Glimpses of Ukraine in the 19th Century

Although Ukraine has not always been an independent state, it has a long history as a region with its own identity. Here are some captivating descriptions of Ukraine provided by visitors to the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century.

A Fair in Ukraine, by Aleksey Kivshenko, 1882

A Fair in Ukraine, by Aleksey Kivshenko, 1882

Visiting Ukraine in 1836

British traveller Robert Bremner journeyed to Russia in 1836 as part of a general tour across Europe. Russia was then under the rule of Tsar Nicholas I, the younger brother of Alexander I, who was the tsar during Napoleon’s failed 1812 invasion of Russia. Bremner visited St. Petersburg (which was then the capital of Russia), Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod. He then headed southwest to Ukraine, which received relatively few tourists from Britain.

Ukraine was not a separate country at the time. Most of present-day Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, while a portion of western Ukraine (including Lviv) fell under the Austrian Empire. Bremner arrived with a romantic view of the region, based in part on Lord Byron’s poem Mazeppa, about the legendary early life of Ukrainian military leader Ivan Mazepa. Bremner referred to Ukraine as “the land of freedom; for no Cossack is a serf, like the degraded Russian peasant.” He also called it “the land of romance and of wild adventure.” (1)

Kharkiv

The first sizable place Bremner encountered in Ukraine was Kharkiv (Kharkoff, Kharkov), the administrative capital of the area.

The outskirts of the town present some very good buildings, especially a hospital and a lunatic asylum, adjoining each other, both highly spoken of for their excellent arrangements. The university is also said to be very flourishing. Nor need the reader start at the announcement: why should not the Ukraine have a university, as well as a scientific association, all very well lodged in large, dull, white buildings? The information that the university is in such a thriving state we could hardly reconcile, however, with the fact, that though there are upwards of ninety professors or teachers connected with it, yet there are only somewhere about three hundred students in attendance. But the anomaly was explained by the circumstance that many of the university people are employed in correspondence and business of various kinds, connected with the wide extent of country over whose educational interests this alma mater watches. The Crimea, Astrakhan, the Caucasus form part of her charge, to say nothing of the Cossacks of the Don and those of the Black Sea. …

The chief part of the town lies in a wide slope looking to the south. The streets, and the deserts (nicknamed squares) surrounded by houses, are as ample as usual, but with the uncomfortable addition of sand – oceans of it, so wide and deep that the laden steers, many of which were entering from every side, could scarcely wind through it with all their patience….

So far from being deserted, Kharkoff is both very showy and prosperous, as we soon began to discover by the busy fair which was going on near the quarter where we found shelter, at one of the best hotels in Russia. The streets and squares in this part of the town were filled with lines of booths, and open tables loaded with goods, ranged so thick that we could scarcely make our way through them. Several fairs are held here in the course of the year, and during the time that these continue, the stationary population of fourteen thousand is increased by many thousands belonging to the various Cossack tribes, who flock thither from all the surrounding districts to buy and sell. …

The wool sold here is chiefly raised from the flocks of Merino sheep, now spread all over the south of Russia, but towards the Crimea, in particular, and partly from Silesian fleeces. … [T]he commerce, generally speaking, is of a much more humble character than that of [Nizhny Novgorod], the articles being chiefly of the kind suited for an agricultural population. Farming implements of every description, from wooden ploughs and pitchforks to rude beams for the horse’s neck, were strewed about in great profusion. The quantity of iron articles surprised us; there was a greater bulk of them than of anything else. Church bells, a curious stock to bring to a market, heavy and new, were exposed in considerable numbers. Coarse cloths and cotton stuffs occupied some temporary booths. The groceries were in a handsome bazaar. Fish of all kinds constitute a valuable portion of the stores: besides our old friends, the sturgeon and sterlet dried, we here found some other varieties of the sterlet tribe. Large casks of ikri, or caviar, were also displayed in the sun – an article of such importance in Russia, that it cannot be dismissed without more explicit notice. (2)

Bremner enjoyed visiting the “penny-shows,” one of which he recognized.

It was a panorama of Constantinople, which began its career in London, and after making the tour of all the capitals of Europe, had now come to close its days among the Cossacks of the Ukraine! In other corners trumpet and drum announced the usual muster of peeps, giants, jugglers, dogs, – and such dogs! All drilled by a man as stiff and as solemn as his master the emperor at a review. The weeping philosopher himself would have laughed had it only been to see how the Russians enjoyed the grave bowing of the dogs, their dignified politeness, their courtly minuets, their coach-driving, their love-making, their flounces, their petticoats, their red uniforms. Then there was the puppy with the impudent tail and dubious attire. Oh! wonderful dogs, and more wonderful puppies! A lady, who came with her children, seemed to wonder that Englishmen could care for such things. (3)

Rural Ukraine

Haymaking in Ukraine

Haymaking in Ukraine, by Mykola Pymonenko, late 1800s

The journey from Kharkiv to Poltava gave Bremner a chance to express his enthusiasm for rural Ukraine.

The crops had been gathered in, but it was easy to see that the soil we were travelling through is one of the finest in the world. It is so rich that our notes, taken on the spot…contain repeated entries of ‘Wonderfully productive!’ ‘What crops they have been reaping!’ ‘Never have seen such a rich tract!’ …

The convoys of cattle and wagons with provisions, of which we had met many throughout the whole of the last three or four hundred miles that we had travelled, here became larger and more numerous. The sun was setting as we entered one of them, which had halted for the night…. The oxen had been unyoked from the wagons and allowed to mingle with the droves wandering loose in the fields. Many, wearied by the long march, had sunk down in the ruts; and the large half-gnawed heads and thigh-bones both of oxen and horses, scattered among the surrounding bushes…showed how probable it was that some of the poor brutes which we were now disturbing with our wheels would not join the forward throng in the morning. …

Fires had been lighted at different points in the wide bivouac; and at some of these the waggoneers were preparing their meal; while at others the blacksmiths of the band had pitched their implements, and were busy repairing the damages of the day. We had been told that there was danger in passing these convoys at night; but neither here, nor in passing through others at later hours, when it was much darker, did anything occur to us of a nature to confirm the charge. Flocks of oxen meet the traveller in the Ukraine so frequently that we cannot dismiss them without more particular mention. They are destined for the markets of Moscow and St. Petersburg; the one five hundred and the other nine hundred miles distant. If many die in this long journey, the price obtained for the survivors fully covers the loss. …

The Ukraine ox…is large in limb and horn, and has altogether a very different look from our own fine breeds. … The head in particular is different from that of any ox we ever saw, being very short from the horn downwards, and terminating in a broad muzzle, reminding one of that of the lion. The long limbs and flabby sides must take much time to feed compared with our tidy race; yet it is said that on good pasture they fatten very soon, and bring great profit to the dealers. The flesh is juicy, and far superior to anything found in France or Germany. …

After getting through the first of these vast herds, the evening became so beautiful, that, with the aid of the moonlight, we drove along most delightfully. In every hamlet nothing but singing was to be heard, from the young women walking arm-in-arm on the little foot-paths. … The cricket, too, was chirruping in the thatch; and just as we were musing in the porch on all these pleasant themes, and especially on the cheerful contrast which this part of the emperor’s dominions affords to that which we had left, up came a mule, the first of his tribe seen in Russia, to tell us that we were in quite a new region, where the people are as different from the Russian in origin and manners as the droschky-horse of the Neva is from his reverence the mule of the Ukraine. …

Most of our party were fast asleep as we passed through a cottage-looking place, of very strange appearance, and so lost a very singular scene. The struggling light of the moon, just about to sink, falling upon it, produced such a picture of dreary repose as has seldom been surpassed: the place seemed the Wyoming of Russia – a spot where gentle beings might dwell, and never dream of a world without. The small thatched cottages, clean and comfortable, with tapering roofs descending almost to the ground, standing in the middle of large fresh gardens, well stocked with shrubs and fruit-trees, looked exactly like large bee-hives, of which plenty of small ones were to be seen among the shrubs. …

[J]ust as we reached the last straggling lanes of the place, a troop of peasant girls were heard returning from some wake, singing, though it was now near midnight, as merrily as if it had been noonday. The people of the post-house…wondered greatly to see folks taking their dinner at one o’clock in the morning; but a few roubles sent them back pleased to their sleep, and we jogged on through this strangest of countries. We could see that it was very populous; there were villages at the end of every mile, and many lay far back on either hand. But there was a kind of population soon began to make themselves heard, that we had not reckoned on … the poultry: cocks, hens, and chickens— geese, turkeys, every winged creature that man ever tamed — long before dawn filled the air with such a crowing, droning murmur, as at first we could in nowise comprehend. It seemed as if the whole region had been one large hen-roost. …

The villages were scattered around us by hundreds. The country is not picturesque; for scarcely any wood grows in it. Near the road it is very flat, but farther back on the west is an irregular ridge, by the foot of which a stream is seen. The whole space commanded by the eye is dotted with houses — some in hamlets, some solitary, but all surrounded by such careful ingenious cultivation as is seldom to be seen in any country. Many of the farm-steads stand by themselves, which is rarely seen in the higher parts of Russia; and in general they have a very comfortable look. Each farm has its windmill, and the hamlets are guarded by whole squadrons of them; water-mills are also frequent. Had anything been wanting to convince us of the industrious habits of the people, it would have been furnished by the early hours which…they are in the habit of observing. Obedient to the call of chanticleer, they were moving before it was light; and when day had fully appeared, not one was to be seen idle. Some were driving cattle to the pasture, some searching for pigs that had wandered overnight, and some, finally, were marshalling the feathered stock, which had puzzled us so much. (4)

Poltava

In the Poltava Region, by Serhii Vasylkivsky

In the Poltava Region, by Serhii Vasylkivsky, late 1800s

Bremner arrived in Poltava (Pultava), which was best known as the site of the 1709 Battle of Poltava, in which a Russian army led by Peter the Great gained a decisive victory over a Swedish army under King Charles XII. The battle was part of the Great Northern War, in which Sweden was ultimately defeated. Sweden’s allies included the Cossacks under the above-mentioned Ivan Mazepa.

The white towers of Pultava…began to appear on their lofty point, while we were yet twenty miles away from them; and the gay sight enabled us to fast, with tolerable patience, for a few hours more. Our self-denial…was probably aided…by the knowledge…that here, in the midst of plenty, the post-houses are even more scantily stored than in less wealthy provinces; for the hospitable people of the Ukraine like better to give a man a dinner than to send him to the tavern to pay for one.

We had long remarked that the Russian roads are always worst near towns; and that leading to Pultava did not contradict the rule. For the last ten miles it runs through a tract of heavy sand, with wooded swamps on either hand. What these swamps must have been in winter, the season in which Charles XII was wandering through them, may easily be imagined when we see that even in summer they are almost impassable….

The scene of action, now covered with rich corn-fields, lies to the south-west of the town, on a plain about four miles from the principal gate. In going to it, we first followed the road to Kieff [Kyiv], but soon struck off to the right, by a path leading through fields where nothing was left by the reaper but some patches of buckwheat. A little hill, if we may apply the term to an artificial height, rising not much above thirty feet from the ground, with a large, white cross on its summit, which had for some time attracted our attention, proved to be the mound which marks the burial-trenches of the enemy. On ascending the naked sides of this funeral mount – for even the green sod has never flourished on its mould – we found an inscription in Russian, painted on the transverse part of the cross, stating, without any pompous exaggeration, in less than a dozen of words, ‘Here are interred the Swedes who fell in the great day of Pultava.’…

Pultava must in former days have been a place of great strength; now it is merely a showy town, with abundance of green domes and crowding pinnacles, scattered along the extensive height. An ill-kept rampart still surrounds the most exposed parts; but, finding only six hundred soldiers here, we inferred that little importance is attached to it in a military point of view. It covers a great deal of ground, but the streets, though as straight and as long as all other streets in Russia, are not so decaying and dull in their look as those of many other towns. The larger and more ancient of the houses are of wood, but there are many handsome structures of recent date built of stone; among which are the imperial institution for the education of young ladies…. A fine building for the corps des cadets is now in progress. Near it is a vast market-place, which must be more than half a mile long, with a square bazaar in the centre and small shops in the piazzas which run round the whole space. On the side of the town lying nearest the field of battle is a very handsome square, round which stand the mansions of the governor, the director of police, and other high officials, with a fine shady garden, London-fashion, in the centre, – the only thing of the kind seen in Russia. This garden is adorned with a fine monument to Peter the Great, consisting of a green bronze column, fifty feet high, surmounted by the Russian eagle, which eagerly raises its neck, and flutters its wings, as if impatient to fly toward the field of battle, on which its gaze is fixed. Some extremely handsome mansions, scattered through the town, are occupied by the nobility of the district, many of whom are very rich. …

A good many Germans, chiefly tradesmen, are mixed with the population of the town; and the Jews…are in great force. We were surprised to find here one of the finest public walks on the continent. It is called the Imperial Garden, and forms the boundary of the town to the south-east, where it covers one of the slopes, and part of the bottom of a beautiful valley, closed in on every side by lofty ridges. There are some very fine trees, with walks through them, and well-kept seats, commanding the finest points of view. In this valley we first saw the vine in Russia. There were some rich clusters of fruit on the plants, but the people of the town who accompanied us in our walk assured us that, from the frosts setting in so much earlier than formerly, grapes now never ripen here. …

Though so highly distinguished by its fidelity to Russia during the desperate struggles with Sweden in Peter’s time, Pultava appears now to have cooled in its loyalty. We were amazed – for there are few places in Russia chargeable with the same crime – that the Pultavians rejoiced at the first successes of the French, and prepared to welcome them as deliverers. When Napoleon was in Moscow, pikes and arms were secretly prepared here for a general rising throughout the district; but the sudden reverses of the great soldier put an end to all their schemes of insurrection. When the French were defeated, however, as the people of Pultava had shown so much anxiety to have these foreigners amongst them, a good many of the prisoners were sent to them. …

One of the branches of industry prosecuted here is singular enough: it is the gathering of leeches for the Hamburg dealers. … Having exhausted all the lakes of Silesia, Bohemia, and other more frequented parts of Europe, the buyers are now rolling gradually and implacably eastward, carrying death and desolation among the leeches in their course – sweeping all before them, till now they have got as far as Pultava, the pools and swamps about which are yielding them great captures. Here a thousand leeches are sold for four roubles (3s. 4d.); at Hamburg…the same number is sold for 120 roubles (near £5); and in England the country apothecary pays £9 and £12. 10s. for the quantity which originally only cost 3s. 4d. But of every thousand at least seven hundred die before reaching England.

In wandering through the deep ravines outside the town, we came on a merry scene of peasants and soldiers, enjoying their holiday. This part of the vicinage is really romantic; straw-thatched cottages, neat and clean, are scattered among well-stocked orchards and large trees, with pieces of water and broken dells all round. Among these, crowds of little black Cossack soldiers were seated in groups on the turf, drinking their vodki in loving harmony, with pears, apples, and cucumbers passing freely from hand to hand. They were greatly pleased when we partook of their proffered cheer, but particularly when the crazy strains of a violin tempted us to enter a low hut, where their wives were waiting to be invited to the dance. And there they footed it right merrily, Cossack and Cossack’s bride, on the hard clay floor. Their dance is a kind of reel, very decent and inoffensive – much more so than the waltzing of French or German peasants. One dance was performed solely by females, three together: two advance hand-in-hand towards their companion, who moves a little to meet them; after some becks and bows, the parties, handkerchief in hand, dance away from each other, and then commence some mazy evolutions, executed with great solemnity of face, the handkerchiefs being always waved round the head at certain turns of the air. (5)

Odessa

Bremner’s last stop in Ukraine was Odessa, which enchanted him.

Odessa, 1843

Odessa, 1843

After the dreary and decaying cities to which we had been so long accustomed, its fresh houses and well paved streets recalled us to ideas of prosperity and comfort. Instead of the deep sloughs which adorn most streets of the interior, we now had good and smooth pavement, on which our wheels, so long silent on the soft grass of the steppes, sounded very pleasantly. People were seated at the windows, and gay robes were seen at every crossing…. Most of the men were in the ordinary dress of Europe, the Russian garb being seldom seen here, and never but in the remote quarters of the city. The shops too were like those of our more familiar experience, with large windows exhibiting the usual display of gaieties. What struck us most, however, was the improvement in the appearance of the women. …

Odessa overhangs a wide and beautiful bay of the Black Sea, situated near two important estuaries, called the Khodjabeyskoi and the Kuialskoi estuaries, both formed by the great Kuialnek rivers. Its principal division extends along the top of a bold range of cliffs, commanding an extensive sea-view, and the ever-varying clusters of the ships of all nations floating in the harbour below. Immediately on the top of this cliff is the beautiful public walk, planted with flowering shrubs and trees, whose verdure is doubly welcome in a country so completely destitute of woods. A conspicuous spot near this walk is adorned with a statue of the late Due de Richelieu, who was governor of the city…. On either side of this statue, and parallel to the summit of the cliffs, runs a line of splendid mansions, comprising the residences of the governor and the principal inhabitants. From this terrace a street branches off at right angles, communicating with the quarter in which the Opera, the Exchange, and the principal hotels are situated. From the Exchange run broad and regular streets in every direction, a few of them paved with broad slabs like the streets of Naples, and the rest macadamized. Some stretch along the shore, both north and south, some through a deep and rugged ravine to the south-west, and some, of great length, extend towards the country. In this last direction lie the public markets, the streets beyond which are exceedingly mean. The houses in the best quarters are very lofty and handsome, being generally built of a light-coloured stone, and roofed with sheets of iron, or painted wood. The stone used in building is of the same composition as the rocks on which the city stands, and the many others which abound in the neighbourhood. It is a kind of semi-indurated lime-stone, containing a considerable portion of oxide of iron, and with such immense quantities of cockle-shells mixed up with the principal substance, that many of the houses have the rough appearance of an artificial grotto. …

Of its 45,000 inhabitants, which was stated to us to be the amount of the population at the time of our visit, 4,000 are foreigners, or at least not naturalized Russians. Not less than 8,000 Poles now visit the city every year; the better classes for the sake of sea-bathing, and the poorer to seek employment about the harbour. Nor has Odessa yet reached its full splendour. No one who has considered the many advantages which it enjoys, as the key to a vast district of country whose wants are daily increasing and whose inexhaustible resources are only now beginning to be appreciated, can doubt that it is destined to become one of the greatest commercial cities in the world. …

Nothing that we heard among the merchants surprised us more than the fact that they now export grain all the way to America! It had never been done until the year before our visit; but some cargoes of rye then sent to New York had paid so well that it was intended to make shipments of grain on a much larger scale. … The exportation of oak staves for making barrels, &c. chiefly to England, would appear to be another new branch of trade. They are brought down the Dniepr from the forests of the interior. … Some traffic also now takes place also in the wines of the Crimea, which are fast rising into repute, though we cannot agree with the Russians in thinking that they will supplant the wines of Oporto. … The population of Odessa is at times increased to an enormous degree, by the influx of boors employed in transporting grain. …

To complete the statistics of Odessa it must be added that it contains a very important academic institution, not unknown to the learned world as the Richelieu Lyceum. Though it does not enjoy the nominal rank of a university, this establishment exercises most of the functions of one; for it contains professors (chiefly Germans) of Greek, natural and general history, and all the higher departments of science. It is also provided with a botanic garden, astronomical instruments, &c., and superintends the educational interests of the extensive governments of Kherson, Ekaterinoslaf, and Taurida. It is generally attended by 450 students. …

Of the thousand cities of Russia, Odessa is decidedly the least Russian; for, as in all the other seaports of the empire, the best branches of the trade are in the hands of foreigners. The only portion of it conducted by Russians is the petty traffic along the coast, or on the rivers.

One part of the city is, indeed, sufficiently Russian, both in filth and misery; but it lies so far out of the stranger’s way that he seldom visits it. The quarter best known to him looks very like some of the gayer cities of Italy…. There is also an Italian opera, as well-appointed and patronized as most in Italy…. Of the Italians here, many are engaged in the higher departments of trade. Some are jewellers; some booksellers, or merchants on a small scale; and not a few are employed at the opera.

This being the only place to which the Poles are allowed to resort out of their own country, the number of them here…is very great. In summer, the wealthiest families now remaining all meet at Odessa during the bathing season; and, notwithstanding the jealous and severe surveillance of the emperor’s police, they manage to lead a very gay life. Not a step can they take, however, nor a word can they utter, that is not watched. Many Polish Jews live here as pedlars, valets de place, and servants. … German mechanics of every description are very numerous; and some of the first bankers and merchants belong to that nation. Greeks flock hither in great numbers. … Of the many Frenchmen resident in Odessa, some carry on trade on a very extensive scale, some are employed under government, and others are hotel-keepers, &c. …The least numerous, but not the least important, part of the foreign population is composed of English merchants. …

The villas to which the wealthy residents generally retire every evening during the summer and autumn, are called hutors …. Nothing can be more delightful than these retreats, situated, as they generally are, among shrubs and flowers, on the sea-shore, at the foot of a magnificent range of cliffs, running south-east from the city. The evening at these places is spent by some of our countrymen in fishing excursions, on one of the most beautiful seas in the world. Every walk round these mansions is overhung with fine specimens of the acacia, which is almost the only tree that can be brought to thrive in the country. It is not often, however, that the hutors of Odessa are surrounded by verdure so rich as that which we found near them; for in some years the country is invaded by immense flights of locusts, which leave not a single green leaf either on herb or tree….

Undisturbed…by fear of locusts, or of any other evil to which the land may be subject, we enjoyed ourselves at Odessa as if it were the most favoured spot on earth. … The genial climate and the refreshing watermelons would of themselves make Odessa an Elysium after the chills and the turnips of Muscovy. Though September was now far advanced we were able to bathe in the sea every day. In short — boating parties on the beautiful bay, good dinners with our friends, twilight walks on the promenade where all the best society of the place is to be met, and plenty of music at night — all these helped to make time pass very agreeably, without reckoning certain oriental luxuries, such as the Turkish bath, — which, though the building is not very elegant, may here be enjoyed in as great perfection as at Constantinople itself, — and the seductive chibouque, which he who once touches it seldom lays aside, so long as tobacco can be procured or cherry-tubes will hold together. The gentlemen of Odessa rival the Turks themselves in their passion for smoking. Nor are they here the only lovers of the narcotic weed, for ladies of rank also use it. …

The nobles of this city lead a very gay, and, we fear, a very dissolute life. Sad stories are current regarding their private habits, but we forbear to soil our page with them. Their great place of resort is the opera, without which…they could scarcely live. So fond are the Polish visitors of this amusement, that the boxes are generally all engaged by them two or three years in advance. …. Besides costing the nobles themselves a great deal every year, this theatre is a very serious charge on government; as may be inferred from the fact that a tenor had been engaged for it at an annual salary of 15,000 roubles, with a free house and appointments, worth about 5,000 more; in all about £800; which, it will be allowed, is no bad salary for a singer in a town not much larger than Chester, and in a country where a lieutenant of many years’ standing is thought sufficiently paid with twenty-eight pounds a year. (6)

Kyiv

The Kiev Pechersk Lavra, between 1890 and 1905

The Kiev Pechersk Lavra, between 1890 and 1905

Bremner’s tour of Ukraine did not extend to Kyiv (Kieff, Kiev). For a description of this city, we will turn to an unnamed British traveler who visited what he called the Jerusalem of the Slavs in the late 1850s or early 1860s.

On Saturday…we came within sight of the domes and pinnacles and the lofty tower of the far-famed ‘Lavra,’ which proclaimed our approach to the ancient city of Kieff. The heat was certainly intense (it was the beginning of July), and we anticipated a melting sojourn in this semi-tropical climate; but scarcely had we entered the city and been snugly housed amongst our own people (there was a large English engineering staff resident there at that time), when a terrific tempest, ushered in by a rushing whirlwind of sand and dust, and accompanied by thunder and hail, burst over the place. It was, in fact, a complete cyclone, which, before our astonished gaze…threw down everything in its way, uprooted trees, and even tore off the sheet-iron roof of one of the large circular forts which had been newly erected at the entrance to the arsenal, within sight of our residence. This storm effectually dispersed the heat, which did not return during the few weeks of our stay, and this enabled us to enjoy our visit to Kieff most thoroughly.

The aspect of this ancient city is very impressive, more especially when viewed from the far end of the new suspension-bridge crossing the river from the termination of the great causeway which traverses the immense plain of forest and swamp lying northwards on the left bank of the Dnieper. The whole of the settlement is placed on the south, or right, bank of the river; the commercial, or lower town, called the ‘Podohl,’ being much the more ancient, and lying with its mass of closely-packed churches and houses on a large plateau, contiguous to the stream. Going eastwards there is a gradual ascent through the medieval portion, till you arrive at the highest summit of the steep cliffs which overhang the river on its southern bank, and on which are placed some of the chief government buildings, and especially that huge cluster of sacred edifices, truly Oriental in its architecture and splendor, called the ‘Lavra.’ The church and monastery of this ancient and very famous ‘Pecherskaya Lavra’ (to give it its full title) are now enclosed within a series of massive earthwork fortifications, with single circular forts of stone as detached outworks, the whole covering an immense area, with frowning bastions meeting you at every turn, speaking in silent but most convincing of the mighty power of the Czar, by whose permission you have succeeded in penetrating thus far, and who never suffers you to forget that whilst in his dominions you are but an insect in the grasp of a giant.

The entrance to this impressive cluster of edifices, half ecclesiastical, wholly autocratic, is through a splendid gate, ornamented with full-length saintly figures. Then a noble alley, having the cells of the brotherhood placed on each side, conducts the visitor to the cathedral outside, a finer structure – thoroughly Eastern in character, of course – can scarcely be seen in Europe. Seven turrets with gilt cupolas rear their glittering posts upon the roof, connected by chains of solid gold; while, lifting its superb top far above all, stands the belfry tower, isolated from the cathedral itself, and rising to a height of three hundred feet, forming a noble landmark, and affording from its summit a truly magnificent view. … Indeed, but for the view of the interminable ‘steppes’ spreading northwards till closed in by the horizon, I could without difficulty have imagined myself in Constantinople. Looking westwards, we see the far-spreading houses, mingled with trees, gently receding towards the river, till merged in the dense mass of the Podohl three miles away. On the spurs of the high land, whose cliffs formed the boundary of the Dnieper, were placed, on conspicuous sites, the university, the museum, the college, and the other public buildings, all their walls white, all their roofs bright green or deeply ruddy brown; while, shooting up from the sloping sides of the ravine which intersects the town, rise the minarets, the Oriental pinnacles, and the burnished domes and cupolas of the Holy City, glittering in the July sun, and fairly dazzling the eyes with their piquant splendor. And, to relieve all this, on the highest summit of the steep river banks, where the stream gracefully bends inwards, disclosing the old town in the distance, are planted the public pleasure gardens of Kieff, the walks charmingly laid out amidst the trees and shrubberies; and from this elevation, at every opening on the woody crest of the cliff, the delighted traveler looks down along the broad channel of the Dnieper, flowing on its mighty stream more than three hundred feet below, and visible far away till its silvery windings are finally lost to view in the mazy distance of the still summer air.

But we have taken an unexpected flight from the Lavra tower to the wooded cliffs of the public gardens two miles away. Let us return by the same aerial and easy method, and then, descending from our giddy climb, look inside the Lavra cathedral, dedicated to the ‘Ascension of the Virgin’…. You must not look for the groined roof, or lofty pillars, or pointed arches of our Western fanes, but you will scarcely be disappointed amidst the burst of subdued splendor which meets your gaze from every side. The light is almost entirely artificial, dimly streaming from innumerable wax tapers, and the sickly flame of sacred lamps which burn before every gilded shrine, and which are ranged in countless profusion before the gorgeous altar-piece of the Virgin at the eastern extremity. This magnificent reredos is known to be of solid silver, and is richly gilt; the image of the Virgin, as well as of the many saints who…are worshipped in this cathedral, are set with precious stones and gems. The walls are frescoed with pictorial scenes from Scripture history, and the ceiling is richly and elaborately decorated. …

One very remarkable feature in connection with the Pecherskaya Lavra is the labyrinth of catacombs excavated in the face of the steep cliff on which this monastery settlement is built. In fact, there are two series of these catacombs, the smaller dedicated to St. Theodosius, while the larger, and by far the most venerated – indeed, the great attraction to pilgrims – contains about eighty bodies of saints in open coffins, ranged on either side of a dark, narrow gallery, black with age and with the thick crust of torch smoke. These are the catacombs of St. Anthony, whose stiffened corpse is enshrined at the farther end of the passage; and, incredible as it may seem, these shriveled tenants of the open coffins are the actual bodies of the venerable dead, wrapped in rich and costly grave-clothes, their clay-cold withered hand stretched out to receive the oblations of the faithful. Even a more horrible sight is a row of small windows, behind which, walled up into the sandy rock, are built in the remains of self-made martyrs, who, though they did not refuse the food supplied through these apertures, yet all, as may be imagined, soon came to a miserable end.

Leaving this subterranean scene of horrors, let us emerge into the bright sunlight on the cliff side, and make our way down to the edge of the deep-flowing Dnieper. Now let us cross the stream, but not by that decaying old bridge of boats, with its leaking planks swaying and shifting at every step; this is needless now, for an English engineer has just thrown across the river a magnificent suspension bridge, one of the longest and beyond comparison the finest in the world. Its length is half a mile, the openings between the five massive piers being four of a span of 440 feet each, besides two openings of 225 feet at either extremity. On the side next the city is a swivel bridge-opening, fifty feet wide, by which such craft as cannot pass beneath the fixed platform are enabled to pursue the rest of their voyage down the river. …

Our stay at Kieff was prolonged for some weeks, and the writer of this paper by no means found the time hang heavy on his hands. The society in the place contained several families of high birth and accomplishments, descended from the oldest and purest Polish lineage, the ladies certainly being remarkable perhaps above all other European nations for their beauty of face and form, and their manners of unrivalled fascination. May every traveler enjoy Kieff as much as we did, and leave it by a less laborious and venturesome route. (7)

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  1. Robert Bremner, Excursions in the Interior of Russia, Vol. II (London, 1839), p. 356.
  2. Ibid., pp. 359-362.
  3. Ibid., p. 368.
  4. Ibid., pp. 370-378.
  5. Ibid., pp. 388-411.
  6. Ibid., pp. 480-504.
  7. “A Summer Tour in Northern Europe,” The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Religion (London, 1866), pp. 747-749.

2 commments on “Glimpses of Ukraine in the 19th Century”

  • Richard says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I will have to come back to finish this another day, I broke down in tears.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      You’re welcome, Richard. That’s an understandable reaction given the tragedy of Putin’s monstrous war against Ukraine.

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Ukraine, the land of freedom; for no Cossack is a serf, like the degraded Russian peasant – the land of romance and of wild adventure.

Robert Bremner