Studying in Chernivsti

Chernivtsi Travel Blog

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The archiac phone in our hotel room
We spent today exploring Chernivsti. The province of Chernivsti was settled by the Grand Prince Yaroslav Osmomysl in the twelfth century. It was populated by an influx of inhabitants from the fortress of Chern “Black Walls”, which was destroyed in 1259 by the Mongol invasion. For the city of Chernivsti itself, it is at least 600 years old, it is celebrating its 600th birthday on the 5th of October this year, based on the first documented mention of Chernivsti in a letter written by the Moldovan Prince Alexander the Good in 1408.
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti


Chernivsti province is the smallest of the Ukraine’s 24 provinces and has a unique history and geography. It is heavily covered by beech forest, with 30% of all the beech forest in Europe. It is 8000km2 with a population of one million (of which a quarter live in Chernivsti). For 250 years it existed under Moldovan or Turkish control, until it was ceded to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1774 under a negotiated peace treaty. The 150 years under Austrian rule are considered to be the “Golden Age” of Chernivsti, for culture, industry and the economy, and these years heavily shaped the future of the city.

Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Then in 1918 when the Empire collapsed, Chernivsti became part of Romania, until 1940 when the Molotov-Ribbontrop pact allowed the USSR to take it over. It only became part of an independent Ukraine in 1991 (our guide for the day said the Ukraine was still in its “transition period”).


In its long time in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Chernivsti was a major city, being third in size to only Vienna and Prague. The city had a huge population of German-speaking Jews, in fact they constituted 60,000 of the total population of 132,000 prior to WWII (only 20% of the population was Ukrainian). There were 65 synagogs and the city was known as “the Jerusalem of the Prut” (the Prut is the major river running through the city). Almost the entire Jewish population were killed after the Nazis occupied the city in 1941, only two synagogs now exist (and one, built in 1877, is used as a theatre) and 5000 Jews (and most of those are leaving to Germany under a new immigration program for victims of the holocaust).

Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
The Jewish owned buildings were almost the only buildings destroyed in the war, as the city welcomed the Nazis as liberators from the USSR when they came and it wasn’t bombed by the allies.


Chernivsti’s position in the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed it to flourish as a cultural centre. It was granted a major university, founded in 1875 with three departments �" law, philosophy and theology. Now there are 19,000 students in 16 departments. The university is a sister university to Saskatchewan University (100,000 Ukrainians immigrated to the agrarian provinces of Canada). The architect, Joseph Hlavka, a famous Czech architect and head of the Czech Academy of Science but building his first building outside of his home country, put a great deal of effort into building the complex.

The main lecture hall of Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
He started up his own special brick factory to make bricks of the highest quality, and suspended construction during bad weather, making the construction drag out to 18 years (but resulting in such a solid building that it hasn’t needed any restoration for the last 133 years).


University tuition was open and free under the Soviet era, but is now quite expensive (US$1500/year, which is a substantial proportion of the average annual salary). The most expensive of all the departments to study in is the English department, due to the greatest demand (99% of the students are women, likewise in Medicine 80% of the students are women). The only exceptions to the expensive tuition are the 40% of students that get an Honours grade at high school (and can study for free) and those students studying in the department of mathematics (they were concerned that enrollment in mathematics would drop, with low demand and poor paying jobs).

Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Our guide tells us that the Ukraine produces 6% of the world’s mathematicians, physicists and biologists, and most come from the university here (which I can believe of maths and physics, which are strong in ex-Soviet countries, but not biology, which was destroyed by Lysenko).


Our guide for the day meet a quiet lady in charge of a very impressive set of keys, and started taking us around the university, into all the lecture halls and so forth, until an angry guy started to shout at us in Ukrainian. She just shouted back in Ukrainian (including the words “promoting tourism” a couple of times in English) and kept on going. She showed us the main lecture hall, which once had magnificent marble floors, an elaborate carved roof and a huge chandelier.

Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
The room to the right, the Blue Room, was the archbishop’s library, and when the Nazis retreated in 1944 they set fire to the library, destroying it. The carved room caught fire causing the chandelier to fall down and crash through the marble floor. The library was turned into a gym for years, but has now been restored as a meeting room (the Blue Room), while the central hall is now a lecture hall and is simply beautiful (everything except the marble floors was restored in Soviet times �" the floors were considered too expensive). On the left was the Red Room, which escaped the main blaze and has the original carved wooden roof. Both the Red Room and the Blue Room were dedicated to Joseph Hlavka.


We then visited the university’s church, with a 38m high dome, designed for its acoustics.

Theatre Park, Chernivsti
Our guide (who is very religious, like most Ukrainians, proclaiming “there are no atheists in the Ukraine”) said that under the Soviets it was turned into a lecture hall for teaching mathematics (which she said with a horrified look). She said the fact that the church wasn’t damaged in this process means that “even the atheist mathematics students had God in their heart” (I guess she didn’t really contemplate that the Nazis who burnt the main library had “God is with us” on their belt buckles, while the atheist students could have respect for human achievement and history without having “God in their heart”). The university also has a beautiful botanical garden, which we could overlook but only students and professors could enter.


Our guide (who was excellent) then took us to Theatre Square.

The mural introducing Chernivsti province into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Chernivsti is third from the left
The theatre overlooking the square had the names and busts of Shakespeare, Wagner, Puskin and Olga Kobylanska (a Ukrainian writer) decorating it. The theatre was restored in 1980, after the Soviets paid 3½kg gold and 11kg silver, as Chernivsti was the first Soviet city on the Olympic torch route. The Square also includes the Medical University building, the beautiful 1908 Jewish community centre building, and the horrifically ugly 1938 Romanian community centre building, which was designed and built by the American car company Ford, and would look ugly as a car park in an industrial wasteland (it does have a skating rink on the roof though, only the fifth in Europe when it was built).


The central square had the City Hall, built in 1847.

Holy Spirit Cathedral, 1844 Chernivsti
The Austrians encouraged the building of stone buildings in the city by removing their tax for 30 years if they built in stone (they should do the same in Australia, so we don’t have such an embarrassing dearth of nice stone buildings), so most of the architecture is a relic from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They also banned the building of identical houses, so that the villa area didn’t look homogenous (another good urban beautification tip we could learn from). One of the nice buildings around the central square was built when Chernivsti province was added to the existing 10 provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with each of the 11 provinces being represented by a girl and the Chernivsti girl being dressed in a wedding dress as she joined the union. This building served as the Communist Party Central Committee headquarters, and is now an art museum. Also on the main square is a building which once housed a very famous restaurant, famous for supplying fresh newspapers from around the world back when that was very rare indeed (during Austrian times).
St Nicholas’ Church ("The Drunken Church"), 1938, Chernivsti
The restaurant also included a bell tower which could be booked for tea for two, and had a very long waiting list (the hotel next door was called the “Bell View” as it looked out onto the bell tower). The main shopping street from the square was ripped up as they were making it pedestrian.


Our guide told us a few interesting things about the current economy. The people of the Ukraine have little confidence in their young currency, the hryvnia, and so generally put their savings in US dollars. The recent downturn in the US dollar (from 5.5 to 4.7 hryvnia per dollar) has thus single-handedly wiped out 15% of their life savings. Real estate is also extremely expensive, as the Ukrainian ex-pats use their overseas earnings to buy local real estate. It now costs US$70 000 for a one bedroom house, extremely expensive for local earners.


Finally on our tour we saw a few churches, the 1844 Holy Spirit Cathedral (an Orthodox church used as an industrial display during Soviet times), the 1875 St Peter and St Paul Cathedral (also built by Joseph Hlavka, an Armenian church common in the Ukraine was only Poland and the Ukraine took in Armenian when they were forced to flee their homeland), the 1938 St Nicholas’ Church (built in Romanian style with twisted towers, thus being called the drunken church) and an old wooden church built in 1607 and looking like a house (during the Turkish period Churches were converted to mosques, so new less imposing churches were built). After our tour we had coffee in the extremely modern and stylish Blaser Cafe, just off the Theatre Square, and then had a Ukrainian dinner just off the central square. I had vegetable soup while Lydia and John ordered vegetable canapes and were served fruit salad pancakes with chocolate (Lydia was not unhappy with the mix up).

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The archiac phone in our hotel room
The archiac phone in our hotel room
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
The main lecture hall of Chernivst…
The main lecture hall of Chernivs…
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Chernivsti University, Chernivsti
Theatre Park, Chernivsti
Theatre Park, Chernivsti
The mural introducing Chernivsti p…
The mural introducing Chernivsti …
Holy Spirit Cathedral, 1844 Cherni…
Holy Spirit Cathedral, 1844 Chern…
St Nicholas’ Church (The Drunke…
St Nicholas’ Church ("The Drunk…
Chernivtsi
photo by: Adrian_Liston