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A journey from East to West
Volodymyr Suprunenko, an author and seasoned traveler from Zaporizhzhya, bicycled across Ukraine from east to west, taking pictures and collecting impressions. He started at the easternmost point of Ukraine and ended his trip at the westernmost point and now he presents a few little bits of his travelogue that the limited space of a magazine article allows for — otherwise it would take a hefty tome to describe his journey in some detail.
My journey began in the village Chervona Zirka in Luhansk Oblast, which my map says is the easternmost point of Ukraine.
Before I actually got into the saddle and started pushing the pedals, I took a look around the village I was in and talked to the villagers. Anatoliy Pervak is one of the few people who still lives in the village. Most of the houses are abandoned, in various stages of dilapidation and ruin. Streets are overgrown with weeds. Pervak’s house sits at the eastern end of the village, so it must be the easternmost dwelling of Ukraine.
When I asked him what would be the shortest way to my next destination, he told me “go through Russia. Cross the railroad tracks and proceed west. You’ll have to cross the borders twice – once from Ukraine to Russia, and then from Russia to Ukraine. Or you can take a commuter train and go a couple of stops to Chertkov.”
I set off early in the morning. Pedaling uphill, I heard a low whistle. I stopped and looked around. A short distance away I spotted a babak (marmot, which in English is also called woodchuck or whistle pig) that sat on its hind legs, erect in its characteristic pose. Marmots usually avoid human habitats — but the village that I had left was a human habitat only in name. I remembered Mr Pervak saying that now there were so many of these rodents living in the fields around the village that “sometimes their whistling is so loud that it sort of deafens you.”
There were no border guards to challenge me; in fact, I did not see any signs that said that I would be crossing into a foreign country. I did, and after illegally traveling some distance, reentered Ukraine again — also illegally. Chertkov is still in Russia, but the neighboring town of Milove is in Ukraine. There is a street in Milove which is called Druzhba — Friendship. One side of this street is in Russia, and the other side is in Ukraine. So the locals keep “violating the national borders” many times a day.
Monument to a lexicographer
In the city of Luhansk there is a monument which I made a point of seeing. It’s a monument to Vladimir Dal’, a great lexicographer who compiled the first big explanatory dictionary of the Russian language. He was born in Lugan’, now Luhansk, in 1801. His father was a Dane who had studied ancient languages and theology in Germany and later moved to Ukraine; Dal’s mother was a German. Their son, educated to be a doctor, wrote books and was a dictionary buff and logophile, and on his own initiative he compiled an explanatory dictionary which contained over 200,000 entries. Before his death in 1872 he published two editions of his amazing dictionary which continues to be regularly published in various editions. How could I miss seeing a monument to such a man? He is portrayed as a man well advanced in years, with a long beard, deep in his lexicographical thoughts, his hand resting on a hefty tome. On the pedestal, below his name, I read, engraved on the stone: Kozak luhansky — A Cossack from Luhansk.
As I pedaled on I wondered why it is that Sam Johnson, Noah Webster, James Murray and Borys Hrynchenko (1863–1910; Ukrainian writer and public figure who compiled a four-volume explanatory dictionary of the Ukrainian language) were actually amateur lexicographers, who started their great work on their own initiative motivated solely by their love of the language and not by the hope of material gains or fame. My reflections on motivations of language champions were soon interrupted by what I was seeing around me — scenic landscapes dotted with picturesque villages.
One of the natural wonders that I encountered on my way were hills known as Svyati Hory (Sacred Mountains). In the soviet times the place was given a different name honoring a Bolshevik revolutionary and apparatchik, Artem (his real name is F. Sergeyev but like many other Bolsheviks he chose a nickname in an attempt to hide their true identity; his crimes were negligible compared to those committed by Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin, whose real names were Bronstein, Ulyanov and Dzhugashvili) but even though I felt it sort of desecrated the beautiful place, I thoroughly enjoyed the view that opened from the top of one of the hills to which I climbed on foot, leaving my bicycle behind.
From the top of that hill whose slopes were overgrown with trees, opened a stunning vista of the not distant silvery winding stretch of the Siversky Donets River, and of the golden cupolas of the church in a nearby monastery. Unfortunately, I could not avoid seeing the huge monument to Artem (the soviets were megalomaniacs), and I wished all such monuments to “ardent leaders of the proletariat” had been removed from the Ukrainian soil and stored in the backyards of some museums or private houses of those individuals who were still nostalgic for the soviet past. But what an irony of history! Artem was a militant atheist and now his white stone effigy has for a neighbor a functioning monastery!
The small town of Dobrovelychivka in the Land of Kirovohradshchyna looks like hundreds of other similar towns in Ukraine — and yet it is a town with a difference. Dobrovelychivka happens to be the geographical center of Ukraine. In one of the town’s suburbs I discovered a plaque that says in part, “In 1991, the Geographical Society of Ukraine determined that this point is the geographical center of Ukraine with the following coordinates: 40 degrees 21 minutes of Northern Latitude and 31 degrees 10 minutes of Eastern Longitude. The plaque is affixed to a sort of a memorial complex which was erected to mark the tenth anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. It sits by a highway at a conspicuous place. The locals claim that the actual geographical center is situated about two kilometers away, at a place known as Kozatska krynytsya (Cossacks’ Well). But later I read that the new calculations had determined that the geographical center of Ukraine is situated in the vicinity of the town Shpola in the Land of Cherkashchyna. I did not go there to see if there’s another plaque claiming the honor of marking the very true geographical center of Ukraine. My curiosity has its own limits.
“Love nature, respect water”
The summer was hot and I had to keep refilling my plastic bottle with fresh drinking water quite often. I replenished my water reserves at wells that I’d spot from the roads I was traveling along. The protective covers, little pavilions or rotunda-like structures over the wells reflect local traditions, people’s habits and the level of their well-being. I discovered that the well water was very delicious in many places through which I was traveling but often enough it was difficult if not impossible to get any water from the wells — simply because there were no buckets available. I either had to turn to the locals for help or tie a mug to a long string and try to get some water from out of the depths of a bucketless well. At one of such wells I saw a sign that said, “Do good in this world, drink good water — but don’t steal the bucket!” Apparently, the sign only encouraged a bucket thief.
In Western Ukraine, in the mountainous regions in particular, I had no problem of finding drinking water — there are a lot springs, some of which have quite fancy protective structures built over them. Such structures over the wells in Bukovyna and in Halychyna are particularly elaborate and artistically accomplished. In Prykarpattya I saw a pavilion-like structure built by the side of a well; there was a cross in it and a stone slab with an inscription on it that said, “In memory of those who died fighting for independence of Ukraine and of victims of the Nazi and Communist Terror in Halychyna in 1940–1952.” They say that water can preserve the memory of events it once witnessed.
But most of the signs near the water springs and wells that I saw where of quite a different nature: “Love nature,” “Respect water,” “Enjoy drinking this water”; many of the signs were direct Biblical quotations: “In the Beginning was the Word,” “The Word was with God,” “The Word was God,” and others in the same vein. In the village of Busha in the Land of Vinnychyna I saw a well decorated with sculptures which, I was told, had been created by a sculptor from Kyiv especially for that well.
I planned to make only short stops at the places I would travel through and there were no visits to museums on my schedule. But one museum I did visit. It was The Pysanka (Painted Easter Eggs) Museum in the town of Kolomyya. Its collection numbers over ten thousand items most of which are, of courses, painted Easter eggs but there are also other works of the decorative and applied arts of Ukraine. Among painted eggs there are many which came from countries other than Ukraine — Canada, the USA, Poland and even India. The ingenuity and inventiveness of those who painted those eggs are amazing.
Diversity in unity
Amazing is also the cultural unity of Ukraine even though cultural differences are rather easily distinguishable in different parts of the country I bicycled across. In Western Ukraine peasant houses seemed to be better taken care of and more elaborate in decoration. But the fences are higher. In Eastern Ukraine there is more openness both in literal space sense and in human relations, more of a communal spirit in contrast to a more private spirit of Western Ukraine. Castles were built in the west as strongholds in the struggle against invaders; in the east, the Great Steppe was both the source of danger and a place to hide. Characteristically, it was in the south-east of Ukraine that the freedom-loving Cossack community sprang up. It is claimed that the colors of Ukraine’s national flag — blue and yellow — were inspired by wheat fields of the steppe.
In my journey I observed a paradoxical unity in diversity — styles and colors of embroidery on shirts and decorative towels may be different, recipes of borsch and varenyky may differ, similar things may have different names but behind these superficial differences I discovered a solid national Ukrainian unity.
In Khotyn I found shelter for the night in a tower above a gate in the wall that surrounds an ancient castle. The panorama that opened from the top of the tower was truly breathtaking — the precipitous drop of many dozens of meters to the foot of the rocky hill on which the castle sits, mighty walls, the meandering Dnister River in the distance, bonfires of fishermen on the bank of the river, the full moon that illuminated the scenery…
Lying in my sleeping bag on the warm stones of the tower beneath the conical wooden roof, I listened to the stories of the night guard who had taken me there.(I had asked the permission of the director of the cultural-historical preserve, of which the castle is a part, to stay the night in the tower “for purely romantic reasons” and surprisingly enough such permission was granted). “They say that during the construction of the castle, a young and beautiful girl was immured live in one of the walls… Her spirit haunts the castle ever since… I myself was a witness to this. Once, a couple of other watchmen and me were having dinner in a room downstairs. It was a very still night. And in this stillness I heard a door creaking open. I turned around and saw the door to that room slowly swing open. I made the sign of the cross in the air and said a couple of strong curses. And what do you think happened next? The door shut all by itself! A couple of nights later, when I was on duty again, that same door opened again with the same creaking sound — and with no one to be seen pushing it open! We never had another dinner in that room again!”
When the watchman left and took with him his prattle, I felt relieved. No spirits paid me a visit during the night.
During my journey I had to sleep in different places. I had been advised that if I could not find a place to spend the night in somebody’s private house and no hotels or motels were to be found, then the best place to spend the night would be away from human settlements, in the depth of a forest, in a deep ravine or at a cemetery where footpads or muggers would be least likely to prowl around.
And I did spend quite a few nights at cemeteries. The locations were serenely quiet and prompted philosophical musings about the sense of life, God, afterlife and other such lofty subjects. On the cemetery gates I saw a number of inscriptions which amazed and amused me, and the one I saw somewhere in Zakarpattya was particularly arresting: “Passerby, take a look inside — we are at home, but are still outside.” I took a look but stayed only for the night, reserving a longer stay for the distant future.
I could not help reading inscriptions on the grave stones or tombs in the different cemeteries where I spent many a night, and many of such inscriptions were gravely philosophical, macabrely poetical or resurrectionally optimistic. One of the inscriptions said, “The one who lies here was not a sage, neither was he a hero — but he deserves your respect for having been a worthy human being among the living.”
End of journey
By the time I reached Chop, the easternmost point of my journey, the media had given enough coverage of my progress to turn my arrival there into a sort of a public event. The head of the local administration presented me with a watch; among other presents that I got from the locals were a small barrel of wine, a piece of excellent salo (hard pork fat), and a head of cheese — great things to celebrate the end of a long journey with.
I traveled a distance of about 2,000 kilometers, and it took me two months — June and July — of 2008 to do it.
I wanted to symbolically unite by the route I had traveled all the diverse parts of Ukraine I’d go across, and I witnessed the amazing cultural diversity in no less amazing cultural unity of the Ukrainian lands. And my memory was enormously enriched with the sights of the sun sinking behind the horizon of the endless steppe, by the waves of grasses and grains in the fields, by the sounds and fragrances of dense forests, by the placidity of mighty rivers, by the moon and stars smiling at me at night — and, of course, by the hospitality and friendliness of people I met.
I was fascinated with my native Land of Ukraine, I felt my belonging to it so much stronger than ever before.
The castle in Khotyn is reputed to be haunted.
A monument to Vladimir Dal’, complier of the first
big explanatory dictionary of the Russian language,
the city of Luhansk.
The castle in Khotyn is reputed to be haunted.
The Pysanka Museum in the town of Kolomyya.
A pit stop on the long journey.
A makeshift tent pitched on the bank of a river.