Zhytomyr as seen by Valerii Kharchyshyn

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In the Ambassadors project, well-known Ukrainian artists become informal guides to the cities where they spent some of their most formative years. In the fourteenth episode, the frontman of the band Druha Rika (‘Second River’ — tr.) will introduce us to the thousand-year-old city of Zhytomyr, which became the singer’s second hometown when he was a student. Zhytomyr is an administrative and industrial centre which is dramatically building up its potential for tourism, thanks to the interesting attractions and monuments in the region.

Bogdan Logvynenko, the founder of the Ukraїner project, visited the city with Valerii Kharchyshyn.

— Where were you born?
— In the village of Liubar, not far from Zhytomyr. That’s where my father is from, but his mother doesn’t know about her origin, because she’s an orphan. I tried to find out, searched in the archives. It’s most likely that she was brought here from the Volga Region in Russia, where there was a famine at that time, and she’s most likely a Tatar. My grandfather, who was killed in World War II, had the surname Kharchyshyn. There are a lot of Kharchyshyns in Liubar. They might have come from western Ukraine and settled there as a community. I  have Hutsul, Lemko, or Boiko blood — I don’t know. And I have Tatar and Ukrainian blood. I hope I have no Russian ancestry, but I’m not sure about that.

— Does Zhytomyr have its own dialect or local traditions?
— I don’t know if rural people are pejoratively called ‘kohut’ (a dialect word for ‘rooster’ — tr.) anywhere else, but in Zhytomyr they are. People usually use the words ‘byk’ or ‘bychara’ (‘bull’ — tr.), but in Zhytomyr it’s ‘kohut’. And I was one of them, because I came from a village, from Liubar. So I guess I’ll be a ‘kohut’ for the rest of my life. Also, in Zhytomyr there was a unique subculture: in order to emphasise that they were locals, the boys wore bell-bottoms, like the trousers sailors used to wear. The wider the trousers, the cooler the wearer. In order to be accepted in society, ‘kohuts’ sometimes used to do the same. Those trousers had to be made by hand, as they were nowhere to be bought. I haven’t seen anything like that anywhere else but Zhytomyr.

— When did you move to Zhytomyr?
— When I entered college (Zhytomyr College of Culture and Arts named after Ivan Ohiienko — ed.), I had to. I was fifteen. In my first year, I didn’t really like living in the dorm. I went back home almost every day, but after a while, I got used to it.

— What did your parents say about that?
— They told me off. My mum said, “You’re wasting money. I’d rather you stayed in the dorm and bought something for yourself for that money. Instead, you’re just riding the bus back and forth.” I was very sad — it was hard for me. But now it’s easy. I think that’s right: the sooner you leave home, the faster you adapt and socialise.

— What was your life like in Zhytomyr when you were studying in college?
— We couldn’t leave the dorm because we weren’t local. For the first two years it was like being in an incubator: I didn’t go out, because I could have got my nose broken or something like that. I never got my nose broken, because I could run very fast, but I was robbed a few times. That was a period of my life spent between the bus station and the dorm. If you managed to cover that distance with your money in your pocket, you could live decently for a whole week.

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— How did you start singing?
— I was doing my final exams in college. One of the examiners was a teacher from the Institute of Culture. I don’t remember what subject the exam was in, I was just standing there mumbling to myself. And he said: “Valerii, you’ve got such a low voice, a bass, with a nice timbre. Do you sing? Which department are you from?” I said: “Wind instruments.” He answered: “Wind instruments… Would you like to join our choir department at the Institute of Culture?” And for us, for students from the wind instruments department, that was humiliating. We had a saying: “A chicken isn’t a bird, a choir singer isn’t a musician.” The teacher made me sing, and told me: “You can’t sing, but you do have a voice. If you make up your mind, come to us.” I didn’t. I said: “No! I’m going to enter the trumpet department because I’m a trumpet player. If I apply to your Institute, I’ll study in the wind instruments department.”

— And what happened next?
— I didn’t get in, they didn’t take me. I came back to Zhytomyr and managed to join the Cossack choir, then the ‘Lionok’ Song and Dance Ensemble. Then I decided I would sing only folk music, although I had no time to learn the lyrics. My choirmate, who sang the bass part too, helped me: “Valera, if you don’t know the text, just look the conductor in the eye and sing ‘thirty-two, thirty-three’”. I spent four months singing that.

In October 2018, on the wall of an apartment block in Zhytomyr, a mural entitled ‘Three Worlds’ appeared. Covering an area of 180 m², the work depicts the Old Slavic world system: Yav-Prav-Nav, where each creature, object, or phenomenon has its place and interacts with the others. A team of painters had been nurturing the idea for a year, and when it was finished, the mural became the largest street artwork in the city.

Painter Dmytro Krab says that Zhytomyr is a very suitable city for an artist: there are few distractions; you can create in peace. However, painting this kind of mural is impossible without teamwork: “I came across a book on Old Slavic mythology. I was leafing through it, and got the idea of bringing that mythology together in one piece, combining several narratives. The outcome is this mural, or panel. This picture is basically dedicated to our little friends. I’ve been vegan for nine years, and decided to create this piece dedicated to animals. Each creature has a right to life — that’s my main message.”

— Have you always spoken Ukrainian?
— Yes, but it was very hard for me when I moved here. Zhytomyr wasn’t as Ukrainian-speaking back then as it is now. It was hard for me to adapt, since I didn’t speak Russian. I didn’t, as a matter of principle. And even when I went to visit my relatives in St. Petersburg, I still spoke Ukrainian, also as a matter of principle. Not because I was a great patriot, but I believed that the Ukrainian language was the best, and that everybody should understand it.

— Did you start speaking Russian later on?
— They broke me, and from my second year in college onwards, I was already speaking pure Russian and saying “shto?” instead of “shcho?” (both ‘shto’ and ‘shcho’ mean ‘what’ in Russian and Ukrainian respectively, and are frequently used, for example, to let the other person know you didn’t hear what they said — tr.). But here in Zhytomyr, you were expected to say “heh?” and “sho?” (the same as ‘shcho’, in informal Ukrainian — tr.). So anybody could tell I wasn’t local. I suffered for that too, because they thought I was from Moscow. They would ask: “Are you from Moscow or something?” and I would tell them I was from Liubar. Later on, some people thought I was from Lyubertsy (a city in the Russian Federation — ed.). Then they would say: “He’s from Lyubertsy”, and in the nineties, Lyubertsy was a hotbed of criminality, so that probably scared everyone.

— But then you switched back to Ukrainian, didn’t you?
— I did. However, that was also hard, because the Ukrainian that I speak now is different from the Ukrainian I spoke in my childhood in Liubar.

— How many countries did you tour when you were working with the Academic Choral Capella “Oreya”?
— We went everywhere. Most often we visited Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy; less often, it was Poland and the Czech Republic.

— Were those concerts for Ukrainian expats?
— No. If Ukrainian folk music is performed professionally, it’s interesting for foreigners, so they were in the majority at our concerts.

— Do you miss that time?
— Sure I do! Those must have been the best years of my life. I started working there when I was twenty. I don’t just miss the tours around Europe. I genuinely fell in love with choral music, and I really miss that in what we’re doing now. Every time we do something new, I want more voices in it. Every time, I think: “We’ve got to get a choir involved.” But so far it’s all just fantasies and dreams. I think we’ll do it someday.

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Dragon boat racing came to Ukraine in 2004, thanks to professional athletes who had previously practiced Olympic sports. It is a team sport involving canoes that look like dragons, which are over 12 metres long and can seat up to 20 rowers. Traditional rowing requires considerable physical fitness and skill; in order to learn how to keep your balance on the boat, you have to start young. Dragon boat racing, in contrast, has less strict requirements. The Ukrainian Dragon Boat Federation has been operating in Zhytomyr since 2015. Dmytro Moroz, the Federation’s President, says the most important requirements for a dragon boat team are cooperation and persistence: “This sport originated in China. It’s also well-developed in Ukraine and in Europe: it’s the most popular form of rowing. Anybody who’s willing to learn can learn it fast: everything is much easier than in other forms of rowing.”

— Have you often been to the local summer theatre?
— We used to call it ‘The Clam’. We couldn’t play at all, but we would talk about music all the time and do some photo shoots. We’d sit in the Clam and imagine ourselves performing there. Eventually we did, a few times, but we haven’t played there since it was rebuilt in 2015. Actually, in Zhytomyr, the concert acoustics are horrible: it’s just impossible to arrange it properly. We have to bring everything with us because in Zhytomyr there isn’t a single audio equipment rental company which could deliver high-quality sound; this is something we still have to overcome.

— How did Druha Rika come together?
— We were listening to the same music. We must have stood out among all the alternative musicians in Zhytomyr, because we couldn’t play at all. But we still had a goal: to at least do something that would make us different from all the rest. We were united by the music we loved. And many people just like us went through that, but the only ones who ‘survived’ were those who learned to play at least something. At first, I played the trumpet and tried to be a drummer, but we had no instruments. Viktor Skuratovskyi sang, but in the end he learned to play the bass guitar faster. So I had to sing. I always had to sing, even though I didn’t want to. We had a really awesome rehearsal space. I had started singing in the “Oreya” choral capella, where I later became the administration manager. And I used one of their rooms to rehearse with Druha Rika.

In the village of Denyshi, not far from Zhytomyr, you can see the ruins of a 19th century palace owned by the Tereshchenkos, a family of Ukrainian landlords and industrialists. Nearby, the granite Denyshi rocks stretch out along the River Teteriv. These rocks, which form part of the Zhytomyr granite shield, are around 25 metres tall and have become a popular training and competition location for climbers from Ukraine and abroad.

— Have you been to Denyshi before?
— Once when I was a kid, I was on a train to Russia with some musician. He was playing the guitar, drinking alcohol from time to time, and telling me stories. He asked me where I was from, and I said: “From Liubar in Zhytomyr region.” “Oh, Zhytomyr!” he said. “You have such a wonderful place there, it’s called Dyenyeshy. It’s amazing: the stones, the rocks.” “Which Dyenyeshy?” I said. “We don’t have anything like that.” “You definitely do! Dyenyeshy, on the way westwards.” I decided to figure it out later, when I got home. Then I went to Denyshi and understood what he had been talking about. It turned out that was what he meant by ‘Dyenyeshy’.

— What is the Ukrainian Agency of Copyright and how did you end up becoming a member?
— The Ukrainian Agency of Copyright is a collective management organisation which deals with copyright and related authors’ rights, and works with artists. We collect royalties, payments from all over the world. We have 97 agreements with similar organisations around the world. In fact, there’s a considerable gap in our legislation. For 25 years, we’ve been talking about some European future, but this state organisation still functions, despite not being legally entitled to manage authors’ rights and private property, nor to collect royalties and distribute the money.

— How did you become a member of a public organisation?
— I’ve been a member for a long time as an author, but together with the council of authors we decided to bring this organisation to order, so that it meets international standards. We’re also raising awareness. We want to make people realise that music should be paid for, just like petrol. Because when you go to a gas station, you don’t say, “I’m not paying excise today.” It’s the same if you go to a cafe, bar, or restaurant, and there’s music playing: it has to be paid for. Not by the visitor, but by the restaurant owner.

— How did you get involved in public work?
— I only get involved when I can be in charge myself. When I don’t get the feeling that I’m just a ‘stalking horse’, and somebody’s using my face to raise money for uncertain purposes. I mean, we hardly ever join initiatives where we can’t be in charge. I will join where I can really do something, where I believe I can make a difference.

— What do you think of artists who don’t care?
— That’s a position too! I’m not blaming them, because they do creative work, and that’s their main task. That’s how it works in the world: active artists unite, or join organisations. And whoever doesn’t want to join, doesn’t. But at least they know what copyright is, and get paid for their work.

The water tower, a historical, military and strategic structure in Zhytomyr, was erected in 1898 in the modernist style. During World War II, the tower was used as an air defence surveillance point. By the end of the 1950s, the tower had ceased to fulfill its original functions. In 1983 it was renovated into a cafe, ‘Yuvileine’, but became communal property again a few years later. In May 2017, participants of the CANactions school of urban development chose the water tower in Zhytomyr as their object of study. They held a nationwide architecture competition, and in the summer of 2018 they chose the winning team, who would renovate the tower. Mykola Kostrytsia, the director of the department for economic development at Zhytomyr City Council, says that the water tower is a local monument, which could complicate the process of its transformation: “The tower is one of the unofficial symbols of the city. You can find it on magnets, postcards and other places, but for most of its life, it’s just been standing there with its door locked, not fulfilling its function. In the past, the whole city depended on the tower. Our idea is to make it into a centre of cultural life, since it isn’t far from the Philharmonic, the music college, the art school and the park. The long-term plan is for the tower to become a magnet once again, and attract people to the area. This isn’t a one-day project, but we’re still determined to implement it.”

— What do you think of modern Ukrainian cinema?
— I think that the easiest thing we can do to help the Ukrainian film industry is to refrain from trashing everything that comes out. Everyone’s a critic, but nobody knows how to make something amazing. That’s why it’s great that films come out, and we should support everything people make. Although, quite frankly, I’m not a big fan of the trend of making commercial films using primitive genital humour. But I believe we’ll survive all this — it’s just a phase we have to go through.

— You’ve starred in a few films. What were they?
—  For some reason, I got the leading role twice in a row. I was in the comedy ‘School Reunion’, and I played Oleksa Dovbush (a Ukrainian folk hero, often compared to Robin Hood — tr.) in ‘Legends of the Carpathians’. Both experiences were useful. The films were successful — or not — in different ways, but ‘School Reunion’ was the one that became a box-office hit, possibly because it’s a comedy.

— What’s going to be your next film?
— The next one is ‘I.Nina’. We’ve had huge problems while filming this movie, even though we did shoot a part of it in Odesa. None of my scenes were shot, which is a good thing, since the script has changed, the director has changed, and recently I found out that my role has also changed.

— How does it feel to work with Yanina Sokolova?
— On stage, it’s very easy. Otherwise, it’s just like any friendship: we also have our differences. Although we have very similar views on life, music and everything, sometimes I don’t do things the way Yanina might expect me to. Or vice versa. But in the end, she’s like a sister to me.

Serhii Koroliov, a well-known Ukrainian scientist who worked in astronautics and rocket science, was born in Zhytomyr. He designed the Earth’s first artificial satellites and spaceships. It was thanks to Koroliov’s contribution that the first such satellite was sent into orbit, and also that the first manned flight into space took place.

In 1970, a memorial museum dedicated to the scientist was opened in the house where he was born. A later addition was the exhibition ‘Space’, an exploration of space both physical and spiritual: the space of the sky full of stars, and the space of the human spirit.

The exhibition collection contains examples of space machinery and equipment, some of which have been into space. The setup is strikingly original: the machinery is accompanied by photo collages featuring masterpieces of world art. Iryna Diachuk, the director of the museum, is seeking to extend it, and believes that the Ukrainian contribution to the Soviet space programme is worthy of further research: “This isn’t a technical museum. It has been unusual ever since it was created. When there was an idea to create a museum in Koroliov’s hometown, we wondered what this space exhibition should look like, since Zhytomyr wasn’t a ‘space city’ like Dnipro or Kyiv. So it’s a museum of a dream come true. It was an experimental exhibition, since at that time, the topic of space was always related to communist ideology. When we opened, we didn’t know if this combination of philosophy and space would even be approved. We opened on 1st June 1991; the USSR collapsed two months later, and we began implementing our concept the way we had wanted to in the very beginning.”

— Did you often visit the museum?
— I came to the museum for the first time in 1991 and used to go there when I skipped classes. In order to go unnoticed, I would sit down and listen to music (the exhibition has chairs with headphones where you can listen to the ‘music’ of space — ed.).

— Did the Revolution of Dignity have any influence on Druha Rika’s work?
— We had started working on the album ‘Supernation’ before the Revolution of Dignity, and the lyrics kept changing, along with the events at Maidan, along with the country. We believed in it, we so badly wanted change, and wanted to represent that in what we were doing. It did influence us a lot; we didn’t want to write about anything else. Even if I’d wanted to write about love, I’d have started with love and ended with what was going on in the country — what you really feel, and how those events influence you. There was hope that society would change, but it didn’t last long.

— Do you mean you feel there was a time of change, and now it’s over?
— No — it’s like a vaccine we were given. I reckon people can still make mistakes, but they will never go back to that initial situation they were in. And even if we hadn’t had Yanukovych (Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s fourth President, who fled the country as a result of the Revolution of Dignity — ed.), it would’ve happened with someone else. It’s obvious that we won’t put up with a tyrant any longer, we won’t put up with anyone who abuses us and our country. I’m convinced of that.

— How long did you live in Zhytomyr altogether?
— Ten years, but it feels like a lifetime. I’ve already been living in Kyiv much longer than that.

— Do you feel like a guest when you come to Zhytomyr?
— No, I feel I’m going home. I mean, there are three places I call home: Liubar, Zhytomyr, and Kyiv. But really, I’m at home wherever my family is.

The material is prepared by

Founder of Ukraїner,


Bogdan Logvynenko



Karina Piliuhina


Sofia Bazko

Natalia Ponedilok


Anastasiia Nekypila


Oleg Sologub

Mykhaylo Shelest

Film editor:

Mykola Nosok

Sound engineer:

Anastasiya Klymova

Photo editor:

Oleksandr Khomenko


Halyna Reznikova

Olia Stylii


Halya Kohuch

Translation editor:

Claire Little

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