Experts say that horse bones, pieces of harness, swords, pistols, smoking pipes, and other articles that were used by the Ukrainian Cossacks, indicate that the five recently discovered human skulls belong to them, not the Poles or Tatars whom the Cossacks fought in what is now Orativ and Illintsi raions of Vinnytsia oblast. Mysterious underground caves that are being discovered in local villages contain not only human remains but also documents dating from that period, religious articles, and probably the personal effects of celebrated Cossack leaders, maybe even Ivan Mazepa. Volodymyr Lebedovych, Otaman of the Vinnytsia-Kalnyk Regiment, says that one of the artifacts is Mazepa’s cup bearing his seal. It is being stored by the Vinnytsia Cossacks, together with letters addressed to the hetman. The underground caves are man-made. When these territories were seized by invaders, the Cossacks would hide in the caves from which they would launch surprise attacks on the enemy and then again disappear underground. Volodymyr Lebedovych, who is 192 cm tall, says he can walk in these caves without bending his head.
The catacombs range between 200 and 400 meters in length. An expedition was able to cover only 160 m and had to turn back for lack of oxygen. The deaths of the Cossacks in that cave can be explained by bad air, the enemy blocking the exit, or a cave-in. This spring the site will be examined more professionally, by specialists from the Institute of Ukrainian Cossacks in Kyiv. The catacomb, according to Volodymyr Lebedovych, can be entered through a courtyard in the village of Zhyvotivka in the Orativ area. During WWII artillery shells exploded there and opened a large crater that local residents promptly bricked up. The current Cossack otaman learned about it only last year. After examining the site, the Cossacks walled up the entrance again. The family living there wanted only stones and cement to do the job. A few years ago, Cossacks in Dashiv, Illintsi raion, gave some money for potatoes to a man who had a similar underground cave in his kitchen garden. After part of the cave was explored, it was buried and an orchard planted over it. Volodymyr Lebedovych says there have been cases of tractors and village homes falling into such caves.
Borys Lobai, deputy head of the department for the protection of monuments of the Vinnytsia oblast administration, is skeptical about the whole thing. He thinks most of this is hearsay and that the Cossack catacombs are nothing but tales; most likely these are old Jewish cellars, he says. As for the items that were allegedly found in them, concealing them is punishable under the law, like unauthorized excavations. In his opinion, this is precisely what the local Cossacks are doing. None of them has ever applied to the department for a digging permit.
Volodymyr Lebedovych explains their autonomous actions by the international status of the Institute of Ukrainian Cossacks, as well as by fears that the local authorities may appropriate such historical treasures. The Cossacks are collecting them for their own museum, which they plan to open in the village of Honoratka, Orativ raion. Their studies point to this place as the roots of Pylyp Orlyk’s family tree. The museum will be located in a church for the construction of which funds are being raised. Volodymyr Lebedovych expects donations even from the Klychko brothers. According to tradition, the Cossacks will express their gratitude to the philanthropists by bestowing awards, so they are asking people of means to open their wallets. The construction project costs over UAH 100,000. The design plans call for a stone church in the shape of a life-sized Cossack boat complete with oars and sail. Borys Lobai, meanwhile, points out that this construction hasn’t been coordinated with his department.