Luhansk region: the land of Cossacks, industry, ancient rituals, and modern culture

Luhansk region is a region in the east of Ukraine. A few centuries ago, a unique mixture of natural wealth, Cossack searches for new places, and Western European investments formed a unique region here. Industrial power was combined with cultural pursuits, and ancient traditions were combined with culinary creativity.

In 1991, 84% of Luhansk residents supported the restoration of Ukraine’s independence in a referendum. However, this very region faced Russian aggression back in 2014, and a large part of the Luhansk region is now temporarily occupied. All these years were full of attempts to destroy Ukrainian culture and identity, and hundreds of thousands of residents of the Luhansk region were forced to leave their homes. However, Ukraine continues to fight for its lands and its people, and the Luhansk region will definitely be deoccupied.

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City of Industry and Culture

As early as the beginning of the 16th century, numerous settlements of Ukrainian Cossacks appeared in this region. Later, they all united in the Kalmius Palanka, the largest in the Zaporozhian Army. And the Cossack settlement of Kamianyi Brid was located on the current site of Luhansk. At the end of the 18th century, a foundry and cannon factory were built here.

The descendants of the Cossacks from the old settlements, the factory builders, and the peasants, who were brought for auxiliary work, eventually formed the population of the city, which is now known as Luhansk. Foreigners made a serious contribution to the development and industrialization of the region. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, investors and industrialists from Belgium, France, Great Britain, Germany, and Switzerland invested more than 800 million gold francs in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

During these two centuries, the main city of the Luhansk region managed to experience rapid development and periods of economic prosperity. In the 20th century, Luhansk became an important center of industry, in particular coal, metallurgy, and machine-building, and at the beginning of the 21st century, 87 large enterprises worked in the city. It was one of the largest cities in the east of Ukraine, with a population of over 400,000 people.

On March 9, 2014, a Shevchenko-fest was held in the local art cafe in honor of the birthday of Taras Shevchenko, the main writer in the history of Ukraine. On the same day, pro-Russian forces broke into the Luhansk Regional State Administration.

Before that, as a sign of solidarity with the Revolution of Dignity, rallies for the peace and unity of Ukraine were held almost every day in the city, which gathered up to two thousand participants even in the winter. However, the first attacks on Ukrainian activists soon began. And the driving force of the pro-Russian rallies, which also took to the streets, as eyewitnesses recall, were the participants who were clearly not from the Luhansk region– they were poorly oriented in the area and spoke with a Russian accent. In 2022, the region was almost fully occupied by the Russian army—but temporarily. 

All this time, everything Ukrainian in the region has been successively destroyed. In the occupied territories, there is not a single school class with an in-depth study of Ukrainian, but they teach according to the Russian curriculum. All this is an element of the consistent policy of first the Russian Empire, then the USSR, and now Russia to destroy Ukrainian culture. Despite the fact that during the 1959 census, 87.5% of the residents of the Luhansk region identified Ukrainian as their native language.

A large part of the population, due to repression and human rights violations, was forced to leave their homes and move to other regions of Ukraine. The city and cultural institutions left, just as the local football club “Zoria”. 

Tens of thousands of Luhansk residents continue to live and work freely all across Ukraine. However, they are waiting for the return of their hometown to the motherland.

Clothing that became a symbol of Ukraine

Vyshyvanka is a traditional Ukrainian national dress that is distinguished by rich decoration and characteristic cut details. This is a shirt that usually has sleeves, embroidery on the collar and chest, and many decorative elements such as buttons, frills, and lace. The style and technique of embroidery also depend on the region.

Luhansk vyshyvanka also has its own features and characteristics. Usually, it is based on geometric motifs or plant ornaments, and the patterns are often made with a coarse thread, which creates the effect of relief. Each element has not only a decorative value, but also a symbolic one. For example, white can symbolize purity, black can symbolize sadness, and red can symbolize love and passion. In the Luhansk region, embroidered clothes have long been popular — many ornaments can be found in archival photos as early as the beginning of the 20th century.

Vyshyvanka is one of the key symbols of Ukrainian culture and identity. Until now, they were worn for festive and religious events, but they are increasingly worn in everyday life. Vyshyvanka also became a part of high fashion — they were worn by Dita Von Teese, Demi Moore, May Musk, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Helen Mirren, and even Sophia the robot.

However, the Luhansk region has something to be proud of that is not limited to traditional attire. In 2015, several Lviv entrepreneurs left IT to produce bright socks. The “Dodo Socks” brand quickly gained traction, and the founders reached an agreement with a hosiery factory in Rubizhne, Luhansk region, to increase volume. In the end, socks, which were invented in the west of Ukraine and produced in the east, became extremely popular. In 2017, the Ukrainian delegation gave the “Dodo” to Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada and a big fan of socks with bright prints.

However, in May 2022, Russia seized Rubizhne. All the equipment in the factory was destroyed and looted. In June, the Rubizhne hosiery factory, together with 15 workers and their families, moved to the Lviv region. They are now resuming production and plan to also knit terry socks, in particular for the military.

Outstanding people of the Luhansk Region

Talented people who developed world science, literature, and art have always been born in the Luhansk region. And also, they cherished love for Ukraine, because of which they often suffered.

Here are just a few of the many similar stories from the time of the USSR. Literary critic and poet Ivan Svitlychnyi lost his job because of his citizenship, was under constant surveillance, and eventually received 12 years of imprisonment. Writer and human rights defender, the first head of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, and war hero Mykola Rudenko spent more than 10 years behind bars on charges of anti-Soviet propaganda. The writer Vasyl Holoborodko was expelled from the institute only for the fact that he showed acquaintances the text of another Ukrainian dissident, Ivan Dziuba, and his works were banned from publication for decades.

New generations of Luhansk citizens continue to fight for freedom. Serhii Zhadan, who was born and spent his childhood in Starobilsk, Luhansk region, is considered one of the main writers of modern Ukraine.

The author of 15 poetry collections, five novels, and many translations is known all over the world. For example, the novel “Voroshylovhrad” was translated and published in Germany, Hungary, Poland, France, Belarus, Italy, Latvia, the USA, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and Georgia. “Mesopotamia” — in Poland, Germany, the USA, Italy, Denmark, and Latvia. “Internat” — in Germany, Belarus, Romania, Poland, North Macedonia, Denmark, the USA, and Lithuania.

In 2022, the writer received the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers “for outstanding creativity and for the humanitarian attitude with which he cares for people during the war and helps them at the risk of his life.” Well, the Polish Academy of Sciences nominated a writer for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2022 — Zhadan has been among the favorites for this award for several years.

A talented person is talented in everything, a phrase that Zhadan clearly confirms because he is also the vocalist of the punk band “Zhadan and Dogs”, which regularly performs in Ukraine and Europe.

Well, Artur Proidakov, from the temporarily occupied city of Kadiivka in the Luhansk region, is actually a living confirmation that Luhansk is Ukraine. After all, this Ukrainian language teacher won the Global Teacher Prize Ukraine 2021 — the award for the best teacher of the year. A worthy descendant of Borys Hrinchenko, a Ukrainian who compiled a four-volume dictionary of the Ukrainian language more than 120 years ago in the Luhansk region, the most comprehensive of those times.

Sculptures from ancient times

In 2010, the “Wonders of the Luhansk region” competition was held, the purpose of which was to select the most interesting objects and sights of the region. The Park-Museum of Stone Women took first place by a wide margin.

On the territory of the Luhansk National University, named after Taras Shevchenko, there is a unique collection of anthropomorphic sculptures. Some of them are several thousand years old, but most date back to the 11th-13th centuries. At that time, they were erected all over Ukraine by the Polovtsi, a nomadic people who lived on these lands at that time. Places were chosen for the figures on the highest parts of the steppe — hills and mounds — and dedicated to the ancestors.

In general, several thousand Polovtsian stone women have been found in Ukraine, and the largest collections of them are in the Dnipro Historical Museum and in Luhansk. There are 68 unique figures that were created centuries ago by the people who then inhabited the Luhansk region so that those who live here now remember the ancient history of their region.

Ancient ceremonies

The Luhansk region is a region where authentic Ukrainian traditions have been preserved. Among the most interesting, for example, is the ancient ritual of baking rizka. The so-called wedding tree is still created for weddings in the villages of the region. To do this, they usually take a fragrant cherry branch, mold pieces of sweet dough on it, bake it, and then decorate it with flowers, viburnum berries, cones, and colored ribbons. The whole process is accompanied by songs and conspiracies for the happiness of the newlyweds. And at the end of the wedding, the cake is taken apart and given to the guests.

And in the already mentioned list of elements of intangible cultural heritage, other authentic rites of the Luhansk region are mentioned, such as wicker weaving, bread baking, and authentic songs. Due to the occupation, ancient traditions are being lost, but Ukraine is making every effort to preserve the original culture of the Luhansk region.

The hotel, which seemed too Ukrainian

The best hotel in Luhansk is considered to be “Ukraine”, which until 1991 was called “October” in honor of the October Revolution, typically for the USSR. And the history of the building is indicative of its times.

A six-story building was built in the 1940s according to the project of the famous architect Yosyp Karakis. The brick facade is decorated with a kind of mosaic “carpet”. It is reminiscent of the artistic traditions that the architect instilled in Podillia as a child and resonates with Ukrainian modernism.

Karakis was praised by the Academy of Architecture for the spectacular building that decorated the center of Luhansk. However, within a year, they were subjected to devastating criticism. Allegedly, the hotel became a manifestation of the architect’s “bourgeois nationalism” and cosmopolitanism. In Stalin’s time, such labels threatened serious danger. Karakis did not want to repent and was fired from his job. Later, he admitted that he was lucky — instead of being fired, the talented architect might be sent to the camps.

Unique cuisine from cabbage to miner’s cake

The Luhansk region is famous for ancient recipes that are passed down from generation to generation. Among them, for example, Pavlivskyi cabbage soup with fish. It is usually served on holidays or communal works when the whole village gathers to work as a group. There are many analogs of cabbage soups in different countries, but it is quite likely that its homeland is Ukraine itself. The main ingredient of this traditional first course of Ukrainian cuisine is sauerkraut, which gives the soup a special sour taste. A few years ago, a special commission included Pavlivskyi kapusniak in the regional list of elements of intangible cultural heritage.

Another ancient Ukrainian recipe in this list is millet porridge (Ukr. kulish). The Cossacks cooked it almost every day in the campaigns and then distributed this recipe throughout Ukraine. Richer families usually prepared this dish from millet in meat or fish broth, poorer kulish was lean. Nowadays, the recipe is spread around the Luhansk city of Novopskov, where the preparation of this dish with pork is typical. And the main condition is that the kulish is prepared on fire in the open air.

Well, the choice of dessert in the Luhansk region is obvious to Ukrainians. The first director of a local confectionery factory once visited a European confectionery, where he saw exquisite candies with a lot of nuts and chocolate glaze. When he returned, he created a cake called Shakhtarskyi. The legendary dessert was prepared without flour — only chocolate and a lot of nuts. Miner’s cake quickly became a cult in the region, it was bought as gifts and taken on trips as a souvenir. However, now that photos of this dessert are circulating on social media, they are bringing back memories for Luhansk residents. 

After the beginning of the hybrid war in 2014, the management of the confectionery factory moved 150 families of its employees to the territory controlled by Ukraine. It was not possible to export the equipment, but the production was actually started from scratch. Currently, 62 people from Luhansk continue to work in production and in the main office in Kyiv.

The tragedy of the Luhansk region shocked the whole world.

A large part of the region is currently under temporary Russian occupation. Everything Ukrainian is mercilessly destroyed and banned, and the occupation brings decay, crime and impunity. The people of Luhansk, who were forced to flee from the occupation, continue today to fight for their land together with all Ukrainians. And this struggle will last until everyone who has temporarily lost their home there can return.

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Last updated 24.02.2023

The article was prepared in partnership with Maksym Maiorov (Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security)

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