Krasnoiilsk, Bukovyna, not far from Romania’s border – locals have celebrated the St. Malanka’s Day for years. It resembles a carnival.
Ivanko is 5 years old and this is his first time taking part in St. Malanka’s Day celebration (malankuvaty in Ukrainian). The boy has heard the first sound of drums in the yard, from where he will set out for celebration. He can already dance, a bit clumsily but sincerely, he feels the rhythm.
Ruslan Pleshka is Ivanko’s father. He has participated in the celebration since he was a child, he played the role of Tsar and now of a musician, “Each hamlet of our village has its own “oratura” (a melody for Malanka) and its own script, characters. What is Malanka for me? Joy! And memory from the childhood which is still with me. We made a costume for our son together with my wife and his god-mother. He is a small Bear, you will see big ones as well!”
It is January 13, the afternoon, it is the time to get prepared for Malanka. In the village of Krasnoiilsk, only men and boys play a celebration game. Ivanko is the Bear, well actually, a Bear cub. His wings resemble a heart. Wings are getting bigger: adult bears of the Triazhan hamlet have more than 4 meter long wings. In the evening, men and boys come to the superintendent’s yard, and all together go across the village to malankuvaty in each yard. Our Bear also goes there. He is accompanied by his father-trumpet player, drum player and bayanist. Besides musicians, there are more characters: Gypsies, Old Men, and Women in fancy masks.
This is the superintendent’s house which we are looking for. We stop a sledge. It is driven by Hryhorii Honcharuk, two boys are passengers in it, “I take boys to malankuvaty! It is the holiday for the whole village – from baby to adult – but only for men and boys!” Hryhorii says. Vasylko mostly lies in the cart: it is quite difficult for a winged Bear to stand on his feet (paws?) while the sledge moves. The bears’ costume is basically his “trousers” made of hay bound tightly with many ropes. It is tightened with wings in some sophisticated way. They are also made of straw but put on a wooden frame. There is also Maksymko, he is a Gypsy, his role is to take the Bear to people so they can see him after the Gypsy have caught him in the forest. “Would you like to hold the mace?” the little Gypsy asks. He is like a real Gypsy. “But be careful, it is heavy. I threaten the Bear with it so it won’t escape and attack people!”
Gypsies are one of the two main symbols of Malanka – they prove that an animal, a symbol of wild power, can be conquered by a human. According to a theory, it has been transformed from the memory about Romanian Gypsies that gave shows with bears they had caught in the forest and taught them to dance. Anyway, the main plot of Krasnoiilsk or Red (krasny is red in Ukrainian) Malanka is the victory of a human over an animal.
The Gypsy’s mace is made of one piece of wood, decorated with metal. It is really heavier than it looks. Yes, although, Krasnoiilsk Malanka is kind of a carnival holiday, it is a bit brutal. There are real chains and axes, heavy maces which have weighty elements. Tsuika (a traditional Romanian vodka), which is drunk by malankars (malankar is a person who takes part in the Malanka celebration), is also real. It will be found out later, however, some tourists have already found out it at Dmytro Yevstratiev’s, the superintendent. His family has made hundreds of liters of vodka, “Romanian” holubtsi are for a titbit. Dmytro is dressed in a leather jacket and cheres (a Hutsul wide belt made of solid leather), he has a sheepskin hat on his head… with rhinestones (as it turned out that this is the uniform of all the superintendents). To be a superintendent is the same honor as to be the Bear even though there are many jokes about Bear’s clumsiness and his need to be funny while leaving a room.
“I open the show and music, oratura. I have a whistle for that. When was the first time I participated? I was very little. The first time I was the Horse. When I got older, I was the Bear, I liked it!” Dmytro says smiling.
Each of 5 hamlets of Krasnoiilsk has its own superintendent, music, Bears, and Gypsies. All boys are happy to celebrate Malanka and take part in a Pereberia. Pereberia is the name of a traditional Ukrainian folk carnival which is celebrated in different parts of Ukraine on St. Malanka’s Day. It is celebrated on the so-called the Old New Year (the New Year according to the Julian Calendar). It is celebrated differently in different Ukrainian regions. As for the Red Malanka, it is an enchanting spectacle.
Krasnoiilsk Malanka’s characters are respect to traditions. People use much of their imagination to make it. There are common characters which are similar in the image, e.g. Tsars, but the main attention is paid to special characters. For example, legendary Winged Bears of Triazhan and Sus hamlets. Other hamlets, e.g. Dial and Verkhnia Putna and Nyzhnia Putna, will also surprise us later.
We are now in the Triazhan hamlet, we watch the first adult Bear we met, but for now, he is still a man called Peter, becoming the hero of Malanka. Gypsy led us to this stable. We didn’t realize at once that this Gypsy was Hryhorii who drove sledge with malankars. A costume is hung on ropes under the ceiling. Peter is taking a ladder: we think that he is going to get dressed in the bear “skin” there, under the ceiling. No, he takes the costume, puts on the ground, and our Bear gets dressed lying on the floor. Hryhorii the Gypsy pulls his legs. “I was the Bear last year, my wings were 4 meters 60 cm long, oh, it is quite difficult!” Hryhorii says. While helping Peter to get dressed, he takes off his wig: it is too hot in it. Then belts need to be fastened and cottonwool trousers need to be put on shoulders so wings won’t hurt much.
Playing the role of the Bear is an honor, and perhaps, the heaviest one. The costume weights more than 50 kg, sometimes even 70. It takes about a week to make a costume. Several people are involved. The bear tries it several times because he will have to dance in it for 24 hours.
Peter has a ring on his finger. We ask him, and our Bear dispels the myth that this role is played only by bachelors. He jokes: if a man didn’t play this role, girls wouldn’t choose him because only the best men in the village can play this role. Later, other Bears will also laugh at this theory.
We see it for the first time in our lives, that’s why we put many ridiculous questions and make jokes of “extreme windage”. But tomorrow, we will be surprised how excited the men are to malankuvaty for the whole night. Moreover, after that, they will have a parade across the village to meet all together on the central square of Krasnoiilsk…
The Bear is dressed, now he can have a smoke, but carefully, sitting on a chair which was brought for him. Since now and until the evening of January 14, Peter the Bear will constantly need support. Especially Gypsies’ support, they all care about their animals. They help them to sit down to have a rest, to stand up, they bring them food and drinks… While keeping him chained up. Long wings which are decorated in a sophisticated way make Bears look not only bigger but also like the fanciest angels or butterflies. All it indicates a human’s power which is able to tame the Bear.
To see it, we have to ascend on a small square, standing with our knees deep in snow. A fancy and very emotional show is going to take place in a minute. Drums set the pace, their and trumpets’ sound is louder than motors’ roaring of trucks which are driving on a hill. Three trucks of Bears! Gypsies help them to get out of trucks…
Malankars are making the circle. Though, quite soon it doesn’t look like a circle anymore. We are in the very middle of a bright tornado filled with wings, ribbons, chains etc. And snow! Gypsies make mini-storms with their maces, to rhythmical music which is accompanied by a loud whistle and simple but energetic song. Bears are spinning and almost strike you down with their wings… Everybody should not see but feel this show. And it is just a warm-up before the start!
“What is Malanka for me? Everything! I wait for it the whole year! Who is the main character? I guess everybody is, everybody has his own role in the celebration! I was 12 years old when I participated for the first time, I played different roles, and now I am a superintendent. I want our Malanka to be the best this year! What peculiarities does it have? Look at them!” Vasyl Illiuts, a superintendent of the Dial hamlet, says. Bears in his hamlet are also winged.
The hamlet seems to set the record: the wingbeat is 5 meters. Wings are decorated with red and white flowers and fir-tree needles. The costume is said to be made in one night by eight men. We are in time to see how the Bear fastens the last belts. “No, it isn’t heavy. Yet,” the Bear says smiling.
Vasyl is also a very responsible superintendent. He is drawing the scheme of Malanka’s journey near his house (at first, he ate holubtsi and drank tsuika). The first to go are Tsars. They are known for their hats-crowns decorated with many beads. They are the smallest malankars, children, and teenagers, there is even a girl among them. Girls are also allowed to be little Gypsies, part of a bright crowd which dances and wave their skirts. But they can be only Gypsies. Malanka is a male celebration.
We are looking for the third group. It is not easy to do it in Krasnoiilsk: the village has 11 000 population. Its hamlets are also situated far from the center. Locals tell that malankars used to fight for real with sticks and knives in their hands. Nobody guarantees it is true.
But these guys have real axes and pickaxes in their hands. This is the hamlet of Verkhnia Putna. It is known for its walking haystacks. They are told to look like a living haystack with legs.
Krasnoiilsk Malanka is known for its fanciness. Walking haystacks are accompanied by special Gypsies.
These guys seem to have been inspired by the world cinema, Vikings and knights. They are also quite crazy. Their song and whistle are the loudest ones; their musical instruments are agricultural equipment and arms.
The show at this yard is the wildest one. As for walking haystacks, we haven’t seen them yet although it is the evening already. Participants are getting more and more excited (tsuika seems to have helped them), it is also getting colder outside. We leave for Chernivtsi to come back for the Krasnoiilsk Malankars Parade where they all get together. On our way to the car, the firework “covers” us: it blows up just above our heads, throwing green, red, purple light on snow and malankars who are moving to the rhythm of whistle and drums… A bright volley is like a headshot. We will see Winged Bears in dreams, as for haystacks, we still want to see them tomorrow…
…At first, we have to go past a dozen checkpoints, the first ones are situated just beyond Krasnoiilsk. We guess there are real customs officers in some checkpoints: their uniform looks too real; they hold arms and ask documents also very persuasively. Usually, they have more jocular intonation. Kind of tips for the show. They demand to give them 20 UAH (less than 1$), otherwise, they won’t let a car to go past their artificial, somewhere even decorated with a Christmas tree and garlands, gate arm. “We worked hard, driver, please pay!” The driver pays not telling that we are tourists. Locals are friendly to tourists but they tell honestly: it all is not for tourists. Malanka is for locals.
It is not easy for tourists to find neither accommodation nor dinner in Krasnoiilsk. Not for the interview but just in conversation, they say: they appreciate their favorite old tradition very much. And they keep it the same as it is: filled with own symbols, elements which only Krasnoiilsk residents can understand, crazy, in its own special style. They don’t want to conform to guests, be patient to a big number of tourists and correct this holiday so it will be clear for aliens, care about the service. However, many people come here for Malanka. But these are also locals. Many of them work abroad, and Malanka is time to come home.
“I came here at night from Italy just for the holiday. My wife and son are left there. As soon as I came, I started to make a costume, I hardly kept up! This time, I am the Gypsy, but I have been the Bear 5 times! Our Malanka is a miracle! Drink tsuika with me, it is a holiday!”
Ivan is 35 years old. He has a sincere smile and costume with a thousand colorful ribbons and a big sombrero with beads. His team and he have just finished to malankuvaty at the yard of Mrs. Viorika. He had a small talk with the family’s old friend, and now he is with his team and haystacks.
Haystacks don’t weight less than huge wings. They are basically made of kind of a “jacket”, hay is bound to it. They are now not like they were in the evening – sofas for little malankars, now they are running and even jumping! We are lucky: in the afternoon of January 14, it is sunny in Krasnoiilsk, so we saw a crazy crowd of Verkhnia Putna hamlet when they were on the central road
“Oh, our hamlet has its own Malanka. It is even more important than New Year! It is the main holiday of the year. We like it very much! Yes, malankars come to the each-each house! It has always been so, I am 63 already, and I remember how it was in my childhood!” Mrs. Viorika Hakman is holding a plate with cube steaks in one hand, and a crystal pitcher of vodka in another. It is a holy cause to treat malankars. Sometimes they are also given money. This year, even 1000 UAH.
“How did we celebrate during the USSR? They tried to stop that, burnt Bears’ costumes but our people did their best to celebrate Malanka. They pretended ill to miss work or donated blood to have a day off and just celebrated. They failed to destroy it. The same with Christmas, they made us work more on Christmas Day. We were keeping the tradition! We have managed to do it, as you see! Come next year! Malanka can be even bigger, it used to be 10 times as big!”
It is hard to imagine this show bigger and crazier. There are more than a thousand malankars dressed in costumes. Only in one group, we saw four Bears, other characters are also bright and numerous. Strange creatures in masks mess with passers-by, sometimes quite brutally.
You can also see “doctors”, “traffic policemen”, “pirates”, an “exchanger” etc. There are some people on horsed carts, for example, a moving sheep cabin: with sheep and a boiling large cooking pot on board…
As for us, we thanked Mrs. Viorika, now we are following the haystacks to the central road.
Each group shows its spectacle constantly, again and again. One of the brightest characters, even though with a naked torso, also made up a costume: a real sheepskin and antlers.
A Gypsy-Hunter is pulling 10 bears in skins on chains: they are roaring, attacking him, but he has a mace. These bears look like real ones more than others: they are dressed in fur costumes and have claws.
In a neighboring Romania (most of Krasnoiilsk residents are ethnic Romanians, they celebrate Malanka in Romanian, however all of them know Ukrainian), bearskin is considered the most valuable hunting trophy and even an averter of a house. If on holidays, a person dressed as a bear entered the yard – it could bring luck and wealth for the whole of next year. As for Krasnoiilsk, such different bears also come to each house…
…Here are haystacks Number two! Another hamlets start to malankuvaty, haystacks are led by other Gypsies: they are like towers dressed in bright ribbons. They come to the yard of a roadside restaurant, meanwhile, some other people are sitting down: it is time to have a rest.
However, people are still energetic, Gypsies pull the chains of their Bears. You can see some pieces of maces and hay near the road… A peculiar thing: the Bear is led by a girl!
“What is my name? Valia Mytryk! I am 24. It is the fourth year I participate. I have been the Bear as well! What are you saying? Girls are forbidden? I am allowed! Hey, Bear, let’s go!” she pulls the chain firmly and the Bear-haystack roars and keeps on going.
Yes, the Krasnoiilsk Malanka, a tradition filled with respect and love, is still a holiday for locals, but it gets some new features as well. Except for Gypsies and Bears, we also see “Berkut” (was a special police force; the name is used for officers of the unit as well, Berkut is a golden eagle) who will strike at the camera with the stick and one candidate for the presidency, she had much imitation jewellery on her. Garlands on batteries are switched on the wings of archaic Bears, one of the Bears-haystacks is led by the only girl who plays this role – Malanka – which never happened before… A crazy crowd is going across their native village, to sounds of drums and whistle, singing about “the Bear which was caught in the forest and is being led to people; jump, Bear!” It is the brightest and wildest shows of all the possible.
Bears-butterflies will dance waddling, spinning and waving wings. Bears-haystacks will collide and jump to the rhythm of drums. Bears in skins will roar at those who whistle crazily and hits the ground with maces. Having damaged them almost fully, they will argue who won…
They will head to the Krasnoiilsk square until it gets dark. They will be losing ribbons and straw, but will find joy and will take their native tradition back.
Text and video by Alla Khayatova
Photo by Serhii Hudak