Several weeks ago, guest writer and Mennonite Heritage Village board member Rudy Friesen wrote about his experiences speaking at a conference in Ukraine. This week Rudy shares additional experiences from the same trip.
“While in Ukraine Olga Rubel, translator and local Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine (FOMCU) staff member and I met with Maxim Ostapenko, General Director of the Khortytsia National Preserve on the Island of Khortytsia, and two of his assistants.
“By way of background, Khortytsia Island is approximately 12 kilometers long by an average of 3 kilometers wide, with a total area of about 2,360 hectares. It has a long history of human occupation. It was the location of the Zaporozhian Cossacks’ Sich or fortress until 1775 when Catherine the Great had it destroyed. When the first Mennonites established the Chortitza Colony in 1789, one of the villages, called Insel Chortitza, was located along its north shore. In 1916 the entire island, owned by the Mennonite community, was sold to the City of Alexandrovsk (now Zaporizhye). It was agreed that the villagers would be able to buy back their individual farmyards, but the City reneged and the village of Insel Chortitza ceased to exist by the following year, once the villagers had relocated to other Mennonite villages.
“Today the island is a natural preserve with a status near to a national park. It has numerous recreational facilities and institutions. The most popular tourist facility on the island is the Cossack Museum, which is really like a regional museum interpreting the history of the island. Through the efforts of Ostapenko and his staff, tourist visits to the island have increased from approximately 100,000 in 2005 to 250,000 annually. Larissa Goryachava, Manager of the Intourist guides in Zaporizhye, indicated that last year the Khortytsia National Preserve was recognized for being the second most visited museum facility in Ukraine, second only to Pechersk Lavra Monastery and Museum in Kiev, which is really a collection of museums and a 1000-year-old monastery.
“Before the construction of the Dneproges hydroelectric dam north of the island, completed in 1932, major rapids caused many shipwrecks. (The literal translation of Zaporizhye is ‘beyond the rapids.’). As a diver, Ostapenko has discovered a number of wrecked ships at the bottom of the Dnieper River. He has had them raised, and they are now on display at the museum.
“The island also has some very important Mennonite connections. The village cemetery is still functioning and has the largest collection of Mennonite gravestones of any cemetery that I am aware of in Ukraine. My book (Building on the Past, Mennonite Architecture, Landscape and Settlements in Russia/Ukraine – Raduga Publications) lists 36 gravestones, with several of them identifying both husband and wife. Ostapenko and his staff were instrumental in having this cemetery designated as a historic monument.
“It should also be of interest to supporters of MHV that the Hoeppner monument, now on MHV grounds, was originally erected on the island in honour of one of the two delegates sent to southern Russia to seek land for settlement. Ostapenko plans to have a replica made and placed at the original location.
“But the most important part of his plan is to save the one remaining Mennonite house, the Gerhard Janzen house built in 1914 (see page 136 in my book). He wants to have it designated as a historic monument, then restore it, complete with attached barn and surrounding farmyard, and then establish a Mennonite museum in it. He will then include it in the island tours.”
While MHV is not in a position to provide financial support for this endeavour, we are interested in encouraging and keeping abreast of the development of this significant Mennonite artifact and its stories. Surely our strength as a world-class museum can only be enhanced by collaboration with other related museums.