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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Khotyn and the Battle of Nations

17 May, 2011 - 00:00

Khotyn is truly a unique city. Are there many Ukrainian cities with a thousand-year history? And what outstanding history! Can they boast of being depicted by classics of art and literature? Mikhail Lomonosov wrote the Ode to the Seizure of Khotyn in 1739, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Fire in the Steppe (Pan Wolodyjowski) ends in Khotyn. Osyp Makovei, Zinaida Tulub and other Ukrainian authors wrote about the Battle of Khotyn (1621). Many movies, such as Ballade about the Valiant Knight Ivenho, Three Musketeers, Black Arrow, and Robin Hood’s Arrows, were shot in the Khotyn Fortress.

Khotyn’s history begins in princely times. The city is first mentioned in 1002. At the time Khotyn was a fortress on the border of the Rus’ state. This frontier status largely determined the city’s destiny.

Khotyn was part of the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, it served as an outpost in south-eastern lands. In the late 15th century the stronghold became part of the Principality of Moldavia. Here explanations are in order. Moldavia practically took over the political traditions of the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia. Its population was ethnically mixed: a lion’s share of the population was made up of Ruthenians-Ukrainians. Until the 17th century Old-Slavic remained the official language of the state, whereas in 15-16th centuries Khotyn became a residence for Moldavian hospodars. The city also held the largest fairs in the principality, whose revenues mainly came from taxing these fairs. It is considered that the legendary Ukrainian Prince Dmytro Baida-Vyshnevetsky fought near Khotyn — he wanted to become a Moldavian hospodar. There he was taken prisoner and brought to the Turks in Constantinople, where he died in tortures.

Khotyn was many times attacked by Polish troops, who sought to siege this important military object. Eventually they did it in 1615. After the Tutora (Cecora) Battle, where Poles suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Turks, Khotyn became the main stronghold for the Rzeczpospolita against the Turkish expansion. In September-October 1621, one of the greatest battles of Medieval Europe took place, the Battle of Khotyn. Two hundred thousands Ottomans fought against 35,000 Poles and 40,000 Ukrainian Cossacks with Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny at the helm. The Cossack forces and Hetman Sahaidachny played a crucial role in this battle, and stopped the advance of Turks. Incidentally, there is a monument to Sahaidachny near the Khotyn Fortress. Though no masterpiece, it is gratifying to see the Cossack Hetman honored in some way.

Poles and Cossacks had luck near Khotyn. In 1673 an army of 30,000 men, including Cossack troops, headed by Crown Hetman Jan Sobieski, defeated a Turkish army of 40,000. Later Sobieski became king of Poland. Yet Turks managed to take Khotyn in the 18th century. In 1712-18 French engineers reconstructed the Khotyn Fortress to make it “look more European.” Actually its current looks were largely influenced by this reconstruction.

In the 18th century Russians fought for Khotyn. However it was only after the Russian-Turkish War of 1806-12 that the city was conquered by the Russian Empire and became a povit center of the Bessarabia Governate. It is no surprise that Russians wanted to Russify the city and left their traces there. Thus, on the territory of the fortress they even managed to build an Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Church. It goes without saying that it did not fall in the architecture ensemble of the Khotyn stronghold. The fact that the church was named after Nevsky is also symbolic. It is well known that Prince Alexander Nevsky was a faithful servant of the Tartar conquerors, whereas Ukrainians, Poles, and also Russians fought many times against Tartars and Turks near the walls of the Khotyn Fortress.

The 20th century brought no peace to the city either: World War II, an anti-Romanian rebellion in 1919 (which was severely suppressed), the interwar Romanian occupation of the city, its doubtful “liberation” by the Soviet troops in 1940, another Romanian occupation in 1941, and another Soviet “liberation” in 1944, which brought Stalin’s repressions.

In a word, the city’s history is quite a romance.

It is only natural that I decided to visit this legendary place. At the moment Khotyn is a raion center of Chernivtsi oblast. Let’s keep in mind that the major part of the territory of the abovementioned oblast, including Chernivtsi, was part of the Austrian empire, its crown land. That is why a European charm is still present there. And Chernivtsi was once called a small Vienna. As for Khotyn, as I have already mentioned, it was part of Russia. So there is a Russian spirit in the city’s architecture. But the fortress is indeed a gem of defense architecture, though it has been preserved only partially.

My visit to Khotyn coincided with the Labor Day. Actually, few city residents remembered about this holiday. They had a feast of their own. For several years Khotyn has been hosting the Battle of Nations Festival, where teams of knight clubs from different countries compete. Such festivals are not new to Western Europe, where they are held in the ancient castles, attracting thousands of tourists. The festivals are not limited to scrimmages though, as medieval songs and dances are also performed. In a nutshell, they try to revive the spirit of the Middle Ages. In our country such festivals are an exception, rather than a rule. And the Khotyn Battle of Nations is quite a pleasant exception.

During May holidays Khotyn was a Mecca for those who admire all things ancient. As a result, it was impossible to approach the city by car. And two kilometers away from the city there was no place to park your car. I had to cover this distance on foot, which had its upsides though, as I could see embroidering pieces, ethno-souvenirs, chemical-free ecological soap, honey, and mead. Actually, there were all sorts of things.

There were thousands of people on the territory of the fortress. Luckily, its territory is huge. So nobody was pushing anyone, and there was enough room for everybody.

When I came there, I thought that I was at the shooting site of a movie about medieval times. Knights wearing armor, many people, including women, wearing medieval costumes, a huge area was covered with medieval tents, and there was medieval music and dances. For sure, desperate knight battles were taking place. And people in modern clothes stood nearby, enjoying the show and taking photos. According to the organizers of the festival, it was attended by nearly 1,000 “medieval” participants. These were members of knight clubs and their admirers from seven countries – Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Russia, Germany, Italy, and even faraway Canada. Apparently the popularity of the festival is growing, and Khotyn is turning into an important tourism spot. I wish they built decent roads and developed the tourism infrastructure, but it is merely a wish at the moment.

We should take joy at the mere fact that this festival exists, as in many Ukrainian cities with ancient castles, which deserve to hold similar activities, there is no such kind of thing whatsoever.

By Petro KRALIUK. Photos by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day