The Guide to Vinnytsia
At first, Vinnytsia seems perfectly normal, almost boring. It is a medium size city, it has some historical architecture, some Soviet-era nostalgia, nothing out of the ordinary.
But there is a lot more buried (quite literally) beneath the surface. Let’s take a journey through Vinnytsia’s grim, bloody, controversial history. And yes, we will also talk about restaurants, nightlife hotspots, and other less depressing subjects. Stick around to learn more!
Vinnytsia: Some Background
Vinnytsia is in west-central Ukraine, on the banks of the Southern Bug. It has been nicknamed the pearl of Podolia, Podolia being the historical region to which it belongs.
The city was established under Lithuanian Prince Švitrigaila’s orders in the 14th century. By the late 16th century it passed into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was a royal city during that period.
The Russian Empire annexed the city and the region in 1793. Russians are Orthodox and their first move was to expunge the Roman Catholic religion. All of the churches you will see in Vinnytsia are now Orthodox. Not all of them started this way, though. The Transfiguration Cathedral, Vinnytsia’s main cathedral, is a perfect example of that. It looks Catholic but it’s really not.
The Russian Empire met it’s end with the Bolshevik revolution. Vinnytsia passed onto the Soviet Union. If you’re not familiar – Lenin lead the revolution and after his death came Stalin. Not that Lenin was an amazing dude – but Stalin was really quite sadistic. During the 30s, he launched the Great Purge where hundreds of thousands were murdered by the secret police.
When German troops occupied Vinnytsia in 1941, they discovered something horrific…
Vinnytsia: The Search For The Truth
At the beginning of World War II, the Soviet Union and Germany agreed not to attack each other. That pact was broken in the summer of 1941. Vinnytsia was one of the first cities to be occupied – it fell on July 19 of 1941.
Germans knew of the Soviet atrocities and they decided to use them as propaganda.
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Between May and July 1943, German occupational forces exhumed the mass graves – there were over 60. A total of 9,439 bodies (including 169 women) were recovered. Most were ethnic Ukrainians or Jews (we will get to that later) with only a small minority of Poles.
Two teams of medical examiners were formed. One consisted purely of German doctors, while the other included experts from eleven European countries – some of them allied to the Nazi regimen, others occupied. Both commissions concluded the same:
Most of the victims were shot in the back of the head, some multiple times. They died between 1937 and 1938, which was exactly the time of the Great Purge. Some of the bodies were identified by documents and personal belongings buried nearby. Others were identified by family.
The Vinnytsia As Propaganda
The sheer scale and brutality of the Vinnytsia massacres didn’t need embellishment. Nazi propaganda made them as public as possible.
Nazis buried the bodies again. They erected a monument to the “Victims of Stalinist Terror”. Several international delegations came to visit the burial sites, including prominent politicians from Nazi-allied countries.
At the very same time, another massacre was happening in Vinnytsia. You see, this city had been 40% Jewish…
More Mass Graves
Between 1941 and 1943, the Jewish population of Vinnytsia was essentially wiped. You might have seen The Last Jew of Vinnytsia photo.
It depicts a man, kneeling over a mass grave, about to be shot by a member of the Nazi death squad.
What makes The Last Jew of Vinnytsia so special is it’s so personal. You are not looking at a death camp, the murders were carried out one by one. There is also a sense of complicity and even pride – the person who took the photo clearly sympathized with the Nazis. In fact, the most popular theory about the photo’s origin is it came from a dead German soldier. He had scribbled The Last Jew of Vinnytsia on the back in black pencil.
The photo has since become iconic and you can see it in many Holocaust museums – cropped and edited in various different ways.
When the Red Army reclaimed Vinnytsia in 1944, they changed the “Victims of Stalinist Terror” monument to “Victims of Nazi Terror”. Sadly, though both sides used Vinnytsia as propaganda, neither were wrong. Well, maybe the Soviets were slightly more wrong, as they ultimately removed the monument and built an amusement park over it.
Vinnytsia: A Spy Town
You would think that after the war Vinnytsia got calmer. It didn’t.
Reportedly, this is where the KGB built a miniature version of an American town to train spies at. There was a main street with shops, a drugstore, a college campus, and even a church (though its’ doors remained permanently closed). It was all brand new and eerily similar to an actual US suburb. The only thing real about Vinnytsia’s mini American town, though, was the college.
Students were hand-picked from all around the USSR to be trained as spies. The town was a top-secret facility. It makes you wonder: how do we even know it existed?
We have a couple of different clues:
- The CIA made an educational video about it back in the 60’s. It’s called Spy Town, look it up on YouTube (a previous link got deleted but here’s one that hopefully works)
- When Anna Chapman (alias Anna Kuschenko) and 10 other Russian spies were caught, they described one of these mock towns.
- A 1959 Time magazine story about Vinnytsia that talks about the facility.
Ultimately, we will never know if mock spy towns were a reality or if they’re a Cold War myth. You wouldn’t find the place in Vinnytsia today. Very few locals even know about the rumours. Some are quick to deem them an urban legend. Others say the KGB was secretive enough to hide its’ traces well.
One thing is for sure: if you go to Vinnytsia and find the mock town, let us know ASAP. I couldn’t be more curious about it!
Fun In Vinnytsia
The usual rule of thumb for Ukrainian nightlife is valid. Do as the locals do – dress, drink, and party like them. Though Vinnytsia is not a tourist town, you could still get scammed if you decide to stay in your “Western” ways. Instead, try to blend in.
Your first step of the night should be food. Vodka could straight-up kill you if you drink it on an empty stomach. It’s much smarter to start off the fun with some delicious pelmeni.
Try the Kumbary restaurant for some local specialities as well as universal favourites like pasta. The Tyflis and the Marani eateries offer excellent Georgian food. Make sure you book them in advance – they are super popular among locals. Finally, the Hungry Duck Pub offers the necessary transition between dinner and drinks. They serve delicious burgers and a variety of different beers. It’s equally loved by Ukrainians and foreigners, making it a great place to meet fellow travellers.
At Canape you can also grab a bite, have a cocktail, or even come after a long night and have some coffee and breakfast.
The Planeta Moda-Bar is a mix of café, bar, and shisha smoking place. It’s the place to see and be seen, making it a fun location for a date. Yes, Ukrainian girls love to show off their men. Make sure to always wear a nice shirt (and maybe even a tie at night).
For nightclubs, Skyroom is iconic. It has two floors with plenty of room to dance (but also plenty of comfortable sofas to pass out on). The music ranges from EDM to plain top 40s. You won’t find too much variety in this respect. Larger cities like Kiev have a buzzing underground and alternative scene. In small to medium towns, it’s pretty much all pop.
Accommodation In The City
Vinnytsia does have a couple of great hotel options.
At the France Hotel, you get top-notch service plus an excellent location. The staff speak six languages, including great English, so there is no need to worry about the language barrier.
Perhaps ironically, the Hotel Aristokrat is actually a budget-friendly option. Don’t mind the lavish (slightly over the top) décor, this is actually a very friendly, cosy, and comfortable place. It also helps that it’s right in the centre, close to everything you might want to visit.
The Panska Hata is close to the Vinnytsia Lake, the ultimate calm and relaxing location. They have a sauna on-site, as well as free high-speed Wi-Fi. Panska Hata is on the outskirts of the city, though, making it a better choice if you have a car (or don’t mind paying for taxis, which, admittedly aren’t expensive at all).7
Vinnytsia: More Tips?
I love doing those guides, but I could never include it all. Share your own recommendations and travel tips for Vinnytsia in the comments below.