Riding the currents

18 August 2017, 14:05

A reconstruction image of Stara Samar by Oleksandr Kharlan

Modern economics says that providing services is a profitable business. However, this is hardly a new notion. The ancestors of modern Dniprians established themselves a city where it was possible to make money, if not from thin air, then certainly from the combination of earth and water.

The General Secretary’s date

What does anyone really know about the emergence of Dnipro, or Dnipropetrovsk until recently? In official documents and even on the banners on the central avenue, which was named after Dmytro Yavornytskiy, the date is 1776. But this number has about the same relationship to the birth of the city as a husband’s name taken on by a young woman has to her own birth. Who established this official date? None other than Leonid Brezhnev. He was born there and much of his career is tied to the city and the oblast.

At one point, Brezhnev’s jubilee spurred the then-municipal government to be creative in preparing a pleasant gift: they brought the General Secretary the jubilee of Dnipropetrovsk—which meant changing the official founding year from 1787 to 1776. The basis for this new number was the foundation plans for Katerynoslav-Kilchenskiy, also known as Katerynoslav-1, which were found in the correspondence of Azov Governor Vasiliy Chertkov. Interestingly, despite the modern-day city’s size, it still has not expanded to encompass the territory where this Katerynoslav-Kilchenskiy was built. The 200th anniversary in 1976 was convenient: the city was given funding from the budget for a wide range of projects and its council ended up looking very good indeed.

The Empress’s date

Ultimately, both these years, 1776 and 1787, come from another invention that was a weapon in Russia’s late 18th century hybrid war against Ukrainians. The point of this mythology was simple: here, on the lands of the Zaporozhian Kozaks, barbarism reigned, but when “Mother Yekaterina”, i.e. Catherine II, came along, “Russkiy mir” brought civilization and the good life. These were the bricks and mortar of which was made the foundation for the Russian Empire to dominate Ukrainian territory. After all, it’s not enough to vanquish the people: force your own version of history on them and you are free to do with them what you want.

This kind of ideology is also dangerous because Russians themselves believe it. In 2012, locals found themselves locked in debate with Russian academics that came to Dnipro to celebrate the 225th anniversary of Catherine [Yekaterina] II’s visit to the Ukrainian steppe. All these professional historians sincerely believed that Dnipro was a Russian city to its very roots.

So let’s look at what we get when we tear off the layers of imperial ideology. The thing is that modern-day Dnipro is a very busy communication hub. For a settlement to arise naturally—and eventually become a city—, there have to be routes and, what is imperative, natural barriers along them. Here we have the confluence of two great rivers: the Dnipro and the Samara, and somewhat below the mouth of the latter, the first rapids begin. This meant that, prior to the building of the reservoirs and the flooding of the rapids, the waterway to Dnipro meant a mandatory stop at the town, rest, repair work, cargo servicing, and so on.

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When waterways are the main traveling route, they form a barrier to land routes, which means you need someone to carry things across them. The town itself was the crossroads of very important land routes that connected Right and Left Bank Ukraine, Crimea, the Don, Moldova with access to the Central European and Muscovite markets to the north and the Balkans, Caucasus and Anatolia to the south.

The most important crossing over the Dnipro was at Kodak, where the eponymous city towers today. Since nature is hard to fool, the second crossing, Lots-Kamianka, was where the Southern Bridge was eventually built. On the left bank, the biggest, although not the only crossing over the Samara ran on the outskirts of the modern-day town of Shevchenko, in the city’s Samara District. Imagine you are a merchant. You’ve been wending your way across the steppe and finally arrive at the crossing. Without any doubt, this will cost you something: customs and the services of the ferrymen. But since you have to stop, one way or the other, likely you will want to eat and drink, to spend the night under a roof, and to take care of your horse and repair your wagon. In short, you will need plenty of services and so the ancestors of modern-day Dniprians provided them.

Moreover, both banks of the river were settled, in order for the wealthy customer to be able to spend money in the greatest of comfort! And so Stara Samar and Odynivka arose on the Samara’s banks, the Noviy Kodak and Kamianka-Livoberezhna at the Kodak crossing, and Lots-Kamianka and Ust-Samara lower yet. And so that the conveniently located land between them did not go to waste, people established Manuilivka, Taromske, Diyivka, Sukhachivka, Polovytsia and so on. All these villages were from the Kozak era. All this vibrant economy is completely ignored by the city founding dates currently in circulation.

In search of a founding date: The artifacts

So when, exactly, did Dnipro start? Let’s try to understand the material arguments and the methodology. For a time, it seemed to make sense to start with Noviy Kodak. The arguments in favor make a lot of sense: a town with an important fortress situated at a major river crossing, and it’s the capital of the Kodak Palanka.[1] The colonel’s residence was there, taxes were collected and the courts handed down judgments there. In addition, the town shared the local district with the future town of Katerynoslav, and the institutions of the Katerynoslav Povit[2] were located here. Historical facts are plenty to support this version.

But science never stands in place. In the last 7-8 years, a number of new archeological finds discovered in Stara Samar clearly show that the permanent settlements that served the crossings predated Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s construction of the Bohorodytsia Fortress on orders from Moscow. Coins and seals on goods from the 16th to the mid-17th centuries have been found in closed chambers, along with household items, a tavern, and a buried street… Indeed, the archeologist’s shovel provides some of the best facts—ones that are hard to contest. Most Dnipro historians have concurred with 1524 as the possible year from which the town can be dated.

What is clear is that the continuous cultural layer at Stara Samar begins in the first quarter of the 16th century. The temptation is to start with the oldest coin from this era, from 1509. However, it was in circulation for several decades, so the start of the count is more reliably based on the seal from 1524. Indeed, there is a similar seal from the following year, 1525. Merchants placed such seals on large shipments of goods, which in this case was most likely woolen cloth, to guarantee quality with their own good name. So, in 1524 some merchant caravan brought a wholesale lot of cloth to Stara Samar and most likely sold it right there as retail. The following year, the same happened. The presence of the ferry crossing, residents and trading all suggest a serious, stable settlement.

Now for the theory

To some extent, it made sense to check these facts against the theoretical work of two Dnipro professors, Iryna Kovaliova and Serhiy Svitlenko. In short, they talk about a bilinear and polycentric concept of the founding of Dnipro. It takes into account the role of all the settlements, hence polycentric, on both sides of the river, hence bilinear, in the genesis of the urban area. They emerged during different years in the 16th through 18th centuries, but all of them form part of the history of Dnipro, each contributing its own unique part. This approach makes it possible to understand the history of the city in a more comprehensive and persuasive manner.

The draw of history. Most bridges in Dnipro, such as the Kaidatskiy Mist, were built at the sites of the one-time river crossings

By the end of the 17th century, Stara Samar was the cause of endless disputes between local Zaporozhians and Russian interlopers. In 1688, the Kozak town was enclosed by the Bohorodytsia Fortress, built for the Russian Tsar. And although most of its settlers were people from the Hetmanate and a Kozak troop was formed, the presence of a Russian garrison and a foreign fortress annoyed the locals no end. In fact, it bothered them so much that when Petro Ivanenko launched an armed uprising against the Muscovite state, a large number of the Sich supported him and stormed the fortress, along with allied Zaporozhian and Tatar forces. They were unable to take the citadel, but the unprotected lower town was thoroughly burned. The unregistered Kozaks achieved this in 1711, this time in an alliance with the Tatars and the Turks, when they managed to force the Russians to clear out under the Prut Peace Treaty.

RELATED ARTICLE: Stara Samar: an old Cossack village with the remains of Ivan Mazepa's fortress 

However, in the mid-1730s, the Russians returned and the fortress, which was more and more often referred to as the Stara Samar retrenchment. As one example, in 1749, a number of Zaporozhian Kozaks came to town and had a merry time in the local tavern. They broke their Lenten fast in the village of Samarchyk, today Novomoskovsk, and planned to continue celebrating in Noviy Kodak, but found themselves in Stara Samar instead. The Kozaks drank and started shooting and threatened to burn down the fortress. The commander, Major Kovaliov, decided to set up artillery in the fortress, which meant taking out the cannons that had been mothballed since the previous war. Obviously, the Kozaks’ appearance did not go unnoticed.

Uneasy coexistence

In fact, however, the Zaporozhians had every reason, even on the day-to-day level, not to tolerate the presence of the Russian in the free towns. The fundamental difference in understanding the status and nature of the Zaporozhian Host of unregistered Kozaks was clear in the battle at Noviy Kodak, which took place in 1766. Vasiliy Ponomariov, captain of the Briansk Infantry Company, complained that during a crossing, he was charged a crossing fee of 50 kopeks and his officer’s honor was insulted. Unfortunately, the text of the officer’s report was not preserved. Most likely he included the words that the Zaporozhians flung at him. A description of the event has come down to us in the records of the Kish, the administration center of the Zaporozhian Host.

When Captain Ponomariov crossed from the left bank of the Dnipro and rode towards the Sich, he called his trip a service one, so no one charged him for the ferry. But on the return trip, when he and his entourage made it clear that he had traveled together with his wife to visit friends and make some purchases, the provisor suggested that he pay for the crossing.

The officer then began to threaten and disparage the honor of the Host: “You’re just a bunch of deserters and vile animals who don’t understand the rules and laws of the country, that this ferry belongs to your Sovereigns and all the people.” Ponomariov then demanded to be ferried without charge and threatened to poke the ferryman’s eye out. According to the Host records, the provisor had not insulted the officer, only promised to remove him from the ferry.

No less entertaining were relations among the rank-and-file. Two ordinary soldiers garrisoned at the Stara Samar Retrenchment, Mikhail Naidyonov and Filip Chernikov, decided one fine January day in 1762 to spend some time fishing in the Samara, which was covered in a thick layer of ice. Contemporary chronicles don’t say how successful the fishing expedition was, but the thoroughly-chilled warriors warmed themselves up nicely in a tavern in Odynivka, which was located on the bank opposite the fortress. Having spent 4 kopeks to warm up, Naidyonov and Chernikov decided that they needed to top up their wallets and, as darkness descended on the town, they paid a visit to a pen with livestock belonging to a local, Sydor Samotkan. Beyond that point, the testimonies of the soldiers and the local residents diverge. The local militia clams that the thieves were captured at the scene of the crime by 10 people. It seems that it’s easier to believe the locals, because according to their version, Samotkan saw uninvited guests near his livestock and called his neighbors Ivan Odymchenko and Yakiv Taran. The three of them stopped the thieves.

As to what happened further, then the Russian version seems more reliable. The villagers stated that they beat the soldiers only while they held them, as the two were trying to use their knives. Chernikov claimed that they were beaten when they were caught, then whips were used against them in Samotkan’s yard, and the following day Kozak Otaman Hnat Horobets flogged them once more with a knotted whip while interrogating them about the livestock, which regularly disappeared on the residents of this settlement. Chernikov knew to keep quiet, but Naidyonov tattled on a number of dragoons from the Retrenchment who had stolen five horses and sold them at a market in the Belevsky Fortress in 1761.

There were plenty of similar stories. In the later 18th century, the Sich Kozaks no longer had the power to storm the fortress, but they did manage to get out of the local settlement the jurisdiction of the Hetmanate, which was foreign to them, and actively populated the area around the fortress with Kozak and commonwealth settlers. When it came to a location for Katerynoslav-Kilchenskiy, Stara Samar with its fortress that could defend the new imperial center was the obvious choice. And so the little town became its suburb.

Today, Stara Samar is once again the center of controversy, this time between those who would prefer to keep the Russian foundation dates for Dnipro and those who want to return the Kozak era to its history. Stay tuned.


[1]  An administrative district under the New Sich (1734-1775).

[2] A province of that time.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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