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In an Aura of Culture and Ease

 

The city of Chernivtsi, with a population of about 252 thousand people, is situated in western Ukraine, and is the administrative and cultural center of Ukrainian Bukovyna. The city is known for its architecture, for its bohemian atmosphere and for its friendly and tolerant people.

 

Chernivtsi is a place where the cabmen used to discuss lofty subjects, where the sidewalks used to be swept with brooms made of roses, and where there used to be more bookstores than coffee houses.

Georg Heinzen, a German journalist

 

The city of Chernivtsi, with a population of about 252 thousand people, is situated in western Ukraine, and is the administrative and cultural center of Ukrainian Bukovyna. The city is known for its architecture, for its bohemian atmosphere and for its friendly and tolerant people.

Chernivtsi was once dubbed Little Vienna and Jerusalem upon the Prut. There must have been a good reason to earn such dubbings. The city remains to be attractive in many of its aspects, its architecture of many epochs that displays many styles among them.

Why Little Vienna? Obviously because of its architecture. Why Jerusalem upon the Prut? Because of its rather numerous Jewish community at a certain time of the citys development, and the Prut is the river that runs through the cityscape.

Archeological evidence unearthed in Chernivtsi and in the surrounding area suggests that it had been inhabited as long ago as in the Neolithic times. Slavs must have settled there prior to the ninth century CE. There was a fortified settlement located on the left bank shore of Prut which probably dates back to the early medieval time. Legendary accounts refer to this fortress-city as Chern, or Black City hence, supposedly, the name of the city.

Throughout its long history, the city found itself under various rulers. The first written mention of the city dates from 1408, when it was ruled by the Moldavian Prince Alexander the Good. Later, Chernivtsi was captured by the Turks, and the Turks ceded it to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Under the Austrians, the city began to be built up with much more sophisticated housing.

After the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, it was the turn of Rumania to control Bukovyna and Chernivtsi in it. In June 1940, a part of Bukovyna was occupied by the soviet troops (the other part of Bukovyna is still a part of Rumania).

Until 1991, Bukovyna was technically a part of the Soviet Union since Ukraine was one of the soviet republics. After Ukraines independence, the Ukrainian part of Bukovyna is administratively located in Chernivtsi Oblast.

 

Architecture in Chernivtsi

Under the Austrian rule, the builders of stone and brick houses were exempted from taxes for thirty years. The streets were paved with cobblestones which are still there, more than a hundred years old.

The architects and builders of much more recent times try to make sure that the new buildings fit the general architectural style of the city, though of course that does not mean they slavishly follow the design patters of the past.

There are quite a few architectural landmarks that Chernivtsi can rightfully be proud of. Among them are the Chernivtsi University (1882; a former residence of the Metropolitans of Bukovyna); the Chernivtsi Music and Drama Theater (1905); the Regional Museum of Fine Arts (1900; formerly a savings bank); the 1906 Palace of Justice (now used as a seat of the regional administration), and the Jewish National House built in 1908 (now a culture center).

When Chernivsti was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it shared much of the empires culture, architecture included. Among many architectural styles one finds reflected in the citys appearance are Vienna Secession and Neoclassicism. Motifs of Baroque, late Gothic architecture, of traditional Moldavian, Hungarian, as well as of Byzantine architecture and of other styles make their appearance in the architectural design and decor of many buildings.

However, the main architectural attraction of the city is probably the ensemble of buildings that currently house the State University of Chernivtsi. It was built in 18641882. The Czech architect Josef Hlavka was commissioned to do the design for the residence of the local metropolitan. He incorporated into his design elements of Byzantine, Romanesque and of later architectural styles, including those that reflected the local Bukovyna traditional styles (for example, the tile roof patterns resemble the geometric designs of traditional Ukrainian embroidery). The Chernivtsi community wants this architectural complex to be put on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Josef Hlavka also designed a church for the Armenian community of Chernivtsi but after Bukovyna was joined by force to the Soviet Union, the soviet authorities closed the church down. In more recent times the church was used as a music hall. An organ was installed and organ music was played at classical music concerts. After Ukraines independence, the Armenian community was allowed to hold religious services in the church which was partially restored.

Teatralna ploshcha (Theater Square) got its name from the theater that stands there. It was opened in 1905 and was named for Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (17591805, a German leading romanticist, best known for his historical plays and for his long, didactic poems). Two architects from Vienna, Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, well known for their designs of theaters built in Vienna, Paris and Odesa in Ukraine, provided the design for the theater in Chernivtsi. The monument to Schiller that was erected near the theater, was removed in the soviet times and another monument was installed. The Ukrainian woman writer Olha Kobylyanska (18631942), who was educated at a German-language school in Chernivtsi, was honored with this monument and with the theater being renamed after her.

The Building of Ratusha, City Hall, is also among Chernivtsis architectural landmarks. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century and has ever since been the seat of the local government, no matter what state the city belonged to, or what political power ruled it. In keeping with an old tradition, at twelve oclock sharp, a trumpeter appears on the City Halls tower, wearing the traditional Bukovyna dress, and plays a popular tune to announce the midday.

 

Co-existence of cultures

Chernivtsi is a city where many cultures have peacefully coexisted. Historically, the city was very multinational. From 1870 to the Second World War, Jews were one of the biggest population groups of Czernowitz as it was called then. In 1930, according to the Romanian census, the population of the city was made up of Jews, Romanians, Germans, Ukrainians, and Russians, and of other quite small ethnic groups.

According to the census of 2001, the population of Chernivtsi was approximately 236,700 people and was made up of 65 ethnic groups, among whom eighty percent were Ukrainians, followed by Russians, Romanians, Moldavians, Poles and Jews.

The people of Chernivtsi were and are very tolerant. Each ethnic-group community spoke its own language but this Babel of languages did not create much of a problem since many people were multilingual. Even the street sweepers and policemen were if not fluent but able to communicate in several languages. The motto of the city, By Joint Effort (meaning: By joint effort we can achieve a lot) was embroidered on the city flag which was hoisted at the City Hall building in 1908 when the city celebrated its 500th anniversary.

The bohemian atmosphere, for which the city used to be known, is not as apparent now as it used to be, but music, poetry and art festivals help revive such atmosphere at least for the duration of the festivals.

One of the central streets of Chernivtsi, which used to be called Pancake (the name could be rendered into English as Genteel, did reflect the atmosphere of the street) and which is now named after Olha Kobylyanska, is closed for traffic. People take leisurely strolls, sip coffee in many cafes situated there. The street creates a relaxed mood of unhurried leisure.

Quite a few literati, political and cultural figures were born, lived or worked in Chernivtsi in the past hundred and fifty years. The list is truly a long one, so just a few are mentioned: Paul Celan and Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger; the Vienna Secession artist Oskar Laske; Romanian national poet Mihai Eminescu; the Yiddish actress Sidi Tal; the novelist Aharon Appelfeld; the Ukrainian writers Yury Fedkovych and Olha Kobylyanska; among more recent figures the former Speaker of the Parliament Arseniy Yatsenyuk; the first President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk; the singers Dmytro Hnatyuk, Nazariy Yaremchuk and Sofiya Rotaru; the composer Volodymyr Ivasyuk and the legendary figure of the Ukrainian cinema actor and director Ivan Mykolaychuk surely deserve to be mentioned.

Chernivtsis culture continues to be vibrant and variegated, and it affects the general tenor of life in this attractive city of Western Ukraine.

 

 

 

 

The buildings of the Chernivtsi State University
named after Yury Fedkovych.

 

This building now houses Art Museum.

 

The newlyweds are waiting to take a ride.

 

The Olha Kobylyanska Drama and Music Theater at night.

 

 

Based on an essay by Iryna Vyshnevska

Photos by Mykola Ivashchenko

 

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