From a collector of pieces by Malevich and Repin that were worth less than bread during war to a representative of the soviet “hippy” and dissident culture – amateurs who could be museums themselves create noteworthy collections or art and artefacts in their hometowns
Guardian of myths. Mykhailo Yusypchuk, 81, is the caretaker of the museum for Oleksa Dobvuch, a Carpathian version of Robin Hood
At a time when many museums are in decline or grow outdated, there are people who are swimming against the tide: rather than blaming the government or complaining about its inaction, they build entire museums on their own.
One of the best art museums in Ukraine can be found in the village of Parhomivka near Kharkiv, where in the 1950s farmer Panas Lunyov started collecting all sorts of oddities, which after the war were less valuable than bread. Panas Fedorovych managed to get hold of original paintings by the greatest masters, prized around the world: Picasso, Renoir, Benoit, Malevich, Kandinsky, Vereshchagin, Shishkin, Repin and Levitan. His collection also includes pencil drawings by the prominent Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and sketches by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Panas Lunyov died in February 2004, and in March the gallery, along with the sugar refinery it was on the books of, was sold for a ridiculous amount of $26,000. All the exhibits now belong to the Kharkiv Art Museum, but the premises where they are stored are owned by a private firm, and over the past 12 years there have been several attempts to plunder the collection. No one knows what will come of Parhomivka without Panas Lunyov whose name the museum now bears. More devotees who are building up their own museums live across Ukraine.
Private Castle in Chynadiyovo
Fifteen years ago, painter Iosyp Bartosh rented the abandoned Saint-Miklos castle in Zakarpattia. Previously, the courtyard of the historical site was home to a group of garages.
He did not turn it into a restaurant, hotel or entertainment centre. "I never had the idea of doing anything here. You know, artists are not right in the head, so there is no way these thoughts could have reached me. I didn't choose this castle, it chose me and said 'Come here' – so I came."
Iosyp Bartos moved to Ukraine in 1999 after spending a long time abroad, where he learned four languages. He envied the fact that in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Germany tiny villages could afford to hold annual open air festivals and welcome tourists from around the world, whereas in Ukraine there was only a few and in Zakarpattia just one, and even that was nothing special.
"When I got to the castle, there was a transport depot there. Trucks, loads of garages, it's just unthinkable... We got inside once, but we were kicked out and they wouldn't let us back in. And then I had this idea: what about having our open-air festivals, which we used to hold at health resorts, here at the castle, putting up paintings on the walls, organising concerts and meetings with writers. No one had faith in this crazy idea, no one in the world. I didn't believe in it either. But the castle made a different decision and said 'It has to happen', and everything started. I don't know myself how it happened.
Our first steps were unimaginably ridiculous. The whole village laughed at me like they had never laughed at anyone before. I went to the village council and said that I would like to take this castle and make it into a cultural and artistic centre. They replied, “You want to do what, young man? Have you lost your mind? You an artist, do you have money? What can you do?’ I say, ‘Yes, we'll think of something.’ But the people here are country folk and I'd just arrived from abroad: so I talked them into it and somehow they believed me, although they were still sure it was a lost cause. But the rayon, or county, had to approve it. The county council said, 'It will come to nothing,' but signed off on it. I don't know why."
By the time Iosyp Bartos's documents with all the required signatures got to the County State Administration (at that time, castles belonged to UkrDerzhBud, the public construction regulator), the situation had changed. The Department of Architecture examined the case for a long time and could not decide what to do with it. There were no such precedents in its history of a historical building – a whole castle – being rented out as a culture and arts centre. There was no law permitting or banning it. Ivan Mohytych, an Honoured Architect of Ukraine, stepped in. He was then the head of Ukraine West Restoration, an organisation based in Lviv. Other connections helped too. So Iosyp ended up with a contract.
It was a standard 15-year lease agreement with an option to extend. And in 2005, when then-president Viktor Yushchenko issued a decree on the protection of cultural heritage, it was restructured and a conservation agreement was signed for 49 years.
In fact, there have only been three such attempts in the history of Ukraine, two of which came to nothing. Only Iosyp Bartos managed to attract international funds for reconstruction and build a strong, stable flow of tourists to his Saint-Miklos. For a long time he did not even have a place to live, and occupied one of the rooms in the castle with his wife. But they recently moved into another building next-door and the castle will now have a new exhibition room. Iosyp Bartos is an indisputable authority in Zakarpattia. He has sacrificed his own art career and has not painted for the past 10 years – he says that the castle chose him and now there is no way out.
Mykhailo Yusypchuk is his real name. But in the village of Kosmach, Kosiv County in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, everyone calls him Didyshyn. He has preserved the house and stone near which Oleksa Dovbush, legendary outlaw and the “Ukrainian Robin Hood”, was allegedly killed.
He is 81, but is still joking, planning and calculating what he needs for new projects. Although perhaps not as energetically as before. A year ago, he cracked his skull on a rock in the mountains. The elderly man had to undergo several difficult operations and now a serious dent embellishes his bald head. "It's been a year since I came back from the dead," says Mykhailo. He jokes that Dovbush's spirit saved him. And laughs.
"Fewer and fewer people come to visit," he remarks sadly, though still trying to amuse us.
Alongside real historical facts and artefacts, Didyshyn demonstrates some completely unproven items: a meteorite, wooden sculptures of naked people apparently created by nature. He even has mammoth tusks and dinosaur bones.
"Before, a lot of MPs came to see me, but I never got a penny off them. Some left their contacts in case I needed help. And then I was robbed. They took weapons with Dovbush's initials from the museum. I ran out of the house in my underwear to chase the thieves through the gardens, but couldn’t catch them. The police didn't even look for them. I called the MPs. No help."
"Ubezpieczono, 1931 rok," says a sign on the house. This means that it was insured by a private company at the time when this area was still part of the Second Polish Republic.
The enthusiast made the first monument to Dovbush and thousands of people came to its opening. This was during Perestroika, but the KGB came to visit and asked why he was honouring a bandit and not his parents. They promised to throw him in the GULAG, but Mykhailo did not give up.
Didyshyn is a professional photographer. He even served as one in the Air Force. He was the only person in the area to have the most expensive cameras and lenses, including a 3-kilogram telephoto. In addition, he made videos on 8mm film, which is now lying around somewhere and there is no way to watch it.
"I got a quote of 10 hryvnias ($0.40) to digitise one metre of film. I don't know how many thousand metres I have. Am I supposed to sell my house to show this film? There aren't even any projectors like that anymore."
He is 81 and has a hole in his head, but still dreams of digitising his films and publishing an album with his collection of embroidered designs from different areas where Hutsuls live.
Radio Museum in Svitlovodsk
Leonid Pasko recently celebrated his 66th birthday. He lives in an old cottage on the outskirts of this small district centre in Kirovohrad Oblast (Kirovohrad was recently renamed into Kropyvnytsky under the de-communisation law – Ed.). But everyone in the area knows him. Leonid's house is immediately visible from afar: three tall antenna rise up from the roof. Inside is a real radio shack and exhibits from before World War II.
He repaired nuclear submarines near Vladivostok, a city in Russia, became a vegetarian 40 years ago, and now plans walking routes around the Carpathians. He has his own huge collection of samizdat, the largely underground crowdfunded publications from soviet times: photographed and reprinted books banned in the Soviet Union. During the Bolshevik era, he also became interested in Asian healing practices and was known as "yogi" in the town. Leonid worked near the bus station, where passengers were often forced to stay the night. He would take them home, which was considered crazyat the time. In the 1980s, he helped the Lithuanian dissident movement Sąjūdis.
“I was born under Stalin, but went to school when a different era started: Stalinism was criticised and certain freedoms appeared. Schoolchildren began to travel through radio waves. Young people reached out to new knowledge that was not previously permitted. The Beatles and Rolling Stones were banned, but they couldn't be forbidden on short wave radio. How did it usually happen? Someone (more often than not diplomats' children) would smuggle a new record to Moscow, put it on their high-quality player and turn on the radio station – it could be heard as far away as Belgorod and Tambov. In Tambov it was recorded and played back, then it would get as far as Kyiv, for example. From Kyiv to Dnipropetrovsk. And a new disc released in England in the morning could get around the entire Soviet Union by evening. Can you imagine the speed? It was a sort of subculture. I put my first set together in the eighth grade.”
He is one of the people who developed the amateur radio movement in Ukraine, and one of the first to make an attachment for a radio receiver with a range of up to 100 km. At that time, the airwaves were full of schoolchildren and radio enthusiasts. The students played music for each other: “For Olenka in 8B – Girl by The Beatles”. The soviet government did not control this process and even encouraged it. Across the Union, there were clubs of young technicians – any schoolboy could save enough money to by an elementary radio receiver kit. Everyone learned how to solder. This improved the level of technical education among the youth, and the process continued until the beginning of the Prague Spring, when the Czechs used short-wave radio during their uprising against the Soviet system.
"In the Soviet Union there was a realisation that radio was the Facebook and Twitter of the time. It helped people unite and could have sparked a revolution," says Leonid. Despite his age, he still finds time to keep track of modern technologies, feed the birds in his yard, solder new radio receivers, teach himself English, lead the local Plast troop (Ukrainian Scout Organisation – Ed.), ride a bike, read a lot of literature, Twitter and Facebook, and focus on spiritual development.
“In the 1990s, I founded Plast here: we had some serious Ukrainian enthusiasm, even the mayor was pro-Ukrainian back then. He supported us and some of our initiatives. Now in the city there is almost no interest in the radio club or Plast.”
Leonid runs basically the only Scout radio station in the whole former Soviet Union, apart from the Baltic States. "Take the Netherlands - there are dozens of amateur radio stations in each city, but we have one for the whole of Ukraine. How do they do it? Children are actively involved. They are able to solder and assemble radios. Each year the international Scout movement holds meetings for all young radio enthusiasts on air and online. They are called JOTA-JOTI. There was such an active radio movement in the former USSR, and now there is only one station in Estonia and one in Ukraine, while there are so many in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany."
Leonid works as a school coordinator. With Plast he often works out new walking routes and takes children to the mountains. In parallel, he tries to get them interested in amateur radio. Leonid is a unique man living on the edge of a dying city. Nothing happens in Svitlovodsk, the factories have been embezzled and most local people are unemployed. However, there are beautiful views, a reservoir, hills on the banks of the Dnipro, abandoned industrial giants, bays and canals, but the local media do not report on any of this. It is impossible to find any interviews with Leonid, despite his incredibly energetic and active life with many accomplishments. He is terribly bright and joyful person – a true oasis of happiness and belief in a better future against the background of complete hopelessness in the area. At the age of 66, Pasko continues to solder new radio units, takes children on camping trips and happily greets simple guests. Although he does not have an official museum or even a sign (he does not call his house a museum himself), it is definitely worth a visit for anyone who loves history and radio communications.
Photos by Nata Koval, Taras Kovalchuk, Daria Synelnykova