by Stuart Allen

French novelist Honoré de Balzac got married there, and literary giant Joseph Conrad was born there. Yet Berdychiv, a small town in Zhitoymyr is also a byword for rural backwardness and impoverishment Will the real Berdychiv please stand up?
 (1)When a Ukrainian inquires
whether you are from
Berdychiv, rest assured they are
not complementing you on
your linguistic ability but rather, hinting that
you appear to be somewhat unworldly.
Indeed, for many locals Berdychiv is the epit-
ome of everything rural and backwards, the
type of place which your sophisticated city
friends laugh hysterically at whenever you
voice the opinion that living in a Ukrainian
village might not be so bad at all.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1884 a book
about Russia and Ukraine entitled ‘La
Russe et les Russes. Kiev et Moscou’ by
Victor Tissot was published in Paris. In it
Tissot gave more space to Berdychiv than
to either Kyiv or Moscow, an extraordi-
nary move and doubtless due to the fact
that Balzac had married in the town 34
years earlier. But unlike Tolstoy, Balzac
hadn’t gone off to the countryside to
marry a simple and honest peasant girl
who would appease his tortured soul. No,
when Balzac stood before the alter inside St
Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church he was
next to Evelina Ganska, a Polish noblewoman
with whom the novelist had corresponded
with since the winter of 1834. Though part
of the Russian empire at the time, the
Berdychiv which Balzac knee had a distinctly
Polish feel. From 1320 Berdychiv was the
biggest fortified town belonging to the
Tyszkevyches, a powerful Polish family
renowned for their beauty and stately bear-
ing. One of the ways in which the ruling
Catholic Poles imposed their power on the
Orthodox peasantry was to build churches,

Though part of the Russian
empire at the timer the
Berdychiv which Balzac knew
had a distinctly Polish feel. From
1320 Berdychiv was the biggest
fortified town belonging to the
Tyszkevyches, a powerful Polish
family renowned for their beauty
and stately bearing.

the most impressive of all being the
monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The
courtyard is surrounded with thick walls with
bulwarks and a rampart. In 1648 the
monastery was decimated by Bohdan
Khmelnitsky’s Cossack host but was rebuilt in
1663, with considerable donations coming
 (3)directly from the Vatican. The monastery
boasts cells, two high belfries and a pair of
enormous churches both above and below
ground. At the time it was one of the most
impressive buildings in Ukraine and as such a
key symbol of Polish power and the Counter
Reformation. The town was a target for
Khmelnytsky’s men not only because it was a
centre of Polish power but also home to a
large Jewish population. From the 16th
century the towns advantageous geo-
graphical position on a busy trade inter-
section attracted many Jewish merchants
and tradesmen. Despite persecutions and
massacres Jews continued to come to
and by the 19th century the
town, with the exception of the castle and
monastery, was overwhelmingly Jewish.
Indeed on arriving in Berdychiv, Balzac
wrote in a letter to a friend that “The
place is thoroughly Jewish, Jews are every-
where”. The church of St. Barbara, in
which Balzac married his Polish bride, was
built in 1828 with money collected from the
towns prosperous, and mainly Polish, middle
class. As a building the church is fairly stan-
dard neo-classical fare but still goes some way
in showing that Berdychiv was once a reason-
ably affluent town with pretensions. Balzac’s
bride was an embodiment of the spirit of
these times. In 1832, Evelina, a countess mar-
ried to an elderly Ukrainian landowner, wrote
to Balzac expressing admiration for his writ-
ings. Balzac was at the height of his literary
powers and received many such letters from
smitten ladies of leisure who had grown
weary of life on vast and uninteresting estates
but nonetheless the French novelist seemed
particularly smitten by Evelina. They met
twice in 1833 in Switzerland and a second
time in Geneva, where they became lovers.
When Evelina’s husband died there was final-
ly a chance for them to wed but, mainly
because of Balzac’s debts, the marriage didn’t
take place until 1850. Balzac was obviously
relieved to get it all over and done with writ-
ing “…Only from me should you hear about
the happy ending to a great and beautiful
drama of the heart which has lasted for 16
years. Three days ago I married the only
woman I have ever loved, whom I love even
more than before and will love till death

Berdychiv’s other claim to fame is
that Jozef Teodor Konrad
Korzeniowski, better known in the
west as Joseph Conrad, was born
there in 1857. Conrad is arguably one of the
finest writers in the history of the English lan-
guage but remains rather unappreciated in
Ukraine. The reason for this is that Joseph
was first and foremost, a Pole. Joseph’s father,
Apollo, celebrated the birth of his son with a
poem entitled ‘To My Son, born in the 85th
Year of Muscovite Oppression”. He wrote a
further poem when his son was baptized,
containing the words “Tell yourself that you
are without land, without love, without
Fatherland, without humanity – as long as
Poland, our Mother, is enslaved.” Conrad’s
father was arrested in 1863 and the four year
old Josef followed his mother and father into
a north Russian exile. At six years old Conrad
signed himself ‘grandson, Pole, Catholic and
nobleman’ and in later life his most vivid
childhood memories were of his mother
wearing black in mourning for Poland’s suf-
fering and the listening to his great-uncle’s
tales of eating roast dog during Napoleon’s
retreat from Moscow. At sixteen Conrad went
off to join the navy, became a novelist and
ended his life in the English county of Kent.
When we see Conrad in this light it seems
understandable that there is no real desire
amongst Ukrainian’s to claim him as one of
their own and especially amongst the stay at
home people of Berdychiv. Yet travel broad-
ened Conrad’s mind and his greatest work,
Heart of Darkness’ is a brutal swipe at the
grand imperial dreams which filled many
European heads, leading one critic to hail it as
“the death of romanticism.”

So what of present day Berdychiv? Well, of
those Jews who survived the horrors of the
holocaust, many have migrated to Israel,
resulting in a population drop from around
one hundred thousand to less than ninety
thousand. The Jewish cemetery is still a pop-
ular stop for Jewish tours but visitors tend to
stop for only a few hours. Others have also
left the town. In a pattern repeated across
small-town Ukraine, youngsters are leaving in
droves, lured by the lights of big cities and
money which can be found in the West. With
it’s buildings reflecting the glory of a once
great foreign power and the absence of youth,
it would be easy to conclude that Berdychiv is
dying. But as with all small towns there is a
sense of community which is, hard for locals
to tear themselves away from. Many young
people leave the town because they simply
have to but the town remains home, and
many see themselves returning when they
have made their money and are of retirement
age. Berdychiv’s main drag is dotted with
dozens of Soviet factories but many of these
haven’t been operational for years. As
Ukraine opens up perhaps tourism is the
answer for there can be few small towns
which boast such an illustrious past and such
a warm traditional Ukrainian welcome!
How to Get There:
Berdychiv is situated in Zhytomyr region, not
too far from Kyiv. The fastest way to get
there is to take road M06 to Zhytomyr (about
130 km), then turn to the south to Berdychiv
in the direction to Vinnytsya. It will take you
approximately two hours by car

(10)A suitably impressive church for
the great Balzac to marry in.
Only he didn’t in this one, nor
any of Berdychiv’s grand buildings
but the humble St Barbara’s