A Border Town

27 October 2011, 17:30

The name of the river Esman that runs through Hlukhiv means a beautiful route in Persian. In recent times, this tiny town has been struggling for recognition as a tourist destination. Its unique charm is about authenticity, not yet coated in a shiny layer of new paint. However, the traces of neglect and ruins are slowly fading. The town with no cozy, glamorous coffee shops and transport infrastructure – hardly a necessity for a place where everything is within walking distance – is coming back to life.  

Hlukhiv has long been known as a military town, one of the biggest in Sumy Oblast. This was where soviet officers settled down with their families after WWII. The past decade has made the veteran town much younger, with soviet street names such as like Lenin and Soviet replaced by Kyiv-Moscovska and Tereshchenko, the downtown adorned with a cute white alley called Ratna Vulytsia and the old water tower turned into an ethnographic museum with an observation deck. After such radical changes, Hlukhiv won the Golden Phoenix award for the best urban upgrade a few years ago. Indeed, its history somehow reflects that of the mythical bird.


The name Hlukhiv sounds almost like hlukhiy, deaf in Ukrainian. According to a legend, once upon a time Catherine the Great’s carriage got lost in the local wetland. She asked an old man for the name of the place. He did not answer the noble lady who shouted, enraged, “Vot glukhov!” – “Is he deaf, or what!” in Russian. Apparently, this gave the village its name. This is one of the many politically motivated myths featuring the Russian Queen, Catherine the Great, as the godmother of virtually half of Ukraine’s towns and cities. Yet, this version is incorrect. Hlukhiv is one of the oldest towns in Ukraine, first mentioned in the chronicles in 1152. Most likely, its name comes from the Chernihiv Princes, back in the times of Kyiv Rus who appreciated its fortification and impregnability, the latter being another meaning for hlukhiy.

Located on the border with Russia, the town survived numerous jurisdictions; the Golden Horde, Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Muscovy and more recently, the soviet regime. It went through many wars, fires and a plague. After the fall of Baturyn, the previous hetman capital, Hetman Ivan Skoropadsky granted Hlukhiv that status in the early 18th century. Apparently, this has trained the place: it preserved its dignity and charm through the collapse of the Cossack Hetmanate, destructions and depressions. Today, new modern and sophisticated churches are replacing the sanctuaries and monuments ravaged by the totalitarian regime.


The best heritage from the past that escaped the soviet “managers” includes four churches, an arch and a tower. St. Nicholas Church is in the conventional Cossack Renaissance style; the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral is strictly classical; the dominating Church of Three Anastasias  adorned with arches contains the Tereshchenko vault, a Ukrainian family of sugar barons and patrons of arts; and the Church of the Ascension looks archaic and humble. The town used to have the Trinity Cathedral but the communists blew it up in the 1960s. To this day, locals still remember that the church did not fully collapse,in spite of many attempts. The ancient building technique was to add egg whites to the mortar, which is what the old architects of the church did. Now, the place is a soviet-style bus station where the homeless sleep and women sell greasy meat pies.

Recently, the neighborhood got two new residents. They are the monuments to Dmytro Bortniansky and Maksym Berezovsky, two well-known Hlukhiv-born composers, incarnated in bronze, who now watch the pigeons and passers-by near the station.  

The local Teachers’ College named after Oleksandr Dovzhenko, a Ukrainian film director and writer of prose, who studied here for three years, has also been rejuvenated and refreshed. Founded back in the 19th century, the college is now painted a juicy red and white.

Taras Prokhasko, a contemporary writer, wrote in an essay that the town had two unique features of its own – the gate and the tower. The water tower that acts as a local Eiffel Tower of sorts, supplies pure and safe tap water, which is a rarity for most cities and towns in Ukraine and boasts a curious architectural design. Recently, the administration opened a museum in the water tower with an observation deck on the roof. The tower has steel spiral stairs and the mechanism of a one-time huge clock darkened by time and dimly lit in yellow. The atmosphere is romantic with a hint of gothic. The observation deck opens onto a view of the surrounding fields and lakes.

The museum staff deserves a compliment. They eagerly share curious details from archives, generally not mentioned in most guidebooks. “Look,” one employee shows us a portrait of a stunning brunette. “That’s Anastasia, wife of Hetman Ivan Skoropadsky. Actually, she was the one making most political decisions. The Cossacks used to say that Ivan wore the skirt and Nastia held the mace.”

The Kyiv Gate, which is part of the Hlukhiv town fortification, known unofficially as the Arch, was once the main entrance into the town and a fortress towered here earlier. Just like the water tower, the classic-looking construction is an architectural symbol of the town. Both are depicted on souvenir magnets and postcards.


The town was home to the Tereshchenkos, who were patrons of the art. Artemiy, the son of the Chernihiv-based Cossack Yakiv, was the first to sell goods from his cart, thus launching the family business. He saved some cash and established a sugar plant with his sons. The family donated 80% of their proceeds to charity. Their presence is still felt everywhere – in the hospital they founded which is still in operation today, the sugar plant, their mansion and the street named after them.

Voikova St.and the so-called Liusia’s Museum are also worth seeing. The latter is a regular home that “grows” the busts of proletariat leaders instead of potatoes and tomatoes. As the town removed monuments after the collapse of the regime, Lyudmyla Deineko, the owner started a collection of abandoned idols, incarnated in statues, flags, busts etc. She now has Lenin, Stalin, Engels, Chapaev, Gorki, the worker and the kolkhoz woman, pioneer trumpets, red ties and many other nostalgic items that are all part of a colorful private collection.

The Archeological Museum is a destination for the fans of Cro-Magnons and Scythians.

The local dialect of surzhyk, a combination of Ukrainian and Russian languages popular in rural Central, Eastern and Southern Ukraine, sounds like nothing else. Hlukhiv is an arm’s length away from the Russian border, so it affects the language. Nobody means to insult you when they ask you Kakaya gadina? in the street. It may sound as “What a beast!” to a Russian-speaker, but is in fact “What time is it?” in surzhyk. Like any border town, Hlukhiv is a mix of various nationalities. It even had a gypsy quarter at one point.

The atmosphere in Hlukhiv is one of tranquility and something long forgotten. Old streets are flanked with two and three story buildings. Apartment doors and gates often have small stars. This means that the owner is a WWII veteran. Lush neat flower beds stretch alongside the roads. The old hospital looks more like a cozy hotel or a charming farmstead. The bright hospital buildings scattered around the park hardly look like treatment facilities. The Summer Park rides are long gone but it is still the favorite place for kids to play.

The last few decades have changed Hlukhiv dramatically. It has transformed from a sleepy post-soviet provincial town, where one would think most locals still expected the coming of communism, drinking vodka from the ever-present bottles, to an elegant, welcoming town with a cocktail of sophisticated culture and almost dacha-type relaxation and silence. Its biggest attraction is the unique ambience and a sense of something elusive, old and mysterious.

How to get there

Take a bus from Kyiv or Sumy; a car on the Kyiv-Moscow highway or an intercity train to the Shostka or Tereshchenska stop and switch to a regular scheduled bus to Hlukhiv

Where to stay

Europe Hotel, 4A, Tsiolkovskoho St.

Style Hotel, 19, Industrial St.

Monastery Inn, 2, Poshtoviy Lane

Where to eat

Stare Misto (Old Town) café, 55, Kyevo-Moskovska St.

Edelweiss, 45, Tereshchenkiv St.

Duet, 67, Suvorova St.

Sites worth seeing

The water tower is on Tereshchenkiv St. It contains an ethnographic museum and an observation deck on the roof

Monuments to composers Bortniansky and Berezovsky in a park by the bus station

The Prison Castle at 4, Spartaka St. The jail, built in the late 17th century as part of the Hlukhiv  Fortress, was turned into a brewery after World War II  

Liusia’s Museum is the home owned by Lyudmyla Deineko on Voikova St. It houses a private collection of soviet artifacts 

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