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Rivers of milk and creeks of honey, witches flying around at night in the Land of Poltavshchyna

 

 

In the Land of Poltavshchyna in Central Ukraine you still find rivers of milk and creeks of honey, with banks of sweet jelly; witches can still be spotted flying around at night on their brooms, picking stars from the firmament, and little devils regularly steal the moon and hide it, agreeing to release it only if threatened with violence by the mighty blacksmith. Also, in Poltavshchyna, they make little, very cheerful horses and rams of clay and then put the spirit into them, and these horses and rams come to life and start frolicking around, galloping in the meadows overgrown with tall, fragrant grasses, singing songs which you have never heard before. It feels so good and nice and peaceful to be there, in the Land of Poltavshchyna, but it will open up for you and reveal its fairy-tail magic only if you come with a pure heart.

 

Romko Malko takes the readers on a guided tour of the Land of Poltavshchyna

 

Poltava dainties

The distance between Kyiv and Poltava is a little over three hundred kilometres, or about two hundred miles. If you go by car, you can make it to Poltava in several hours ó if you travel non-stop, that is. If you stop here and there on the way to have a good look around or have a good meal at a cosy little restaurant or tavern, then your journey will last much longer. In fact, you run a risk of never making it to Poltava, because once youíve tried some of those delicacies they offer, you will want to have more, and then still more, andÖ Anyway, I spent hours on end, stuffing my face with all those halushky, varenyky with sour cherries, cottage cheese, cabbage, raisins, poppy seeds and God knows what else, pancakes, borsch, yushka, uzvar, kysel, stuffed pike, baked catfish, carp in sour cream sauce, and mead, and beer, and horilka, and nalyvka, to name just a few dishes and drinks (halushky, horilka, nalyvka ó see articles about them in this issue; yushka ó a sort of soup; uzvar ó a drink made of dried fruit; kysel ó sweet liquid jelly ó tr.). A moment comes when you think you absolutely cannot have one little morsel or sip more, but then they bring you something else and you realize you cannot reject it. Thereís no end to it, really. Thereís one little restaurant that I discovered several kilometres away from the town of Pyryatyn; I think itís called U sester (At the Sistersí). Later, I was told that itís known among the gourmet community as being the best of its kind. Dishes of Ukrainian cuisine served there are much superior to any that you may get at the most expensive restaurant in the Ukrainian capital, or, for that matter, in any other city of the world. Well, some people may say I exaggerate a little, but I donít think I do. If you happen to be in those parts, make sure you drop in and have a dish or two to try. No, Iím not promoting that restaurant, Iím just giving you a very good piece of advice. Another tip for you ó if you find yourself anywhere near the place called Velyka Krucha, go to a small, privately owned brewery and beer hall there ó they make beer of the quality that even beer-drinking gods find superior.

I find I had a good reason to start my story about Poltavshchyna with telling you a little about food you can enjoy there ó when one travels on an empty stomach, one is much less susceptible to the beauty of nature than the traveller with a pleasantly full stomach. Besides, itís nigh impossible to avoid eating and enjoying local food when you travel across Poltavshchyna. If, instead, you still insist, while being in Poltavshchyna, on having bland fast food and sandwiches, you will survive, of course, but you will miss a very important Poltavshchyna feature and thus will hardly be able to appreciate, or even fully understand whatís so special about Poltavshchyna. So if you do decide to make a trip there, tune your gastric system to enjoying the traditional local food. And the culinary traditions in Poltavshchyna go centuries back, into the mist of time. At the very end of the eighteenth and in early nineteenth century, Ivan Kotlyarevsky, a Ukrainian author from Poltava, eulogized the celebrated Poltava cuisine in his poem Eneyida; another famous Ukrainian author, Nikolai Gogol, made praising references to the excellence of Poltavshchyna food in his novelettes. Little has changed in this respect since then ó neither wars nor revolutions have robbed the Poltavshchyna cooks and housewives of their cooking skills.

 

The Spaso-Preobrazhensky (Saviourís Transfiguration) Cathedral
of the Mharsky Monastery in the vicinity of the town of Lubny.
Photo by S. POZHARSKY

 

Mhar

When youíre passing through Lubny, you are likely to see the domes of the Mharsky Monastery from afar. They say this monastery used to be among the most important ones in Ukraine. It was built in 1619 in what is known as the Ukrainian Baroque style. The Cossacks provided donations and labour force; Isaya Kopynsky, the would-be Kyiv metropolitan, and Princess Rayina Vyshnevetska, the sister of the famous Kyivan Metropolitan Petro Mohyla, were the founders. In 1663, Yury, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytskyís son, spent some time in this monastery as a monk. Earlier, this Yury had been elected hetman but was forced to resign; after resignation, he took monastic vows. In spite of the fact that the monastery lost much of its importance as a religious and cultural centre, it remains to be a symbol of the wild and yet magnanimous Ukrainian soul.

The Spaso-Preobrazhensky (Saviourís Transfiguration) Cathedral, built in the seventeenth century with the money donated by Hetmans Ivan Samoylovych and Ivan Mazepa, is another architectural landmark. It is considered to be one of the best buildings erected in the style of Ukrainian Baroque, in which the architectural elements of the eleventh-twelfth centuries were combined with the elements of the West European architectural styles of the seventeenth century. In 1654, Patriarch of Constantinople was buried in the Mharsky Monastery; it is known that he was put into the grave in a sitting position ó nobody knows why. Taras Shevchenko makes a reference to this patriarch in his novel Blyznyata (Twins) and confirms the sitting position of the dead patriarch in his grave. The monastery boasts the ďimperishable relicsĒ of Serafim Anin, another Constantinople Patriarch, and of the Kyivan Metropolitan Yosyf Nelyubovych-Tukalsky. In 1918, the Bolshevik authorities wrought havoc in the monastery turning it into piles of stones which nevertheless proved to be possible to be reconstructed back into buildings. The reconstruction is nearing completion.

 

Zmiyevi valy ó Snake Earthworks

After a visit to the monastery, I advise you take a walk or a ride along the River Mhar. What a lovely, scenic landscape youíll be moving through ó small, picturesque villages, nice, hospitable and generous people living in them. As a matter of fact, Iím convinced that all the people in Poltavshchyna are hospitable in spite of centuries of having to fight off invaders. At the dawn of time, hordes of nomads from the Wild Steppe began to bring death and destruction to this land but people of Poltavshchyna survived all the hardships and remained what they always were, warm and welcoming. At the same time, they knew how to defend themselves, and as part of their defences, they built, or so historians say, long snaking lines of earthworks which stretched for many miles as protection against the raids from the Steppe. It is not known when they were built; maybe, they are as old as the Great Wall of China, maybe older, and from what remained of them in different parts of Ukraine we may conclude that the Snake Earthworks were longer than the Great Wall. There are many legends and fairy tales in which the Snake Earthworks are mentioned. They must have been so grandiose that people attributed their creations to divine forces. One of the legends, still current in Poltavshchyna, says that these Snake Walls arose when the mighty blacksmith named Kuzma-Demyan, harnessed the dragon to the plough and drove the dragon across the country, tilling the earth.

Now, if that got you interested Iíll retell this particular legend in more detail. Once upon a time, there a lived a blacksmith of enormous strength, Kuzma-Demyan, who also possessed some magic powers. One day, there appeared a dragon in the land where he lived, and people fleeing from the dragon ran to Kuzma-Demyanís smithy and found refuge there. Kuzma-Demyan was not in at the moment. When he returned he ordered his helpers to close all the twelve iron doors that you had to pass through to get inside his smithy. The moment the last door was shut, here comes the Dragon and bellows so loudly that the earth shakes, ďHey, Kuzma-Demyan, open those doors of yours, and chase all those people out into the open, or else Iíll set your smithy on fire and eat you!Ē ďThatís a nice boast, little dragon! If you lick through all the twelve doors with your tongue, I myself will put these people on your tongue!Ē The dragon began applying its rough and scabrous tongue to the iron of the doors. While the Dragon was thus engaged, Kuzma-Demyan began to forge a huge plough with his twelve helpers holding it with tongs. The Dragon did lick its way through all the iron doors and put its ugly head into the smithy, its darting tongue sticking out. Kuzma-Demyan grabs this tongue with the hot tongs and starts pounding the Dragonís head with a sledge hammer. The Dragon gets knocked out and slumps down, and while he lies there senseless, he is harnessed to the great plough. The moment the Dragon comes to, Kuzma-Demyan begins pulling him forward, holding on to the Dragonís long tongue, and Kuzma-Demyanís helpers are taking care of the plough. They wanted to go around the whole world in this manner. When they came to big rivers, the Dragon drank them up as though they were little puddles of water. The plough was making a deep furrow in the ground with earth rising on one side as tall as a high wall. They kept going like this until they arrived at the sea. The Dragon began drinking the sea ó he drank and drank, and then suddenly his huge belly burst and out came all kinds of nasty creatures, and pestilences. Kuzma-Demyan and his helpers would surely have furrowed the earth from end to end, had not the Dragon burst open. But the wall of earth they left behind is still there.

 

 

Oril

Among all the Snake Earthworks to be found in Ukraine, in the best state of preservation are probably those that are situated along the River Oril which flows between the Lands of Poltavshchyna and of Dnipropetrovshchyna. Oril is a very clean and one of the most beautiful rivers of Ukraine. No wonder many tourists come to its banks to enjoy the scenery or go down this river in boats. But there are no rapids, the current is slow and the river does not offer any places for those who seek adventures to get the adrenalin going. But those who are after more reposeful pastime, will find fish, and crayfish in particular, in abundance. All you have to do is put your hand into the water at a quiet place right near the bank and get as many crawfish for your dinner as you want. Fish also seem to be asking to be caught. Or you can just sit on a clean, sandy bank and give yourself fully to enjoying a superb panorama of the plains, hills, slowly following water, and exceptionally picturesque villages. Many of the peasant houses have roofs made of reeds, an age-old way of roofing. But even the magnificent panorama will not keep you captivated for long ó the temptation to take a swim will be too great to resist. Incidentally, if you choose to go down Oril in a slow boat, youíll hardly travel more than five or ten kilometres at most a day ó youíll be stopping every hour and taking plunges. These ablutions cannot fail to be most enjoyable, I assure you. And donít carry too much food with you ó you can buy food of superb quality and great variety from villagers for peanuts (but you will not be able to buy actual peanuts; all the food will be traditional and Ukrainian only). When my friends and I boated down the river, we stopped once in a while in the vicinity of a village and asked for vegetables, fruit and other food (dried salty fish is best when you have it with beer), and we were given so much that our boats were in danger of sinking under the great weight of all we were given. When we asked how much we owed for all this cornucopia, the generous people of Poltavshchyna said that it cost so little we felt obliged to pay more. But the extra money was indignantly rejected. Instead, they treated us to wonderful songs and stories. And how sweetly their language sounded ó it is probably there, in Poltavshchyna, that the Ukrainian language sounds most melodically. In fact, the Poltava dialect of the Ukrainian language formed the basis of the Ukrainian literary language. So, if you plan to learn Ukrainian, itís best to go to Poltavshchyna to do it.

 

Gogol

It is Gogol who, through his writings, has made Poltavshchyna known to many. He was born a hundred years after the battle of Poltava, at which all the hopes for a sovereign Ukraine seemed to have been dashed. Nikolai Gogol (who, more correctly, should be referred to as Mykola Hohol, but in such spelling his name becomes totally unrecognizable for English-speaking readers ó tr.) was born in the village of Yanovshchyna (now Hoholiv). There were many people in that village who had Cossacks among their ancestors. It is known that Gogolís father, Vasyl, was a direct descendant of Yevstafy (Ostap) Hohol, a Cossack colonel who died in 1679. Nikolai Gogol who grew up and was educated in Ukraine, became one of the great writers of Russia. We shall not discuss his literary merits here ó suffice to say that his sarcastic and satirical pen lashed at the Russian tsarist establishment with a force never experienced before and rarely surpassed after (within this article there is no place indeed for discussing Gogolís place in Russian and world literature but there is one unsurpassable circumstance that makes it impossible to appreciate Gogolís true standing in any language but Russian ó he is one of those authors whose works are absolutely untranslatable; the best that even the best translation can do is to render the plot faithfully but it is Gogolís language, particularly in his later works, that is of a paramount importance; Vladimir Nabokov, one of the greatest stylists of Russian literature, recognized Gogol as the supreme stylist, superior to all Russian writers, Nabokov himself included ó tr.).

There is really not much to see in Hoholiv, except for the house of Gogolís parents and the park that have the official status of a museum. It is better to move on to the places that were described by Gogol in his immortal stories.

Velyki Sorochyntsi can do excellently as the first stop on a tour of Gogol places. It is also a Cossack village that sits comfortably, like a lady on a sofa, at the bank of the quiet Psyol River. In the eighteenth century, there was the residence of Hetman Danylo Apostol in this village. They say that the village was called Sorochyntsi because of sorok, or forty, monks who, some time in the past, found the place to be just right for their community and settled down. There is no monastery in Sorochyntsi though but there is a church, Preobrazhenska (Transfiguration), in which Gogol was baptized. Hetman Danylo Apostol was buried in this church too. It was built in the seventeenth century in the style of Ukrainian Baroque. One of the remarkable features of the church is its iconostasis, 20 meters (over 60 feet) wide and 17 meters (over 50 feet) tall with wonderful seventeenth-century icons. Among the personages represented on the icons we find the donors, Hetman Apostol and his wife Ulyana.

Every year, during the last weekend of August, the famous Sorochynska Fair is held in the village of Velyky Sorochyntsi, which attracts traders, vendors and customers from all over Ukraine. Some of the Ukrainian industrial potentates and top bureaucrats also come to the Fair, to, as the saying goes, have a look around and to have people to look at them. But they probably feel they donít belong there with their conceit and scorn. There used to be up to five fairs held in Sorochyntsi annually but after the Bolshevik revolution there was almost nothing to sell and no money to buy whatever little could be offered for sale. It was only recently that fairs in Sorochyntsi were revived, and their popularity continues to grow.

Another place which is a must on a tour of Gogol places is, of course, Dykanka, to which Gogol devoted several of his wonderfully poetic stories. But on your way to Dykanka stop at the village of Opishnya which has been known for ages for the excellence of its fictile products. Over forty kinds of clay in the vicinity of the village provide excellent material for making earthenware, and Opishnya has been producing pottery for about three centuries. At one time, practically all the villagers were potters and craftsmen. We know, for example, that in the year 1786, about 200 craftsmen of the village were involved in making table services for special occasions, decorative plates and vases, figurines of lions, horses, roosters and other decorative pieces of various shapes decorated with floral ornaments. There were situations when there were so many earthenware articles to be taken for sale at the Sorochynska Fair that there were not enough carts to deliver them to Sorochyntsi. At present, there are only about ten potters left in Opishnya who make colourful pots, thin-walled clay pitchers, fancy little clay lions and Cossacks, and other curious things. Though there are so few of them, they have begun to revive the trade of their ancestors and pass it on to their children. A museum of Ukrainian pottery was opened in the village of Opishnya with craftsmen and sculptors coming to see it not only from all over Ukraine, but from other countries as well. Itís quite a unique place, this museum, and even if you are not too interested in Ukrainian earthenware-making traditions, you may find this museum worth visiting. Among its exhibits youíll find pieces of modern sculpture too, and archaic pieces, and traditional artefacts, and things that I call ďcosmic installations.Ē Incidentally, as far as I know, earthenware from Opishnya can be found in many museums of the world.

 

The Museum of Local Lore and History in Poltava;
formerly, the building of the Poltava zemstvo (local council); architect V. Krychevsky. Photo by S. POZHARSKY

 

Opishnya is not the only earthenware centre in Poltavshchyna ó pottery and earthenware is also made in Hlynsk, Zinkiv, Myrhorod, and Romny. Thereís nothing much surprising in it since it is widely believed ó and this belief is supported by archaeological findings ó that the potterís wheel was invented in the land that we now call Poltavshchyna thousands of years ago. It was, of course, a revolutionary discovery. Not only pots began much easier and faster to make ó the quality was much better, and the aesthetical look of the wares was much improved.

Poltavshchyna is a land of a special charm and fairy-tale mood, where you feel that history is a part of the present-day. Many historians and linguists are of the opinion that it is here, in the heart of Ukraine, that the Proto-Indo-European language and culture came into being and then spread to other parts of the world. It is here that the horse and the cow were domesticated; it was here that the potterís wheel was invented, as well as the wheel for the cart, and such inventions meant more for the mankind than the most advanced discoveries of nuclear physics. It was here, in the heart of Ukraine, that grain began to be grown, land tilled, and bread baked. Ukrainian palyanytsya (round wheat bread) was the first man-made sun.

Probably, you may find that all of this is a bit too far-fetched, and thereís not enough proof discovered yet to substantiate such claims. I donít know whether thereís enough proof or not, but I do know thereís a considerable body of evidence that definitely points to what Iíve just said being true.

But letís move on, to the village of Dykanka which features so prominently in Gogolís short stories, in ďChristmas EveĒ in particular. If you read the story, you will discover that some of what is described in the story is still there: the Troyitska Church in which the protagonist, blacksmith Vakula, painted a devil, the very same devil who stole the moon from the sky, and then took Vakula to St Petersburg for a meeting with the empress. You canít see the picture of that devil though ó itís been long removed, but the locals will tell you a lot of stories about Vakula and other characters from Gogolís stories.

The first known written mention of Dykanka dates back to 1658. The Cossack commander Kochubay, the one who betrayed Hetman Mazepa and the Ukrainian cause in the early eighteenth century and whose treason helped the Russian Emperor to subdue Ukraine, had an estate in Dykanka. There are several oaks that stand in what once was Kochubayís park which surrounded the central mansion, or palace ó these huge trees have survived the centuries and if you put your ear to the rough bark of their trunks you may hear some of the stories they can tell ó if they are in a proper mood. It takes several people holding hands to measure their girth. Kochubayís palace was destroyed shortly after the Bolshevik revolution. They say it had a hundred rooms, a picture gallery and a great library. No trace of all this splendour is left though. In 1709, right before the Battle of Poltava, the palace was used by Hetman Mazepa as his headquarters. It was in the same palace that Samiylo Velychko, a Cossack historian, wrote his chronicles of Cossack history.

The Mykolayivska (St Nickolasí) Church is probably the only surviving architectural landmark from the times of Kochubay. It is a rotunda with two domes, one inside the other; the inside one has never been completed. The iconostasis is a marvellous piece of woodwork with superb carving. There are several graves in the crypt of the church and though it is usually closed, you can ask the attendant to let you have a look, if looking at crypts and graves in them is your hobby. There is one curious landmark in Dykanka that is also worth seeing ó a triumphal arch erected in 1820 in commemoration of the victory over Napoleon. The arch stands at the edge of the village ó the only village in Ukraine, and probably in the whole world graced with a triumphal arch.

 

View of the green hills of Poltava, with the Khrerstovozdvyzhensky
(Of the Erection of the Holy Cross) Monastery in the background.
Photo by R. MALKO

 

Poltava

They say that those who have visited Poltava always want to come back. I find itís pretty much true.

Poltava has always been known as a particularly hospitable place, with beautiful churches, beautiful girls and beautiful gardens. When in the springtime, cherry trees are in full blossom and young girls, discarding their heavy winter clothes fill the streets, it is surely a lovely sight. There are some landmarks too that you may find interesting to see, but the main attraction of Poltava is its mood ó tranquil, serene, and scenic. If you possess a bit of romantic feeling in your heart, then you will find Poltava a nice place to come to.

The first written mention of Poltava dates to the year 1174; at that time it was referred to as Ltava. It was the town that Prince Ihor, the protagonist of the Ukrainian medieval epic, The Tale of Ihorís Host, came to in pursuit of the invading Polovtsy nomads.

On June 27 1709, a major battle was fought in the vicinity of Poltava. The Swedish troops of King Charles XII and the Ukrainian troops of Hetman Mazepa who hoped that his alliance with the Swedish king would make it possible to reestablish Ukrainian sovereignty, clashed with the forces led by Peter I. The battle was lost and with it Ukrainian independence. Ukraine found itself completely absorbed by the Russian Empire. Even now, fourteen years after independence was regained, Ukraine has not freed herself completely from the Russian clutches. But it would be wrong to assume that Poltava remains only as a symbol of the Ukrainian defeat ó it is also a symbol of Ukrainian national revival. It was in Poltava that the leader of Ukrainian nationalism Mykola Mikhnovsky made his programme of achieving Ukrainian independence public, and declared that the struggle for Ukrainian sovereignty began. It was in Poltava that Symon Petlyura, army commander and leader of the Ukrainian Peopleís Republic (1918Ė1921) was educated. Incidentally, the building of the religious school of which Petlyura was a student, survives.

Like in most other ancient cities of the world, the most interesting part of Poltava is its old section ó the neighbourhood of Panyansky uzviz and other streets where you find little gardens, little houses with wooden shutters and tall linden trees. It is there, on Ivanova Hora, that you find the restored house where Ivan Kotlyarevsky (whom we mentioned earlier) once lived. His long and comic poem Eneyida was the first literary work written in the new Ukrainian literary language. Another great Ukrainian, the poet Taras Shevchenko, drew a picture of Kotlyarevskyís house in 1845, and it is this drawing that was used during the restoration to achieve the desirable authenticity. The Uspensky Cathedral, which was built in the second half of the eighteenth century, was at that time the largest stone house in Poltava but the atheistic Bolsheviks decided it distracted peopleís minds from concentrating on building communism and destroyed the cathedral in the 1930s. In recent years it was rebuilt; the 44-meter tall bell tower was for some reason spared by the Bolsheviks and there was no need to rebuild it. I was told that the reason it was spared was that the Bolsheviks planned to use the bell tower as the pedestal for a statue of Stalin. Imagine ó a statue to the bloodiest dictator in the history of mankind standing on the top of a Christian bell tower? The Bolsheviks do seem to have had a queer sense of humour. Originally, the bell tower had a bell which was made of the metal from the captured Turkish cannons at the end of the eighteenth century. The bell has been placed for safe keeping in a museum. In the same neighbourhood youíll find a wooden church, Spaska, which was built in 1705Ė1706. It is the only surviving eighteenth-century wooden church in the Land of Poltavshchyna.

From the top of Ivanova Hora which happens to be a hill, there opens an impressive and vast panorama of the Khrestovozdvyzhensky (Of the Erection of the Holy Cross) Monastery and of the place near the Vorskla River where the legendary Marusya Churay is said to have lived. The founder of the monastery was Martyn Pushkar, a Cossack, who donated his money towards the construction of a monastery to commemorate a victory over the Poles. The church of the monastery is the only Ukrainian Baroque church in Ukraine that has seven domes.

Marusya Churay was a poetess and a singer who lived in Poltava in the early seventeenth century. Several very popular Ukrainian songs are attributed to her. In the 1970s, another famous Ukrainian poet, Lina Kostenko, wrote a long poem about Churay which was regarded by the Ukrainian intelligentsia of that time as a message of Ukrainian national revival ó and was frowned upon by the soviet authorities. Public recitals of the poem were banned and those who defied the ban faced persecution.

There are many other wonderful things to be found in Poltavshchyna ó take those embroidered rushnyky (decorative towels), for example. You wonít find better ones anywhere else.

 

I suspect that if God decided to come down to Earth and live for some time among people just to enjoy His time as a human being, He would choose a peasant house in the Land of Poltavshchyna, on the bank either of Oril or Vorskla, to stay. I canít tell you why such an idea has come to my mind but travelling across Poltavshchyna I was pretty sure that the Garden of Eden was once located there, and nowhere else. And that the first man was created by God with the Poltavshchyna clay which seems to be ideally suited for making people. Also, I realized I do not want to go to exotic countries for holidays because nothing compares to what the Land of Poltavshchyna gives you spiritually and physically.

 

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