|Select magazine number|
Hutsulshchyna, the land of age-old traditions, original culture, highlander spirit and great scenic beauty
If you open a reference book devoted to Ukraine’s geography, and look up the entry about the Carpathian Mountains, you will find all kinds of figures and other relevant statistical information; you will be informed that the Carpathians are shared by four states — Ukraine, Rumania, Poland and Slovakia, with the Ukrainian portion being 100–120 kilometres in width and 290 kilometres in length. You will find out that the highest mountain of the Ukrainian Carpathians is Hoverla which rises to an altitude of 2,061 metres. Compared with the Himalayas or the Cordilleras in statistics of sizes, the Carpathians do not seem to be much of a mountain range. But it is not the dizzy heights, or the snow-bound peaks that give the Carpathians their irresistible lure — it’s a kind of magic that you can’t help feeling when you get there which draws you like a magnet.
It would be futile to try to explain what that magic is — you’ve got to feel it for yourself. How, for example, can you explain the magic of the stars dotting the night sky? You’ve got to see it to understand what that magic is.
The Carpathian magic is to be found in so many things. When you stand alone at a high point of an eminence and look down the valley wrapped in silence, you feel God’s grace descending upon you. The magic is not only in the scenic beauty of nature. It is in the way people live their life — without electricity or natural gas, with the closest neighbour living on the next hill; it is in the wooden churches, whose floors are covered with lizhnyky; it is even in these lizhnyky which are handmade rugs that the Hutsuls, local people, call “samorodni,” meaning, literally, “born all by themselves.”
These rugs are made of pure sheep wool by local women using a technology that dates hundreds, if not thousands of years back.
The Carpathian magic is in those wooden churches too, and in the icons painted on glass, in pottery with Carpathian ornaments, in ceramic tiles painted in their specific Carpathian way, in carved wooden spoons and plates that you see in the kitchens, in decorations of knives and old shotguns. Many a poet, writer and artist have been inspired by this magic. Lesya Ukrayinka created her Lisova pisnya (Forest Song), and Mykhailo Kotsyubynsky wrote his Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors) a hundred years ago, both having been inspired by the ethnographic and mythological richness of the Land of the Hutsuls. In more recent times, Serhiy Paradzhanov, who understood poetic magic probably better than any other film director of the twentieth century, made his most famous film using Kotsyubynsky’s story and seeking inspiration in the Carpathian land.
People who live in the Carpathian Mountains, the Hutsuls, built up their world hundreds upon hundreds of years ago in the borderland between the Slavs and the Daco-Rumanians. They have become a symbol of Ukrainian culture and national energy in the west of Ukraine much the same way the Cossacks were such a symbol for the central Ukraine. The Hutsul world has been existing for centuries between the civilizations of the West and of the East, and though the modern global civilization has begun making inroads into the Hutsul traditional culture, basically it remains unchanged. To travel in the Land of the Hutsuls is to travel back in time.
Historians have not reached a consensus in explaining the origin of the word Hutsul. Some say it could have developed from the Rumanian huc which means an outlaw. Others are inclined to think that the root of the word comes from the Slavonic kochul, the one who kochuye, that is a migrant, moving from place to place. In the Austrian documents of the end of the eighteenth century, dealing with a census conducted in the Ukrainian part of the Carpathians, then under Austria, the local population is called Gebirgsrussen, that is mountain russ, the russ standing for the ancient name of the Ukrainians.
Ethnographers of the late nineteenth century claimed that the Hutsuls themselves used the word hutsul in reference to their horses, and then somehow the word began to be used as reference to the people. Whatever the origin of the word may be, we know that the Hutsuls have been living in the Carpathians for hundreds of years, developing a culture which has some features typical for people living in the mountains. The conditions in the mountains, particularly in winter, are severe, and such kind of life breeds mistrust of outsiders, but once the locals realize you are no threat to them, they show warm hospitality, invite you into their homes, to partake of their food and to talk about matters you may be interested in.
The Hutsuls, people of the mountains, are ambitious, quick to take offence, ready to defend their dignity, if need be by force, sensitive to disrespect or irreverence. In the idyllic mountain settings, dramas were often played out, many of them tragic. In the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, both Ukrainian and Austrian authors wrote stories about the life of the Hutsuls, in which tragic and dramatic events were described (L. von Sacher-Masoch, O. Fedkovych, I. Franko, H. Khotkevych). The police records of those times also reflect eruptions of violence among the Hutsuls themselves, or directed against newcomers.
At the same time, the Hutsuls are good Christians. If church attendance is any good indication of religiosity, then we can say that the Hutsuls are still very religious — it is only the very sick, too old or too young who do not go to church regularly. Nevertheless, you can easily detect traces of paganism in their Christianity, vestiges from the times when the Sun was god.
The Hutsuls are enamoured of their mountains — I would even say they fanatically love their land, and though many of them have to leave their homes in search of work (they began to be forced to look for employment over a century ago, and have had to be doing it ever since, in growing numbers), but as soon as they have earned enough money, mostly abroad, they return home.
The Carpathians seem to harbour many secrets. Some historians think it was from the area of the Carpathian Mountains that the Indo-Europeans began to spread across Europe in the western and eastern directions; the mysterious White Croatians are believed to have had their state there; there are stories of strongholds which were carved into the face of rock but which have not been discovered yet. The Hutsuls themselves believe there are caches with treasures in various parts of the mountains. Particularly many of such caches were left behind by Dovbush, a notorious, or famous, outlaw, a Carpathian Robin Hood. Dovbush is said to have left marks in the vicinity of hidden treasures in order to find them later. One of such marks — a representation of the deer — is still to be seen on the Dovbush Rock above the Cheremosh River. In spite of this supposed indication, no treasures have yet been found, though the search for them never seems to stop.
Also, the Hutsuls believe in the existence of all kinds of spirits and fabulous creatures that live in the forests, rocks, streams, precipices, lakes and bogs. The Hutsuls tend to ascribe all their failures and mishaps to the evil influences and tricks of these spirits. Their supreme leader is Aridnyk, Satan of sorts. The forests are full of lisovyks who are prone to mischief and who can do really nasty things. Chuhaystyr is a much more cheerful and helpful creature — he protects people from the evil nyavkas, who are a sort of forest witches. Rusalkas who live in mountain rivers and lakes once in a while come out of the water to sing songs, to chant chants and to tell tales. At the sunset, those who were drowned also come out of the water to lie on the rocks by the waterside. In the Hutsul villages you can come across molfars — wizards and soothsayers who can protect good people from evil spirits. They can make rain storms and hail pass by without causing damage, or make rain in a drought.
Sense of beauty
The Hutsuls’ sense of beauty must have been formed by the Carpathian scenery. The Hutsul national dress is very colourful, and the interiors of their houses, utensils and many household items are lavishly decorated. Clothes have always been for the Hutsuls a matter of pride — and of boasting. Probably that is why there is not a single inch on the Hutsul dress free from decoration. Embroidery, ribbons, tassels, beads, glass and pieces of metal, all in bright colours, find their way onto Hutsul clothing.
Weapons are also held by the Hutsuls in high esteem. In a Hutsul house, weapons occupy almost as honorary a place as the icons do. Firearms of ancient and more modern types have stocks inlaid and carved with various designs; powder flasks and horns, bartka [Hutsul-type] axes, and knives are richly decorated in all kinds of ingenious ways. Most of these things are traditionally made by the Hutsuls themselves. Incidentally, Hutsul women also take part in making weapons. It is believed that the Hutsul decorative and applied arts reached a flourishing point in the second half of the nineteenth century, and it was then that art critics, ethnographers and artists began to show much interest in them. It became fashionable in the artistic and intellectual circles of Lviv and other Western Ukrainian cities to come to the Carpathians for rest and for inspiration.
The influx of holidaymakers and tourists had the negative side to it too. As the popularity of the Hutsul land for unwinding and getting artistically inspired grew in the Hungarian-Austrian Empire, also grew the danger of the Carpathians losing their unique ethnographic features. “The Hutsuls for whom horse riding and sharp shooting were the best pastimes, the Hutsuls who greet the sunrise from the slopes of the mountains by blowing their trembita [long wind instrument], and who play the same trembita to honour the dead in the coffins before burial — these Hutsuls are becoming extinct,” the prominent Ukrainian ethnographer Volodymyr Shukhevych wrote in his monumental monograph Hutsulshchyna, published in 1899. The author overdramatized the situation, though he did discern a disturbing trend. The arts of the turn of the century (the style best known as art nouveau was also called Sezession or Modern) in Western Ukraine employed symbolism and aesthetic principles of Hutsul architecture and of the Hutsul applied and decorative arts and it caused an upsurge of romantic interest in the Hutsuls and their culture. After the First World War, the intelligentsia of Lviv began, in increasing numbers, going to the Carpathians to spend the summer, to go on hikes, to spend evenings in romantic conversations with the gorgeous views opening on all sides. Elements of Hutsul ornaments and decorations were widely used in the interior decoration of Lviv homes.
Collections of Hutsul art and politics
The impetus to collecting Hutsul art was given by the Metropolitan Andriy Sheptycky, a man of vast learning, a patron of art who was the founder of the National Museum of Art in Lviv. The large house he had inherited from his noble ancestors was turned into a repository for his art collections. His inspiring example was followed by dozens of intellectuals among whom there were teachers and physicians, lawyers and priests who began avidly collecting Hutsul art, devoting to it all their spare time and much of their money. Most of them were motivated by the lofty ideal of national revival and preservation of national art treasures rather than by the collectors’ urge. Several museums which absorbed such private collections sprang up in Western Ukraine in the years preceding the Second World War — Hutsulshchyna Museum in Kolomiya; Boykivshchyna Museum in Sambir; Lemkivshchyna Museum in Syanok; Stryvihor Museum in Peremyshl.
With the advent of Soviet power in Western Ukraine, a lot of things radically changed, or were adversely affected. The Soviets were not welcome in Western Ukraine, and the armed resistance in the Carpathians continued well into the nineteen-fifties. The Soviets were highly suspicious of anything that was potentially or even remotely anti-Soviet. Private collectors were frowned upon, and anything connected with religion was under a heavy ban. The Soviet draconian measures against “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” did not prevent people from collecting and promoting Hutsul art. It was viewed by the authorities as a defiant manifestation of such nationalism and thus liable to criminal charges. In spite of that a number of Hutsul art enthusiasts continued their work of preservation of Hutsul culture. Volodymyr Vitruk, Ivan Hrechka, Petro Melnyk, Vasyl Volytsky, Petro Linynsky and Oleh Romaniv were among those who were fascinated with Hutsul folk icons on glass, pottery and carving and who bravely did their best to preserve what could be salvaged. Their collecting enthusiasm was not just a romantic pastime, a way of spending leisure hours — it was a Christian and patriotic deed. Holidays, weekends and vacations were spent in the Carpathians in search of collector’s items. Usually, the collectors would first find out through acquaintances and grapevine who in which village had which items, and only then they would go to see the items themselves and conduct negotiations. It was vitally important to have someone of the locals to escort you through the village since the Soviet authorities, suspicious of all newcomers, were on their guard “ready to prevent anything illegal from happening,” and your escort, when questioned, would be able to say that you were a relative or a good friend on a visit. Under such, most unfavourable conditions, first private collections of Hutsul art were put together in the post-war years. It is thanks to these national art enthusiasts that unique icons on glass, carved wooden candlesticks, painted stove tiles, carved plates and other objects of decorative and applied art have been preserved in hundreds of items. If not for the collectors, hardly anything would have survived the Soviet “anti-Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” zeal. These fanatically enthusiastic collectors of the late nineteen-forties and fifties called themselves “firefighters” — they were saving Hutsul art from the Soviet fire.
The next generation of Hutsul art collectors — Yaroslav Lemyk, Bohdan Soroka, Yaroslav Motyka, Roman Petruk — came on the scene when, in the nineteen-sixties the so-called “Khrushchev’s cultural thaw” was taking place and the Soviet pressure on culture became less brutal. Objects of the Ukrainian applied and decorative arts, displayed in urban homes at that time, were a silent proclamation to the nationally-minded guests, “Look, we are like-minded people, national awareness being on our minds.” Wearing the traditional national dress in public was another way of showing national sympathies. In the 1970s and 1980s, many women from the Lviv cultural elite would put on national dresses instead of formal evening dresses when they went to the Opera, or on any other formal occasions. It was also a declaration of national sympathies. In most cases, it was a Hutsul-style dress; sometimes it could be a Podillya-style dress.
The 1970s were also the time when new buildings began to be built in Hutsul villages and a lot of things which used to be an inalienable part of the old households, became redundant and were to be discarded. Painted tiles for stoves were either thrown away or used, at best, for paving henhouses. Icons on glass were buried in the ground; old wooden crosses and other craved items were used as firewood; old embroidered shirts were torn for rags. A lot was salvaged by the collectors but so much was lost. Soviet cultural policy brought devastating results.
In the mid-nineteen eighties the third generation of Hutsul art collectors came on the scene (Taras Lozynsky, Yury Yurkevych, Andriy Tsybko, Lyubomyr Yaremchuk, Oleksa Valko, Oksana Romaniv, Levko Triska) but it was already the time of change which eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet regime, and a slow revival of national cultural values began.
These days all the three generations of Lviv collectors of Hutsul art get along fine. They join forces and organize exhibitions; they jointly go on expeditions in search of collector’s items in the Land of the Hutsuls. A Museum of Private Collections is planned to be created with the support provided by the Rodovid Publishers from Kyiv. A lavishly illustrated and well-printed art album, Mystetstvo Hutsulshchyny i Pokuttya z pryvatnykh zbirok (Art of the Land of Hutsulshchyna and of Pokuttya from private collections) was recently published, and an Institute of Collectorship was founded.
Though the Soviet attitude to culture is a thing in the past, a lot of damage has been done not only to Hutsul art itself and art traditions, but to the traditional values as well. The state either does not have enough money for culture or does not care to support it.
Wooden churches are probably the most significant relics of once so rich Hutsul culture. These churches, unfortunately, are being barbarically disfigured — they are faced with roofing iron plates on the outside, and with ugly plastic plates on the inside in a naive belief that such facing better protects the churches and “makes them look better.”
Old wooden Hutsul houses, some of which are still preserved in distant villages and high in the mountains, are either destroyed or sold to those who hunt for authentic materials for creating “interiors with a national touch.” There are some positive signs too. Traditional Hutsul dress is becoming to be worn by a growing number of people. It has become prestigious to go to church with all the family wearing full Hutsul traditional dress. And, like it used to be in old times, Hutsuls again are prepared to do anything — even “to sell their souls to the devil” — in order to sport a dress which would be more lavishly decorated than anybody else’s.
Growing tourism from foreign countries, Russia included, may encourage the Hutsuls to rethink their attitudes to their own cultural heritage. There is an increasing demand for authentic items of the Hutsul applied and decorative arts, and for authentic Hutsul houses, of which very few have been left, and only a few have been built in correct imitation of the traditional houses.
The overwhelming success of the Ukrainian pop singer Ruslana from Lviv at the latest Eurovision contest — her songs abound in Carpathian themes — may also be another incentive to fully reinstate the traditional values of Hutsul art and culture.
Ancestors have not been forgotten, after all.
By Natalya Kosmolinska
Photos from the collection
of Yaroslav Lemyk, Roman Shyshak, Ivan Yasny, Romko Malko,
Ivan Dudkin and Oleksandr Horobets