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Exotic landmarks of Ukraine
Olena Krushynska’s latest report continues her series of articles about unusual, odd or even bizarre architectural landmarks in the villages and towns of Ukraine.
Life after Death
Inthe vicinity of the town of Khust in Zakarpattya there are four wooden churches in the architectural style which is peculiar only to that area of Ukraine (this style is known as ÒmarmorosÕka gotykaÓ; the churches are located in Sokyrnytsya, Kraynikove, Danylove and Oleksandrivka). There used to be five such churches but the fifth, the oldest and the most interesting from the architectural point of view in the village of Steblivka, burned down in August of 1994. The Church Rizdva Bohorodytsi was dedicated to the Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary) and dated from the sixteenth century. In later centuries it was partly rebuilt but being made of wood the church had one fatal flaw — timber of which it was made. A wooden church is inflammable and once it catches fire it is pretty difficult to put this fire out.
The charred ruins of the church can still be seen in Steblivka (the village used to be called Saldobosha). It is a depressing and sorry sight which, for some reason, recalled in my mind an image of the wreck of a very ancient, Biblical ship (visitors to the village who are unaware of what they may see are in for a mild shock). The upper part of the church was completely destroyed but the parts that have withstood the ravages of fire, and later of rain and snow, continue to be very impressive in their solidity and defiance of the elements. In summer time, the ruins look like remnants of an unknown civilization.
The area around of what used to be a proud and tall church, and the inner part of the ruins are abundantly overgrown with weeds and young trees. The blackened logs scattered around look like trunks of fallen trees. Those who risk to prowl among the ruins — one must be careful! — discover to their amazement that the stone altar is still in place. According to Orthodox Christian tradition, it means that the site retains its status of a church!
The exterior walls do not bear as many signs of a devastating fire as the “interior”. One can see wooden crosses nailed to the walls (it’s a local tradition to nail wooden crosses to the walls of churches in memory of the deceased) and other things which have survived the fire. Among these things are several inscriptions carved into the wood which is covered in many places by moss. After my initial shock wore out, I realized that the tall grass, wild flowers and young trees in and around the ruins create an impression of these ruins being bizarre creations of nature itself.
The church used to have a bell tower standing next to it, but first it was moved to a different place and later it was demolished altogether. But the bells were preserved and installed on a bell tower elsewhere. I saw those bells. They carry inscriptions which inform the onlooker about the place they were cast at and the masters who created them. One of the bells was given the name of Mykhal.
There is an old photograph taken when the church was still undamaged. There was indeed something Gothic in its appearance, probably thanks to a tall spire surrounded by four domes. The spire and the domes were crowned with crosses. The style of some of the architectural elements of the church — the galleries and carving in them, for example — was evidently borrowed from the local peasant houses.
The fire destroyed mostly those parts which were added at the end of the eighteenth century but the most ancient, lower parts of the church made of age-old timber withstood the fury of the fire.
Looking at the remains of the church I wished they would not succumb to the inclemency of the weather and human negligence for a long time to come.
According to the local tradition, wooden crosses were
nailed to the walls of the church in commemoration
of those who were buried in the churchyard.
Photo from an old postcard that gives an idea what
the church in Steblivka looked like before the fire.
A Giant of a School
Inthe small town of Khyriv, which is situated in western Ukraine, about ten miles from the border with Poland, I saw a chimerical architectural complex of a gigantic size. My inquiries about it produced the following results.
In 1880, two Poles, Henryk Jakowiecky and Marian Morowsky from Krakow bought a stretch of land in the vicinity of Khyriv (at that time, administratively Khyriv was still part of Poland, the country was then divided between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires), on which they built a boarding school of a new type. The construction, which began in 1881, was completed only in 1906. The gigantic school building contained 327 rooms and halls, 1980 meters of corridors; it had its own water tower (which is still in use), its electric power station, its own hospital and a printing press. The school could enroll up to 600 students (during the First World War, the school was turned into a hospital with 4,000 beds; for comparison, the present-day population of Khyriv is about 4,600 people).
After the war, Khyriv stayed in Poland and the school in Khyriv proved to be the most advanced school of its type in Poland. On the faculty were more than 30 professors; the school’s library contained over 30,000 books; the geographical laboratory had an excellent collection of maps and other teaching and visual aids; the chemical lab was equipped at the then cutting edge of chemical technology; the school had an astronomical laboratory, a biological laboratory, an art gallery, a music hall, a gym, four tennis courts, eight sports grounds and a botanical garden (I’m afraid there is not a single secondary school in Ukraine now that can boast such an impressive list of teaching aids, labs and the rest of it in its possession). It was an all-male school, and senior students were given some basic military training.
In 1939, when Khyriv together with all the lands of western Ukraine were joined to the Soviet Union by the force of arms, the school was turned into a military base.
The Soviet Union is no more. The school is dead; both the older buildings and the newer ones built by the soviets, have long been abandoned and left to a slow disintegration. I was surprised to find that all the doors were locked. The local church, which was built by the Jesuits at the time when the school was constructed (it was the Jesuits who ran the school), and which remains to be a Catholic one, has been recently restored and services are conducted by a Catholic priest.
A bird’s eye view of the gigantic architectural
complex in Khyriv (photo from an old postcard).
A Church as a Target at the Firing Range
Inthe land of Lvivshchyna I saw a sight which reminded me a picture by Salvador Dali — there stands a church at a secluded place with not a single village or town within many miles around it — or rather what has remained of a church.
The magnificent Church of Archangel Michael used to be an architectural landmark. The religious services were attended mostly by the faithful from the village of Velyka Vyshenka
In 1940, the vast area of Halychyna was turned into an artillery range, one of the biggest of its kind in Europe. To accommodate the range, 170 villages and hamlets were raised to the ground; 40,000 houses were destroyed; 150,000 people who used to live in them were deported, many of them straight to the concentration camps.
Later, after the Second World War, people began to return to their native places; they built houses and tried to reestablish their vegetable gardens. But in 1950, the soviet authorities rounded up all those who had returned. and moved them elsewhere, promising to “recoup their losses.” Promises were never fulfilled.
The firing range was used by field artillery and tanks — the targets were abandoned houses, churches and even cemeteries — 18 churches were thus destroyed, plus 18 cemeteries. One church has partially survived — the Church of Archangel Michael. On June 1 2008 a religious service was held at this church in commemoration of the victims — human and architectural — of the atrocious acts of barbaric vandalism, deportations and massive loss of lives.
Incredibly, the firing range continues to be used but the surviving remains of the church are no longer a target. A group of human rights activists insist that the church be turned into a memorial of the crimes of totalitarianism.
Photos by the author.