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There is a town in Ukraine called Poltava, about 200 miles southeast of Kyiv. Not far from Poltava there is a village where for the past three hundred years fairs have been held. The village is Velyki Sorochyntsi and the fairs are known as Sorochyntsi fairs. Fairs started as open food markets at which goods were also sold or bartered. In fact, originally each year there were up to five fairs held one in each season and an annual one. One of the great Russian writers of the first half of the nineteenth century, Ukrainian-born Nickolay Gogol spent his childhood and adolescent years at his parents’ estate in Sorochyntsi. Later, he established himself as an author of great merit by publishing highly poetic stories about his native place and fairs held there. The action of Gogol’s many short novels also takes place in Poltavshchyna (lands around Poltava) and their protagonists bear distinctive features of Poltava people. Even wizards, witches, ghouls, mermaids and other similar characters from some of Gogol’s colourful stories seem to have come from the local lore and even the way they talk bears close resemblance to the local Poltava soft vernacular.The villagers keep the memory of the great writer in great reverence. The house where he lived as a youth is a centre of pilgrimage not only from the nearby places but from elsewhere in Ukraine and Russia. Nickolay Gogol himself, accompanied by characters from his stories, has been turning up at the Sorochyntsi fairs for the past thirty years (both professional and amateur actors are engaged in this show).
Gogol, wearing an old-style long coat with a quill pen behind his ear, walks around, talks to people, writes something down in his pad. And Gogol’s presence, in spite of definitely nineteenth-century appearance, at the fair seems to be so natural, not theatrical at all. Probably, because the Sorochyntsi fairs have managed to preserve the right spirit, captured by Gogol in his stories.In the twentieth century, another writer, a Ukrainian humorist Ostap Vyshnya devoted a funny and witty “ode” to the Sorochyntsi fairs written in such a rich local language and homely speech that it is practically impossible to translate it from Ukrainian into any other language. At the Sorochyntsi fair you can buy anything whatever you may think of. The statement is particularly true now that the fair has become international. You can purchase anything from primitive garish souvenirs to sophisticated harvest combines. To say that you can buy all kinds of food and drinks is to say so little because this dry, matter-of-fact statement can in no way render the impression one gets walking among the mountains of fruit, vegetables, pots of honey, sausage, cured meat… The list is endless and any attempt at making it complete on a magazine page is absolutely futile. In addition to dozens of brands of beer, you can try dozens upon dozens of drinks, most of which have no corresponding names in the English language. Scores of different kinds of pyrizhkys (sort of small pies), stuffed with all kinds of imaginable and unimaginable things: berries, meat, goose liver, cottage cheese, cabbage, etc., etc.) are offered for a quick bite at every step you take. Other eatables that can satisfy both gourmet and gourmand are everywhere, making your mouth water.Local papers are filled with ads of the following kind: “ Mr Shwayka wants to buy a draft animal, aged three to eight” (gas could run scarce or too expensive, but one can always find fodder for a horse); “two raccoons on sale, reasonable price”; “a used tractor in a good condition”…Even if you do not intend to buy anything, walking around the fair is a great fun in itself. You can see humankind in all its splendid variety: short, tall, fat, crooked, straight, handsome, ugly, stunningly beautiful wearing local national dresses and headgear, casual jeans and T-shirts, respectable suits and neckties (though these are a rather rare sight). Cheerful crowds are moving around, chewing, staring, and bargaining. Musicians here and there are playing folk tunes, country, rock, slow ballads.Businessmen, Ukrainian and foreign, in three-piece suits, conduct talks, sign contracts, give instructions over their mobile phones. The acres on which the fair sprawls are packed with booths where wares are displayed; vendors and peddlers are offering trinkets and food, but it would be wrong to say that most of the visitors come to buy (though you can buy anything you want, if you care to spend some time, elbowing your way through the throng, real cheap and of quite a decent quality). People come to have a good time looking around, enjoying gorgeous sights, delicious food, sipping a drink, talking to people, making acquaintances. The extremely friendly atmosphere of the fair makes it very easy. The Sorochyntsi fair is not just a commercial venture, it’s a cultural phenomenon, part of local life, a tradition that keeps the past and the present closely linked together (there was a gap of forty years when the Soviets for some inexplicable reason — fear of cultural traditions? — did not allow the fair to be held, and thirty years ago it was revived).This year the Sorochyntsi fair was held at the time when two important events were celebrated in Ukraine: the religious holiday of the Transfiguration and public holiday of the eighth anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. There is a magnificent eighteenth-century church in the village of Velyki Sorochynsti, majestically standing on the bank of the Psyol River. On the Transfiguration Day the church was crowded with people coming to have their apples and pears blessed by the priest (though the holiday is Christian this tradition may well date from times immemorial). Locally the holiday is known as the Apple Spas (”Saviour”), one of the most colourful feasts of the summer. It was a moving sight: cheerfully and brightly dressed crowds carrying apples to a beautiful church that seems to be a natural part of the surrounding scenery.On the opening day two presidents paid a visit to the Sorochyntsi fair: Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and Moldavian President Petru Luchynsky. They addressed the Sorochynsti crowd with congratulatory short speeches and took a tour of the fair. Both were greatly impressed. And who wouldn’t be?The Sorochyntsi fair this year lasted for five days, a five-day festival of selling, buying, singing, drinking, eating and socializing. A great fair, indeed.

Photos by I. DUDKIN, Yu. BUSLENKO, O. MYKHAYLOV


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