Random Acts of History – Berdychiv, Ukraine (Part One): Heart of Romance, Heart of Darkness

I sincerely doubt that anyone reading this post has visited or ever will visit Berdychiv, Ukraine. This modestly sized city of approximately 80,000 people is located in the west-central portion of Ukraine, about 100 miles from Kiev. Other than the 17th century fortified Carmelite Monastery at its heart, the city has few attractions to recommend it. Berdychiv does not even make the list of forgotten places, because it is almost totally unknown by tourists. On Tripadvisor there is only one hotel in the entire city that that is reviewed. It says the following:  “this city has only one choice…Here you will experience the Soviet style service. Rooms are large but beds are really bad, water is brown, no breakfast… room is too cold in winter and too hot in summer. Expect to pre-pay for your stay and it is not a good deal…But this is your only choice in Berdichev. There are rumors that the other hotel will reopen after their renovation – although I doubt it – it’s been under renovation for over a year.” This was written in 2008. No new hotels in Berdychiv have been reviewed since then.

The 17th century Carmelite Monastery in Berdychiv

The 17th century Carmelite Monastery in Berdychiv

Where History Was Made & Forgotten
Berdychiv is hardly ready for tourism, not to say that there is much demand. It is a city with quite a lot of history and little else. It will never be placed on a list of Ukraine’s must-see attractions. It is nondescript and known only to the local population. That is such a shame because Berdychiv has a surprising past filled with love and hate, culture and depravity, lunacy and loss.  It has seen better days, but also some that were much worse than its anonymous present. The presence of Berdychiv in seemingly random historical events is fascinating.

Among these include, the marriage of famed French author Honore de Balzac, the birth of one of Poland’s greatest authors, Joseph Conrad. It also suffered a visit by the 20th century’s chief architect of evil, Adolf Hitler and gave the world his polar opposite, Vasily Grossman. A literary titan who wrote what many have called the greatest novel of World War II, Life and Fate. What brought all these historical personages to Berdychiv and what took them away? Was it sheer randomness and chance, without rhyme or reason? Who can say? A place like Berdychiv might be forgotten, but it might also be instructive. Making sense of its past is difficult and holds no easy answers. How does one find a pattern where there may well be none? Perhaps that is the point.

Ewelina Hańska - Honore de Balzac's most astonishing and last romance - (Painting by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, 1835)

Ewelina Hańska – Honore de Balzac’s most astonishing and last romance – (Painting by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, 1835)

Balzac’s Eastern Love – Ewelina Hanska
The history of Berdychiv, mirrors that of the central and western regions of Ukraine. A border city in a border land, it has been under the rule of Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Soviets and now Ukrainians. It was sacked by Crimean Tatars and Cossacks, its Jewish population suffered pogroms under the Soviets and genocide by the Nazis. Berdychiv seems like a good place to be from rather than a good place to be or for that matter to visit. Population loss is nothing new for Berdychiv, it has been a recurring theme throughout its history. It continues today. Since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, it has lost 15% of its population. The city seems to be fading into anonymity. The fact that it has been the scene of both fascinating and horrifying historical events on multiple occasions is astonishing and improbable. Astonishing, much like the romance of Honore De Balzac and Ewelina Hanska. Improbable, in the same manner as there against all odds marriage

Ewelina Hanska was a Polish aristocrat, who grew up far from French culture, far from Paris and far from Balzac. In 1832, she authored an anonymous letter to the famed author, signing it “The Foreigner.” It not only made its way to Balzac, but he was able to eventually track down Hanska, despite the fact that she lived hundreds of miles away. This was the start of an improbable long distance romance that continued for the next eighteen years. Affairs, deaths and legal entanglements created formidable barriers, somehow this seemingly impossible romance endured. In the late winter of 1850, Hanska and Balzac found their way to a peach colored church in Berdychiv where they wed and then fled for Paris. The marriage lasted all of five months, not due to disenchantment, but because of Balzac’s death. Berdychiv had been part of history, if just for one day. This would not be the last time, a combination of chance, luck and fate was visited upon the city.

Jozsef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad) - in 1860 at the age of three

Jozsef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad) – in 1860 at the age of three

The Darkest Heart Of All
One Jozsef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, found his way into the world at Berdyichev, but not for long. Born to parents of lesser Polish nobility, the boy who would become known to literary history as Joseph Conrad, spent very little of his life in Berdyichiv. Conrad’s father, a failure at farming, soon moved the family to Warsaw. The father’s vocal support for Polish independence from Russia led to the family’s exile to northern Russia. After a short time, they were allowed to move back to Poland. Both of Conrad’s parents would succumb to tuberculosis during his childhood. He would then be raised by an uncle, who sent him to school in Ukraine, but not back in Berdychiv. It is doubtful whether Conrad ever returned to his place of birth. One can only guess what effect these chaotic early years had on him. His home would be forever abroad, whether in Great Britain or traveling the high seas. His world renowned writing was greatly influenced by his travels, but his first trip abroad started from Berdyichiv. It was a place Conrad barely knew. Nevertheless, it set his life on a wayward course that eventually discovered literary greatness.

Conrad’s most famous work of literature, Heart of Darkness, was set deep in the heart of sub-Saharan Africa, a world that could hardly have been more different than Ukraine. The novel deals with the very essence of evil, something Conrad’s birthplace and homeland would come to know all too well. Fascism, that heart of darkness which contaminated the soul of Europe and set the Eastern Slavic world afire in an all-consuming world war visited itself upon Berdychiv. The darkest heart of fascism belonged to none other than Adolf Hitler, who became the living embodiment of pure evil. Bizarrely, Hitler would come to Berdyichev, not by romance or birth, but by conquest. During World War II Berdychiv, found itself once again in the cross hairs of history suffering one of its most irreparable horrors. This nightmare would change it beyond all recognition.

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