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11 October, 2011  ▪  Oleksandr Syrtsov

Tanks and Toys

To set up the Yavoriv military training ground, 128 villages and hamlets were removed, but one indigenous craft has survived

Roztochia, in Lviv Region, is home to both a national natural preserve and a military training ground. Craftsmen still make folk toys in neighboring villages while weaving contemporary military motifs into their craft.


What is commonly known as the Yavoriv training ground has a long official name: the International Peace Keeping and Security Center of the Land Forces of Ukraine. The name is fitting for its size: it is probably one of Europe’s biggest military sites, sprawling across 36,000 hectares in Roztochia.

The training ground stretches west-to-east for 28 km along the European Watershed and south-to-east for 18 km on average (26 km maximum). Part of the territory – an impenetrable thicket – is used for military training and is shared with Yavoriv National Park. The training ground is just 7 km away from the Polish border.

The usual route to the training ground take visitors through Starychi, off the international highway between Lviv and Yavoriv. Several kilometers past this village, we are cleared at a military checkpoint: an orderly checks our IDs and opens the gate. We take in the various training grounds from the car. Two models, one of a plane and the other of a helicopter, stand out – the military uses them to practice parachute jumps.

There are three military stations here complete with barracks and hotels where soldiers and officers stay during training. There is also a place for tents – trainees need to learn to survive in extreme conditions. Not only Ukrainian troops but also foreign servicemen train at Yavoriv. The site's most recent guests were from Italy and Belarus. This is also one of the facilities where international peacekeeping forces train.


Stepan Korniyenko has served at the training ground for a number of years as a warrant officer. His hobby is military history. He collects artefacts that are commonly found in the area, primarily accoutrements and equipment dating back to WWI or WWII. “It was hard to live here, because the soil is not very fertile and warfare was very frequent,” Korniyenko says. The first mention of a battle in this area is dated 1266. That year the Polish army set out from Przemysl to plunder Ruthenian lands. Galician defenders fought to stop the aggressors. Many other military ventures ensued, but the 20th century proved to be the bloodiest.

During the First World War, the General Staff of the Russian Army was located in the resort city of Nemyriv. Not far from here, near Zhovkva, pilot Petro Nesterov performed the first ever ram attack in which he died. The Western Ukrainian National Republic fought Polish troops here in 1918.

The training ground as such was founded in the 1930s when the local landlords made their land near Lelykhivka and Shchyrets available for the Polish army for firing exercises. Then the Second World War broke out. In 1940, Soviet troops began to expand the training grounds, but on June 24, 1941, the 4th mechanized corps of the Red Army was forced to withdraw from Nemyriv. The troops were commanded by General Andrey Vlasov, the same one who switched over to the Germans later. He lost 53 tanks in the battle here.

The expansion of the training ground continued in 1946. Initially, residents in neighboring villages were told to move in with relatives. Those who refused faced repressions – they were first sent to Ternopil Region and then on to the Dnipropetrovsk region or Moldova. The especially recalcitrant ended up in Siberia.

Overall, 128 villages and hamlets were razed to the ground in this area. The same lot befell cemeteries and churches. “You can well imagine what could be left of a cemetery over which tanks have driven for decades,” Major Oleksandr Shtepenko says. The military has tried to install memorial signs where possible.

We are 200 meters away from a tank firing range. Three tanks are firing at targets that are barely visible on the horizon.

We drive further to the east. Near the firing range are the ruins of a stone building – the Saint Michael Church. Korniyenko says that village Velyka Vyshenka used to be here. Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky blessed the newly erected church in 1927. This is the only surviving church on the territory now occupied by the training ground. It is located in the sector for tank maneuvers, so for 50 years it was fired at as a target or simply hit by shelves or fragments accidentally. Eventually, after 1991, those in charge of the training ground prohibited targeting the church.

Several kilometers further on, we come to Nedelin Dugout named after a Soviet artillery marshal. This is an observation point from which commanders watch military exercises. A panoramic view of the forest-covered lands surrounding Roztochia spreads before us. The horizon is barely visible in the distance, separated from us by a huge swath of land used for tank maneuvers.


The sandy soil plus the hilly terrain in Roztochia hampered agriculture. But there are plenty of forests here, so the region made a name for itself thanks to its craftsmen. Ivano-Frankove (formerly Yaniv), a 400-years-old village, was and still is the crafts center.

This land is also known for the furniture its craftsmen produce. A Yavoriv-made chest was an important element of a dowry. “We had wicker weaving and embroidering, but never well-developed pot making, because Roztochia does not have much clay,” says Vasyl Hevalo, principal of Professional Arts and Technology College No. 14 located in the village.

Yavoriv toys have become an unmistakable welcoming card for the region. Whereas chests and furniture were produced by local master craftsmen to earn a living, they made toys to entertain their children, using waste wood as material. Yavoriv toy making entered its heyday in the late 19th century and was linked to Sheptytsky, Galicia’s most notable figure at the time. He set up and blessed Toymaker School in Yavoriv which put the craft on the right artistic foundation. It was later turned into a college – the same one, No. 14 – where several hundred students learn traditional crafts. Thanks to Sheptytsky’s stature the craft begin to grow in leaps and bounds – the toys were even on display at exhibits in Germany. “I happened to meet older people who remembered playing with these toys as children after the war,” Hevalo shared.

However, wooden handmade toys lost the competition to their factory-produced rivals in the 1970s. Only a few craftsmen remained in the area making toys. Fortunately, teachers at the college never let it slip into oblivion, and two years ago, the college introduced a new major – wood artist. It is listed in the official register of professions.


Hevalo invites us to the examination room in the college building. We are overwhelmed by an explosion of vivid colors that pour at us from every direction, our eyes skipping from one object to another, unable to stay focused. There are large wooden plates, chests and embroideries – but they drown in a sea of toys.

Yellow, red and green are the most common colors used to decorate toys by painting on a yellow background or directly on wood.

Deputy Principal Oleksiy Zvarych shows us how toys are made. Artisans use soft wood such as alder, asp or lime. “Children like to taste everything, so the paint has to be natural,” he notes. Craftsmen used to make paints themselves but later switched to acrylic paints.

It takes a workpiece that has to be turned into a toy horse and cuts it into the right shape with a knife – the wood complies easily. He then takes a narrow paintbrush in his hand and explains that the paint is applied "in one stroke."

“And here is our response to the African vuvuzela – a rattle that can be used at soccer matches,” Hevalo says, smiling.

All of these toys either move or make noise. For example, there are horses pulling carriages and wooden planes and tanks, the joy of boys’ hearts. All our toys are made without nails, and the secret of joining parts is a know-how that the college prefers to keep to itself.


The Yavoriv National Natural Park is a narrow (26 km on average) chain of hills that stretches for 75 km. The European Watershed goes along it, dividing the basins of the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. Rivers start in these hills and flow in different directions, hence the name Roztochia (from the Ukrainian roztikatysia ‘flow apart’). Natural oak, pine and beech forests cover 92% of the territory. The park is home to 43 species of mammals and over 150 species of birds, including some that are entered in the Red Book of endangered species.

In order to preserve biological and landscape diversity, as well as the area's cultural-historical heritage, the Roztochia International Biospheric Reserve is now being set up here. It will include the already protected natural areas in Ukraine and Poland. In the north, the natural park borders on the Yavoriv military training ground.


Buses start from the Yaniv Cemetery in Lviv and go in the direction of Ivano-Frankove (formerly Yaniv). The fee is UAH 6, and the trip takes about half an hour. A special permit is needed, though, to visit the military training ground.


Prylbychi is the home village of the Sheptytsky family. Andrey Sheptytsky, the metropolitan, was born there in 1865. On July 29, 2011, a monument to him and his brother Klymentiy was unveiled in the village.

Seven Springs is a place where as many as seven natural springs come to the surface from under tree roots and merge into a brook.

Nedelin Dugout is a command and observation point that offers the best view of the Yavoriv training ground.

Yavoriv Lake is a man-made, 90-meter deep lake in the place of an abandoned sulfur quarry.

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