Vast, diverse and much closer than we might think, Ukraine is still an unknown land for many. A project by young Ukrainians aims to change that

When I say I am from Ukraine, I can see the worry on people’s faces, their minds flooded by stereo-types of a dangerous, remote country, half-way out on the Asian steppe.

What could I expect? It is indeed a huge country. But its western border is only 600 km away from Vienna, closer than Switzerland. Still, Ukraine is seen as terra incognita, and hardly a reliable political or business partner, destination for a holiday or place to invest.

Guidebooks claim to know all there is to know about the country, listing Kiev, Lviv, or Odessa and the countryside. Ukrainians must know their homeland, right?

Well, not exactly… For the last few decades, Ukrainians have been actively moving to the cities and even emigrating, leaving their homeland without ever really getting to know it. The stories of small villages didn’t attract the mainstream media, and instead were buried in family archives, often vanishing from memory.

And before Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, the traumatic experiences of the Soviet era and earlier failed attempts to establish a sovereign state nearly destroyed the country’s sense of self, its history, unique heritage, traditions, customs, attitudes, even its diversity.

All this upheaval has damaged people’s trust of their neighbors and vision of their own future. Many are cautious, rarely leaving the borders of their own region. Often, it seems, we hardly know ourselves.

To fix this, we have launched Ukraïner – an independent media project that shows Ukraine through expeditions to unusual places in the country’s historic regions. We tell these stories in words, photos and breathtaking videos that change the image and the perception of Ukraine. Through research and personal experiences, we try to show who Ukrainians actually are. Here are some of the stories with the world.

PROJECT UKRAÏNER

Ukraïner is a new media project with the aim to rediscover Ukraine and its people by travelling the country for 18 months. The website ukrainer.net shares stories from places, people, art, and food, creating a modern guide to Ukraine in text, photos and videos, translated into multiple languages.

Buffalo Michel

Some of the initiative has come from foreigners. Michel Jacobi, a young German ecologist, came to Zakarpattia in southwestern Ukraine 14 years ago, with the dream of saving a population of Carpathian buffalos on the verge of extinction. He gathered up the remaining buffalos and set about learning how to care for them. He learned Ukrainian from elderly local people, and from them, how to breed the cattle. Today, on the farms in the villages Chumaliovo and Steblivtsi, Michel takes care of his buffalo and has launched a herd-book, to trace the breeding patterns and the offspring.


Michel Jacobi – the best friend of the Carpathian buffalo

“A Carpathian buffalo is like an elephant: He has his own personality, he remembers everything,” he says. “For instance, a buffalo will never produce milk if you aren’t friends. You have to talk to them…” Through his efforts, these buffalo also live in a semi-wild preserve on the banks of the Danube and are helping to save the ecosystem of the Danube Delta. “People have to live closer to nature. That is what I want to show in my own example.”

The Magic of Pottery

There are about ten centers of pottery in Ukraine, the biggest being Opishiya, in the Poltava region in central Ukraine, where the work of local craftsmen is prized for a characteristic dark-red clay and playful, rococo ornamentation. There, the National Museum of Pottery has now opened, based on the collection of the Poshyvailo Family, an ancient dynasty of Ukrainian potters.“This is not just a treasury of old pots,” says Oles Poshyvailo, founder of the museum.

“It is a living organism that allows us to reconsider ourselves as a part of the whole nation.” One of the oldest living potters is Vasyl Omelchenko, a living legend who has been creating his masterpieces from the clay for most of his 80 years. He has a workshop in his house, where he and his family have developed a style all their own, where he has trained generations of students who work all over Ukraine, keeping the tradition alive.

Carnival of Mysteries

In midwinter, Ukrainians celebrate Malanka, on St. Basil’s Eve – the New Year, according to the Julian calendar (Jan. 13 and 14). The celebration of Malanka is elaborately kept across the Bukovina and Galicia regions. One of the most impressive spots to witness the mysteria is the village of Krasnoilsk, on the border with Romania. Here, the locals dress as animals or characters from myth and folklore, and celebrate a carnival that lasts for two full days.

While details of these costumes and masks differ from town to town, they nearly always include a king, a queen, a grandpa, a grandma, a bear, a goat, a gypsy, a Jew and, of course, Malanka herself. Tourists come by the hundreds to Krasnoilsk for the carnival each year, eager to see the pageantry with their own eyes. Ukraïner was the first media that streamed the carnival live, allowing over 400,000 people across the country to join in.

A Dynastic Railway

We’ll begin our journey in Polissia, a region of ancient forest and marshland in the lowlands of western Ukraine. Here, preserved through the chance neglect of changing political fortunes is the Antonivka-Zarichne, one of four remaining narrow-gauge railways in Ukraine — 115 years old, it is still the longest one in Europe, with a track width of 750 mm, (a standard railroad track measures 1,435 mm). The railroad carries you through the pristine beauty of pine forests and past shimmering blue lakes across the region’s oldest wooden railway bridge, called “the amber way” crossing the Styr River. A dynasty of railway workers in one family, the Melnyks, preserve the line and have created a private museum to the tradition of narrow-gauge rail.


A narrow-gauge railway in Polissia – the amber way

Today, there are some parts of the country where these trains are still the only means of transport. Also worth a visit are the narrow-gauges Begehovo-Vynohradiv-Irshava in Zakarpattia, known for its open market and exotic views; Rudnytsia-Haivoron, for the mountain air of the Carpathians and performances of traditional music and dance, and Vyhoda-Senechiv for a return to the days of the Empire, its architecture and picturesque locales.The Polissia pine forests were also a center of wild honey farming that flourished in the times of the Kievan Rus in the 6th century.

In late summer, the honey was harvested and stored over the winter, and in the spring, foreign merchants would visit these areas to buy up the golden nectar. Many sources assume that wild-honey farming had disappeared by the beginning of the 18th century, but we found people in Polissia who still practice this ancient profession and care for the wild bees as their ancestors did centuries ago. The rich-toned honey carries the scent and taste of the pine forest and is again a specialty of the region.

The Fish & the Birds

Tuzly Lagoons National Nature Park is a chain of 13 estuaries in the catchment area of the Danube and the Dniester rivers, separated from the Black Sea by 36 km of barrier split. The area is unusually rich, having assimilated all the diversity of the flora and fauna of the Black Sea, as the park provides a habitat for almost 300 species of birds, about 60 species of fish in local waters and 37 species of animals. In one of the Ukräiner videos, biologist and former park Director Ivan Rusiev tells his own story of the progress made in how the country’s national parks and resources are being cared for while leading us on a tour around.