More than a half of artificial caves in Russia are located in the Voronezh Region. Voronezh local historian and researcher of caves on River Don Vitaly Stepkin told the RIA “Voronezh” reporter why people had created the iconic dungeons, why there were so many of them in the region and who was building them in the modern world.

About “the surge in cave digging”

– In the European part of Russia, there are 96 dungeons created in XVII–XX centuries as part of common Orthodoxy or official religious institutions. The Voronezh Region contains 51% of the total number of caves in the country. It is due to an advantageous combination of social and natural factors in the region.

On the one hand, in the XIX century, during the period of massive creation of caves, this territory was notable for an outburst of religious devoutness typical for the Black Soil Region. On the other hand, The Voronezh land had a suitable environment for implementing religious devoutness in ascetic practices of “dungeon dwelling” – outcroppings of white chalk.

The fact that the Voronezh Land was situated in such a European region as Slobozhanshchina (a historic area in the north-east of modern Ukraine and the south-west of the Black Soil Region in Russia – RIA “Voronezh” note for information) was a vital factor. The interaction between the tradition of worshiping the Kiev Pechersk Lavra (also known as the Kiev Monastery of the Caves) popular among Ukrainians and the local tradition of ceremonial creation of dungeons also contributed to the outburst of common cave digging.

The cave temple in Belogorie
Photo – Nikita Bogdanov

About the cause of creation of iconic dungeons

The reasons varied. Caves were built as an element of copying and transferring Orthodox pilgrim centers to the local land. For example, the Belogorsky, Gorokhovsky and Krasnyanky caves of the Voronezh Region were created under the influence of visiting the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. The Divnogorie and Kalach dungeons were created as a relocation of sacred landmarks of Jerusalem.

There was also a motive of purification, active transformation of personal values on the path of overcoming a crisis. It included the motive of facing the sacred, overcoming the fear of finiteness of one’s existence and finding a shelter from the decay of traditional lifestyle in the process of modernization.

Cave diggers usually lived in their dungeons constantly forming an orthodox community which later strived to be transformed into an official monastery. The local population actively helped them coming to work in caves in its spare time.

About the oldest caves in the region

The dungeons in Malye Divy on the territory of the Uspensky Monastery in Dovnogorie can be considered the oldest. The archives contain information about the existence of a community here since the mid-XVII century.

The temple in Dovnogorie
Photo – Sofya Uspenskaya

In 1995, Voronezh historian Amelkin put forward and justified a hypothesis that Divnogorie’s caves had been created in the Golden Horde times based on indirect indicators.

After the 1917 revolution, the caves created on the territory of Orthodox monasteries fell to desolation. The cave temple of the XVII century in Shatrishche and the XIX century cave temple near the village of Galiyovka were blown up. Cave temples in Bolshie and Malye Divy, near Belogorie, Gorokhovka, Kolybelka, Kostomarovo, Selyavnoe, Semeyki, Staraya Kriusha villages and the town of Kalach survived the destruction of Christian sanctuaries.

Right now there are 14 cave temples half of which a located on the territory of the reborn monasteries in Dovnogorie, Kostomarovo and Belogorie.

About the state of caves

– As for the iconic caves created as part of the Christian tradition, there are 40 of them. The state of most of them is quite woeful. The walls and the ceiling are smoked, covered with numerous modern autographs. In some places, the arches have collapsed due to the impact of erosion or anthropogenic processes.

The situation is better with the monuments of historic and cultural heritage under someone’s jurisdiction. The example to follow is the restored caves in Bolshie Divy in the Natural Reserve Museum of Divnogorie.

About caves in the modern world

– The creation of caves is mostly a representation of spiritual life of the traditional society. As the peasant commune became a thing of the past in the second half of the XX century, the process of creation of iconic dungeons had practically stopped. What we see today is merely a reminiscence of it.

In the XXI century, a native of Kostomarovo village tried to build an underground chapel in honor of the Theotokos of Tikhvin near the village. But once he began digging, it turned out that the ground there was deformable, so the work had to be stopped – it was life-threatening.

The Tryokhyarushka Cave near the village of Semidesyatnoe
Photo – Nikita Bogdanov

About how hard it is to dig a cave

– During the development of the Kostomarovo Monastery, I’ve watched the workers quickly cut the chalk with chainsaws and extract blocks of it to build a utility room.

The peasants of the past centuries had it much more difficult. The main instrument for working with chalk was an adz – a sort of an axe the blade of which was perpendicular to the handle like that of a hoe. The adz was commonly used in the everyday life as a carpenter's tool for making washtubs and boats. I’ve managed to find this tool in 2007 while examining a hollow chamber in a cave opened during the construction of a bell tower near the entrance to the Belogorie dungeon.

About the safety of chalk caves for visitors

– There aren’t that many safe caves in the Voronezh Region. They are mainly the dungeons of Dovnogorie, Kostomarovo and Belogorie monasteries. In other caves, there may be both unsafe sections of dungeons capable of collapsing as well as the access paths leading to them. Moving across a steep slope with no safety equipment is especially dangerous in bad weather conditions.

About the tourist potential of the caves

– Caves are among the most popular objects of regional tourism. Following the results of an Internet inquiry in 2014, the caves in Kalach, Dovnogorie, Kostomarovo and Belogorie entered the finals of the “Seven Wonders of the Voronezh Region” contest. The caves located on the territory of monasteries of the Voronezh metropolis are all-Russian objects of pilgrimage and tourism.

The Voronezh Region has the most extensive dungeons in Eastern Europe. The length of the Belogorie cave is 985 meters, of the Kalach cave – 892 meters. There are many other caves in the River Don area, less extensive but not less interesting caves with unique architecture. Most of them are yet to be developed: convenient access paths need to be made, dangerous sections of labyrinths need to be closed, tour schedules need to be organized. In addition, we need to continue the scientific research and popularization of its results. We are currently working on creating “The Don Cave Atlas”.

Caves cannot be compared to any other tourist objects. You descend into the depths of the earth. The sensory deprivation makes you turn to your inner self, raises philosophical thoughts.

The temple in Divnogorie
Photo – Sofya Uspenskaya

About cave legends

– When I started studying caves, I was mainly interested in the historic aspect. But eventually, as I talked to the local residents, I’ve accumulated a lot of folklore material. The result was the book named “Legends of the Don Caves” released in 2012.

The typical plots of folk stories tell about many-kilometer-long underground tunnels. Supposedly, they can be used to get to the nearest above-ground church, another town or even country. The tunnels also pass under such landscape forms as ravines and rivers. Of course, such tales cannot be taken literally. They refer not as much to actual tunnels as to virtual ones, and they are subjects of not as much archeology and speleology as of folklore studies and psychology.

There also many stories of children entering the caves and getting lost, after which the entrances were blown up or had collapsed. With that being said, I want to note one thing: it is impossible to get lost in our iconic caves.