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Ivan Borkovsky, a Czech archeologist and Ukrainian nationalist


Prof. Vasyl SHENDEROVSKY, Ph.D. in mathematics tells a story of Ivan Borkovsky, an archeologist and professor of the Ukrainian Free University in Prague, Czechoslovakia, who made a worthy contribution to the study of the ancient Slavic cultures, and who was an ardent Ukrainian patriot.


Ivan Borkovsky was one of those Ukrainian intellectuals who left Ukraine after the Bolsheviks had come to power and became an important figure in historical and cultural research, and in the Ukrainian nationalist movement abroad. Among other such intellectuals were Vadym Shcherbakivsky, Levko Chekalenko, Yaroslav Pasternak and Oleh Kandyba-Olzhych who settled in Czechoslovakia and made a worthy contribution to archeology and historical studies. In scholarly papers they are referred to as “Czech” scholars and archeologists and their Ukrainian background is never mentioned.

Ivan Borkovsky was born in the village of Chortovets in the Land of Ivano-Frankivshchyna on September 8 1897. The village population of about four thousand people was mostly made up of Ukrainians but there were also people of Polish descent. Ivan’s father hailed from Bukovyna, and his mother was of a native Chortovets stock.

When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, the people of Halychyna in Western Ukraine found themselves directly affected by the hostilities and there began a massive exodus of refugees from Halychyna. The Borkovsky family moved to Czechoslovakia where Ivan Borkovsky received his school education. In 1922, he became a student of the Department of Philosophy of Universita Karlova, or the University of Prague. While a student, he developed an interest in archeology and the works of Lubor Niderle, a figure of wide renown in Slavic studies, were avidly read by Borkovsky. Niderle opposed a somewhat slighting attitude on the part of some Western scholars to the Slavic cultures of the past and produced enough archeological, linguistic and historical arguments, based on years of careful study, to prove the significance of early Slavic cultures in the cultural and historical development of Europe. Among Niderle’s disciples were also Yaroslav Pasternak, Philp, Bem, Chrbic and other archeologists.

In 1929, Borkovsky was awarded a scientific degree for his dissertation on the Early Neolithic Culture of Applied Cordlike Ornaments on Pottery that once flourished in Central Europe and in Ukraine. It was the time when animals were domesticated, weaving and pottery were invented and land tilling became wide-spread. In Ukraine there existed a counterpart of this ancient culture known as “Trypillya.”

When Borkovsky began work at a department of the Ukrainian Free University in Prague, he continued his archeological and historical studies of ancient Slavic cultures.

He established that there was an autochthonous Slavic culture which he called “the Prague Culture” (the present-day definition of this culture is as follows: “The Prague-Korchak culture is a fifth through seventh century AD cultural group located in southern Poland, western Ukraine and north-eastern Slovakia. It is considered Slavic in origin, and is characterized by hand-made pottery, square semi-subterranean dwellings, and cremation burials”). This culture, according to Borkovsky, spread into the territories of modern Poland and Germany and was contemporary with other cultures of Western Europe such as the culture of the Celts. One of the characteristic features of this culture was peculiarly shaped earthenware almost without ornamentation and made without the use of the potter’s wheel. Settlements were usually located along the rivers and contained hardly more than 20 households. The Prague culture people practiced both cremation and burials. Borkovsky claimed that this culture existed in a large territory of Eastern and Central Europe, Ukraine and Rumania included.

Borkovsky’s studies concentrated on the Prague culture and he conducted archeological excavations in Prague and its environs. After his colleague Yaroslav Pasternak moved to Lviv in 1928, Borkovsky continued the study of artifacts unearthed during the archeological excavation in the area of Prague.

Borkovsky took part in international conferences and seminars which were held in Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, Paris and London. He became a member of the Ukrainian Historical and Philological Society of Czechoslovakia and of the Drahomanov Ukrainian Pedagogical Institute.

From 1939 to 1943 Borkovsky was president of the Ukrainian Free University, doing his best to keep scholarly research going under the adverse conditions of Nazi occupation. His insistence on the great significance of ancient Slavic cultures and their substantial contribution to the development of European culture, in general, was a brave stance at the time when the “Arian” German culture was proclaimed to be superior to any other culture.

When the soviet troops occupied Prague at the end of the war, the then president of the Ukrainian Free University Rev. Voloshyn was arrested and imprisoned by the soviet occupying authorities. It is believed that he died in prison; the Ukrainian Free University was closed down.

Borkovsky survived the worst of times and continued his research. In 1961, he was awarded a doctoral degree for his dissertation “Prague Hrad In the Light of the Latest Research” which he presented to the Institute of Archeology of the Academy of Sciences of Czechoslovakia.

In addition to the studies devoted to the Prague culture, Borkovsky gave a lot of his time to the study of Roman and Celtic cultures, and of burial rites of the Slavs. Ivan Borkovsky died in 1976 and was buried at a cemetery in the center of Prague.

His contribution to the study of early Slavic cultures in general and of Prague culture, in particular, is very considerable and his works have not lost their scientific significance.

“Ivan Borkovsky’s work was like a first ray of light that pierced the darkness that had enveloped the early medieval times in Slavic archeology; it gave a push to the discoveries of Slavic cultures of the middle of the first millennium AD. Borkovksy’s descriptions of what he called ‘Prague cultural type’ and ‘Prague culture’ continue to be relevant in archeological studies,” wrote Volodymyr Baran, a prominent Ukrainian archeologist and corresponding member of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Ivan Borkovsky authored about hundred scholarly papers and four monographs. He wrote in several languages and was a scholar of a very wide erudition.

In May 2007 a Ukrainian delegation visited Prague as part of the preparations for marking the 110th anniversary of Borkovsky’s birth. The delegation was received at the Institute of Archeology of the Czech Republic and at the University of Prague. The delegation visited the cemetery where Borkovsky is buried and the street named after Borkovsky in a suburb of Prague.

Rev. Teodor Orobets, a priest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the village of Chortovets where Borkovsky was born (it was in that church that Borkovsky was baptized; incidentally, Orobets studied at the University of Prague) delivered a funeral oration at Borkovsky’s grave. Taras Kolesnyk, head of the local council of Chortovets, spread some soil that had been brought from Chortovets, over Borkovsky’s grave; the ceremony of paying homage to Borkovsky was completed by the laying of flowers and Ukrainian decorative embroidered towels at the grave.

Among those who spoke at the ceremony were Vasyl Shenderovsky, Taras Kolesnyk and Roman Kalyn, a businessman from Chortovets.

Borkovsky was a member of the Ukrainian Insurrection Army but this fact was revealed only after Borkovsky’s death. If not for the help of his friends and for the firm stance of the Czech government, Borkovsky could have been arrested by the soviet secret police during the soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

The author of this article would like to express his gratitude to those who helped make the delegation’s trip to the Czech republic possible: A. Yatsenyuk, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine; V. Karachentsev, a representative of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine in Prague; Karel Stindel, Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Ukraine; the Czech General Consulate in Lviv; Ivan Kuleba, Ambassador of Ukraine to the Czech Republic; Mariya Prokop’yuk, head of the Union of Ukrainian Women in the Czech Republic; Roman Kalyn and Ihor Kulay, Ukrainian businessmen. I would particularly like to thank Yaroslav Levkun, a member of the Regional State Administration in the town of Horodentsi for his help in organizing the delegation’s trip to the Czech Republic and for the illustrations he has provided.


Photos byYaroslav LEVKUN



Covers of Ivan Borkovsky’s books.


Ivan Borkovsky’s parents (on extreme left
and right) with small daughters
and other unknown women. 1930s.


Ivan Borkovsky, a soldier
of the Ukrainian Halytska Army, 1918.


At the headquarters of Nestor Makhno’s
army during negotiations between Makhno
and the Ukrainian Halytska Army; Ivan Borkovsky
is in the second row wearing a military uniform.


Ivan Borkovsky in Prague. 1950.


Ivan Borkovsky with his
daughter Tetyana. 1950s.


A Ukrainian delegation at the Institute
of Archeology of the Academy of Sciences
of the Czech Republic; Vasyl Shenderovsky
is the third from left in the front row.


The bust of Ivan Borkovsky
by the sculptor Mykola Obezyuk
opened on 23 September 2007.


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