First, there was a loud and even somewhat creepy noise made by jackdaws (or maybe magpies?). The closer you approach the walls of the old residence of Radziwill princes in the village of Olyka in Volyn, the louder the sky over you is plagued by birds’ cries. You’re getting rid of tired and still fresh memories of the shuttle bus, which hardly managed to get here from Lutsk for 40 minutes and for 50 hryvnias. So it seems to you that you are on the verge of something unseen.

Walls in the shade of old trees hint at it. As well as covered in moss bastions that surround the castle. As well as bars on the windows. As well as almost 400-year-old church of the Holy Trinity, which is frozen covered in scaffolding, for Poles have been restoring it inspirationally for several years (once it was one of the most beautiful churches in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth).

And Olyka lives its own life. The ancient gate. Ordinary rural buildings.  Closer to the center there is a village council. Above the entrance hangs typical Soviet mosaic with an athlete. Further, there is a spacious square. On one side of that square in front of the castle, there are two metal booths. These are stores. One is called “Olenka”.  The other – “Chic”. The latter sells funeral wreaths.

Now you have to visit the princes “from the rear”

You’re standing and feeling like part of some steady flow. Somebody’s walking through the square, dragging a hand truck on covered in cracks asphalt. Or scooter flies by. Or somebody’s riding a horse. Or somebody just missed her bus. Pr people in white coats are running back and forth…

Or people in white coats are running back and forth… Radziwill Castle has long been hosting a mental asylum. Part of the psychiatric clinic premises is in several hundred meters from the residence of the princes. Therefore, the staff is constantly running. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Now people get used that the residence of Radziwill, once the richest princely family of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, is visited from the rear.  It used to be an entrance to the city. The back exit is now entrance.

You walk through the arch. Fixing a half-meter walls with a gaze. Side doors, where hangs a sign with the inscription “Emergency Room”.  You pass by an ambulance (someone was just transported). You collide with a spotted cat that jumps from the window sill and rushes right under your feet. You see roses and some other colorful flowers. For it is summer.

Your eyes stumble upon the town hall. As soon as you leave the arch, at the entrance, there is a luxurious courtyard of the castle in front of your eyes. Once, important political figures were hosted here. Balls were held.   International negotiations. It is said that Radziwill family had a rich collection of artistic items and books. Some of this got to the Lutsk museums. Myths those myths about stash with prince’s treasures hidden somewhere here are still alive…

And of a sudden, you hear a pop song.

Oleh Vynnyk?

“We’re having a disco here! Happy holiday, girls!” the man shouts from a bike (apparently, noticing that we are looking for a source of that pop-noise).

“Let’s go, I’ll show you what ‘breath of the ages’ means.”

This day is really a holiday. Ascension day. Patients in the mental asylum are having leisure activities. And they really do have a disco. Here, they like discos the most.

Here they even like tourists. Although, it may seem that an unstoppable stream of those who want to see the castle, to take pictures of the old walls, to have a look at the history’s loopholes should have annoyed the true masters of those walls. However, the opposite happens.

Let’s get acquainted with the acting director of the institution Maria Lyubashevska. The woman heads this place for three years in a row. She entered these premises 30 years ago. We ask her how she manages to work among Radziwills’ ghosts. She says that she has never seen them. Laughs.

“We got used to it. Ceilings are quite high. The walls are one and a half meters wide. Let’s go, I’ll show you what ‘breath of the ages’ means,” she invites us, hinting on the dampness of the old walls, mosses, and cracked tiles…

I don’t know what people are looking for here. Whether it is a castle, where mental hospital situates, or it is a mental hospital that “lives” within an ancient castle. In fact, the walls of Radziwill castle are much older than mental asylum.

Olyka belonged to the Radziwill family for nearly 400 years. Mikolaj Radziwill the Black had started to build a residence in Volyn back in 1564. State and political figure of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Right hand and friend of the Polish king Sigismund I.  He erected this castle. Then Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwill enriched the residence with a unique church. The last owner of the castle, Janusz Radziwill, in 1939 was arrested by the Soviets when they came to “take” the western lands.

The hospital was opened here in 1957. And that was the first mental asylum in Volyn.

Well, it could have been… a stud farm

Now it seems that the castle always had the same look. In Olyka they still recall that back in 1957, it was restored almost by the hands of asylum’s personnel.

“It is already more than 60 years old,” says Maria Lyubashevska, the chief doctor of the institution. “After the war, the castle-residence was pretty destroyed. Actually, only the first floor remained here… After the order to open the institution, the site was rebuilt not only by builders from Olyka but also by employees of the hospital. So after finishing their shift, they were going to construction works.

According to the local ethnographer Anatolii Hura (namely, this person knows about the Olyka residence, the most, since he has been exploring it for more than 35 years), the castle was pretty ruined.

Soviet soldiers entered, in the stoves, they burned books from the Radziwills’ library, they were using museum exhibits and paintings as a fuel.

During occupation Hungarian garrison was quartered here. In February 1945, when occupiers had left, and others – hadn’t entered yet, the castle was set on fire. Anatolii Hura says that almost everything burned down, including metal and stones.

Somewhere in the 1950ies, they were trying to turn this palace into a… stud farm. There were even stables on the first floor. But something went wrong. In the end, since 1957, a mental asylum has been situated here. It’s worth paying tribute to those people, who not only built new walls but rebuilt the old ones. Otherwise, it would not look like an ancient castle.

260 patients and a hectare of potatoes

We are walking down the corridors of the hospital. Ms. Maria is our guide. The emergency room has high ceilings and very rough walls. Narrow corridors between rooms. Steep steps. Icons and embroidered towels are hanging on the wall. Every millimeter of this space has the smell of that damp of the ages.

In another part of the clinic, which once was rebuilt, there is more light and it’s less humid. Here the staircase is wide and posh. Behind the side doors, in the hospital kitchen, girls are roasting chops. In the space between the floors, which are separated by a metal grid, there is a “Place for visits”.

“We bring here the table if there are visitors,” comments Ms. Maria.

Doctors from the Radziwill castle don’t feel nostalgic for the Soviet times. But they say that there was a period in the history of the mental hospital when more than a thousand patients were treated here. Now there are more than two hundred. I ask Maria Lyubashevska, who follows the experience of colleagues that are working abroad, whether there are psychiatric clinics in old castles? She says that she has never heard about that.

“It’s not easy to keep all this afloat. 260 patients. But we try our best. There is a good kitchen. There is a laundry. A good accredited laboratory. Ultrasound room and physiotherapy equipment. Therapist, neuropathologist, ophthalmologist… Once, somewhat around 15 years ago, there were medical-labor workshops. There were 35 hectares of land. Now we have only a few: we planted a hectare and a half with potatoes. We harvest 10-12 tons, we do it ourselves, with the help of the staff,”  she tells frankly about hospital’s everyday life.

It also would be nice to repair a roof, because the tile is already 60 years old and it falls apart. It’s not so easy to do it, because the roof is above the historic site. So in order to make the ministry do it, seven circles of hell must be passed.

Also, “it would be great if someone had ever thought about the dormitory for doctors…” Some of the staff gets to Olyka from Lutsk. And every day they pay a lot of money for commuting. Because of it, there is a noticeable shortage of staff.

Each new governor “restores”

People in white coats look after these walls as they can. So far, the state has put a burden of care for a unique castle on their shoulders. So they carry it.

…Meanwhile, in the bureaucratic offices of Volyn, they are considering how to transfer the mental hospital from these walls. Each new governor or chairman of the regional council starts with tackling the problem of restoring Olyka in a big way. Plans. Meetings. Presentations. But it’s not going further. Because it is too expensive and costly even from a time perspective. And officials like this never stay in the office for a long time…

Among the latest proposals that were discussed in Volyn is either moving the hospital to another clinic that is operating in Lutsk (so they can unite the two institutions) or building a new facility here in Olyka. There is a place. There is a plan. Will they lay a foundation and everything else?

Maria Lyubashevska and her colleagues believe that yes. They say that if the mental clinic is to be built from scratch, then this would be the first (!) hospital of such a profile, built in the times of independent Ukraine. If it meets all modern standards… that’s almost a dream.

In Olyka, they say that they were never so close to dreams.


“Going to the disco, boys, right? Go, go …” Ms. Maria met somebody from her patients.

In the end, we also get to the hall where the disco is rumbling. In spacious premises near the central town hall, there is something like a club. Chairs are set in rows. Stage. There are even stands on the walls. “Art belongs to the people” is written there.

Patients are dancing under the sound of music. At the stage, DJ turns on Oleh Vynnyk. Some of them, having seen doctors, shows that he received a letter with family photos. From very Russia.

They are looking at them together. Smiling. It is warm here.

Well, we go further: to listen to the castle: to the screams of jackdaws in the sky, to the silence of the princely ponds under the walls, the immortal songs by Oleh Vynnyk and bold or even sinister murmur of the local cat.

P.S. The residence in Olyka remains undiscovered. A lot is written, Anatolii Gura, the local ethnographer, says, but still, there was no serious research here. For example, nobody deciphered several medieval inscriptions in Latin, with which Radziwill family decorated this building. And this is just one small example.

To his recollection, after 1939 only two Radziwills returned to the castle. This is Christina Radziwill, granddaughter of Janusz Radziwill, daughter of his son Edmund and Isabella, who came from Poland in the 90ies. And Matsey Radziwill from Poland, also a descendant of Janusz, who visited Volyn a year ago.

By Olena Livitska

Photo by Iryna Kabanova


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