Sumy Region: Great Victories in Battlefields, Business, and Culture

You have definitely seen Sumy region (Ukr. oblast) if you had come across maps of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the news, for this northern region was one of the first to take the blow. However, the heroism of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the inhabitants of the region themselves forced the invaders to withdraw. That was one of the enemy’s first defeats in 2022.

However, being targeted by Russia and witnessing the Ukrainian victories isn’t exactly a new experience for the Sumy region, which is glorified by more than just combat heroism: it boasts people of great merit, impressive historical start-ups, and highly acclaimed musical works.

The Battle of Konotop

Amidst the 17th century struggles for their statehood, the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Sich had an agreement with Moscow and were promised protectorate and military support. Ukrainians were guaranteed their rights and freedoms, yet in just a few years, those guarantees were broken. In the centuries to come, Russia repeatedly undertook attempts to squelch the Ukrainian’s free spirit, along with their language and culture. 

Ukrainians were quick to prove their total unwillingness to compromise their freedom, by gaining a smashing victory in the 1659 Konotop Battle (in the lands of the present-day Sumy region). Back then, Muscovy sent a huge army to stifle the rebellion, so the Ukrainians joined their forces with the Crimean Tatars, and together they inflicted a crushing defeat upon the enemy.

Such was the beatdown, that the Tsar even feared for the safety of Moscow. The aftermath, described by one of the Russian historians, was tremendous: “…the royal city trembled for its own security: in August by tsar’s decree, people of all ranks hurried to build fortifications around Moscow…” The Ukrainians, however, never coveted “any thing that is thy neighbour’s”, so they resisted the opportunity to go to war against Moscow.

While the victory in the Battle of Konotop didn’t turn out to be decisive in the Muscovy-Ukrainian war of 1658–59, it clearly illustrates the falsehood of the Russian narrative of eternal friendships and kept promises.


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Sweet Patrons


For Ukraine, the sugar industry was a driving force that propelled the overall industrial complex forward. It also fostered the whole dynasties of tycoons, who impressed the entire world with both their wealth and the scale of their charitable endeavors. Among them were the renowned sugar manufacturing families, namely the Symyrenkos, the Kharytonenkos, and the Khanenkos. However, it is the history of another family that might be the most interesting of all.

In the early 19th century, a young Ukrainian named Artemii Tereshchenko, who was stationed in France with his military unit, watched the French experimenting with sweet beets not without interest. After returning to Ukraine from the war with Napoleon, he simultaneously launched several ‘19th-century start-ups,’ merging trade, technology, and loan business. His endeavors were greatly successful, and the young man invested his profits in the sugar business, becoming the founder of a tycoon dynasty known as the Tereshchenkos.

They were patrons as well. Remember Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s “Pledge of Giving”? Well, 150 years prior, the Tereshchenkos instructed their descendants to direct 80% of their profits to charitable causes. The dynasty commissioned the construction of educational institutions, hospitals, shelters, churches, and a lot more.

A disciple of Louis Blériot, the Frenchman who made the first airplane flight across the English Channel (Fr. La Manche), Fedir built an airfield and workshops in Ukraine. There, Ihor Sikorsky, the Ukrainian who conceived many helicopters and whose company Sikorsky Aircraft has been a decades-long carrier of the US Presidents, build his first flying machines.

Still, even after supporting all those charitable projects, the leftover money was enough to finance collections of works of art (those were the collections of the Tereshchenkos, as well as of other sugar tycoons, that later became the basis of many a Ukrainian museum’s collections), buy the world’s largest yacht at the time, the 127 m IOLANDA, and even for commissioning shaping of a 43-carat diamond (named Tereshchenko Blue) by Cartier. In 1984, the diamond sold at Christie’s for a then-record price of $4.6 million.

The Tereshchenkos were forced into exile and lost their riches after the Bolsheviks took over their homeland. This family’s story, however, came to a full cycle when Michel Tereshchenko, a French-born descendant of the dynasty, was elected Mayor in the city of Hlukhiv in Sumy region — the region where his ancestors had once been so renowned.

The Beet Business

In our diet-conscious times, a lot of people gravitate toward sugar-free products. Should that be the case 200 years ago, the history of the Sumy region may have played out drastically differently.

Up to the 19th century, England had been Europe’s primary sugar supplier, importing cane sugar from its colonies. However, during the Napoleonic wars, the English refused to sweeten the life of their French enemies, effectively BEETing them into Bonaparte-ordered experimentation with sugar beets. They were quite successful, mastering the science of obtaining sanding sugar from beetroots.

This skill was also quickly mastered in Ukraine, especially in the Sumy region — so much that sugar became one of its main products. In just a few years in the mid-19th century, the number of sugar mills and refineries rapidly increased to 200. In1848, Ukrainian enterprises produced up to 90% of sugar in the entire Russian Empire (back then, the present-day Ukrainian territory was engulfed by that empire). Ukrainian sugar was exported to Germany, Austria-Hungary, Finland, China, and Iran. Noteworthy, Europe’s largest sugar mill and refinery back then was the one established on the outskirts of Sumy in 1869.

Over the decades, the region’s sugar industry has seen ups and downs — with the ups being quite breathtaking. For instance, should you pack the 5.6 million tons of sugar that Ukraine produced in 1977 into 50kg [~110 lb] bags, and proceeded to use those bags of sugar for building a pyramid (with 9,000 bags alone being in its base), you would end up with a structure of almost 9,000 m [~29,528 feet] high. Now that pile would equal mount Everest! The world’s highest mountain reproduced in sugar — and that’s just one year’s harvest!

To think that it all began with Napoleon and the British boycott of him… Well, since we’ve figured out how it started, it is worth recalling the person who laid the foundation for Ukraine’s most flourishing industry. Let us tell you a fascinating tale encompassing the world’s largest yacht, the most expensive diamond, and human kindness.

Krolevets Weaving

A beverage can only be called champagne or cognac when it was, indeed, made in those specific regions of France, as well as Stilton cheeses are only made in three specific English shires, and Darjeeling tea is only grown in the Indian municipality bearing the same name. Places all over the world are famous for specific goods that can only be produced in certain regions to be genuine. Ukraine, of course, is no stranger to territorial brands.

In Ukraine’s registered list of such products, only two are inedible. The Petrykivka painting belongs in the article on the Dnipro region, so for now, let’s turn our attention to the extraordinary art of Krolevets weaving.

Among the key symbols of Ukrainian culture is rushnyk, which is basically a piece of cloth with embroidered or woven patterns, an embellished towel used for decoration and rituals. Every region boasts its unique patterns, colors, and techniques, however, rushnyks manufactured in the small town of Krolevets deserve special attention. It is said that this craft has been around for centuries, and the local museum has an entire collection of towels, pillowcases, and cloth panels with traditional embellishments. Being pricey, those things were mostly used for special occasions.

In fact, they still are quite pricey, as the Krolevets weaving tradition remains beautiful and unique as ever.


The Phenomenon of Kobzar Tradition

Many peoples had their bards, who, through their songs and recitations, preserved and shared important knowledge on history, culture, and worldview, passing it to future generations. Ancient Spartans had kyfaders, Vikings had skalds, and peoples of the Great Steppe had akyns. In Ukraine, such keepers of the collective folk memory and wisdom were called kobzars (literally: kobza players), known since the medieval times. Those were usually blind people traveling from one village to another, playing the traditional Ukrainian musical instruments — either a kobza, a lira, or a bandura — and living on alms.

People always loved and cherished kobzars, for those bards not only reminded them who they were and who their ancestors had been, but were instrumental in spreading the news, thus being a sort of “mass media” back in the day.

The kobzar tradition persevered for centuries until Soviet authorities set out to put an end to it. Most of the traveling bards were either killed or forced to abandon their ancient art.

Yevhen Adamtsevych was one of the last known blind kobzars. Having spent most of his life in the Sumy region, he was both a performer and a composer. For instance, it was he who composed the famous Zaporozhian March, honoring the glorious Ukrainian cossacks. Adamtsevych is believed to first perform the piece in 1969. The recollection of one of the witnesses of that performance goes as follows:

“Their hearts incredibly captivated by the melody, people rose from their seats. The round of applause afterward was like a thunderstorm, never before have those walls witnessed anything of similar magnitude. I’m struggling to recollect the developments after the Zaporozhian March was performed. Let me just say that, urged by audience demand, Adamtsevych encored the piece three times… It was immediately clear that something extraordinary occurred. A wonderful moment sparked over the enchanted audience, a moment that nobody can either repeat or prolong.”

It was later that Ukrainian conductor Viktor Hutsal remastered the chamber piece into a truly solemn march. The Soviets banned performing it, same as they banned the kobzar tradition. The genuine culture, however, breaks through any bars, so now this melody is one of the main Marches of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Russia’s full-scale invasion, unfortunately, brought back the demand for military marches in Sumy region.

And again, the region is witness to glorious victories over the enemy on its eastern borders, as back in the day when the Battle of Konotop was fought. However, it is safe to say that the peaceful people of the Sumy region are awaiting victory and peace so that no dictator and no aggressor can further stomp on the traditions and freedom of another people.

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Last updated 11.03.2024

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