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6 September, 2011  ▪  Iryna Reva,  Oleh Repan

Stara Samar

In the outskirts of Dnipropetrovsk, one can still find the remains of a fortress built by Ivan Mazepa at the site of an older Cossack village.

The Ukrainian imagination associates Cossacks with the intoxicating dream of freedom. Alas, there is nowhere to go if you want to experience this dream. Most of the siches (Cossack fortifications) are now resting under the waters of the Dnipro, while the former palanka (district) centers of the Zaporizhian Cossack Liberties are nothing but modern residential quarters or office blocks. Yet our story is about a monument which is unique and at the same time typical for the Ukrainian steppe frontier of the 16th – 18th centuries. We mean Stara Samar (Old Samar) and the Bohorodytska Fortress (The Fortress of Our Lady), whose bulwarks have survived and still dominate the outskirts of Dnipropetrovsk. This steppe town differed from most of its contemporaries as it housed a Russian garrison from the late 17th century through a large part of the 18th century. However, like any Cossack settlement (New or Old Kodak, Samarchyk, or Kalmius), it was inhabited by Ukrainians.


Until recently we were totally unaware of the site of that legendary “ancient Zaporizhian town of Samar with a ferry” (16th – 17th centuries), mentioned in the no less legendary charter of the Polish king, Stephen Bathory. The truth was discovered on the tip of a spade. Archeologists from the Dnipropetrovsk national university revealed, without engaging in scholastic disputes, that Samar had been in existence since as early as the 1520s, and had left a considerable layer of cultural wealth in its depths.

Let’s take a brief flashback of history, going back 500 years.

“Hey fellas, catch the rope!” hollers a man in a row boat, while two robust guys up on the bank are puffing away at their pipes in the shade.

They jump to their feet, promptly moor the skiff, and start unloading. A package bursts open, and a roll of expensive foreign cloth slips through. In the twinkling of an eye the material is pushed back in the sack, loaded on horseback, and taken to the market place. They failed to notice a seal label slip through the tear in the sack on their way to market. Centuries later, this seal was to tell their descendants about a roll of foreign cloth sold in Stara Samar.

We know little about this ancient Cossack town. It dates back to the early 16th century, the time of its rise at the lower Samara River. The town had a very convenient location. Back in the era of the Golden Horde, there was a ferry across the river here where it sat right on the trade route to Crimea. The town had a small rectangular fortress built of wood and earth with two corner towers on the side opposite the water.

The seal labels found at the site (the earliest dates back to 1524) reveal that Stara Samar was an important commercial center. Curiously enough, almost all of these finds are of European origin. For instance, the inscription on one of the seal labels, GEL, is identical to the sign of the city of Geldern on gold and silver coins of the Dutch Republic of the early 17th century. Another seal label is decorated with the Gdansk coat of arms and the proud inscription, BESTE SORTE.

The surviving coins are yet more proof of once lively commerce at Stara Samar. Among them are currency from Western Europe and Russia (such as the “wire kopecks” of Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich), Poland (a Sigismund I half grosz, dating back to 1509, or Sigismund III solids, etc.). Incidentally, that was exactly where 1 1/2 Sigismund III grosz coins were forged. Quite unusual for these parts is a large Swedish coin (a Gustav Adolf half ore), which must have arrived in Samar with some merchant (or a Cossack working a mercenary for Gustav Adolf). There is another proof to the fact that the ancient inhabitants of this town were quite well off: coins with sharp edges and a special hollow for a finger, a tool for cutting purses. These thieves’ tools were found by the archeologists on the premises of a tavern which catered to both locals and guests.

We can also say something about the dwellings of that time. The archeologists examined one of the houses of the mid-17th century. The building had walls of clay and straw, partly buried in the ground, and was eight meters long and four meters wide. The floor was earthen, and the house was heated by a tiled stove. A ramrod, some buckshot, and boot heels suggest that it was the home of a Cossack. Overall, the archeologists’ collection keeps quite a few scraps of Samar dwellers’ lives: fragments of weapons, crosses worn on the neck, pipes, buckles, and ornaments. There is also a merchant’s seal with the modest inscription, “SEAL OF A GOOD MAN.” Another interesting find is a ring with a seal, which was probably used for administrative purposes, showing a fortress with two towers, above which a crowned eagle spread its wings.


The Bohorodytska Fortress (The Fortress of Our Lady), designed by the Dutch engineer van Zalen (Fonzalin), was built in 1688 under the supervision of Hetman Ivan Mazepa in Stara Samar. Thus the town got its new name, Bohorodytsk (its Ukrainian variant being Bohorodychne). Even today the size of the fortress is impressive, its total area being around 10 hectares. Moreover, if you remember that there were no tractors and bulldozers in the 17th century, the construction of the surrounding bulwarks (four meters high and more than one kilometer long) and the digging of the moats (nearly six meters wide and more than three meters deep) was a real challenge for the builders. By the way, Ivan Mazepa built the town (on orders from the Russian government) not only for appearances’ sake. He actually pled with Peter I for it to be granted as his property, and for a short while he indeed was the master of the town.

Bohorodychne, built of wood and earth, consisted of a stronghold (the fortress proper) for the military, and the civilian residential quarters, the posad. A bird’s-eye view of the citadel suggests a star or a flower. However, a contemporary traveler would hardly have rejoiced at the sight of the peaked corners of the bulwarks, stake-lined moats and the high walls of the fortress. Zaporizhians did not welcome thorny flowers in their steppes, and they resented the stronghold. It was a common knowledge that the tsar was building such fortifications in order to curtail Cossack liberties, rather than use them in war.

But if the guest was a stranger, and had an important mission which caused the guards to courteously lower the drawbridge across the moat, he could enjoy the view from the stronghold’s southern tower: a well-laid out cathedral square with the wooden church of the Life-Giving Source of Our Lady (hence the name of the town) and a belfry.

Further on sat 260 spacious cottages, the voivode’s residences, and seven houses, each having six apartments for the officers and the hetman. The homes of the rank and file residents look far too modest today. Often they were mere dugouts about five meters long and 4.7 meters wide, with a tiled stove and a bed of wooden planks. At the entrance there was a wooden ladder, descending approximately two meters down. The adobe walls were cased in planks. The roof was made of sod and rush. Wealthier households could have several rooms, a big stove, a comfortable bed and perhaps a cabinet with expensive china, and so on.

Zaporizhians’ grudges against Bohorodychne were eventually vented. Most of the inhabitants of Samar would not live side-by-side with the new masters and eventually moved out. As soon as 1690, the fortress was almost completely depopulated by the plague, and half of the town was destroyed by fire. Even the voivode Aleksei Rzhevsky shared the lot of his subordinates. In 1692, the stronghold was sieged by Petryk, the leader of the anti-Mazepa uprising, and his Cossacks and Tartars. He was able to seize the posad, and the citadel barely managed to repulse the attack. The defenders used every available weapon to rebuff the sudden assault including chain shots (which were normally used to destroy the rigging and sails of enemy ships). In the end, the Zaporizhians got what they wanted, and in 1711 the stronghold was demolished, according to the provisions of the Prut Peace Treaty between Turkey and Russia.


However, the town upon the Samara would soon be reborn. In 1736, thanks to the efforts of the Russian fieldmarshal Burkhard Christoph von Munnich, the Bohorodytsk Fortress was reconstructed, though with minor changes. Since then, it had been known as the Stara-Samar Retrenchment. A Russian garrison was again quartered there as well as a separate mounted Cossack detachment from Hetman lands. Ukrainian settlers appeared on the posad again.

Zaporizhians from the Lower Dnieper were anxious to get hold of the town at least, if not the stronghold. The posad civilians, who had been organized into the Stara-Samar Sotnia (squadron) of the Poltava Regiment, were eventually subjugated by the Sich Cossacks in 1761. For this, the latter employed the very simple method of making the lives of the locals unbearable or even impossible. Zaporizhians would not allow them to plow or graze their cattle. The local sotnik (Cossack lieutenant) Ivan Berezan was as unbending as the Sich Cossacks, and tried to oppose them by force, but it was not up to him. Stara Samar was slowly sinking into decay, while its residents were moving to free Zaporizhian Cossack villages. And as soon as the Zaporizhians mastered the town, it became vibrant and busy again.

Life was concentrated around the church and the market square. Shops and taverns catered to numerous customers. A considerable part of the fortress proper was taken by depots and storehouses with stocks of iron, cannon balls, foodstuffs, and gun powder. Further aside was an infirmary for the garrison with a little sauna, for which the Muscovites were constantly borrowing birch logs from the Samarian palanka.

The town played a role in the war, during the Russo-Turkish confrontations of 1735-1739 and 1768-1774. Otherwise, the garrison and its command (at the head of the stronghold was a commandant, who was also in charge of the garrisons of several neighboring forts) would indulge in pastimes. They were just killing time; and the archeologists have assembled a huge collection of dice made of pieces of broken crockery, a material which was always in plentiful supply.


The documents have preserved quite a few records of the conflicts in the fortress and around it. For one, in 1749, several Zaporizhians were having a party in Samarchyk, and then decided to move on to Novy Kodak. Although both places were just close by, the Cossacks were suffering from thirst, so they paid a visit to the Stara Samar taverns. To all appearances, they served good liquor there: the Cossacks set off some fireworks, beat up the garrison soldiers and threatened to burn the fortress. Commandant Major Kovaliov was so impressed that he ordered his cannons — unused since the last war — to be prepared.

Also quite typical is the story of the adventures of two men from the Stara Samar garrison, Mikhail Naidionov and Filipp Chernikov. One day in January 1762, the soldiers decided to go fishing. They went to the Samara, which by that time was covered with thick ice and later continued onto the tavern in the neighboring village, whereupon they made for a cattle pen which belonged to a local man, Sydir Samotkan. Spotting the intruders, the owner summoned his neighbors, and together they gave the thieves a sound thrashing.

The fish rots from the head down, so, unsurprisingly, many records have survived of crimes perpetrated by higher officials. The Stara Samar commandant, Second Major Shchetinin, was the notorious leader of an “organized criminal gang,” to use the jargon of today's police. The gang stole and hid horses which they later sold at fairs. Another commandant, Prime Major Riazantsev, took bribes in the form of cattle and foodstuffs, for allowing the locals to use the hayfields. Sure enough, the relations between the Sich administration and these sorts of “officers” were complicated. Naturally, the Zaporizhians were quite surprised when one of the newly appointed commandants began to establish normal working relations with them. The Kish (central Zaporishian Cossack authority) immediately ordered that the sensible officer should get help, and supported his cooperation with an immediate shipment of “two barrels of ordinary wine and a barrel of muscatel” sent to Stara Samar.

The evidence of the morale of the officers, provided by documents, is supported by the archeologists. In one of the dugouts they found the remains of a young man who had died in a fire, with a good tankard next to him. Like the famous Sherlock Holms who idled away time putting bullets into the wall of his room in the shape of Queen Victoria’s monogram, our soldier's apartment was decorated with what must have been the result of drunkenness, rather than boredom. Two girls aged between 16 and 18 and buried under the floors of apartments appear to have been prostitutes or concubines whose fates took a tragic turn.

Logically, the destruction of the Sich resulted in the decay of the retrenchment. Soon it was of no use. The settlement by the deserted fortress also gradually fell into decay. A part of the population who would not live side by side with German colonists and landlords who were receiving generous portions of Cossack lands from the tsar’s hands, moved to the Kuban, as they hoped for freedom for themselves and their children in a strange land. But the creation of their hands has survived to let us picture the lives of the people who are long gone.

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