He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Zhytomyr

This letter is  a tourist’s tale from a Ukrainian city, of spurious relevance to the theme of this blog.

Zhytomyr (Жито́мир) may have been one of the places on the whole trip that I have been aware of the longest. I was a kid of perhaps 7-8 years when I opened an illustrated history book “Verden i bilder 1919-1955” (The world in pictures). Volume III dealt with WW2, and a couple of horror pictures have been imprinted on my mind ever since. One title was: “Kampene om byen Sjitomir var kort med hardSlik så byen ut etter at russerne trakk seg ut”. I don’t think it’s necessary to translate, the picture says it all. The city was overrun by Wehrmacht in July 1941 and almost totally destroyed.

The connection between Jaroslav Hašek and Zhytomyr is vague. Václav Menger mentions it in his book Jaroslav Hašek, zajatec číslo 294217, and claims the column of prisoners that were driven from Khorupan into the Russian interior in 1915, had a break here. Although Menger is an unreliable source it is perfectly logical that the sea of worn-out Austrian prisoners in dirty Felduniformen passed this spot.   [JH, Nov 26 2012: this information is now confirmed - Jaroslav Kejla, 1972]. Zhytomyr is on the main road from Dubno to Kiev. It is also possible that Hašek paid the city one or more visists during his stay in the Ukraine in 1916 and 1917. Menger also mentions that they visited the Jewish quarter. To judge by the description he knew the city well. The Jewish quarter has obviously passed into history, and so has the considerable Polish influence. Both groups were victims of pre-meditated genocide in the dark years of 1941-44, and the Poles had also suffered terribly from Stalin’s reign of terror in the years leading up to WW2. The area also had a sizeable German minority who obviously also had a hard time under Stalin, particularly after 1944.
Václav Menger
K večeru došli do Žitomíru. Když procházeli židovskou čtvrtí, vyhrnula se jim vstříc celá židovská obec, vítající je křikem dětí, devotní úslužností starých a dvojsmyslnými pohledy mladých Židovek. Židovští kluci nabízeli jim rozmanité zboží a starší výměnu peněz. Než došli na náměstí, byl každý lehčí o několik grošů, a Hašek téměř o celý rubl, za který nakoupil tabák a cukr. Na konci města pohltila je mamutí budova. Byla to pověstná ťjurma (věznice), kterou ruská vláda, věčně ve strachu žijící, vybudovala, aby vystavila na odiv svou humánnost a spravedlnost. Nebýti těžkých mříží a vysokých zdí, ničím by toto monstrósní stavení nepřipomínalo vězení.

Mykhailivska vulitsa
In 2010 times are fortunately better despite all the troubles that Ukraine has experienced both during and after Soviet times. The bus ride from Dubno (via Rivne) was comfortable and quick, and the roads were quite good. From Rivne to Kiev we travelled on the main artery from Lviv. It has seen some investment ahead of Euro 2012. To call it a motorway would be to push it, but the traffic flow was smooth and the pot-holes few and far between.

The bus station at Zhytomyr is 3 km out of town, but with plenty of time to spare I afforded myself a walk into the centre. Finding a place to sleep was less straight-forward, Zhytomyr is no tourist metropolis. Helpful locals in the end pointed me to a couple of high-rise monstrosities that Breshnev would have been proud of (and surely they belonged to Intourist in the past). But a bed is a bed, even at Hotel Ukraina and one doesn’t always have to sleep in pleasant surroundings to enjoy life. The hotel restaurant was very welcoming, and I was even back in the world of Wi-Fi (in Dubno I was confined to a computer shop who took pity on me and let me use their network for a few hryvni).

Владимир Ильич Ульянов
I also had an early and expected encounter, that of Lenin on a square. I had foreseen several meetings with him, but not this early. In western Ukraine the Lenins and other symbols of the Soviet Union have been removed, and I didn’t expect them to appear this side of the Dniepr. There was also more Russian heard on the streets than further west. Still all street signs and other official signs were in Ukrainian. The more “Russian” feel in this city will also have historical reasons. Volyn became part of Russia after the second partition of Poland (1793). In the inter-war period western Volyn with Lutsk, Dubno, Rivne (Rovno) and Sarny rejoined the resurrected Poland, whereas eastern Volyn with Zhytomyr remained under Russian (read Soviet) control.

Tourist in the Schulz brewery
Back to 2010 and happier times. The city offered the microbrewery Schulz, who served very decent beers in their impressive cellar vaults. Located on the central square, the entrance was easy to overlook and I almost walked past it. I was given a tour of the microscopic brewery by the friendly staff who obviously were not used to visitors from that far away. A few hundred meters away, Vulica Mykhailivska is a pleasant pedestrian street in the centre, but I discovered it too late to be able to enjoy a morning coffee in the sun. I had decided to take the train to Kiev, but at the station the prospects looked grim. Such a slow-moving queue is hard to imagine, and in the end I jumped on the train without a ticket. The fierce lady who checked the tickets was not impressed and I was in no uncertain terms told that this was not the way to travel on Ukrainian Railways. But, importantly: she let me off the hook and I got away with paying the normal fare (I think). 

Vychid na kyivsku platformu - exit to the Kyiv platform
In Koziatyn there was a change of trains, and here I stumbled across another Lenin, this time inside the station building. By a wooden table outside the station I witnessed an animated political conversation, regarding Lenin's legacy, the post-communist situation in the Ukraine. One of those participating in the debate knocked his glass over, but I will never know if this was the result of his frustration with Yanukovich or Yushenko (or whoever) or copious quantities of vodka. It is very likely that both elements played a parts. The break was short and I was soon on the way to Kiev, the main point of interest for any haškolog travelling in the Ukraine ...

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