Names notwithstanding

20 May 2011, 15:59

The area around Chorkiv has an abundance of place names with devilish associations. In addition to Chortkiv (from chort ‘devil’), there is Chortoryia, Chortivets and Dyiavolkivtsi. The locals themselves seemed to be bothered by this, too, but Bohorodychne, a better-sounding name they proposed, failed to take root. Local travel agencies offer an excursion called “From Chortkiv to Rai” – rai is the Ukrainian for ‘paradise’ but also happens to be the name of a small settlement near Berazhany.

Regional ethnographers say that Chortkiv was named after the landlord Jerzy Czortkowski who built the first wooden castle here in 1522. A different story claims the settlement was marked as Czortkowice on maps used by King Władysław Jagiełło, while the contemporary name was first recorded in, again, 1522 when it was granted Magdeburg rights.

There is also the folk explanation, as recorded by the local ethnographer Petro Medvedyk, which describes a struggle between God and the devil with a happy ending, leading to the city being built and called Chortkiv.

The rather spooky name is more than compensated by a profusion of churches in the city, including eight that are more than a century old.


One of Chortkiv’s streets hosts several churches from different eras. These churches are made of different materials and used by different denominations to boot: a Dominican cathedral, an Orthodox church and a synagogue.

On a Sunday morning, the sounds of several bells and the fragrant, Turkish-style coffee in a local coffee shop suddenly reminded me of the Orient, particularly Istanbul. There muezzins’ repeated calls are heard from allaround, mixing with the bells ringing in Byzantine-rite Christian churches. Just like in Istanbul, there are few people to be seen in Chortkiv’s street: the faithful pray at this time.

After the service, the Orthodox, Catholics and, perhaps even some Jews came out of their churches to fill the surrounding area. They are all neatly dressed: men in patent leather jackets, women in white kerchiefs. On Sundays, especially on holidays, everyone takes to the central street for a stroll. They seem to be cruising the street to sport their new clothes before their neighbors, while they treat themselves and their children to ice cream and cotton candy.

Standing out among Chortkiv’s architectural attractions is the contemporary, trident-shaped, steel-and-glass building of the Greek Catholic St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral. Stylistically, it sharply contrasts with the wooden Dormition Church, located 100 meters away and built in 1635.

The oldest church in the city, it has an unusual shape and location and a very interesting belfry supported by piles. Both buildings look somewhat surprising in the downtown area of the contemporary district center. They look as if they have been carefully moved here from the Carpathians and installed on a concrete foundation, while the square around them has been paved anew. The local Podillia School of architecture incorporates Carpathian elements, which explains the style of this church. It was destroyed by the Turks and Tatars three times and rebuilt by the locals. It had to be reconstructed once again after it was disfigured by Soviet activists.

On the other bank of the Seret River, which flows through the city, stands another wooden building, the Christ Resurrection Church. Built in the early 18th century, it is somewhat younger and has a cozy, home-like interior. It has a similar story to tell: its predecessor, a church built a century earlier, was destroyed by various hordes, while the existing building was restored in the first years of Ukraine’s independence.


It is a joy to walk along Chortkiv’s old streets – they are still alive to the point of suggesting that nothing has changed over the centuries. Ukrainians, Poles, Germans and Jews have lived here since days of old. Ethnic communities have built districts for themselves, and their national and time-related features are still recognizable. Dozens of Austro-Hungarian villas have survived, decorated with toy-like turrets, spikes and bay windows. In Shevchenko Street, there is even the stone building of a Habsburg hotel and what used to be the Bristol Restaurant.

The mixture of architectural styles is strange at first sight but turns out to be much more pleasing to the eye than the modern, gaudy palaces of the nouveaux riche.

Squares traditionally called Rynok always mean the center of a European city. Chortkiv’s center is now some distance away from the town hall and the square around it. The 15th-century wooden town hall with its clock tower and a nearby marketplace is simply made to be captured on video. The premises are now occupied by a club-cum-coffee shop, Lemkivska Svitlytsia, which hosts meetings with both famous people and simply interesting folk. The weathervane on the tower still points to the west with hope.

Surprisingly, Chortkiv has two town halls – the more recent one, built in the 1930s, is located near the trident-shaped cathedral.


As you walk by the old town hall, turn and look back. What you will see cannot be missed – the Dominican Holy Virgin Cathedral of the Holy Rosary and St. Stanislav. It has a long name and a history to match.

This church, also used for defense in the past, was surrounded by walls backed by towers in which the local residents hid to withstand raids from the east. King John Casimir Vasa came to Chortkiv in 1663 during his raid on Smolensk and took part in a mass conducted in this cathedral. In 1683, it hosted another Polish monarch – Jan III Sobieski. Prior to the First World War the cathedral was remodeled, and in 1914, Russian troops removed all of its bells except the biggest one, which survived.

In 1941, before the Germans conquered the city, the Red Army set the monastery on fire and tortured nearly all the Dominican monks to death on the outskirts. In 1959, the sad story of the cathedral continued as it was used for storing mineral fertilizers. In the 1970s, the metal parts of its organ were stolen.

But today you must take a look inside the restored cathedral: inspect its interior, see the icon of the Virgin Mary and listen to the organ music. Then go to the top of Vyhnansky Hill overlooking Chortkiv for a magnificent view of the city. From there you will spot the Golski family’s castle (early 17th century), which cannot be seen from downtown. There is a gas station in its courtyard, but it is surrounded by strong castle walls – the only vestiges the its past glory.


The DormitionChurch, Chortkiv’s oldest temple (1635), is a wooden building with a belfry on piles.

The OldTown Hall has an unusual clock tower and weathercock and is surrounded by an old marketplace.

The St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral is a concrete-and-glass modern cathedral of the Greek Catholic Church that can accommodate up to 2,000 people.


A castle which was the residence of the Golski and Potocki noble families stands on a hill near the Seret River. Shaped as an irregular 70-by-100-meter rectangle, it consists of crenellated walls and towers. During the Liberation War, three Cossack regiments under the command of Maksym Kryvonis stormed and captured this stronghold. It was later occupied by the Turks, Poles and communists.


Nearly all Kyiv–Chernivtsi and Kyiv–Ivano-Frankivsk trains stop in Chortkiv. Rooms in hotels Hetman and Avianosets cost from UAH100 to UAH200 per night.


Chortkiv is the birthplace of Pavlo Stepovy (real name Chortyk), a noted bandura maker. He is an honorary member of the Shevchenko Ukrainian Ensemble of Bandura Players. After he emigrated to Canada in 1922, he made over 40 banduras and a number dulcimers. His children followed in his footsteps: his son Makar joined the ensemble and his grandson Orest Sushko, a musician and sound engineer, has won two Emmy Awards.


Chortkiv is the home of a dynasty of Hasidic rabbis founded by David Moshe Friedman (1827–1904) known as “Rabbi of Czortkow.” He organized the Torah Study Society at a time when a third of the city’s population was Jewish. His cause was furthered by his son, Rabbi Israel (1854–1934). The dynasty has survived to this day. A synagogue now stands in the place where the famous rabbi once lived.

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