Kyiv-Mohyla Academy: Kyiv-Mohyla Academy: drama and mysteries of an old European University

13:10 Oct. 18, 2016

Kyiv-Mohyla Academy: drama and mysteries of an old European University

Kyiv-Mohyla Academy's library seen strange things (by

Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on the dramatic history of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy on its formal birthday 

These days, the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, one of the oldest educational institutions in Eastern Europe, marks its formal birthday. Many Ukrainians see the said establishment as a symbol of Ukraine's intellectual history and, to some extent, of her restored independence. The Academy's beginnings, however, are full of obscure episodes, violent conflicts, macabre incidents, and political intrigue.


Metropolitan Petro Mohyla (1596-1647), whose name bears the Academy. Mohyla, a member of the princely Romanian family, was one of the greatest leaders of the Orthodox Church. Portrait by an unknown painter, mid 17th century. (Source: Wikipedia).

The official story

The official biography of the Academy outlines the following events.

In October 1615, a noblewoman named Halshka Hulevychivna bequeathed her considerable land property in Kyiv along with the city mansion to the Kyivan Orthodox Brotherhood. That led to the foundation of the Epiphany Monastery, the hospital for the poor, and the school for the local children ‘of all estates'.

In 1632, Petro Mohyla, Kyiv's future Orthodox Metropolitan, initiated the merger of the Kyivan Brotherhood School with the school of the Pechersk Lavra – the monastery, at which he served as its archimandrite. The new creation was called the Kyivan Brotherhood College.

27 years later, in 1659, the parliament of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth agreed that the College was to receive the more prestigious and much higher status of Academy. The Tsars of Russia confirmed this title in 1694 and 1701.

In 1817, the Russian Holy Synod, the governmental agency that had replaced the Patriarchate of Moscow, closed the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and opened the Theological Seminary in its stead. Between 1819 and 1918, it was known as the Theological Academy of Kyiv.

In the whirlpool of the Revolution, this Academy was closed too, whereas its premises and facilities found the new owner – the Dnieper Military Flotilla of the newly established Bolshevik government. In 1967, the Soviet authorities created there yet another educational body – the Kyivan Naval Political College.

On August 24, 1992, in already independent Ukraine, the very same premises saw the triumphant opening of the ‘University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy'. It reclaimed the property of the Naval College as the legally acknowledged successor to the institution that functioned at the place in the 17th and the 18th centuries. Since its rebirth, this center of knowledge has been happily thriving despite the inevitable financial difficulties.

This is the short, respectable, and somewhat dry narrative. The details, on the other hand, are much more interesting. The scrupulous work of the Academy's historians (above all, of Professor Natalia Yakovenko, Dr. Tetyana Lyuta, Dr. Maksym Yaremenko, Dr. Kateryna Dysa and some of their other colleagues) brought to light various unknown pages of the old university's past.

Here are some of them.


Halshka's restored house, a part of her Kyivan estate granted to the Brotherhood. (Source: Wikipedia)

The questionable nature of Halshka's Donation

The present-day Academy praises Halshka Hulevychivna as the Alma Mater's founding mother. A generous and gentle lady, a member of a noble and influential Ruthenian family, a patron of learning and a protector of the East Orthodox culture – she was the perfect protagonist for the origin story. And yet, the chivalrous veneration of this dame appears to be just an elegant cover for the tangle of murky conspiracies.

First of all, the original document confirming the donation of Halshka's estate to the Kyivan Brotherhood is nowhere to be found. Its alleged copies, which were published only in the 19th century, contain a great number of anachronistic formulations. The attempts to explain this fact begot two distinct theories. According to one, the members of the Kyivan Brotherhood (or mysterious persons behind it) used some juridical trick to get their hands on Halshka's property. The other hypothesis revolves around the supposed scheming of Kyivan clergy in the 1760s. It is quite possible that the first suggestion is correct, but there are no documentary proves to back it at the moment. The second idea, by contrast, reflects real social and political tensions of the 18th century Ukraine and Russia.

The clergy vs. the Cossack nobility in the 18th century

In the middle of the 18th century, the Ukrainian polity known as the Hetmanate was a part of the Russian empire. That autonomous ‘state' had its official head, the flamboyant count Kyrylo Rozumovs'kyy, and its own aristocracy formed by the upper ranks of Ukrainian Cossacks. This social class aspired for the education that would grant its members a proper place in the then political hierarchies. With the said ambition in mind, the Hetman and his nobility petitioned Catherine II, the Empress and Autocrat of All Russia, to transform the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy into a secular university modeled after the best universities of Europe. The Orthodox clergy that controlled the Academy and its curriculum opposed this aristocratic initiative as strongly as it could.


Count Kyrylo Rozumovs'kyy (1728-1803), the Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks. (Source: Wikipedia)

By the end of the 1750s, both parties came up with particular arguments. The nobles claimed that the Academy had been founded by Hetman Petro Sahaydachnyy – the military and purely secular Cossack leader of the early 17th century. In return, the monks referred to the Metropolitan Petro Mohyla and his role in the establishment of the Brotherhood College. As some researches believe, it was during that debate when the cunning clerics concocted the story of Halshka's magnanimous endowment to the Kyivan Brotherhood and the future monastic house. This reasoning was supposed to ‘prove' that the Epiphany Monastery and the clergy had all the rights to captain the Academy, because Halshka (according to the myth of her generosity) donated the property she had owned in the city specifically to the Orthodox Church of Kyiv.

In 1764, Catherine II transformed the Hetmanate into the Governorate of Rus Minor, but, despite the abolishment of their political autonomy, the Cossack grandees and their successors persistently tried to implement the educational project of Hetman Rozumovs'kyy. Nevertheless, at least in the case of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, they lost to their clerical rivals. The victory of the latter became quite obvious, when Emperor Alexander I of Russia substituted the Academy with the Theological Seminary.

The affair of Hetman Sahaydachnyy: hard times, hard lines

The Hetmanate nobles of the 18th century had a well-argued case, when they mentioned Petro Konashevych-Sahaydachnyy as the founder of the Academy.

In 1620, he and ‘the entire Zaporozhian Host' joined the Kyivan Orthodox Brotherhood, or, according to some sources, registered as the students of the Brotherhood School. This intricate move meant military and almost gangster-like protection, which was something that the Ukrainian establishments devoted to the East Orthodox religion desperately needed.


Petro Konashevych-Sahaydachnyy (1582-1622), Hetman of Ukrainian Zaporozhian Cossacks between 1616 and 1622. Woodcut in the book of poems, written by Cassian Sakowicz, rector of the Kyivan Brotherhood School, written on the occasion of the death of Sahaydachnyy, 1622. (Source: Wikipedia)

The lands of Ukraine constituted the large part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – the political entity, which had chosen Catholicism as its official religion. While many noble clans of Ruthenian descent turned to this faith to strengthen their social position, Kyiv found itself under the increasingly growing pressure of the Catholic factions. The patronage of Sahaydachnyy was more than timely.

Like Halshka Hulevychivna, the Hetman was a member of the old nobility loyal to the Orthodox Church. Moreover, since 1618, he participated in the magnificent (although unsuccesful) talks concerning the creation of the Anti-Turkish Christian League, or, as it is called in some documents, the Christian Militia. The initiators of this format included Charles de Gonzaga, Duke de Mantua de Montferrat de Rethel and de Nevers. As a friend of the named prince and other scions of European aristocratic houses, Sahaydachnyy was a serious ‘international' asset to the future Academy.


Charles de Gonzaga (1580-1637), Duke of Mantua, Duke of Montferrat, Duke of Rethel and Nevers. (Source: Wikipedia)

The builders of the Empire

Since the third quarter of the 17th century, the Academy's alumni often found employment at the monarchical court of Russia. The brightest of them all was Theophan Prokopovych, Ukrainian theologian, writer, poet, philosopher, and mathematician. In 1711-1716, he served as the rector of the Kyiv-Mohyla Kiev Academy and the abbot of the Epiphany Monastery. Summoned by Peter I to St. Petersburg, Prokopovych became the architect of the Tsar's policy to reform the Russian Orthodox Church and was among those who laid the foundation for the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences.

Finally, he designed the new splendorous title for his boss, who, instead of just ‘Tsar Pyotr', was to be called Peter the Great, the Emperor of All Russia and Father of his peoples. Prokopovych supplemented this invention with detailed ‘historical' arguments and explanations concerning the rights of Russian rulers to hold imperial status and to rule various lands far beyond the borders of the then Tsardom of Russia.


Theophan Prokopovych (1681-1736), portrait of the mid 17th century. (Source: Wikipedia)

The students' irredeemably bad reputation (the 17th and the 18th centuries)

Those who studied at the Academy came from different social backgrounds. The largest group of students was of the Cossack stock – the sons of common Cossacks, the middle-rank officials, and the Hetmanate aristocracy. However, the heroic charisma of the Cossackdom did not help the Academy's wards to win the popularity among Kyivan dwellers. The latter saw the former as haughty, supercilious, and unpleasantly cocky. Besides, there's always a problem, when a horde of wild youths is lurking around the place, in which the right minded artisans or traders are diligently working leaving their wives and daughters unsupervised. A young rascal chased by angry husbands or fathers was an ordinary phenomenon in the streets surrounding the former residence of Halshka Hulevychivna. This ‘pestilence' was known to many European cities and towns doomed to host a university or a college.

Another reason for extremely bad reputation was found in the fact that many students of the Academy were prosecuted for signing the ‘deal with the devil'. Numerous Kyivan counterparts of Doctor Faust were repeatedly caught while performing the ‘dark rituals', and that was not a good thing for the institution's standing in the local community. Until the early 19th century, the communication between the Kyivans and the students had a very good chance to take a form of a scuffle with many participants.


The famous writer Mykola (Nicolay in Russian) Gogol was inspired by the stories about the interaction between the students of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the satanic forces. This inspiration is reflected by the horror novella ‘Viy' (1835).
Gogol's portrait of 1841. (Source: Wikipedia)

The unremembered period

The history of the Theological Academy of 1819-1918 seems a little uneventful. Nevertheless, it is often regarded as a part of the university's history.


The Theological Academy and the Epiphany Monastery (before 1904). (Source:


The Theological Academy and the Epiphany Monastery (c. 1911). (Source:

At the same time, the Kyivan Naval Political College is rarely mentioned. Of course, the Soviet epoch is not always an easy matter for a discussion, but other historical periods are hardly easier. We cannot pretend that a number of decades simply did not happen.

As for the mentioned peculiar and rather interesting establishment, its task was to prepare the so-called political commissars for the Soviet Military Navy. Its students, the dashing cadets with romantic pre-Revolutionary notions of ‘officer's honor' and ‘hussar gallantry', irresistibly attracted the young members of Kyiv's feminine population.
There were good moments too and they deserve to be remembered.


The graduation of the cadets of Kyivan Naval Political College (1980s). The photograph has the inscription: ‘Kyiv cried when we were leaving'. (Source:


The graduation of the cadets of Kyivan Naval Political College (1980s). (Source:

The present-day Academy

The National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy claimed an old and very bright legacy. Its story is thus intertwined with the past of early modern empires, kingdoms, principalities, and the political entities of later time. Monarchs, European aristocrats, religious leaders, military commanders, artists, philosophers, writers and other worthy individuals made their appearances in the historical spectacle, in which the Academy professes for itself a noticeable role. One may only hope that the today's heir to Petro Mohyla's center of learning will live up to its own ambition.

Happy birthday, Alma Mater.

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