Z hytomyr is one of the many towns in Ukraine with its own distinctive features which distinguish it from any other town. What is more, the town’s three major parts differ from each other, still bearing the traits of age-long traditions. One part of town used to be predominantly Catholic, the second used to be Orthodox and the third — Jewish. Through the centuries, the town found itself under a number of successive authorities. In the twentieth century alone, it was ruled by Russian Imperial, Soviet, German Nazi, again Soviet communist authorities. Since 1991, it is a regional centre of independent Ukraine. Yet no one has been able to level down the differences of three main sections of town that can still be easily observed even in the place-names.

Zhytomyr is believed to have been founded in the 9th century. The traditional date of its foundation is the year 884, which makes it one of the oldest towns in Ukraine. Tradition has it that the town was founded by a ruler of the Drevlyansky Princedom who was later defeated in battle by the Kyiv Princess Olga. If you split the name of the town into two parts you’ll have “zhyto” which means “grain” and “myr” which means “world” or “peace”. Maybe, it is purely coincidental that the name carries such a symbolic meaning, the root of the word could have been derived from a local name with no meaning at all, or whose

meaning has been lost, but nonetheless it would be good to think that the town’s name reflects its unusual historical destiny.
Zhytomyr is situated in the central part of Ukraine, in the border area between the steppe and the woods. It sits on the rocky banks of the Teteriv and Kamenka rivers, tributaries of the Dnipro.

St Sophia Cathedral (737-751).

Starting from early 19th century,Zhytomyr has been a regional centre of the Volyn Huberniya (now Volyn Oblast).Its official status has left but a little imprint on it. Much more important are the town’s historical and cultural traditions. For a provincial town it has an impressive number of museums, monuments, architectural landmarks, memorial plaques. The list of famous people who either were born in Zhytomyr or lived there for a considerable length of time is amazingly long.

In an old part of Zhytomyr.

Korolyov's House.

One of the churches of Zhytomyr, 
now a museum

Taras Shevchenko, the pivotal figure in Ukrainian culture, stayed there in the 19th century when he travelled the length and breadth of Ukraine. Oleksandr Dovzhenko, a leading Ukrainian film director, lived there in the 20th century.Mykhailo Kotsyubynsky, a prominent Ukrainian writer of the late 19th century, and Alexander Kuprin, a remarkable Russian writer of the first quarter of 20th century, wrote some of their novels in Zhytomyr. Vladimir Korolenko, another notable Russian writer of the late 19th-early 20th century was born in Zhytomyr.
Serhiy Korolyov, who was to become a leading figure in the Soviet space programme of the late fifties and early sixties, was also a native of Zhytomyr. Next to the house where Korolyov used to live now one finds a museum of history of space research, one of the best of its kind in the world.

After his death, Korolyov had more monuments erected in his honour than Lenin did. Incidentally, it was in the town of Starokostyantyniv, Volyn Huberniya, of which Zhytomyr was an administrative centre, that Lenin’s maternal grandfather, Alexander Blank was born.
Today the cultural differences between the three major parts of Zhytomyr are not felt so acutely as they were, say, a hundred years ago. They have remained mostly in the architectural styles . Several Jewish writers, among them Sholom Aleikhem, Mendel Sphorim, Khaim Byalyk, described in their work the life of the thriving and bustling Jewish community of Zhytomyr in the late 19th-early 20th century. Walking through the formerly Jewish quarter of town, one can easily visualize what the place must have looked a hundred years ago. The building of the nineteenth-century biggest Jewish commercial school is still standing.
In the first half of the 19th century, the Catholics of Zhytomyr, mostly of Polish extraction, vied for cultural supremacy in town, but after a number of unsuccessful insurrections they lost their leading position in town and ceded it to the Orthodox believers. In 1864, the Preobrazhensky (“Of the Transfiguration”) Cathedral was built in the centre of town and it became a symbol of triumphant Orthodoxy. The architectural style of the Cathedral is usually described as “pseudo-Old-Russian” and it is not a great architectural achievement. The interior decoration leaves a much better impression. Local granites and labrodites were successfully used to demonstrate the rich decorative potential of the locally quarried ornamental stone.The Catholic churches seem to have been designed by better architects. The St Sophia Cathedral, built in 1737-1751, happens to be the central Catholic church in the north-eastern parts of Ukraine.

The house where Serhiy Korolyov, a prominent space rocket designer, was born.

Serhiy Korolyov Museum of Space Exploration.

The interiors with frescoes and stucco work have been preserved more or less intact, in spite of the fact that the church was shut down by the Soviet authorities for protracted lengths of time and was used for purposes that have nothing to do with religious worship. Close to the St Sophia Cathedral, there is a museum, housed in a hundred-year old building that used to belong to the archbishop of Zhytomyr. The museum of local lore and history possesses ample collections, which include a number of paintings of old masters.Among the architectural landmarks of the past one should mention the cells of a Jesuit monastery, dating from 1724.

In recent years most of the churches began to function again as places of worship, with the exception of the Khrestovozdvyzhenska Church which remains a museum exhibiting the richness of local mineral resources.
One can wander through the streets of Zhytomyr for hours, enjoying the romantic sights of the past. But it would be wrong to assume that the town lives only by its past. Excellent candies are made at a local confectionery factory; the textile mill turns out high-quality fabric; high-precision instruments made in Zhytomyr are used and praised all over Ukraine.

The oldest fire observation tower in the land of Volyn.

In the Transfiguration Cathedral.

Zamkova Street, one of the oldest
in Zhytomyr.

The town is worth visiting. Mr Tift, a descendant of Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain, one of the best known American humorists, visited Zhytomyr in 1992 and thoroughly enjoyed the visit. There is a good reason to believe that you will not be disappointed either.

Materials for the article have been supplied by
Victor Kyrkevych
Photos by Yuriy Buslenko.