By Denis Kushnaryev and Oles Seredytsky
Two stories, two settlements, two wars, two heroes.
This story began with a curious accidental find in a video archive. While looking for some footage for another TV story, I came across a fragment of a documentary video from 1952. It was about an 82-year-old Ukrainian horse rider who, despite his age, was still training horses and young students.
It was also reported that this man won races in London, Paris and even Chicago! One could only imagine how difficult it was to travel such long distances with horses in those days.
A figure of the Ukrainian I had never heard of, who became so famous abroad thanks to his talent, impressed and interested me so much that it became the starting point of our documentary investigation. This is how we learned not only about Mykhailo Stasenko, but also about his native village of Dibrivka, and the local horse farm that survived revolutions, famine, and occupation during the Second World War. We wanted to tell his story in a separate documentary project.
In 2022, when war came to Ukraine again, everyone learned about murders of innocent people and even animals happening in occupied territories like Bucha near Kyiv. We discovered that a local equestrian sports school was trying to survive in the city, too. We have combined this second contemporary story with the first historical one to show that, unfortunately, history repeats itself. Still, the sprouts of good and justice must always triumph and overcome evil.
Dibrivka and Bucha
Both settlements have a long history.
The settlement of Bucha, which used to bear the name Yablunka, arose around the Bucha half-station during the construction of the Kyiv-Kovel railway in 1898 and grew quite quickly. Around that time, namely in 1888, a stud farm was founded in Dibrivka.
Both are in picturesque riverside areas. Dibrivka is located at the watershed of the Sula and Psel rivers, next to the Khorol tributary. And the city of Bucha lies between the small rivers Bucha and Rokach.
Both places have equestrian sports facilities: a stud farm and racetrack in Dibrivka and an equestrian school in Bucha.
Visiting each of them, we learned about talented Ukrainians.
And finally, both places survived occupation and suffered losses. Their stories have similarities and differences, but fate arranged an actual race for survival for both. Even though these stories of occupation happened at different times, they are very much alike. Tetiana Kopylova, a historian and tour guide of the Dibrivka Horse Breeding Farm, tells about the period of occupation of Dibrivka by the Germans.
Valeriy Korin, coach and groom of the equestrian school “Bucha”, tells about the recent occupation of his city.
However, to dive into each story separately, we start at Dibrivka. This settlement is located about 12 km northwest of Myrhorod. If you follow the navigator, you need to be careful because entering “Dibrivka, Poltava region” in Google maps will lead you to a railway station and not to Dibrivka Horse Breeding Farm. That station is a ways away from the factory and the village itself.
The road sign at the entrance to the village has an image of a mounted horse on it, so you immediately understand where you are going.
Also, there is a windmill in front of the entrance to the village. It looks slightly dismantled from the outside, but inside, they say, the mechanisms and the millstone are still in order. Well, the winds of history brought many people here, and the millstones of time ground many things here.
As we have already mentioned, the old stud farm was founded in 1888. Part of the buildings erected at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries still stand in the village.
The years 1917-1919 were tough here when the Bolsheviks, The White Army, and the detachments of Makhno and various Otamans were active on the territory of Ukraine. And all of their armies, of course, needed good horses. So, the local stud farm had to endure several periods of occupation. And every time, like a phoenix, it was reborn again.
Near the farm, you will be greeted by a monument that symbolises this location. The sculptural composition prototypes were the mare Govorukha and her son Granit, a racetrack fighter and one of the largest producers of breeding stallions.
Some say the sculpture commemorates the mare Gilda, about which a rather beautiful legend exists. Before World War II, she was a real champion and managed to win many races. And already during the occupation, the Germans stole some of the breeding horses for themselves. And Gilda, too. She didn’t let the German horseback riders tame, break, or even mount her, escaped from captivity, but was again captured by the pursuers. It’s said that the Germans gouged out her eyes to wind her wild spirit down, but she lived until the liberation, and when the herd was brought back, she, as a leader, simply by smell, led everyone to the horse farm and entered her stable. However, as the locals say, the closest thing to the truth about Gilda is that she was a champion and a truly outstanding mare. She was captured, tamed in captivity, lost her eyes for other reasons, and did not lead the herd home herself, although she lived to return to her home stable.
Another sculpture commemorates the stallion, Lou Hanover. In horse breeding, there is a tradition of burying outstanding stallions and mares, or sometimes just the head or the heart of a horse that had notable achievements during its lifetime. So, here is the grave of Lou Hanover, one of the first American standardbred stallions brought to the Soviet Union after the First World War. Lou Hanover came from the USA, and here he left behind the best offspring of the mixed Orlov-American breed.
After walking around the stud farm, we go to the museum in the administrative building.
Real, local relics are stored here: cups and awards won over the years.
Various flags and festive blankets.
You can look into archival books with genealogies.
And, of course, there are photos, including the same legendary rider Mykhailo Stasenko, with whom this story began. Few people from our country have won competitions so far from home. One can only imagine how a boy from Dibrivka won the world prize in 1893 in Chicago, the first European prize in 1910 in Paris, and a gold medal in 1912 in London! And with all this, winning such laurels and receiving invitations, he always returned to his native land. And he lived here most of the time after the First and the Second World Wars. Unbelievable!
So, no matter what calamities happened, the Dibrivka stud farm, in particular, held the prestige of our breeders up high in the eyes of foreign horse lovers.
And the successes on the running tracks of local factory riders have repeatedly reminded me of Dibrivka as the flagship of equestrian sports.
During the Nazi occupation, the farm continued to work even though most of the horses were taken to Germany or evacuated before that. Staff and riders were even paid in reichsmarks, although, as the locals said, they could not buy much here with them. Usually, Germans who were sent to the rear for treatment were commandants of the farm. Sometimes they even arranged races. Although, of course, the best racehorses were taken to Germany together with some farm workers. The farm was barely functioning until the victory. Then, when it appeared that the stolen horses were in the British or American zone of influence of Berlin, negotiations were held, and all the animals and the staff tending to them returned home.
Although, even this story wasn’t picture-perfect: most of those horses could no longer produce offspring.
Be that as it may, Dibrivka survived, the farm is still functioning, excursions are available, and every year in May, festive runs and theatrical performances are held here, during which horses demonstrate all their abilities. Thousands of guests and tourists come, and many fans follow the races. Anyone can take riding lessons or ride a horse.
To find out more interesting facts, we visited a long-time resident of Dibrivka, Panasenko Motrona Filonovna.
She was born in 1927 and lived and worked in her native village. In the 60s, she was a foreman at the local stud farm. When we recorded the interview with her, she also mentioned the local legend – Mykhailo Stasenko, whom she saw live, and what happened here with people and horses during the occupation.
The occupation of Bucha by Russian troops has become synonymous with horror. After the departure of the occupiers in the form of a so-called “gesture of goodwill”, everyone saw the consequences of their evil intentions in the city.
Mass graves, torture cellars, looted houses, piles of burned military equipment, and damaged and destroyed infrastructure facilities barely describe the horror that permeated the city’s atmosphere. Every street here can tell a chilling story.
We are heading to the city’s outskirts, where the Bucha equestrian sports club is cosily located.
However, Russians turned even this far corner of tranquillity into absolute hell. A burned warehouse and a logistics centre nearby are a reminder of this.
And all the fields are strewn with trenches and remnants of what remained after the Russian invaders.
Fortunately, the buildings of the horse club itself were not critically damaged. Which, of course, cannot be said about the horses themselves. Before the war, the stables could keep up to 40 horses here, and at the same time, they were provided with everything necessary. Modern infrastructure, an indoor arena and other amenities attracted not only horse-riding enthusiasts but also famous athletes and stars. There were also many programs for children.
And all that horror began immediately on February 24-25, when the Russians began to capture the Antonov airport in Hostomel. The first shells that destroyed Buchan houses were already launched from there.
Then, as the occupiers advanced, they captured the equestrian club, where they set up a base and a hospital for the wounded.
At that moment, almost all the staff and owners left here; the occupiers themselves did not bother to feed the horses or at least water them.
After some time, the Russians put the horses out of the club. As they say, they hardly let them go because of remorse, but most likely, Russians drove the horses because of the noise they made. Like any animals, they could not keep calm with constant cannonades nearby. Some released animals were found and sheltered by the locals, while others ran away. Eventually, some horses died exhausted, and some were found murdered near the club. Among them were the horses of the singer Kamalia.
But Valery Korin, a trainer and a groom, stepped up then. During the occupation, he not only did not give up hope of getting to the club, even risking his own life to feed the horses, but he was also one of the first to start looking for and collecting the surviving animals driven out onto the streets of the city.
Valery showed his sportsmanship, stubbornness and character at the age of 14. Then he had already won the championship of Ukraine in the triathlon and fulfilled the standard of a Candidate for Master of Sports. After that, he won twice and confirmed his title of a national champion among young men and juniors. Valery himself says that he fell in love with equestrian sports as soon as he saw horses.
After that, he won two more times and confirmed his title of national champion among young men and juniors. As Valery himself says: as soon as he saw horses, he could no longer live without these animals.
After the liberation of the club, fodder and other necessary things were delivered from Kyiv and abroad. This way, it was possible to save part of the remaining herd. Valery told us more about what happened in the occupation near the club itself in this interview:
Through our project’s heroes, testimonies, and archival data, we tried to show the events of the occupation of two Ukrainian towns and two equestrian facilities. Two different wars and two different destinies had similar human virtue and patriotism that saved people and horses who survived as best they could. Also, our project, combining stories from the past and present, aims to show the special relationship between people and animals in an extremely difficult time and incredible dedication to their work, even in the face of life-threatening risks. It’s about how the friendship between people and horses inspires, old traditions are revived, and significant sporting events are sure to return soon!
We express our gratitude for cooperating with the management of the Dibrivka stud farm and the residents of Dibrivka: Tetyana Kopylova and Motrona Filonovna Panasenko. Also, a big thank you to the “Bucha” equestrian school staff, Valery Korin, Viktor Ponomaryev, and Andriy Tolpyga, in particular.