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Chortkiv, a small town with a long history


Ihor KROCHAK, a member of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, offers bits of history and some facts about the western Ukrainian town of Chortkiv.


In June 1919, several units of the 3rd Berezhanska and 7th Lvivska Brigade of the Ukrainian Halytska Army of the Western Ukrainian Peoples Republic launched an offensive from the area between the Rivers Zbruch and Dnister. They broke through the Polish defences and began moving towards Zboriv. This operation, that came to be known as The Chortkiv Offensive, was commanded by General O. Hrekov.

Many newspapers, and not only in Europe, published the news about the former President of the Western Ukrainian Peoples Republic Yevhen Petrushevych (after the union in January 1919 of the Western Ukrainian Peoples Republic in the west of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Peoples Republic in the east, Petrushevych was promoted to membership of the Dyrektoriya, the governing body of the Ukrainian Republic) being given the dictatorial power, following the successful offensive. At that time Petrushevych happened to be in the town of Chortkiv, a small provincial place that used to belong to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and after its collapse was included into the Western Ukrainian Peoples Republic. Dictatorship was a new political phenomenon at that time in Europe, with Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and other dictators of smaller calibre still to come on the political scene. Petrushevych was not, of course, a dictator in the sense that Stalin or Hitler were  it was just a term used in almost the same sense that this term was used in ancient Rome  a person with greater prerogatives given to him for a short period of time to deal with an extraordinary situation. But whatever the background, the appearance of a dictator in Europe presaged much more calamitous events to come.


Early history

The town of Chortkiv is situated about fifty miles south of the city of Ternopil. Its present-day population is about 27,000 people. Chortkiv is an old town whose foundation goes back to an uncertain time in the Middle Ages. The first known written mention of it dates to 1522  it was the year when the town was awarded the privileges of the Magdeburg Law, and that means it must have been in existence for quite some time to be thus honoured. It also means that it had enough qualifications to be so awarded. No satisfactory explanation has been offered so far for the origin of the name of the town (the presence of the root chort  devil in the name leads some historians and laymen to all kinds of both witty and preposterous explanations).

What is known with a high degree of certainty is that the town and the land around it was owned in the sixteenth century by Erzy Czortkowsky, a Polish nobleman. He had a castle built but the castle proved to be vulnerable to attack because it was mostly wooden. It was resurrected several times after being burned by the marauding Crimean Tartars whose raids were a regular occurrence. In the early seventeenth century the castle was rebuilt in stone by the then owner of Chortkiv, Stanislaw Galsky. This time it was a well fortified place with defensive towers and thick walls. Remnants of the castle can be found in Zamkova Street, on the left bank of the River Seret.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Chortkiv found itself advantageously located on the east-west trade route and it was what brought the town a measure of prosperity.

In the mid-seventeenth century, during the war of independence, Chortkiv was a Polish stronghold, and in 1655, the Ukrainian troops laid siege to the Chortkiv Castle whose garrison was made up of Polish regular troops and of local Polish noblemen and their dependents. Their commandeer was Paul Pototsky, Governor of Boguslav. It did not take the Cossack troops long to break into the city. During the storming, Pototsky was taken prisoner. Later, many of the locals joined the army of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky who led the national liberation movement. In one of the folk songs that date from the seventeenth century we find such words,

Ill go away from Chortkiv

To be a free Cossack,

To avenge the blood and tears,

To be equal among brothers


In 1672, a large part of Ukraine was captured by the Turks and Chortkiv was one of their military acquisitions. They gave the town the status of a residence of the local Turkish governor, but soon the Polish came back, ousted the Turks, and Chortkiv remained a Polish town until the first partition of Poland in 1772 when Chortkiv found itself included in the dominions of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.


Back to 1919

The year 1919 was a very difficult one for Ukraine, both in the east and in the west. Internal strife, the White Guard troops, the Red Guard troops, foreign intervention, and lack of a united front in the face of all the enemies put an enormous strain both on the military and on the civilians, and eventually the Ukrainian resistance collapsed.

In April 1919, an 80,000-strong army that had been put together in France, arrived at the Polish-Ukrainian Front to take part in the Polish offensive. Commanded by General Geller, it went into action in the vicinity of Lviv on April 19. But the offensive operation did not gain much and as early as June 1919, the Ukrainian Halytska Army, commanded by General Oleksy Hrekov, counterattacked (Hrekov, of Ukrainian descent, had been a general of the tsarist army before the revolution of 1917). The armoured train was used to support the counterattack. Unfortunately, the swift progress of the Ukrainian army soon halted because of lack of ammunition and adverse political circumstances. The fortunes reversed and the Ukrainian Halytska Army had to retreat. It crossed the River Zbruch and in Kamyanets-Podilsky it joined the troops of the Directory of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic commanded by Symon Petlyura. Petlyura later went to Chortkiv to meet Yevhen Petrushevych, Dictator of the Western Ukraine, to conduct negotiations on the concerted action. Negotiations fell through because at that time the Ukrainian Peoples Republic was already planning a change of the political course and entering an alliance with Poland rather than continuing the confrontation. Later, Petrushevych went abroad and formed a Ukrainian government in exile. Chortkiv found itself given to Poland, following the peace accords, and was returned back to Ukraine in the fall of 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned Poland.


Architectural landmarks

The Church of Uspinnya Presvyatoyi Bohorodytsi (The Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Mother of God  Dormition of the Virgin) was built in 15811584, with the construction imitated by Mykola Drachuk, a fur dresser and Havrylo Zhuravel, a tailor. The church was badly damaged three times during the Tartar and Turkish raids (in 1593, 1617 and 1640), and every time it was rebuilt. According to the local lore, it was in that church that the betrothal of Tymosh Khmelnytsky and Rozanda, the daughter of the ruler of Moldavia Lupu, took place. The girl was not present at the ceremony but such betrothals in absentia were not something unheard of in those times. Bohdan Khmelnytsky evidently wanted to establish closer links with the ruling houses of Europe and his sons marriage to the Moldavian princess offered such an opportunity.

The church itself is one of the oldest surviving wooden churches in the Land of Podillya. Its architectural style makes it a valuable landmark. Another old wooden church is located in Zaliznychna Street. It was built in 1630 with not a single nail used and this alone makes it unique. It also suffered damage during the Tartar and Turkish raids and was completely rebuilt in 1717. It was consecrated as the Church of Resurrection (originally it was dedicated to St Nicholas). Research in the local archives discovered that fur-dressers of the local fur-dressers guild donated 890 gold coins towards the rebuilding of the church. The archival documents even say how the money was earned  the fur-dressers made and sold three sable fur coats for 70 gold coins; five lynx fur coats, each for 80 gold coins, and seven fox fur coats that went for 40 gold coins and the proceeds were saved and given to the church. In 19961997, the church was restored.

Another sight one might want to see in Chortkiv is the building of city hall which is situated in the centre of town close to the old market place, both in the same architectural style. The clock on the tower of the city hall was made in Switzerland. Recently, when it needed mending a foreign watch maker had to be invited to do the repairs. The place has an atmosphere that makes it attractive not only for the locals and tourists but for filmmakers as well. Several films by Ukrainian studios feature the building of Chortkivs city hall in some of their sequences.

The building was erected in the 1920s and housed the offices of the city council, of the mayor, of the local police, of the management of the fire brigade and of a music society.

In addition to the Dominican Monastery, the variety of ethnic and religious communities is attested by two synagogues. One of them was built in the 1680s, and up to 1909 it was the seat of the chief rabbi of Chortkiv. The second synagogue, built in 1909, usually referred to as the new one, was badly damaged during WWI but later it was restored. The new synagogue was regularly, at least once a year, visited by the chief rabbi of Paris or of Vienna, and while he was in Chortkiv, the Jewish faithful would come from many places in Ukrainian Halytchyna and from abroad  from Austria, Hungary, Moravia and Bohemia, Poland, Serbia and Russia. But with the passage of time these visits became less frequent and then stopped altogether.

The Jewish cemetery was vandalized by the soviets and turned into a park with a hospital nearby. The only grave that has been salvaged is that of a prominent Jewish philosopher, Moyshe Friedman  it was restored in the 1990s.

In one of Chortkivs neighbourhoods, we find a prison and a school in a close and incongruous proximity to each other. The prison was built in the mid-nineteenth century, and until the early 1920s it saw only ordinary criminals imprisoned there. In the 1920s, political prisoners began to join the usual inmates. One of the first such prisoners was Osyp Makovey, a writer, who was incarcerated there in February 1921 for promoting Ukrainian language and culture at a teachers training school he headed as principal. Later, the local Polish authorities, under pressure from the Ukrainians who were in a majority in Chortkiv, allowed the construction of a school for Ukrainians with the Ukrainian as the language of tuition, but the site provided was next door to the prison  probably to discourage the potential students from attending classes. School was nevertheless built, and among the people who donated money towards the construction of the school was Andriy Chaykovsky, a writer, who gave his royalties for the novel Sahaydachny (Sahaydachny was one of the hetmans of Ukraine), published in 1934, to the school.

In the soviet times this close-to-prison school specialized in advanced teaching of foreign languages, and in the 1990s, after Ukraines independence and a restoration, the school was promoted in status to hymnaziya (secondary school of advanced studies). It was given the name it bore in the 1930s  Ridna Shkola  Native School.


The airfield in Chortkiv is of the kind that can have a strategic importance  it was built in the soviet times as a military facility where strategic bombers and even space shuttles could land. It is still being used by the military as an air force base.

Among the industries and factories in Chortkiv sugar production, meat processing, cheese and confectionary making, vodka distilling and bread production could be mentioned. In Ternopil Oblast, Chortkiv is the second most important industrial centre.


Prominent persons

A number of cultural figures of considerable prominence lived in Chortkiv in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Kateryna Rubchakovi (1881 1919), an opera singer was born in Chortkiv. Her father, Andriy Kosak, was a deacon and preceptor of a local church. At the age of 12 she sang in a choir and at 16 she was admitted to the troupe of theatre in Lviv. In 1899, after marrying an actor, Ivan Rubchak, she took the stage name of Kateryna Rubchakovi. She sang in 13 operas and 21 operettas, and died young, at the age of 38. The singer was buried in Ternoplil; a monument to her was erected in Chortkiv. One of the public organizations in Chortkiv, Narodny Dim, was named after her.

Panas Karabinevych (18971964) promoted the development of theatre, first, by heading an itinerant theatrical troupe, and later by directing the work of the Ternopil Drama Theatre named after Ivan Franko. After the soviets came to western Ukraine, he was arrested and executed. A monument at his grave in Chortkiv was erected in 1993.

Among other persons of note associated one way or the other with Chortkiv we should mention Vasyl Kosak (18861932), an actor and singer; Roman Drazhnyovsky, professor of Columbia University, N.Y., a geographer; Volodymyr Kobylyansky, a poet and translator; Anton Horbachevsky, a lawyer, who contributed a lot to the development of cultural life in Chortkiv.


Photos by Oleh MARCHAK

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