The Rocks of Dovbush: West Ukraine’s Natural and Historic Wonder

  • The Rocks of Dovbush: West Ukraine’s Natural and Historic Wonder
Issue 73, November 2014.

The Rocks of Dovbush: West Ukraine’s Natural and Historic Wonder

The Rocks of Dovbush are a fascinating combination of natural wonders and manmade creations that can be found in the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. Part of the Polyantytskiy Regional Landscape Park, the site has been named one of Ukraine’s seven natural and historical landmarks. The sandstone cliffs were formed some 70 million years ago when the area was at the bottom of a warm sea, and consists of oddly shaped stones, massive caves, shadowy gorges, impressive fortifications, yawning pits, winding labyrinths, and mysterious pathways. This makes the forested site, easily reached by horseback, carriage, or foot from the village of Bubnische, a popular destination for rock climbers, with over 100 routes available. Among the many amazing residual rock outcrops at the site is the Carpathian Sphinx – the profile of a flattened little man. Of course, the Rocks of Dovbush are not only a natural landmark, but an historic one as well. The site has been inhabited for centuries and has served as a military fortress on many occasions, including for Oleksa Dovbush – the legendary Robin Hood-like folk hero after whom the site is named. This combination of natural and historic importance makes the Rocks of Dovbush a ‘must see’ for any serious Ukrainian traveler.

Oleksa Dovbush: The Ukrainian Robin Hood

The site has long been used as a site for congregation and protection. Amongst the 50m-high structures are unique wooden cave buildings that point to prehistoric habitation, while the site was also known as a pagan sanctuary in pre-Christian times. A rock fortress was established there during the time of King Danylo of Galich, which was substantial enough to repel the Mongol-Tatar invasion and to last until the 16th Century. The fortress was also a likely frontier post for Yaroslav Osmomysl during his clash with the Grand Prince of Kyiv. The site was again a base for anti-feudalism/anti-Polish forces in the 18th Century and it was this sense of defence and security that first led the legendary folk avenger Oleksa Dovbush to the area in the 1740s.

Dovbush was born in a small Hutsul village in the Carpathians to a peasant family in 1700. He followed in his father’s footsteps to become a church builder, and it is known he helped build a church in Kosmach. One day Oleksa fell in love with the beautiful Marichka. After killing a fellow admirer that was a little too forward in his advances to the girl, Dovbush fled to the mountains. Soon after, several young people that were dissatisfied with the power of the aristocracy joined him to form a detachment. The opryshky – as the group liked to call themselves – was not for the faint of heart. Opryshky first needed to pass initiation tests of courage and boldness, like hitting an axe between your outstretched fingers on a tree stump. The group was more loved than feared though, as the detachment stole from the rich and gave to the poor – which is why Dovbush is known as Ukraine’s Robin Hood.

As leader of the opryshky, Dovbush soon became a legend, with tales of his activities spreading across the regions of Western Ukraine. One such tale is when he was able to elude over 2000 soldiers sent specifically by the aristocracy to find and kill him. But his fame led to a high price being placed on his head. With the aristocracy nearly losing hope of catching the outlaw, they devised a plan to use his fatal flaw – his love for Marichka. Marichka’s parents, for her own safety, were forced to marry her off to another Hutsul man, Stepan Dzvinchuk. Marichka did not love Stepan and continued, in secret, to see Oleksa.  Stepan, looking for a way to eliminate his rival, agreed to a deal with the aristocracy that would see him both get rich and kill Dovbush. The story goes that Stepan made a bullet from wheat and a lock of Oleksa’s hair, that he had it blessed in church, and that he set out to find his rival. What happened next is a matter of debate. Some say that Oleksa was killed by this bullet and that his body was dismembered into 20 parts and sent to opryshky as a message against revolt. Others insist that Dovbush once again managed to find a way to escape and that he saved his beloved Marichka, ran away, and lived happily together for many years. However Dovbush’s life ended, he was succeeded by his men who continued his legacy. He is now an important figure in Ukrainian folklore, featuring in several literary and artistic works. He also has several places named in his honour, including West Ukraine’s Natural and Historic Wonder – the Rocks of Dovbush.