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A park which, once visited, makes you want to see it again
A recent British film based on the novel in verse Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin could have been filmed (could have been but was not) in an old park, Oleksandriya, in the town of Bila Tserkva which is situated only 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the city of Kyiv. The great Russian poet was head over heels in love with Yelyzaveta, Countess Branytska’s daughter who was the owner of the park. There is some similarity between the heroine of Eugene Onegin by the name of Tetyana and Yelyzaveta but the latter has never been as famous as the former.
Creators of the park
Not far from the waters,
glistening in the dark
was laid out a park…
The park was laid out by Duchess Oleksandra in 1797 close to the river called Ros. The land for this landscape marvel was given to her as a gift by her husband, Count Ksaveriy Branytsky, a Polish aristocrat. Their estate was bringing in good profits. Besides, Oleksandra, a lady-in-waiting of Empress Catherine the Great, was the niece of Prince Gregory Potyomkin, the Empress’ favourite, and received generous gifts of money from the Imperial Family. In other words the Branytskys were wealthy enough to afford a park. In fact, they spent four million roubles in gold on turning a piece of land with meadows, a wood and a field into a masterpiece of landscape art. For that much money one could build in those times an immense palace worthy of an emperor.
And emperors did visit the park. Russian czars (who officially were titled “emperors”) paid visits to the park. So did poets. In addition to the ubiquitous Pushkin, the park was visited by Adam Mickiewicz, a Polish bard, and Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian poet, to mention the greatest. Since then the number of visitors has grown enormously. Poets and prose writers come here for inspiration, others — to enjoy the beauty of the park. There are a couple of lines in Pushkin’s Poltava (describing the battle in which the Russian troops routed the invading Swedes) which may have been inspired by the visit to the park:
“The moon is serenely over Bila Tserkva shining,
the hetmans’ luxurious gardens and old castle illumining.”
There is a bench in the garden made of metal. It dates from the first half of the nineteenth century. There is something touchingly charming and poetic in this bench — on it you can see a coat and a tricorn as though left behind by someone who is sure to come back. Both the coat and the tricorn are made of metal, too. The bench stands in a forlornly looking part of the garden. Once in a while you can see a poetically or sentimentally minded visitor sitting down on this bench and meditating for some time in the green quiet. Many visitors like taking pictures there.
The Oleksandriya Park is a marvel created by many to give joy to many. Nikolay Berdyayev, a distinguished philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century, after walking the alleys of the park, wrote: “The park of the Branytskys’ is the best of its kind not only in Russia but in the whole of Europe.”
Oleksandriya has preserved all the major features typical of the landscape design of the 18th – early 19th centuries. Landscape architect Muffo, landscape gardener Stange and architect Botani were commissioned to bring the park to perfection. The arrangement of trees, statues, small houses had a certain symbolism and some philosophical generalisations could be read in them. Most of it is still there but now it would be more difficult to see it without the help of a professional guide. Still, to enjoy the sights for what they are worth one can on one’s own. “Through the haze of rain the trees of the famous Oleksandriya gardens of Countess Branytska seemed to be so tall as to touch the sky. The majestic beauty and the vastness of these gardens were equal to those of Versailles. Wild deer were said to roam there.” In this way Konstantin Paustovskiy, a notable Russian writer of the first half of the twentieth century, described his impressions of the park. Sholom Aleikhem, a Jewish writer of the end of the nineteenth century, once walked the alleys of the park, too.
August Yens was one of the landscape gardeners who contributed most to arranging landscape in the park “in a proper way.” He was brought by the countess from Berlin when he was fifteen years old, and the next 54 years of his life he devoted to the park. For his faithful service, the Branytskys had a memorial metal column erected in a quite place of the park near the Ros River to commemorate him and his untiring gardening efforts.
Walking the alleys and paths of the park, one suddenly finds oneself at the central glade (25 acres) of the park, said to be the biggest in Europe. The site for it was chosen to make a compositional centre of the park. The glade, the size of several stadiums, is open to the sun from morning till night, and the oblique rays of the sun in the morning and early evening create wonderful effects of light and shade in the trees that surround the glade. On the lawn gently sloping to the river stand separate trees of enormous girth. In the park one can see a tulip tree, the oldest in Ukraine; a 350-year-old oak tree; a pine tree that has seen the Branytskys walking around. It has four mighty boles growing from the same roots. The park is also a sort of a botanical garden with all kinds of exotic trees and bushes growing there. The Branytskys had about 500 species of trees and bushes brought from North America, China and Central Europe. Students and members of the faculty of the Bila Tserkva Agrarian University look after these botanical treasures.
If you stand in the centre of the glade you can see some of the Bila Tserkva architectural landmarks. Among the churches one can see the one of the Branytsky family. Among the trees near the glade stands a white colonnade called Echo. Fourteen Ionic-style ten-metre tall columns stand in a semi-circle within which one can observe curious acoustic effects. A whisper in one place is carried all across to another point 34 metres away. The music of Mozart and Vivaldi used to be played here and it carried all around the park heightening the romantic feeling. In fact, the colonnade is part of an architectural complex that never got completed. Oleksandra wanted to build a sort of a mausoleum for her uncle, Count Potyomkin, but Catherine the Great’s son, Paul, hated his mother’s favourite and when he ascended the throne he made it very clear that he would not appreciate such a mausoleum built.
Passing through a melancholic garden surrounding the colonnade, one can get to the picturesque Ruins. The thing is that at the time the park was being designed, there was a fashion for having specially arranged ruins (probably the then passion for ruins was inspired by the ruins of Pompeii that were then excavated in Italy). The Ruins in the Oleksandriya park also fulfil a more pragmatic function: they are part of the dyke at the Laznevy pond. A waterfall there attracts children who play in the water while their mothers carry on with their unhurried conversations.
Some historians believe that the central part of the park was designed to evoke in mind of the visitor the journey through hell in the Divine Comedy by Dante but it was Oleksandra’s uncle Potyomkin’s progress through the “circles of hell” that was to be hinted at. Correspondingly, a lot of landscaping arrangement was done, with hills, ponds and an island created at the right places. French aristocrats from the court of Louis XVIII who visited the park were duly impressed by its beauty and suggestive symbolism. There are many interpretations of the symbolism of the most distinctive features of the park. There was, for example, a sculpture group near the Column of Grief: a pelican feeding four fledglings. Some say it symbolized family loyalty, others — that it hinted at Masonic lodge to which Emperor Alexander I belonged. Incidentally, the Emperor did visit the park as he was on friendly terms with the Countess and her son. He is known to have planted a tree and the monarchists of today are still arguing which of the old trees growing in the park might be the imperial one. Even the name of the park is given different interpretations. Some argue that the park was obviously named after Countess Oleksandra, others insist that it was the Emperor Alexander, the victor over Napoleon, who was thus honoured, or Countess Oleksandra’s son, also Alexander. Some of the statues that once graced the park and now are kept in the park’s museum, were commissioned in Italy by Napoleon and then, God knows how, they found their way to the park. One of the statues is Venus by A. Canova.
Bridges of the park
Chinese art and everything Chinese was the craze of the days when the park was coming into being. The Chinese Bridge in the park is one of its remarkable features. It resembles a whimsical gazebo with metal statues representing squatting men with slanting eyes at the entrance. The beard of the Chinese man is brightly polished by innumerable hands who have touched it.
The park has many ponds and ravines and one cannot do without bridges which add charm to it. Standing on a bridge and looking at your reflection in the water, you can feed the quiet swans and ducks. On weekdays there are not too many people in the park, so one can enjoy a solitary walk through the alleys lined up with two-hundred-year-old trees, but on holidays it is swarming with people. There is an admission fee that you have to pay but it is very small indeed. Even on the biggest holidays you still can find a quiet place in the 201 hectares (500 acres!) park. The park attracts not only by its gorgeous landscapes but also because it gives the visitor a feeling that links him to the past.
There used to be a mineral water source in the park but, unfortunately, because of human negligence the water in the source has lost its curative properties. The proximity of the slow-flowing Ros River keeps the air cool even on hot days. The river flows through the centre of the town of Bila Tserkva, too (incidentally, the name of the town translates as “White Church”) and you can get to it from the park by taking a pleasure boat. At the central square (Freedom Square) you can find a museum of local history. It stands at the site at which a thousand years ago the town sprang up. Then it was much smaller, of course (now the town has a population of 230,000, and a giant tire making factory, one of the biggest in Europe), and it was called then Yur’yiv, in honour of the Kyivan Prince Yaroslav the Wise whose Christian name was Yuriy.
High school graduates traditionally come to the park at the sunup after the final exams. The columns of the colonnade bear graffiti some of which are of a very explicit kind. People come to the park alone and in families, dressed up or in shorts and sandals. The benches in the central alleys are usually occupied by the senior citizens who throw bread crumbs to the birds and offer nuts to the squirrels.
For the past two hundred years the park has been helping people the way it could. And the people have been helping the park the way they wanted.
By Olena KONOVALENKO
Photos by Yuriy BUSLENKO
This lion warns the visitors
Visitor! Sit down, rest and think it over…
God Mercury guarding
Apollo seems to be the right
The Echo Colonnade. If you whisper
Ruins with a waterfall — a romantic
Swans in one of the ponds of the park.