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Wooden Churches of Hutsulshchyna


This time Olena KRUSHYNSKA, who has been providing WU with wonderful essays about wooden churches of Ukraine for quite some time now, presents her report about her trip to the Land of Hutsulshchyna in the Carpathian Mountains, Western Ukraine.


My trip began in Zakarpattya (see WU issues # 1, 2, 3-4’2009). First, I visited a couple of villages in Zakarpattya and then I traveled east to Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, my destination being several villages and towns in the Land of Hutsulshchyna.

Hutsulshchyna is not an administrative division. It covers an area which includes parts of Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi and Zakarpattya Oblasts of today’s Ukraine. For several centuries, from the fourteenth to the eighteenth, Hutsulshchyna was a part of Poland, then of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. A short-lived semi-independent Hutsul state, Hutsulska Republic with the center in the village of Yasinya, existed from 1918 to 1919 (within Zakhidnoukrayinska Narodna Respublika — Western Ukrainian People’s Republic). From 1920 to 1939 parts of Hutsulshchyna were incorporated into the Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Poland. WWII brought considerable changes to the map of Europe, and most of what historically used to be called “Hutsulshchyna” found itself within the borders of Ukraine. The population of Hutsulshchyna is estimated to be over 200,000 people, most of whom are Ukrainians.

Hutsuly, a sub-ethnic group of Ukrainians who live there, have probably retained more of their original customs, traditions, ways of dressing and talking than people in any other part of Ukraine. Hutsul folk art, folklore, dialect and features of everyday life are immediately recognizable as considerably different from such features that can be observed elsewhere in Ukraine.

The mountains must have been the definitive factor in shaping the Hutsuls’ life style. One of their central occupations is cutting timber and making things from wood. Hutsuls are excellent wood carvers and their homes and everyday items are adorned with marvelous wood carvings.

Hutsul churches, as you must have guessed, are wooden too. And their decor reflects the Hutsul folk art styles.

In contrast to the wooden churches of Zakarpattya, in which the vertical is the dominant feature, the Hutsul churches show the preference for the horizontal design and create an impression of being very solid, they cling to the ground on which they stand, their architectural masses are well-balanced, symmetrical and harmonic. The traditional Hutsul churches have five zruby (wooden sections, which the church is made up of) and the cross in the ground plan. The central zrub is crowned with an octagonal “tower” and the four smaller zruby are like arms of the cross, covered with gable-type roof.

Since the Carpathian climate is rich in precipitation, the wooden churches of Hutsulshchyna are provided with various architectural means of protection against the inclemency of weather.

In spite of the fact that the basic elements of the Hutsul churches vary but little, the Hutsul church designers and builders have managed over the centuries to build churches which differ in their appearance (to the discerning eye, of course) so much that you will hardly find any two churches that look alike.

Unfortunately, most of the wooden churches in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast (there are about four hundred of them) have been covered with metal roofs which have replaced the traditional wooden ones. The tin roofs disfigure the original beauty of the churches and what a joy I experience whenever I come across wooden churches which have retained their original beauty intact.



The Zakarpattya village of Yasinya sits in the mountains, close to the Yablunytsky pereval (mountain pass), the place where the road from Zakarpattya crosses into Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.

Yasinya is a typical mountain village — it stretches along the river in a narrow valley.

In the 1770s, German colonists came to settle down in that area and they brought some new habits and customs but the Hutsul element gained the upper hand in the end.

After WWI and as a result of the remapping of the borders that followed the war, Zakarpattya found itself within Czechoslovakia. Yasinya became a tourist center — photos of it were published in travel guides and on tourist postcards. The central attraction in Yasinya was the Voznesenska (Ascension) Church (the church is often referred to as “Strukivska).

According to one of the stories of the local lore (Hutsul lore is very rich in all sorts of stories and legends), once a Hutsul shepherd named Ivan Struk stayed with his herd of sheep grazing in the mountain meadows longer than he should have, and when on his way back home he reached the pass, it turned out it was covered with snow. He took his herd further down into the valley hoping to find some shelters to wait out the snowstorm. But the snowstorm did not abate. Struk herded his sheep round a haystack and built a sort of a wooden shack for them and then left the sheep there with a heavy heart. He did manage to make it home through the snow. Next spring, he, accompanied by his son, returned to the place where he had left sheep, and to his great surprise and relief he discovered that the sheep not only survived the winter — they gave him a lot of new and nice lambs. Struk and his son thought it was nothing short of miracle, and to thank God for having saved the sheep, they built a chapel and house nearby. The house was the first one in a village that sprang up and the chapel was later replaced by a church which was dedicated to the Christ’s Ascension — Voznesinnya; hence the name of the church — Voznesenska. The village got named Yasinya because of numerous yaseni — ash trees which grow in the valley and which provide timber for construction.

To get to the church from the road, you have to cross the Chorna Tysa River over a bridge, then climb the hill whose slopes are pretty steep.

The church dates from 1824 and thus can be considered rather “young” by the Hutsul standards. I find it to be one of the most harmonious and perfect churches in Hutsulshchyna. Standing nearby you can “relate” to it — it does not dwarf you, you feel that the church corresponds well to the human size. Walking around the church, you discover that in spite of what, at first sight, seems to be rather rigid symmetries, the church provides changing appearances, depending on the angle at which you look at it.

On one of the doorposts I discovered a carved composition of three crosses and the date — 1824. There were also the names of the peasants who took part in the repairs of the church fifty years after the church’s consecration.

The iconostasis in the cozy interior of the church does contain icons — unfortunately, most of them were repainted in a rather rude style.

The bell tower is no less impressive than the church itself. Art and architecture historians enthuse over it no less than about the church itself.

In fact, the bell tower was built earlier — in 1813 — than the church was finished. On the jamb of the door to it I saw the date and words — ANNO DOMINI 1813, carved into the wood. The bell tower reminded me of a huge mushroom. It is two-tired, with the bottom tier being square in plan, the second tier — octagonal, divided visually into three parts by ledges.

The church and its bell tower can be seen on a very rare postcard which was released to commemorate the creation of a new state, Karpatska Ukrayina. This state, Carpathian Ukraine, lived but a few days.

After the annexation of the Czechoslovakia by Germany in 1938, the Ukrainian part of the country that ceased to be, wanted to have more than just an autonomy. On March 1939, the newly elected legislative body (Soim) of the Carpathian Ukraine proclaimed the creation of a new state, Karpatska Ukrayina, whose constitution said that it was to be a presidential republic; the state language was to be Ukrainian. The national flag was to be the traditional Ukrainian blue and yellow, and the anthem was to be the traditional one too; the coat of arms was to contain the traditional elements of Ukrainian state symbols, the tryzub (trident) included. Soim elected the president — Avhustyn Voloshyn who ruled his country but for a couple of days. Hungary, whose government was of a fascist kind, supported by Germany, invaded Karpatska Ukrayina and by March 18, most of it was occupied by the Hungarian troops.

I find it amazing that the state whose existence was cut short so fast, nevertheless had the time to release a post stamp with a beautiful church on its face!

The Voznesenska Church is to be submitted to the UNESCO for inclusion, together with eight other wooden architecture landmarks of Ukraine into the list of the World Heritage Sites.



Before I proceeded further to cross into Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, I went toward to the village of Lazeshchyna, which administratively belongs to Zakarpattya. In the valley Plytovaty, about halfway between the villages of Yasinya and Lazeshchyna, there stands the Church Preobrazhennya Hospodnyoho (Transfiguration), another architectural landmark of that area which features on postcards and in art albums.

The church was built in 1780. If compared to the church in Yasinya, the one in Plytovaty reverts to the vertical striving rather than stays clinging horizontally to the earth. The Church Preobrazhennya Hospodnyoho is said to have been originally built in the village of Yablunytsya and then dismantled and taken by sledges to Plytovaty in 1871.

Besides, on one of the church walls I discovered a carved reference to Mykhailo Plastunyak who, together with his wife, “erected this church in God’s Glory” in the year 1871. The architectural features of the church suggest that the church was indeed built in the early 1870s rather than a century earlier.

The old photos show that the church’s roofs used to be made of wooden shingles. I was dismayed to see the roofs which are now covered with ugly metal sheets. They are a disgrace really, disfuguring the church’s beauty.



On the way to Vorokhta we pass the village of Tatariv. The Church of St Dmytro in Tatariv and its bell tower date from the 18th century, but now their original beauty is spoilt with metal roofs which have replaced the traditional wooden ones.

Vorokhta is a village which is now in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, but still in the area which is a part of what is known as Hutsulshchyna.

Vorokhta, in many respects, has many features which differ it from what may be called “a typical Hutsul village.”

The early twentieth-century villa-like houses is one of such features, and the imposing railroad viaduct is another. Even as I was driving through the outskirts of the village I saw wooden houses on both sides of the road which looked like villas rather than peasant dwellings.

The village is located close to the railroad that was built there in the 1880s. It boosted the village into becoming a popular tourist center.

Guesthouses for more well-to-do tourists were built in the 1930s, and mountain skiing became a growing attraction.

Today, Vorokhta is one of the major tourist centers in western Ukraine, complete with ski lifts, ski jumps and other facilities for skiing. Modern hotels are being built, but luckily the old wooden church is still there.

The Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi (Birth of the Mother of God) sits on the slope of a hill. From the gate in the fence you have to climb steep steps to get to the church itself. If you take another route and get above the church by one of the village streets you will be rewarded with a great view of the church seen against the background of the village.

The church is believed to be one of the best Hutsul wooden architectural landmarks of its kind. It was built in the seventeenth century (the date is uncertain) elsewhere, then taken apart and moved to its present-day location.

It is a graceful church; the adjective “slender” could also be applied to it. The builders erected the walls inclining slightly towards the center and it provided the church with a dynamic appearance. Close to the gate below the church, one can see a small chapel, and still further down the street, there is another small chapel, on the wall of which I read, “It is here, at this spot, that Christianity got a firm footing in the village of Vorokhta, August 24 1602.”

Both chapels reveal a very good taste of the church builders.



From Vorokhta, on the way to Yaremche, I passed the village of Mykulychyn where I made a stop to take a look at a wooden church there.

The Church sv. Triytsi (Holy Trinity) dates from the year 1848, but its three-tier bell tower is older — it was built in the eighteenth century. Both the church and its bell tower are on the list of architectural monuments which are protected by the state. I felt a painful stab to my esthetic heart when I saw that the roofs are covered with tin sheets which replaced wooden shingles.

Yaremche is one of the major tourist centers in the Carpathians, but my destination this time is not so much Yaremche but one of its suburbs, Dora, which used to be a village in its own right. It boasts two wooden architectural landmarks — the seventeenth-century Church of the Guardian Archangel Michael (badly disfigured by the tin on its roofs) and the other one in the Studytsky Monastery which is located close to the main road in Dora and thus can hardly be missed.

In the 1930s, Illya and Ivanna Kokorudzy, donated to the Greco-Catholic Monastery in Dora a piece of land. The monastery and the church built on the donated land were dedicated to the Prophet Elijah and St John the Baptist. The church was built in 1938 and its architectural style eclectically combines both the ancient traditions and new (new for the 1930s, that is) architectural trends. Such a blend makes the church a unique architectural landmark.

The Kokorudzy family stipulated that the houses donated to the monastery be used as schools in the educational program designed for the children of the poor.

When in September 1939, Hutsulshchyna became a part of the Soviet Ukraine, and the soviet regime clamped down on the Greco-Catholic Church, the locals offered shelter and refuge to the monks of the monastery that was closed down. Surprisingly enough, the church was not ruined and in 1990 it was returned to the religious community. The church was restored and services were resumed.



The monastery in Yaremche-Dora dates from 1938; its church, in spite of its young age, is one of the most original creations of wooden architecture in Ukraine; the interior of the church boasts an iconostasis rich in wooden carving with unusual icons.


The Church of Preobrazhennya Hospodnyoho (Transfiguration), 1780, in the valley of Plytovaty, an architectural landmark which features on postcards and in art albums. A postcard from the series Podkarpatska Rus published in the end of the 1930s (from the author’s collection).



Probably the most advantageous view of the Voznesenska (Ascension) Church and of the bell tower in Yasinya; inset: the postage stamp which was released by the short-lived state of Karpatska Ukrayina in March 1939.


The Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi (Birth of the Mother of God) is considered to be one of the most impressive wooden churches of Hutsulshchyna.



The Voznesenska (Ascension) Church in Yasinya and its interior. The church is believed to have been built at the spot where a herd of sheep, abandoned in the snow, had miraculously survived the severe winter. The Voznesenska Church is to be submitted to the UNESCO for inclusion, together with eight other wooden architecture landmarks of Ukraine, into the list of the World Heritage Sites.


Olena Krushynska is at the klepach, a wooden contraption used instead of bells on Strasna Pyatnytsya (Good Friday) before Easter.



Photos by the author

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