A Natural Death– Biełaviežskaja Pušča:  Viskuli, Belarus & The Extinction of the Soviet Union

Many people assume the Soviet Union was created after the Russian Revolution in October 1917, they are mistaken. It was not until after the Russian Civil War ended in 1922 that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to declare supremacy over a large part of the Eurasian land mass.  The Soviet Union was only then unified into a singular political entity. On the eve of New Year’s Eve, December 30, 1922 the Soviet Union was officially declared to the world from the stage of one of Russia’s most venerated institutions, the Bolshoi Theater. It was unified under the Treaty of the Creation of the Soviet Union which was signed by the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, the Transcaucasus and Belarus. Oddly enough it was in the latter republic sixty-nine Decembers later, that the Soviet Union would be dissolved. The scene of its denouement was far from the glittering prominence of the Bolshoi stage. Instead, it occurred in a remote section of a provincial outpost, on the extreme western frontiers of an empire that would soon cease to exist. Less than ten kilometers from the Polish border in the Biełaviežskaja Pušča, which contains the last remnant of Europe’s primeval forest, a group of six dignitaries put the Soviet Union out of its misery. The location for this historic event could not have been more ironic, nature is eternal, the ideology of man is mortal.

Viskuli - the hunting estate that was the scene of the Soviet Union's dissolution

Viskuli – the hunting estate in Belarus that was the scene of the Soviet Union’s dissolution

Lost In The Woods – The Paradox Of Progress
Communism was a contagious idea for many reasons, one of which was the appeal of creating an entirely new world. Industrial strength and the proletarian masses were to lead the way. Of course that was not what happened. Whether it was Lenin or Stalin, Brezhnev or Gorbachev, communism had an element of tyranny and anti-reform that planted the seeds of its own destruction. This brave new world was at the point of collapse by the late 1980’s all across Eastern Europe.  It held on for a little longer in the Soviet Union, but by December 1991 the last rites of communist totalitarianism were being prepared just as a long cold Russian winter was turning the world to ice. The document which would put an end to an almost seven decade long experience in human misery would be signed at Viskuli, a hunting estate in western Belarus.

Viskuli had been constructed as a dacha complex used for vacationing by communist officials from the Soviet Union. In itself, that was nothing special. It was the forest that stretched out in all directions from Viskuli which made the area rare and unique. Before man conquered nature this same type of primeval forest covered the entire northern European Plain, but human “progress” over thousands of years had eradicated almost all of it. Much of the forest was turned into farmland or transformed into villages and cities. Even today on the periphery of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca farming still threatens this World Biosphere Reserve’s health. Pesticides and fertilizers seep into the area through run off from farms. Yet despite such threats, this oldest of the old growth European forest has managed to survive, quite unlike the political entities that have made it their playground at one time or another down through the centuries.

The way it used to be - Biełaviežskaja Pušča

The way it used to be – Biełaviežskaja Pušča (Credit: Ralf Lotys)

Death Brings Renewal – The Paradox of the Primeval
The history of protection of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca goes back all the way to Lithuanian and Polish Kings in the 14th and 15th centuries that first set it aside as a hunting reserve. They issued decrees to protect its wildlife from poachers. The actions of a 17th century Polish king who displayed progressive foresight in dealing with the region’s peasantry would have been lost on the historically myopic apparatchiks who spent their holidays pleasuring in Viskuli during the Cold War. In 1639, King Wladyslaw IV freed all peasants in the forest from serfdom and taxation on the condition that they become royal foresters. For the next century and a half this arrangement worked rather well. Such a radical act of progressivism towards the dispossessed puts the Soviets social achievements to shame. It was only when the forest came under the control of the Russian Tsars in the late 18th century that these royal forester’s rights were abolished. It was not long though before the Tsars realized the reserve’s value as a refuge for wildlife. In was once again given protected status.

The warfare and ensuing political upheaval that scarred Europe so badly in the first half of the 20th century also detrimentally affected the reserve. By the end of World War I, German occupation had resulted in the extermination of all European bison in the forest.  Railroads and lumber mills built to support the occupiers brought unwelcome development. Poland did designate it as a national park in the years between the World Wars, slowly reintroducing the bison, but Polish oversight of this area was soon swept away by another World War. The 240 inch thick oaks and luminous undergrowth became breeding grounds for partisan warfare.

Modern industrial armaments brought death and destruction, but the bodies of soldiers and partisans would not find renewal in the decay of these dark woods. A different kind of death had long been integral to rejuvenating the forest. Approximately 6,000 species in the Bielaviezskaja Pusca subsist on decaying logs. Over half the forest at any one time is dead. And it is this death that leads to life. In an odd sense the same thing happened with human influence on the forest at the end of the war. The Soviet takeover led to decrees that protected the forest. This slowed to a halt the forest’s degradation by human indicatives. At least this time, the communists proved that they were much like those they were against. The forest was preserved just as it had been by kings so long ago. Of course this was as much by indifference as it was reverence.

The end of an empire - The signing of the Belavezha Accords

The end of an empire – The signing of the Belavezha Accords (Credit: RIA Novosti archive, image 848095 U Ivanov)

Eternity In The Woods – Survival Beyond The Soviets
A new period in the history of the peoples of what would become known as the former Soviet Union began on December 8, 1991 when the Belavezha Accords was signed at Viskuli. This dissolution also meant a new overlord for much of the forest, the nation of Belarus (Poland oversees a smaller portion of the forest.) Those who signed the accords on that frosty December day were thinking of politics not nature, but they would have done well to contemplate the forest that surrounded Viskuli. It had survived kings and dictators, empires and ideologies as well as several millennia of climatic change. On the other hand, the Soviet Union could not even survive the same century it had been born into. Eternity was still standing amid the woods of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca, while mortality was inherent to the systems of man.


Waylaid by “Trei Leu” – Getting Taken: Taxi Torment In Bucharest (Travels In Eastern Europe #16)

It is often said that the only thing certain in life ais death and taxes. I would also add a third certainty, the cheating, scamming and dishonesty of Bucharest taxi drivers. The stories are legion of unsuspecting tourists, travelers and even locals being grossly overcharged by hundreds or even thousands of lei. And it is not just cheating on fares that have given Bucharest taxis a rightfully bad reputation. It is also the fact that they are known for their nasty demeanor. They are mean to their passengers and just as mean to those who avoid their services.  Aggressive, seedy and venal are apt descriptions of the Romanian capital’s cabbies.

In most Eastern European cities tourists are warned to avoid unlicensed taxis. In Bucharest tourists are warned to avoid almost all taxis, whether or not they are officially licensed hardly seems to matter. Of course there are many exceptions, but just to be on the safe side staying out of a Bucharest taxi is a wise precaution. That is unless you like conflict, threats and controversy in large doses. If stereotypes ever saved anyone, then it certainly has to be those potential passengers who have had the good sense to avoid a Bucharest taxi ride based on hearsay. They were saved time, money and trouble. If it seems as though I am being a bit too harsh let me add that I have personal experience with a short, albeit memorable taxi ride in the city. It was my first and what I hope to be last taxi ride in Bucharest for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Ready and waiting - taxis in Bucharest

Ready and waiting – taxis in Bucharest
(Credit: Tiia Monto)

Planning From Behind – A Sense of Misdirection
It was an ill-conceived idea that went against common sense. Find a taxi on the street in Bucharest within five minutes after arriving in the city for the first time.  I would never have tried this if I had been alone, but fortunately I was traveling with a new friend Tim, who I had met at a hostel in Bulgaria. Tim grew up in Chicago and now lived in New York City. He was city smart with experience in navigating an urban jungle. Tim had probably hailed more taxis in a day than I had in my entire life. Plus he was a transportation planner/engineer which I somehow correlated with expertise on finding an honest Bucharest taxi service.

Our predicament resulted from a failure to plan ahead. With a bad set of directions and poor map we figured that our hotel could not be far away. We did have one advantage. The maxi-taxi which had brought us to Bucharest from Bulgaria had let us off close to the city center, but not beside any bus or railway stations. This meant we would not be overrun by aggressive cabbies right away. We would have time to collect our thoughts, strategize and formulate a plan. This all sounded good in theory. A more sensible plan would have involved a better map of the city so we could have walked or taken public transport to the hotel. We were planning from behind, not what anyone should do when faced with the formidable scamming skills of Bucharest taxi drivers.

A Constant Battle – Surprises, Scams & Shenanigans
We had no one to blame but our own selves for this situation. Our guidebooks and the internet had contained countless warnings. To give an idea of how bad the situation can be, Bucharest taxis do not just rip off tourists, they are also notoriously tough on their fellow countrymen. This state of affairs may seem stereotypical of post-communist Romania, a nation stuck in a constant battle against endemic corruption. On the other hand, anyone who has dealt with Romanians will know just how kind and helpful they can be. That makes it all the more shocking when having to deal with a fork-tongued, duplicitous Bucharest taxi driver. They are in a class all their own, a very low and corrupt class at that.

There is no end to the shenanigans these taxis pull on a daily basis. For example, many will list a nighttime rate that is lower than their actual daily rate. The problem is that the daily rate is listed in small font that is imperceptible to those who do not know where to look. Some rogue taxis will take naïve passengers for a ride, then also lay claim to their luggage. The passenger can only get their luggage back after paying a super hefty finder’s fee. Of course, the finder happens to their taxi driver. Only then will the driver unlock the trunk. One of the more clever tricks rogue taxi services use involves having a name and logo that approximates a reputable service. Thus, Speed Taxi (which is one of the more trustworthy company) is often mimicked by a firm known as Street. The confusion they are able to cause has lightened the wallet of many unsuspecting travelers. It also serves as a less than desirable welcome to Bucharest.

Triple The Price – Where It All Started
Our welcome to Bucharest was a little bit better, but not much. Tim and I spotted a taxi that according to our guidebooks was part of a reliable firm. The rate was posted clearly in the window. We approached the driver from behind so as to surprise him. He looked at the address we handed to him, nodded and dutifully placed our luggage in the trunk. We double checked the posted rate with him one more time before setting off. We felt at ease when he turned on meter as the taxi proceeded down a wide boulevard.

Within thirty seconds our calm was broken by shouts from the driver. He began to yell, “trei leu, trei leu, trei leu.” Even with almost zero knowledge of Romanian we both knew he was tripling the price. After a few seconds of shock, Tim and I settled on a plan. We began to shout back for the driver to pull over immediately. At first he tried to ignore our protestations, but we kept on yelling until he pulled over to the curb. We waited for him to get out and go to the trunk. The driver would not look us in the eye.  We hovered close to him as he flung open the trunk. We took our bags out and proceeded over to the sidewalk. The taxi sped off. Within five minutes Tim and I were back to where we started. So was the taxi driver who stood beside his vehicle waiting for another opportunity to “trei leu”.



A Load Of Crap – Incidental Conflicts: Calamity & Chaos On Bus #68 In Kispest (Part Two)

Public transport at night in a major city is normally something I try to avoid. Growing up in America I learned pretty quickly that public transportation in urban areas can be a haven for criminals especially as night closes in. There are a few notable exceptions such as New York City, parts of Chicago and Washington D.C., but by and large buses and subways are best avoided, especially if you do not know your way around. Thus I was quite shocked to discover on my first visit to Eastern Europe that inner cities are among the safest areas. I still recall walking down Unter den Linden in Berlin late one night marveling at happy, blissful people strolling down the street in perfect safety. Such a scene is the rule rather than the exception for almost all major cities in Eastern Europe.

The worst thing I saw in Riga and Prague were the entrances to strip clubs, in Warsaw it was a few drunks stumbling through a city park, while in Kiev and Lviv a bit of loud laughter and yelling. In Budapest – the city I have spent the most time visiting in the region – I can scarcely conjure an area I would not feel safe in late at night. Beggars and random drunks are a menace mostly to themselves. One would have to seek out violent criminal activity in the city to actually find it. Sure there are scams, pick pockets and small scale theft, but nothing to cause major worries. That certainly does not mean Budapest is free of depravity or bizarre behavior. I experienced such on a foggy, winter night while riding a city bus in Kispest, the city’s 19th district.

Bus 68 in Kispest - anything can happen

Bus 68 in Kispest – anything can happen (Credit Aron_son)

In The Mood – Breaking The Impenetrable Silence
On a particular gloomy, December evening I got on Bus #68 with my wife at the Koki terminal, the Kobanya-Kispest shopping mall. We were going home on the final portion of the bus route that ends at Vas Gereben utca. The ride would take about 15 minutes. We had covered this route many times before with nary a problem. Kispest is a working class area of the city. The inhabitants are best characterized by their reserve. Most bus rides are done in impenetrable silence. The passengers practice stoicism with frozen, unsmiling faces. They do not look happy nor sad, just alive, well sort of. The drivers usually offer the most excitement. Driving styles can vary widely or should I say wildly. Sometimes the trip turns into an amusement park ride, with the passenger’s swaying to and fro. A bad driver will slam on the brakes constantly, floor the gas pedal and cut corners at every opportunity. While few ever have an accident, they do plenty of damage to their passengers who are jerked in all manner of unnatural positions. The ability to stay upright is a necessary skill. Perhaps stoicism is the only way to deal with such a calamitous situation.

While boarding bus #68 that night we saw that it was only about a quarter full. We sat towards the back where few seats were taken. As the journey got underway we noticed only two other pairs of passengers in this part of the bus. The first was a father and son sitting in the very back row together. They were clean cut and dressed quite nicely. There was also a man and woman slumped in their seats. We were a couple of rows up from them. It took less than a minute to figure out they were going to be a problem. The man mumbled endlessly, while the woman was not even capable of that much. She would let out a whimpering moan from time to time. Their most notable trait was a body odor that soon overtook the entire back of the bus.The smell actually had a physical aspect, as it did not so much penetrate the nostrils as fill them. It was a force that literally pushed us from our seats and to the front of the bus. Soon, everyone on the bus was complaining about the foul smelling couple. The offending man decided to yell at no one in particular. The passengers were so repulsed that many began to openly voice their disgust.

“Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are? – From Raging To Revolting
The situation worsened when an even fouler odor came wafting through the bus. A noxious smell of human feces soon penetrated the entire bus. This sent the passengers from irritation to near rage. I have never witnessed a riot before, but the passengers suddenly seemed to be in the mood for one. I could feel anger rising. Passengers, both men and women, started yelling at the couple. When this did little good, their anger turned toward the bus driver. My wife translated the cacophony for me. The bus driver pleaded helplessness. He said that the people were homeless and mentally ill, there was nothing he could do except to call the police. They could meet the bus at the end of the route. This did little to assuage the passenger’s anger. They demanded something more be done immediately.

A man had been talking to the driver during the journey, they seemed to be acquaintances. He took it upon himself to go tell the offending couple to get off the bus. This began an argument that went nowhere. The man went back up to the front of the bus where he started talking with the driver again. About this time another man, who looked to be in his mid-20’s, began arguing with the man who had tried to tell the couple to leave the bus. The argument grew fiercer. My wife translated. It seemed that the younger man was upset that this guy had tried to throw the couple off the bus. He said to him, “who the fuck do you think you are?” He berated the man until the bus came to the next stop. Just then he turned to get out, but before exiting turned around and punched the guy just below the shoulder, knocking him backward.  That ended one sideshow. Meanwhile, the main drama continued in the back of the bus.

City Buses & Any Buses – Arriving At A Conclusion
Soon almost all the passengers had exited, but not before telling the driver a few choice words. Looking back, I noticed that the father and son who had boarded with us were still sitting in the same place as earlier. They were the only ones to somehow weather this storm. They sat expressionless, looking forward without a hint of emotion. The bus made it to the final stop. We got off as fast as we could. The police were just pulling up. The couple was still on the bus. That was the last we ever saw of them. Later that evening I began to ask myself if it had really happened. Of course it had. It was not dangerous or violent, just bizarre, depraved and sad, not so much frightening as it was disturbing. It definitely had an effect. Every time we rode bus #68 after that, we took a seat right at the front and tried never to look back. That memorable journey did not change my opinion of Budapest, but it did of city buses and for that matter, any buses.

Taken For A Ride – Incidental Conflicts: Experiences In Eastern European Bus Travel (Part One)

Of all the different modes of travel that can be used to get across Eastern Europe I have found that the bus is by far the most exhausting. On multiple occasions I have stumbled off a bus, half-crazed, vowing never to take another one again. Then a year later, I find myself wanting to visit some remote village or historic site with no train station anywhere nearby. I do not have access to a car. Thus, the bus is the only reasonable alternative. Within ten minutes of departure I am filled with regret and silently declare that this will be my last bus ride. Despite such misgivings, I must admit that a bus can give the traveler a unique perspective on a nation, its people and what life is like for those who rely on public transport. I am still not sure if that perspective is worth the pain and bother of riding the bus.

Looks can deceive - especially when traveling from Riga to Vilnius

Looks can deceive – especially when traveling from Riga to Vilnius (Credit: Bronislava69)

Ready For Rage – The Road To Vilnius
My problems with bus travel began on a trip between Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania. The bus was run by the Eurolines Company that covers the continent. The bus was clean, relatively new and professionally operated. Unfortunately, the seats were small, leaving very limited space for passengers to maneuver. Dealing with an extremely tight space for three hours was difficult enough, but when I got up to use the bathroom I found out just how bad it could get. I had troubled keeping my balance as I lurched to the back of the bus while bumping into one passenger after another. The tiny bathroom provided an even worse dilemma. Urinating took an incredible amount of dexterity. I was wedged inside what could have passed for an oddly shaped crawl space. When I got back to my seat, the situation worsened, two “gentleman” (I use that term loosely) a couple of rows behind me decided they would converse in something akin to a loud roar. It was impossible to concentrate on reading or sleeping, this bus ride became a test of tolerance.

At least we were on a main highway that was in optimal condition. Even so, the nature of bus travel means that every crack or crevice in the road can be felt. Because there were no seatbelts I was constantly trying to steady myself. Otherwise I would have bounced right into the lap of the woman sitting beside me.  By the time the bus pulled into the main station at Vilnius I was in a near rage. My mood was worsened by the free for all that ensued when the luggage compartment was opened. I was nearly knocked over by aggressive passengers lunging for their suitcases. I only procured my own after a nasty struggle that ended with me in a fit of temper. With pleasurable disdain I knocked another man’s suitcase, to which he was attached, out of the way. To my surprise he did not seem fazed, must happen to him all the time. I was exhausted, enraged and ready to trade blows as I stomped off to my hostel. Welcome to Vilnius!

Here comes trouble - Marshrutka in Lviv

Here comes trouble – Marshrutka in Lviv (Credit: Buka)

Special Services – Roadside Pullouts & Ukrainian Frights
One thing bus travel is certainly good for is creating memorable experiences. A sterling example of this occurred on a trip I took through Transylvania. The bus from Brasov to Sibiu was down at the heel, with an overwhelming smell of smoke permeating the interior though there was no smoking. Of course everyone chain smoked before they got onboard. A flame orange interior and half dirty seat cushions only added to the charm. The driver made up for the aesthetics by providing a special service. When an old man tapped on his shoulder, the driver immediately pulled over to the side of the road. The old man climbed out of the bus and proceeded to urinate in a meadow as cars roared past on the highway. He then re-entered the bus, thanked the driver and we set off again. I sure was glad he did not need to do more than that.

The further east one goes the crazier bus travel seems to get. Everyone should experience a marshrutka once in their life. Marshrutkas are a famous type of minibus found throughout Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. A cross between a minivan and a bus, they can take the traveler almost anywhere, but only if the traveler survives the experience. I will never forget my first sighting of a marshrutka. I was walking down Svobody Prospekt in Lviv. Suddenly a yellow marshrutka, jam packed with people, their faces pressed up against the windows, rolled slowly by. They looked incredibly uncomfortable. Out of necessity I was unlucky enough to experience a marshutka on my second trip to western Ukraine

I had the distinct displeasure of being on an overcrowded marshrutka returning from the Polish border to Lviv on St. Nicholas’ Day when Ukrainians exchange Christmas gifts with one another. The bus was packed with passengers, their arms filled to bursting with purchases. They were standing against one another in the main aisle. A man leaned on me to the point where at times he was sitting on my shoulder. There was only one seat that did not have a person in it. This was because a woman had paid for two seats, one for herself and the other for two comforters she had purchased. The offending items, as well as the woman were eyed angrily, by those standing in the aisle.

Bus 68 in Kispest - anything can happen

Bus 68 in Kispest – anything can happen (Credit: Aron_son)

Memories That Last Forever – Bringing It All Back Home
The bus is bad enough, but sometimes the people on board lower expectations even further. In southern Hungary a bus ride from Pecs to the wine village of Villany turned into a one man show, when an inebriated Gypsy got on board and proceeded to serenade the passengers. Half laughed nervously, the other half ignored him. The bus driver finally grew so fed up with his behavior that he let him off between villages in the middle of nowhere. The last I saw of him, he was tottering beside an empty field. That incident pales in comparison to a ride I took one gloomy December night on bus #68 in Kispest, the 19th district in Budapest. A traumatic experience that was so utterly unforgettable that still today I shudder at the mere thought of it.

Coming soon: A Load Of Crap – Incidental Conflicts: Calamity & Chaos On Bus #68 In Kispest (Part Two)


Weird, But Not Menacing – Against Fear: Crime & Safety in Eastern Europe

It has happened so many times that by now I should be used to it. Someone finds out I have traveled to Europe and asks me where I went. When I mention Hungary or Slovakia or Ukraine or some other country in Eastern Europe they look at me surprised, then follows an awkward silence. They wait for me to say something, it becomes obvious that they know next to nothing about the nation I have mentioned, except that it used to be communist and therefore must be dangerous. An example of this occurred not long ago when I was discussing a European trip with someone whose only overseas travel had been to England and France. They would soon be headed to Greece and eventually hoped to visit Croatia. They asked me places that I might recommend. I said if you get to Croatia, check out Bosnia because it is beautiful, highly affordable and a place where east and west collide sometimes right before your eyes. A third person listening to this conversation turned a bit pale and said, “Bosnia sounds dangerous.” I tried to set their mind at ease, saying “it is fine, one of the safest places I have been.” Their expression belied a willful disbelief. Our conversation ended not long after that, but it reminded me of so many I have had since I first traveled to Eastern Europe.

Beliefs About Bosnia – Safety In Sarajevo
The long shadow cast by four and half decades of the Cold War and communism, the Iron Curtain and Soviet occupation, has left an impression in American minds that Eastern Europe is a land of totalitarian backwardness. The post-Cold War era has transformed that image for westerners into a region that is at best incomprehensible, at worst beset by lawlessness, with governments captured by Mafioso and business riven with bandit capitalism. Like any stereotype, such a reputation contains elements of the truth. For instance, Bosnia is not dangerous today, but was deadly during the 1990’s Yugoslav Wars. Ukraine has an ongoing war in its southeastern part, but the rest of the country – a land mass larger than France – is largely peaceful. Such facts do little to dissuade prejudice and keep many Americans away from the region.

Street sign in Sarajevo - note the bullet holes below the sign

Street sign in Sarajevo – note the bullet holes below the sign

I often get the sense that people believe that as soon as someone arrives in Belgrade or Bratislava they will be set upon by armed thugs, scam artists and corrupt police demanding bribes. The reality is much different. They are much more likely to be left to their own devices. Let’s be honest, a sense of helplessness is likely to cause more travelers to avoid the region than local crime. A city such as Sarajevo stands out for the difference between expectations and reality when it comes to safety. It was ground zero for urban warfare during the Yugoslav Wars. The city was besieged for 1,425 days, as Serbian forces attempted to shell the city into submission. Fifteen years later I visited Sarajevo and have rarely felt safer in a city. Nothing about it felt threatening. Underneath sunny skies, looking up at the hills surrounding the city, it was difficult for me to imagine the horrors that Sarajevo had suffered in the not so distant past. The scenes of Bosnians running for their lives as they struggled to so much as cross a street had been beamed into homes around the world on nightly newscasts during the mid-1990s.

Sarajevo - a city now at peace

Sarajevo – a city now at peace (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Now there were young people sitting in outdoor cafes socializing and sipping coffee.  All the main tourist areas were in excellent condition, war could not have been any further from this scene. It was only when I started going down side streets and back alleys that damage from the war became highly visible. Building after building was pockmarked with bullet holes. This had once been a war zone, now it was benign. Since my visit, Sarajevo has continued to exist in a relatively docile state. According to one major crime index Sarajevo is safer than Paris, Brussels, Rome and Dublin. Think about that for a moment, a city that was at the heart of the deadliest conflict in post-World War II Europe a decade and a half ago is now safer for both its citizens and tourists than many wealthy Western European capital cities. When I asked the proprietor at my hotel if the city was safe, he replied “Sarajevo is perfectly safe for tourists.” From what I experienced, he could not have been more correct.

Street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest

Looks safe to me – street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest
(Credit: Czimmy)

Perception & Reality – The Safety Of City Centers
In the 2016 Crime Index, Kharkiv in the far eastern portion of Ukraine was the most unsafe city in Eastern Europe. There were still twelve cities above it though. All of these were in Western Europe or Great Britain. I have never been in Kharkiv, but I have been to Kiev. The most worrisome thing in the capital of Ukraine was a corrupt police force looking to check documents and possibly extract bribes. Even a relatively unsafe Eastern European city has to be put in perspective. Tourists are unlikely to ever go into the most dangerous areas of these cities. The majority of Eastern European cities have very safe city centers. The crime is usually concentrated in outer districts. This is the complete opposite of the United States where inner cities are usually outposts of crime that can sometimes turn deadly, especially after the sun goes down. It is a strange sensation for an American to be wandering around the center of a city such as Budapest late at night not giving much of a thought to personal safety.

One of the supposedly more “unsafe” areas in Budapest is the 8th District, Joszefvaros. In some areas it does look rougher around the edges than other parts of the city, but I have been in the district more than twenty times and have never had a problem there. Rougher in this area of Budapest means the streets are grimier, there are more odd characters begging for cigarettes and sleeping on the streets. It feels weird, but not menacing. The phrase “weird, but not menacing” perhaps sums up the real fear for those Americans who do not visit Eastern Europe. The region is weird for many people because they know next to nothing about it. It is also filled with nationalities speaking strange languages and who have a much different history from the west. Eastern Europe may not have a reputation for refinement and wealth, but it should also not have a reputation for crime. Western Europe is where that problem largely resides.



“Just Go” – Journey To Herkulesfurdo (Baile Herculane): A Picture Is Worth Thousands Of Miles

Whenever the subject of my travels to Eastern Europe comes up in conversation, the person I am talking with almost always asks me “How did you ever get there?” My answer usually involves explaining my lifelong interest in the region. Every once in a while, I will add by saying, “It is real easy. All you have to do is book everything online and just go.” While they knowingly nod at the first part, I can see fear in their eyes when I say “just go.” In that moment, I am pretty sure that they will never “just go.” Perhaps they do not trust my judgment, though I have survived all of my trips. Sometimes they look at me like I am crazy. I will admit to making the trip sound way too easy. Yet the truth of the matter: it is that easy.

In front of the train station in Herkulesfurdo, 1911

In front of the train station in Herkulesfurdo, 1911

Magic Act – A Woman In Peasant Dress With A Smile On Her Face
I thought of this the other night while sitting in front of my laptop looking through old photos on the website, Fortepan.hu. Fortepan.hu contains almost 80,000 photographs from Hungary between 1900 -1990 that have been uploaded by anyone who would like to share their photos for the sake of posterity. It is a treasure trove of daily life during a time of great change in the country. One of the photos that captured my imagination was taken in the Banat region (Bansag in Hungarian). It shows a woman in peasant dress with a smile on her face. She is leaning on an umbrella while standing outside a train station in the town of Herkulesfurdo. Both the photo and the town’s name lodged in my consciousness. I suddenly wanted to go there. Go to the exact same place 106 years later and snap a photo in the exact same spot. I was seized by a thought, what if someone looking at this photo felt the same inspiration that I did. And what if that person had never been to Eastern Europe before, but now felt an irresistible urge to travel to a place they would otherwise never visit. What if they decided to “just go.” All it would take is some money, a sense of adventure and force of will.

Let us say that our hypothetical traveler has a passport, money and the inclination to make this trip as soon as possible. They would first book a flight out of Denver, switch planes in Washington and Istanbul before landing in Bucharest. Leaving at 3:45 p.m. (15:45) on March 8th they would arrive in the Romanian capital at 8:45 p.m. (20:45) on March 9th, after nineteen and a half hours in transit. Deprived of sleep, weary from watching one too many melodramatic movies and with their stomach rumbling after consuming a pasta dish swimming in an unknown sauce, our traveler would overnight in Bucharest. A taxi would take them at a considerable markup to an accommodation close to the main train station. They would spend the night with the odd sensation that they were still airborne, as their bed seems to be moving.

Bucharest North Railway Station - the largest in Romania

Bucharest North Railway Station – the largest in Romania (Credit: Daniel Caluian)

Points Of No Return – Urchin Urgings
The next morning our traveler makes their way to the train station. They would be shocked by what they saw. Once a stop on the fabled Orient Express line, the Bucharest North Railway Station (Bucuresti Gara de Nord) has now substituted seediness for grandeur. It is filled with strange characters, illegal cab drivers, petty thieves, corrupt and rather harmless hangers on.  What would an adventure be without a bit of mystery, intrigue and danger from these station urchins? Our traveler finds the ticket window and discovers that no one speaks a word of English. Herkulesfurdo elicits puzzled looks from the female ticket seller. That is the Hungarian name for the town. Using it, rather than the town’s Romanian name could result in dirty looks.

In desperation the magical words “Baile Herculane” are uttered. A ticket is forthcoming. The train leaves at 10:45 a.m. It is a rather uneventful and rickety six hour ride across the Wallachian Plain. Fallow fields stretch out in every direction, waiting for spring to begin in earnest. Plumes of dust fill the air, clouding the horizon. Periodically this scene is broken by oil derricks, hinting at the black gold just beneath the fertile soil. The most notable city along the route is Craiova, one of those places that evoke Ceaucescu era Romania. A place that is famous for making cars, corruption and little else.

There is always a point on any impulsive trip when a traveler wonders if they made the right decision, when the self-doubt begins to feel overwhelming. The unfamiliar magnifies loneliness, fear succumbs to depression. Ignorance of language, customs and culture seems all consuming. This is the moment that proves decisive. Our traveler is too far gone, there is no turning back. At this point what else can they do? And as the afternoon goes on they become more comfortable with the thought. Perhaps this has to do with the striking scenery that comes into view. The train snakes its way into the Cerna valley. Lush forests run up the hillsides. Tucked into this inviting landscape is the final destination, Baile Herculane or Herkulesfurdo. The name hardly matters at this point. Our traveler disembarks at a station that makes them believe it is forever 1900 there.

Point of arrival - Băile Herculane (Herkulefurdo) Train Station

Point of arrival – Băile Herculane (Herkulefurdo) Train Station (Credit: stancosty)

The Search That Never Ends
Our traveler makes their way through the station. Just outside the entrance they look at a printed copy of the photo which brought them this far. They try to reimagine that moment. What was that lady smiling at, a comment, a friend or something else? Why was she holding an umbrella? Where was she going? Where had she been? These were among the many mysteries that would never be answered. Perhaps the more interesting question was why did our traveler care so much? Why had they followed this photo thousands of miles to a remote corner of southwestern Romania? They will probably never know any of the answers to those questions. And that is quite wonderful. Because it will keep them searching and keep them traveling to places like Herkulesfurdo. Places they could have scarcely imagined before they decided to “just go.”


“Shadow Prince” – Henner Henkel: From The French Open Champion To Stalingrad

He was born during the First World War and would die fighting in the Second. During his short, eventful life he rose to tennis stardom becoming the number three player in the world. Yet a little over five years after winning his first and only Grand Slam singles title he found himself trapped along with an entire German Army in the frozen wasteland around Stalingrad. There he would die on a brutally cold, mid-January day, one of millions of German soldiers who lost their lives on the Eastern Front. The only difference between him and so many others whose names have been lost to history was that his name has been etched into the tennis history books forever as a victor of the French Open. That man’s name, Heinrich “Henner” Henkel deserves to be remembered.

Heinrich "Henner" Henkel

Heinrich “Henner” Henkel (Credit Alex Nieuwland)

Best Of The Next Best – The Unexpected Champion
If asked to name the most famous German men’s tennis player of all time, most tennis experts would say Boris Becker. As a teenage wunderkind with a booming serve he took the tennis world by storm. By the age of 21 Becker had won three Wimbledon titles. In a long and notable career he won 49 titles, but none of these came on red clay. Clay was Becker’s kryptonite, especially at the French Open where he only made it as far as the semifinals twice. Because Becker and his countryman Michael Stich (runner-up 1996 French Open) failed to win in Paris, this left a forgotten man with a funny name as the last German to win the Grand Slam tournament. In 1937 the best German tennis player in the world was Gottfried von Cramm. Von Cramm played in three consecutive French Open finals from 1934-1936 winning two of them, but in 1937 the Nazi government would now allow him to play the event. He refused to comply with Nazi ideology and act as a tool for their propaganda. Von Cramm’s absence removed a major obstacle for Heinrich Henkel.

Dubbed “The Shadow Prince” because he played in the shadow of the more famous Von Cramm, the handsome, blond haired Henkel looked the part of a matinee idol. Born in Posen (present day Poznan, Poland), Henkel grew up in a family that loved tennis. Both his mother and father were avid players. When he started to show a keen interest in football, Henkel’s parents discouraged him from further pursuing the game. Instead they told him to focus on tennis. That he did, with fantastic results.  By the time he turned 19 Henkel was a two time German junior champion and had become a member of the David Cup squad. His game was solid and sometimes spectacular. A blistering first serve won him many points easily. Many tennis experts rated him a greater talent than Von Cramm, but he seemed to lack the same drive and focus that had propelled his countryman to the top of tennis. Henkel was light hearted, enjoying life to a much greater degree than other world class players.

A Shadow Prince and The Baron - Henner Henkel and Gottfried von Cramm

A Shadow Prince and The Baron – Henner Henkel and Gottfried von Cramm (Credit: State Library of New South Wales)

A Decisive Performance – A Devastating Fate
A better doubles than singles player, Henkel attained his greatest results playing with a partner. He made the finals of every Grand Slam tournament, winning both the French and U.S. Open titles with Von Cramm in 1937. Also in that year Henkel achieved his greatest feat in singles play on the red clay of the French Open. He started his title run in the second round. In those days, the French Open gave higher seeded players first round byes. Thus, to win the title Henkel would have to win six rather than seven matches. He cruised through the first three rounds against unseeded competition, losing only the 2nd set in a match against Raymond Tuckey of Great Britain. As the tournament went on Henkel’s play became even more impressive. Starting in the quarterfinals he defeated three consecutive seeded players, all without the loss of a single set. In the semifinals and final he destroyed the #2 and #1 seeds respectively, ceding only eight games to each of his opponents. It was one of the most decisive performances in Grand Slam history and one that Henkel would never repeat again in a Grand Slam singles tournament. He never played another match at the French Open. His best results from that point forward were a couple of semifinal finishes at Wimbledon.

As Germany became further and further engulfed by war, Henkel’s play at international tournaments was increasingly limited. He played his last major tournament abroad in Spain during the latter part of 1941. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the war increasingly began to hit home in the form of draft notices as the Third Reich required more and more manpower to sustain an army suffering massive casualties on the Eastern Front. Sporting heroes could not escape the grasp of military necessity. A total war meant mass mobilization.  In 1942 while playing at a tournament in the spa resort town of Bad Pyrmont, messengers from the telegraph office brought news from the military recruiting office that Henkel had been drafted. He made it all the way to the final in what was to be his last tournament.

How he will be remembered - Henkel in all his glory

How he will be remembered – Henkel in all his glory

Always Known & Rarely Mentioned – A Famous Footnote
Later that same year Henkel received his baptism of fire in the fighting around Stalingrad. During battle he was seriously wounded in the upper thigh by a bullet. With the German Army surrounded on all sides there was no chance at evacuation. His condition soon worsened. The bitterly cold weather did not help matters. In mid-January 1943, Henner Henkel died from his wound in Rossosh, Soviet Union.  He was just 27 years old. Three weeks later the German 6th Army surrendered. Henkel’s death was just one of an estimated 734,000 killed, wounded or missing German casualties. In a strange way death allowed Henkel to escape what would have proved an even harsher fate. If he had been one of the 108,000 Germans captured, it is almost certain that he would have been subjected to forced labor. Instead he was able to die with at least some dignity. Today Henner Henkel is little more than an answer to trivia questions, a footnote in French Open tennis history. His name is rarely mentioned, but at least it is known. He rightfully earned himself a place in the record books with his magnificent play at the 1937 French Open. For that he will always be known as a champion, a title that war can never take away from him.


Alone At A Funeral – Moment Of Surrender: The German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

In Berlin the past never seems remote. There are remnants of the Berlin Wall, churches that World War II bombers crashed into, buildings constructed by Kaisers, Communists and Nazis. Almost anywhere you look the past is still palpable. There are also more remote sites that many would just as soon forget. Where the past is extremely painful and nothing good can come from reopening an old wound. One of these sites lurks in an otherwise ordinary neighborhood, the kind of nondescript setting that one usually does not equate with a history making event. Yet this is Berlin a place where war, defeat and division are all within living memory.

German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (Credit: Anagoria)

The House Of Capitulation – A Less Than Impressive Impression
On April 30, 1945 in an underground bunker beneath Berlin, Adolf Hitler blew his brains out. Forty-eight hours later the flag of the Soviet Union was raised over the Reichstag. As remarkable and decisive as these two events were in the German capital, neither signaled the official end of the war. Though the Red Army was in the process of finishing off the last remnants of the German Army and the Battle of Berlin would conclude on May 2, 1945, the war would not officially conclude until six days later. The surrender would take place far from the center of Berlin, in an eastern suburb of the city known as Karlshorst. The same place where the surrender was signed, known today as the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (Deutsch-Russische Museum Berlin-Karlshorst), can still be visited.  I discovered the place devoid of tourists on a beautiful spring day. In retrospect it is not surprising to me that only 40,000 people visit this site each year.  Just finding my way to the museum was not easy.

The quickest route by public transport to Karlshorst is on the Berlin S-Bahn 3 line. I took it starting at Ostkreuz in East Berlin, heading further east along the line for 5 kilometers until I arrived at the Berlin-Karlshorst station. A short walk brought me to Rheinsteinstrasse, which according to my map eventually led to the museum. What followed was a pleasant walk. The tree lined street flanked on either side by pastel painted apartment buildings and villas.  It seemed almost too normal, well kempt and above all, very German. It was hard to believe that during the Cold War, Karlshorst had been dominated by the Soviets. That domination began during the Battle of Berlin at what is today the German-Russian Museum, which after twenty minutes I found. The building was less than impressive, a bland gray, two and a half story structure with a red tiled roof. It looked like what it had been prior to the Soviets arrival, an officer’s mess hall. It was hard to believe that anything important could ever have happened here.

Deadly beast - Soviet T34 tank outside the German-Russian Museum

Deadly beast – Soviet T34 tank outside the German-Russian Museum (Credit: Andreas Teutsch)

No Illusions – Conditions For Unconditional Surrender
Standing in front of the museum I did see one visible artifact that betrayed the Second World War, to the left of the building stood a large Soviet T34 tank. It is generally agreed that the T34 was the most effective tank built by any side during the war. Its combination of firepower and mobility was unmatched, as was the Soviet ability to manufacture 80,000 of these deadly beasts. In large part, the Soviet war machine was propelled westward to Berlin by the T34. In April 1945 the Red Army slowly fought their way into the city despite the fiercest of resistance. It was during this time that the Supreme Commander of Soviet Forces, Marshal Georgi Zhukov setup his headquarters in what is today the German-Russian Museum. From here he directed the final assault on Berlin. It would also be from here that the death certificate of German militarism would be signed.

The surrender of all German forces was a two part affair.  The Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) only wanted to surrender to the western Allies. The Wehrmacht’s leadership had no illusions about the harsh punishment that awaited them at the hands of the Soviets. An act was drawn up and signed in Reims, France on May 7th, but this did not satisfy the Soviets. Josef Stalin and the Soviet high command insisted that this act of German unconditional surrender was invalid.  Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ensured that the commanders of all three branches of the German military were flown to Berlin where they would take part in a formal surrender to the Soviets. Thus, late in the evening of May 8th, Allied, Soviet and Wehrmacht delegations traveled to the former officer’s mess at Karlshorst to sign the unconditional surrender.

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the German unconditional surrender at Karlshorst

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the German unconditional surrender at Karlshorst (Credit: NARA)

Before And After Midnight – Strokes Of Fate
Visiting the museum felt sublime. I was not really interested in any of the exhibits on offer. The true power of the place resided in the room where the surrender was signed. The room itself was a large cavernous space, a typical setting for a large dining hall. The allied delegation arrived just before midnight on May 8th while the German representatives entered the hall just after the clock had struck midnight. A new day had dawned both literally and figuratively. The ceremony took less than 15 minutes to complete, breathtakingly brief when compared to the years of planning that went into preparing for war, followed by the years of killing.

And all the horror, infamy and tragedy was ended by a few strokes of the pen in a quarter of an hour. It was the end not only for the Wehrmacht, but also the beginning of the end for two of their three signatories. In just over two weeks the man who signed for the Luftwaffe, Hans-Jurgen Stumpff would commit suicide by ingesting poison. He could not live with the shame of surrender. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel would be hanged the following year, after being convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg. His death was a particularly gruesome one. The trap door through which he fell to his death was not set right causing him to be slowly strangled to death. His fate could not have been worse than the millions of innocents who lost their lives because of decisions made by men like Keitel and Hitler’s other henchmen.

Room where the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces was signed

Room where the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces was signed (Credit: Andreas Teutsch)

Dead End – Footsteps Creaking Across The Floor
Standing in the room where World War II in Europe finally came to an end was a humbling experience. The museum is a somber memorial to the very end of a bitter, brutal war that took more lives than any other in human history. There is little to celebrate and much to mourn. No one else was visiting the museum at that time. I was all alone, standing to the side looking at the place settings. The room was setup to look like it did when the surrender took place. The only sound I could hear was my own footsteps, creaking across the floor. The effect was unsettling. A deep sadness came over me, the kind that occurs when you realize that nothing will ever be the same again. I felt like I was the only person at a funeral, on this day I was.


Wings Of Fire – Siegessäule:  Berlin’s Monument To Militarism

One of the most iconic World War II photographs shows the flag of the Soviet Union being raised by a Red Army soldier atop the burned out Reichstag during the Battle of Berlin. After four years of the most violent conflict in human history the Soviets had finally defeated Nazism. The heart and soul of the fascist beast, Berlin, was finally occupied. The photo was taken on May 2, 1945. On that same day, another nation’s flag flew over a symbolic monument not very far from the Reichstag. At the center of the Grosser Stern (Great Star), an intersection where four major boulevards converge, the flag of Poland was unfurled atop the Siegessäule (Victory Column). It was an incredible irony. The countries where Nazi Germany had carried out their most destructive actions during the war were now flying their flags atop two of Berlin’s most famous architectural wonders.

While many are aware of the Reichstag’s importance, the Siegessäule was just as mighty a symbol. Until 1938 it had stood in front of the Reichstag. Then it was uprooted and moved to the Grosser Stern. This was done in order to make way for the building of what was going to be the Nazi capital of the world, Germania. The Siegessäule had been constructed to commemorate multiple German victories in warfare, but by the end of the Second World War it was just another monument to German defeat. Today it stands at Grosser Stern as a soaring reminder of the ill-fated fortunes of modern German history.

Antoni Jabłoński hoists the Polish flag over Berlin from the Siegessäule

Antoni Jabłoński hoists the Polish flag over Berlin from the Siegessäule (Victory Column) on May 2, 1945

Unification & Division – Warfare For Germany
The fact that the Siegessäule still exists is due to luck and a historical twist of fate, Nazi planning for a city that would never exist. If not for its pre-war relocation, the monument would almost certainly have been destroyed by American air raids. It certainly would have made an inviting target. Now as a major tourist attraction in the city, it is best known for the commanding views that can be seen from the top of it. A 360 degree look at the surrounding Tiergarten and greater Berlin is well worth an exhaustion inducing trek up a spiral staircase of 585 steps. Yet the Siegessäule is more than just a modern tourist attraction.  It is also a place loaded with political and historical meaning, symbolic of the martial efforts that led to Germany’s unification and downfall.

It took nearly a decade to erect the Siegessäule. While sculptors and artisans worked on constructing the monument from 1864 to 1873, Germany was being unified by the military might of Prussia. The Siegessäule was first commissioned to honor the victory over Denmark in the Danish-Prussian War of 1864. This resulted in Prussia acquiring the region of Schleswig-Holstein in what is today northern Germany. Later victories in the Austro-Prussian War and Franco-Prussian War would also be commemorated by the monument.  Each of these wars was represented on the Siegessäule by circular sandstone columns, stacked one atop another and adorned with cannon barrels captured as prizes of war. The monument as it was originally conceived honored German militarism’s role in creating a unified state. Now it acts as a useful reminder that even before the Nazis came to power, modern Germany was brought together by the same thing that would tear it apart, warfare.

The Siegessäule - a view from above

The Siegessäule surrounded by the Grosser Stern (Great Star) – a view from above (Credit: Stephen Karl)

Homage To Future Victories – Monumental Arrogance
The Nazis went one better on the Siegessäule, adding a fourth, shorter column above the other three on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler. This was done in 1938, paying homage to future victories in the wars to come. This act of incredible hubris demonstrates the arrogant martial ethos of Nazi Germany. In that same year a military parade with 40,000 soldiers took four hours to march past the monument. The boulevard running east-west up to, around and past the monument had been widened to accommodate just such a display. German martial supremacy was given pride of place by the Nazis. And what better place to display the strength and virility of the nation, than close on a monument which celebrated the victories that had created a unified Germany.

There were more such victories to come at the start of the Second World War, but these led to overreach and ultimately defeat. At the beginning of May 1945 smoke from a burned out Berlin was rising all around the Siegessäule, which now cut a rather lonely figure. The monument was still topped by a 35 ton, gilded angel wrapped in gold. Soviet troops had deemed it “The Tall Woman.” This exquisite figure was meant to portray Victoria, the winged Roman Goddess of Victory, but everything Victoria looked down upon during that miserable spring of 1945 was destitution and defeat. What she had stood for was now all but forgotten. The idea of German military might had been shattered. Nonetheless, the Siegessäule stayed in place, no longer a reminder of a triumphal past. It was just there, a place marker and a window offering a vast panorama on a city divided during the Cold War.

Statue of Victoria atop the Siegessäule - still facing west

Statue of Victoria atop the Siegessäule – still facing west (Credit: Thomas Wolf)

Changing Perspectives – Facing An Old Enemy & A New Ally
Eventually the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunited. By then the Siegessäule had become a benign symbol. Berliners had taken to calling it “the Goldelse”, while westerners sometimes referred to it as “the Chick on the Stick.” Now it is known more for offering a splendid viewpoint than anything else. All the might, menace and martial power the monument once represented has lost much of its meaning. Yet it is still there for those who care not to look out from it, but instead stand on the ground from below and look up at it.

Such a change in perspective is telling. Gold winged Victoria faces west, towards France. This was done deliberately. The conflict the Siegessäule was meant to most commemorate was the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. That victory led to the declaration of the German Empire. It also set Germany on a course that would ultimately lead to defeat, ruin, reconstruction and resurgence. Where once the Victoria was situated so as to face in the direction of an old enemy, it now faces towards that same nation which is now a close ally. She also faces towards the freedom and prosperity of the west while turning her back to the east. The Siegessäule still stands in the same place, but the meaning has slowly changed, just like modern Germany.

A Light That We Are Still Able To See – Parkhomivka: Ukraine’s Greatest & Most Obscure Art Museum

Eastern Ukraine brings to mind many images and none of them seem to be good. The common perception is an area of flat, featureless land with smoldering industrial cities and gritty coal mines beset by post-Soviet decline. The largest city Kharkiv is known for its Soviet style of architecture whose main hallmark is gigantism. Add to this an on again, off again war that has fomented lawlessness across the Donbas region and it is little wonder that the area is avoided by most tourists visiting Ukraine. Thus it is quite surprising that one of Eastern Europe’s premier art museums is to be found in the region. And this museum is not located in Kharkiv or one of the other major cities, but in a village deep within the rural countryside. Works by some of the most famous names in 19th and 20th century art call the Parkhomivka History & Arts Museum home. The only question is which ones are original and which ones are not.

To find the museum in Parkhomivka is no easy task. There are two options, take public transport or rent a car. Either way, means navigating the rural roads of Ukraine, never a pleasant experience even in good conditions. A prospective visitor first heads west out of Kharkiv on the P46 highway, after a couple of hours the road takes a slightly bend in the middle of nowhere. This is the beginning of the T1702, notable for its numerous potholes and plethora of patches covering the roadway. For all the money spent on patching, an entirely new road could have likely been built at a much cheaper cost. The short, unhappy jaunt on the T1702 ends at Krasnoktusk with its trio of onion domed Orthodox churches and ubiquitous Soviet war memorial. There is a right turn onto an even more rural road which after fifteen bumpy kilometers leads to Parkhomivka.

Parkhomivka History and Art Museum

Parkhomivka History and Art Museum (Credit: Андрей Руденко)

A Personality Of Passion – Afanisay Lunev’s World Of Art
In the midst of what would otherwise be just another nondescript Ukrainian village, stands Parkohomivka’s vaunted History & Arts Museum. It has to be one of the most unlikely places in the world to discover great art. The museum is housed in a former manor house covered in a coat of pink. While the building’s exterior retains a bit of its former splendor, no one would mistake it for the home of a world class art museum. The structure is a definite upgrade from the museum’s first home, the local village school where the collection was held until 1963. The village school was the beginning of not only the collection, but also the story of the man who was responsible for its procurement.

Following the end of World War II, Afanisay Lunev came to Parkhomivka to teach in the village. His passion for art and literature was boundless. This led him to start a modest museum inside the school showcasing books from his private collection. On weekends, Lunev went to flea markets in Kharkiv, where he discovered masterworks by Soviet artists at cut rate prices. From this humble start the collection began to expand dramatically. Lunev’s students also helped bring in prized pieces. Before long the village school had a sizable collection of art. After the museum moved to the manor house, Lunev’s collection began to incorporate works from world renowned artists. How did a teacher in a village backwater of Soviet Ukraine manage to acquire paintings created by such titans of art as Camille Pissarro and Pablo Picasso?

Afanisay Lunev with schoolchildren

Afanisay Lunev with schoolchildren

Lunev’s method was quite simple. He built personal relationships with directors and curators at institutions such as the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow. These museums were willing to donate surplus artworks that would have otherwise been resigned to a life in storage. The trust placed in Lunev was tremendous. His personality and passion were such that he could sway potential donors. The collection eventually reached some 6,000 pieces by the time of his death in 2004. This was an incredible achievement by any stretch of the imagination. The only question now is which works of art are authentic and which are reproductions. The provenance of many paintings is vague, unknown or open to question. Thus in the museum, rather than have the artist’s name next to a work, there is instead a question mark.  Despite this, it is generally agreed that most of the artwork is original.

Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky

Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky

The Journey Within – Art & Life Forever
An opportunity to view the collection brings visitors to the museum, an estimated 150,000 per year to a remote village with a population of only 3,900. Such is the magnetic allure of the work of Van Gogh and Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Renoir, Manet and Mayakovsky. Lesser known artists are displayed just as prominently, many of them Ukrainian, whose acts of timeless creation cover the walls. Famous names draw travelers to the museum, but a relative unknown can make just as great an impression. Nothing illustrates this better than the mesmerizing Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky. Born in Kiev, Kryzhitsky lived and worked for many years in Gachina near St. Petersburg in Russia, but would often return to central Ukraine to paint landscapes and scenes. In Winter Landscape, Kryzhitsky was quite literally able to capture a moment frozen in time.

The painting portrays one side of several homes in a turn of the 20th century Ukrainian village. The homes are largely covered in snow, but the areas that are not – wood fences and gates, yellow siding and windows – have been painted with such realistic representation that they seem taken from a photograph. Above the houses rises a truly startling yellow sky. In this sky Kryzhitsky managed to create a color that only nature and imagination can produce.  A timeless moment has arrived just after dawn, setting the entire world alight with a blinding vivacity. While on the far right of the painting, a small, solitary figure with their back to the viewer walks gingerly into the brightness of a Winter Landscape. This painting, like hundreds of others at the museum, is indicative of the passion that guided Afanisay Lunev in building his collection. Just as a specific painting caught Lunev’s eye, it can also capture a viewer’s imagination. And it is through the imagination that we see an expression of the world that is a reflection of ourselves. Great art takes us to a timeless place where we can live forever. And Parkhomivka History & Arts Museum is where that journey begins.