent his Army south to campaign against Kyiv, and defeated Svyatopolk who was forced into exile. But Yaroslav did not settle in the Kyiv, instead he returned to Novgorod to reign his father's land.

Taking advantage of Yaroslav's absence, an energtic and enterprising Mstislav the Brave entered Kyiv's gates. Mstislav had reigned in T'mutarakan', which he received from his father, and demanded that he should be accepted as the Grand Duke. But the Kyivites refused to honor their self proclaimed Duke. After their refusal, Mstislav came to Chernihiv, where at that time there was no prince and where the local nobility and the clergy, who invited him to the throne, hospitably accepted him.

But both, Yaroslav as well as Mstislav were eager to unite the great country under proper power. Having used a war ruse, in 1024 in the battle of Listven, 25 miles from Chernihiv where Mstislav comprehensively defeated his brother. For the Slavs this victory was of a great importance, since the army of Mstislav the Brave consisted of his local subjects, while in the army of Yaroslav served the Vikings, professional military, who were considered invincible. But not invane Yaroslav got the alias the Wise: that, what he could not manage to do with power, he managed to do with diplomacy - in two years the brothers made it up and devided the Russian lands by the Dnieper.

Chernihiv became the capital of a principality, the lands of which reached the Oka, the Don, the Sea of Azov. Having reigned in Chernihiv for 10 years Mstislav suddenly died and the Chernihiv lands came to Yaroslav the Wise. Shortly before his death, Yaroslav divided all his lands between his three sons. Svyatoslav, who reigned in it 19 years long and became the founder of the house of Svyatoslavychi, inherited Chernihiv. Relations between all three princes of Chernihiv were continually strained. In 1078, Vladimir Monomakh settled in Chernihiv, but after 16 years, he had to pass the reign to Svyatoslav's son Oleg. In 1097 the Princes Congress of Lyubech declared the hereditary right to Chernihiv and the Chernihiv lands to Svyatoslavichi, who reigned them for more than a hundred years.

The reign of Mstislav the Brave was the beginning of the Golden Age of Chernihiv. The taxes came to the prince's exchequer from an area equal in size to modern France. Arts and crafts rapidly developed, chronicles were written, the Chernihiv architectural style appeared, beautiful edifices were erected, some of them have preserved to the present. In its golden age Chernihiv was one of the greatest cities of Europe, its fortificated area was about ? square miles, and the population was 25 thousand people.

Having declined the principle of the dynastic allotment of Rus, the Lyubech Congress of Princes allowed the Russian principalities to become smaller and smaller in each generation. This feudal disintegration further weakened the Principality of Chernihiv. This process opened the region to the hoards of Batu Khan of the Golden Hord to which soon captured the Russian lands. Chernihiv was taken by storm by Mengu Khan on October 19 1239 and ransacked and devastated. The city was so thoroughly destroyed that only in the 18th century did the city grow to its former borders. But the city never managed to return itself the bygone fame.

For more than four centuries, Chernihiv was faced with a period of stagnation and decay. From the middle of the 14th century, the city was in possession of Lithuanian feudal lords. And at the beginning of the 15th century, the Chernihiv lands fell under the power of the princes of the Moscow State. At these Times of Troubles the city more than once was the subject of attacks of Crimean Tatars. The most devastating raids were those of Khan Mengli-Girei, who burned the town in 1482 and 1497. In 1618 the Moscow State ceded the Chernihiv lands to Poland.

The national-liberation war of the Ukrainian people under the leadership of Bohdan Khmel'nitskyy against the Polish gentry ended in 1648 with the annexation of the Livoberezhna Ukraine to the successor of Muscovy - the Russian State. During the period of the so called Hetmanshchina - relative autonomy of the Livoberezhna Ukraine as a part of Russia - began the renaissance of Chernihiv as of political, economical and cultural centre. The city became the centre of a Kozak Regiment since a regiment in those times was an administrative territorial rather than a military unit. The colonels had not only military, but also civil power. And the whole autonomy was ruled by the Hetman. From this comes the name Hetmanshchina.

With the beginning of active colonization of the Livoberezhna Ukraine by Russia, which was accompanied by abolition Kozak freedoms and the enslavment of peasantry, its regimental system was liquidated. Chernihiv became the centre of a region ruled by governor-general, and from 1797 it became the main city (capital) of the Malorossiyskaya (from 1861 the Chernihiv) Province of the Russian Empire. The development of the capital industry began after the reform of 1861. In 1913 the city had 30 enterprises, most of them were distilleries. For a number of reasons, Chernihiv did not became an industrial city and it did not managed to break away out from provincial chains.

The news about the Bolshevist October coup in the Empire's capital Petrograd came to Chernihiv on the third day. During the years of the Civil War and Foreign Intervention the city changed hands many times to diffeent factions. After the final establishment of the Soviet power in Chernihiv at the end of October 1919, they began to restore the ruined economy. In 1932 the city became the capital of the Chernihiv Region, which was formed in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of 15 republics of the Soviet Union. In the course of the implementation of the Industrialization Program in Chernihiv many new branches of industry appeared. In 1934 their first output produced the factory for preliminary treatment of wool, and a factory of musical instruments.

During World War II, and in particular the summer offensive of the German troops in 1941 Chernihiv became a key point on their way to Moscow around the Bryansk forests. The strategic significance of Chernihiv was understood by the Soviet command as well, which placed here strong defensive lines. The first raids of the German air force on the city began as early as at the end of June. The bombings caused great destruction to Chernihiv.

The German occupation of Chernihiv lasted from September 9 1941 till September 21 1943. In the city they created three concentration camps. During the occupation, the Germans killed more that 52 thousand local residents and Soviet war prisoners. Today, many monuments stands to honor the many that died during those years. The woodlands of the Chernihiv lands and of the neighboring regions created favourable conditions for partisan warfare. The partisan movement in the land gained a wide scope, more than 50 thousand people participated in it. Under the guidance of the Soviet intelligence service in Chernihiv, which acted as an anti-German underground organization, many of the operations were well coordinated.

As a result of war actions Chernihiv was almost totally destroyed. In September 1943 from its central square one could see the city's outskirts and the fields around it. In Chernihiv they distroyed all industrial enterprises, all schools, theatres, shops and stores, many interesting architectural monuments and about 70% of housing. Only 3 cities of the former USSR received more severe destruction than Chernihiv: Stalingrad, Sevastopol and Voronezh.

The restoration of Chernihiv and its economy went on rapidly. As early as 1950, all cities' enterprises reached their prewar level of production. Soon they started to build the industrial giants: the chemical fiber plant and the worsted cloth mill. In the 1970s the plant for automobile spare parts and the radio instrument plant were constructed.

1986 came into history as a year of the greatest nuclear catastrophe of the 20th century, which was the consequence of an accident on April 26 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. The sprawling plant, named after V.I.Lenin (the Lenin Nuclear Power Station), which is situated only in 50 miles (80 km) as the crow flies to the West from Chernihiv. News that "something has happened" came to the Chernihivites through the refugees from the bedroom community of power specialists Prypyat'. Firstly the fact of the incident and its possible consequences were carefully concealed, then the Communist Propaganda Machine brought down all the might of its criticism to the Western media, which reported the truth about Chernobyl. In spite of the statements of Moscow, that nothing serious had happened, the moods of the Chernihivites were close to panic. Everybody was eager to send his or her children out of the city, at least for a short period of time.

The main negative consequences of the catastrophe were the numerous health problems of the fireman and other accident response teams, the men and women who built the sarcophagus and of local children. After the catastrophe they diagnosed 56 cases of thyroid gland cancer in children in the Chernihiv Region, while before the wreck there was not a single such case. Nevertheless, thanks to the wind, which blew in the opposite direction, Chernihivites suffered relatively little compared to residents West and North of the site. Legend has it happened because in one of Chernihiv's temples were kept the imperishable remains of St.Theodosius, of the well known Ukrainian church and political figure, who was the archbishop of Chernihiv at the end of the XVII century.

At the beginning of 1990's, Chernihiv again reminded the Soviet Union of it's existence, and much of the world during the tumultuous years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Everything began with a simple road incident: on January 6, the eve of the Orthodox Christmas on one of the city's crossroads a "Volga" of a region official struck a private "Zhiguli". In the opened trunk, the passers-by saw something they couldn't see in their sweetest dreams. There was… food! The people, who everyday had to scour the shops in search of a piece of cheap sausage or a bottle of milk seized the feeling of injustice, which immediately led to a spontaneous riot.

From the crowd that gathered around the overturned "Volga", people clambered through the trunk and began displaying their "trophies", which they seized in the car. They took their frustration out from their From this simple event, thousands of residents began to attend meetings against the Communist regime. The January events in Chernihiv became in the history of the USSR, "the Sausage Revolution". This took place during Gorbachov's perestroika and relative democratization of the Soviet society, people understood for the first time that it was possible to express their claims to power openly.

From 1991 Chernihiv is the historical city, the region and district centre of the young independent East European state Ukraine. In September 1992 in Chernihiv celebrated 1300-year anniversary of the founding of the city. The central event of the holiday was the unveiling of the monument to the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, in which participated the first President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk.


For a long time it was considered, that the first written record of Chernihiv dates back to 907. The ground for this was the account of the treaty of Rus with Byzantium in Chronicles of Bygone Temes, this treaty was signed by Prince Oleg of Kyiv. But the Chernihiv historian Volodymyr Kovalenko states, that the first treaties of Kyiv with Constantinople were concluded already by Prince Askold. Readdressing and redating of these documents was made by the scribes of Yaroslav the Wise purely for ideological reasons.
Rus, Russia, Ukraine. (Instead of a note)

For some readers, especially foreign, is not clear why in reference to the history of Ukraine one uses the word Russian. This adjective comes from the noun Rus. Originally, Rus were understood those East Slavic tribes, who settled in the region of the middle flow of the Dnieper, first of all Polyany. The main cities of Rus were Kyiv, Chernihiv, Pereyaslavl'. There appeared a state formation Rus'ka Zemlya (Russian Land), and later - the early feudal state the Rus of Kyiv, which grew rapidly and consolidated in itself other East Slavic tribe unions. So in the course of time appeared the territorial notions Mala (small) Rus and Velyka (great) Rus, which correlated as the nucleus and the whole. Respectively the populations of these areas were called the Malorossy and Velykorossy.

Later the south-west Russian lands (Mala Rus) became Ukraine, that is an edge, outlying districts, and their population (Malorosy) got the name Ukraintsy (the Ukrainians). The word Rossiya (Russia) is of Byzantine origin, so in the Greek and Latin manner already in the Middle Ages they called Rus in the West. From there this name came to the lands, the consolidation of that was started by the Moscow State. Comparatively recently the word Velykorosy came out of use and the Slavic population of Russia started to call itself simply Russkiye (the Russians).

In the modern Russian language the adjective ruskiy means both: that which refers to the Old Rus and that which refers to the Russians, the Russian people. Comparatively new adjective rossiyskiy marks the relation to Russia as to a state. In Ukrainian language the word rus'kyy has only one meaning - that, that refers to Rus. And the adjective rosiys'kyy expreses the reference to both: the Russian people and to Russia, the Russian Federation.


bogatyr - a large and strong Old Russian warrior, usually the protagonist of bylinas
boyar - a member of the Old Russian aristocracy next in rank to the ruling princes
bylina - an folk epic song about a bogatyr
-ich - ending to form a patronimic, thus Svyatoslavich means a son of Svyatoslav, in its plural form - ichi - it designates the house, the dynasty: Svyatoslavichi
Kozaks (Cossacks) - an estate, which appeared in Ukraine in the 15th century, free warriors, the main force in the National Liberation War of the Ukrainian people against the Polish domination
T'mutarakan' - remote properties of the Kyiv Rus, today the Kerch and the Taman' peninsulas washed by the Sea of Azov and the Black See
Livoberezhna Ukraine, the - in the word for word meaning: Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnieper, in the historical meaning: a vast territory of the modern Chernihiv and Poltava Regions, of the Eastern part of the Kyiv Region with Kyiv itself, of the Northern part of the Dnepropetrovsk Region and some lands, which today make part of Russia.
Hetman - the chief Kozak commander, the supreme governer of Ukraine
Perestroika - a policy of democratization of the society pursued by the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov

© Sergie & Elena Kolesnyk, Alex Liubenko, Svetlana Kokorina
July, 2002