Formed some 50 million years ago, during the same geological upheavals that produced the Alps, the crescent-shaped Carpathians were the cradle of Hutsul civilisation, and they’re still home to this hardy mountain tribe.
A natural barrier between the Slavic countries and Romanised Dacia (Romania), the Carpathians have always provided a refuge from conquest and authority. When the Mongols sacked Kyiv in 1240, many of the city’s citizens fled here, and when Poland and Lithuania invaded in the 14th century it’s questionable how much control they exercised here in the region’s higher altitudes. The Poles’ lengthy struggle to capture the ‘Ukrainian Robin Hood’ Oleska Dovbush suggest it was very little.
Signs of 19th-century Austro-Hungarian culture haven’t penetrated deeper than Ivano-Frankivsk and Chernivtsi. And when the Soviets rolled up after WWII, they were made to feel very unwelcome. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) lived as guerrillas in the Carpathians well into the 1950s, using the mountains as a stronghold from which to fire on the authorities (the UPA is a controversial entity because of its probable, but unquantified, role in the extermination of Ukrainian Jews during WWII). However, even ordinary Carpathian villagers resisted Russian rule, too.
The Soviets weren’t initially keen on the Hutsuls’ folklore and pagan traditions, but came to see their culture as a tourist attraction and largely let them be. However, the Hutsuls have long been integrated into mainstream western Ukrainian culture. Their arts, crafts, cuisine and farming lifestyle all survive, but they reserve their traditional dress, music and dancing for celebrations and ceremonies.