“Old Khata Project” — a photo book to discover traditional architecture in Ukraine16 min read

 In Culture, Eastern Europe, Interview

Anna Ilchenko and Svitlana Oslavska are two sisters from Severodonetsk, a town in Eastern Ukraine located in the Luhansk oblast, now a Russian-occupied territory. Anna is a photographer and documentary filmmaker whose works have been published in various Ukrainian and international media (among others: Marie Claire Italia, Bird in Flight, The Ukrainians, Suspilne, OpenDemocracy, and Reporters), while Svitlana is a journalist and anthropologist who authored a book dedicated to their hometown titled Severodonetsk. Reportage from the past (currently only in Ukrainian). Together, they founded the Old Khata Project.

Born and raised in the East of the country, the sisters spent their childhood summers in the Western part to visit their grandparents, who lived in the Carpathian Mountains. These journeys through their homeland offered them the opportunity to discover to foster a profound connection with the local inhabitants. In adulthood, after months of reflection, they decided to embark on a long journey — from Transcarpathia to Luhansk, and from Polesia to Kherson — to tell these stories and share their expedition through a photo book: Old Khata Book.

The concept of khata

“Khata” (хата) is the common Ukrainian name for ‘house’, originally denoting a rural dwelling. However, for Ukrainians, a house is not only a shelter or a place to live, it is also one’s private corner: from a simple dwelling, the khata becomes a symbol that occupies a significant place in the soul and culture of the Ukrainian people.

The traditional Ukrainian khata is a true masterpiece that combines the exceptional rationality of design with a high level of artistic craftsmanship. Typically comprising a single room, the khata might be complemented with an adjoining barn or a pantry. Wood – especially lime – was the most common material for the walls, while the roofs were covered with straw, reeds, and small wooden boards or tiles.

A typical Ukrainian “Khata” (Old Khata Book/Anna)

Every single region of Ukraine has its own distinctive khata: materials, colours, and decorations outline the local, ethnic, and cultural characteristics. For example, as Svitlana explains, in the historical region of Slobozhanshchyna (a territory that encompasses the lands of much of north-eastern Ukraine and a portion of south-western Russia) there is a prevalence of houses made of clay or mud bricks, while in Bukovina, on the border with Romania, houses are mainly made of wood, characterised by carvings. In the Donbas, on the other hand, the most common style is the one of white brick huts, which might appear to be colder and more bare.

Despite the many differences, there are also some recurring aspects: the colour of the interior and exterior, the architectural elements at the entrance to the house, the verandas, the ornate window frames. “What is common to all khata everywhere are wooden windows. Regardless of the region where the house is located, the windows are made of wood and decorated with carved motifs. Some have stars, birds or floral motifs above the windows, others have geometric ornaments around the veranda, also carved in wood,” says Anna.

A conversation with Anna and Svitlana, authors of Old Khata Book

Anna and Svitlana, you were born in Severodonetsk, in Eastern Ukraine. However, since your childhood, you’ve had the opportunity to discover the regions of central-western Ukraine and to travel around the country. Would you tell us more about how you came up with the idea of giving voice to the khata? When and how was it possible to realise this project and publish the Old Khata Book?

Anna and I are sisters, we both grew up in a city, in Severodonetsk to be precise, in the Luhansk region, which is currently under Russian occupation. However, the countryside has always been part of our lives due to our family roots. It is an interesting geography: our mother is from Volyn Oblast, which is a region in north-western Ukraine, and our father from Luhansk Oblast, in the east of the country. Since our childhood, we would often visit our relatives, and so no region was ever foreign to us. We would feel at home both in the city and in the countryside.

Growing up, we continued visiting our grandparents every summer. Our lives were changing, while theirs, in the village, had been following the same rhythms and cycles for decades. When they died, we clearly saw that this reality of Ukrainian villages and people of that generation, born in the 1930s and 1940s, was disappearing, fading away. We wanted to do something, that’s why we made some reportages, where Anna did the photography and I wrote about the village.

(Old Khata Book/Anna)

We have always paid attention to the khata because they are the main objects in a village. We realised that we wanted to do something about these houses, like a sort of cultural product dedicated to the khata. And we decided it had to be a book. It was autumn 2020, we were sitting in Anna’s kitchen in Lviv, when we started thinking about what we needed to make it. At that time, we had no idea about the format, the only thing we were sure about was that it would definitely include photos and texts. However, we realised that we needed to collect material for this photo book, and that to do this, we would have to travel all over Ukraine. We “tested” this plan in winter 2020, when we left for Dzembronia, in the Carpathians, and Oleshnya, in the Chernihiv region. In the spring, we visited other villages, and in summer 2021, we launched a fundraising campaign on the Ukrainian platform Spilnokosht. In just a few days we managed to raise the necessary amount for our expedition, and we received a lot of positive feedback: people were really interested in the Old Khata Project. So we set off on a big expedition that lasted two seasons — summer and autumn 2021. At the end of the year we chose the Univ Lavra in Galicia as a place to work on our book idea.

We originally thought the book would be released in 2022, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed our plans. In spring and summer of 2022 we travelled to the territories controlled by Ukraine, reporting on  how people in the villages lived through the war and the Russian occupation. This is how we decided to include a chapter on the war in our book.

We have reported a brief chronology of the project on our Facebook page:

This is a short story of the Old Khata Book (and of the photos in our expedition). If you’ve only been following us recently, here you’ll have a better understanding of our journey.

Autumn 2020: In a kitchen in Lviv, we think about how to best express our love for khata. We decide to make a book about it.

Winter 2020: We leave for the expedition: with the first snow we arrive in Dzembronia, in the Carpathians, while with the last we reach Oleshnya, in the Chernihiv region.

Summer 2021: We launch a fundraising campaign on Spilnokosht for a large expedition. We collect 100 thousand hryvnia for travel, food and accommodation. We spend the entire summer and autumn travelling to villages in almost all regions of Ukraine.

Late autumn 2021: We go to the Univ Lavra, where we spend a week to finalise the concept and the first draft of the book.

24 February 2022: We can’t think about the Old Khata Project, but in mid-spring we try to understand how we can be useful to Ukraine in this war. We are already on our way to the unoccupied regions. We talk about how Ukrainians live through war and occupation.

March 2023: We start collaborating with a designer for the graphic part of the book. There is now a section dedicated to war.

August 2023: We send everything to the printer.

12 September 2023: We launch the presale of the volume Old Khata Book, a photographic book about khatas and people. We publish it in collaboration with the Choven publishing house.

Thank you for following the project all these years. And thanks to those who joined us recently! 

In total, it took us three years to produce the Old Khata Book. We can say that it was born from the desire to preserve rural architecture in Ukraine as a fundamental part of the cultural heritage of Ukraine and, more generally, of Europe. 

How did you choose the houses to visit, narrate, and capture in photographs?

Our basic method is the same as that of all documentarians and reporters: we go to a place and talk to people. We would arrive in a certain village, spend a few days there, walk through the streets and Anna would take photos of the khata, we would talk to the people about their houses, about how they were built, and we would record these conversations on a dictaphone. It was rarely about content video.

We wanted to preserve the original language of the people. From the long interviews, we have selected short fragments but full of emotions and meaning. They could refer to the house, to the khata, or to life and death, because these are the things that people are interested about. Then, in the finalisation phase of the book, we chose the fragments that were more meaningful to us and arranged them in a certain order in the Old Khata Book. Anna also took portraits of people. In a way, even the pictures of the houses are mostly “portraits”: the subjects are facing the camera or in profile, just like a person in a portrait.

(Old Khata Book/Anna)

For those who are not familiar with Ukraine and, above all, with rural areas, what are the particularities that characterise these khatas?

This rural domestic architecture has been standing for centuries. The tradition of building khatas in all regions of the country has evolved and stratified over time. The khatas that aroused our curiosity bear the imprint of an old-fashioned society combined with modernity. We deliberately documented all this with photographs, because otherwise we will not be able to physically preserve this layer of culture.

The territory of Ukraine is twice as large as that of Italy; the diversity and peculiarities of domestic rural architecture here depend on the natural environment in which the villages are located. It is very simple: in the last century, the houses were built with materials of natural origin. People used to find them in the land or in the forest. Clay and wood were the main components that gave life to a khata. In some places, such as in forested areas, wood was the main material – oak, spruce or larch – while in others the basic material was clay mixed with straw, from which rectangular bricks similar to those we are used to today were made. These bricks, which in central Ukraine are called lampach (brick made of mud and soil), formed the walls of the house. The houses were thus covered with clay and then whitewashed. People predominantly used wood in areas where there was an abundant availability of it, such as in the Carpathian region or Polesia. The oldest khatas we saw on our expeditions were made of wood. The clay house is actually the most ecological dwelling, because it conforms to the ground over time and, sometimes, when nature reclaims its place, you wouldn’t even think that there was once a house there. Wood and clay have been successfully combined in several variations. What matters, however, is how people took care of their homes, how they built them and decorated them. What we noticed is people’s constant desire to decorate their homes with carvings, combinations of colours or metal ornaments, essentially, with any method at their disposal. As one of our interviewees told us, “there must be some kind of decoration!”.

I assume you have seen houses, Ukrainian houses, settlements and villages, but also those belonging to the many minorities that compose your multi-ethnic country. How did you decide to describe and show this multiculturality?

The pictures in our project and in the book are not related to ethnicity, because for us Ukrainian culture encompasses everything that originated in Ukraine. We visited villages that were once ethnically Russian or Bulgarian, but all of them are part of Ukrainian culture as the culture of the political nation of Ukrainians.

Even before Russia’s large-scale invasion, Ukrainians had already started showing interest towards various regions of the country; for example, among the inhabitants of Lviv it was popular to go to the gorges of the Mykolaiv or Kherson regions, as emerging tourist destinations. This was an alternative to the usual popular locations, such as the Carpathians. This was a particularly positive process driven by a genuine desire to learn about Ukraine, as evidenced by the positive feedback we received for the Old Khata Project. Sadly, Russia’s war against Ukraine interrupted this process.

What struck you most during your explorations and travels from east to west? Was there some sort of culture shock?

The most interesting thing was discovering those regions that we knew less about and where we had almost never been. For example, the Sumy, Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. It was very stimulating to listen to the local dialects, we met kind people everywhere and, above all, each of these regions turned out to be interesting from an architectural point of view, with its peculiarities in building and decorating the khatas. And the sincerity, openness and generosity of people is amazing. It’s impressive how people are willing to dedicate their time to us and share their lives with us. In the village of Bilka, in the Sumy region, we met a woman who had the same surname as our family and who sang some folk songs we didn’t know.

You can find her recordings on our Instagram page, here and here.

How did the inhabitants of these villages react to the outbreak of the war? How much were they and the khatas affected by the war and the Russian occupation?

First of all, we want to emphasise that this is Russia’s war against Ukraine. We cannot define it as a neutral “conflict”. This is not our thesis, it is a fact; therefore, we explicitly ask to call it war.

The North, East and South of Ukraine were or still are under occupation. This means that all the villages located in those areas have suffered damage. They have been destroyed, completely or partially. Furthermore, villages that were not occupied are still being hit by Russian bombings and attacks. Every day, the Russians drop missiles and bombs and attack villages in the Kherson region, in the South of the country. Not only houses are being hit, but also civilians themselves, who die day after day. Children, elderly people, everyone. In the occupied villages, the Russians did terrible things. They shot individuals and entire cars as families tried to leave occupied villages and towns. They kidnapped people and kept them in dark basements for months. They tortured them with electric current. They also committed sex crimes, not to mention that wherever they went, they simply stole. Ukrainian prosecutors have registered more than 100.000 war crimes committed by Russians in Ukraine. Many villages will never return to life, large areas are mined and no one will resurrect these people, civilians and soldiers, who were mostly civilians until they went to defend their homeland.

How did the locals welcome you and what do they think of your project?

A sinusoidal wave: this is the curve I would use to describe the fluctuations in people’s attitudes in villages. With the total war, people became more reserved and cautious. One of our days started with people ready to call the police because of how emotionally distressed they were, but then ended with the same people offering us coffee in their kitchens.

During the expeditions before the war, people thought that we were preachers, real estate agents, teachers, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, anything but cultural researchers, documentary makers, or photographers.

In reality, people in the villages open up slowly, and when they finally trust you it’s the best thing in the world. These long and warm greetings accompanied us the entire time.

(Old Khata Book / Anna)

How difficult is it to preserve and maintain the historical and cultural heritage of the khata? Is there any support from the government or cultural bodies?

It’s difficult in the sense that we created this project as a parallel activity to our work. It is not an occupation that brings money. During the major expedition of 2021, we left our jobs to visit the villages. Even the journey itself was difficult – getting to the village by public transport, for example. But at the same time, we always did it because we loved what we were doing and wanted to do it, so these difficulties didn’t stop us.

We did not receive any help from the State in the course of our activities, but were supported by minor grants from several European foundations: IWM (Vienna), European Cultural Foundation and others.

On a professional level, do you already have ideas for future artistic-cultural projects?

We have a lot of ideas and sometimes it seems like we have more ideas than time to realise them. We are now preparing the second edition of the Od Khata Book for printing. The first edition of a thousand copies is nearly sold out in a month and a half, there are about 50 books left. And, since we registered as a publishing house, we plan to publish at least one more art book on the Carpathians. We have other projects outside of publishing works, you can find all the updates on our Instagram page: @old_khata_project.

 This article was published in Italian on November 14th, 2023 on the MicroMega magazine website and on November 20th, 2023 on the website of our partner Meridiano 13. It was translated into English by Claudia Bettiol.

Feature Image: Old Khata Project / Canva
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