Eastern Ukraine Offers Promise to Travelers Taking the Road Less Traveled

Crimea, Kiev, Lviv, and the Carpathian Mountain regions of Ukraine steal the travel spotlight, but the eastern portion of the country, long identified with the Russian and Soviet Empire culturally, politically, and linguistically, is a discovery of its own for travelers wishing to swim against the tide.

Eastern Ukraine has been considered the business end of the country in both Soviet times and post-independence days. Get rich quick schemes and hucksters, sometimes classified as oligarchs or remnants of a mafia style way of doing business have managed to usher in western restaurants like McDonalds, clothing stores like Benetton, and a host of boutique stores. Kharkiv was the capital of Soviet Ukraine and was heavily damaged during World War II. Today, the city is a major research center. For travelers, the striking red and white striped Blahoveshchensky Cathedral has a beautiful bell tower and hints of Turkish architectural design. The quaint city of Poltava, situated on the Vorskla River boasts a circular square and a baroque style monastery rivaling St. Michael’s monastery in Kiev.

Taking a closer look at the region will reveal a layered and complicated history dating back to the 15th century Cossacks, the precursors to Ukraine’s modern day independent spirit. The region of Zaporizhzhya – or beyond the rapids – is a geographical area in the southern part of eastern Ukraine and was the nerve center of the Cossack republic. History more than landscape beauty attracts travelers to this spot, most particularly an island, called Khortytsya, connected by a busy bridge leading from the center of the city. Over 20,000 Cossack fighters under the steely leadership of one hetman took up residence on the island in 1553. Strategically located below the Dnipro rapids and beyond the control of Catherine the Great’s Russian Empire and Polish kings, the Cossacks ruled their own for two hundred years.

The Cossack culture was patriarchal and at the height of its political and military power, women were never allowed on the island. Indeed, even Catherine the Great, miffed by her royal exclusion, had to board a boat to spy on the island from the distance. Fed up with being prohibited on land she considered rightly hers, the Russian empress ordered the island fort destroyed in 1775 and the Cossack rebellion eliminated.

Today, travelers venture to Khortytsya Island to soak up the history of the Cossacks at the Historical Museum of Zaporizhsky Cossacks featuring painted dioramas and artifacts excavated from the island. Another attraction drawing visitors to the island is a 700 hundred year old oak. The subject of many folktales and prophetic storytelling, the oak stands 36 meters in height and is 25 meters wide. Locals care for the ancient oak and have built a chapel at the stream nearby and a tavern catering Cossack inspired foods. Newlyweds come to the oak to lay flowers at its base as a wish for good luck. Every autumn, the Feast of the Acorn is held to honor the famous tree.

Descendants of the Cossack fighters living on the island, offer up a dynamic show of mock battles, vigorous dances, and acrobatic horseback riding. The show is announced by a passionate Cossack march and spectators watch men with hair cut in a jar style or bald heads with a small, thin ponytail beginning in the center of otherwise shaved heads, revisit the traditions of their ancestors. After the show, people are treated to traditional foods and vodka.

Whether history drives your desire to travel or not, Eastern Ukraine is an overlooked area that deserves a higher ranking on a traveler’s to do list.