Chernihiv – Чернігів in Ukrainian, Чернигов (Chernigov) in Russian – is a city of about 294,000 in northern Ukraine. It is the capital of Chernihiv Oblast (province) that borders both Russia and Belarus and ranks among the oldest cities in Ukraine and, indeed, one of the oldest in Europe. Written records as early as 907 mention Chernihiv and historians believe the city was founded even earlier, perhaps in the 7th century.
Chernihiv was an important city and principality in the Kievan Rus empire that thrived from about 880 to 1239. Kievan Rus was the forerunner of the today's Slavic nations of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. During this period, the Chernihiv Principality was an active rival of Kyiv (Kiev) for domination within the Kievan Rus state. One of the Chernihiv's most important landmarks – the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior (Спасо-Преобрженський Собор) – begun in 1036 by Mstislav the Bold, dates from this period, as does the unusual red brick St. Paraskeva Pyatnitsa Church (П'ятницька церква), also known as the Church of the Good Friday, built at the end of the 12th century.
Chernihiv's golden age came to an abrupt end in 1239 when the city was sacked by the Mongol hordes of Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis), the first of a series of foreign rulers to control the region. In the following century, the city became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In the late 15th century, the city was burned (twice) by Crimean Tatars and during the following two centuries control of the area changed hands again several times. Indigenous Ukrainian rule returned, albeit briefly, during the Cossack uprising led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky (Богдан Хмельницький) in 1648 against the then ruling Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In 1654 Khmelnytsky agreed to the Treaty of Pereyaslav, which allied the Ukrainian Cossacks with the Russian Tsar (and, many argue, paved the way for Russian and later Soviet domination of Ukraine). As the Hetman State ("Hetman" being the name given to Cossack leaders) declined, Chernihiv was gradually absorbed into the Russian empire. From the late 17th century until 1991, when Ukraine declared independence, Chernihiv was part of Russia and then the Soviet Union.
I spent only a few hours in Chernihiv (as a day trip from Kyiv) and thus was able to see only the historical part of the city. This area is anchored on one end by the "Val", or ramparts where the ancient palace and fortress once stood overlooking the Desna River. It is here that one finds St. Catherine's Church, built in the early 17th century, and a dozen artillery pieces from centuries past. A wide pedestrian walkway runs through a park to a broad plaza still named "Red Square", reflecting the leanings of Chernihiv (and eastern Ukraine in general) toward Russia. Among the buildings bordering Red Square is the rather Greek-looking Shevchenko Theatre, named after Ukraine's most famous – and beloved – poet, Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861). Set in a park nearby are a number of historic churches and the Collegium, an educational institution founded in 1700.
Anyone who has visited Ukraine will recognize the name of Chernihiv for reasons that have nothing to do with its long history. The city is home to Chernihivske (Чернігівське) beer, one of the most popular brands in the country. The company uses an image of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior, the city's oldest church, as part of their logo. So, well before I had ever made my way to Chernihiv I was aware of one of the city's most famous landmarks – proof that beer can be educational!