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From Backwoods to Capital – and Back

 

There is a provincial town in Ukraine which boasts a very long history and the glory of having been the capital of Ukrainian hetmans, Cossack rulers of Ukraine. Andriy VLASENKO, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, an inveterate traveler and a great enthusiast of Ukrainian culture, probes into Hlukhiv’s past and takes a look at its present.

 

The word “Hlukhiv” evokes unfortunate associations in the mind of Ukrainian speakers with the words “hlukho,” or “hlukhy” which mean “deaf” or “backwoods” — not a happy name for a town. The nineteenth-century poet Taras Shevchenko, who must have been misled by the “boondocks” name, called Hlukhiv “a provincial, dead hole.” With all due respect for the classic, I felt he might have been wrong in his harsh assessment, and I decided to take a look at Hlukhiv myself.

Before I set out, I did some research into its history, and armed with the historical knowledge I drove to Hlukhiv, which is situated north-east of Kyiv (in Sumska Oblast), not too far from the border with Russia. Incidentally, it was this proximity that helped the meteoric rise of Hlukhiv to the status of a capital. Throughout its history, Ukraine had several capitals – Kyiv, Trakhtemyriv, Chyhyryn, Baturyn, Hlukhiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv again, and Hlukhiv fits this company well, even though there is very little left in it that reminds its inhabitants and visitors of its former glory.

 

Early history

Archeological evidence suggests that there was a settlement at the site where Hlukhiv now stands as long ago as the second century BC. So the continuous history of Hlukhiv (though this name the town acquired in later times) stretches for over two millennia. The first mention of Hlukhiv in the Eastern Slavic chronicles dates to the year 1152. The excavations conducted in 2002–2005 revealed artifacts and pieces of building materials which definitely point to having come from the remains of a church. It was to Hlukhiv that the cathedral of the Bishop of Chernihiv was moved after the devastating Mongol invasions of the late 1230s and early 1240s. For some reason, the invaders spared Hlukhiv which did not suffer a major destruction the way many other Ukrainian cities did.

In the early fourteenth century, Hlukhiv found itself within the boundaries of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The town began to grow and prosper but the growth was put an end to in 1352 when Hlukhiv was hit by the first wave of Black Death (outbreak of bubonic plague that struck Europe and the Mediterranean area from 1347 through 1351; it was the first of a cycle of European plague epidemics that continued until the early 18th century). In the words of the then chronicler, “not a single living soul was left there, all the people died.” Some of the inhabitants though, the local ruler and his family among them, fled the town in time and thus survived.

 

Later times

It was only in the seventeenth century that Hlukhiv emerged on the historical scene again. It became a serious bone of contention between the rivaling powers — Rzecz Pospolita (Polish Commonwealth), Ukrainian Cossacks and Muscovy. By 1635, the Poles had the upper hand and Hlukhiv became the center of Novhorod-Siversky Povit (povit — administrative division). Hlukhiv was granted the Magdeburg Law and was turned into a fortress. During the years 1648–1654, when the War of Independence, led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, was at its height, Hlukhiv was held by the Cossacks, but it fell later into the Russian hands.

For several decades, Ukraine retained an autonomous status and Hlukhiv enjoyed a period of construction boom. Many churches, stone and brick as well as wooden, were built (with only the Mykolayivska Church of 1693 still standing). Cossack leaders had spacious mansions built for themselves. In 1702, a Russian traveler, not an admirer of Ukraine but evidently rather an objective observer, wrote after his visit to Hlukhiv: “There are many inhabitants in it who are rich and who are lords, and the buildings in it are quite ornate… there are many stone churches too; the khokhly (Russian disparaging term for Ukrainians) are rogues but they know how to build palatial houses… there is no other town like Hlukhiv among Malorosiya towns (Malorosiya — Little Russia — the belittling Russian term for Ukraine)… The buildings and life in Hlukhiv are better than in Kiev…”

The imperialist Russia kept expanding its boundaries; Ukraine’s autonomy was shrinking fast. In 1707, the Swedish king Charles XII invaded Russia and marched on to Ukraine, where the then Hetman of Ukraine, Ivan Mazepa who had earlier sworn allegiance to the Russian tsar, joined the Swedes with a small army of Cossacks in a bid to win independence for Ukraine with the help of the Swedish king (the attempt failed — the Swedish army was defeated in 1709 and Mazepa fled to die abroad).

On November 12 1708, the representatives of the Russian tsar had an effigy of “that villain and traitor Mazepa” burned at the central square of Hlukhiv. Hlukhiv was proclaimed the capital of Ukraine instead of Baturyn, Mazepa’s capital (Baturyn, after a fierce battle, had been captured by the Russian troops; the inhabitants had been put to the sword and the town burned down). A number of Cossack defenders of Baturyn who had been captured alive, were executed in Hlukhiv on the same day. Several days later, “Anathema to the traitor”, that is Hetman Mazepa, was read out in the churches of Hlukhiv (incidentally, Mazepa had lavishly donated money for the construction of churches).

Hlukhiv remained the capital where the three hetmans — Ivan Skoropadsky, Danylo Apostol and Kyryl Rozumovsky, Mazepa’s successors, resided in the eighteenth century. All of them were elected to hetmanship in Hlukhiv under the watchful eye of the Russian rulers. The last hetmans felt their precarious position and did not like Hlukhiv too much but obediently prettified and did a lot to give it the feel of a capital. Construction of palaces, mansions, churches and schools flourished. The hetmans and their courts indulged in banqueting and having a good time rather than in war. The inhabitants of Hlukhiv had their modest share of fun too.

Of the churches that were built in the eighteenth century in Hlukhiv two have survived — the Spaso-Preobrazhenska (1765) and the Voznesenska (1767), though they have gone through considerable reconstructions.

It was in Hlukhiv, in 1729, that a school for training singers for church choirs was established — the first music school in Ukraine. Church choir singing was Hlukhiv’s “forte.” The school also trained musicians to play the violin and national instruments like bandura and husli. The school’s students sang in the Mykolayivska Church, and were obliged to attend chamber music concerts, as part of their musical training, at Hetman Rozumovsky’s court. Each year, ten best graduates were sent to St Petersburg to sing in the Imperial court’s choir or to play in the Imperial court’s orchestra.

Among the prominent Ukrainians who studied at least for some time in Hlukhiv was the philosopher Hryhory Skovoroda, who, in his young years, using a pseudonym (Hrytsko), wrote a Cherubs’ Song for the Liturgy, which remains one of the best such songs created by a Ukrainian.

Hlukhiv’s traditions of choral singing nourished the achievement of two composers, Maksym Berezovsky (see an article about Berezovsky) and Dmytro Bortnyansky who made Ukraine’s most significant eighteenth-century contribution to European choral music. The central square of Hlukhiv boasts bronze monuments to both. These two composers, whose talents were spotted early in their life, left Hlukhiv for St Petersburg never to return. Both men knew moments of glory and years of neglect and destitution. Berezovsky committed suicide (evidently, not without being “prompted”), and Bortnyansky’s music was banned from being performed in churches. It was only in the twentieth century that their music began to be fully appreciated. Thanks to Berezovsky and Bortnyansky, Hlukhiv has found a conspicuous place on the world’s classical music map.

Not only the arts, entertainment, politesse, and music thrived in Hlukhiv — the economic life was on the rise too.

One summer day, a load of two hundred pounds of “pommes de terre” — “earth apples,” or potatoes arrived in Hlukhiv, accompanied by the Imperial order to have these “fruit” planted for the purpose of “further cultivation and consumption as food.” The instructions were followed but the first yield was not impressive. Whatever was gathered was given to the locals with the command to have “the tubers” planted in their vegetable gardens. The rich Ukrainian soil this time proved to be exceedingly conducive to potato growing, and thus 1766 became the year when the potato began its triumphal march from Hlukhiv across Ukraine to become Ukraine’s major staple food.

 

Decline

The Russian imperial grip on Ukraine kept tightening and in 1766 hetmanship was abolished by an imperial decree. The next step the Russian rulers wanted to take was abolishment in Ukraine of everything Ukrainian. They spared no effort to achieve this goal but, though some inroads were made, “Ukrainianness” refused to be eradicated, no matter how hard they tried.

To better control the affairs in Ukraine, a Malorosiyska kolehiya (an administrative body to manage the affairs of Little Russia) was established in Hlukhiv. A pompous building to house the Kolehiya was erected in Hlukhiv in 1774– 1782 to a great consternation and amazement of the locals. The megalomaniac building got nicknamed “Hlukhiv’s Tower of Babel (“The Tower” has long sank into the Lethe).

In spite of Ukraine becoming “just the province of Little Russia within the Empire of Great Russia,” Hlukhiv retained its position of a former capital for several decades. After producing potatoes, superb choir singers and great choral composers, Hlukhiv was destined to become the center of sugar production.

Though sugar beets had started to be cultivated in Ukraine as long ago as in the tenth century, it was only in the 1820s that the technology of getting sugar out of the beet was developed. And Hlukhiv became the first center in Ukraine of making sugar from sugar beets.

The family of Tereshchenkos who descended from Hlukhiv Cossacks, became very rich thanks to sugar. The reform of 1861 liberated surfs from bondage — and produced great numbers of people who found themselves redundant in the countryside because they did not get any land to work at. So they began moving into towns in search of work. Sugar refineries in Hlukhiv hired them — the labor was extremely cheap. The Tereshchenkos who ran practically all the sugar refineries in Hlukhiv, soon bought or rented most of other refineries in Ukraine. Sugar made them immensely rich.

But it was not only money on the Tereshchenkos’ mind. They contributed over a million rubles — an enormous sum in those times! — to charity and philanthropy, they donated money to the construction of churches. The Tryokh-Anastasiyivsky Cathedral (1884–1893) in Hlukhiv was built with Tereshchenko’s money. Similarly to the Cathedral of St Volodymyr in Kyiv, it was designed in the pseudo-Byzantine style and decorated in the style known as Ukrainian Modern in its early stages (see the article about Ukrainian Modern in this issue). Thanks to the Tereshchenkos, two hospitals, two schools of advanced learning, eleven secondary and primary schools, a technical school and a teachers’ training college were built in Hlukhiv and its environs. Among the graduates of these schools were the film director Oleksandr Dovzhenko known for his innovative and highly expressive poetic films of the 1930s and 1940s, the avant-gardist Heorhiy Narbut and a number of other prominent personalities.

 

The twentieth century saw the final decline of Hlukhiv and its sliding into a provincial town of little cultural or economic significance. The Bolsheviks did a thorough job of destroying most of the churches in Hlukhiv and of building plain and ugly residential housing, depriving Hlukhiv of any individuality.

But I do not want to end this essay on a pessimistic note. When I climbed to the observation platform high up above the ground on the water tower (arguably the only thing built in the soviet times that is worthy of any mention), I, buffeted by the playful wind, and looking at the panorama of Hlukhiv, felt a connection to the past, a continuity of history. I knew that sooner or later we would make Ukraine truly independent. I mean spiritually independent.

I realize it’s a long way to go yet — much, much longer than the road from Hlukhiv to the Russian border.

 

 

The building of Povitove zemstvo (local administration)
dates from 1912–1913, with Art Nouveau echoes in its architectural style.

 

The Mykolayivska (St Mykola’s) Church, 1693, is an architectural
landmark in the style known as Ukrainian Baroque.

 

Panoramic view of the town which opens
from the top of the water tower.

The Spaso-Preobrazhenska Church, 1765, could have been designed
by the famous Ukrainian architect Ivan Hryhorovych-Barsky.

 

 

 

Photos by the author

 

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