Saturday, May 4, 2013

Day Tripping in Poltava: The Battle Muesum

Poltava is one of Kharkov's closest big neighbors; it's only a 2-hour ride by marshrutka to reach this city of 300,000. As it's now a holiday week and everyone has free time, our friend Zhenia offered to show us around Poltava, his hometown and a city I knew nothing about (save for it being the birthplace of Andrei Danilko, the love-him-or-hate-him cross-dressing Ukrainian pop star).

Zhenia kindly reserved us a spot on an 8 AM marshrutka. His text read "look for a white Mercedes, license plate number 8334".

If you just read Mercedes and you're thinking wow, a private car! the luxury!... it's nothing like that. Marshrutka translates as route taxi, a common way to get around Ukraine. It's an oversize minivan that can accommodate anywhere from 9 people to 9 billion people, depending on whether people are wearing their winter coats or not :p The marshrutkas that travel between cities are smaller and offer sitting only, while the larger ones that travel within cities offer both seats and standing.

By 8 AM our driver had collected 50 uah from each passenger, smoked his last cigarette, shaken hands with all the other drivers (men always shake hands when arriving or departing in Ukraine) and we were on the road! D fussed briefly with the seatbelt, surprised there actually was a seatbelt, before realizing that it was impossible to fasten. They'd all been shortened as a matter of convenience, so as to not get in anyone's way. How thoughtful.

The road out of Kharkov is appropriately named полтавский шлях, or the Poltava Highway. We passed an almost surreal scene of men fishing from a river bank with the stacks of a power plant looming in the background before the Poltava Highway changed into a numbered highway. The road took us through small towns with names like Manchenky (full of little Ukrainian houses and flowering trees) and Sharivka (brick homes next to tilled garden plots). In Peremoga we passed Lenin's statue and stopped near a clothing store long enough for the driver to smoke another cigarette and the young couple in the back to run out in search of a restroom.

View Kharkov - Poltava in a larger map

Seen on the way to Poltava:
  • 33 people working in the fields, planting potatoes and other tasty treats
  • 27 bicyclists (only 1 serious roadside biker, most of the others out for a slow pedal through the town of Chutove, even saw one man transporting a 15-foot log on his bicycle!)
  • 13 tractors, most in action out in the fields or puttering down the highway
  • 12 goats
  • 8 roadside crosses/memorials
  • 2 refrigerated pelmeni trucks
  • 2 graveyards filled with colorful fake flowers
  • 1 roadside tank memorial
  • 1 church for sale
  • Cafe "Luck", home to a giant red-and-white dotted teacup
Zhenia met us a McDonalds, at, in fact, the only McDonalds in Poltava. Er, I feel like I mention McDonalds too much on this blog. Please believe me- I'm not an addict! :p We grabbed a bite to eat and talked about National Geographic's recent foray into the Ukrainian market and Zhenia's heady days as a high school exchange student in the great state of Texas. 
Leaving, we ran into Zhenia's roommate, another former TX exchange student. The four of us briefly conversed in a huddle. Behind us was McDonalds, and behind that, a tall, burned-out building that once openly produced umbrellas or secretly produced weapons, depending on who you ask.
Victory Day will be celebrated on May 9th. Note the billboard: We are proud of the great victory! 1941 - 1945.
Zhenia's first executive decision of the day (minus meeting at McDonalds) was to get us all to a war museum. Travelling again by marshrutka, this involved catching two of them to get to our slightly out-of-the-way destination. At our first stop, a man approached us with great excitement. 
"English! Where are you from? How long are you in Ukraine?" 
He pointed at his traveling companion, a woman sitting on a bench who acknowledged us with a raised hand and a shy smile. 
"We are... how you say...автостоп?"
 "Hitchhiking" Zhenia told him. 
"Oh, hitchhiking" he repeated back while pulling out his cell phone. "Please write for me."
Unfortunately the marshrutka pulled up at that exact moment and we were left calling out the letters to him as he quickly tried to memorize them. 
Ladies, if you ever catch yourself thinking hmmm, should I re-do my manicure now or later, DO IT NOW :p Don't let this be you!
I watched this potato seller do business outside the "Kiev market" while waiting for a marshrutka. 

The second marshrutka dropped us off in what looked like the middle of nowhere. Off to one side, a group of people toiled in the sun, planting potatoes. We crossed the two-lane road and gingerly stepped our way through a group of chickens. A dirt path led us past small homes and an honest-to-God well. Then came a set of staircases that took us down and up, past the "Swedish Grave" railway station.

Can safely say I burned off at least one bite of that breakfast!
The path between the railway/staircases and the museum. Sign reads "Swedish Grave".
Btw, Zhenia insisted we visit Poltava in springtime and now I know why! What beauty!
And then there it was, the white walls and green roof of the war museum.

10 uah will get you in to the State Historical-Cultural Reserve "Poltava Battlefield", as it was labelled on our admission tickets. It's a nice museum, well-cared for and clean, and all information is presented in both English and Ukrainian.
Check the 5 uah note and you'll see this man, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky
Just like any museum I've been to in Ukraine, each room has a chair with an eagle-eyed woman. Her job is to sit there and give you the stare-down.
The museum painstakingly covers every possible detail of the 1709 battle between Sweden and Russia. Although Russia won, Peter the Great was majorly pissed at the Cossacks, the badass warriors who fought first for Russia and then for Sweden.

Zhenia was even better than the museum when it came to info- this guy knows everything! If you're ever headed to Poltava and need a guide, hire him!

There's more to see nearby, including this memorial to the Russian soldiers killed in battle.
There are rumored to be over 1,000 Russian soldiers buried in this area.
And facing the cross, this gorgeous church. (Although to be honest, aren't all Orthodox churches gorgeous?)

Zhenia and D chose to enter the church.
I stayed outside. I had nothing to cover my head with and I always feel weird going into local churches anyways. Not like fear-of-bursting-into-flames weird, but just out-of-place weird. The priest was outside too, bearded and clad in a long black robe. He stood in the small parking lot next to a pricey import car, talking to another man. Two old bubushkas sat on a bench near me, heads covered in scarves, a cane next to them on the bench. It felt like they were giving me a bit of a scathing look until a cell phone rang, distracting them from whatever disapproving thoughts they may have had going on. I briefly watched a third woman exit the church, cross herself, and bring food to a group of meowing cats.

Beyond the benches, a small brick path wound its way through fluttering birch trees. A girl stood on the path and posed by a tree as her friend snapped pictures. I wandered past them, thinking that it must be nice to live in this apartment building and catch glimpses of the church as you hang the laundry. 

There's plenty more that I'd like to share with you but since this entry has already become so epic, it will be saved for another day. In the meantime, if you harbor any further curiosity about Poltavan battle museums, I've uploaded some other neat photos on Facebook.

Poltava, Part 2: War Eagles and Watchtowers


  1. A church for sale! Never heard of that one!
    Now can you please tell me how to put that caption on photos?

    1. Hi MCD! Yep, a regular brick church, no fancy domes or anything.

      About the caption- D wrote a script that works its magic only on my computer, but if you'd like, he can make a page for you where you can caption photos. Just let me know, he thinks it would be fairly easy to produce : )

    2. Or there's also this site-

  2. Thanks, for now I have worked it out using picmonkey :)