2021 7 Ukraine: Kryvorivnya, Verkhovyna, Rakhiv, Ust Chorna.
“I would like to combine two worlds for myself. One world centres around keeping the cows, how to raise our calve for example. I want to learn what is needed to keep our family farm going; the pigs, the chicken, and the garden. Running the shed with the animals on the montane pastures high in the hills (the Polonyna). I am happiest up there.”
“The other world is filled with IT, Tesla, and all the new things I would like to learn about. Maybe I have to choose but I prefer to combine them. I am afraid a lot will change in our society. The hill next to our Polonyna has been bought by some wealthy people from Kyiv. Probably they will build a hotel there. This happens a lot, also in the valleys. It will be worse when foreigners will be allowed to buy land. The law still prevents this at the moment but they plan to change it.”
Will I Still be able to stay with the animals on our Polonyna when i have grown up?
Common transportation in Verhkovyna, Carpathian mountains. The horses wear the traditional red plumes for decoration.
Epi-centre of Hutsul culture
Daniel is 14 years old and descends from Hutsul ancestry. His grandfather’s name is Potyak, an old Hutsul name. Daniel speaks English very well, thanks to his mother Kalina, who is a teacher. He takes his higher education including mathematics very seriously. With his parents and two sisters, he spends his holiday in Kryvorivnya in the East Carpathian Mountains in traditional the old house of his grandparents.
The village is close to the bigger town Verkhovyna. Together with Kosiv and Rakhiv, these villages comprise the core Hutsul area in Ukraine. In Rumania, there are also Hutsuls in the Muramuresh Carpathians in the Ruscova Valley and Bursa. “For us, their language sounds old-fashioned,” Kalina says “but we understand each other quite well. There are no regular contacts however, the border and the mountains make this difficult.”
Polonyna near Zamohora, Verkhovyna.
Shepherds on the mountain meadows
The Hutsuls historically were shepherds. The sheep are taken to the montane meadows, the “Polonyna”, in summer and stay there till the end of September. Transhumance, as this way of living, is called, is practiced in many mountain areas all over the world. The main products are milk, butter, cheese, and wool that is regularly brought down. The men stay in on the mountain meadows the whole summer. Youngsters do not feel attracted to this harsh living anymore as it only pays some 100 -150 Euro per month. The meager income from the summer migration to the hills is in Ukraine not supplemented by the state as is e.g. the case in Switzerland. There the farmers are more landscape maintenance companies. The traditional expeditions thus become rarer and rarer.
Traditional cheese horses from Polonyna cheese.
Competitors of the Kozacs
The word Hutsul means “robber” in Rumanian though the causality, nor the linguistic origin is not clear; was it a “nom de guerre” or does it describe the opinion of Rumanians of this mountain people or does the word come from somewhere else altogether? Ukrainians all over the country are proud of these self-conscious shepherds with their customs, conventions, and colorful traditional clothing. Their music is incorporated into pop songs (even at Eurovision contests). Hutsul are considered by many to live in the true spirit of Ukraine (competing with the Kozacs of course). In Rumania, they are not so popular but more known as an interesting mountain tribe.
“The bears said good morning to each other”
Hutsul live in the East Carpathian Mountains.
These mountain chains were originally (before, say, 1300 BC) uninhabited. “The bears said good morning to each other” Valik Voloshyn tells me. He is project manager at the Uszgorod Development Agency and is involved in nature preservation in the mountains. “During the centuries the Carpathians were slowly inhabited by those seeking refuge from some threat. This could be an escape from serfdom or fear for invaders like the Turks. No one likes to live in these harsh conditions voluntarily. The biggest group was the Vlachs but over time they mixed with other groups”‘
Hutsul are the most well-known and most colorful of several lesser-known related but not identical mountain “tribes” in the Carpathian chain. West of them live Rusyns (Rusnaks) and Gorals, inhabiting the hills in west Slovakia and Poland. Their languages are distinctly different as are their cultures though the unifying factor of the harsh life in the mountains makes their lifestyles and food similar.
Free of serfdom
Proud they were never serfs, as the Lemko and Boyk (basic subgroups of the Rusyn) were, Hutsul find themselves a tribe on their own. Read more about the mountain people here: The hijacking of the Nashy.
Ethnically their appearance is very polyformous. Brown and blue eyes are not uncommon, blond, black, and red hair color show, reflecting varying influx into the mountains. Over the centuries the isolation of mountain life gave the possibility of freedom and self-government. Hutsul partly escaped the faith of their neighbors: the communist regime deported only part of the Hutsuls (Stalin found them suspicious and difficult to control). More of them remained compared to the other hill tribes west of them.
5 different overlords in 80 years
“When someone is ill in the village each household will contribute some money for medical care”, Kalina, Daniel’s mother, tells me. “We trust the government, taxes are too high for us. We handle things ourselves.” Mountain life means mutual dependency and social cohesion. In the last century, the Hutsuls saw at least 5 different overlords. “It is difficult to organize things collectively. This is not unique here but probably the main challenge of the Ukrainian people as a whole, it will take another generation.”
She has to climb a steep hill and several hundred meters to reach the cows higher up twice a day to be able to milk them. Kalina takes the 8 kg milk back to the house near the river, where butter is made the traditional way. Her mother does this normally but during the holidays Kalina fills in.
The only connection to the main road is a hanging footbridge. When they go up to the Polonyna the super old tractor has to cross through the river to the other side. In winter, when it can get fiercely cold, her parents sleep near or on the central heating stove (Pitsch) in the middle of the house made of “Kafel” enameled tiles, (in German these stoves are called Kachelofen).
The garden next to the house and the animals provide a basic living but apart from this, there is little else to complement the state pension (some 100 Euro) of Kalina’s parents.
In Kryvorivnya the church is the glue of the society
Charismatic Ivan Rybaruk is the local priest of the centuries-old church of Kryvorivnya (1719). Once a convinced communist he converted to Ukrainian Orthodoxy and is the binding factor in village life. He organizes child services, an activity that other priests do not undertake (it is too much bother for them). Ivan integrates local traditions with religion and has a somewhat “rock star” fame in Ukraine. His family lives in the wooden house, owned by the village, that once was used by Ivano Franko and other Ukrainian artists and intellectuals at the end of the 18th century. Kalina: “Hutsul were somewhat indifferent to the attention they got. If they want to take our picture, let them. Who cares?”
It is Ivan’s daughter Olha’s marriage we were allowed to cover here.
Birth, funeral, and wedding: where traditions are kept.
Easter and especially Christmas are typical festivities when traditions are celebrated. Christmas and Epiphany are full of old pagan traditions. Groups of men go door to door and sing for weeks. The events are broadcasted on national Ukrainian television and have been covered in a lot of documentaries. Funerals and weddings are of course the occasions where local customs and traditions are kept in high esteem. Kalina: “it is very much a masculine thing, where actually the women do a lot of work but the ones who get the attention are the men”.
Maria is a specialist in traditional clothing like sheepskin jackets. She was very busy the last months now as the daughter of the local priest will marry. Her son Ivan has just been outfitted with a brand new set including the traditional ceremonial ax. The upcoming wedding of the daughter of Ivan is the first time he will wear them, tomorrow!
Maria with her three children (including Ivan) in a self-made full Hutsul outfit. Ivan, the father of the bride gives his consent prior to the church wedding (which he will lead himself but then as the local priest (pope).
In Orthodox church, the attendants remain standing, in this case for more than 1 hour.
On the way to the wedding celebration as a married couple.
Tourism as the way out (or as the threat to traditional life)
For most Hutsul tourism is the obvious way out apart from working somewhere in the EU and sending funds home. Many open B&B’s and provide services like renting out the big 4×4 Patrol cars that take the tourists up the mountains or providing Quad tours. There is a wealth of musea and excursion possibilities, some on horseback.
Others make traditional blankets and embroidered clothing, which is in high demand all over Ukraine. Harvesting mountain products like mushrooms and berries and selling them on the side of the road or in dried form has always been popular. Cattle and gardens add to the sustenance of those who have them.
Harvesting berries on the Polonyna industrial scale
Yuri lives up de hill in Rhakiv, one valley away from Verkhovyna. The slopes are steeper here but it is worth going up. “To get to the meadows with the blueberries you need heavy material. I have just bought a new truck, Russian-made, they cost 50.000 dollars.” Outside is another one.
The whole family is involved in the business. Bit by bit the house is extended and he is proud to show his last addition: a traditional sauna (“Banyo”). A side business is, of course, the production of blueberry “samohon”, homemade horilka, the Ukrainian name for strong spirit.
Hutsul can build very good and durable houses from wood and have their own technique. For this craft, they are often hired to build abroad, most notably in Russia, where this art had disappeared with communism.
Entry building to the church under construction, Zamahora near Verkhovyna
With so many woods, logging was and is obviously also a source of income. The state has control points but there are big threats to the environment are the illegal cutting of trees. Valik Voloshyn: “there are frauds with the FSE mark and in my opinion, the majority of the wood sold with this hall-mark is in fact illegal. There is a big difference in villagers using some trees for their own use and the grand scale deforestation that is going on now”. Taking photographs at wood processing plants is met with obvious hostility.
The accelerated erosion caused by deforestation destroys the hills. Complete landslides wiping away roads are not uncommon and are one more threat to the Polonya.
Ust Chorna, wood cutting for winter fuel.
The future of the Polonyna
However charming this way of life may seem big costs like medical care, higher education, start-up funds for a small business, or house renovation form a big obstacle to improving the standard of living of most.
Kalina: “We have a plot of land from my father where we would like to build, as we now live with my husband’s parents but as it is now this is impossible for us. I do not want to leave my children to work abroad as many are forced to do. Therefore we can only be here during holidays”.
Will Daniel be able to fulfill his dream? Can he have a high-tech job and at the same time stay connected to his roots in Kryvorivnya? Hutsul have proved to be inventive and adaptive in the past so the future of the Polonyna may well be brighter than the passing observer may think. The traditions, so deeply connected with the identity of the Hutsul, will definitely remain.
The unofficial anthem of the Hutsul: The Dovbush ballad about the “Robin Hood” from the Carpathian mountains (early 18th century), who embodies the sense of freedom felt by the mountain people.
For those interested in life on the Polonyna:
The movie Living Fire is worth watching.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Parajanov (1965) is a unique piece of socialist realist art about the Hutsul and their habits. It includes many of the rituals (youtube link).
Life in Kryvorivnya was 20 years ago already photographed (in black and white) by Lida Suchy for an ambitious conservation project. Kalina is in some of the pictures as a child and her grandfather Vasyl Potyak was the principal guide.
Thanks to Charles Vela for help with the feature picture