THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

05 November 2019

‘The Ark of Unique Cultures’: the story of a remarkable handmade book

The British Library recently received an unusual donation from the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Tallinn: a handmade book – The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls – celebrating the history and culture of the Hutsuls, an ethnic group from the Carpathian Mountains. It is one of a limited series of 35 books, which were donated to major libraries around the world. As well as poems in the Hutsul dialect and English translation, the book includes postcards, photographs and even specimens of Carpathian plants. Slavonic curator Katie McElvanney spoke to Eric Johnson, a volunteer at the Centre, to find out more about the project.

Copies of The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls

Copies of The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls (Tallinn: Ukrainian Cultural Centre, 2014). (Reproduced by kind permission of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre)

How did the book project come about and what was its aim? 

The Ark of Unique Cultures is one of the many creations of Anatoli Ljutjuk, a Benedictine friar born in Western Ukraine who has been a resident and citizen of Estonia for decades. Anatoli’s greatest creation is Tallinn’s Church of the Virgin with Three Hands, who is the protector of all living beings who have been falsely accused or unjustly persecuted. The church is affiliated with the secular Ukrainian Cultural Centre (UKK to use its Estonian initials). From the beginning, Anatoli’s conception for the small Eastern-rite Catholic church included the natural world around it. As a result, the UKK’s first book project focused on those vanishing plants and animals that we humans have unjustly persecuted. And so The Poetics of Endangered Species was born.

After the first edition of The Poetics of Endangered Species appeared, Anatoli soon realized that not just plants and animals are in danger of disappearing from our world but also entire human subcultures. As it happens, Estonia became the new home to a fair number of Hutsuls who speak their own dialect and observe many distinct traditions. Known for their forestry skills, Hutsuls were hired in Soviet times to help manage Estonia’s forests. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some of those who chose to remain in Estonia helped Anatoli build his new church.

So Anatoli first came up with the idea of The Ark of Unique Cultures as a way to honour all those ethnic groups whose traditions are in danger of being overwhelmed by the larger groups around them. The goal of this Book Ark is to document and preserve each culture’s unique features for future generations. In the case of the Hutsuls, it also serves as a 21st-century update to Sergei Parajanov’s landmark film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965).

BL copy page

The British Library’s copy of the book. Awaiting shelfmark.

What can you tell us about the poems included in the book?

Ukrainian Poet Mariya Korpanyuk is widely regarded as the best poet writing in the Hutsul dialect. Although she had already written a short series of poems about the life and customs of the Hutsuls, she agreed to expand her series after meeting Anatoli. Each poem is dedicated to a unique feature of Hutsul culture that was in danger of disappearing.

Because many unique Hutsul words are unknown even to Ukrainians — or a seemingly familiar word may hold a different meaning — Anatoli decided that the poems should be translated into English to help tell the Hutsul story to the world. The UKK is working to secure funding to print a facsimile edition of The Ark of Unique Cultures so that the book and its wonderful cycle of poems can reach an even wider audience.

Hutsulka page

Pages from the book featuring postcards, photographs and Mariya Korpanyuk’s poems.

How and where did you collect the plants, postcards and photographs?

The plants were collected by Anatoli and his friends on one of his ‘expeditions’ up into the Ukrainian side of the Carpathian Mountains. They were then dried and used as inclusions in the handmade paper made at the UKK’s hand paper mill in Tallinn.

The postcards, designed by Anatoli, were hand printed on the UKK’s press by Labora — as the UKK’s paper, print, and other workshops are known in distinction to the church (Ora). On another trip to the Carpathians, Anatoli and friends distributed the postcards in Hutsul villages and asked the villagers to send the postcards back to the UKK in Tallinn with their comments on the Ark’s poems or any other aspects of Hutsul life they wanted to highlight. Thanks to the postcards, the Ark became a real community-wide project.

The pre-Second World War (and in many cases pre-First World War) photos were selected by the wonderful National Museum of Hutsulshchyna & Pokuttya Folk Art — the UKK’s partner for this book project — located in the town of Kolomyia and dedicated to preserving and promoting all things Hutsul. Kolomiya is the largest town on traditional Hutsul territory, in the foothills of the Carpathians.

Bride and groom page from book

Pages from the book featuring postcards, photographs and Mariya Korpanyuk’s poems.

Can you talk us through the book-making process?

The book’s illustrations and overall design are the work of Anatoli. All of the UKK’s original books are made pretty much entirely in its Labora studios, which employ a small group of calligraphers, printers, artists, and bookbinders who can create handmade books — or indeed illuminated manuscripts — in similar ways to a medieval monastery. The UKK and Labora are actively involved in teaching book-related crafts, from ink-making to bookbinding, to future generations through workshops, classes, and various partnerships.

The handmade paper — usually made from a combination of cotton, linen and rag — is beaten in a Hollander Beater before each sheet is hand-pulled by one of the UKK’s paper makers using handmade molds and deckles. The smaller plants are added right into the pulp or slurry. Larger ones are added onto the wet sheets of paper before they are pressed and dried.

Paper sheets before pressing

The paper making process (Reproduced by kind permission of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre and Labora)

What other book projects is the UKK currently working on?

In addition to publishing a facsimile edition of The Ark of Unique Cultures: the Hutsuls, the UKK is working on several other book projects including Sanctuarium: The Story of the Church of the Virgin with Three Hands and Horse Tales, an illustrated picture book by Anatoli Ljutjuk about goodness during wartime which will be released around the same time as a new Ukrainian documentary film about Anatoli and his travels with his wooden horse.

Of course, the UKK is also always on the lookout for new country partners to create new volumes — beyond the current two about Estonia and about Ukraine — for its two series The Poetics of Endangered Species and The Ark of Unique Cultures, dedicated to ethnic groups in danger of disappearing.

With kind thanks to Eric Johnson, and to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre for donating a copy of The Ark of Unique Cultures: the Hutsuls to the British Library. A digitised copy of the book is available via the National Library of Estonia.