Article published in The Kyiv weekly, 05/10/2012
The mountains echoed once again to the sounds of the «trembita», a long wooden horn, to the «duda», a local bagpipe and to the «tsymbaly», that is hammered dulcimers. On September 21-23, the town of Verkhovyna, some 130 kilometers from Ivano-Frankivsk, was host to the 20th International Hutsul Festival.
«Here’s Zhabye, the capital of all Hutsuls. People say there’s no village above Zhabye, nowhere high or low»
By definition, Hutsuls make up a sub-ethnos of the Ukrainians, although it is not well-established when they populated the area or where their name comes from. Some Hutsul communities can be found in Romania and Poland. A specific Hutsul dialect is affiliated to Ukrainian, but has strong Polish and Romanian influences. Yet in Ukraine, the issue of identity bordering is not relevant: «Hutsuls rule over the Carpathians, and high Carpathians are populated by Hutsuls», Vasyl, a Verkhovyna carpenter, sums up. Today about 30,000 people strong, the community is well-settled on the top of the chain, in the surroundings of Mount Hoverla, the country´s highest mountain.
A number of writers and poets, such as Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrainka and Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky have found their inspiration in Hutsulshchyna. The Soviet director Sergei Paradjanov based his 1964 «Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors» movie on Kotsiubynsky´s book to depict the traditional folk culture and traditions of the highlanders. In independent Ukraine, where strong regional differences have been characterizing the development of a modern state, Hutsuls exert a certain fascination over Ukrainians in the plains and cities. «Here is something special», Alexandra explains. A young student from Kyiv, she travels often to the Carpathians and keeps being amazed by the vivacity of Hutsul culture. «It seems that these people have resisted Soviet times better than the rest of the country. The language is slightly different, yet they are truly Ukrainians. I think actually that Hutsuls should serve as a kind of a role-model for Ukraine to assert its identity as a cultural nation». Music is a sure element of this fascination. Bands such as «Perkalaba» and «Hrich Orkestr» regularly entertain Ukrainians with their captivating melodies. This helps explain the victory of singer Ruslana at the 2004 Eurovision contest. Her song «Wild Dances» openly exploited the sounds and dancing moves of the traditional Hutsul folk.
Like most of western Ukraine, Hutsuls generally support so-called «pro-Ukrainian parties», be it the late Orange team, the current united opposition to Viktor Yanukovich or the nationalist «Svoboda». Yet they appear detached from national politics, as Vasyl explains: «We live on the top of the mountains, the rest of Ukraine seems far to us. Back in 2002-04, Viktor Yushchenko used the Hoverla mount as a spot to launch his party and declare his candidacy to the presidency. It was kind of interesting to us, as he promised some resources to clean up the mountains and preserve the environment. But apart from that, politics is good for the flat lands»
And yet, the distinction grows thinner, as Hutsulshyna has troubles keeping its younglings close. More and more young people head to cities for studies and jobs, if not abroad. Yana was raised in Verkhovyna, but she now lives and studies in Ivano-Frankivsk. «Of course, mountains are beautiful and I know that my heart is here. But I want to make a career. And life in cities is more attractive, life there is less… archaic. To me, mountains are good for family and relaxation. I don´t have many friends left here».
It is hard to estimate how many people have left the mountain tops over the past 20 years. Yet the artist Oksana knows her town has seriously depopulated. Once working in Kyiv, she has decided to come back to Verkhovyna and work on the preservation of Hutsul culture. «The biggest threat to our way of living was not war or the Soviets. We survived that. Ironically enough, it is peace and an open society which might hurt us the most. A culture without young people to take over is doomed to become a marginal phenomenon, if not a tourist product.» Yet this last weekend, it was no time for worrying. Gathered in the centre of Verkhovyna, hundreds of Hutsuls were there, as if to assert their existence. And to sing it loud.