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Pereyaslav Khmelnytsky — a town of museums
There is a small town, Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky, with a population of hardly 30,000 people, in the Land of Kyivshchyna which can be described as a living museum. It is situated eighty kilometers south-west of Kyiv on the bank of the River Trubezh. This year it celebrates the 1,100 anniversary of the first written mention about it in the chronicles.
The first written mention of the town under the name of Pereyaslav dates from a treaty that the Kyiv ruler Oleg signed with Byzantium in 911. According to tradition, it was at Pereyaslav that a decisive battle between the Kyivan Rus forces against the nomad Pechenegs took place in 992. Before the battle began, the Kyivan Rus warrior, dresser of raw hides, challenged a Pecheneg warrior to a single combat and won “pereynavshy slavu” — that is “with glory.” Thus, the name of the town — pereyaslav — is traditionally derived from two words “pereynyaty” and “slavu.”
The ruler of Kyiv Grand Duke Volodymyr fortified Pereyaslav to turn it into a formidable fortress that would stand as a strong bulwark against nomad invasions.
After the death of the Kyiv ruler Yaroslav the Wise in 1054, a new principality was established — Pereyaslav — and the fortress-town of Pereyaslav was the capital of it. The Principality provided an adequate defense against its borders against the marauding nomads.
It is with one of the later rulers of Pereyaslav, Grand Duke Volodymyr Hlybovych, that the first written mention of Ukraine as a country is connected. He was badly wounded in a battle against an invading nomad force and after he died of his wounds he was buried in the Cathedral of St Michael. One of the chronicles of those times says that in the year 1187 “died the prince for whom all Pereyaslav wept, and all of Ukraine was in grief.”
Pereyaslav, though it conducted its own independent policies, was politically connected with Kyiv, and Pereyaslav rulers often had pretensions to the throne of Kyiv. In medieval chronicles, Pereyaslav is often called “a key to the city of Kyiv.”
In 1239, during the massive Mongol-Tartar invasion, Pereyaslav was practically raised to the ground. It was brought back to life only centuries later, with two hetmans of Ukraine, Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Ivan Mazepa, being instrumental in its revival.
In 1654, in the course of the war of independence in Ukraine against Poland, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, commander of the Ukrainian Cossack forces, convened a general Rada, that is council, at Pereyaslav at which, in view of the precarious military situation, it was decided to enter a military union with Muscovy (Russia). This decision proved to be disastrous for Ukraine — it lost its independence and by the end of the eighteenth century the last vestiges of its autonomy were removed.
But in the late seventeenth-early eighteenth century Hetman Ivan Mazepa still tried to retain as much independence for Ukraine as he could.
Under Mazepa, Pereyaslav became an important cultural and political center — the hetman gave money to build schools there, a big church and a monastery. He gave this monastery the so-called Peresopnytske Evanheliye, an old gospel written in Ukrainian and revered as a church relic. Incidentally, in independent Ukraine of today, Ukrainian presidents, after election, take the oath putting their hand on that book.
With Ukraine as a part of the Russian Empire, Pereyaslav lost its strategic and cultural importance and gradually turned into an insignificant, small provincial town.
The soviet regime did not care to remind the people of Pereyaslav of the glorious past of the place they lived in, though they added the word Khmelnytsky to its original name of Pereyaslav (in the soviet mythology, it was Bohdan Khmelnytsky who “joined” Ukraine to Russia, or, as it was called, “reunited the two Slavic lands”). There was only small museum in Pereyaslav which employed four people and had several dozens of exhibits in its collection.
In 1951, the new curator of the museum, Mykhaylo Sikorsky, who happened to be a great enthusiast of Pereyaslav’s history, devoted great efforts to the reviving of the memory of the past. His efforts led to the creation of the National Historical and Cultural Reserve Pereyaslav which occupies an extensive area and has 24 thematic museums in it.
Volodymyr Zabolotny, a native of Pereyaslav and academician of architecture (among other things, he designed the building of Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv in 1939), was also instrumental in creation of the Reserve. Now one of the museums of the Pereyaslav Reserve is devoted to Zabolotny.
Among other museums, there are those that are devoted to the great poet Taras Shevchenko, and the eighteenth-century peripatetic philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda.
The list of museums is a long one indeed: Museum of Bread; Museum of Land Transportation; Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Towels; Museum of Sholem Aleichem (Solomon Rabinowitz, a nineteenth-century Yiddish humorist); Museum of Space Exploration; Museum of Postal Services; Museum of Beekeeping; Museum of Applied and Decorative Arts; Museum of Ukrainian Traditional Rituals; Museum of Archeology; Museum of the Cossack Glory; Museum of Trypillya Culture; Museum of Archeology; Museum of Ukrainian Traditional Dress, to mention some of them.
The Open-air Museum of Folk Architecture is particularly popular with visitors — in the museum one can see, among other things, authentic peasant huts of the times of old, smithies and several windmills of the eighteenth century. In fact, a village of the 17th–19th centuries is recreated, complete with gardens and flowers around the houses with whitewashed walls and thatch roofs. In the houses you find icons and decorative towels — exactly the way it looked in the times of old. Taking a walk around the village, walking into the houses or churches not only takes you back into the past but also brings peace to your soul thanks to the serene tranquility of the place.
In the territory of the open-air museum, you can find other museums, one of which exhibits stone idols of the Scythian times of centuries before Christ, and another museum tells a story of space exploration in the second half of the twentieth century.
The Museum of Decorative Towels exhibits more than 300 embroidered decorative towels from various parts of Ukraine, and in the Museum of Bread which boasts 3,500 exhibits, you will learn a lot about the history of grain-growing and bread-making in Ukraine. Artifacts from the millennia-old Trypillya Culture and samples of grain discovered in archeological excavations are among the things worth seeing in the museum.
The Museum of Land Transportation displays a collection of land vehicles, in models and authentic pieces, from the times of the Trypillya Culture down to our times.
The full-size reconstruction of the square and houses where the Pereyaslav Rada was held in 1654 probably deserves a special mention, as well as the house of Andriy Kozachevsky, a physician and friend of Taras Shevchenko. It was in this building that the first museum of history of Pereyaslav was housed.
The Museum of Hryhoriy Skovoroda, a Ukrainian philosopher of the eighteenth century, who lived as he preached, walking across Ukraine from place to place and teaching his philosophy, is housed in the building that used to be a school at which Skovoroda taught poetics and rhetoric in 1753. The room where Skovoroda lived looks like a monk’s cell; his voice seems to be still reverberating in the classroom where he taught. The library boasts rare books and manuscripts of the sixteenth and later centuries.
You will find the Museum of Ukrainian Traditional Dress housed in St Michael’s Church of the seventeenth century; both man’s and woman’s shirts, wedding dresses, everyday wear and decorations are displayed in their wonderful variety of styles and decorative elements.
But it’s not only museums that attract tourists to Pereyaslav — it is a place of a great natural beauty, and in the midst of this gorgeous scenery all kinds of festivals and shows are regularly organized. In summer, it is the Feast of Ivan Kupala (John the Baptist) which combines Christian and pagan orgiastic elements that is particularly colorful, and in other seasons the feasts of Christmas and Easter are full-scale celebrations with religious services, choir singing, marching in festive processions through the streets, and going through all the traditional rituals.
In case you feel like having a guided tour, you can order it from the excursion center at the National Historical and Cultural Reserve Pereyaslav. Cafes, bars and restaurants of Pereyaslav will treat you to Ukrainian traditional or European dishes and drinks that meet the requirements of all tastes. The Hotel Pektoral, which is situated right in the heart of Pereyaslav, will provide comfortable accommodation if you want to stay longer than one day — there is indeed so much to see and to discover and enjoy in Pereyaslav that you can hardly squeeze it all into one day.
Based on an essay
by Halyna HLUSHKO
Photos by Vitaly Mormel, Viktor Sokol, Pavlo Zabarylo
The Voznesensky Cathedral
A memorial commemorating the first
A water vessel. 18th century.
Interior of a house of a weaver.
Mykhailo Sikorsky, founder and director
A Cossack church of the 18–19 centuries.
Windmills at the Museum of Folk
Young women from Pereyaslav welcoming
A house of a barrel-maker. 19th century.
The Museum of Land Transportation.
Interior of the Museum
The Museum of Beekeeping in Pereyaslav.
Interior of the house
Interior of the Museum of Bread.
A Scythian bowl. 5th century BC.