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A visit to the field of the Battle of Poltava

 

The Ukrainian city of Poltava has a lot to offer a culture or general tourist. It happens to be situated close to a place where, on June 27 1709, the combined forces of the Swedish King Charles XII and the Ukrainian forces of Hetman Ivan Mazepa, fought a decisive battle with the Russian forces of the Tsar Peter I. These days, in 2009, this battle seems to be a dominant theme in Poltava.

Dmytro ANTONYUK went to Poltava to investigate how dominant that theme really is.

 

I arrived in Poltava early in the morning by train. I planned to leave back to Kyiv by a late-night train, and thus I had the whole day to explore Poltava and its environs. In case I found one day was not enough I could stay for another day.

I had maps and tourist guidebooks to help me with my tourist exploration of the place. Instead of taking a bus, I walked from the railroad station to the center of town along Zinkivski Street to take a look at the chapel which was built in 1914in commemoration of the 1709 Battle. It took me some time to find the chapel among the nondescript and uniformly looking apartment houses  and I was glad I did. The murals on the exterior walls of the chapel are in need of restoration, but even in the state they are in they are rather impressive. One of the marble plaques on the facade informed me that the chapel was built after a visit of His Imperial Majesty Nicholas II to Poltava in June 1914. Surprisingly enough, in spite of the Russian Imperial spirit that must have been the guiding force behind the erection of the chapel, the chapel bears typical features of the Ukrainian style of architecture of the early twentieth century. There is even a black marble cross standing behind the chapel with this inscription in Ukrainian (which can be translated as): Eternal Glory to the Cossacks Who Died in the Field of Poltava in the Year 1709. The tsarist regime of Nicholas II must have been very liberal indeed  to have a cross erected to the perished Cossacks! Though, of course, there were some Cossacks who fought on the Russian side as well, but there is no reference in the inscription to the side on which the Cossacks fought!

The very center of the central square of Poltava is occupied by a monument which was erected a hundred years after the Battle of Poltava and naturally it glorifies the Russian victory  the gilded eagle with a gilded laurel wreath above and the muzzles of the captured Swedish cannons beneath were designed by the then well-known sculptor de Tomon (there are several architectural and sculptural landmarks of his design to be seen in St Petersburg). I saw people relaxing on these guns  they did not seem to be in awe either of the monument or of the victory. A dance hall For Those Who Are Over 60 is situated actually next door to the monument  another chip off the faded pomposity.

Not far from the center is a church of the seventeenth century, Spaska (Saviors). In fact, the church dates from some earlier times. It was a wooden structure which was cocooned in brick in the seventeenth century to preserve it from ruination. Close by is another monument that stands on the site of a building (it belonged to a wealthy Cossack, Mahdenko), in which Tsar Peter I stayed after the battle. The inscription on the monument that dates from 1849, confirms the story of Peters short rest. A special religious service, celebrating the victory and praying for the Russian dead was held in the Spaska Church nearby. In 1994, another monument  to somewhat redress the balance  was erected in the same vicinity. The granite cross commemorates the Perished Ukrainian Cossacks. But there is no reference to which Cossacks  those who fought with Mazepa against the Russians, or those who fought with the Russians against Charles and Mazepa.

There are plans to have a monument to Mazepa built in Poltava. If the plans are carried out  financing is a problem, then it will be the first full-sized monument to Mazepa in Ukraine (there is a small bust of Mazepa in the village of Mazepyntsi in the Land of Kyivshchyna, and a memorial stone in Kyiv). The monument  if built  will stand close to the recently rebuilt Church of Assumption. I did not see any evidence of a monument being built but I did see that work was going on to rebuild one of the towers of the Poltava Fortress which had taken the full brunt of the Swedish attacks on Poltava.

In the same neighborhood, locally known as Ivanova Hora, I saw monuments and sights totally unrelated to the Battle or its consequences. One of such monuments is the one dedicated to the famous Poltava Halushkas (Dumplings)  a huge wooden plate with granite halushkas in it, complete with a spoon of the enormous size. People love to have their or their kids pictures taken among these dumplings. I found the gastronomic monument very refreshing and very peaceful. There is a museum of the Ukrainian author of the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century Ivan Kotlyarevsky (best known for his long poem Eneyida, a humoristic Ukrainian remake of Virgils Aeneid) which also provides a nice respite from the military themes of the Battle.

From the top of Ivanova Hora I enjoyed a wonderful panorama of Poltava and of the River Vorskla (some eyesores, like industrial smokestacks, do not actually spoil too much the general fine view).

In the distance I could make out Monastyrska Hora (Monastery Hill), from the top of which Charles XII conducted the  unsuccessful  siege of Poltava. According to the local legend, it was there, near the walls of an ancient monastery, that a shot from a Cossack rifle hit the king in the leg, and this wound prevented Charles from thinking straight  and thus it led to his defeat. I heard of plans to have a monument to the king erected on Monastyrska Hora or elsewhere, but it seems its rather rumors than actual plans.

Before I proceeded to the field where the Battle played out, I took a brief look at still another monument commemorating the Battle of Poltava. It stands on the nearby hill  a tall granite stele with a gilt bronze lion at its foot commemorates the commander of the bastion, Oleksiy Kelin, whose bastion and its defenders withstood the Swedish attacks. Some of the more gullible locals believe that rubbing the lions tail will make you happy. I did rub it  and Im still waiting for the promised happiness to descend upon me.

 

The field

The field where the decisive events of the famous battle took place is situated on the northern outskirts of the city. The first monument that I spotted there came as a sort of a surprise for me  it is a monument erected by the Russians in commemoration of the Swedish soldiers who died in battle: Eternal Glory to the Swedish Warriors Who Fell in the Battle of Poltava on June 27 1709. I cant quite imagine a similar monument, erected, say, to the memory of the German soldiers who died in the Battle of Kyiv in November 1943 (when Kyiv was liberated from the Nazi occupation).

There are several obelisks in the field that mark the position of Russian redoubts; the local museum came as a nice surprise too  frankly, I expected it be a typical soviet-style affair, but it had been renovated, reorganized and modified in 2005, and now this museum is on the list of the UNESCO International Organization of Military History Museums. Among the exhibits one sees the sword of Charles XII and the jacket of Peter I  but no personal things of Mazepa. The museum owns a fair number of pictures and artifacts that are related to the Battle of Poltava, but it is not only the 1709 Battle that the museum is devoted to. There were two other battles that had once been fought here which had an impact on the history of Ukraine. In 1399, the combined Lithuanian and Ukrainian forces were defeated on that very same field by the invading Tartars, and in 1658, the Cossacks of Hetman Ivan Vyhovsky dealt a crushing blow to the rebels of the pro-Moscow local governor (Martyn Pushkar, who supported the Russian cause rather than the Ukrainian one, led the rebellion and died in the battle).

In 1944, this field was used as an airstrip by US bombers (at that time the USA and the Soviet Union were allies in a joint struggle against Nazi Germany) which were engaged in the bombing operations against the Nazis in northern Italy.

I was somewhat upset by the very conspicuous bronze Tsar Peter that stands in front of the museum  I cant help remembering that it was after the Battle of Poltava of 1709 that Ukraine had been robbed of all the vestiges of autonomy by Peter and his successors on the Russian throne.

The chapel at the common grave of the Russian soldiers has been restored; there is also a cross at the spot where Peter was reported to have cried out, Know that I am prepared to give my life so that Russia will live! From what we know of the events of the battle there seems to be no moment when Peters life was in actual danger. He had a great superiority in the number of troops over the Swedes  80,000 against 26,000 of Mazepas and Charles forces.

Not far from the grave of the Russian soldiers I saw the Sampsoniyivska Chruch, built in 1852, and recently restored, and a building which housed the first museum of the Battle in 1909.

Among other monuments at the battle field I think I should mention a monument which was erected by the Swedes in 1909 in commemoration of the Swedes who had died in battle. But I did not see a single monument to any of the Ukrainian Cossacks who fought against the Russian troops. Didnt they fight for Ukraines independence?

 

Photos by the author

 

The commemorative events to be held in June 2009 are planned to include: the unveiling of the Arc of Reconciliation; re-enactment of the Battle; unveiling of the reconstructed redoubts and other restored monuments connected with the Battle of Poltava; all sorts of festivals which include celebrations of the Poltava Halushkas and cooking contests, and a lot of beer drinking. There will be guards of honor at the most important sites, wearing historical uniforms and dresses of the Cossacks, Russians and Swedes. Im planning to go to Poltava to be there on June 27 2009.

 

Monument of Military Glory at Kruhla Square

in Poltava.

 

The site of one of the redoubts at the field when

the battle of Poltava was fought.

 

In one of the halls of Poltava Battle Museum.

 

The 17th-century Church of the Savior.

 

The Khrestovozdvyzhensky Monastery where

Charles XII had his headquarters.

 

The monument at the site where Peter I rested

after the battle.

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