Zaporizhzhia: A Land of Industrial Capacity, Outstanding People, and the Island that Changed History

The Zaporizhzhia region (Ukr. oblast) is located between the center and the south of Ukraine. This land has been at the center of significant historical events. Throughout history, Zaporizhzhia has also given birth to incredible people who defended freedom, saved lives, or conquered the world stages.

Today, Zaporizhzhia is once again at the center of events, as the region is constantly under threat from the Russian army, and part of it is still occupied. However, historical experience suggests that freedom will inevitably win on these lands.

The City of Free People

Zaporizhzhia is an ancient Cossack land, and the Cossacks were not just outstanding warriors but also masters of creative approaches. For example, legends have it that they were able to convert their boats “seagulls” into unique submarines to surprise their enemies with sudden attacks.

Modern Zaporizhzhia residents have preserved their love for freedom and creativity. Prior to the full-scale invasion, the city enjoyed an active cultural life with the Khortytsia Freedom music festival taking place here and local cultural initiatives regularly organizing events in the local coworking Edison space, Youth Center, and various venues and cafes. Stand-up comedy was thriving, and young people created their own local media and forums.

However, after the start of the full-scale war, most of these initiatives either closed down or re-qualified as hubs for refugees and humanitarian aid centers. Yet, there is no doubt that after the victory, Zaporizhzhia will once again become one of the most dynamic and active cities in Ukraine.

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The Legendary Warriors of Ukraine

In 2022, Ukrainians proved that they are outstanding warriors — but no surprise for those interested in history. Several centuries ago, the legendary Cossacks lived on the territory of Ukraine. Being skillful fighters, they managed to win a unique statehood for themselves.

Although the ancestors of the Cossacks can be found among the brodnyks (wanderers) and berladnyks (fugitives and refugees of various social strata in Rus, mainly engaged in fishing, hunting, etc.) who lived in the southern part of Ukraine in the 12th–13th centuries, the first mention of the Cossacks dates back to 1492. As a political force, the Cossacks began to take shape in the 16th century. The heart of these free warriors was the Sich — a fortress with an administrative and military center, and in fact, there were many such hearts. Due to various circumstances, the Cossacks were forced to change the location of the Sich, so there were at least eight of them in total.

Over time, the Cossacks transformed from a group of hooligans into a military and political organization so powerful that by the early 17th century, they, for example, besieged Moscow and forced the tsar to sign an extremely unfavorable peace treaty.

Several decades later, the Cossacks won official independence and formed a unique state formation — the Zaporozhian Host. Its residents elected their head of state — the Hetman — as well as starshyna (senior officers). Together with other factors, these democratic practices fostered a sense of individualism among the Ukrainians, who also expected that the citizens’ opinions would be respected. The Ukrainian Cossacks didn’t follow their leaders passively, but acted as a free people choosing their own path.

The glory of these mighty warriors spread so widely that the Cossacks were even involved in European wars. However, the Cossacks were not just warriors — already in 1710, one of the hetmans, Pylyp Orlyk, created a document that is often called one of the first constitutional documents in the world’s history. The document included the concepts of a “free people,” the foundations of democracy and justice, as well as anti-corruption and social principles.

Unfortunately, the Cossacks faced defeats as well. For example, after the defeat of the Swedes and the famous Hetman Ivan Mazepa at Poltava, the Russian tsar ordered the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich. Then the Cossacks, out of habit, built a new one, which was destroyed again, and the Cossacks built yet another one. Only in 1775 was the Zaporozhian Sich destroyed completely by the tsarist authorities — almost completely, because the Cossacks did not give up, but resettled to the territory of present-day Romania, where they founded the Danubian Sich, which existed in one form or another until the end of the 19th century.

Now, the Zaporizhzhia island of Khortytsia hosts a whole complex dedicated to the Cossacks: kurins (Cossack housing), a pottery workshop, a tavern, a blacksmith shop, and an arsenal. At the center of this complex there is a large square, Maidan, where long ago the Cossacks made decisions, including the decision to be a free people who would never surrender to evil.

The Spectacular Ships

The Khortytsia Island hosts one more museum — the shipping one. This is a space with unique exhibits — the largest collection of anchors in Ukraine and genuine ancient ships that enthusiasts have raised from the seabed.

Among the exhibits is a 300-year-old brigantine, Cossack boats “seagulls,” a dhow, and a baidak (a wooden sailing ship, similar to a cog), and the museum’s experts planned to expand the collection. In particular, they planned to raise from the seabed a Scythian monoxyl — a boat hollowed out of a whole tree trunk. Being nearly two and a half thousand years old, this is one of the oldest boats preserved on the planet. However, the full-scale war has turned everything upside down.

Outstanding researchers now have to think about survival rather than world-class discoveries — Khortytsia has been under missile strikes at least three times, although there are no military or strategic objects here.

Founder of the Cossackdom, doctor for millions, and high fashion

In the history of Zaporizhzhia, there were many notable personalities. For example, the Ukrainian magnate Dmytro “Baida” Vyshnevetskyi is often associated with the birth of the Cossackdom — it is believed that the castle he built in Zaporizhzhia became the prototype of the Zaporozhian Sich. Baida was indeed quite an interesting person who managed to work as a freelance warrior for many rulers of different lands, including the Turkish Sultan Selim II, who eventually changed his favor to anger and executed Baida in 1564.

Interestingly enough, this Sultan was the son of Roxolana (Hürrem Sultan) — one of the most influential women in the history of the Ottoman Empire, a patron and a philanthropist, though she started her life as Anastasia Lisovska, because she was a Ukrainian girl who was kidnapped for the harem. However, she didn’t reconcile herself to the fate of being just one of the wives and got so significant that this period in the empire history is even called the “female sultanate.”

The fate of another person of global importance is also related to Zaporizhzhia. How can you save tens of millions of people? Well, let’s say by inventing a cure for a deadly disease! That’s exactly what Waldemar Haffkine did — twice.

The Ukrainian scientist chose cholera to study. After several years of work, Haffkine carried out a unique experiment — he tested the medicine against the disease on himself. The experiment turned out to be successful — so much so that in the years that followed Haffkine personally saved at least 42,000 people from cholera, including vaccinating Mahatma Gandhi himself. And in 1896, in just 3 months, he developed a cure for the plague. Both vaccines of the Ukrainian scientist are still in use in a modernized form.

If Haffkine pursued his goal purposefully, Julia Ratner achieved success by chance. At the age of just 15, she worked as a flyer distributor for a maine coon breeder. One day, her boss went to return a cat and accidentally learned that her client was the modeling agency owner. Just in case, she showed a picture of Julia, and within a few minutes, Ratner received a call from the agency. Another lucky coincidence followed — a representative of the major global agency, Elite Paris, attended one of the girl’s first shows in Lviv. Thus, the teenage girl from Zaporizhzhia became the face of the famous Italian brand Valentino. Her next achievements included collaboration with the most prestigious fashion houses in Europe, the anniversary cover of Vogue UA, and shows in Paris, Milan, New York, Rome, and other fashion capitals of the world. Her path started with cats, flyers and, of course, Zaporizhzhia.

The Industry changing everything

Zaporizhzhia is one of the main industrial centers of Ukraine, and not just Ukraine, as local factories are among the largest in their field globally. The Zaporizhzhia Automobile Building Plant produces its own cars as well as Opel and Daewoo, while metallurgy can boast Zaporizhstal, the Titanium-Magnesium Plant, the Ferroalloy Plant, the Aluminum Plant, and the Foundry and Mechanical Plant. However, the most impressive symbol of Zaporizhzhia’s industrial capacity is probably the Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Station (HPS), which changed the local terrain itself.

For centuries, the magnificent Dnipro River was only navigable up to the edge of what is now Zaporizhzhia. Further down the river, there were terrible rapids — stone rocks in the water that turned the flow of the majestic river into something deadly. In fact, the name Zaporizhzhia itself means “what is beyond the rapids” in Ukrainian.

However, in 1927, the construction of the Dnipro HPS, which was to change both the course of the Dnipro River and the lives of thousands of people, began. Already in 1931, the water level started to rise, submerging the first rapids, and in 1933, even the last ones were covered by water at the depth of several tens of meters.

However, such large projects have always had a downside. During the construction of the Dnipro HPS, an area of several hundred square kilometers, including fifty different villages, was flooded and thousands of people were forced to leave the places where they and their ancestors had lived, and everything that was valuable to them was submerged.

People’s lives never mattered much to totalitarianism, which the further fate of the Dnipro HPS confirms: during World War II, the dam was blown up by Soviet soldiers themselves. A thirty-meter [100.03 ft] wave struck both German and Soviet troops and civilians, with the exact number of casualties being unknown, though some estimates suggest even up to one hundred thousand people. Later, the Germans also blew up the Dnipro HPS, and it was not operational again until 1947 when 250 meters [820.21 ft] of concrete in length and 50 meters [164.04 ft] in height dammed one of the largest rivers on the continent.

Another powerful industrial object in the region is currently experiencing its most terrifying days. The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) is the largest in Europe and one of the three largest in the world. During the year of full-scale war, the territory around this strategic object was shelled several times by the Russians, posing a threat of a global catastrophe. In early March, the Russian army captured the NPP, after which Ukraine and international supervisory bodies lost control over it. The threat of a catastrophe remains extremely high as the Russians have mined the territory and declared that “there will be either Russian land here or a scorched desert.”

Geology, anthropology, and archaeology — all in one amazing place

In the midst of the steppe lands of Zaporizhzhia lies one of the most mysterious human monuments — the Kamyana Mohyla (Stone Tomb). For a geologist, this is the remains of deposits from the Sarmatian Sea, which existed here 14–12 million years ago; for a passerby, this is just stones of a bizarre shape lying on a “cushion” of yellow sand; but for anthropologists and archaeologists, this is a real wonder.

Several thousand ancient rock images have already been found on the territory of the Kamyana Mohyla, with the oldest of them dating back to the period of 20,000 BC, and the most recent ones — to the Middle Ages. This is the only place in the world having so many drawings of such a wide historical range in a small area. For tens of thousands of years, people have been coming here to perform mysterious rituals and leave a memory in the form of a drawing scratched into the stones. Kamyana Mohyla images include people, wild and domestic animals, a dragon, numerous symbols of the tree of life, and incomprehensible writings.

The entire complex is on the preliminary UNESCO World Heritage List. However, the Kamyana Mohyla is currently on the temporarily occupied territory and back in the spring of 2022, it was reported that the Russians had mined the territory of the archaeological site.

Zaporizhzhia is the land of a rich and ancient history that is wonderfully combined with a youthful spirit and creativity.

The whole history of Zaporizhzhia should suggest that it is better not to mess with this place. However, today this region is under the attack once again. Yet, there is no doubt that future textbooks will tell children of another victory over a terrible enemy, and the people of Zaporizhzhia will return to freedom, creativity, and peaceful living.

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Last updated 11.03.2024

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