The industrial city of Zaporizhia in southeastern Ukraine is rather young, having only sprouted in the 1920s and 1930s. The catalyst for this development was the Dnieper Hydroelectric Dam, which made this section of the river navigable for the first time, and powered the city’s new heavy industry. Neighbourhoods were built quickly, in the Soviet Constructivist style, devised to inspire socialist ideals in their residents.
But Zaporizhia’s fame comes from the Zaporizhian Cossacks – autonomous warriors who lived by the Dnieper rapids from the 16th to the 18th centuries, out of the control of the Ottoman Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. These Cossacks are the soul of Ukrainian national identity, and made a home on the island of Khortytsia beside modern Zaporizhia. Their “sich”, a fortified wooden village has been reconstructed as an open-air museum.
Best things to do in Zaporizhia:
The largest River Island on the Dnieper and a vital historical site, Khortysia was named one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine in 2007. The island’s value rests in its historical associations with the unruly Zaporizhian Cossacks.
They established a “sich” (a wooden fortress settlement) here in the 16th century, and maybe the most compelling piece of trivia is that they are believed to have composed their mocking reply to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV on the island.
This moment is engrained in Ukrainian folklore and recorded in a famous painting by the 19th-century painter Ilya Repin.
There’s a museum on Khortytsia, which we’ll visit next, while the whole island is a national reserve, featuring 50-metre granite cliffs, large swathes of steppe and oak and spruce forest.
2. Zaporizhian Sich Historical and Cultural Complex
The big visitor attraction on Khortystia is a reconstruction of a Zaporizhian sich.
The fortified wooden village was a few years in the making and completed in 1983. In a faithfully-designed sich from the 1500s there are exhibits in the village’s wooden huts and halls on themes like Khortytsia in the Stone Age, the story of the Zaporizhian Cossacks and Zaporizhia at the advent of socialism.
There are also dioramas to check out, two dealing with pivotal battles fought by the Zaporizhian Cossacks and one for the construction of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station.
In the summer you can watch feisty battle re-enactments by actors in 16th-century dress.
This square facing the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station at the western end of Sobornyj Prospekt sums up the recent changes that have taken place in Ukraine.
It used to be called Lenin Square and in the centre was the largest statue of Lenin in Ukrainian territory, but the name was changed in 2016 and the monument was dismantled in line with Ukraine’s “decommunisation” efforts.
Now, in 2017 there’s a traditional image of a Zaporizhian Cossack, and plans are afoot to replace the old monument with a park with an observation deck allowing complete views of Khortytsia.
4.Phaeton Antique Retro Car Museum
In the industrial zone to the northeast of Zaporizhia’s centre is a museum dealing with Ukrainian and Soviet automotive history.
There’s a large assortment of vintage vehicles, both inside and out.
Outside is a yard full of military hardware like tanks (T-34), artillery, oilers and personnel carriers going back to the Second World War.
In the main hall are some 60 vintage cars mostly by Soviet brands like Lada and Volga, as well as a ZIL limousine, a Soviet amphibious car and a VW camper.
All of these vehicles look like new and the museum makes a point of keeping them in running condition.
You have to cross the Dnieper into the Dniprovsky District to reach this mysterious and nationally significant site.
The Zaporizhia Oak was recently named Ukraine’s national tree and is believed to date back more than 700 years.
It has long been a place of pilgrimage and in 2001 a visitor centre was set up in front of the tree, complete with a chapel and theatre stage.
The oak is 36 metres high, and has a few branches that still produce leaves.
The parts of the tree that have died are now held up by cables.
6.Motor Sich Aviation Museum
Zaporizhia is the home city of Motor Sich, an aviation manufacturer building engines for Soviet and now Russian aircraft.
One of these planes was the Antonov An-225, the heaviest and longest aircraft ever constructed.
If you’re into Soviet technology or aviation you need to visit this museum to get up close to one of the Progress D-18T turbofans for the An-225, which stands at a giant 2.79 metres high.
There’s a host of other engines that have technical details provided on information panels, and a couple of early aircraft hanging from the ceiling.
The first floor has a some neat vintage motorcycles, and you can size up an array of vintage military hardware outside.
A real-life railway operated by children sounds like a recipe for disaster, but these narrow-gauge lines are found all over the former USSR, from East Germany to Uzbekistan.
They were created to educate future railway drivers, signal operators and conductors.
So in truth it’s not children, but teenagers operating this train that clatters along a track for almost ten kilometres.
The teens dress up in uniform and take charge of every job, from actually operating the throttle to selling tickets.
The train can be boarded at the Komunarskyi District, just down from Dubovy Gai.
If you have an eye for 20th-century architecture there’s a neighbourhood just north of the Sobornyj Prospekt that warrants a detour.
Sotsgorod or District #6 is a garden city built from 1929 to 1932, at the same time as the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station.
The purpose of its Constructivist architecture was to engender socialist principles in its inhabitants, and serve as a model for future Soviet cities.
Sotsgorod has streets of apartment blocks, never more than four storeys tall, affording spacious apartments and lots of greenery.
The plan proved influential, and Le Corbusier was one of many illustrious architects to visit this neighbourhood in the 1930s.
Parents looking for a low-cost way for children to enjoy themselves in summer need look no further than this park next to the Dnieper.
When the weather’s warm there are Soviet-style amusements, which are still pretty fun, like a small roller coaster, carousels and dodgem cars.
The park has a big lake, which abounds with birdlife in the warmer months.
Other than that you have long trails bordered by cool, mature woodland, and a small menagerie of domestic animals.
One of these is a shaggy Bactrian camel, a native of the Eurasian Steppe.
10. Museum of the History of Weapons
On Sobornyj Prospekt in the basement of a nondescript-looking shop is a head-spinning arsenal of weapons put together by just one man.
The museum is a single room, but there isn’t a centimetre of wall-space that is not covered by vintage swords, cutlasses, axes, muskets, revolvers, rifles, blunt weapons or armour.
In all there are more than 4,000 pieces in this museum, the oldest dating to the Stone Age and the most recent from the Second World War.