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Sulymivka — a village that boasts a romanticpark and an ancient church


Sulymivka makes a soft rustling sound, like a page being turned — a page from Ukraine’s history. Except someone has torn this page out of the history books, made it into a paper boat and sent it sailing down the dead waters of the River Lethe…

Mykola BYATETS and Andriy PYROHIV took a trip to the village of Sulymivka in Poltava Region to probe its history and see its present.


When we arrived in Sulymivka, we found the village to be quite alive, though with the obvious signs of aging. There are so many villages in Ukraine that look similar — rutted dirt roads, dilapidated peasant houses, an abandoned library with broken window panes, and no one left to steal books from its shelves.

In sharp contrast to this display of neglect and disrepair, there, in the village’s picturesque environs, stood modern cottages and luxurious villas ostentatiously displaying their owners’ wealth.

But a number of relics and landmarks from the village’s 400-year-old history have been preserved — a majestic church reflected in an idyllic pond, an overgrown park with decaying pieces of sculpture in the style of socialist realism.

The village takes its name from Ivan Sulyma, a 17th century Cossack hetman of Ukraine. The story of his life could have made an excellent adventure novel, which, hopefully, will be written some day.

The first known mention of Ivan Sulyma dates from 1615 when, as a high-ranking official of the Polish administration under Royal Hetman Stanislaw Zolkiewski, he was given several villages “for eternal possession” in appreciation for his services.

But Ivan Sulyma was not made for a quiet bucolic life and he went to Zaporizhzhya, the major Cossack center of Ukraine.

Soon his exploits made him famous among the Cossacks, and he headed Cossack boat fleets that raided Turkish towns and castles on the shores of the Black Sea. His raids hit the Crimean shores in the north of the Black Sea, the western shores under Turkish domination, and the southern shores of Turkey itself. Twice he and his Cossacks dared to attack the city of Istanbul, though the great city remained impregnable.

Sulyma was among the Cossacks under the command of Hetman Sahaydachny, who took part in the Battle of Khotyn, fought against the invading Turkish army in September 1621. The combined forces of the Polish army and the Cossacks inflicted heavy casualties on the Turks, thus disrupting their planned invasion of Europe from the east. Sahaydachny was badly wounded in the battle and died as a result in 1622. Mykhailo Doroshenko, not Sulyma, as he and many Cossacks expected, was elected hetman.

There is some evidence suggesting Sulyma was awarded a medal by Roman Pope Paul V for his heroic deeds in the Christian struggle against the Turkish menace (years later, this medal was said to have been placed in Sulyma’s coffin).

The political situation in Ukraine at that time was extremely complicated — the Cossacks entered alliances alternately with Poles and Crimean Tartars depending on the situation of the moment, fighting the Tartars jointly with the Polish forces, then fighting the Poles jointly with the Tartar forces, and then fighting against both the Poles and the Tartars, or even on the side of one Tartar clan against another Tartar clan… During one such raid into Crimea in support of one khan against another, Hetman Doroshenko was killed and the time came for Sulyma to be proclaimed hetman.

Sulyma chose to fight both the Poles and the Tartars, which didn’t endear him to either. He raided Crimean Tartar towns and attacked Polish fortresses.

The Poles completed the construction of one of the fortresses, Kodak, in July 1635. It was designed by French military architect and engineer, G.L. de Boplan, and was supposed to be “impervious to Cossack attacks.” Garrisoned by German and French mercenaries, the fortress was supposed to stand in the way of Cossack raids from Zaporizhzhya in the western direction. In August 1635, Sulyma stormed the fortress and raised it to the ground (in 1639, it was rebuilt only to be captured by the Cossack troops of Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1648; the ruins of the fortress have survived).

This “arrogant military action” was the straw that broke the back of Polish patience. Attempts to capture Sulyma failed, but recourse to treachery delivered Sulyma into the hands of the Poles. He was brought to Warsaw where he was hanged and quartered. The place of his burial is not known.

In the 1620s, Sulyma had a church and tomb built in one of his villages — the one later named after him. But the tomb was not used for the purpose it was built. Sulyma’s wife, willful and energetic woman though she was, failed to get her husband’s body brought back to Ukraine. But the tomb and local cemetery became the resting place for Hetman Ivan Sulyma descendants. Among them were military men, some with the rank of general. Some of Sulyma’s descendants intermarried with other distinguished families — the Polubotoks and the Skorupas.

The remains of those members of the Sulyma family who were buried in the family vault were disinterred and scattered in the fields after the Bolsheviks came to power. The Bolsheviks seem to have had very little respect for the past in general and for those who distinguished themselves in that past in particular.


Pokrovska Church

The Pokrovska Church in the village of Sulymivka was built to serve a double purpose — to be a house of prayer and a fortress that could withstand Tartar attacks. Its exterior walls were up to two meters thick, with little architectural decor adorning them, and its interior walls were also undecorated. Color was provided by icons and a 15th century silk shroud which was the church’s most valuable relic.

The church has been preserved largely intact from the time when it was built though some changes were introduced. Its wooden roof was replaced with an iron one in the early 19th century, and a three-tier bell tower was built in the early 20th century.

Like so many other churches across the land, the Bolsheviks desecrated the Pokrovska Church in Sulymivka and turned it into a local community center. In Soviet parlance, such centers were called “clubs,” where atheistic lectures were delivered and dancing was encouraged.

Luckily, unlike so many other churches, it was not destroyed. But its icons and iconostasis were destroyed, or rather, used for various purposes (like, say, doors for chicken coops) in local households. A copy of one icon has been preserved, though. It is the icon of the Intercession of the Mother of God; the original was painted in the 1730s. In the icon we see, among other faces, the face of Ivan Sulyma the way the icon painter imagined Sulyma could have looked, with a lean face, aquiline nose, and high brow.

The church was somewhat restored after Ukraine’s independence and returned to the religious community. Crudely made granite slabs were fixed to one of the walls with the names of the Sulyma family inscribed on them.

In the early 19th century a park in the romantic English style was laid out at the outskirts of the village, and a mansion was built for the Sulymas. The park, though totally neglected, has miraculously preserved the feel of a once “cultured” place.

In the 1920s, the mansion was turned into a school. In more recent times, however, as the local village didn’t seem to need a school of its own, the building was abandoned to the mercy of the elements and local inhabitants, who gutted it and used whatever they could for their household needs, leaving nothing but melancholy ruins.

These ruins add their own rueful touch to the park. In one of the park’s corners, overgrown with weeds and bushes, stands a decaying sculpture of “the leader of the world’s lumpenproletariat,” Vladimir Lenin. With his disproportionately large head, the leader is in very sorry condition, having been damaged by snow and rain storms and grossly vandalized, and making him look like he belongs to one of Salvador Dali’s surrealistic canvases.

But 300-year or older oaks, tall lindens, branchy ash trees and maples more than compensate for the park’s sorrowful sights with their powerful beauty. Probably even more impressive are the pines, dozens of feet tall with boles of great girth.

A canal used to run through the park between a pond near the church and a pond in the park. There is a stone pagan idol thousands of years old sitting on top of a knoll above the now dry canal. The idol must have seen the boats that have moved slowly on the waters of the canal and the ponds, with elegant ladies and graceful gentlemen in them, taking pleasure boat rides 100 years ago. It must have seen so many other things but has remained silent, telling us nothing, though it surely remembers being brought from the Scythian steppes by Cossacks, who placed it on that hill.

Because there are so many potholes in the roads of Ukraine, so many things have been shaken off the wagon of Ukraine’s history and culture, while so many other things have stuck to its wheels…


Photos by Andriy VLASENKO


Portrait of Ivan Sulyma, 1721.

National Art Museum of Ukraine.


Portrait of Paraska Sulyma, 1754.

National Art Museum of Ukraine.


Plashchanytsya (shroud with religious scenes) from

the Pokrovska Church, 16 century (present location

is unknown; possibly it is in safe keeping of the

St Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Archeology

of the Academy of Sciences of the Russian



Icon of the Holy Veil of the Mother of God from

the Pokrovska Church, 1741.

National Art Museum of Ukraine.


There are only very few old photographs of Sulymivka

that have been preserved — it is one of them,

taken in the 19th century.



A picturesque pond in Sulymivka.


Baba — an ancient pagan idol that has seen so much

in millennia that have passed since its erection —

unfortunately, it refuses to talk.


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