No Tourist In Their Right Minds – Getting To Know The Hutsuls: Ukraine’s Highlanders

While reading Simon Winder’s Danubia, a roller coaster ride through the history and culture of Habsburg Europe, I came across the following two sentences about the Ukrainian Carpathians: “Life in these valleys was extremely harsh. No tourist in their right minds would visit Yaremche in winter.” And that’s how it starts, not the book or a new chapter, but a strange and fascinating emotion to book a flight to Eastern Europe in the depths of winter and make my way to Yaremche.

A view of Yaremche

A view of Yaremche (not in the winter) from nearby Makovytsa Mountain – (Credit: Maxim Gavrilyuk)

The Highlands and Highlanders of Ukraine
Why I felt this insane, crazed urge to stand in what would probably be waist deep snow drifts, wander around ignorant and lost in a land where I lack knowledge not only of the language, but also the alphabet escapes me. Yet that urge to see the unknown, forgotten and overlooked at the worst possible time of year got my heart thumping. Even if I could not make it at this moment or month, sometime in the future I would have to go there and experience Yaremche for a reason I was unlikely to discern even after I visit. Perhaps it was a search for something authentic and real or go there just to be different, to travel contrary so to speak. For the time being going there is not option. Thus the next best thing is learning about Yaremche and the surrounding region. Researching the place meant researching the people, because Yaremche and the people who inhabit it are inseparable. The inhabitants are not any ordinary Ukrainians, they are Hutsuls, a people defined by both legend and reality.

It is hard to imagine anything much more romantic and obscure than the Hutsuls. These hearty folk inhabit the remote mountains and forests of the Ukrainian portion of the Carpathians. There are also a handful of Hutsul communities in the northern Romanian region of Bukovina. Some have called the Hutsuls Ukrainian highlanders, which seems a bit of an oxymoron. The stereotype of a traditional Ukrainian likely brings to mind peasants working the land, as either serfs or on collective farms, babushkas with kerchiefs wrapped around their head and babies on their backs as they stride through endless sunflower fields that expand onto a limitless horizon. This ideal is far from correct. For one, peasants have all but disappeared from Ukraine. Secondly, the landscape and people are much more diverse than might be imagined. Nowhere is the landscape more spectacular, with the people to match, than the deep, dark mystical forests that cover the mountains and valleys of extreme southeastern Ukraine. This is a landscape that has molded the people who inhabit it. The Hutsuls are the human embodiment of remote, rugged beauty.

Hutsuls travelling

Hutsuls travelling – an 1892 painting by Juliusz Kossak

Getting To Know The Unknown – The Hutsuls
Who are the Hutsuls? Their name is nearly as remote as the people and their region. Oddly, the name was given to them by foreigners. It is either the byproduct of a Romanian word meaning “outlaw” or a Slavic term for “wanderer.” The Hutsuls could really care less what they are called, but some have adopted this term in reference to themselves. Their origins are obscure, befitting a people almost totally unknown in Europe. Some scholars believe they descended from the White Croats, a Slavic Tribe that settled the area, eventually falling under the control of Kievan Rus. By the late Middle Ages, the Hutsuls came under the rule of Hungarian and Polish nobles. Nevertheless, the inaccessibility of their homeland always kept outsiders at arm’s length and bred a strong streak of independence. Hutsul culture developed in a uniquely symbiotic relationship with the nature surrounding them. Their craftsmanship was refined by work in forestry or logging. One of the most famous tools/cultural wares of Hutsul life still is used by them today, the bartok.  This long handled axe with a small head could be put to use for work or self-defense. Hutsuls have not only made wood working part of their life, but also their death. Still today, many carve their own coffins years in advance of when they leave the earth.

The most notable character trait of the Hutsuls has always been their ferocious independence. This trait was feared by the great landowning magnates in the Carpathians and for good reason. For several centuries the Hutsuls took part in numerous uprisings against noble rule. When they were not involving themselves in revolt, the Hutsuls banded together in communal, Robin Hood-like groups. These gangs were known as opryshoks, groups of brigands who carried out their own brand of justice against local elites who had wronged common folk. The most famous leader of the opryshoks was a chief by the name of Oleksa Dovbush who lived in the first half of the 18th century. His deeds are legendary, as he robbed landowners, merchants, loan officers and anyone else who took advantage of the poor. He then redistributed the bounty to serfs. He was so feared by the Polish nobility that an armed force of 2,000 men was sent to capture him, but to no avail. Instead, Dovbush died a romantic death in the most literal sense. He was shot dead by the husband of his lover.

A Hutsul man

A Hutsul man – (Credit Ion Chibzii)

The Opposite of Modern
An upsurge of opryshok activity coincided with the onset of Austrian rule during the late 18th century in the Hutsul region. Attempts by the Habsburg administration to levy exorbitant taxes and conscript the male population of the region into the army increased resistance. It got to the point where the Austrians sent out military expeditions to put quell opposition. Though these efforts were successful, the Hutsuls continued to exist beyond the rule of Austro-Hungarian officialdom. The closest the Hutsuls ever came to formal independence occurred in the aftermath of World War I, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In January 1919, Hutsuls pushed Hungarian forces out of the region. They went on to take the city of Sigheti Maramuti in Romania. A Hutsul Republic was declared in Transcarpathia during early February. It lasted all of four months, until Romanian troops took over the area.

In retrospect the republic seems more like a piece of trivia rather than a formal governmental entity. Hutsuls convening a parliament would be a bizarre paradox. Most likely, Hutsuls wanted to be gathering around a campfire rather than sitting at a table haggling over ministerial posts. After the republic vanished, the Hutsuls spent the next twenty-five years of their history under the rule of no less than four different nations. This mattered and yet it did not matter as the Hutsuls retained many of their traditional ways. Yes Hungarian rule was harsh and Soviet rule unforgiving, but it was hardly decisive. The ultimate proof of this is the rich Hutsul culture which still can be found today in the Carpathians.
Yaremche is the most accessible place for outsiders to get a taste of Hutsul culture. In the summer, stalls are packed with craft items carved from wood with everything from plates to comb on offer. Hutsul embroidery typically featuring diagonal or diamond shape patterns in eye popping colors is a popular sales item. As for the winter, Yaremche is covered in a blanket of snow. The landscape and people are hidden beneath a blizzard of white. What could I do here in the winter? Try to stay warm. That would give me something in common with the people. Winter is a time for survival in the land of the Hutsuls.

Hutsul embroidery

Hutsul embroidery – at the Yaremche museum of Carpathian region ethnography and ecology (Credit: Швітланьо)

A Way Of Life Preserved
The Hutsuls have staying power. They have learned to live with the elements and also with geo-political upheaval. Today they are part of a Ukraine which is at war. Who knows whether this latest governmental iteration to rule over the Hutsuls will last? Empires and nations come and go in the area, the Hutsuls remain. My desire to visit Yaremche increased as I learned more about the Hutsuls. In a consumerist world becoming more and more homogenized the Hutuls offer an encounter with wildness, individualism and the untamed human spirit. It is enough to make me want to book that ticket, not to paradise, but to experience a way of life and a place that seems to stand outside of time and change.

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