Going for a drive in Ukraine’s western Zakarpattia region is a mysterious adventure into a land forgotten by time ( and the E.U). Through potholed dirt roads and towering forests The New York Time’s Evan Rail searches out folklore and ancient wooden churches in this fascinating and bizarre corner of the world in In Ukraine, Wooden Churches with a Distinctive Allure.
In western Ukraine, the side of the highway offers more unusual scenes than many performance-art pieces. On one spring day, an old woman cradled what looked like a baby but was actually a newborn lamb dressed in baby clothes. On another day, a young woman strutted down a dirt road in a micro-mini and precarious heels. Nearby, a pair of young dandies cruised in an ox cart.
But I wasn’t driving the back roads of Eastern Europe for the people-and-lamb-watching. As I rounded a corner, the dense forests of the Carpathian foothills opened up to reveal my goal: a tall bell tower, leaning slightly askew, crowned with a fur-like layer of wooden shingles and topped with an Eastern Orthodox cross. I parked, grabbed my camera and set off for a closer look.
Zakarpattia, the western region of Ukraine that abuts eastern Slovakia and northeastern Hungary, is home to a number of unusual wooden churches dating from the 15th to 18th centuries. After years of neglect, the churches — rough-hewn, idiosyncratic wooden structures with surprisingly tall spires — seem to be in danger of disappearing.
“They’re like fantastic dinosaurs, covered with wooden shingles that look like scales, which hide them in the fir trees,” said Olena Krushynska, who started a project to promote and protect the churches, when I called her a couple of weeks before my trip to ask for advice about visiting the region. “You will not see something like that in other countries — nowhere.”
Folk architecture and odd roadside scenes aren’t the only intriguing things about Zakarpattia, also known as Carpathian Ruthenia. Its rolling hills and dark forests are believed to have been the inspiration for the mythical kingdom of Ruritania in Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, “The Prisoner of Zenda.” Even by European standards, Zakarpattia’s back story is rather remarkable: once part of Austria-Hungary, it became part of independent Czechoslovakia after World War I, then part of Ukraine and the U.S.S.R. after World War II.
The area is also believed to have been the only province of the Soviet Union that was ever governed by an American, Gregory Zatkovich, an ethnic Rusyn — or Ruthenian — from Pittsburgh who was appointed governor in 1920 when the region was still part of Czechoslovakia.