Mykolaiv region: Ships, Biodiversity, and Zoo as a Symbol of Indomitability

The Mykolaiv region (Ukr. oblast) lies in the South of Ukraine. Located between steppes and the sea, the area has always drawn attention due to its rich natural resources: great rivers, healing lakes, and even mountains, found in the most unexpected places. No wonder that such a diverse natural “pool” has also given birth to prominent people in love with their land — and the new generation of these people was destined to defend it.

For a year now, the Mykolaiv region has been under constant bombardment, demonstrating the miracles of indomitability and caring for culture even in times of full-scale war.

The Capital of Shipbuilding and Indomitability

The region’s major city, Mykolaiv, with a population of 500,000 inhabitants, is the largest city in the south of Ukraine after Odesa. The official age of the city bearing this name is 234 years, although settlements had existed in this place before. In the times of Rus, there were outposts built here that ensured trade, while in the 14th century a city of Vitovka appeared. When in 1789 a shipyard was started to be erected here, it was surrounded by Cossack settlements.

The modern city of Mykolaiv has emerged around the shipbuilding industry. Its utilitarian function is evidenced by the fact that in the first 45 years of existence, the city’s streets had no names. In 1790, the first ship was constructed here — a 44-cannon sailing frigate “Saint Mykolai.”

In Ukraine, Mykolaiv is called “the city of ships,” for a great variety of ships has been built here: tankers, gas-turbine ships, research vessels, and even a floating hotel ordered by a Danish company. Shipbuilding personnel is trained right in Mykolaiv — the city has several technical educational institutions, including the specialized National University of Shipbuilding, which suffered two massive attacks in 2022. Another university that was seriously damaged due to rocket strikes is the Black Sea National University.

The only Museum of Shipbuilding and Fleet is located, of course, in Mykolaiv — in the Admiralty building of 1794. Inside it, one will find ancient maps and documents, different marine equipment, sailor uniform, old weapons, and ship models; in total, the museum’s collection numbers over 15,000 exhibits.

Nonetheless, the museum has been closed for almost a year. From the very beginning of the full-scale war, Mykolaiv has been under Russian attacks. According to the museum’s staff, not a single window of the building remained undamaged. However, the institution plans to resume its work even with plywood instead of windows. Like in the previous centuries, todays Mykolaiv is the city of not only ships but also invincible people.


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The City, Named after Happiness

A few tens of kilometers away from Mykolaiv, 40 to be precise [24.85 mi], the remnants of a great ancient city are located. It was founded 2,500 years ago by the Greek colonists and named Olbia, derived from the Greek “happy, rich,” — honoring the richness of the local land.

For centuries, it existed as a developed city, being home for 20,000 people living on an area of 50 hectares. Olbia thrived as a center of agriculture, cattle breeding, winegrowing, and booming handicrafts. The city had contact with distant lands: archeologists have found evidence of its relations with Athens, the Rhodes, Asia Minor, and even Egyptian Alexandria. However, a large part of these valuable artifacts is kept in the Hermitage (Saint Petersburg) rather than in Ukrainian museums — reflecting Russian imperialist policy of appropriating valuables not belonging to them.

Olbian coins have also been found in other ancient civilization centers — for instance, in the Bosporus and Dobruja. By the way, these coins were quite unique — made in the shape of dolphins. One of the first bronze money in the world, they were not minted, as was the case in other ancient cities, but molded in special forms.

Another fact that speaks for Olbia’s important role is the visit of the well-known Greek historian, Herodotus. The first “travel blogger” in the history of humankind emphasized the city’s tolerance — the Greeks and Scythians lived there together and concluded marriages with each other. For instance, the Scythian king Skil married a local Greek woman and learned Ancient Greek. The ability to co-exist with other cultures has been inherent to the people on Ukrainian lands since ancient times.

Throughout all times, people living on the territory of Ukraine knew how to defend what belonged to them. For instance, in the 4th century B.C. Zopyrion — one of the famous Macedonian generals serving Alexander the Great — came to conquer Olbia. However, this attempt failed and the invader died — quite an instructive story to Russians still dreaming of seizing the Mykolaiv region.

Eventually, Olbia went into decline and people left it. A great part of relics was lost in the 20th century since the Soviets settled former prisoners near the hillfort and they didn’t disdain archeological looting. Nevertheless, in recent decades, serious archeological excavations have been conducted in the area, as after the occupation of Crimea and the loss of access to Chersonesus, Olbia remains one of the greatest landmarks of Antiquity in Ukraine. 

Biodiversity Density

Is it possible to be standing simultaneously in two water basins? The answer is ‘Yes’ if you are at the Kinburn Spit!

From one side, this narrow sandy piece of land is surrounded by the fresh waters of the Dnipro-Buh estuary, and from the other — by the salty Black Sea. In some parts, the spit is rather broad while in others it narrows to just a few meters. This natural wonder is just 40 km [24.85 mi] long and it seems that it is here that nature decided to exhibit all of its ‘accomplishments.’

The Kinburn Spit combines steppes, sand beaches with fresh and salty water, a 15th-century fortress Kinburn, about 150 lakes (including the ones with curative mud), the biggest wild orchid field in Europe, natural salt deposits that Ukrainians used to mine for many centuries, and forests. The Volyzhyn Forest represents the remnants of old vegetation overgrowth named Hileiia, once mentioned by Herodotus.

No wonder all kinds of living creatures get attracted to this place, for example pelicans, white-tailed eagles, and even pink flamingos, exotic to this place. Also, fish comes here for spawning, showing an amazing spectacle on their way, jumping from one lake to the other.

Among other living species, the Kinburn Spit has also attracted people since old times. The Greeks spread legends about Achilles who apparently organized athletic games here. Other tales spoke of skilled female warriors, the amazons, — and here it is worth mentioning that archeologists have indeed found female burials in military armor on the Northern Black Sea coast.

In the times of Rus, the trade Route from the Varangians to the Greeks connecting the Scandinavian and the Baltic region with the Byzantium passed here. Meanwhile, the famous Ukrainian free Cossacks built a center of Prohnoiv palanka (an administrative unit) of the Zaporozhian Sich serving as a Cossack port.

In our times, the Kinburn Spit attracted quite different people: in March 2022, the Russian troops have occupied this place to block Ukrainian ports. From here, they have also bombarded the mainland. After the counteroffensive of the Ukrainian army in November 2022, the Kinburn Spit remains the only temporarily occupied area of the Mykolaiv region.

Stargazing for Two Centuries

The stars seem to be particularly close in Mykolaiv region. And it’s not about romance — Mykolaiv is home to one of the oldest observatories in Europe, which is still operating.

The majestic building at the city’s highest point was built in 1821. It initially functioned as a space cabin boy, providing the ships of the Black Sea Fleet with maps, accurate clocks, and other navigational devices. Still later, the observatory did turn its gaze from the sea to the sky. In particular, experts from Mykolaiv worked on potential flight trajectories of space probes and helped the devices get to Venus.

Two hundred years of work experience eventually resulted in a museum being opened in the building. Its collection includes ancient astronomical instruments, maps, and books, numbering more than 70,000. Among the main exhibits is the telescope, which for 150 years was considered the largest in the world.

However, this doesn’t mean that the observatory has ceased to be an observatory! It continues to study the solar system using modern technologies. For example, its team participates in the international program for observing asteroids (the Near-Earth Object Observations Program), in particular those that are potentially dangerous for humanity. In the USA, there is the International Minor Planet Center that collects data on small planets in the Solar System and cooperates with 2,000 observatories from all around the world. However, only seven of them have the “high” index indicating their high accuracy, and Mykolaiv observatory is one of them.

UNESCO has also noted the observatory’s experience and merits and included it in the Preliminary World Heritage List. And you can use the Mykolaiv observatory to pay — in honor of its 200th anniversary, the National Bank of Ukraine issued a coin with a denomination of 5 hryvnias.

Mountains in the Middle of the Steppe

While the south of Ukraine is mostly steppes, its nature still has something to surprise you with. Myhiia is a true mountain country in the middle of the steppe. Here, picturesque granite rocks stretch for dozens of kilometers along the Southern Buh river.

Nevertheless, for a long time no one in particular knew about this natural anomaly. In Soviet times, ordinary people were not allowed here because of the relative proximity to the nuclear power plant and military facilities. Only when Ukraine regained its independence did the area become open and accessible.

The center of this area is a small village of Myhia, where Scythians and other ancient tribes once lived and later the Cossacks established their base. In the late 19th century, the population consisted of Ukrainians themselves, with the exception of a few Russians and Jews. It is therefore not surprising that Myhiia suffered from the Holodomor of 1932–1933, a genocide of Ukrainians organized by the Soviet government. According to various estimates, no less than 3.9 million people died in Ukraine from an artificially organized famine at that time, with at least 146 villagers dying in Myhiia.

Despite the tragedy, the village managed to survive and is now the center of a unique mountain region in the middle of the steppe. It was Myhiia that won the international contest “Wonders of St. Mykolai Lands” aimed to choose 12 wonders of Mykolaiv region — the most attractive wonders of nature and the most valuable historical and cultural monuments. Based on voters’ choice, Myhiia won the first place among them.

Prominent People of the Mykolaiv Region

Mykolaiv region has always had people to be proud of. For example, a writer, composer, cultural figure, and historian Mykola Arkas. Coming from a family of an ethnic Greek and a Ukrainian woman from an ancient Cossack family, he got interested in the Ukrainian language and culture thanks to his mother.

Despite the irritation of his father, who served the tsar, Mykola constantly dressed in Ukrainian folk clothes. He worked in the maritime department in Mykolaiv, and devoted all his free time to collecting folk tunes and studying the history of his native country. He founded a branch of the Ukrainian cultural society “Prosvita” in the city, admired the art of kobzars and bandurists (blind folk singers playing kobza or bandura in Ukraine), whom he invited to Mykolaiv from all over Ukraine, and funded a Ukrainian theater troupe, a choir, and an elementary school. In Mykolaiv, the activities of Mykola Arkas were so much appreciated that when he died of a heart attack in 1909, about 10,000 people came to his funeral.

In the early 20th century there was also another widely known name from Mykolaiv region — though not as much in Ukraine as in Western Europe. A theater and film actress Maria Orska was constantly on the covers of European magazines in the 1920s, and, having married, became a baroness.

Already in our times, Olha Harlan has also achieved international recognition. The Ukrainian fencer has won four Olympic and fifteen world championship medals. Her achievements are so impressive that in 2020 her personal Barbie, which looks like Harlan herself wearing fencing equipment, was released. The doll was included in the Role Models series produced since 2018, while Harlan became just the tenth athlete and the first Ukrainian to get a personal Barbie.

The Zoo that the Whole Country Worried for

The Mykolaiv Zoo was founded in 1901 by the then mayor Mykola Leontovych (not to be confused with another outstanding Mykola Leontovych, the author of Shchedryk — you can read about him in our piece on Vinnytsia). At that time, that was an aquarium rather than a menagerie, and it was kept at Leontovych’s home. However, the enthusiast managed to create an impressive collection of 100 species of fish and amphibians — in those times, there were only seven of them in Europe.

It was only after the World War II that the institution became a zoo. The number of its inhabitants has gradually increased, and today there are almost 6,000 individuals from about 460 species, almost half of which are listed in the Red Book. Due to this fact and the high-quality work, the Mykolaiv Zoo has been recognized internationally — it’s been the first in Ukraine to be admitted to the European and then to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

In the meanwhile, international relations with the Russians turned out to be completely different. After the full-scale invasion, the occupiers shelled the zoo several times, and due to the danger, the complex had to stop working for a while. However, it didn’t stop caring for the animals — the workers asked Ukrainians to buy electronic tickets even to the closed zoo, so that they could buy food for its inhabitants. Of course, the tickets were sold out. And on June 11 [2022], the Mykolaiv Zoo opened again.

Mykolaiv region is a land of ships, natural wonders, and talents.

The land that could have developed freely and peacefully, as it had always longed for, — but for already a year is forced to fight for its freedom, while its buildings, museums, zoos, and ordinary people suffer from Russian shelling. Mykolaiv region has no other choice and fate than to win. And with the global support, this victory will surely come.

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Last updated 24.02.2023

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