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Echoes from the past

 

Olena KRUSHYNSKA has recently traveled to Busha in the Land of Podillya to see what used to be a frontier fortress and now is just a village in Yampilsky Raion, Vinnytsya Oblast. She has discovered a lot that could make Busha a great tourist attraction.

The Village of Busha is situated in the forested valley between the Rivers Murafa and Bushanka, several kilometers away from the place where these small rivers empty into the River Dnister. Across the Dnister lies Moldova, the state Ukraine borders on in south-east.

Busha is an out-of-the-way place with no major highway running anywhere close, but in the seventeenth century Busha was a well-fortified stronghold. There was a castle built in the sixteenth century that stood on a hill rising between two rivers — Murafa and Bushanka. When I stood on that hill and looked around what I saw was a very peaceful landscape with nothing to suggest that three hundred and fifty years ago it was a place that saw fierce fighting with a lot of blood spilled. Only one defensive tower and remains of an ancient gate are the only things left to remind us of the place’s violent history.

In 1654, during the War of Independence in which the Ukrainian Cossacks led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky fought against the Poles, the town of Mohyliv-Podilsky, which was nearest then to Busha, was captured by the Polish army. A considerable number of the defenders managed to escape and they retreated to Busha. The Poles followed them and besieged the fortress of Busha. The stronghold proved to be really strong — for several months the fortress withstood all the attacks and the many attempts to capture it failed. In November 1654, the besiegers were reinforced by a 60,000 strong Polish army which arrived at Busha, and the defenders who did not expect any help from anywhere, realized that they were unlikely to survive the forthcoming massive assaults. But they still resolved to fight. The two commanders of the Cossack forces in Busha, Colonel Hrechka and Sotnyk (a military rank in the Cossack army that could be compared to Captain) Zavysny died fighting, and the command was taken up by Maryana, Zavysny’s widow.

The Poles managed to empty the moat that surrounded the fortress and it made it possible for them to launch an overpowering attack that ended in storming the fortress. In the conflagration that spread through the fortress, many women and their children died, but the defenders never stopped fighting preferring death in battle to surrender and captivity. Maryana retreated to the cellar packed with gun powder and blew herself up, dying together with many assailants. About seventy women with children managed to escape from the burning fortress and they hid in a nearby fortress. The Poles who spotted them fleeing, followed but were stopped by gunfire from the cave. Not wishing to risk any more of their lives, the Poles destroyed the dykes and had the cave flooded. All in all, about 16,000 defenders and dwellers of Busha died then — in fact, no one survived (Ukrainian writer Mykhailo Starytsky, 1840–1904, described the events of the seventeenth century in Busha in his novel Obloha Bushi — Siege of Busha, and in his play Oborona Bushi — Defense of Busha).

As I said, the only surviving witness of those tragic events is a defensive tower which in the eighteenth century was turned into a bell tower when a wooden church was built right next to it. When I visited the place in 2002, it still had the feel of a survivor of turbulent times, but on my recent visit I was disappointed to discover that the walls had been painted and the roof was covered with plastic instead of the old tiles.

Oleksandr Pirnyak, director of what is called “State Historical and Cultural Preserve Busha” told me that there had been a fire in the tower and during the restoration work the walls had been painted and the roof given “a better protection against the elements.” I did not think it was a good idea to paint the old stone walls — the paint killed the authentic, historical appearance. Mr Pirnyak sort of agreed with me but explained that he wanted shingles rather than plastic for the roof, but the company that had been commissioned by the state authorities to do the restoration work did not have shingles and refused to buy them. During the restoration though, a wooden gallery was built round the top of the tower — “there must have been a gallery of such a kind in the seventeenth century”.

The director also complained that the local Orthodox Christian community that belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate caused him a lot of headache by demanding that they be given the right to build a church next to the tower. Mr Pirnyak argued that a new church would be incompatible with the architecture of the tower but he lost the legal battle and the construction of the church had already begun.

Sculptors

In 1986, a group of local culture enthusiasts (among them Mr Pirnyak) organized an open-air sculpture workshop which was aimed at reestablishing traditions of using local sandstone, for which the area is famous for, in making sculpture and also in making a lot of other things, like millstones, blocks for masonry and even all sorts of local charms. Since then, such workshops, which were christened Podilsky oberih — Podillya’s Protective Charm, have been held annually. Incidentally, the stone quarried locally is used for building houses, barns and fences.

Dozens of sculptors from all over Ukraine have already visited and worked in Busha, creating over a hundred artistic works. The sculptors are inspired by ancient and more recent history, myths and by their imagination to create their works, in which one can see pagan and Christian motifs; some works are quite realistic, others are fanciful and even bizarre. The sculptors have carved a number of crosses in commemoration of the tragic events of 1654.

In Busha I discovered graves that date from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The crosses at these graves differ one from another in style and in shape. Some of the gravestones are of curious shapes which hardly resemble a cross at all. I tried to make out what the carved inscriptions on the crosses and gravestones say but failed — they were too worn out by time and weather; besides, it would take a specialist in paleography to read many of them even if they had been better preserved.

Archeologists conduct their excavations in Busha, with students of archeology coming over to gain their first taste of, and experience in archeological digging. Some artifacts that have already been dug up date from the third millennium BC and are believed to date from the ancient Trypillya culture. I was shown the unearthed remains of the houses of the Trypillya people settlement including the remnants of a hearth. Mr Pirnyak showed me ceramic shards which are also believed to be artifacts of the Trypillya culture.

There is a sort of a local ethnographic museum in Busha — a reconstructed peasant house presents both in its interior and exterior the typical features of an ancient place with typical decorations, kitchen and tableware, a cradle and a lot more. In the yard of the house-museum one can see millstones and other things which are made from local stone. A reconstruction-model of Busha shows how the place could have looked like in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the fortress was still intact.

A cave with a relief

In the vicinity of Busha I was shown a cave which must have been used in the pre-Christian times as a pagan shrine and later, after the adoption of Christianity was evidently used as a cave church.

This fact alone would have made the cave a tourist attraction but there is also something else that adds a bit of a mystery to the cave — it’s a relief on one of the walls of the cave the symbolic meaning of which has failed to be explained so far.

The path to the cave is lined with sculptures which have been created during the Podilsky oberih sculptors’ workshop gatherings — pagan gods and goddesses, and fabulous animals. Right at the entrance to the cave there stands a stone gateway with the stylized representations of the sun and the moon. The entrance is under lock and key — “it’s a protection against the vandals and marauding amateur archeologists,” explained Mr Pirnyak.

The cave is about 14 meters (over 45 feet) in length, about 3 meters (about 10 feet) in height and about 4 (over 12 feet) meters at the widest place. On the eastern wall of the cave I saw the enigmatic relief I had come to look at — a bare tree, a bird on one of the branches, a man in profile on his knees, his hands held up in prayer, and a deer. There are also hardly visible traces of some words in a rectangular cartouche — no one has come up yet with any plausible ideas about the representations on the wall or the possible meaning of the practically erased text. The theories range from attributing the relief to the Trypillya culture people to dismissing it as a rather recent someone’s joke.

The cave and its relief were first described in a scholarly publication by Professor V. Antonovych who dated the relief to the pre-Christian times. Later dates varied from very early to the late medieval times but there is still no consensus about the relief among the scholars.

There are carved graffiti that can be seen in various places on the walls of the cave. One of them, in Polish, reads: Ta jaskina odkryta przez W. Romualda Ostoya Owsanjego r. 1824, which means: This cave was discovered by Romuald Ostoy Owsani in the year 1824. Prof. Antonovych wrote that he had heard a local story which described Romuald as a landowner who cruelly mistreated his serfs who one day rebelled; Romuald escaped from the peasants’ wrath and hid in the cave but later was found hanged in it.

One of the other graffiti, also in Polish, mentions the date: June 3 1524, but little else. The cave keeps its secrets and maybe it only increases its tourist value.

Forests and quiet

The village of Busha is surrounded by forested hills and ravines overgrown with shrubs. One of the ravines, Haydamatsky Hay, is rather like a canyon, with rock outcroppings which can be glimpsed here and there through the tree crowns. The rocks in many places have been modeled over the centuries by the elements to resemble chimerical creatures; one rock looks like a huge mushroom; column-like rock shapes made me think of an ancient temple.

The River Bushanka, which is rather a rivulet than a full-fledged river, runs along the length of the ravine. At one place I discovered a rock which is called Hontiv kamin. According to the local lore one of the Haydamaky (eighteenth-century rebels) leaders, Ivan Honta, used to sit on that rock that sticks out of the water in the middle of the stream. I did spend some time sitting on it too, trying to figure out what Honta might be thinking centuries ago. On the other side of the stream, there is another cave, also called Haydamatska.

Busha and its environs have a natural charm which is a great attraction in itself. The quiet of the places like Haydamatsky Hay, pierced only by the burbling of the water in the rivulet and chirping of birds, puts one into a meditative mood. There is something of a temple in it, “ a green temple.”

In Busha you can join a guided tour or stay for several days. Four private houses which have bathrooms with shower and a kitchen, are rented to tourists; the houses can accommodate up to 30 tourists at a time. For more information you can call + 38 (04336) 26190. 

 

This rock is called Vysyacha — The Hanging One; chimerical shapes of the rocks were created by the winds over the millennia.

 

Recent archeological finds which are believed to be artifacts from the times of the Trypillya culture displayed on the desk of the director of the Reserve.

 

Stone crosses that date from the 18th and 19th centuries at the graveyard.

 

Oleksandr Pirnyak, director of the Reserve, looking at the model of the ancient Busha.

 

This relief was discovered over a hundred years ago, but until today there is no consensus among historians and archeologists as to its meaning.

 

Modern sculptures can be seen in many places in Busha.

 

The tower after the restoration.

The tower before the restoration.

 

Photos by the author

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