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17 April, 2012  ▪  Dmytro Kalynchuk

Travelling Back in Time

Historical reenactment fills gap in preserving Ukraine’s historical heritage

KyivanRus Parkin Kopachiv, Obukhiv District, is hosting the Guests of 15th-Century Kyiv Festival on the premises of a wooden village fashioned in the style of Volodymyr the Great where participants will stage a parade for spectators. The plot is simple: the Kyivan prince will welcome his guests from various European courts. The audience can feast its eyes on costumes and armour representing nearly all of the big European states of the time.

When the parade draws to a close, it is time for what the spectators crave most – the tournament. The first event is a medieval competition known as a mêlée. Participants in the mêlée line up to form fighting units and, following a signal from the judges, engage in battle to the deafening sound of swords clanging and armour rattling.

Most of the performing knights are amateurs. The park’s website lists historical reenactment clubs whose members are regular participants in the project’s events. Along with Ukrainians, the festival in Kopachiv is attended by teams from Poland, Lithuania and Russia. European clubs have visited Ukrainian festivals and tournaments for several years now and Ukrainian teams regularly attend similar events in Russia, Belarus, Moldova and the EU.

HISTORY AS A HOBBY

Reenactment requires a deep knowledge of history and acquaintance with the smallest details of everyday life in a certain time — not only for a specific country but also for different classes of the population. Typically, a club focuses on a particular country in a certain time period.

These history buffs reenact everything from antiquity (primarily ancient Rome), the Middle Ages, modern times, Napoleon’s era, the First and Second World Wars, and more. The Cossack era in Ukraine is recreated every year at the Terra Heroica Festival in Kamianets-Podilsky. The battles of the Red Army against the Wehrmacht are reenacted on Kyiv Liberation Day near the diorama museum in Novi Petrivtsi. A mock battle between a legion of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen and Russian troops was staged toward the 95th anniversary of the battle on Mt. Makivka. All of these are the effort of numerous historical reenactment clubs.

In Soviet times, there were clubs that reenacted battles fought by armies dating back to the time of Napoleon or Peter I. However, the pastime took on massive proportions only in 1990s. A great boost came from the youth movement of “role players” – an informal community united by a passion for various role games. The best known such community is that of the Tolkienists, who recreate the literary universe of J.R.R. Tolkien. However, historical reenactment and role games have gone their separate ways and should not be confused.

THE KNIGHTS OF SWORD AND AXE

No other historical period is reenacted with as much enthusiasm the European and Slavic Middle Ages. This is mainly due to the inclusion of sport. Recreating the era of Richard the Lionhearted and Danylo Romanovych includes battles fought with swords, axes and other period weapons with fighters protected by authentic gear. Unlike reenactments of the 17th through the 20th century which are closer to theater performances, knight tournaments involve serious fighting aimed at achieving specific results. As these historical games grew popular among young people, several historical fencing federations sprang up.

All reenactment events have one thing in common – painstaking recreation of a particular era. Participants live in tents for the duration of the event, cook exclusively in cauldrons and eat from earthenware. The menu is also authentic. This kind of immersion in past realities affords a deeper understanding of a historical epoch and its advantages and hardships.

Certain events, such as reenactment festivals and military-historical terrain games, are held for this immersion rather than to draw the attention of average spectators. In Western countries, festivals of this type have essentially turned into open-air museums in which visitors can observe the life of their ancestors in minute detail. However, there are also European events that recreate landmark battles of the past.

Participation in European festivals is expensive, and Ukrainian reenactors have to cover their costs out of their own pockets. Despite this, our teams have been a regular presence at European festivals in recent years. The Kyiv-based Navarra team set a record by joining the Battle of Grunwald in Poland and the Battle of Agincourt in France in the summer of 2011. These trips opened the eyes of modern Ukrainian knights to a curious fact: Ukrainian festivals are a full match to their Western European counterparts in terms of quality.

“Our rules for single combat are much more permissive than theirs. In Ukraine, participants engage in full-contact fights, while in Europe they must merely ‘mark’ blows. So the level of Ukrainian fighters is very high,” Pavlo Stetsenko, a Navarra member and an automatization engineer in real life, said. Svitlana Malonkina, another member of the club and a foreign language teacher in her other life, compares the nuances of organization: “European reenactors bring along better everyday objects, such as earthenware, mobile furniture, etc. But we have much better costumes and armor, because we pay closer attention to detail. During the festival in France we suffered from thirst and dust but no showers were available, while they are now the norm at our events.”

YOUTH SUBCULTURE

The majority of historical reenactors are university students, but since the movement was established, it has been joined by many people who pursue the hobby alongside successful careers. Club presidents and coaches for the young come largely from this group.

Numerous internet communities have been set up to pursue historical reenactment including a wide range of songs and literary works. Some artisans even make a living by producing commissioned historical costumes and armour. All of this suggests that historical reenactment has turned into a youth subculture with its own rules and traditions.

This subculture has virtually no intersection with government agencies in its everyday activities. Officials do not care, and history reenactors return the favor. They hold their events on their own and entertain tourists at festivals initiated by local administrations or businessmen at the most. The indifference of official bodies has its own advantage, because as the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. In Belarus, the state took the historical reenactment movement under its wing in the 1990s. Knight clubs started being paid and receiving donations for participating in ceremonies. This was immediately obvious in their gear – they overwhelmed their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts with elaborate tents, costumes and camp decorations. The drawback was that their centers had to perform at official events and stage shows for the benefit of government officials.

Russiaadopted the Belarusian experience. Russian reenactors were also given some money which they worked off by taking part in various patriotic shows and events, such as the Battle of Kulikovo. Those who are interested in alternative versions of history or have been spotted at events organized by the opposition are denied funding.

The Poles went further in using the reenactment subculture. Teams from Poland, Belarus, Russian, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Germany and many other countries come to participate in the Battle of Grunwald Festival every year. Maksym Roh, leader of the Kyiv-based Sviatohor club, describes the event: “This is a true holiday of pro-Polish propaganda. First comes a theatrical reenactment of the Battle of Grunwald involving several thousand people. Then tournaments are held, followed by performances of Polish special task units to demonstrate connections between eras from the 14th century until our time. There are concerts, competitions and various shows. 300,000 spectators!” Incidentally, 11 flags from the territory of contemporary Ukraine participated in the real Battle of Grunwald. Now our reenactors travel to the festival in Poland at their own expense and act as these troops but under blue-and-yellow flags. This kind of promotion is, no doubt, more interesting and efficient than visits by our officials with the traditional primitivist “cultural programs.”


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