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Champagne and Salt


Denys KUSHNARYOV went to the town of Artemivsk to learn more about the place where Ukrainian sparkling wines are produced; he discovered that in addition to the local fizz, the place is famous for its salt.


The town of Artemivsk is situated in the east of Ukraine, in Donbas Oblast, the land of coal extraction and metallurgy.

The original name of the town, whose foundation dates from the sixteenth century, is Bakhmut, but in 1924, several years after the Bolsheviks had come to power, the town was renamed, as was the soviet custom then (to sever all possible links with the past!) into Artemivsk, in honor of the local soviet boss Artem. Before they staged their coup and grabbed power, Bolsheviks, for conspiracy reasons, chose all sorts of nicknames — “party pseudonyms” — and sobriquets to hide behind. Artem also had a human name — Fyodor Sergeyev. When he died in an accident it was decided that the “memory of Comrade Artem will live forever in the name of the city”. Luckily, there are plans to get the town renamed back to what it was.

But in spite of the somber Bolshevik ring in its name, the town of Artemivsk is known in Ukraine as the major producers of something very cheerful — sparkling wines.

Before we come to a more detailed story about the wine and the actual winery, I’d like to give you a very brief overview of Artemivsk’s history.

We have the precise date for the town’s foundation — the year 1571. It was a fort that was to protect that area from incursions of the steppe nomads. Gradually, it grew into a trade center. In the seventeenth century, it was discovered that salt could be extracted in the vicinity of this fort that became a town. The town acquired the name Bakhmut thanks to the river Bakhmut close by.

The salt turned a small town into a major trade center. Foreign capital began to pour into the salt business too, and by the early nineteenth century Bakhmut was producing seventy percent of all the salt extracted in the Russian Empire. A construction boom followed. The local factories made bricks, the machinery was steam powered. Fortunes were made and lost not only in salt — Bakhmut made soap for the whole of the empire; beer from Bakhmut was appreciated in many parts of the enormously vast country; regularly held trade fairs were events of considerable economic significance (the soviets discontinued the practice of holding them but they were resumed in 1999). Successful industrialists and businessmen of Bakhmut with financial and economic clout — brothers Lyubytsky, Trakhterov, Ginsburg, Lobasov, Adelman, to name but a few, were well known far and wide.

Bakhmut acquired the status of a cultural center of Donbas as well. It boasted theaters, museums, libraries and even a music school.

In the 1930s, the soviet top bosses were toying with the idea of making Bakhmut, which had become Artemivsk, into the administrative regional center of the newly formed Donbas Oblast, with Horlivka to have good chances too. The immediate cause of transferring the capital of the oblast to Stalino (now Donetsk) was quite embarrassing — Kaganovich, one of Stalin’s henchmen, when on a visit to Artemivsk was disgusted with the conditions of the roads in the town — his car got stuck in the mud, and that promoted Stalino. The name of the city also might played a role — how can you compete with a city named after the “great leader and father of nations” Joseph Stalin?

Artemivsk was the city where the first electric power station in “the soviet Ukraine” was built, as well as the first non-ferrous metal producing plant was constructed.

In 1954, the sparkling wine distillery, the biggest of its kind in the then Soviet Union, became operational.


Wine that sparkles

In 1950, the government of what was then the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was “a constituent part,” passed a resolution to start production of “champagne” (it was only much later that the controversy over the name arose — the soviets ignored such things as copyright or brand names) in Artemivsk, using the gypsum mines for the needs of such production.

The decree could have been prompted by Stalin allegedly saying, “Every working person in our country must have a bottle of Champagne for each holiday!”

The Artemivsk mines were spacious — 250 square meters, the temperature in them was stable around 13 or 14 degrees Centigrade, and the humidity was right for fermentation of sparkling wines. The basic method and technique used were and are similar to the ones used in France.

Since then, sparkling wines from Artemivsk (they were called Sovetskoye shampanskoye — Soviet Champagne) have won a lot of prizes and medals (12 Grand Prix titles, 62 gold medals, 39 silver medals and 4 bronze medals) at various exhibitions and wine-tasting competitions.

Tours are organized to see the place where sparkling wines are made and stored. During the tour, you can taste all the basic kinds of wines made there, from the driest to semi-sweet.

A training center for teaching perfect wine-making is going to be opened in Artemivsk in some near future and the local sparkling wine makers hope they will be able to supply their products to very distinguished and discerning customers.


Deep into the salt mines

In the vicinity of Artemisvsk there is a small town called Soledar (the name can be probably translated as Gift of Salt). The area where the town is situated is indeed blessed with a highly necessary commodity — salt.

Geologists are of the opinion that salt in Donbas must have formed about 200 million years ago, and thus it is younger than the local coal.

The Artemsil company produces about five million tons of salt annually (it constitutes about ten percent of the world salt production) and the salt deposits are likely to stay unexhausted for many more years to come. The salt quarried in Soledar is of the highest quality — pure, and, what is very important too, very cheap.

If you go down a salt mine to a depth of about 300 meters (almost a thousand feet), you will find yourself on the bottom of an ancient sea. If you join a guided tour, you will be shown all sorts of curios — sculptures cut out of salt; a huge salt crystal the size of a human being; a sort of a concert hall and even a church!

The conditions in the salt mines are such that not only salt is what they can offer — various diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, problems with the immune system and the thyroid gland can be successfully treated there. A specialized medical center, Solyana symfonia, provides courses of therapy.

Incidentally, in October 2004, a symphony concert was held in the concert hall of the salt mine, the Austrian conductor Kurt Schmidt conducting the orchestra and the soloist of the Vienna Opera Ukrainian Viktoriya Lukyanets performing the vocal part. The conductor was greatly impressed by the acoustics of the underground hall, saying he knew only two or three other places in the world which could boast the same acoustic excellence.


On the ground

Not only the salt mines, the wine cellars and an underground asthma treatment center that attract visitors to the Artemivsk area.

The Mykolayivska (St Nicholas’) Church in Artemivsk is an architectural landmark that a culture tourist may want to see. It is made of oak wood and dates from the eighteenth century. The name of the architect is unknown but the same can be said practically of all the ancient wooden churches of Ukraine. The decorations of the church reveal their folk origin.

The oak of the church has become hard as metal, perhaps almost as hard as the decorative wrought-iron gate in the fence around the church. Decorative pieces made of metal are typical of the Donbas folk art and can be seen in decorations of some of the old buildings.

The list of tourist attractions in Artemivsk and its environs is a pretty long one — but they say that it is better to see something once than to read or hear about it in length.


To visit salt mines please go to Solyana Symfoniya 7 Mayakovskoho Str., Soledar, Donetsk oblast, Ukraine


One of the central streets of Artemivsk.


The park that the people of Artemivsk like to take walk in.


A symphony concert performed in the underground salt mine hall; the conductor is Kurt Schmidt from Austria.


The salt cave with a piece of sculpture made of salt.



Reliefs carved on the walls deep underground in the salt mine.

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