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.

 

 

The End Of The Line – Chop, Ukraine: Keeping An Eye On The Border

Border towns and cities are strange places. They are part of, but uniquely different from their home country, members of one nation while being dramatically influenced by a neighboring one. For instance, the Hungarian city of Sopron bills itself as “the most loyal town in Hungary”, but its economic orientation is decidedly western, focused on Austria just a few kilometers away. Many of the citizens of Sopron work in Austria because the wages are much higher.  A range of services – especially dentists – in the city cater to Austrians. There is little doubt that much of Sopron’s prosperity comes from its close proximity to a wealthy neighboring nation.  On the other end of Hungary there is Zahony, the last stop on rail and roadways before entering Ukraine. Zahony is a down at the heel, gritty border town where smuggling is an economic activity of note. Zahony sits on the south bank of the Tisza River which acts as the Hungary-Ukraine border. Cross the Tisza and a whole different world is encountered, starting with the first and westernmost town in Ukraine.

The Eclectic Stalinist style Chop Railway Station

The Eclectic Stalinist style Chop Railway Station (Credit: Nillerdk)

What’s In A Name – Chop & Csap
The Ukrainian town of Chop would be an unmemorable place if not for its location on the border. There are many similar sized towns scattered across Ukraine which are totally anonymous to everyone except their inhabitants. Chop gets an outsized proportion of foreign visitors because it is a border crossing.  Not only does it have a crossing with Hungary, but there is another one with Slovakia. The border effect is magnified by the fact that both of these nations are members of the European Union, a club that the majority of western Ukrainians wish their own country could join. The foreigners who come to Chop do not see the town, as much as they pass by it. Their experience consists of either going to Chop’s train station or sitting inside an automobile or train car waiting to travel further east or west. I have been in Chop on four separate occasions, never leaving the comfort of a train car. Despite this experience or perhaps because of it I have spent a fair amount of time wondering what Chop is really like. The town’s name had a lot to with my fascination.

The name Chop is unforgettable. It evokes images of lumberjacks and butchers, not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when entering Ukraine.  Of course, Chop is an Anglicization of the town’s name, changed from its original, Hungarian form of Csap. Chop took its name from the Csaps, a family of nobles who founded the town in the late 13th century. Long before Chop was an outpost on the Ukraine-Hungary border, it was riven by many shifts in geo-political fault lines. The town has changed hands over one hundred times in its history. During the 20th century it was buffeted by the winds of political change. Chop was part of two empires (Austria-Hungary and the Soviet Union) and one nation (Czechoslovakia) that no longer exist. The greatest influence on the town in the pre-Soviet era was Hungarian. A century ago the town was 99% ethnic Hungarian, that figure has dropped down to 39% today. Now as part of a struggling Ukrainian nation, Chop is at the mercy of Eastern European political tumult once again.

Soviet era mural above ticket windows inside Chop Railway Station

Soviet era mural above ticket windows inside Chop Railway Station (Credit: Dan Durning)

Vacant On The Inside – Socialist-Realism & Stalin In Chop
On the Budapest to Lviv train I got my first view of Chop. From my compartment window Chop’s railway station looked vacant on the inside.  Police and border guards were standing at attention outside it, looking as though they were waiting for something to happen. I always got the feeling that they were looking not so much to stop crime, as to take part in it. Many of the police were beefy, humorless types affecting a faux toughness. It dawned on me that if these are the people guarding the gateway to Ukraine than the country definitely has something to worry about. The interior of the railway station was most notable for a couple of large Soviet mural painting hanging above the ticket windows. These display the usual socialist-realism artwork of soldiers striding confidently into battle with weapons at hand, workers operating machinery with excessive pride and people marching vigorously toward a blissful future.  In other words, the mural portrays the sunny side of communism, exactly the opposite of what people in places such as Chop and greater Ukraine experienced in their day to day existence.

I only saw the backside of Chop’s railway station which faced the platforms. Later while doing research I got my first look at the entrance. I was surprised to find a neoclassical, columned entrance. The style of the station is classified as Stalinist-Eclectic, its façade giving a veneer of style and grace to an otherwise cavernous, concrete structure. Joseph Stalin had more to do with Chop than just the railway station’s architectural style. He actually stayed there on his return from the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II. He supposedly remarked during his stay that he liked the town. What that says about his aesthetic sensibility is anyone’s guess? From what little I have seen of Chop there is scarcely anything memorable about it other than a very large railroad yard with men preparing train cars to travel along the narrower gauge railway line in Ukraine. Because the wait takes many hours I have spent a considerable amount of time staring listlessly out the window wishing I could leave the train for a stroll around town. Unfortunately that is not allowed when taking an international through train.  Thus I have always had to make do with a fleeting glance from the window when the train started back up heading further east into Ukraine.

End of the line - a platform at the Chop railway station

End of the line – a platform at the Chop railway station (Credit: Maksym Kozlenko)

The Birdseye View Of A Borderland
The most memorable feature of Chop for me was on the outskirts of town. It was another part of the communist legacy. A wooden guard tower stands close to the tracks. It must have been used as a lookout for border guards during the Cold War. From the top of it the guards had a bird’s eye view of anyone trying to escape from the Soviet Union. Today it stands empty, an austere monument to a time when Chop was the end of the line.

 

The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #4 Memory – Before It Is Too Late: Deep In The Heart Of Western Ukraine

In the latter part of the 1930’s a group of Polish soldiers were patrolling in the village of Susk. This small, rural community was located in Volhynia, a province in the eastern reaches of Poland. Volhynia, along with Galicia, was where the majority of the Second Republic of Poland’s Ukrainian citizens lived. Poles were a distinct minority in the province despite a concerted effort by the Polish government that resettled tens of thousands of ethnic Poles in the region during the 1920’s and 30’s. The Polish government was deeply insecure about their control over the region. They had good reason to be. Ukrainian nationalists and the Polish provincial administration had been involved in a simmering conflict throughout most of the inter-war period. The government became increasingly suspicious of all Ukrainians. This suspicion was passed on to the army. The soldiers were on edge. Many of them took out their fear and anger on the local population.

A Memory Recovered

(Credit: Edwin Smith)

A Volhynian Memory – Through The Eyes Of A Child
The repression that occurred in the late 1930’s across the remote border province was a precursor for much worse that was to come in Volhynia during World War II, when the Ukrainians and Poles would fight a war within a war. This bit of history is largely absent from the European historical conscious and the historiography of the Second World War. It has been overshadowed by the all-consuming violence of the Eastern Front. How can someone learn what happened between Poles and Ukrainians in Volhynia? The answer is to ask. An elderly woman who grew up in Susk was asked what she remembered from that time. Instead of talking about the Soviet and German occupations, she instead discussed, likely for the first time in decades, what she saw and experienced as a child when Polish soldiers came to her family’s small home in the late 1930’s. Her story was as follows:

“A group of Polish soldiers showed up at their home. They began to harass the family with questions. An impromptu and intimidating interrogation ensued. One of the soldiers began shouting at her older sister, who was only a teenager. Meanwhile, the younger sister and other family members watched helplessly as the soldier ordered the teenage girl to lie down on her stomach. He then began to violently whip her across the back. She was soon in tears from the violent thrashing. All the while her child sister looked on fearfully. Would she be next? What other horrors were to come? Finally the soldier stopped. He ordered the girl to stand up and told her to say “Thank you sir.” She repeated those words. The soldiers left.”

World War II Monument in Susk

World War II Monument in Susk

Imagination Faces Reality – A Memory Recovered
Hearing this story I could sense the sinister, menacing shadow of violence that fell over Volhynia before the outbreak of full scale war. The story was shockingly real. Here were the roots of the genocidal fight between Ukrainians and Poles that would engulf the area. The same incident was likely repeated thousands of times over, as soldiers and police traveled through the countryside looking for weapons and suspicious activities. They would often tear up the villager’s corn stalks or take the roofs off dwellings during searches. These actions were made worse due to the fact that most Ukrainians in Volhyn were badly impoverished. Threats, seizures, beatings and imprisonment were used to intimidate them. No matter their age, everyone was worthy of suspicion. There may have not been an official war going on at the time, but make no mistake, this was the true nature of war, with all of its ugly, insidious violence. The Ukrainians would eventually retaliate with deadly ferocity. This was a case of an eye for an eye leaving tens of thousands blind.

War leaves many scars. The ones on the land or buildings eventually disappear. When it comes to people it is not quite that simple. Physical scars on the body may eventually heal, the mental ones never do. I assume that the woman told this story for a very simple reason. It was time. This story was too important not to be passed on to another generation. By telling the story, she made the incident real. This was the experience of war for her and her family. Her sister was not the only one beaten that day, so was she, not physically, but mentally. The moment seared into her memory forever. What else did she see and feel after that day? Were there moments, days, weeks, months, years later when her older sister cried uncontrollably at the thought of what she had suffered? What was it like for the younger sister to see the bloody bruises on her older sisters back? Did the older sister cry herself to sleep at night for months afterwards? Was she permanently traumatized? There is so much more to be known, but the day is fast approaching when it will be too late. The moment when the last of those who still carry these experiences within their living memory will die out is upon us. There is so much that has been left unspoken. If only someone has the courage to ask and the time to listen.

Behind The Numbers – The Human Toll
War in the popular imagination has become little more than a series of grand maneuvers carried out by all knowing generals and politicians. The truth about Ukrainian- Polish conflict in the 1930’s and 40’s can still be discovered in Susk and hundreds of other small villages like it. The deep roots of a conflict such as this are often overlooked, perhaps because they are so frightening. The deeper one digs into the details of human conflict the more personalized and disturbing the stories become. When such phrases as “5,000 were arrested or 600 killed” are recited, they become mere numbers. This information quantifies human experience, but says little about it. Conversely, when a story is personalized it becomes real. It is within the realm of human experience. It could have been our experience, given different circumstances. The story recounted above is just one person’s experience, but there were thousands of similar ones, on both sides. Humanity and inhumanity lurks somewhere behind the numbers. Just ask.

A Lesson In Humanity – Volodymyr Sterniuk & St. George’s Cathedral (Lviv: The History of One City Part 48)

Tens of thousands of people visit St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv each year. They marvel at its rich Baroque-Rococo architecture, admire the emotional expressiveness of the sculptures surrounding its portal and sense the pervasive spiritual power of its ornate interior. The Cathedral is one of the most important religious sites in Eastern Europe. As such, the figures dramatized in sculpture and statuary around the cathedral showcase some of the most revered men in church history. They include Saints George, Athanasius and Leo. The latter being the man for whom Lviv was named. There is also a new statue just outside the cathedral gates of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptysky, the man who did more than anyone to keep the cause of Ukrainian nationhood alive during the first half of the 20th century. One person not represented in this pantheon, at least on the surface, was Volodymyr Sterniuk. He was the major figure in keeping alive the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church during the dark days of communism. If not for men like Sterniuk, it is doubtful that St. George’s would be the revered home of Greek Catholicism today. The only place to find Sterniuk there is in the Cathedral’s tomb. This is a bit of historical symmetry, since he spent most of his church tenure working in the underground.

There are people who are witnesses to history and there are those who make history. There are also those who do both, moving from historical observer to historical actor. In such cases, an event someone has witnessed may have such a profound effect upon them, that they dedicate their life to taking action. This is what happened to Volodymyr Sterniuk, a priest who witnessed a shattering historical event at St. George’s Cathedral. Many decades later he would become one of the main actors involved in reversing this event. Sterniuk’s story is not just a lesson in history, but also in humanity. The story begins in a place few take time to notice as they are gazing at the awe-inspiring beauty of the cathedral’s interior, the choir loft.

St. George's Cathedral in Lviv

St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv – one of the most important religious and national sites in Ukraine

A Historic Liquidation – Subterfuge at St. George’s
At the end of winter in 1946, a synod (assembly of clergy) of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was held at St. George’s. This meeting took place under the watchful eye of the Soviet NKVD (precursor to the KGB). Noticeable was the fact that there were no bishops or other high level officials of the church present. That was because they had all been arrested and sent to gulag camps deep inside Russia or murdered. Ever since the Red Army reoccupied western Ukraine during the latter half of World War II, the Soviets were in the process of implementing hardline Stalinism throughout Ukraine. What this meant in practice was that any institution or person considered a threat to the omnipotence of the Soviet state must be either marginalized or destroyed.

At this time, the most powerful institution representing Ukrainian national interests was the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). It was headquartered out of St. George’s. The Soviet authorities had been working to get the UGCC under their control, but it was a delicate matter. Outright destruction was out of the question since the Soviets were already fighting a guerilla war against Ukrainian nationalists. If they were not careful, the entire population could turn against them. They had to be sly, clever, duplicitous and deceitful. In other words they had to be everything their leader, Josef Stalin, was in order to Sovietize Ukrainian society.

Lofty Ideals – The Beginning of a Resistance
The preferred method of Soviet control would be to subsume the UGCC under the Russian Orthodox Church. This meant reversing the 350 year old Union of Brest which at the time had united millions of Ukrainian and Belarussian Orthodox Christians with the Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox Christians involved had agreed to recognize the Pope’s authority. In return they would continue to perform all the traditional Orthodox rituals and customs. Most importantly, they would no longer submit to the Russian Orthodox Church’s authority. This created what became known as the Uniate Church and turned millions of Orthodox believers to the west. This had been a thorn in the side of the Russian Orthodox Church ever since, but by 1946 Russian Orthodoxy was a shell of its former self. It was totally under Soviet control. The church leadership had been hollowed out and was now staffed by regime loyalists. The same was now planned for the UGCC at the synod.

That “historic” assembly took place during the second week of March 1946 at St. George’s. The clergy involved did not have any high church officials or real leadership to look toward for guidance. All the archbishops and bishops of the UGCC had been asked earlier by the Soviet authorities to endorse unification with the Russian Orthodox Church. They refused, thus sealing prison or death sentences for themselves.  Over 200 handpicked “representatives” of the UGCC were at the synod in St. George’s Cathedral. They were asked to vote by a show of hands on unification. Voldymyr Sterniuk was hidden in the choir loft during the vote. He was a UGCC priest with a conscious, but he could say nothing for fear of arrest. He watched helplessly as a unanimous vote was carried out in favor of unification.  The Soviets authorities surely thought this event would mark the end of the UGCC, but Sterniuk along with many others ensured that it was the beginning of a decade’s long resistance. This would not be the last time Sterniuk would be involved in a historic moment in St. George’s, but the next time he would be one of the principle actors rather than a silent witness.

Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk

Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk in his later years

Keeping Faith – From Repression to Resurgence
The next year Sterniuk was arrested and sent to a gulag camp in northern Russia, where he cut trees in the frozen forests. For five long years he toiled in forced labor, but at the same time his faith never wavered. At one point he was reduced to using bread crumbs for mass. After Stalin’s death, the gulags emptied out and Sterniuk regained his freedom. Unfortunately repression continued. He was not allowed to work as a priest in any official capacity, thus he was forced to find employment in a wide variety of jobs, everything from a janitor to a nurse and even a gatekeeper. Throughout these years he continued working in the underground church. It has been estimated that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the Soviet Union was the largest clandestine religious organization in the world at the time.

Sterniuk lived an austere existence, inhabiting a single small room over a paint shop that was often raided by Soviet authorities. He nonetheless heard confessions and held masses there. Sometimes he was forced to carry out these spiritual services deep in the woods. A little over a decade after he was released from the Gulag, Sterniuk was ordained as a bishop. Then in 1972 he became the UGCC’s leader, a role he would continue to play until the Soviet Union’s collapse and the rise of an independent Ukraine. A year before the collapse he led the first divine liturgical services in St. George’s since before the fateful synod in 1946. Sterniuk acted as an example to all members of the church with his steadfast devotion. He had endured suffering and privation for years on end, yet he continued carrying out the most important spiritual functions in the name of God.

Sterniuk turned out to be the atheistic Soviet regime’s worst nightmare. He led by example, an example of hope and faith while the Soviets led by fear and repression. Eventually something had to give and it was not Sterniuk. When Ukraine became an independent state, the UGCC became one of the most powerful institutions in the newly formed nation. Sterniuk and thousands of others had kept the faith alive long enough that a free and independent UGCC could rise again. This resurgence happened in concert with the movement that would establish an independent Ukraine.

Memorial plaque at St. Nicholas Church in Pustomyty, Ukraine

Memorial plaque at St. Nicholas Church in Pustomyty, Ukraine – birthplace of Volodymyr Sterniuk (Credit: Mykola Swarnyk)

A Way Of Life – Sterniuk’s Achievement
In 1997 thousands marched through the streets of Lviv to St. George’s in a funeral procession for Sterniuk. His life as both an historical witness and actor had come full circle. He had witnessed the UGCC very nearly being destroyed at the infamous synod in March 1946. He then took an active role in the church’s endurance during the darkest years of hard line repression. Later he helped lead it to freedom. The power of belief had won out. There was no longer a need for any member – let alone a priest – of the UGCC to hide in a choir loft at St. George’s, because the Cathedral was now home once again to the church’s bishops, priests and parishioners. More than anything it was a spiritual home to the nation of Ukraine. That was as it still is today, in large part due to the work of Voldymyr Sterniuk.

An Impossible Thing To Imagine – The Ostroverkhova Villa in Lviv: A Secret Never To Be Told (Lviv: The History Of A City Part 43)

“Each moment of the past, after all, is full of what did not happen and what will probably never happen…It also contains what seemed impossible but proved possible.” – Timothy Snyder

This is about the book I will never write and a film that will never be made. It is about a house that possesses my imagination unlike any other house I have ever seen, a house that in my imagining was home to the greatest assassination plot of the 20th century. This assassination could have happened and should have happened. Yet tragically it did not. The failure to carry out the plot cost millions of people their lives. It could have changed history and by extension the world we live in today.  What did not happen is nothing more than history that will never be known, a double negative. Tragically the world never was able to experience the assassination of both Hitler and Stalin on a crisp autumn night in 1939 when they met at the train station in Lviv. Most say they never met that evening, but a few believe they did. I am one of them. No one knows about the plot to assassinate them, other than me. I was not there at the time, I am only here now. I believe there was a plot conceived at the Ostroverkhova Villa in Lviv. The house is still there, but it is empty, as empty as the pages of history that will never mention what did not occur. There is now only silence in that villa where voices once plotted to save one world from another.

Ostroverkhova Villa - at Vul. Henerala Chuprynky 21 in Lviv

Ostroverkhova Villa – at Vul. Henerala Chuprynky 21 in Lviv

A Villa and Villains – The Untold Story
The Ostroverkhova Villa (also known as the Villa on the Cross because it stands at the intersection of three streets: General Chuprynky, Kyiv and Kotlyarevsky) first came to my attention when I stumbled upon it while wandering around lost in the Kastelivka district of Lviv.  It is fabulously situated, placed on a corner separate from any other buildings, surrounded by what are supposed to be gardens. Due to neglect, the grounds have deteriorated. This gives the building a fin-de-siècle look and feel. The villa was constructed right at the turn of the 20th century. Much of its uniqueness comes from the neo-romantic flourishes that are rarely found in such a small scale, single-family structure.  It has a six sided tower with tiling. The façade contains ceramic decorative ornamentation. The tower gives it a regal presence, the decorative work a festive folksiness and the slowly degrading exterior a gloomy, ominous feeling. Time passed it by long ago, but the villa managed to spin time backwards for me, taking my imagination back to the latter part of 1939, just after the first act had closed in what was to become the worst war in human history.

Many years ago, in a fit of maniacal egotism I conceptualized what I believed would be the greatest story never told. The stimulus came from a few pages in Edvard Radzinsky’s Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia’s Secret Archives. In those pages Radzinsky replicated a letter from the Director of the American FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, stating that Hitler and Stalin met secretly in Lvov (the Russian name for Lviv) on October 17, 1939. At this meeting they were said to have signed a secret military treaty. The genesis of this story comes from a railroad worker who spoke about it 33 years after the fact. The man might have been a lunatic or a liar, a weaver of outlandish tales. In addition, anything that has Hoover’s name on it is suspect, since he was a man known for deceit, duplicity and innumerable lies. The meeting could not have happened, could it? It seems impossible. Is anything really impossible when it comes to the world of the imagination? Of course they met that evening, their trains pulling into the station under heavy security. A small nation’s worth of men under arms, men who would be killing each other less than two years later, surrounded every nook, cranny and corridor of Lviv’s train station that evening. First Hitler’s train arrived. Then he waited on Stalin. Stalin always made people wait, whether it was Hitler or the rest of the world. His tardiness was as predictable as the German’s punctuality. Stalin’s train finally arrived an hour late. It came to a screaming, steaming halt. A few minutes later, surrounded by armed guards, Hitler and Stalin made their way to a separate, detached train car. After an exchange of laconic and insincere pleasantries the two men got down to making peace so they could prosecute war.

The moment when there is nothing left to wait for - Lviv Railway Station

The moment when there was nothing left to wait for – Lviv Railway Station (Credit: Tomasz Kuran)

Plot Points – The Moment When There Was Nothing Left To Wait For
Little did either realize their life should have ended at that very moment.  Where did the threat come from? It had been planned and plotted for months by several people working out of the Ostroverkhova villa. There is no documentation of this, there never will be. The conspirators worked in secret, coming and going in seemingly random fashion from the villa. They came and went much like those famous and forgotten, suspected and arrested who had lived there since the villa’s construction. There was the Polish mathematician and academic Zaslav Dzivinsky, there had been a couple of Jewish inhabitants, Shulim Wallach who made his fortune as a merchant and another followed by Leopold Muenzer who gained his fame as a pianist. Then there was the Ukrainian journalist and activist, Vladimir Kuzmovich. The conspirators were a microcosm of these men who had lived there in the years before. They shared their same diverse ethnic backgrounds, their belief in freedom and capitalism.

They also shared a fear for their lives. As intelligentsia, as anything other than Soviets or Fascists, they were marked men with time a ticking bomb, that was about to explode their lives. They were Poles, Ukrainians and Jews, a motley assemblage of conspirators. Natural and national foes brought together by a common goal, to kill two psychopathic dictators before they murdered even more innocents than they already had. Foresight is a strange gift, to see a future of camps and mass graves, late night knocks on the door, the trusted becoming traitors, and the traitors becoming the betrayed, to see that mass murder will stalk the streets of every village and city, that entire nations will be consumed by flames, takes more than a leap of imagination. It takes a deeply embedded belief that the most horrible things are certain to happen, that they are inevitable and that it is just a matter of time. And that belief propels the will to action. It was time to try to save millions because the point at which it would be too late had almost arrived. The moment had arrived when there was nothing left to wait for.

An Impossible Thing To Imagine - the Ostroverkhova Villa

An Impossible Thing To Imagine – the Ostroverkhova Villa

To Save One World From Another – Moment Of Surrender
If only they had not trusted that one man the way they trusted each other. That Nikolai Ostroverkhov was quite the man. He collected so many beautiful works of art. How he managed to acquire all those pieces was always open to question. He was so shrewd, so suave, so sophisticated. It was as though he walked right out of one of those beautiful paintings he had hung on the villa’s walls. He hung those paintings, the same way the conspirators would later be hanged, with savage delicacy. Ostroverkhov was like a force of nature. He always got what he wanted, but no one could ever quite figure out how he got it. Who was he working for? Which side was he on? He had as many sides as that tower which soared above the villa. He also had at least that many contradictions. In that world who could you trust? Ostroverkhov was as good or bad as anyone else or so he made them believe. Right up until the last time they saw him, which was the last time they saw each other.

They met that evening at the villa. The first time they had all been together in the same room. The plan was sound yet simple. There was a map, there was a bomb. Everyone was dressed in Soviet secret police uniforms. Their documents were correct in their incorrectness. Months of planning would all come down to a few minutes of execution. Execution was the key. This night like so many nights to come in Lviv would be all about execution. They were ready for this and Ostroverkhov made sure the enemy was ready for them. As he bid them farewell, they opened the door, their look of dead seriousness suddenly turned to one of terrifying surprise. They walked right into the outstretched arms of the NKVD. In that moment the possibility of one world ended and a new, more horrible one continued to be born. When it finally came to life, it would mean the death of millions, an impossible thing to imagine. Almost as impossible as the plot to save one world from another that was conceived at an old and crumbling villa in the Kastelivka District of Lviv.

“Olena, Olena, Save Me” – The Spaces In Between: Last Words At Khvativ

It has now been six months since I spent a day traveling around the countryside of western Ukraine on the Golden Horseshoe castle tour. The sights and experiences of that day have stayed with me. The memories are still strong of my fellow passengers, the three castles I visited and of the gloriously ruined Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph at Pidhirtsi. Yet it is what I cannot remember that now occupies my thoughts. This lack of memory was recently provoked by a chapter I read in The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 million Jews. The books tells the story of a French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois and his years long work to locate the execution sites and mass graves of the Jews and Roma murdered by Nazi death squads  during the Holocaust. This method of execution was carried out prior to the inception of industrialized murder with gas chambers. There are literally thousands of mass graves across Poland, Romania and areas in the western part of the former Soviet Union. Desbois and his teams of interpreters, photographers and researchers have managed to locate over a thousand mass graves by interviewing elderly villagers who witnessed these shootings. These interviews, along with forensic fieldwork, have led to horrifying discoveries. Over a decade after his work began, Desbois continues to find sites throughout the region.

The countryside of Ukraine - the beauty hides a terrible tragedy

The countryside of Ukraine – the beauty hides a terrible tragedy

Darkness Recovered – Holocaust by Bullets
In the book Desbois relates how he and his team developed their method of finding the mass graves. In each chapter he names different places where discoveries were made. Many of the places can be found close to villages or small towns. Mass executions also took place on the outskirts of more sizable cities, including Lviv. After reading each chapter I would look up the different places that were named on a map, trying to see if I been anywhere near these sites. Each search filled me with trepidation and ominous foreboding.  I was suspicious that I might have unwittingly crossed a site while jogging in the forest that is part of Lviv’s Lychakiv district, specifically the Kaiserwald (King’s Forest) where I had come across trenches and undulations that were almost certainly manmade. I surmised that these were probably dug during World War I, but I could not easily dismiss the possibility that they were the setting of even greater horrors than an organized battle.

It turned out that shootings did take place in woods nearby, but not in the Kaiserwald.  Less than a mile away, in another forested area known as Lysynchi, 90,000 Jews were executed by the Nazis over a period of months. Desbois and his team discovered these mass graves. The figure is difficult to process, until one realizes the massive scope and scale of the Holocaust By Bullets. Almost anywhere in western Ukraine is within a half hour drive of an execution site. The most frighteningly personal of these places are often found in the remoter reaches of the countryside.  In serene settings where murder seems just as imaginable as the Holocaust was. One of these rural execution sites/mass graves was not far off the Golden Horseshoe route. I never would have known the proximity of this site to the tour route without having read Father Desbois’ book.

Father Patrick Desbois - speaking at a Holocaust By Bullets exhibition

Father Patrick Desbois – speaking at a Holocaust By Bullets exhibition

A Personal Matter – Mass Murder at Khvativ
The time it took to ride between Olesko and Pidhirtsi Castles on the Golden Horseshoe tour was just 15 minutes. The only memorable part of the ride was caused by an abrupt deterioration in road conditions after leaving the M06 highway. Just before the turn off we skirted a village by the name of Khvativ. I cannot recall anything memorable about it. Then again why would I? The village occupied one of those in between spaces of travel. This is a place between two stops, where most of a trip occurs, but is rarely worth noticing. Khvativ acts as a quintessential “wide spot in the road.” There really should be nothing of historical interest in Khvativ. If only the Holocaust By Bullets had not left lasting and deadly scars upon this otherwise mundane village. In the woods not far from Khvativ, Desbois and his team used a metal detector to find 600 German cartridges, the last remnants of mass murder. The woods in which the site was discovered were part of the panorama seen from the grounds in front of Pidhirtsi Castle. I can remember standing there, admiring the view of the surrounding forest and agricultural lowlands. Little did I know of the horrors that took place nearby, then again little did anyone know until Father Desbois made the discovery. The people who did know still lived in the village. One of them provided a story that brought home the personal nature of mass murder.

The storyteller was a 91 year old woman named Olena who was reticent to talk with Desbois. At first she would not meet with him, but Desbois waited for nearly an hour outside her home. Eventually she came out to talk. As Desbois relates: “She was a young bride on the day of the Jews’ execution. She was bringing in the harvest on top of the white mountain with a female friend; the wheat was ripe, and the weather was hot. In the far distance they caught sight of two German military trucks, filled with Jewish women, standing up. The trucks approached until they passed them. In one of the trucks she suddenly recognized a friend of her mothers who began shouting ‘Olena, Olena, save me!’ She paused for breath. The more she shouted, the more I hid myself in the wheat. I was young, and I was afraid that the Germans would kill us like they were killing the Jews. That woman shouted until they took her to the pit. Right until the last moment I heard her shouting: ‘Olena, Olena, save me!’ These words punctuated her tale again and again. It was the first time a witness had communicated to us the last words of a Jewish person executed by the Nazis.”

A book everyone should read- Holocaust By Bullets by Father Patrick Desbois

A book everyone should read- Holocaust By Bullets by Father Patrick Desbois

Resurrection – For The Sake Of Humanity
The spiritual value of Desbois’ work is that it has restored dignity to the Jews who were murdered. The Jews of western Ukraine are no longer in anonymous graves in forgotten fields. They are real people with voices that can now be heard. They are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, neighbors and friends that have been given life, rather than having it taken from them. Olena may have been helpless to save her mother’s friend on the day of the mass murder, but through memory and with the help of a skilled interlocutor she was able to bring that person back to life. Thousands of other witnesses have found the courage to raise their voices with the help of Desbois. This process has brought a voice to the voiceless and given life to the murdered, not just for a moment, but for all time. “Olena, Olena save me.” The cry was not in vain. More humanity resides in those words then was to be found in the entire Third Reich.

 

 

The Genie & His Blue Bottle – Yuriy Kulchytsky: The Beginning of Coffee In Vienna & Lviv (Lviv: The History of One City Part 42)

Lviv gained many things from its association with Vienna while under Austrian rule. Among the most enduring have been Baroque and Secessionist architecture, railways, industrialization and a European cosmopolitanism that still permeates the city today. Many visitors to Lviv assume coffee and Viennese coffeehouse culture were also transmitted from the imperial capital. This is open to debate as a recently erected monument placed in Lviv’s Danylo Halyts’koho Square has drawn attention to a surprising story, that a son of western Ukraine first brought coffee to Austria. This took place almost a century before Habsburg Rule was extended to Galicia. The monument, dedicated in 2013, features Yuriy Kulchytsky. He was born in 1640 in a small village close to Sambir, approximately 80 kilometers southwest of Lviv. This is one of two famous monuments to Kulchytsky, the first of which was unveiled 130 years earlier in Vienna. It still stands today on a pediment above the corner of Kolchitskygasse and Favorittenstrasse. That monument, like the one in Lviv, features Kulchytsky in Turkish dress. This is ironic since he helped put an end to the Turkish presence in central Europe. Among his many professions, Kulchytsky was a soldier and spy who gained lasting fame by assisting in the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683. At the same time many now believe that he brought lasting Turkish influence to Imperial Austria, via coffee.

The Genie and His Bottle - Yuriy Kolchytsky Monument in Lviv

The Genie and His Bottle – Yuriy Kolchytsky Monument in Lviv

Merchant, Linguist, Spy & Soldier – A Man For All Sieges
Yuriy Kulchytsky is one of the great forgotten characters of European history. Born into the lower ranks of the nobility, historians are not quite sure whether he was ethnically Ruthenian or Polish. What cannot be disputed is Kulchytsky’s gift as a linguist and merchant. After taking an interest in Turkish customs and culture, he learned to speak the language. This, along with his proficiency in German, Hungarian, Serbian, Romanian, Ruthenian and Polish made him a force to be reckoned with in trade. He spent time in Turkish ruled Belgrade working for the Austrian Oriental Company. Turkish suspicion that he might be a spy led him to resettle in Vienna where he opened his own trading company in 1678. Five years later, he rendered invaluable service to the Austrians during the siege of Vienna. Kulchytsky managed to disguise himself as Turkish in order to get through the Ottoman lines. He gained an audience with Charles Duke of Lorraine, where he secured a promise that help would be sent to lift the siege. He also was able to supply critical information on the enemy camp’s size and strength.

Kulchytsky then snuck back into Vienna where he informed city leaders that help would soon arrive. This news kept them from surrendering. Sure enough, a devastating attack by allied forces led by Polish King and erstwhile Lviv resident Jan Sobieski lifted the siege. The defeated Turks fled the area in chaos. Among the many items they abandoned were several hundred bags of coffee beans. As the story goes the Austrians had no idea what these were used for. Kulchytsky explained that the Turks ground coffee from the beans to make an energizing drink. From this serendipitous start it is believed that coffee came to Vienna. Kulchyytsky was the genie opening a new bottle.

Mister Coffee - Yuriy Kulchytsky

Mister Coffee – Yuriy Kulchytsky

The Discovery Of Coffee – Kulchytsky & Everything After
For his efforts in lending assistance to the Austrian cause, Kulchytsky was rewarded with a large monetary reward and a house in the Leopoldstadt section of Vienna. Kulchytsky then started the very first Viennese coffee house, known as the “Hof zur Blauen Flasche” (House under the Blue Bottle). Historians debate the veracity of this claim. Some say an Armenian merchant was the first to open a coffee house in the city. Others state that not only did Kulchytsky bring coffee to Vienna, but he also added an invigorating twist when he experimented by adding sugar and milk to it. Another of Kulchytsky’s reputed innovations was a delicious pastry shaped in the form of a Turkish crescent. Kulchytsky never forgot his roots though, as he is said to have reverted to dressing in Ruthenian folk costume while serving Vienna’s elite at his highly successful coffeehouse.

Monument to Yuriy Kulchytsky in Vienna

Monument to Yuriy Kulchytsky in Vienna

Whether this is all true or not is seems beside the point. Kulchytsky certainly had much to do with the popularization of coffee in Vienna. His knowledge and transmission of this Turkish concoction to central Europe would later be transmitted by the Austrians to Galicia in the late 18th century. In another paradoxical twist it was not an Austrian, but an ethnic Pole who opened the first coffeehouse in Lviv in 1802. Its owner was the confectioner Jakub Lewandowski. He could have scarcely picked a better spot as it occupied the ground floor of the Scholz-Wolfowicz House on the western side of Rynok Square.  From that start, coffeehouse culture exploded across Lviv, a legacy of Austrian rule that remains today.

Under the Blue Bottle - Kulchytsky serves up coffee and culture

Under the Blue Bottle – Kulchytsky serves up coffee and culture

Contemplating The Truth– Under The Blue Bottle
It has been said to never let the truth get in the way of a good story. When it comes to coffee in Lviv and Vienna, the truth is defined by the vagaries and complexities of history. Who would think that a Polonized Ruthenian nobleman, who once was a trader in Ottoman Turkish ruled lands in the Balkans, would end up helping to save Vienna and in the process cultivate the city’s love for coffee? Who would believe that the first coffeehouse in Lviv was opened by an ethnic Pole, rather than an ethnic German? Are these facts and stories just legends? Is this historical fact or is the truth to be found somewhere in between. Perhaps the truth will one day become apparent, but it could hardly be more interesting. In the meantime, one of the best places to ponder the roots of coffee in Lviv is at Rus’ka 4 just beyond the southeastern corner of Rynok Square. The name of the coffeehouse, Pid Synioyu Plyashkoyu, literally translated means “Under the Blue Bottle.”

The Last Place In the World – Husiatyn, Ukraine: Lost In Time

A few days ago I spent time scrutinizing a turn of the 20th century map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My attention turned to the frontiers of the easternmost province of Galicia, where it bordered on Russia. I was looking for the town or village that came closest to straddling this now vanished border. After close study I found a little place called Husiatyn. It was hard to even read the town’s name despite using the map’s zoom feature. Husiatyn looked to me like it was the last place in the world.  I wondered if there was anything of interest to be discovered there. I hoped that the town would be worth studying because of its frontier situation, a place where east and west collided. As I was soon to discover Husiatyn had a fascinating and troubled history.

Husiatyn in the 1880s by Napoleon Orda

Husiatyn in the 1880s by Napoleon Orda (Credit: Muzeum Narodowe W Karkowie)

Eastern Limits – Husiatyn, Austria-Hungary: A Town Too Far
Trying to locate the last place in Europe before its far eastern reaches give way to Asia is not easy. Where that place happens to be has always been open to debate. There are many geographic and geopolitical considerations that go into finding the answer, but these vary greatly. One of the possible candidates from centuries past is no longer a candidate at all. This is the small town of Husiatyn (population 2,500) on the eastern fringes of western Ukraine. For a century and a half it was on the Austro-Hungarian side of that empire’s border with Russia. Then following the First World War, it was on the Poland side of that reconstituted nation’s border with the Soviet Union. Later it was sucked into the fathomless land mass of the Soviet Union. Today it is little more than a provincial town in Ukraine. Husiatyn still stands along the border, but this is the one between Ternopil and Khmelnitskyi Oblasts.  Its current status is quite a step down from the time when the town was either the first or last place in Europe depending upon a traveler’s direction.

In the history of a nation, city or town, geography is said to be destiny. In the case of Husiatyn not only is this true, but even more to the point hydrology (the movement of rivers) has defined and confined its destiny. Husiatyn sits on the left bank of the Zbruch River. A languid, watery ribbon that flows for 244 kilometers through the Podolian Upland before it debouches into the mighty Dneister River. The river was the boundary between dueling empires in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. On one side stood Husiatyn, final outpost of Europe, the farthest eastern extent that Austrian rule would ever reach. A stone’s throw away was mighty Russia, half-European, half-Asian, stretching from the right bank of Zbruch all the way to the Pacific Ocean, over ten thousand kilometers away. The town was a crossroads of trade and cultural exchange. A closer look at Husiatyn’s history reveals that eastern influences were just as pervasive as western ones in the town for centuries. These came not so much from Russia, but from Judaism and the Jewish people who dominated the town’s life for centuries. There is still a building standing in the town, a half ruin that evokes five hundred years of Jewish history in Husiatyn, it stands as an abandoned half-ruin today.

Husiatyn Fortress Synagogue

Husiatyn Fortress Synagogue – historic photo

A Fortified Synagogue & The Hasidic Movement
Husiatyn is the setting for a unique abandoned synagogue. This otherworldly architectural artifact from the 16th century looks as though it was the product of a vanished civilization. Tragically that is close to the truth. The structure is a rare example of a “fortified synagogue” constructed in Renaissance style with Mauritian-Gothic decorative elements that were added after a fire damaged the original building in 1742. Fortress synagogues were built in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, constructed to defend against attacks from Tatar and Russian invaders from the east. The synagogue brings together elements of near eastern and western architecture, a fusion of the Renaissance with Orientalism. Judaism was synonymous with Husiatyn for centuries, with its heyday in the 19th century. Most famously, the Hasidic movement thrived in the town.

Hasidism was a spiritual revival movement that arose in western Ukraine. It was characterized by religious conservatism, social seclusion and extreme devotion. The followers, known as Hasidim, were organized into “courts” led by a spiritual authority known as a “Rebbe”. Adherents formed a close relationship with the Rebbe in order to get close to God. In 1861 a famous Hasidic court was formed in Husiatyn. Many followers moved to Husiatyn so they could be close to the courts founder, Rabbi Mordecai Shraga-Bar. This set off a mini economic boom in the town as the population expanded. The movement was social as well as religious, with hospitals, bath houses and homes for the elderly constructed. Since the inception of Austro-Hungarian rule in 1772 the rights of Jews had continually expanded. As such, Jews from Russia flocked to the area escaping persecution. By 1900 the population of Husiatyn had expanded fivefold. Of the 6,060 citizens of the town, two-thirds were Jewish.

Interior of Fortress Synagogue at Husiatyn

Interior of Fortress Synagogue at Husiatyn (Credit: Wikipedia)

A Fire That Burned Forever – War On The Fringes
There was one major problem though, Husiatyn’s position on the border made it extremely vulnerable in the event of war between Russia and Austria-Hungary. As tensions flared between the two empires in the years prior to World War One the population began to drop. Many of the townspeople saw dark portents of the future. Husiatyn’s Rebbe relocated to Vienna. Such a move showed uncanny foresight. In the summer of 1914 Husiatyn was caught in the crosshairs of an all-consuming conflagration. The town barely survived what would turn out to be a several years long baptism of fire. The Jewish population of Husiatyn suffered grave and irreparable damage. There is the belief that the Holocaust was a World War II phenomenon, but a lesser holocaust took place in the First World War fomented by Russian anti-Semitism.

On August 9, 1914, the Russian Army crossed the Zbruch River. Husiatyn was one of the first places to feel the heavy hand of invasion.  The glory days of Judaism in Husiatyn came to an abrupt end. Less than a year later the entire Jewish population was forced to leave the town. War plagued the town for years. Husiatyn lost at least 600 buildings due to World War, Civil War and the Polish-Soviet war.  By 1921 less than four hundred Jews were left in the town. The town was now part of Poland, but not for long. The Nazi invasion in 1941 and resulting Holocaust would add a final and murderous footnote to the history of the Jews in Husiatyn. Half a millennium of Judaism in the town was extinguished in a matter of days.

Fortress Synagogue at Husiatyn

Fortress Synagogue at Husiatyn (Credit: Сергій Криниця)

The Final, Few Traces – Civilization Lost
Present day Husiatyn is totally disconnected from its pre-World War I past. Austria-Hungary is a mere afterthought as is the Second Republic of Poland. The Zbruch River still acts a border, but a provincial rather than an international one. The eastern limits of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were consumed by nationalism and communism. Husiatyn is now just an inconsequential town, in a remote area of a troubled nation. Still just a dot on a map, it is scarcely noticeable within the wider area of Ukraine. There are few physical remnants of Husiatyn’s former importance. The most poignant reminder is the vacant shell of the Fortified Synagogue. Its roof has collapsed and the building is derelict, an odd site, in a strange place, lost in time. This remnant of a lost civilization looks as though it could be the last place in the world. Maybe it is.

Capturing The Imagination – Buchach’s Ratusha (Town Hall): The Heights of Obscurity

The power of a great work of art lies in its ability to capture the viewer’s imagination. It creates a whole new world that the viewer suddenly inhabits. The rest of the world disappears momentarily, there is no such thing as time and everything else ceases to exist. There is only the viewer and the artwork interacting. The conversation that ensues – non-verbal, rife with emotion and filled with sensory experience – is a higher form of communication. If the artwork is powerful enough it might also call the viewer to action. That is what happened to me after viewing a photo of the Ratusha (Town Hall) in Buchach, Ukraine. I instantly felt a magnetic allure, something invisible, inexorably pulling me towards a new reality. At the time I was sitting several thousand kilometers, at least three flights and a long train ride away. This did nothing to impede my restless imaginings. It might take months or even a year before I get there, but I have to see the Buchach Ratusha in person.

Buchach Ratusha (Town Hall)

Buchach Ratusha (Town Hall)

Mystifying Intensity – A Rising In Buchach
Why did this building in an obscure, small western Ukrainian city come to suddenly mean so much to me? A combination of a love for obscure places and the building’s powerful aesthetic charms are probably the best explanation. My love of obscurity is a selfish desire. I need places to call my own. Paris, Venice and Berlin, all places that I have visited, no longer interest me. I am looking for somewhere that is way out of the way. Not just Eastern Europe, but deep in the forlorn backwaters of a region that rarely reaches the public consciousness. Buchach – 155 kilometers south of Lviv – certainly meets that qualification. Above all, the Ratusha at its center is a powerful expression of survival and architectural achievement on the eastern fringes of Europe. It looks as though it might collapse at any moment or stand forever. That balancing act, between degeneration and exoneration, gives the structure a mystifying intensity.

It is an elegant slice of soaring grandeur. The façade exhibits Rococo style architecture with stylistic flourishes that can still be discerned despite the wear and tear from multiple World Wars, a half-century of Soviet indifference and administrative neglect. The building is a product of genius, a singular architectural vision. That makes it all the more shocking so little is known about the architect, a man by the name of Bernard Meretyn. This fact attracts rather than repels me. I want to know everything about the man, though my information is limited to English language sources. To be a personal repository of Meretyn’s biography would be the height of intellectual obscurity.

Church of Immaculate Conception in Horodenka

Church of Immaculate Conception in Horodenka (Credit: Руслан Стражник)

The Invisible Man – Bernard Meretyn
Meretyn’s work has been given some recognition, most of which has to do with St. George’s Cathedral and the Lubomirski Palace in Lviv. He stands out only on the fringes, with nearly all of his work found in towns scattered across provincial western Ukraine.  He had trouble working in Lviv. He came into conflict with the powerful guilds of which he was not a member. Meretyn was forced to work outside their system. He was taken to court on occasion, but managed to avoid jail. Unfortunately after his death one of his sons was imprisoned due to the debts his father incurred. Meretyn was not alone during his productive years, as he teamed up with sculptor Johann Georg Pinsel, also a world class artisan.

The tepid acclaim for Meretyn has to do with both the geographical location of his work and a biography that is lacking in the specific details of his life. His place and date of birth remains unknown, but his ethnicity was almost certainly German. The churches he built, of which there are several prominent ones still standing today – such as the Church of Immaculate Conception in Horodenka – are done in the Austro-German late Baroque style. He came to the eastern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth looking for work and found wealthy aristocratic patrons such as the powerful Potocki family who commissioned several of his most famous projects. He arrived in Lviv in 1738 and worked throughout the surrounding region until his death in 1761. He left behind a wife, son and daughter. These paltry details are all that is really known about Meretyn’s personal life. His architectural work says more about the man than any written information.

Church of the Theotokos Assumption in Buchach

Church of the Theotokos Assumption in Buchach (Credit: Wikipedia)

In Stone & Style – An Architectural Biography
Meretyn’s biography is written in stone and style. In Buchach, Meretyn left behind a clutch of buildings both secular and spiritual that leave little doubt as to the power of his vision. The Churches of the Theotokos Assumption and the Theotokos Intercession are fusions of the late Baroque with traditional Ukrainian sacral architecture. Imagine the refinement of Mitteleuropa topped with an onion dome.  Then there is the Town Hall, first constructed in 1751, a monument to the power of noble patronage. Meretyn produced for the Potocki family a structure that continues to speak across the ages of aristocratic virtue, the flow of European civilization to the most far flung locales and a reverence for civic order. Pinsel added the sculptural elements, tasteful touches both exotic and elegant. It is a shame that Meretyn’s architectural ensemble at Buchach is not better known.

The Town Hall at Buchach is a representative example of an age when noblesse oblige and artistic refinement were intertwined. Even during the dying days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the Potocki’s were able to utilize Meretyn’s talents to build a monument to their wealth and power. At the same time, both the patron and the artist bequeathed to both present and future generations a vision of civic grandeur. Buchach’s Ratusha has managed to survive the region’s tumultuous history. The level of its artistic achievement can be ascertained from the fact that still today – even in a less than perfect state – the Ratusha manages to communicate some of its greatness to the viewer. This is a building that represents ideals of beauty, virtue, truth and justice. These timeless values are represented in a timeless piece of architecture. The Ratusha is a work of art that everyone should see.

The Ability To Bring A Man Back To Life – Johann Georg Pinsel: A Recognition (Lviv: The History of One City Part 41)

We have all heard the stories of artists, musicians and writers who toiled in obscurity, barely able to eke out an existence while alive. Only after they were dead did fame finally arrive as there work received acclaim, but by then it was too late. They were never able to enjoy the recognition which would have been so justly deserved. No one ever mentions the opposite of this situation. What about those artists who during their lifetime were able to gain wealth and fame while enjoying the respect of peers? Only after their death did they then fade into oblivion. This happened even though their artistic work continued to be studied and revered. Such cases are rarely talked about, though they certainly exist. A fine example of such a phenomenon is Johann Georg Pinsel. For those few who have heard his name, Pinsel is known for his sacral sculptures in what is today western Ukraine. The Johann Georg Pinsel Museum of Lviv Sacral Baroque Sculpture features many of his original sculptures. This is a good place to learn about Pinsel’s work, but not the best. The most outstanding examples of his sculpture are not to be found in a museum, but on the exterior of St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv. It would seem that being featured at such a prominent architectural site would make Pinsel’s work well known. This is not the case, as an examination of what is known of Pinsel’s life makes clear.

Column with a statue of the Virgin Mary by Johann Georg Pinsel in Horodenka, Ukraine

Column with a statue of the Virgin Mary by Johann Georg Pinsel in Horodenka, Ukraine (Credit: Olexa Yur)

From Resurrection To Recognition  – The Second Life of Pinsel
Pinsel’s biography is filled with gaps. What is known only came to light during the last one-hundred and ten years. This was due to the work of Polish and Ukrainian scholars who had the ability to bring this master artist back to life. At the start of the 20th century Pinsel was almost entirely unknown. Then in 1906 his name was first connected with the sculptures now attributed to him on the portal of St. George’s Cathedral. In the late 1930’s more documentation came to light in the form of receipts showing payment to Pinsel for specific works. Then in 1993 information was uncovered about Pinsel’s immediate family along with his date of death. There is certainly the possibility that more details will come to light, but at this time the unknown outweighs the known when it comes to Pinsel’s life.

No one is quite sure exactly when or where Pinsel was born. Due to his name it is likely that he was of German or Czech origin. Born sometime in the early 18th century, Pinsel must have had the schooling, apprenticeship and talent necessary to learn the fine art of Baroque sculpture.  Sometime around the mid-18th century he moved to what was then the southeastern region of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Pinsel’s artistic abilities brought him to the attention of Mikolaj Bazyli Potocki, one of the wealthiest Polish nobles. Mikolaj Potocki was a starosta, an administrator of Polish crown lands in the region. Pinsel worked in Potocki’s court as a master sculptor in Buchach (known by its Polish name Buczacz at the time). Soon thereafter, he produced carvings to adorn the Buchach Town Hall (Potocki was the building’s benefactor) which still stands today. He also completed sculptures and bas-reliefs for churches in the town and surrounding area. Pinsel worked in both wood and stone. He was a master at what is known as the Baroque plastic arts, a sort of Slavic Michaelangelo.  His skill was such that he started a new tradition of Baroque-Rococo sculpture in the region. This was taught at a school he founded in Buchach that trained at least forty sculptors in learning his techniques.

"Samson tearing the Lion’s Mouth" by Johann George Pinsel

“Samson tearing the Lion’s Mouth” by Johann George Pinsel

The Passion Of Pinsel – Sacred Senses
Pinsel’s emotionally expressive and dynamic style can be seen in his works that still exist today. The sculptures have a charisma all their own, communicating profound senses of anguish, passion and the entire range of human emotions. Some of his finest stylistic examples include “St. George slaying the Dragon” atop the portal of St. George’s Cathedral and a piece that displays “Samson tearing the Lion’s Mouth.” Some scholars have likened Pinsel’s style to a synthesis of the Italian Renaissance fused with the northern European Gothic. The emotiveness of Pinsel’s sculptures is without precedent. He achieved a level of artistry rarely seen in the farther reaches of Eastern Europe, before or since his time. The 20th century rediscovery of Pinsel along with the fall of the Iron Curtain led to greater recognition of his works. Religious art, such as his sacral sculpture, was no longer a taboo subject.

Pinsel once again garnered attention in both Ukraine and the west. In 1996 the museum showcasing many of his works along with other artists was opened in an architectural monument, the Church of Poor Clares in Lviv. Thirty-two works of Pinsel, which had been saved from the destructive clutches of the Soviet atheistic regime, were put on display. Even greater things were to come, as twenty of his sculptures were displayed at the Louvre in Paris during late autumn and winter of 2012-2013. This was the first time that an artist associated with Ukraine was given an exhibition at the world’s most famous art museum. Despite this surge of recognition, few are still aware of Pinsel’s sculptures. His achievements have been lost to the wider art world. Ukraine is seen as a backwater to aficionados of European Baroque art. This ignorance, while unfortunate is likely to endure.

St. Leo and St. Athanasius by Johann Georg Pinsel at the entrance to St. George's Cathedral in Lviv

St. Leo and St. Athanasius by Johann Georg Pinsel at the entrance to St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv (Credit: Alex Zelenko)

The Test Of Time – An Uncompleted Pinsel
Will there ever be a complete picture of who Johann Georg Pinsel actually was or what his motivations were? Despite many devoted years of research and investigation there are as many questions as answers about Pinsel’s life and work. Yet it must be remembered that at the advent of the 20th century virtually nothing was known about the man. The famous sculptures outside St. George’s Cathedral were said to be the work of a nameless, faceless entity. In 1906 the name of their creator was discovered, one of the finest masters of Baroque Plastic Arts in Europe had resurfaced. His celebrity has ebbed and flowed ever since then, but his artistic achievement has stood the test of time, if only the same could be said for his biography.