hidden europe 19

Beyond the Bug: rural Ukraine

by Jenny Robertson


Dubno is ordered, a place that sits snug in the Ikva valley. Kremenetz is different. Join Jenny Robertson as she guides us through small-town Volhynia, a region of western Ukraine that lies well off the regular tourist trails.

Have you ever heard of Volhynia? Perhaps not. Head east from Zamosc in Poland (featured elsewhere in this issue) and you cannot miss Volhynia. The main road runs due east through villages with domed churches and abandoned Jewish cemeteries. Eventually it reaches the River Bug. The border! Frontiers may have faded across much of Europe, but not here. Those who have luck on their side get over the bridge into Ukraine in just an hour or two. Others wait much longer.

Volhynia is Ukraine's northwest province: Poland to the west, Belarus to the north. Once part of Poland, Volhynia was in the nineteenth century a rural backwater of provincial Russia. Briefly reunited with Poland between the two World Wars, and then post-1945 assimilated into the Soviet Union, Volhynia is now part of an independent Ukraine. Yet while the Ukrainian city of Lviv, not so very far away to the south, pulls many travellers from afar, almost no tourists visit Volhynia.

The border bridge over the Bug connects Zosin in Poland with Ustyluh in Ukraine. Both places are no more than villages. But like chalk and cheese. A veneer of Polish modernity makes way for horses and carts as you slip over the river. Before the Russian Revolution, the composer Igor Stravinsky usually spent the summers at his family estate in Ustyluh. It was here that he composed, and it was in Ustyluh that Stravinsky first set eyes on his future wife, Katerina Nossenko. In Stravinsky's day, Ustyluh had a brickworks, a distillery and a dozen little factories. Now it has just a border post, young men who do deals on currency and all the trappings of rural Ukraine.

Small wooden cottages are surrounded by gardens bright with flowers. People cultivate fields in back-breaking but ecologically friendly ways. Horses pull long wooden carts. Sometimes just one horse, sometimes a pair. The farmer drives. His wife in her coloured headscarf sits stolidly beside him.

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