Fantasy and Mysticism in Kyiv’s St. Sophia: The Other Maria by Hanna Horodetska
When Boris Johnson came to Kyiv on February 1, 2022, in the run-up to the impending Russian invasion, global media posted pictures of his visit to the 11th century Saint Sophia Cathedral, with an inspired tour guide who passionately told the British PM the history of one of Ukraine’s greatest heritage sites. The guide was Hanna Horodetska, and in 2020 she authored a novel where St. Sophia plays a central part: The Other Maria.
Described by the publisher House of Chimeras (Дім Химер) as “urban fantasy” and a “witch novel”, The Other Maria (Інша Марія) starts with the protagonist’s emerging from under the ground… A few moments later the spellbound reader realizes that she had merely left the subway on the Ukrainian capital’s central square, the famous Maidan Nezalezhnosti, but that’s actually a well-chosen pun, since, as we learn further, Maria, a college student, had just undergone a veritable katabasis, an initiation by an old rural witch, also named Maria, who then died after passing on her magic powers.
The newly converted witch then gets a job at St. Sophia. She is supposed to help the dark powers destroy the Ukrainian Notre-Dame and thereby conquer the country, but, disenchanted by the Other Maria, the Virgin Orans depicted in one of the temple’s mosaics, she refuses to serve the evil at the cost of her life.
The whole fantasy thing and dealings with the bad guys are rather sloppy, garbled and somehow naïve in terms of composition and details. On the other hand, the most interesting part of the novel is the attempt to draw upon the mysticism of St. Sophia, of the Virgin Orans and the cathedral’s other mosaics and frescoes, its architecture, and Kyiv’s broader cultural heritage.
Considering the author’s close familiarity with the history and legends of the city and St. Sophia, and with the cathedral’s every nook and cranny, all of this could have been elaborated and woven into a mystic novel à la Gustav Meyrink.
But there is another theme in the novel, and a pertinent one to boot: namely, the destruction of a nation’s cultural heritage as a way to subjugate it. St. Sophia, erected in the 11th century and named after Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, is described as a place of power and the spiritual heart of Ukraine.
The destruction of two other important sacred medieval places of the Ukrainian capital is mentioned in the novel. St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery was demolished by Bolsheviks in the 1930s. And Dormition Cathedral of Kyiv Pechersk Lavra was destroyed in 1941 — in this case Bolsheviks and the Nazis blamed each other. Both were rebuilt after Ukraine gained independence.
St. Sophia, robbed multiple times but still standing, is a symbol of Ukraine’s perseverance and unfaltering spirit. No wonder its destruction meant for the novel’s antagonists conquering the country.
But the evil in The Other Maria wasn’t defeated. It is still lurking, nurturing its perverse plans. Moreover, it rears its ugly head in the real world, right now, a little over a year after the novel was first published. Russia has already destroyed dozens of Ukrainian historical buildings, including churches and museums. Hundreds were damaged. The orcs don’t care about the UNESCO World Heritage. On the contrary, they crave to eliminate cultural heritage and dictate their own version of history.
Hopefully, they still can be stopped. In the meantime, The Other Maria by Hanna Horodetska evokes reassuring reflections and inspires to delve deeper into St. Sophia’s mysteries and to visit or revisit this magnificent piece of architecture, if only through a virtual 3D tour for now.
This article is part of my series dedicated to Ukrainian culture in general and Ukrainian literature in particular. Many of the books I write about have not been translated into English or other languages yet. My goal is to raise awareness and spark interest so that the situation might change. Follow me if you would like to read more.