Archaeologists say Ukraine’s ancient caves must be preserved for their “indisputable cultural value”.

Dmytro Perov was at his day job reviewing planning applications for Kyiv city council when he saw a familiar address: that of a derelict house in central Kiev built by his family in the late 1800s, which had been seized by Bolsheviks.

The owners of the land now wanted to build on it and had made the improbable claim that their office was based in that house, which Perov knew had no roof and collapsed walls.

Ancient caves in Ukraine, from myth to reality

When he was a child, Perov’s grandmother said that somewhere in the land around the family’s former home were rumored to be some of the ancient caves of Ukraine. He described it as a “little family legend”.

Ukraine is home to several cave complexes, most of which were built by monks, the most famous being the Pecherska Lavra (Cave Monastery) in Kiev.

Perov decided that this might be his last chance to discover if his grandmother’s story was true. He and his friends, who like him are conservation 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 a corner. There he found the entrance to a tunnel. He and his friends went inside, using their phones as flashlights, he reports The Guardian.

How old are these caves?

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 40 meters, and the lower one, Perov said, is twice as long. Inside the tunnels are rooms and cabins that leading archaeologists believe may have been used to house lanterns.

Timur Bobrovskyy, an archaeologist at the St. Sophia State Museum in Kyiv, welcomed this important and special find and concluded that it should be preserved for its “indisputable and cultural value”.

Bobrovskyy estimates that the caves are more than 1,000 years old and have similarities to “medieval monastic cave complexes”. Judging by some of the markings, the caves had visitors before Perov, but he suspected that they did not realize the significance of the caves.

Engraved into the walls of one of the upper caves are runic symbols used by the Varangians, the Swedish Vikings who settled in Kiev, such as Algiz (“chicken’s leg”), used for protection and defense.

Ukraine’s ancient caves struggle with developers and corruption

Although the ancient caves in Ukraine have been discovered, real estate developers and their allies in Kyiv’s local council continue to demand the necessary building permits, and the vote for them has not been taken off the agenda.

Perov, along with advisers and archaeologists from Kyiv and the deputy head of Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, are gathering the necessary documents to classify the area as protected before the council’s next vote.

But such efforts are not always successful. Perov’s fight is part of a larger effort by civil society actors against rampant corruption among the country’s elites, a longstanding problem in Ukraine that has endured despite the war. Bobrovskyy described it as a “second front”.

Ukraine’s parliament has just passed a controversial new urban planning law that has already garnered enough complaints via an online petition that it could soon be repealed.

Its supporters believe the law will reduce corruption by digitizing much of the process. But critics say the law gives power to a single ministry and excludes control by NGOs and local councils.

Kyiv MP Ksenia Semenova, who regularly campaigns to stop the destruction of the city’s cultural heritage, said under the new law she would have no tools to prevent Kyiv from turning into a “concrete jungle”. Unfortunately, she said, developers “don’t know how to make a restored building commercially valuable.”

The future of the caves is uncertain

Emerging from the other end of one of the tunnels, which runs through the hillside, Perov points to the tall, multi-story building opposite. In 2008, a similar set of caves was found and construction work on the block was stopped. But when state archaeologists arrived at the site, construction workers told the archaeologists that the caves had collapsed.

Unfortunately, Perov’s grandmother is not well enough to receive the news that Perov has found the caves. Perov said he hopes the site will be turned into a museum, which could include his family’s former home if restored.

“I just know that if my great-grandfather was around today, he would know more. I’m sure he found them,” Perov said.

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