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Past and present of the steppes in Ukraine
Dedicated to the memory of Serhiy Tarashchuk, a great Ukrainian conservationist and nature enthusiast.
Most who write about glory and heroic deeds in Ukrainian history devote a wide swathe of space, appropriately, to the steppe. It was in the steppe that a community of free Cossacks, known collectively as the Zaporizhian Sich, played a significant role in the history of Ukraine.
In earlier times the steppe was referred to as Dyke Pole, which means wild field or wilderness, and it was into the steppe wilderness that the freedom-seeking Cossacks fled. Even today, five centuries after the Cossacks first entered the steppe, their descendants still bid each other “vitru i stepu” — wind and steppe — when they part company.
The steppe features in many Ukrainian folk songs. It was in the steppe that Ukraine’s great 19th century poet and prophet, Taras Shevchenko, wanted to be buried: “When I die, bury me on a mound, amid the wide steppe, in my beloved Ukraine,” he wrote in his poetic “Testament.”
To see what the testament of the steppe may hold today, Oleksiy Vasylyuk takes a broad view and long look at the seemingly infinite feather-grassed plains of Ukraine’s past… and present
Around 40 percent of Ukraine’s territory is steppe, although for the most part, it can no longer be called wilderness. Rather than boundless vistas of wild flowers and grasses, a considerable part of the steppe today is cultivated grain fields that stretch to the horizon on the Ukrainian plains.
Six thousand or so years ago, the Ukrainian steppes were inhabited by the people of the Trypillya culture. Later came the nomadic and highly mobile horse-wielding Cimmerians, Scythians and Sarmatians. Some of these settled down and began to cultivate the land, much as their more sedentary neighbors, who shared adjoining territories. Most of the steppe, however, remained wild, overgrown with feather grass. It is this “wild steppe” that features in Ukrainian folk songs and ballads.
It was only at the end of the 18th century, after Empress Catherine II ordered the disbandment of the Zaporizhian Sich, and Russia wrested Crimea from the Ottoman Turks, incorporating the peninsula into its empire, that a great influx of colonizers began filling the steppes. Cattle were bred and large herds began to roam the plains. Many wild animals that inhabited the area — wild horses, saiga antelope, and aurochs among them — died out due to hunting and the loss of pasture.
Today, hints of the wild steppe in Ukraine can be gleaned from the banks of rivers, where the land was not suitable for cultivation, and in stretches between grain fields and vegetable and fruit gardens. According to estimates, only about 4 percent of the Ukrainian steppe has been left in its untouched and pristine condition.
Earlier, the Ukrainian steppe was mostly overgrown with kovyl or tyrsa — needled or speared feather grass in its many varieties. Kovyl itself was synonymous with the steppe. Because of its clusters of small featherlike spikes, kovyl was often called shovkova kosa, or silk braid, and there were many superstitions and popular beliefs connected with it.
In the spring, plants other than kovyl could be spotted in the Ukrainian steppe, which would sprinkle with the colors of wild flowers, of which many species could only be found in the steppe. With the flowering season over, the steppe would once again acquire the swaying melancholy and monotony of the preponderant kovyl.
As land cultivation and herding increased, kovyl became a nuisance, getting entangled, for example, in the wool of grazing sheep, adversely affecting the quality of their fleece. Despite its modest beauty and association with girls’ hair, kovyl was weeded out, mostly by burning.
Today, the 20 or so remaining species of kovyl have been entered into the Chervona Knyha (‘Red Book’), or the book of endangered species of Ukraine.
Another feature of the steppe was the eagle. The numbers of this majestic bird of prey have drastically reduced, and the eagle has also been entered into the ‘Red Book of Ukraine.’ A species of eagle known as the orel kurhannyk, or eagle of the burial mounds, has been especially hard hit and also entered into the ‘Red Book of Ukraine.’ This eagle must have acquired its name from circling and perching on the raised burial sites, which stand as silent testaments to the time when Scythians ruled the windswept plains.
There used to be many such burial mounds across the steppes, some of which have survived to this day. Archeological excavations have yielded a rich harvest of artifacts that throw light on the life of the ancient peoples who inhabited the steppes hundreds and thousands of years ago.
Up until the 18th century, there also used to stand thousands of stone idols (polovetski baby) erected at the mounds by nomadic peoples. Now, only a few of these idols remain at their original sites; most of the others were destroyed, while a few have been moved to museums.
Whatever little has been preserved of the primeval wild steppe can be found in the nature reserves Ukrayinsky Stepovy, Luhansky, Yelanetsky Steppe, Kinburnska Kosa, Hranitno-Stepove Pobuzhzhya, Askaniya Nova, and others. These reservations, where efforts have been made to create conditions for the survival of hundreds of steppe plant and animal species, can be found in various parts of Ukraine. Tourism to these reserves, which are under state protection, is limited or forbidden altogether. To allow tourists to see at least some of the original steppe, regional and national “landscape parks” have been created within the reserves.
Askaniya Nova (aka Ascania Nova) is the oldest nature reserve in Ukraine. It is probably the only one that is known beyond Ukraine’s borders. Today, Askaniya Nova has the international status of “biosphere reserve.”
As a steppe reserve, Askaniya Nova dates from the second half of the 19th century when the Ukrainian steppe began facing the threat of gradual disappearance. One of the largest estates in southern Ukraine at that time, close to the Black Sea and covering around 300,000 hectares, belonged to the German Falz-Fein family. The founder of what became the Askaniya Nova Biosphere Reserve, Baron Friedrich Eduardovitsch von Falz-Fein, was a great lover of nature, and created from his estate what might be called “a zoological garden without cages” together with a very large botanical garden. Today, the 33,000 hectares of land occupied by the Askaniya Nova reserve (11,000 hectares of core area, more than 6,000 hectares of buffer zones, and more than 15,000 hectares of transition areas) contain many of the plants, birds and animals that had once been native to the steppes.
Yelanetsky Steppe Natural Reserve is located north of the city of Mykolayiv and is the only such reserve west of the Dnipro River. The granite and limestone formations that dot the reserve’s territory must have prevented the cultivation of the land, allowing the preservation of the primordial steppe landscape. Many of the plants that grow on the reserve are unique and cannot be found elsewhere.
In 1980, Ukrainian conservationists managed to persuade reluctant local Soviet authorities to set aside 300 hectares of this territory for a nature reserve. The plot, which had been used as pastureland by the local collective farm until then, was thenceforth excluded from any further agricultural use. The actual reserve was created only in 1996.
Stretching for 40 kilometers, Kinburnska Kosa (Kinburn Peninsula) Regional Landscape Park is the longest spit in Ukraine that extends into the Black Sea. It is located at the Dnipro’s mouth, forming the southern shore of the Dnipro River estuary. Climatic conditions here share similarities to those of the steppe. Most of the regional landscape park’s territory has been preserved in its primeval state. The park is 18,000 hectares in area, including 12,000 hectares of land habitat and 6,000 hectares of aquatic habitat. Four hundred sixty-five species of plants and 4,710 species of animal life have been registered on the reserve, which is dotted by small lakes. Orchids thrive on the peninsula thanks to its warm and humid conditions. In fact, Kinburnska Kosa boasts the biggest field of orchids in Europe. In that part of Ukraine, the orchid (and other similar plants) is called a zozulynets, probably as a result of some whimsical association with the zozulya, or cuckoo bird.
When conservationists and nature enthusiasts are asked, ‘What’s so special about Kinburnska Kosa,’ they answer, ‘Nothing special, just a stretch of steppe jutting out of the Black Sea coast — but there’s no other place like it in the world.’
Hranitno-Stepove Pobuzhzhya is a 40-kilometer-long regional landscape park along the Pivdenny Buh River in Mykolayiv Region. The park is complete with rock formations, caves and waterfalls and is probably the most attractive landscape park in Ukraine for tourists.
Of the 900 species of plants to be found in the park, 30 are on the list of endangered species. Some of the animals in the park have also been entered into the ‘Book of Endangered Species of Ukraine,’ with Hranitno-Stepove Pobuzhzhya being their only home. One such rare species is the eskulapova zmiya, or the Aesculapian Snake (Elaphe longissima), which is said to be the snake coiled around the staff of Aesculapius — the universal symbol of healing, medicine and physicians.
In addition to being a nature preserve, Hranitno-Stepove Pobuzhzhya is also a historical landmark, since it is located in the valley of the Pivdenny Buh River, where the biggest administrative center of the Zaporizhian Sich was located, called the Buho-Hardova Palanka. The Zaporizhian Sich had several branches throughout Ukraine, and the one in the Pivdenny Buh area was known as the Viysko Zaporizke Nyzove (Lower Zaporizhian Army). Some historians refer to it as “the last order of knights in Europe.”
The center of this army was located on Hard Island. According to Zaporizhian Sich documents of the 16th-18th centuries, the Sich regularly sent a polkovnyk — a Cossack regiment commander, or colonel — with a unit of Cossacks to be stationed on the island during the summer to maintain order, peace between the local fishermen and Cossacks, and to act as border guards. The Cossack unit usually stayed until the fall. A report submitted in 1760 by Oleksiy Biletsky, a koshovy (Cossack leader), to his superiors, says the Cossack unit that arrived on the island was made up of 500 Cossacks who lived in 50 kurens (tent-like structures), two houses and 10 dugouts. Incidentally, the Pivdenny Buh was a favorite place for fishing.
But in addition to the Ukrainian Cossacks, archeological excavations in the area have produced a plethora of artifacts suggesting that various cultures and ethnic groups had been on the island way before the Cossacks, including the people of the Trypillian culture, Cimmerians, Romans, and Goths. Twenty-one historical and archeological landmarks have been placed under state protection in the Pivdenny Buh River valley.
Serhiy Tarashchuk, a great Ukrainian nature conservationist, is credited with giving the local landscape park its name. The park was established in 1994, and since then it has become a big tourist attraction particularly favored by mountain climbers and water sport enthusiasts. The park boasts one of the best water slalom courses in Europe.
After most of Ukraine’s major rivers were dammed and power stations built, only the Pivdenny Buh River has retained a number of rapids that provide a great scenic backdrop to the steppe landscape surrounding it. Most of these rapids are concentrated in the Hranitno-Stepove Pobuzhzhya landscape park. It is probably there, amid the rumble of the waterfalls and memories of the past, that a group of young Ukrainian folk singers, Tin Sontsya, were inspired to write one of their best songs, “The wind sends ripples across the feather grass field… There’s no place in the world for Cossacks to go…”
It has taken Ukrainian conservationists and nature enthusiasts a great deal of time and effort to get their nature reserves. The struggle isn’t over yet. Prices for land are skyrocketing and it is becoming ever more difficult to press the authorities into allotting land for nature reserves and national parks. The creation of several more reserves is planned in whatever is left of the Ukrainian steppe. Muravsky Shlyakh in Zaporizhzhya Region is one such reserve in the making. The trade routes from Tavria (the old name of Crimea) to Muscovy once passed through this region.
Paradoxically, the best preserved primordial steppe areas are on territories used by the military as firing ranges and for staging maneuvers. Some of these locations, suitable for future nature reserves, are known as Tarkhankutsky and Karalarsky in Crimea, Tarutynsky in Odesa Region and Shyrokolansky in Mykolayiv Region.
The obstacles to creating new reserves and the problems of maintaining the old ones are many. Nevertheless, I am confident that awareness of the need for such reserves will grow, along with the appreciation of nature’s beauty. I’m certain that future generations of Ukrainians will be able to enjoy Ukraine’s primordial landscapes, at least in natural preserves. And I hope that folk songs about the steppe, such as “The Wind Blows across the Steppe,” will continue to be sung too.
Photos by Natalia Atamas
Hranitno-Stepove Pobuzhzhya, probably the most
attractive landscape park in Ukraine for tourists.
Karalarsky, one of the future landscape parks.
Muravsky Shlyakh, the landscape park in the making