Transcarpathia in Miniature

21 February 2013, 14:26

Kolochava, one of the biggest villages in Transcarpathia, was founded by Czechs fleeing serfdom. Now Czech children learn about the village in school through the writings of Ivan Olbracht. Olbracht lived in Kolochava and skilfully depicted Transcarpathian nature in his main novel Nikola Šuhaj loupežník (Mykola Shuhai the Highwayman). Films, musicals, plays and songs were later created in the Czech Republic based on its plot.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians are only starting to learn of Kolochava. Museums have opened one after another and tourist routes to the vicinity have been established over the past several years. In May 2011, the village was mentioned in many media outlets after a monument to migrant workers – one of its kind in Ukraine – was unveiled here. The locals say that labour migration has become so customary that when a healthy man stays with his family in springtime instead of leaving in search of a job, people begin to look askance at him.


True Kolochava migrant laborers are largely different from the handsome but unhappy family immortalized in the monument.

Three men in shabby clothes enter a local pub. They order vodka and tomato juice and drink right by the counter. After their third drink, they notice a stranger in the hall. “Where are you from, ma'am?” the youngest asks me as he sits down at my table. He looks 30, but his wrinkled face, fractured teeth and bruised dirty hands betray a difficult life and exhausting physical labour. He introduces himself as Vadik and says he is married and is raising a three-year-old son. “What good are those museums if we don't have jobs. I haven't been home for even a week, but tomorrow I am again leaving for St. Petersburg for three months,” he complains. “All our guys are working away from home. These two (he points at his buddies) also travel back and forth: one works in Moscow and the other one in Prague. They have been doing that for the past 10 years. I used to work at a timber plant, but something changed there, and this is where I am now.” Warmed with vodka, this man from Kolochava still keeps me from taking a photo of him, preferring instead to tell me all about the local problems.

“They brought pontoon bridges here and laid them across rivers on the roads to the museums. But they didn’t make any for regular people – no, you have to build them yourself. They built Russian baths – they are good but expensive. I can show you families with lots of children where the parents drink. Why are they drinking? Because there are no jobs,” he says. After a pause he adds: “People also steal fir trees. I will also go and steal one, because my child has to have a holiday. And why would I buy a Christmas tree for hundreds of hryvnias when I live in a forest?”


After another shot of vodka and the men leave. Oles, the son of the pub’s owner, removes the dishes after them and sits down at my table. “I remember Kolochava in the 1990s. It was a village just like any other. Then it started to develop a little, and we have had a tourist boom in the past five years,” he says. “The profession of a tour guide was exotic in Kolochava. Now it is normal. All young people want to be tour guides. But I don't think there'll be mass tourism here. Our only downside is that we are far from any train station. Masses of tourists won't reach this village, so it has to develop its own tourism – green and romantic. Oles’s father was fired from a plant that worked for the aviation industry, worked as a taxi driver and then open several small retail kiosks. He dashed back and forth between them until he managed to buy a building which used to house a gendarmerie administration under the Czechs. Together with his wife he fixed it up and opened a pub. Later, they added hotel rooms upstairs.

“There are no enterprises here. Most people are working abroad. They like complaining about their lives, but they earn pretty good money,” Oles says. “My cousin breeds rabbits; his father keeps an apiary, sells honey and does some carpentry work. You can survive even here if you want to.”

Oles lived in Kyiv for 10 years. He studied in an art academy to become a theatre director. He later worked as an interior designer but eventually returned home to Kolochava.

“Life is good there, but prospects are very distant. There are more material and, most importantly, emotional expenses in the capital. So I decided to continue the business my parents started. I can paint here just as well – there are plenty of landscapes to inspire me.”


The landscapes in Kolochava are indeed mesmerizing. The village is surrounded by mountains and forests. When the sky is clouded, they are covered with a mysterious blue mist, but when the sun peeks out and makes every mountain top and every fir tree on the slopes shine, it seems that the air has become transparent and fresh like water in a clear mountain river.

Almost every other house standing by the road that leads to the Ivan Olbracht Museum is being rebuilt. A girl stands near an old wooden house, rinsing laundry in a brook that flows right along the main street. I asked her whether all Kolochava residents do their laundry this way. “No. Those who have washing machines do their laundry at home, and those who don't, wash like this. It's cold. My hands are freezing (she stretches out her hands that are read from ice-cold water). But what can we do?”

My contemplations about the contrasts I have seen end when I reach a stop by the local school. It was built following Soviet standards. Physical culture lessons take place right in the hall. The Ivan Olbracht museum occupies a small classroom, also on the ground floor. It includes a collection of old documents and photos of the writer and items related to the protagonist of his key novel – the local highwayman Shuhai. Oles tells the story of this Transcarpathian Robin Hood who robbed wealthy Jews and miraculously avoided bullets but was eventually killed by his own men. Sometimes Oles has to pause to find a Ukrainian equivalent to a Czech word, which shows how often he conducts tours in Czech.

Kolochava’s biggest museum, the Old Village skansen, is located on the other side of the settlement. The guide, Vasyl Mykhailovych, a vivid local character, takes us from one house to another in knee-deep snow. The skansen includes ordinary homes, a bathroom, a Jewish pub with an authentic debt ledger and the gendarmerie’s office. We also get to see a narrow-gauge railway museum that has a rare locomotive and 10 carriages, each with a different exhibit.

“Our museum is unique in that local houses and objects of everyday use are collected here,” our guide says. “We also keep Kolochava traditions here. Do you know how druns were punished here? They would put yokes on their necks and drive them across village.”

At the end of a two-hour-excursion, Vasyl Mykhailovych boasted that nearly 15,000 tourists had visited the museum since April. His words were confirmed by Maria Shetelia, director of a local travel agency. We met with her in another hotel in Kolochava. A small two-storied building that was all dusty inside as carpenters hurried to finish yet another room.

“People in Kolochava need to learn to live from tourism. The local residents have to create all the conditions themselves so that guests are comfortable here. When that happens, then I think that the new monument will be the only thing to remind them of labour migrants,” she says.


The Old Village Museum of Architecture and Everyday Living will introduce you to the area's 300-year history

The Kolochava Narrow-Gauge Railway is a museum that features a rare locomotive and 10 carriages each of which shows transportation conditions in the region under various governments

The Church of the Holy Spirit is a two-block, three-storied building that dates to 1795

The Czech School is a museum consisting of a classroom and a teacher’s room

The Shepherd’s School is a place for guests to relax and learn a thing or two about breeding sheep

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