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6 June, 2011  ▪  Andrii Panchyshyn

Visiting Bohdan Khmelnytsky

Chyhyryn and Subotiv aspire to use Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s heritage and become major tourist attractions

There are two routes from Cherkasy to Chyhyryn. A minibus will get you there along the new route in about an hour. A second route is longer but more picturesque.

An unhurried minibus weaves its way between villages and hamlets. Idyllic landscapes – fields, hills and stork nests on housetops – look like illustrations from Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar. These are his native lands. We take another turn, and the road again plunges into the pine forest of Kholodny Yar. Its damp depths were the starting point for the Koliivshchyna Rebellion which swept across the region. A few minutes later we pass a neat village located in a valley on a river bank. A white Baroque church on a hilltop overlooks the area. This is the village of Subotiv – once owned by Bohdan Khmelnytsky and now the location of his tomb.

THE KHMELNYSTKY ESTATE

A new gilded iconostasis in the Baroque style by Galician artists shimmers in the cool semidarkness of the Illinska Church. Instead of an ugly Soviet slab with a “politically correct” text, Khmelnytsky’s tomb (more exactly, a cenotaph, because his body was lost over 300 years ago) now has a white marble sarcophagus with the laconic inscription “Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky.”

A small plateau behind the church is bounded by two steep ravines. The Khmelnytskys’ castle once stood on top of this natural fortification. The view that opens before one’s eyes from here was recently praised by a Polish general: “Now I finally understand why so many fierce battles were fought for this land.”

Along the edges of Khmelnytsky’s estate stand small self-made guns on brick gun carriages. These are not pseudo-historical replicas but touching evidence of the local residents’ patriotism. The guns were founded and set up here by local school students led by Valentyn Arutin, a teacher and eager ethnographer. And they did it back in the inglorious 1970s when any show of respect for Ukraine irked authorities. Over time, this artillery became a modern history monument, as did the mud-walled hut restored by school students who turned it into a museum of countryside life by carefully restoring the interior and decorating it with objects that were hundreds of years old.

In the past couple of decades, Subotiv has seen an impressive amount of research. For example, a foundation wall of the castle was discovered during excavations. A pavilion was recently erected to protect it against weather and human interference.

Unfortunately, a conflict erupted over the hetman’s estate (like over many other things in this country). The Subotiv Historical Museum and a person close to modern Cossack leadership split it into two parts. The fence is yet to be built, but the eastern and western parts now belong to different parties.

CHYHRYN PRESERVE

Viktor Huhlia, director of the Subotiv branch of the Chyhyryn Preserve, has spent most of his life studying the history of this land and preserving its monuments. He was personally involved in excavations at the ruins of the castle’s stone tower and later prevailed with the idea of setting up a pavilion. There seems to be no end to stories, anecdotes and legends he knows.

Visitors, who come by thousands every year, are a special topic. One female tourist took a long time glancing back and forth at the church and a five-hryvnia bill and finally asked: Why isn’t this church blue like on the banknote?

When this story reached the ears of a lady on a government delegation, she demanded to see the banknote with her own eyes. Evidently, such small money is not in circulation on the top government level.

In addition to doing research and accepting hoards of visitors Mr. Huhlia has to solve many everyday problems. For example, he is now battling mice which have unceremoniously occupied a newly installed straw roof of the hut. There must be some grain left there.

THE CAPITAL OF THE HETMAN STATE

Hetmans, O haughty hetmans, if you were to rise again,

If you were to rise and look at your ancient Chyhyryn

Taras Shevchenko

The next bus to Subotiv leaves in five hours, so we opt to hitchhike. We have to get to the top of the hill, because drivers are reluctant to stop on the rising slope.

We are lucky: a respectable black car pulls up. The driver is Petro, former official in the post-Orange Revolution administration and now a farmer. He proves to be a valuable conversationalist and speaks about expanding the Chyhyryn Preserve, the Cherkasy Golden Horseshoe project, the social problems faced by this provincial region and so on. He feeds us interesting information with authority all the way to Chyhyryn. His greatest object of pride is that all monuments in the district to Lenin were without exception removed. We say good-bye near the empty place where one of them used to stand.

A slight warm wind is blowing. Time is almost still. People are not in a hurry – there is nowhere to rush. The dazzling bright tips of church domes shine here. In 1648-60, Chyhyryn was Khmelnytsky’s residence and the capital of the Hetman State. Now it is a district center with a population of just mere 11,000. A lump of history and pseudo-history.

At the foot of a hill which overlooks the area, Hetman Khmelnytsky’s Residence was constructed. It is a fairly large architectural piece with neat Baroque-style stone buildings and folk-style wooden structures which gives an overall pleasant impression. Clearly, a lot of feeling was poured into it together with money. But the stains of poor quality paint on the roofs are a reminder of the country and times we live in.

The hetman’s residence, the Khmelnytsky Museum and a slender church on a hill are all fragments of an ambitious project called “Cherkasy Golden Horseshoe” and launched under Viktor Yushchenko. The idea was to create an elite tourist route with developed infrastructure involving Cherkasy, places related to Shevchenko, the Motrona Monastery, Kholodny Yar, Subotiv, and Chyhyryn.

As the Golden Horseshoe grew, it attracted an increasing number of tourists. Private businesses started to spring up along the itinerary, restaurants and small inns – called korchma – mini-hotels, and transport services. However, the investment impetus stimulated by the government has taken a nosedive. Further construction is unlikely. Financing ended when power changed hands in the country. The main reason seems to be not even the clear indifference of the new rulers to all things Ukrainian but a psychological twist peculiar to all our leaders: whatever their predecessors did is bad by definition.

How does irrational and short-sighted approach become especially evident in this particular case?The question is not only about culture or patriotism. It is also about specific aid to an economically depressed region. Tourism has lately become an important source of income for the local population. Apart from this branch, there is just a handful of agricultural and processing businesses and trade. Most people live off their own land plots or become migrant workers. Chyhyryn earned its nickname “the city of grass widows” a long time ago. Able men are a rare sight in its streets, except on market days. The younger generation is following their parents’ lead and fleeing to bigger cities.

127 STEPS UP

The slopes are covered a thick blanket of cowslips and violets that do not have a clue they are in the Red Book. Castle Hill towers over the city. A Khmelnytsky statue overlooks the hill itself. He has company: first, a statue of “Mother Russia” pushing a bearded boyar and a Cossack with a characteristic forelock into a friendly embrace. “Together forever” seems to be the message. This triune deity of internationalism is surrounded by a menacing group of rebel peasants armed with pitchforks, scythes, axes, big knives, and flintlocks. They appear to be set to sprinkle freedom with the enemy’s blood. High above them, Khmelnytsky wields his mace in a threatening gesture.

Our tour around Chyryhyn is coming to an end. We have a refreshing supper in a comfortable inn. A bridge over the glassy surface of the Tiasmyn River minutes after sunset and upturned fishing boats on the bank lull our eyes and suddenly they are followed by an aesthetic shock: a typical Soviet statue of a heroic serviceman with a grenade in his hand, painted with caustic, poisonous and glossy reddish paint that immediately sets your teeth on edge. Glamour of sorts.

Our driver honks impatiently. It’s time to leave. I feel like bowing – it’s sentimental, I know – to this one-time capital of Ukraine.

QUOTATION

“The Cossacks had already sided with the common people in some places and were everywhere just waiting for a sign. This is precisely what Khmelnytsky had counted on and so he hurried even more. Finally, he stopped on the approaches to the city. Chyhyryn opened its gates wide to welcome him. The Cossack garrison immediately came under his colors. Chaplynsky’s house was destroyed and the nobility that was seeking shelter in the city was killed. Shouts of joy, bells ringing and processions continued non stop. The fire immediately spread to the entire neighborhood. Every living being grabbed scythes and pikes and joined the Zaporozhians. Countless crowds of commoners flocked to Khmelnytsky from everywhere.”

Henryk Sienkiewicz, With Fire and Sword.

Worth seeing

The IllinskaChurch in Subotiv contains the cenotaph of Bohdan Khmelnytsky.

Castle Hillin Chyhyryn features ruins of fortifications, picturesque views and semi-wild forest park.

The Bohdan Khmelnytsky Museum is located in the building of the former Chyhyryn District Directorate (early 19th century). Nearly 2,000 items are on display, including Cossack weapons (17th through 18th century) and Ukrainian battle art pieces.

Three Wellsis a system of salubrious wells and a historical monument in Cherkasy oblast. Legend has it that the wells were dug on Hetman Khmelnytsky’s orders in the territory of a hospital where wounded Cossacks were treated.

Where to stay

In the Hetmanska Korchma hotel in Subotiv, 100 m down the highway from the church, and the Chyhyryn hotel near Castle Hill in Chyhyryn, rooms start at UAH 65 per night.

 

Whre to eat

In Chyhyryn, near the bridge across the Tiasmyn River, there is an inn with good cuisine and authentic comfort. The hotel in Subotiv has a decent restaurant, but gourmands would prefer the inn located in an ancient house near Khmelnytsky’s church which offers authentic folk dishes. In the way of alcoholic drinks, you can order varenukha, which is vodka prepared in a stove with honey and medicinal herbs.


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