Story #138. The Old Khata Project: Documenting the Authenticity of Ukrainian Houses and Their Owners

February 27, 2024
The story of a unique project in Ukraine that documents traditional rural houses and shares the stories of their owners.

The Old Khata Project is a documentary initiative by sisters Svitlana Oslavska and Anna Ilchenko which seeks to capture the heart of the Ukrainian village - the rural house.

In 2019, Svitlana, a journalist, and Anna, a photographer, came up with the idea of traveling to Ukrainian villages to document folk architecture and the stories of people who live there. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the project was partially reformatted into expeditions to liberated regions. The materials they collected formed the basis for a book, which sold out almost immediately.

Svitlana Oslavska and Anna Ilchenko.


The sisters' first trips began in November 2020. Back then, they traveled through peaceful villages, and everything seemed more like an adventure.

"Our  first expeditions felt like traveling around Ukraine during the summer vacation in our student years or going to a festival. In our interviews, we asked people about their houses and the traditions with which they were built. As we traveled through liberated villages in 2022, people talked about far different topics. The things we heard and saw, the destroyed villages and towns, the people who witnessed their houses being robbed by Russian soldiers and their loved ones being murdered... We didn't concentrate too much on our emotions; we just did what we had to do. We documented that new reality of war. It was quite exhausting. I remember the 5th day of our trip in Mykolaiv Oblast. We were sitting in the car, thinking about going for another interview. It was terribly hot outside... and then we looked at each other and realized that we could not go anywhere else; we had to go home," says Svitlana.

"When people ask me about my recollections, I immediately think of a rosary of bright beads of memories. Someone feeding you pancakes, or someone introducing you to their cow. In peacetime, these are endless visits to people who invite you in for a  home-cooked meal, and long conversations with them. Or aa situation when a driver of a concrete lorry gives you a ride from a village with no buses," Anna says.

"When the full-scale war broke out, we were volunteering. There was chaos all over, and to a certain extent, our project faded into the background. At the beginning of spring, when certain regions were liberated, we realized we had a powerful tool and an international audience from our Old Khata Project. We wanted to tell Ukrainians' stories from the Russian occupation and their resistance. We went first to Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy Oblasts, and then to Mykolaiv," Anna recalls.

"Our expeditions in 2022 can be described by the words 'you must do it,' like it or not. In 2023, there was a different emotional load. You are constantly surrounded by the negativity associated with the war, your work is about war, and you are looking for ways to take a break from it. So you go to the Carpathians, and it becomes a sort of exile where you feel good and safe. For many people, the Carpathians have become a dream place of safety. This is one of the reasons our next project will be about the Carpathian region," says Svitlana.

Even before the war, villagers were often wary of the sisters.

"When you see strangers in your village, you don't immediately understand who they are, and their intentions. People sometimes thought we were realtors, or students, or even religious fanatics. The last thing people thought was that we are documentarians fascinated by folk architecture. Our experiences have varied greatly. Sometimes, people would see us on the street in the evening and could call the police or the territorial defense, and the next morning, those same people would treat us to coffee in their homes. I think that even during the war, we made people trust us," Anna explains.

The sisters' work became more complicated the closer they were to the contact line. Documenting and photographing in such conditions is more complex than in the relatively peaceful Carpathians. But the war can be felt even in the most remote villages.

Svitlana recalled an experience they had during a trip to the Carpathians.

"On the Epiphany holiday, we were in the village of Iltsi, filming a Hutsul carol. I noticed a woman in the crowd; at first, I thought she was filming everything. But later, it turned out that she was on a video call with a soldier. It was probably her husband or a family member. She was filming it for him so that he could feel his presence in the celebration. It was a a meaningful sight  for me."

Svitlana and Anna shared another story on their project's Instagram page.

The story was narrated by a couple on the photo, Lipinsky spouses from Rakove, Mykolayiv Oblast, who had to have an unexpected conversation with the Russian military.


The word "khata" is Ukrainian for a peasant's house.

Although rural houses in each region may have certain consistent elements in common,  each house is unique. Each home's construction is a testament to the conditions in which the owner lived and a mirror of his experiences and worldview.

"How and what a house is built from often depends on the natural conditions. For example, Polissya (a historical region including northern Ukraine) has many wooden houses because of its rich forests. In central Ukraine, however, clay houses prevailed. Over time, brick houses became more common," Anna observes.

"In addition to building materials, we also pay attention to how a person uses color and decoration. This does not always depend on the local conditions. The decorative elements we see in different regions come from either tradition or from what people see in books or during travels to other regions.

We're not looking for some "authentic houses," but instead documenting them as they exist today, with plastic windows, satellite dishes, peeling paint, and everything people add to it. We capture the way the houses look now and let them change. Our approach is documentary. We record reality and interpret it somewhat in our own way, adds Svitlana.


Last year, Anna and Svitlana published a photo book containing pictures of houses and stories told by their owners. These short stories were about the most universal things, like life,death, home, and beauty. The first edition was almost sold out during the presale, which led the sisters to publish a second edition on their own. Thus, the project has now an officially registered small publishing label, for which Svitlana and Anna already have tentative plans.

The war chapter in the book is not the ending one or the central one. Because people have strength inside to overcome this experience, get past it, and move on, Svitlana explains.

Anna says that she and her sister are planning to publish a book about Carpathians, "about this fragile ecosystem of people, nature, and how they existed in the past and exist now," as Anna puts it, and another one, dedicated to everyday sacred objects, i.e., village chapels.

"These chapels themselves are a small form of worship and communication with God. Just like houses, chapels are interesting and special in their way. We want to bring all this together because there are currently no comprehensive materials on this topic. In villages, chapels are naturally integrated into the physical and mental landscape. Sometimes, they can be found even in the mountains and meadows, where people no longer live. They mark a human presence. The chapels also show the human understanding of beauty, the idea of what a place of communication with the divine should look like."

The sisters are continuing their travels today, as Ukraine has many places and human stories worth seeing and documenting.

Svitlana recently received her driver's license, so she and Anna will be able to "travel in their small gray car to all corners of Ukraine."

Follow the project's Facebook and Instagram pages to see more photos.

Order the Old Khata Book on the official website.

Nika Krychovska
Journalist at UkraineWorld