The name Smila reminds one of the rather large Taras Shevchenko train station and perhaps of the fact that the poet Vasyl Symonenko was beaten to death in a police department here in the 1960s. In reality however, this city in Cherkasy Region has enough tourist attractions and legends to keep visitors busy for days.
Yurova Hill with its two humps and blanket of forest can be seen right outside Smila’s suburbs. Most people know it for the good restaurant of the same name which is nearby. The restaurant, where patrons can relax in a gazebo with a view of a pond and the hill itself, is a great place to enjoy shashlik, especially when it is warm outside. Few people know that the hill was mentioned in historical records dating from the 12th century when it was very close to the Dnieper’s riverbed. Today the river has moved on, leaving behind the 5,750-hectare Irdynske Swamp. Some regional ethnographers believe that Kuldiuriv, the city of the Black Hat khan, was located on Yurova Hill. The remains of a large castle on the hill prove that there was indeed a settlement there which, though mentioned in several sources, remains largely unstudied. Since being deserted, the castle has decayed and been overrun with flora. Local explorers say that even just several years ago you could still make out old footpaths and roads around the ancient settlement. Now that Yurova Hill has turned into a veritable jungle, it seems to draw mostly amateur archeologists and picnickers.
In 2007, the local gas supply service was laying a pipe and stumbled upon hidden catacombs. The sensational news about the underground part of the city was picked up by all the national TV channels. Plans were made to study the catacombs and make them one of the region’s key tourist attractions.
There are no scientific excavations to be seen in the central square in Smila where the catacombs where discovered, because new stores, banks, and other businesses are constantly being built and opened in downtown Smila. To block this part of the city would mean cutting off the air for all commercial ventures located there. Thus, the local authorities, supported by the local history museum, began to insist that the catacombs were nothing more than old Jewish commodity warehouses that had no cultural or historical value whatsoever.
That these catacombs existed had been rumored for centuries, but no one knows exactly where they began or ended. There are several versions. Some say the underground passage may link Smila to Yurova Hill. Others say the catacombs could stretch all the way to Kholodny Yar — 50 kilometers away. Still others believe they could lead even farther, to Korsun. According to one legend, when the Haidamakas attacked Smila and seized the castle of the Polish Lubomirski family, they found no-one inside. “The defenders escaped to the town of Korsun owned by the Poniatowskis,” Russian political writer Alexander Amfiteatrov wrote.
The elderly still tell tales they learned about the catacombs from their grandfathers. After a first drink they will tell you that a carriage filled with gold got stuck in one of the underground passages. After a second, they will share the story of a beautiful maiden dressed in white with a red rose who wanders the underground labyrinth. After yet another, they will confide to you that a hideous creature guards both the carriage and the maiden.
An entrance to the catacombs was sought for many years – by “black” archeologists and ordinary treasure hunters rather than by scholars. They say there are treasures that have been buried there since the Haidamaka uprising. Local explorers even found a man who claimed he saw a door with a mysterious inscription back when he was young. But he was unable to identify it when questioned. However, a crawlway without any door or inscriptions was accidentally discovered by a group of teenagers grilling sausages on Yurova Hill, but for some reason, it did not attract anyone’s interest.
THE RUINS OF AN ESTATE
The Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary has been the centerpiece of downtown Smila for almost two centuries. It is surrounded by a park named after the Russian court family Samoilovs who received an estate here from Prince Potemkin as a gift for raising his daughter Yelizaveta Temkina. (Her mother was Catherine II, which fact was kept a secret.) The park has two levels. The residential building, the Transfiguration Church (destroyed by the Bolsheviks) and the above-mentioned cathedral were located on the upper level. Now there are also recently erected memorials to commemorate Koliyivshchyna and Chornobyl disaster cleanup workers. A set of stairs from the cathedral leads to the lower park, which is a picturesque lacework of ponds, canals and openwork foot bridges over the Tiasmyn River.
The cathedral itself is like a specter. The metaphor is close to the truth – it survived a fire in 2002 and is now being remodelled. Sunday service is the only chance visitors have to see inside. The cathedral's exterior is impressive: a majestic right-angled neoclassic contour with two towers and a facade decorated with aedicules, rosettes and Tuscan columns.
Another architectural monument, the Intercession Cathedral, is located across the street from Samoilov park and overlooks Tiasmyn River. Built in 1859 based on the design of the Annunciation Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, it was nevertheless modified during construction: the architecture of the Russian cathedral was changed to the point that it lost any resemblance to the original Byzantine-style design. The prototype was ruined in 1929, but its smaller copy in Smila remains.
THE BOBRYNSKYS AND LENIN
One bus stop away from downtown, you can see the buildings of the classic gymnasium for women and the government gymnasium for men, built in 1909-13. Behind them, a road leads to the burial place of the Smila branch of the Bobrynsky family.
Local students are taught in school that Oleksey Bobrynsky, a grandson of Catherine II and Grigory Orlov, was the first to establish a sugar manufacturing plant in the Russian Empire. He turned Smila into an industrial city. His son, Count Vladimir Bobrynsky, initiated construction of the train station. It was called Bobrynska at the time but was renamed under the Bolsheviks.
A monument to Lenin still stands in the central square. Curiously, a granite slab next to the monument says that workers of the Southwestern Railway elected Lenin an honorary blacksmith of the main Bobrynsky workshop.
Every epoch is like a piece of the puzzle in the history of a contemporary city. Today Smila is a pleasant and quiet provincial city. But it is also one of the biggest industrial centers in Cherkasy Region. Before perestroika, it was known for the Orion TVs manufactured at a local plant. But the TVs were just cover for the military equipment the factory produced. In the 1990s, the plant gradually declined. Several enterprises are now operating on its premises, while Orion’s gigantic buildings stand empty with shattered windowpanes and paint peeling off their walls.
Despite the depressive looks of the decrepit Soviet architecture, Smila remains attractive to lovers of green tourism. A point on the government-sponsored program “The Golden Horseshoe of Cherkasy Region”, the city still hopes to see the tourist effort implemented in full, or at least enough to see its roads repaired.
The railway museumin an old carriage standing on a platform at Shevchenko Station. A guide will tell you about the Smila branch of the Southwestern Railway.
The Smila Local History Museum. Housed in the building that used to be a branch of the Saint Petersburg Loan Bank, it features old maps and an Italian 18th-century jewellery box.
Fire watchtower. Built in 1929 in downtown Smila.
Rafinadny Boulevard. Lined with old houses, the street ends where Aleksey Bobrynsky built the first sugar refinery in the Russian Empire. Next to it are the ruins of the count’s castle: a pond with an island and a bridge over the Sriblianka River.