Courtesy Hennady Onyschenko

A half-legend has it that after the wedding ceremony of Honore de Balzac and Ewelina Hanska, an interesting conversation took place outside the St. Barbara’s Cathedral. An old Berdichev tailor asked Balzac where he had had his coat made. After Balzac told the tailor that he had had it made in Paris, and after checking the distance separating the two cities, the old tailor concluded with amazement, “It is so far from Berdichev, but they sew quite well there.”
The most surprising thing is that there is nothing implausible in this piece of oral folklore. In the mid-nineteenth century, Berdychev was a large city maintaining close economic and cultural ties with many cities not only in Ukraine and Russia, but also in other, more remote countries.

Let us take a look at the historical beginnings of the city. There exist several versions of the origin of the name Berdichev. According to one of them, it came from the name of the Berendey tribe, which was resettled under Kyiv Rus’. Over time, the name underwent transformations and acquired its present form. According to another version, the name originated from the proper name Berdich. When part of Kyiv Rus’ came under the rule of the Grand Princes of Lithuania, this area was owned by Berdich, Prince Vitovt’s subordinate. Later Berdich founded a village here, given the name of Berdichev.

The third version is backed up with documents: the first written mention of Berdichev dates back to 1546. It is described as the borderland village of Berychykove, owned by the Tyszkewicz family. Another document of 1593, a list of Tyszkewicz’s assets, reads, “Berdichev is located on the Pyatka River. A castle is being built there now.”

Berdichev’s proximity to the Polish-Ukrainian border shaped its subsequent historical development. Berdichev should credit its geographical location for both the prosperity it has enjoyed and the hardships it has endured.

In 1627, Kyiv governor Janusz, a member of the Ukrainian Tyszkewicz family, built a monastery of barefoot Carmelites in Berdichev, and the castle along with the nearby villages were transferred to the monastery’s ownership. At the time, the Catholic and the Orthodox churches were in a tense struggle with each other. The Catholic Church was a powerful instrument of suppressing the Ukrainian people under Polish rule. For mercenary reasons, a number of aristocratic Ukrainian families converted from the Orthodox faith to Catholicism.

The role of the Carmelite monk order in the dissemination of Catholicism was by no means insignificant. The history of the order dates from 1156, when a community of hermits was formed on Mount Carmel. The charter of the Carmelites, approved by Pope Honorius III in 1224, was very restrictive – every Carmelite was expected to spend his life in prayers and hard work. In 1247, Pope Innocent IV approved a less severe charter for the Carmelites and included them in the mendicant orders. This move caused the Carmelite order to split into observants, or barefooted Carmelites, who retained their stern lifestyle, and conventuals, or shod Carmelites, who lived according to the more liberal charter.

In 1634, Berdichev’s barefoot Carmelites started building the underground Mariinsky Cathedral, as well as a number of buildings. The monastery premises were encircled with a high rampart and a deep moat, and cannons were placed on top of the rampart. The monastery fortifications, guarded by a garrison, on many occasions provided shelter to the residents of the nearby villages in times of enemy attack.

The popularity of the monastery was enhanced by the miraculous icon of the Mother of God. Many pilgrims came to worship the icon, thereby positively influencing the development of trade and the welfare of the Berdichev population.

However, historical cataclysms did not bypass the Carmelites’ abode. In 1648, a Cossack force, after defeating Tyszkewicz and his garrison, ruined the castle and drove out the monks. Permanent disputes between the monks and the town owners also disrupted the town’s normal course of life. In 1663, the Carmelites made their way back to Berdichev and even managed to rebuild the monastery, but in 1684 were ousted again, this time by Tyszkewicz’s successors. Subsequently, it took Polish courts thirty years to finally restore the order’s rights.

In 1768, another dramatic event occurred. The monastery gave refuge to the remainder of the Confederation of Bar led by Kasimierz Pulawski, after his defeat by the Russians. The fortress was besieged by General Krechetnikov’s corps and subjected to artillery fire. According to archival evidence, 1569 cannon balls, 711 grenades, and 84 fire bombs were dropped on the city. 25 days later the besieged people were forced to capitulate.

However, despite all the wars, life went on. In the early 1740s, construction of a magnificent stone cathedral above the cave temple was begun. The cathedral was designed by well-known military engineer and architect Jan de Witte, who also supervised the construction work. Jan de Witte was assisted in his duties by architect Hryhory Tarnovsky. To satisfy the construction needs, a brick factory was built in the village of Bystrykh.

The cathedral was built in baroque style. Its interior is adorned with exquisite carved and stucco decorations, gold, and frescoes. The mural paintings were all made by Italian artist Frideriche Veniamino, who later worked in the icon-painting shop of the Kyiv Caves Monastery (Pecherska Lavra). In 1754, the temple was consecrated, and in 1758, a press started to work at the monastery. The press was bought in Austria by King Augustus III and donated to the Carmelites. It quickly gained utmost importance for the area, printing books in Latin, Polish, Yiddish, German, French, and Ruthenian. Especially popular was the Berdychev calendar, whose circulation reached 40,000 copies a year. Berdichev also had a large library at the time.

In 1765, the Radziwill princes obtained a right to hold ten large fairs in Berdychev annually. The fairs had a European importance since Berdichev was frequented by merchants from Russia, Austria, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and other countries. The annual turnover of the fairs exceeded 20 million Russian rubles, a tremendous amount of money at the time. Horses, bulls, honey, wax, fatback, and wheat were sold abroad, while the main imports included cloth, linen, and silk fabrics, which made Berdychev tailors so famous.

In 1772, the First Partition of Poland occurred. The event did not have any impact whatsoever on the economic life of the town but did bring about some other changes. Berdichev and the area around it were included in Volyn guberniya, which resulted in the demolition of the fortress in 1792 and the shutdown of the monastery much later, in 1866.

The nineteenth century was much less troubled for Berdichev, as evidenced by numerous written sources available dating back to that time period. For example, the archival documents say that in the 1820s, composer Frederic Chopin lived in Anton Radziwill’s castle. Back then, the young musician took lessons from the well-known Czech master of keyboard instruments Zhyvny. Radziwill was able to see Chopin’s talent and gave him money to obtain a higher education. While living in Berdychev, Chopin also supervised organ restoration work. In the 1820s, St. Barbara’s Cathedral was built, in which on March 14, 1850, Honore de Balzac married Ewelina Hanska.

A curious document of 1843 has survived to our day: an appeal to grant Berdichev the status of a district (povit) city. Among other things, it says, “One of the numerous virtues of the town is the natural wit of its residents. By enjoying much success, it will be of great benefit to the state and private individuals alike.”

In 1845, Berdichev was granted the status of a district city. As soon as it changed its status from a town to a city, the “discussion of measures on improving its appearance” started immediately. Indeed, the city badly needed those measures. At the time, there were 575 stone and 2876 wooden structures in Berdichev, all of which were privately owned. The population of the city was over 73,000.

Another interesting piece of evidence is dated 1867. A Berdichev architect, while doing construction work, discovered a whole system of underground passages beneath the city. He reported his findings to the governor, who, taking into account the importance of Berdichev for trade and the possible use of the underground tunnels by smugglers, set up a special commission to investigate the passages. The commission discovered 130 underground passages and 78 shafts. It also found out that the oldest underground system under Cathedral Square was more than 200 years old. However, the examination showed that all the underground passages were used solely as storage facilities for supplies. There were no traces of smuggling detected.

As of 1861, Berdichev enjoyed rapid industrial development, which was facilitated especially by the construction of a railroad connecting the city with Koziatyn in 1870, and later also with Shepetivka and Zhytomyr.
Berdichev was confidently building capitalism. Yet, the city was also entering the twentieth century, whose events, in terms of their drama and density, surpassed the entire earlier history of the city.