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Passionate and freedom-loving Hutsuls



Yevhen BUDKO, a Ukrainian from the south of Ukraine, and Mariya VLAD, a Hutsul from Western Ukraine, give some tips about the Hutsuls and their way of life.


They are Ukrainians, but a bit on the wild side. That is what their neighbours say about the Hutsuls and their ethnic roots. In spite of considerable differences in traditions, accent and way of life from the rest of the Ukrainians, the Hutsuls have become a symbol and oberih (the ones who maintain the traditions and culture of the Ukrainian nation and protect it from assimilation) of the Ukrainian nation, similar in status to that of the Cossacks of old. The Cossacks are history now (attempts to revive Cossack traditions and life style are limited in scope to small groups and individuals), but the Hutsuls are very much part of the present-day Ukrainian scene. Velyka Ukrayina (Great Ukraine), as the Hutsuls refer to the rest of Ukraine, increasingly comes to be culturally represented by the Land of Hutsulshchyna in Western Ukraine.


Hutsuls: the name

There is no consensus as to the origin of the word Hutsul. Originally, the people who are now known as Hutsuls called themselves Irstens. Some ethnographers  and they are in a minority  claim that the Hutsuls formed into a separate ethnic group as a result of several ethnic groups mixing together, with Ukrainians, Rumanians, Polovtsy, Pecheneh and other nomads and ethnics contributing their shares. Other ethnographers and historians  and they are in a majority  argue that the Hutsuls are basically of Ukrainian descent with an admixture of some other bloods who, because of their relative isolation in the mountains, have developed their traditions and culture which distinguish them from Ukrainians in other parts of Ukraine. Hutsuls speak Ukrainian, though with an easily identifiable accent; there are many words in their speech which can be regarded as specifically Hutsul. Their way of life, volatile temperament, customs, habits, traditions , dress and food bear distinctive Hutsul traits  and yet, unbiased observations reveal the basic, underlying features which are common to all the Ukrainians.

There is a theory that says that every nation or an ethnic group has a potential for active development which is called passionateness. This passionateness manifests itself in various ways at various stages of the nations or ethnic groups development. It may find a violent release  then such a nation or ethnic group becomes aggressive and tries to conquer others. It may have an artistic or whatever other release it may happen to be. In Ukraine, this theory can be applied to the Cossacks in the south and to the Hutsuls in the west of Ukraine. It is a nice theory but it hardly explains anything.

The Hutsuls are freedom-loving people. They never allowed any ruler to turn them into slaves or serfs. Compared to the rather docile Ukrainians of the central parts of Ukraine, the Hutsuls may seem passionate, or even violent.

There are various theories that seek to explain the origin of the name Hutsul. According to one of such theories, the Volokhs, the Hutsul neighbours in the times of old (now they are better known as Moldavians and Rumanians), used to call their restless neighbours Hots, that is bandits. It is true that there were many Robin Hoods among the Hutsuls, Oleksa Dovbush being the most famous  or notorious, depending on how you look at it  among them. They robbed the rich (foreigners who were the oppressors) to give the loot to the poor. But most of the Hutsuls minded their own business and just wanted to be left alone.

The first written mention of Hutsuls has been discovered in a Polish document that dates to 1754. The document says that a Hutsul woman was accused of setting fire to a landowners house and found guilty of arson, for which crime she was sentenced to death and executed.

Another theory of the origin of the word Hutsul worth mentioning links it to the Turkish word hutsul that means a horse, but not any kind of horse but the one that got adjusted to life in the mountains. It is one of the sturdiest horses in the world, small of stature, not very handsome but tireless and requiring little to eat. It was an ideal horse for the Carpathians with their severe conditions. It not only survived the rigors of the climate but helped the people to survive. It was thanks to these horses that Irsten settlements which started to be established in the valleys, gradually moved up the slopes, climbing higher and higher. And also it is thanks to these hutsul horses that Irstens got a new name  Hutsuls.

Still another theory says that the word Hutsul is a derivative of the word kuchul, which means a nomad. Irsten men made seasonal migrations  with the advent of spring they drove the sheep and cattle up the mountains to the alpine meadows with their luxuriant grasses, and when the colder autumnal days came they returned to the valleys, back to their homes and families. In fact, not much has changed since the times of old  Hutsul men still do the same now as they did hundreds of years ago.

The Volokhy (Rumanians of the Carpathians) and the Hutsuls live as peaceful neighbours, now separated by the border but sharing a lot of cultural traditions. Rumanian horses and cows freely walk across the state border into Ukraine to graze, and after getting their fill, they go back home. Both Rumanian and Hutsul shepherds know for sure that stray horses and cattle will always return safely home.


Hutsuls: a bit of history

By the virtue of their natural conditions, the Carpathian mountains were a place to which the oppressed and persecuted fled seeking and finding refuge there. It all began back in the Roman times, when Dacia (now Rumania) was a Roman province.

The old name for the area where the Hutsuls live is Halicia, or Galicia, which may suggest that at some time in the past it could have been inhabited by the Celts (Gaul, or Gallia, now France, and Galicia in Spain were the lands of the Celts) who must have been later supplanted by the Slavs who, nevertheless, have retained a number of place names and words which can be supposedly traced back to the Celtic roots.

A less bold and much more accepted theory suggests that some time in the first millennium BCE, a Slavic tribe of Ruthenians migrated from elsewhere to the area now occupied by the Hutsuls and settled down, gradually developing into an ethnic group, the Hutsuls of today.

Ethnographic studies of the Hutsuls began at the end of the eighteenth century and continued in the nineteenth, culminating in a monumental work, Hutsulshchyna, by V. Shukhevych published in 1899 1908 in eight volumes. A number of Ukrainian writers, Ivan Franko and Mykhailo Kotsyubynsky among them, described the Hutsul life in fiction. Kotsyubynskys novel, Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, was even made into a very successful film by the director Serhiy Paradzhanov in the nineteen-sixties.

Over the centuries, the Land of Hutsulshchyna (Galicia) changed hands; from the end of the eighteenth century and up to 1918 it was under the domination of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. After the collapse of this empire, a short-lived republic sprang up in part of Hutsulshchyna. The Hutsul Republic with the centre in the town of Yasynya existed from November 1918 to June 1919. It was included into Ukraine only in 1939.


Hutsuls: way of life

The Hutsuls, living in relative isolation from the European civilization and from the rest of Great Ukraine developed, as we have already mentioned, a way of life distinctly their own. Life in the mountains breeds stamina, endurance and skills necessary for survival. Strangers and outcasts find it extremely difficult, or actually impossible, to get adjusted to or be accepted by the Hutsul community. On the other hand, the Carpathian mountains in Hutsulshchyna are of such an overwhelming beauty that those who are born there find it extremely hard to leave the native land or change their way of life.

Summers are the time of hard work  tilling the land and taking care of the sheep, cattle, horses and other domestic animals. But the surrounding natural beauty helps to make hard life more endurable. Winters are the time when holidays and feasts can be celebrated with abandon, when songs can be sung and dances can be danced and music can be played, when new dresses can be made, when needle work can be done, rushnyky (decorative towels) embroidered, when pysanky can be painted, when stories and fairy tales can be told, when wood can be carved, and many other useful and useless things can be done. It has been going like this, with little changes, in the Land of the Hutsuls for centuries.

If you are a traveller, you will be accorded a warm welcome. You will be dined and wined, you will be told stories, true and tall, and nobody will ask who you are and where you are from; they will wait until you tell your story yourself. But this hospitality will turn into hostility if you make an attempt to become part of their life  the Hutsul community reject strangers. And you cannot do anything about it.

If generalizations are possible, then we can say the Hutsul men are tall, with Roman noses, black hair, not unlike that of horses tails, dark  sometimes blue  eyes, long legs, long arms and long hands with long fingers. Women are mostly of short stature, slim, full of pep, vivacious and beautiful. They talk fast, they do things fast, they are clever with their hands. And they are always dressed in great taste, in a remarkable, traditional Hutsul way.

In general, the Hutsuls like to be dressed well, and take great pains with their attire. Men like bright decoration on their clothes. In the times of old, when the clothes were very expensive, they were passed from generation to generation (not everyday clothes of course  we are talking of Sunday clothes). There were even murders committed over dresses.

Hutsul men used to carry weapons with them, pistols and axes on long handles. If a Hutsul had only two pistols stuck into his belt, he was considered to be poor. Hutsul men have retained their love of weapons but they do not exhibit it so openly.

Hutsuls like to be showing off. When they take a walk, they want others to see how well they are dressed; when they dance, they do their best to show that they dance well; when they work, they want others to see how well they can work.

Some of the Hutsul houses seem to be kept primarily for the guests, with the interiors decorated with embroidered rushnyky, carpets, and wood carving. Such Hutsuls live in a little house in the backyard which they call litnya kukhnya, summer kitchen.

Hutsuls are freedom-loving and independent people, full of dignity. Sometimes there is too much of dignity (if there is such a thing as too much dignity), and Hutsuls were known for easily picking quarrels over what they thought were even trivial offenses. Some of such quarrels would end in bad fights with weapons used. In general, Hutsuls are quick to take offence.

Being hot tempered, Hutsuls are at the same time very tactful and considerate, civil, polite and well-mannered. Even talking to teenagers, they use highly respectful forms of address. Instead of the Ukrainian equivalents of hello or hi, Hutsuls prefer to say, Glory be to Jesus Christ.

Hutsuls are very religious people and observe all the Christian feasts very scrupulously. Some of their Christian celebrations have pagan elements in them but even the most eclectic combinations look very natural, not contradicting each other.


For how long will the Hutsul traditions, customs and habits continue to live? The outside civilization has begun making inroads into the traditional Hutsul way of life. Television, radio, Internet, and travel can hardly be resisted in the twenty-first century.

But there are things in Hutsul life which will hardly change in the years to come. Traditional Hutsul everyday clothes are better suited for life and conditions in the mountains than the jeans. Cars are no good in the mountains either  Hutsul horses are a much more reliable means of transportation in the forests with no roads and high in the mountain slopes. Winters will never become summers and long winter nights will continue to be filled with embroidery, painting pysanky, handicrafts and music, even though some of the instruments will surely be more sophisticated than they used to be. Summers will require much work on the available land and shepherding in the mountains. Tourism is not likely to spoil Hutsuls either  it gives Hutsuls another chance to show off before the visiting tourists. Hutsul applied and decorative art is in demand  many of the Hutsul works of decorative art have found their way to private and public collections in many countries of the world.

Hutsuls also remember well that the geographical centre of Europe is situated in their land, in the town of Rakhiv, and being right in the centre of Europe, they are not in a hurry to leave their mountains. Their envoys, like Ruslana the pop singer, take their music, if in a pop format, to other countries. And, strange as it may seem, people in foreign lands who have never heard of the Hutsuls, like their music.


Photo by I. Yasniy


Photo by I. Yasniy


Photo by I. Dudkin





An old wood-carving school.





Photo by O. Horobets



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