The pieces of time

12.06.2012 | By Mykola Polishchuk

Street clocks are an inseparable element of Kyiv

Not so long ago, large clocks dangling from public buildings in Kyiv were a necessity, since not all residents had a watch and urban rhythms depended on being on time. On a less technical note, it was also customary to arrange rendezvous beneath lamppost clocks and for institutions to show off by commissioning ever more ornate time-keeping devices. Even though their utilitarian value is not appreciated these days, a number of street clocks in the capital still tick as unique monuments of the city´s architecture and history

Clocks to see and hear

The best place to start an excursion of time immemorial in Kyiv is the Botanical Gardens of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, which accommodates the historic St. Jonas Orthodox Monastery, including a two-storied refectory decorated with a clock mounted in its tower, making it one of the few fully mechanical tower clocks in the city. It was powered by weights hanging on 10 meter steel cables. Because the building is not so high, a special shaft was dug to house the weights.

Legend has it that the mechanism is related to the French writer Honore de Balzac, who supposedly brought it from Paris as a gift for his future wife. The monks who wind the clock once a week deny the legend, instead putting forward the story that the clock was ordered by Saint Jonas, the founder of the monastery. No documents about the origin of the clock are preserved, but engravings on the mechanism say that it was made in France in 1858, which would be after the death of Balzac. Of course, these could have been just spare parts purchased later

The second clock to see from the gardens is housed in the Grand Bell Tower of the Kyivo-Pecherska Lavra, or the huge monastery overlooking the Dnipro River. The clock is unique in that it has no hands. Instead, it is the ears that tell the time, since the clock chimes every 15 minutes. It is driven by the original mechanism installed in 1744. Since then, the chime clock has been changed three times and only eight small bells and one large one cast in the 18th century remain from the original device. The current mechanism was ordered from Moscow clockmaker Andrei Yenodin on condition of 15 years of maintenance and free repair when needed. The mechanism proved to be very solid because the clock is still running without any repairs. The only time it stopped was for a while in September 1941, when the nearby Dormition Cathedral was blown up by the retreating Soviet army during World War II.

No man´s clock

The largest clock tower in Kyiv is located above the shopping mall near the Lukyanivska metro station. Its diameter is 3.5 meters. Only a few years ago the largest clock in Kyiv was 2.5 meters in diameter. Many Kyivans have no idea about it, even though it is located downtown at the start of Hrushevskiy St. on the building of the Institute of History. Unfortunately, the clock has not been working for the last 20 years and is perpetually stuck at noon.

Kyiv authorities took the initiative on several occasions to repair the clock and even arranged tours of the interior of this huge mechanism. Clockmakers ahve confirmed that the mechanism is operable and can be repaired, but the problem, which is typical for this part of the world, is that nobody can find its owner. City authorities believe the clock belongs to the institute while its institute believes it belongs to the city administration.

On the other side of Hrushevsky St. on the hill of Mariyinsky Park is the new fairytale-like Puppet Theater, with its fully functioning twin clock. The clock uses everything from wood, polymers, marble and other materials, including gilded brass and a semi-precious stone mosaic.

First advertising chronometer

Just as on many other central streets in the world, Kyiv´s main drag, Khreshchatyk, boasts the largest number of clocks of all types. The Trade Union building on Maidan Nezalezhnosti is decorated with a large electronic clock that local residents often refer to as the Ukrainian Big Ben, though more for its function than its looks.

The clock above the entrance to the Central Post Office, however, has been working without repair since 1950. An exact replica of this clock was installed near the old post office on Volodymyrska St. It has a special face with an additional rotating cog. As governments changed, changes were made to the clock´s mechanism. For example, after Ukraine proclaimed independence, the national time was changed to UTC +2, which is one hour closer to Europe. According to the original plans, the postal clock was supposed chime, but it remains silent, as testimony to the quiet and diligent Ukrainian postal employee.

We end the tour near another historic clock that was pasted on the front of the Besarabsky Market in 1911. This clock is the most difficult one to access: special scaffolds are required to repair it, since its original designers did not think about that particular eventuality. At the end of the 1980s, when the first commercial advertising was permitted in the Soviet Union, the first billboards were hung under this clock. Only recently have city authorities ordered to remove any form of outdoor advertising from all historic buildings in the center of Kyiv. For this reason, today we can see the Besarabsky Market in its original state.

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