A Small Ukranian Town of Rich Cultural History

Materials for the article have been supplied by Victor Kyrkevych, photos by Yuriy Buslenko

General view of the fortifications of the Carmelite monastery facing the river Hnylopyat.

Honore de Balzac was married there, Joseph Conrad was born there, Levi-Itskhak, a prominent Hassidic zaddik preached and died there.Berdichev is a provincial town of a hundred thousand inhabitants. At the same time, it is a cultural phenomenon worth studying, since in the nineteenth-century Ukraine it was looked upon as an embodiment of the very idea of provincialism. It is a town of several ethnic groups, each of which has contributed to the town’s cultural makeup. A book published in Paris in 1884 about Russia and Ukraine (La Russie et les Russes. Kiev et Moscou, by Victor Tissot) gave more space to Berdichev than to Kyiv or Moscow.
The town of Berdichev is believed to have been founded in the 11th or possibly even in the 10th century. The first settlers were, in all probability, the Berendeyis, people of the steppe who defended the lands, ruled by Kyiv, against incursions of other nomads. The name Berdichev is thought to have been given to the town by these Berendeyis. It’s good luck, some say that the town did not get named after the nearby river Hnylopyat (hnyl means putrid). The devastating Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century reduced the town to rubble. It was resurrected back to life only to come into possession of the Polish and Lithuanians. For a considerable stretch of time, beginning from 1320, the Tyszkevyches, a Polish noble family, had the town as their estate.

The Church of St Mykolai. Interior.

For generations, this family was known for the stateliness and beauty of their members, and in the second half of the twentieth century, one of the descendants of the Berdichev castle founders, Beata Tyszkevych, was a Polish film star, much admired for her great looks. In 1483, the fortifications of Berdichev proved to be impregnable for the invading hordes of Mengly-Hyrey, a Tartar-Mongol ruler.In fact, Berdichev, as the residence of the Tyszkevyches, was only one, albeit the strongest, of several fortified towns and castles that stood in the way of Tartar-Mongol raids. Even at the end of the 16th century, in spite of the emergence of new, more powerful weapons, the Berdichev castle was considered to be impregnable. One of the Tyszkevyches, Yanush, was captured by the Tartars, and when in 1626, he returned from captivity, he founded a monastery, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and gave it to monks of the mendicant Order of the Barefoot Carmelites. The monks, evidently forgetting their mendicancy, began exploiting the local population who once in a while exploded in anger and attacked the monastery.

The Church of St Mykolai.
General view

The monks, to protect themselves, had to build high walls around the monastery.The local population, made up mostly of Ukrainian peasants who lived outside the walls of Berdichev, felt cheated and ripped off. They were Orthodox Christians and the town’s predominantly Polish population was Catholic. It added to the tension and not once the peasants, aided by the Cossacks, erupted in anger and, burning with vengeance, tried to storm the town and the castle. In 1648, when the war of liberation began under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the monastery was laid siege to and taken by storm. Neither the fortifications with 60 cannon, nor a miracle-working icon, stolen from the St Michael’s Orthodox church, prevented the attackers from wreaking havoc on the monastery.In 1663, the monastery was rebuilt and since then has remained a remarkable architectural landmark, one of the most impressive of its kind in Ukraine. Considerable sums of money were donated by the Vatican for the monastery’s renovation, and one of the then prestigious architects Ian de Witt was commissioned to supple designs. One of the churches of the monastery acquired a distinct Baroque look. B. Frederice, an Italian painter, decorated the church with frescoes.

The underground chapel of the Mariyinska Church containing the miracle-working icon of the Holy Mother of God of Berdichev.

The church suffered a considerable damage in W.W.II, and now, so many years after the war, restoration work is under way. There is still a sizeable Catholic community living in Berdichev. The building, formerly housing the cells of monks, has been turned into a flourishing music school, around which the cultural life of the town now centers. Many young people, with no temptations of a major city to distract them, devote themselves to cultural pursuits.The town of Berdichev used to have and still has a large Jewish community. In the 16th century the town’s advantageous geographical position at the intersection of many trade routes attracted merchants and craftsmen, among whom there were many Jews. In fact, the Polish kings, who ruled over a considerable part of the Ukrainian territory at that time, encouraged trade in the area. By the 19th century the population of the town, with the exception of the castle and monastery, was almost entirely Jewish.The outskirts were inhabited by Ukrainian peasants. It was a very curious cultural situation, with Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian traditions not only co-existing but also intermingling. Honore de Balzac, one of the most prominent French writers of the 19th century, after his visit to Berdichev wrote in 1847: “The place is thoroughly Jewish, Jews are everywhere.

The underground chapel of the Mariyinska Church. 1634.

They seem to be out in the streets most of the time, with apparently no one staying inside their tiny houses which look more like boxes that could be easily carried from place to place by a couple of sturdy men. The streets are so crowded that the progress of my coach, pulled by six horses, was excruciatingly slow in spite of constant shouting by my coachman to make way.”In 1832, Balzac became friendly with Eveline Hanska, a Polish countess who was married to an elderly Ukrainian landowner. She, like many other women, had written to Balzac expressing admiration of his writings. They met twice in Switzerland in 1833, the second time in Geneva, where they became lovers; then again in Vienna in 1835.

Memorial plaque on the Church of St Barbara, stating that H. Balzac and E. Hanska were married in this church.

They agreed to marry when her husband died, and so Balzac continued to conduct his courtship of her by correspondence. To clear his debts and put himself in a position to marry Madame Hanska now became Balzac’s great incentive. He was at the peak of his creative power. In January 1842 Balzac learned of the death of Wenceslas Hanski. He now had good expectations of marrying Eveline, but there were many obstacles, not the least being his inextricable indebtedness. She in fact held back for many years, and the period of 1842-48 shows Balzac continuing and even intensifying his literary activity in the frantic hope of winning her, though he had to contend with increasing ill health. In the autumn of 1847 Balzac went to Madame Hanska’s chateau and remained there until February 1848. He returned again in October to stay, mortally sick, until the spring of 1850. Then at last Eveline relented. They were married in March in Berdichev, in the Church of Saint Barbara. The newlyweds proceeded to Paris, where Balzac lingered on miserably for the few months before his death. The church is still functioning, though in the Soviet times it was closed down and turned into a gym where mostly basketball was played. The markings on the floor serve as reminder of those unhappy times. .

The Church of St Barbara,
built in 1826.

Joseph Conrad, the famed British novelist, whose original name was Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born in Berdichev in 1857. His father, Apollo Nalecz Korzeniowski, a poet and an ardent Polish patriot, was one of the organizers of the committee that went on in 1863 to direct the Polish insurrection against Russian rule. He was arrested in late 1861 and was sent into exile at Vologda in northern Russia. His wife and four-year-old son followed him there. In A Personal Record Conrad relates that his first introduction to the English language was at the age of eight, when his father was translating the works of Shakespeare and Victor Hugo in order to support the household. Much later, Conrad, after many adventures on land and on sea, came to England to become a writer of complex skill and striking insight, but above all of an intensely personal vision. He has been increasingly regarded as one of the greatest English novelists.After a period of turbulent times and economic decline, Berdichev rose to prominence again in the 19th century. It became the venue of very big fairs that attracted traders and buyers from many places. Banks were opened, mostly owned by Jews. The main street of the town was called Golden and was lined with offices of many companies.

The synagogue

The bustling economic activity supported cultural life. The Rubinstein family of Berdichev, for example, produced two great musicians, Anton and Nicholas.It was in Berdichev that Levi-Itskhak, an eminent zaddik (a leader of a Hassidic community) lived and died. Hassidism found many followers in Berdichev. Levi-Itskhak preached that a simple life and working for the benefit of others was more acceptable to God than constant, exhausting prayers. His grave at the local cemetery has been attracting the Hassidim from all over the world. They come to Berdichev to pay homage to the much-revered zaddik. Berdichev, since 18th century, has often been referred to as Jerusalem Volynnya.By the turn of the century Berdichev was again in decline and many Jewish families moved to other towns, Odesa in particular. A local joke had it that the fame of Odesa began with the decline of Berdichev.A hundred years later, Berdichev is not going through prosperous times either. There are still several factories working here but like the rest of the country the town has been badly hit by an economic crisis.
Apart from the Hassidim, very few tourists come these days to Berdichev. One can only regret it, since this small town has an excitingly rich history and consequently a lot to show. Hopefully, a day will come when Berdichev will once again be a much-visited place.