“Excuse me, when is the bus to the village leaving?” “What? A bus?! There aren’t any buses, there’s only a logging truck. It goes there on workdays.” “How do we get to town then?” “Take a school bus.” “Does anyone in the village own a car? We’d pay someone to give us a ride!” “Ha-ha-ha!” This is Polissia, Zhytomyr Oblast. Just 200 kilometres away from Zhytomyr city itself – and we are in a different dimension. Here people live with their own special dialect, anthropological type and a totally different view of the world. Pristine nature dictates the laws of life here and the locals are still in close connection to it, just like they have been for hundreds of years. “Have you heard of our uncle Semen…?” cue the legends about werewolves and witches that go along with authentic songs that you will never hear from a folk band in a city club.
Leather bags nailed to wooden fences are used as mailboxes. Shabby local shops sell horilka, bread and mayonnaise. Batteries for a camera are simply an inaccessible luxury. On our way, we see abandoned houses where everything has remained intact ever since the hosts left their homes: frozen wall clock hands, dust-covered clothes in a closet, schoolbooks and letters turning more and more yellow with time, and family pictures and icons staring at us from the walls (photo 2). Apparently, the lonely hosts passed away and the house has been slowly dying without them.
We follow the map to find the best place to host an international festival. There are virtually no forms of transport or roads here. Hospitable locals take us through the forest, which is the only way to get to the spot. All around us are ancient woodlands.
THE MOST VALUABLE PIECES
Wild Polissia has lured thrill seekers, researchers of folk music and culture and adventurers for years, yet it is a terra incognita for average tourists. It is full of historical and cultural sites but the nature and people are its most valuable pieces to see. Sadly, what urban guests view as exotic, the locals see as a tragedy: unemployment is huge, young people are leaving in droves, weeds overgrow desolate gardens, and the villages are slowly dying (photo 4), taking the huge and not yet chronicled cultural layer with them. Alcohol addiction aggravates the situation – people who could work have no jobs and fill their free time with booze.
Polissia’s tourist potential is equal to that of the Carpathians in Western Ukraine or the Crimea. Skilful promotion of the region could kill two birds with one stone: decrease unemployment and reveal new destinations for the fans of summer vacationing. It has it all - medieval churches, Stone Age villages with archaeological finds for the fans of pre-historic times, spots where Kyiv Rus princes had once ruled, and shelters of the OUN-UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
Extreme tourists can go kayaking down the local rivers (photo 1) while those who prefer quiet and serene rest can rent a house in a pine tree forest on the bank of the Somyne or Verbytske lakes near the village called Vysotsk. These lakes are smaller than the Shatsk Lakes in North-Western Ukraine but they are known for the healing qualities of their water and the contrasting view of the snow-white sand shores adjacent to the water – hot on the surface and freezing cold down below closer to the springs - they look black due to their peat bottoms.
NGOs and charity funds are doing their best to reveal Polissia to the public. They arrange press tours, pilgrimages to holy places, kayaking on the rivers, workshops for authentic arts and crafts and they bring books and popular writers to local school libraries. The Our Land charity foundation has recently arranged a local history tour to show people the best tourist destination in the Horyn river basin. Flowing into the River Prypiat, Horyn is a source of many sad legends about beautiful girls named Horynia or Horynka. One escaped captivity by stabbing a khan who wanted her as his mistress; another one poured tears over the death of her mother and unanswered love; yet another girl ran from an old unwanted fiancée to her godmother named Prypiat to find shelter… As the legends go, they all turned to the river.
As Horyn gently carries our kayaks on its yellow back, the landscapes leave us breathless. Steep banks dotted with swallow nests flow into wild bushes and welcoming sand beaches. “Going to Belarus after Lukashenka, are you?” local kids and fishermen call out jokingly from the banks. Outers with crayfish in their teeth pop out from beneath the kayaks. The locals say that the forests here abound with wildlife including foxes, wolves, deer and many more.
FOLLOWING THE PRINCES
“The idea of this project came up a while ago,” says Natalia Pozniak-Khomenko, Chief Editor of the Our Land publication, member of the Our Land charity foundation and the tour coordinator. “I used to go to many festivals and worked with Chervona Ruta and Taras Bulba. Then, there were festivals of authentic culture where every town and city wanted to show its deep historical roots. Only Dubrovytsia has slumbered the years away… In 1986, it became the third Chornobyl zone. There is no construction of enterprises or industry here. But the radiation is gone and the environment has cleaned itself. We have fantastic lakes and rivers here, and a far-reaching history. This place, for instance (Berezhnytsia village – Ed.), is over a thousand years old!”
Dubrovytsia is a town where the Olshanskis, a Lithuanian princely family, had once lived. Prince Yuriy Olshanski was known as a talented warrior from his battles with the Tartars and a donator who funded the construction of many churches. His two daughters were equally famous. His eldest daughter Anastasia (her last name after marriage was Zaslavska) had a brilliant education at that time and arranged the translation of the Peresopnytsia Gospels into the “language of the people”. Ukrainian presidents still make their oaths on it today. Her younger sister Uliania Olshanska lived less than 16 years, but was canonized for her virtues. She is guardian saint of Polissia.
Kurash, a village in Dubrovytsia County, used to be a house for hunters built in the middle of a thick forest where the nobles came to hunt and rest. It is best known for its wooden church and the relics of an old Rus town discovered nearby.
FROM THE DULEBES TO UKRAINIAN INSURGENT FIGHTERS
All fans of handmade things and accessories must go to Krupove, a village known as the centre of Polissia tapestry. It is now home to a generation of artists including four women who have preserved the unique technology of weaving with linen and embroidery on it. The birth and development of this art are on display at the local museum. “There is a woman called Uliana Kot in Krupove,” Natalia says. “We’ve recorded 1,050 folk songs from her. Now 75, she preserves the old melodies, the real authentic singing.”
The John the Baptist Catholic church (photo 3) in Dubrovytsia is a masterpiece of temple architecture. However, the local parish hardly counts 50 people and the church, which is an architectural monument on a national scale, is severely neglected as no funds are allocated to fix it. Still, it looks the most impressive in town: maybe it is the open space typical of Roman Catholic architecture, or its special energy, or the stucco faces of the saints looking right into the heart…
Other local attractions include the 1,350-year old oak tree and the Lukovski crosses lost in the forests where, according to rumours, miracles happen and people come for cures from illnesses and grievances.
Vysotsk is a village where ancient Dulebe and Drevlian trives had once lived. In more recent history, it was one of the OUN-UPA’s hot spots.
Solitary sheep trot across the streets and the air has the smell of the warm sun from childhood years. Virtually every village and yard here has its secrets and wonders. Polissia looks like the world on the other side of the mirror – flamboyant and diverse – where one can wander from one story into another that the people, trees and stones will readily share till the end of time.
Named after one the most popular Ukrainian hit songs by Volodymyr Ivasiuk, Chervona Ruta is a music festival that started in Chernivtsi in 1989, launching the careers of many well-known Ukrainian performers and bands. Taras Bulba is a folk rock festival in Dubno, Rivne Oblast.