– A decade ago, Canadian Ruslana Wrzesnewskyj opened a wooden Alpine-style resort. It wasn’t easy. It took countless trips between her home in Toronto and this remote Carpathian village, seemingly endless talks with local officials and builders and a two-year stint in a culinary school to reach this point.
“It was sheer stubbornness and drive,” she said of her journey in building a small log-cabin resort in Vorohta. With a background in real estate, “I had a plan that I’d like to create an economy in the mountains,” said Wrzesnewskyj, who is the lone foreign investor in Vorohta.
At 58, the Canadian of Ukrainian descent not only runs two businesses on separate continents, she has also been lauded for her humanitarian work with Ukrainian orphans through the Help Us Help the Children foundation. Yet in this tranquil mountainous region, which Ukrainian skiers invade in winter, running a company is far from smooth.
Wrzesnewskyi began to think about opening something of her own after a trip to the Carpathian Mountains where her family comes from in 1993. Back then, she and her husband also committed to adopting a daughter from Ukraine. Opening a business in the Ukrainian mountains seemed like a perfect excuse to keep the family ties alive.
Today, the resort, appropriately named “Khatky Ruslany,” or Ruslana’s cottages, consists of seven cottages and a restaurant, which opened two years ago. Each house is decorated in a different motif including Hutsul, African and Turkish.
It all began on New Year’s Eve 2002 after Wrzesnewskyj secured a plot of land and opened her first two cabins next to former Soviet ski training grounds. Because land ownership by foreigners is troublesome, that asset belongs to a Ukrainian entity, although Wrzesnewskyj is its president. She said when business documents were being prepared she would get annoyed with the employee charged with the paperwork.
“He was obsessive compulsive” to ensure everything was done by the letter of Ukrainian law, Wrzesnewskyj said. Now she is grateful to him because there are no problems with the documentation.
Still, the venture “isn’t profit making” and her Canadian real estate business helps support it, Wrzesnewskyj said. She has invested some $1 million into the resort so far.
Before opening the restaurant, Wrzesnewskyj spent two years in chef school in Canada to get to know that end of the resort business. Part of her graduation exam was to design a restaurant and come up with a menu. Wrzesnewskyj said she wasn’t interested in serving dishes that were widely available in the Carpathians. Instead, she created what she calls “Ukrainian fusion,” a merging of local foods and those Western European palates are more accustomed to.
One dish that has become a hit is a mushroom and pasta affair, which was conceived after Italian tourists brought Wrzesnewskyj wild mushrooms and asked her to do something with them.
Wrzesnewskyj used to visit Kyiv frequently, but now spends most of her time in Vorohta when she is in Ukraine. She spends six to seven months out of the year in the country.
Every time when I come back to Canada, I think, ‘What the hell am I doing in Ukraine?’”
- Ruslana Wrzesnewskyj.
This winter, Wrzesnewskyj has been working in the kitchen with staff and transferring culinary knowledge obtained in Canada. “We’ve learned how to work with spices,” cook Mariya Dzemiuk said. “It’s been a real education.”
The resort has proven popular with Ukrainian and foreign tourists. “It is attention to detail…you don’t find anywhere else. It’s a gem in the region,” said Alexa Chopivsky, a Kyiv-based journalist who with a German colleague was visiting on a recent weekend.
The resort has synergized with Wrzesnewskyj’s other passion, her work with Ukrainian orphans.
In 1994, Wrzesnewskyj launched Help Us Help the Children, an organization that since its founding has supported over 200 Ukrainian orphanages and helped some 45,000 children with supplies of medication, food and clothing. The organization also has a scholarship program and a prosthetics program for children with physical disabilities.
The program was started after Wrzesnewskyj and her husband adopted a daughter.
Wrzesnewskyj has annually brought orphans to the Carpathians and enlisted volunteers from Canada and other countries to work as counselors. She said fundraising has become more difficult in the year since President Viktor Yanukovych took office as donors have become uncertain about Ukraine’s future. Still, she has received significant support from local businesses, particularly from the nearby Bukovel ski area, she said.
Wrzesnewskyj’s humanitarian efforts have not gone unnoticed in Canada. She was recently a finalist for the “25 Transformational Canadians” award sponsored by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and Cisco Canada. The award highlights the work of Canadians who through their vision, leadership and actions have “immeasurably improved the lives of others.”
A friend of former President Viktor Yushchenko, Wrzesnewskyj admitted disappointment in the last five years, saying more should have been done to move the country forward. She noted, however, it has been more difficult to do business under Yanukovych as there has been an uptick in visits from tax inspectors and other government agencies. Those visits take their toll.
“Every time when I come back to Canada, I think, ‘What the hell am I doing in Ukraine?’” Wrzesnewskyj said.
She said she is considering shutting her restaurant this spring for a short period to study a host of new government regulations which affect the resort.
“I need to find out what these draconian laws are all about,” she said.
Kyiv Post staff writer Natalia A. Feduschak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org