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1 August, 2011  ▪  Kateryna Lypa

Berestechko: A Place Of Power

National wounds are healing in this battlefield

Ukraine has a series of places that are routinely used for ritual historical lamentations. People do not go there simply as tourists. And this is a pity as these sites are good to see even just to get an idea of what they are and obtain some life-asserting impressions from what may appear as otherwise gloomy memorials. This is exactly why it is worth visiting Berestechko where Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s troops were routed by the army of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in June 1651.

A combination of the historical landscape, secessionist symbolic architecture and valuable, contemporary archeological finds gives visitors the feeling of transcending the boundaries of time. What we actually feel here is not so much sadness over the historical misfortune of our country as a kind of extraordinary force permeating the air so much that men involuntarily reach for their belts where their ancestors would have attached a sabre. In short, Berestechko is a place of power.

Cossack Graves

The Battle of Berestechko actually took place outside of the town in a huge area sprawling between several villages in what is now the Radyvyliv district in Rivne region – soldiers fought in marshes and along small rivers, copses and lakes. Most of this territory is now the Battle of Berestechko Field National Historical-Memorial Preserve, known to the locals as Cossack Graves.

As you roam through the dewy meadows, you can see where the Cossack and Polish camps were; the river crossing where, on Ivan Bohun’s orders, carts and saddles were used to provide some footing and thus enable the troops to break out of the encirclement; Cossack Pit Lake where, according to legend, the last Cossack defended himself by shooting from a boat; and Grove Island where 300 Cossacks died as they protected the retreat of the core forces. There is also a cemetery with heavy crosses in which residents of nearby villages buried the dead – those whose bodies they were able to find – while the rest found their final place of rest in forests and marshes.

The scope of the battle is astounding. But in order to find all the monuments, you will need a guide who can be hired in an office on Zhuravlykha Island near Pliasheva village.

The peaceful coexistence of a museum and the Saint George Monastery is a local wonder. The church has not tried to take away its building from the museum whose exhibits are put on display in what were once cells inhabited by monks and the museum staff do not limit monks' access to the church. Female museum curators kindly smile at the young monks, while the latter eagerly explain to visitors where tickets or souvenirs can be purchased.

A woman standing in front of the Saint George Church offers kerchiefs for purchase or rent (women are required to wear a kerchief inside the church) and skirts to girls wearing shorts – all this without any hint at the impropriety of bare legs. There are usually not many visitors here, so the museum staff and monks compete in kindness and hospitality.

Secessionist mysticism

Mykola Kostomarov once wrote that the main events of the battle took place on Zhuravlykha Island. This is not true. When people decided to pay tribute to their heroes in the early 20th century, this island was chosen for the memorial – a monastery in which prayers would be offered up for the peace of Cossack souls. The age of Secessionism did not look for easy ways in creating images. It called for mysticism, refined symbolism and passion, so the architectural complex which now hosts both the monastery and the museum turned out somewhat psychedelic.

The core of the complex is the Saint George Church built in the style of the Ukrainian modern to a design produced by the Saint Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts and built by a local architect. It is an unlikely building: its eastern façade has a shape of an iconostasis and was painted by the famed Ivan Yizhakevych. In front of the façade-cum-altar rises a glass sarcophagus filled with Cossack skulls. This produces an impression that the building is an altar, while the boundless sky and the surrounding meadows is the church, i.e., everyone can conceive them as one and pray for the ancestors’ souls wherever they will feel the need to do so. The building has two stories inside, each one used for a separate church. It also has an underground level, which is a church in its own right, but to reach it, you need to return 50 steps from the building and proceed through the wooden 17th-century Saint Nicholas Church.

This church was moved here from the village of Ostriv when the memorial was under construction. Khmelnytsky is said to have prayed there on the eve of the battle. This church is fairly typical for its period. There is only one exception: its cellar contains a tomb filled with the bones of the Cossacks who died in action. Anthropologists teemed up with sculptors to recreate the appearance of the Cossacks based on some of the skulls. They turned out to be likeable fellows with memorable faces – the portraits can be seen in the museum.

A narrow underground passage leads to the tiny Saint Paraskeva Church illuminated from above through the glass sarcophagus. It was the designer’s idea to let sunrays come from above and shine upon the skulls, symbolizing heavenly light, the main idea of an Orthodox church. The saints in whose name the churches were built in Cossack Graves were meticulously chosen: Saint Michael is the commander of the heavenly host and the patron of military leaders; Saint George the Dragon-Slayer is the embodiment of noble exploits and heavenly protector; Saint Boris and Gleb were martyrs killed by their brother for professing Orthodoxy; Saint Paraskeva’s specialty is to heal the worst spiritual and bodily wounds. Those who built the memorial meant from day one for it to be a place where national wounds could be cured rather than chafed.

Ukrainian Pompeii

Given the right atmosphere, you can cry in any museum. Phidias, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and the unknown artisans who made the Trypillian pitchers and Tutankhamun’s golden mask are long gone. But rather than despair over their loss, we admire the art and artefacts they left behind and try to imagine what their distant lives were like.

On the other hand, it can be a bit disconcerting to walk in a place where thousands of people died. We walk along the dead streets of Pompeii and try to touch the multifaceted life of ancient Romans rather than think about the horrible volcano eruption that put an end to it. We need to approach the museum in Zhuravlykha in a similar fashion. Volynian marcses have preserved thousands of artefacts that will help create vivid images of not only the war but also everyday life in the 17th century.

The greatest pleasure will, of course, be derived by those who admire arms, which means nearly any male aged three and older. The most interesting cities here are not even the Polish-Hungarian sabres wielded by both the Cossacks and the Poles or the muskets and heavy sticks used by rebellious peasants, but all kinds of military paraphernalia and accessories having to do with arms. Bandoliers, refined toy-like powder horns, unique leather cases for muskets, bullets and bullet moulds and bags for all these things were a must for every Cossack. There are also genuine Cossack boots, wallets with money, some powder, medicines in small jars, saddles and harness. Keys with openwork handles, true masterpieces of blacksmith’s art, are a feast for the eye.

There are also accessories from the Chancellor’s Office: a silver inkstand for three types of ink (the title of a decree is supposed to be written in different color), a sandbox, a candlestick and even candles that provided light to clerks.

Apart from the everyday things, there are things of beauty in the museum, such as strings of pearls and earrings found in the Cossacks’ bags – likely gifts to the beloved. The showcases contain collections of ornamented buttons to Cossack zhupans, rings and signet rings, pectoral icons and crosses.

In a word, the Berestechko area is a place to be admired with pride, respect and curiosity.

Volynian Schliemann

German Heinrich Schliemann read Homer’s Iliad while still a child and set the goal of finding ancient Troy. Ukrainian Ihor Svieshnikov grew up in a village near Berestechko and from an early age heard tales about the great battle and the Cossack treasures buried in the marshes. He decided to find them. He obtained a doctorate degree in history and carried out excavations at the place of the battle starting from 1970. He managed to identify the location of the Cossack and Polish camps and the unfortunate river crossing which the Zaporozhians used to break out of the encirclement. The place of the crossing was perhaps the richest source of finds: during the hasty retreat people lost many things there. The expedition he headed found a total of 5,000 various objects linked to the war and everyday life in the 17th century. Just like Schliemann discovered real Troy for the world, Shieshnikov discovered the Khmelnytsky era – true, without romantic or ideological admixtures and presented from close-up in the smallest details – for contemporaries and future generations.

Long live the heroes

The heroes of the Battle of Berestechko are usually commemorated on the last Sunday in June with people coming from all over Ukraine as if on a pilgrimage. On this day, the entire area in front of the façade is crowded and the solemn service is often administered by Patriarch Filaret himself. The most touching thing is that the local peasants have come here for centuries, and everyone was at some point brought here by their parents who explained the story to them.


The park offers not only excursions but also lodging. Several households nearby welcome green tourists. Tel.: (03633) 4-20-84, 28-7-27, 28-7-39.

How to get there

The simplest option is to drive there yourself: follow M06, turn in Dubno (recommended) and follow the meandering country roads. Another option is to take a train from Kyiv to Radyvyliv and a bus from there (60 km ride) or try to find a taxi in Radyvyliv. The island — the central part of the park — can be reached on foot by crossing the bridge over the Pliashivka River.

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