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Exotic landmarks of Ukraine
A White Elephant on a Mount Black in the Carpathians
One probably wishes that the romantic headline were to announce a beginning of a romantic story with a splendid castle perched high on a rock, a beautiful damsel locked in a tower and a magnificent knight rescuing her. Alas, the “White Elephant” is a nickname once given to an astronomic and meteorological observatory, and “Mount Black” is no more than literal translation of Chornahora, the name of the third highest mountain (2,000 metres above the sea level) in the Carpathians.
The observatory was officially opened in July 1938. At that time, the western part of Ukraine was in Polish possession (after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, some of its lands found themselves under Polish domination, but in the partition of Poland in late 1939 between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the soviets invaded Western Ukraine).
An astronomical observatory should be closer to the stars and that is why the top of Chornahora was chosen as a site for such an observatory. The construction took a lot of effort, money and time. Its official name was “Marshal Jozef Pilsudski Astronomical and Meteorological Observatory.” Why it got nicknamed “White Elephant” is not quite clear. One of possible explanations is that the U-shaped observatory was covered in snow most all the year; another one holds it that the whole idea of building an observatory was regarded by some to be so preposterous that it was like getting “a white elephant” to the top of a place which is known as “Mount Black.”
Ruins of the Polish astronomical observatory.
The thick walls of the observatory were a good protection against cold, no matter how severe. The observatory was excellently equipped; it had its own electric power unit, central heating and water supply. The state-of-the art astronomical and meteorological equipment that was installed put the observatory in the front ranks of the facilities of this kind. The copper cupola of the observatory that housed the telescope and other astronomical instruments had the advanced electrically operated machinery to open and close it.
Vladyslav Mydovych, the director of the observatory, spent many months in his observatory on Chornahora, without leaving it. Later, he wrote memoirs, describing his life and work at the observatory. On long winter nights, when the icy wind was howling outside and the mountains were snowbound, it did feel very peaceful and cosy inside the observatory which had enough food, water and electricity to last the researchers and technicians for months. They played table tennis, read books, listened to the radio, and regularly sent meteorological radio messages to whoever it concerned.
All kinds of gossips and rumours circulated among the local Hutsuls about the observatory, most of whom thought the observatory was a secret military facility with the most sophisticated long-range guns installed, and with an underground airstrip and hangars for aircraft.
Vandalism and neglect ruin
When in September 1939, Nazi Germany attacked Poland from the west, and several weeks later the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, the peaceful life at the observatory came to an abrupt end. The soviets renovated the observatory turning it into a geophysical and meteorological station, incidentally the first such station high in the mountains in the Soviet Union. But it did not function for long — in June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union and the troops of its ally, Hungary, occupied that section of the Carpathians where Chornahora is situated.
After the war, no work was resumed at the observatory. It was completely abandoned and neglected. By now the observatory has turned into ruins which tourists take to be the remnants of a castle. Vandalism has caused more damage than time and weather combined, and nothing has been done yet to protect whatever is left of the observatory from complete ruination.
More information about White Elephant at
A Giant Bridge in the Land of Khmelnychchyna
Avisitor to the village of Panivtsi which is situated not far from Kamyanets-Podilsky is sure to be impressed with giant pillars that can be seen in the deep valley of the River Smotrych. After the first surprise subsides, the onlooker realizes that these pillars are not abandoned pieces of an enormous structure of a forgotten civilization but are piers of a massive bridge.
In fact, the bridge has never been built. If you like taking risks, you can walk over the river on planking that has been laid between the piers but this balancing stunt is more appropriate in a circus.
The bridge was planned to be built in the 1910s for a railroad that had to pass through that area but the war disrupted this plan.
The village of Panivtsi happens to be a tourist attraction not so much because of the unfinished bridge but rather thanks to a castle and a palace, or whatever is left of them. The castle was built in the sixteenth century by the Polish governor Jan Potocki. It withstood several sieges but in 1651 fell to the Cossack army. In the eighteenth century there was an attempt to revive the castle but later the castle was completely abandoned.
The legend on this 19th Polish print says,
The village of Panivtsi was one of the centres of the Polish Protestant movement, and in the early seventeenth century there was a Protestant school, a printing press and church functioning in the village. Quite a few of anti-papal books were published in Panivtsi before it was overrun by the Cossack army in the war of Independence. Later, when Panivtsi again found themselves under Polish domination, and the Catholic church re-established itself, all the Protestant books were publicly burned.
In the nineteenth century, the owners of the place, the Starzhynskys, built a palace and turned whatever had been left of the castle into stables and storage rooms.
Jan Potocki was said to have been buried in the crypt of a church in Panivtsi but no tomb of his is extent.
A three hundred-year old stove from Mezhyrich
The village of Mezhyrich boasts ruins of fortifications and of a monastery which date from the 16th century. Mezhyrich, as well the neighboring village of Ostroh, used to be residences of the Princes Ostrozky. The ruins in Ostroh dating from the 14th–16th centuries remind us of the splendor and might of the Ostrozky Princes.
Mezhyrich was a fortified place too that stood guard on the way to Ostroh. Even the monastery in Mezhyrich was built as a fortress. It is known that the Troyitsky (Holy Trinity) Church of the Franciscan monastery was built in the 1520s.
In 1866 the Catholic monastery and churches in Mezhyrich were turned over to the Orthodox Christians. Under the soviets, the monastery was closed down but it was revived in the 1990s.
Though the monastery does not welcome tourists you can get in if you look pious enough. Not far from the monastery walls at the place where once a fortress stood one can see a strange looking structure made of bricks that stands supported on four pillars. The dome-like roof crowns the red brick structure which, if examined closer, reveals traces of ancient decor.
It is a stove which is over three hundred years old. I was told that in the times of old it was used for heating a house in which guards lived. The house is long gone but the stove has survived.
The stove does look very unusual and there seems to be no more stoves of this kind preserved anywhere else in Ukraine. It makes the stove doubly unique — it is the only surviving stove of the 17th century and the only one of its kind.
By Olena KRUSHYNSKA. Photos by the author