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Sofiyivka — a beautiful park named after a beautiful woman

 

A park is a large area of ground set aside for recreation.

Beautiful: pleasing to the senses: very pleasing and impressive to listen to, touch, or especially to look at; very good or enjoyable; beautiful applies to whatever excites the keenest of pleasure to the senses and stirs emotion.

These dry definitions say too much and too little.

A good park is designed in such a way that it creates for people experiences that uplift their spirits, expand their vision, and invigorate their lives. In this respect parks are a form of art. Garden and landscape design is also a science that is directly related to and expressive of nature insofar as it incorporates natural materials and scenes. Art and science fully manifest themselves in the Sofiyivka Park where art, science, and nature are most intimately interlocked.

In some very special way, the beauty of the park reflects the beauty of the woman who gave the park its name.

 

 

Sofiyivka is situated not far from the town of Uman, Ukraine. Forests and the steppe, rivers and stone outcroppings, abundance of greenery and beautiful landscape — all combine to make the land of Umanshchyna highly picturesque.

No wonder a park of great scenic beauty was laid out there. It dates to the end of the eighteenth century. There are but a few other parks in the world that can rival Sofiyivka in the harmony of nature and design.

 

In the first quarter of the eighteenth century, Umanshchyna belonged to Franciszek Salezy Potocki, member of one of the richest and aristocratic Polish families. In 1796, his son and heir Count Stanislaw Szczesny (Felix) Potocki married Sophie de Witte (we shall tell the story of Sophie which, in fact, deserves a separate article, after we describe the park). Sophie was said to have exclaimed on seeing the scenery of one of her husbands estates, “What a wonderful park it could be!”

 

 

The husband, smitten with Sophie’s beauty and perspicacity, reacted dutifully and issued an order to have a park laid out. He commissioned Ludwig Metzel, an architect, to provide a design and supervise the work. Metzel travelled around Europe, looking at parks and purchasing equipment and machinery needed for laying out a park that “would outshine any other park in Europe.”

Count Potocki brought in serfs from his estates to work at the laying out of the park, and from the documents discovered in the archives it follows that at least 800 people were engaged in this work daily. Gardeners and park designers showed where they wanted trees planted or removed, where ponds should be dug, where dykes were to be built and where islands to be created. Age-old oaks, firs, maples and other trees were uprooted and then moved to be replanted in the park. It took six years to complete the stupendous work of creating and installing the architectural and sculptural features, ponds, streamlets, waterfalls and grottoes. In the valley near one of the ponds, spread a jumble of huge rocks as though thrown in by the enormous hand of a prehistoric giant. Trees, hundreds of years old, lined the alleys giving shade and places to find seclusion in. Shrubs of many species provided many shades of green in the summer and a riot of colours in the autumn. To enhance the natural and created beauty, marble statues were imported from Italy and erected at the most advantageous places.

 

 

Similar to some other famous parks of the time — Versailles, the Belvedere Park in Vienna, the Vatican Gardens in Rome, Hellbrun in Salzburg, Blenheim in England, Drottningsholm in Sweden and Peterhof (Petrodvorets) in Russia — Sofiyivka was largely planned in the Italian Baroque tradition with themes from the myths of the Greco-Roman antiquity in full display. Sofiyivka has its own Elysian Fields, its own River Styx; statues and busts of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Apollo, Mercury and Venus grace the alleys and groves. The new, “English style” ideas in landscaping were also used with “wild sections” added in good measure.

When most of the work had been completed, Sophie was invited to visit “a very special gift” given her by her husband — an entire park of unparalleled beauty. Though it was mid-summer the whimsical woman wanted to ride into the park in a sledge — or so a popular story, maybe apocryphal, goes — and the central alley was covered with a thick layer of salt. A poet in her entourage wrote a poem eulogizing the park and the woman after whom the park was named (the word Sofiyivka is derived from Sophie, of course). The poem was translated into French and published with engravings done by a gifted artist and master engraver. The book was appreciated in high society and both the park and Sophie were the topic of conversation in many salons across Europe.

 

 

Count Potocki died in 1805 without seeing the park being completed in the way he visualized it. Neither were all of the plans of his architect Metzel realized. Potocki’s children either did not care to have all the work the park completed according to the original design or did not have money for it. After an insurrection in Poland, in which Alexander Potocki, one of the count’s sons, took part, was brutally suppressed by the tsarist army, the park was confiscated to become property of Nicholas I who gave it as a present to his wife. The name was officially changed to The Tsar’s Park but locally it continued to be referred to as “Sofiyivka.” The local authority took the maintenance on itself and in 1848, the 84-year old Metzel was invited to come over from Warsaw where he resided to Uman to complete the work in the park. But the aged architect never made it to Sofiyivka — he was taken ill on the way to Uman and shortly died.

After the revolution of 1917 and the Bolshevik coup, the park was again renamed to suit the tastes of the new power (“Park of the Third International,” whatever it may mean). Sofiyivka miraculously survived the Civil War, the Bolshevik excesses and negligence, the horrors of the Second World War, the post-war reconstruction — though not without sustaining some damage. When it was recognized as a major tourist attraction, efforts were taken to keep it in order, and after Ukraine’s independence these efforts were doubled.

 

 

Sofiyivka is situated to the south-east of Uman. An alley leading from the main entrance and along the lively River Kamyanka is lined with horse chestnuts. In what looks like a forest, the eye is entertained by dark firs, tender and light birch trees, peaceful meadows and moss-covered rocks. At the end of the alley, the Flora Pavilion appears suddenly and unexpectedly. The alley turns to the right but from the steps of the Pavilion a pond comes into view. The pond with a dragon sitting in the centre of the pond and “vomiting water” high into the sky, is surrounded by grim rocks with ivy reaching down to the water. Oaks, maples, linden, elms and black poplars in the dense wood give way to a more open space as the alley climbs to the top of a hill with a Chinese-style arbour welcoming the weary stroller.

Gentle reader, we shall not take you on a guided tour. From this point on, walk on your own. A stroll through the park opens new vistas and new wonders almost at every step you take. Gazebos, statues, arbours, ponds, columns, grottoes, islands, exotic plants in the conservatory, chirping birds, meandering alleys and trails soothe the soul, rejoice the heart, and fill you with wonder — you cannot help being amused, amazed and fascinated by the artistic ingenuity and natural variety you will find in Sofiyivka, a beautiful park named after a beautiful woman.

 

 

Sophie Potocka is a very colourful figure that deserves a book to be written about her. It is not easy now, two centuries after she bewitched and charmed so many men, among them Prince Grigory Potemkin, the famous favourite of the Russian Empress Catherine II and statesman in his own right, to separate fact from fiction. Even if in what we shall relate here not everything is proven fact, most of the story is well established, if slightly embellished, is true, thanks to reliable evidence that has been dug up in the archives by historians and made available to the public.

One of the contemporaries described her appearance at a ball in this way: “This beauty of renown was the greatest sensation… All the women were agitated, men too — the former with despair, irritation and a lot of curiosity, the latter with desire and expectation.”

 

 

Sophie was born in a Greek village on the outskirts of Constantinople, “the city of the world’s desire.” Her widowed mother traded vegetables to support her children, Sophie and her sister. When she was approached with a proposal to sell her daughter she did not turn the ignoble proposition down — she accepted gladly as it improved considerably her financial situation. Sophie was sold to the Polish Ambassador who must have spotted the girl at the market, and who procured girls for King Stanislas-Augustus (incidentally, Sophie’s fine sister was sold to the harem of a senior Ottoman pasha, and became his “chief wife”).

From then on, every time she was sold and bought, another man fell in love with her and outbid the first. On her way to Poland with the ambassadorial baggage, Sophie de Tchelitche, as she then called herself, was spotted by Major de Witte, son of the governor of the fortress of Kamyanets-Podilsky (then under Polish domination). He was completely smitten by her beauty and talked the ambassador into selling the girl to him for a thousand gold ducats. But Sophie refused to become a concubine — she agreed to share de Witte’s bed only if he married her. And he did. Sophie was fourteen when she became the major’s wife (much to the annoyance of de Witte’s father, who was said to have been won over by her charm the moment he saw her). Witte sent Sophie to Paris with Princess Nassau-Siegen to learn manners. She learnt French too.

 

 

She was nicknamed the “Beautiful Greek,” “La Belle Phanariotte,” after the Greek Phanar district. La Belle Phanariotte bewitched Paris. Comte Alexander de Langeron praised “the tenderness and most beautiful eyes that nature had ever formed,” but he was under no illusion about her cunning manipulations and the “coldness of heart.” Some of her fascination was “a sort of originality proceeding from either naivety or ignorance.” Everybody praised her “beaux yeaux” (beautiful eyes).

Back in Poland, her husband, now himself governor of Kamyanets, was the linchpin of Prince Potemkin’s espionage network, and it was probably Sophie who provided some valuable information. Sophie became the mistress of General Nikolay Saltykov, and was spotted and introduced to Potemkin in Ochakov. She “flung herself around” to impress the Prince and he was impressed. She supplanted Princess Dolgorukaya as Potemkin’s mistress who appointed the complaisant husband to be governor of Kherson. It is likely Sophie was used as a secret agent among the Poles and Turks.

 

 

The Empress was informed of Sophie’s services to help the Russian cause and gave the “Beautiful Greek” a pair of diamond earrings. This made Sophie’s husband so proud that he boasted she would be remembered in history as the friend of royalty.

Potemkin soon lost interest in “this Oriental, this intriguer, this Venus,” but Sophie de Witte did not lose interest in further promotion. She was spotted by Felix Potocki who fell madly in love with her.

Stanislaw Szczesny Potocki (born either in 1751 or 1752) was a Polish statesman and general of great prominence during the breakup of the elective Kingdom of Poland. The son of Franciszek Salezy Potocki, palatine of Kyiv, of the Tulczyn line of the Potocki family, he entered public service in 1774, became lieutenant general and then general of artillery. Though considered a liberal aristocrat, he identified the public welfare with the welfare of the magnates and thus opposed every project for reform in the Diet, or Parliament. Unsuccessful in his obstructionism, he went first to Vienna and then to St. Petersburg, where, with the connivance of the Empress Catherine, he formed the Confederation of Targowica for the maintenance of the ancient institutions of Poland in 1792, of which he was the marshal, or dictator, directing its operations from his castle at Tulczyn. When the liberal May Constitution in Poland was overthrown and the Prussians were already in occupation of Great Poland, Potocki went on a diplomatic mission to St. Petersburg in March 1793, but, finding himself duped and set aside, retired to Vienna.

 

 

Sophie hooked Potocki, “the richest kinglet” of Poland, in Jassy, after Potemkin’s death. Potocki was married and had children, and Sophie was still married to de Witte. Potocki was so overwhelmed with love for the Beautiful Greek that he agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of gold ducats to de Witte to get his consent for divorce. His own wife who stubbornly refused to divorce Potocki, confidently died and the Pole was free at last to marry Sophie. He brought her to Uman to show her one of his estates and it was there and then that she admired the scenery so much that her husband was inspired to have a park laid out to be given to her as a gift.

It was not a happy marriage. Sophie embarked on a passionately tempestuous affair with her stepson twenty-two year old Yuri Potocki, “committing all the crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah.” When once Felix Potocki inadvertently surprised them on a sofa, in each other’s arms, he was so shocked that left for Tulczyn in a hurry never to return to Uman, and died there in 1805.

Sophie told one of the visitors, a person who had known her since Potemkin’s days, “You know what I am and whence I come, eh bien, I cannot live with just 60,000 ducats of revenue.”

And she did not. The Russian Emperor Alexander I himself was known to help her get what she wanted in legal battles over Potocki’s heritage with Potocki’s children from the first marriage.

 

 

She drove the serfs in the estates that belonged to her so hard that there were several disturbances in the villages that belonged to her, and in the police actions to quell them many peasants were wounded and killed.

Four years after her husband died, Sophie threw out the son and showing a great skill of entrepreneurship and business acumen, built up a fortune to raise her own seven children.

Countess Potocka died at the age of 58, “honoured and admired,” in 1822.

The park is still there, to be visited and thoroughly enjoyed.

 

Based on the materials provided

by Mykola Vykhrystyuk, director

of the Uman Museum of Regional Studies

 

Compiled by Alex Pan

Photos & design by Yury Buslenko

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