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Travel

Lysa Hora: Exploring Ukraine's forbidden mountain

@SamWKemp

Anyone who watched Fantasia as a child will likely recall being utterly petrified by the Night On Bald Mountain sequence. The segment, which features Modest Mussorgsky’s famed 1987 composition, opens with a giant demon unfurling his wings and summoning his minions. Carried on the wind, a horde of ghosts, hags and harpies dance their way into the demon’s clutches and are thrown into the mountain’s fiery pit. It might seem like a work of complete fantasy, and, in many ways, it is. But that mountain, along with its link to witchcraft, satanic worship, and political execution, is very real. If there was ever a time to explore the dark history of Lysa Hora, one of the mythical ‘bald mountains’ outside the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, it is now.

According to Slavic folklore, Lysa Hora – located in the Holosiiv Municipal District of Kyiv – is one of the mountains where witches would gather on Walpurgis Night, otherwise known as the Witch’s Sabbath. Here, they would be joined by crows, eagles, and a host of paranormal creatures to conduct their dark ceremony. The mountain’s long history of occultism inspired Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol to use it as the setting for his short story ‘St John’s Eve’, in which the young lover Petro travels to Lysa Hora and is tempted by a man many believe to be the devil himself.

“Do you see before you three hillocks?” Basavriuk, the corpse-like devil, asks Petro. “There are a great many kinds of flowers upon them. May some power keep you from plucking even one of them. But as soon as the fern blossoms, seize it, and look not round, no matter what may seem to be going on behind thee.” When Petro arrives on the hill, he plucks a flower and is greeted by all manner of supernatural creatures, many of whom prove to be much less charming than the fairy folk he had imagined. In his story, Gogolo draws heavily on the ancient folklore surrounding Lysa Hora; stories in which this cruel peak is swathed in darkness.

In the latter years of the 19th century, that darkness made its way out of fiction and into reality. In 1972, The Russian army built a modest fortress on Lysa Hora. Alas, its location and isolation from Kyiv meant that the army soon abandoned it and ended up using it as a storehouse. Then, during the build-up to the Russian Revolution, the building was used as an execution site. Political prisoners who opposed the Tasirist regime were blindfolded, taken to Lysa Hora, and shot in their droves.

Nearly 200 were killed, including Dmitry Borgroc, an anarchist who assassinated Russian Minister Pyotr Stolypin in 1911. Then, during World War Two, the fortress was readopted by the military and saw fierce fighting between Ukrainian defence volunteers, Russian forces, and the Nazis when the latter launched their first offensive on Kyiv in 1941. Today, Lysa Hora stands as a symbol not only of Russia and Ukraine’s complex interwoven history but of the latter’s distinct folkloric traditions.

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