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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

An Oasis of Memory – “Pyrohiv”

The book A Treasury of National Culture of Ukraine was published to celebrate the jubilee of one of the biggest museums in the world
21 January, 2010 - 00:00
Photo by Kostiantyn HRYSHYN, The Day

The National Museum of Folk Architec­ture and Life of Ukraine is situated on the edge of the ancient forest of Ho­los­i­y­iv, near the village of Pyrohiv. Here, on the picturesque hills towering over the Dnip­ro river, which absorbs forests, valleys, gullies, ponds and mounds, the ancient sites still remain: Feofaniia, Pyrohiv, Kytaiiv, Tser­­kov­shchy­na, Siriakove, Ho­­­ro­dy­sh­­che, Khotiv, Yarivtsi, So­­lo­vio­ve, Doh­tiarka, Lytvy­nove, Fial­ko­ve. Histo­­rians claim that a church and ca­ves ol­der than even those in the Pecher­ska Lav­ra can be found here.

The Museum (also referred to as “Pyrohiv”) was designed as an architectural and landscape complex, that is to say an open air museum. According to the general layout, 400 architectural objects should be able to function on its territory, representing a complete cross-section of folk constructions from all regions of Ukraine. Today the exposition possesses over 300 monuments to folk architecture: dwellings, households, industrial and religious buildings... Its collections boast over 70,000 pieces: national wear, fabrics, furniture, working tools, pottery, casks, barrels, carpentry, work by blacksmiths, folk paintings, musical instruments, children’s toys, etc. This is one of the biggest museums in the world, and perhaps Ukraine’s most potent center for research, conservation and popularizing monuments to folk culture. It is a complex and multisectoral enterprise, as well as a research center integrated into the network of Ukraine’s National Aca­de­my of Sciences.


The first attempt to organize an outdoor museum took place in Norway in 1867, with a few village houses and a church being brought to specially allotted plot near Oslo. In 1891 the Swedes established a big park-museum in their capital Stockholm. The idea caught on, and there are now over two thousand open air museums like it in Europe alone. In the former Soviet Union there are as many as 40 of them. In Ukraine out­door museums were established in Kyiv, Lviv, Uzhhorod, Pereiaslav-Kh­mel­­nytskyi, Chernivtsi, the village of Kry­los (Halych raion, Ivano-Frankivsk ob­last), and in Sarny (Rivne oblast).

Back in the 19th century Ukraine didn’t need such museums. However, in the first half of the 20th century, our land was ravaged by collectivization and the Ho­lo­domor (a willfully orchestrated fa­mi­ne). This was followed by new Stalinist fi­ve-year plans and the opening of the coal mi­nes of Donbas. This provoked a considerable outflow of people from villages to cities, considerably affecting the former. It was topped with the devastation of WWII, in the course of which over 300 Ukrainian villages were burnt. One consequence was that the image of the Ukrainian village as a bearer of Ukrainian traditions started to fade away. Villages suffered from bad roads and everyday hardships. Foreign tou­ris­ts were not admitted, as authorities were afraid that they could spark criticism of the Soviet system. The only place they where allowed was Ksaverivka, specially rebuilt in the 60s. Meetings between foreigners and their relatives in Ukraine took place in the capital’s hotels.

Progressive intellectuals and the public understood the problem, and tried to pass on the image of the ancient Ukrainian village to the following generations. Despite the tough pressure of the totalitarian system, the Society for Defense of Monuments of History and Culture was established in 1957. By the 70s it already had its branches in all oblast and raion centers, defending many valuable architectural monuments. Thanks to the persistent efforts of the head of the Society, Petro Tronko, the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine became a reality. On February 6, 1969 the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic adopted a decision concerning the Museum, and Kyiv allotted 150 hectares from the lands of the Khotiv state farm.

On April 17, 1971 the first monument was solemnly laid – a house from the village of Krasna Popivka, Luhansk oblast. Within five years the first exposition was opened for visitors. It included a total of 140 buildings from the Dnipro Valley, Poltava region, Slobozhanshchyna (Khar­kiv region), Podillia (Khmelnytskyi and Vin­nytsia regions), and Polissia (Northern Ukraine). The construction of si­milar sites was conducted simultaneously aro­und the country, notably in Lviv, Cherniv­tsi, Uzhhorod, and Pe­re­yas­lav-Kh­mel­nyt­sky. The workers also be­nefited from the experience of open air mu­seums in the Bal­tic States and Georgia.

At the time (in the 70s), it was still possible to record ethnographic information from elder people on almost all fields of traditional culture. Materials used for buildings and monuments were also discovered and transported. For the construction of the museum, the Republican Building and Restoration Workshop, an important design and restoration unit was set up; it complemented the museum’s own restoration unit. During the first years, master-builders from villages were invited.

The museum possesses houses from the 16th-20th centuries. Notable elements include huts heated by a chimneyless stoves, shepherd’s cottages, kurens, and dugouts. There were cases when some houses were searched for years, in many field trips (for example, the circular yard from the village of Solovyiv, Volyn oblast – a building of 12 units reminiscent of a magnificent Hutsulian fortress). There is a big number of windmills from different regions of Ukraine. The household buildings – pantries, barn floors, threshing barns for sheaves drying, cattle sheds, stables, pigpen, hen coop for poultry, etc. – all retain their functioning appearance. Out of the six religious buildings represented there, the oldest one is the Myhailivska Church from 1600 from the village of Dorohynka in Kyiv oblast (one older building, the Sviato-Mykolaivska Church from the 15th century from the village of Vodiane in the Trans-Carpathians, reached the museum in a re-built state).

Work on the museum meant constantly facing ideological obstacles. There was no outdoor museum in Russia, so ideologists from Ukraine, in fear of a negative reaction from Moscow, suspended the inauguration of the exposition for a year. It was only on July 16, 1976, that Volodymyr Shcherbytsky cut the red ribbon at the entrance.


The superb book by the prominent contemporary ethnographer Lida Orel, entitled A Treasury of National Culture of Ukraine (Kyiv, Fenix, 2009), is dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine. This well illustrated book tells us about the tedious work required to bring the museum into life. The author also provides short information about the historical lands from which the monuments of folk architecture were taken. They can be found in the following chapters: “Shev­chen­ko’s Land” (about the middle Dnipro Valley that also includes the Cherkasy region, the partially-wooded steppes of the Kyiv region, the south-eastern part of Zhytomyr region, northern parts of Ki­ro­voh­rad region and western parts of Poltava region), “The Most Ukrainian Ukraine – Pol­ta­va Region,” “Behind Our Sloboda” (about the Ukrainian Donbas), “Where the Mermaids Rest on Branches” (about the historical and ethnographic region of Polissia), “The Beauty of Ukraine – Podollia,” “‘The Carpathians’ on the Hills of the Dnipro,” and “Where the Sea Embraces the Step­pes.” The author presents an interesting description of rites and holidays which take place in the museum. She also presents other outdoor museums of Ukraine. Elucidating peculiarities of usage and production of some of the most widespread traditional household objects: chests, rugs, embroidered towels, and pottery, she underscores the problem of preserving and popularizing the museum – a treasury of monuments of the Ukrainian folk culture.

This is an informative and honest book, professionally written by a knowledgeable and meticulous researcher, and, moreover, one with great love and sympathy to the national culture. The text is supplemented by a map of the historical-ethnographic regions of the state and the museum scheme with list and legend.


The author who gave over 35 years of her life to the museum had an amazing fate. Despite all hardships, both physical and material, she continues that work by publishing book after book (there are over 11 of them published by now, and two more are pending: about the historical-ethnographic regions of Polissia and Poltava region, the “small motherland” of Lida Orel).

Some of the characteristics of that period became common expressions, such as “years of stuffiness,” or “years of tightening the screws.” One cannot help but discern a note of irony in the fact that “disloyal” Lida Orel (dismissed from three jobs – in 1965, 1967 and 1968 – for “natio­na­lism”) was hired for the post of head of the ethnographic department “Polissia” (co­vering the Volyn and Rivne oblasts whe­re the population of “westerners” and “follo­wers of Bandera” was despised by the Soviet regime).

There were several conditions: no com­munication with visitors (especially with foreigners), no excursions, and no pub­lishing. A KGB officer was appointed to look after her periodically, reminding the “ward” that she should be compliant. He also made inquiries about Orel and brou­ght “gifts” to her colleagues for holidays.

A day before the museum opening ceremony Orel was given a train ticket and sent for two weeks to Leningrad… This marked the beginning of summons to the KGB, persecutions and other forms of unpleasantness. She was offered to leave the job “voluntarily” on several occasions. Ho­we­ver, Lida Orel every time repeated that she loved the museum, did a lot for it, and was not going to quit. In reviews for her the­matic-exhibition plans the author was accu­sed of “admiring the village,” demonstra­ting “short-sightedness” and failure to understand the class differentiation in the village.

In February 1979 Lida Orel was dismissed. Obstruction for freethinking had reached its pinnacle. Some time earlier her husband, the composer and art critic Leopold Yashchenko, had also been fired. But miracles happened even then: an equitable judge managed to restore her post.

In spite of the fact that the state doesn’t overburden the museum with its attention, its numerous employees manage to keep it going. New expositions are initiated, work on discovering and buying new monuments of national culture continues. Knowledge and experience gained in various expeditions, and through direct communication with bearers of folk culture, are generalized into research articles and publications. For, as Lida Orel states, it is important to ensure that our descendants will inherit mere mute exhibits, in many aspects obscure to them, but also ideas about their creators. That constitutes the essence of the national cultural heritage, which unfortunately is vanishing as we speak.

The author contends that it’s time for the museum to hold workshops for apprentice embroiderers, weavers, potters, smiths, carpenters and wattle makers. This would incite our youth to engage more actively with the unique national culture, become its bearers, and stall its disappearance. Lida enumerates other problems of the open museum: lack of financing and qualified staff, the absence of a research and restoration workshop, and inadequate protection of the museum and its environment. We can put immense efforts into gathering unique objects, but it is at least as important to preserve them.

By Natalka POKLAD