A journey to Ukraine's multi-ethnic region
In the far flung, south western region of Ukraine, life doesn't feel especially Ukrainian in comparison to, say, Zakarpattia or Volhynia. In fact, you could argue that the region isn't typically Ukrainian at all. Bessarabia is a region which has previously played host to a smattering of various conquerors and empires, such as the Nogai tribes from the Northern Caucasus, the Ottoman Empire, Romania, Moldova as well as the Russian Empire. The region was annexed along with Bukovina from Romania by the USSR in 1940 and incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the region became a part of independent Ukraine.
This tumultuous past is reflected in the ethnic make up of the region today. Romanians, Moldavians, Russians and of course, Ukrainians still live here. So too do the Gagauz, a group of Turkic speakers who are mostly Eastern Orthodox Christians and with some of the population living under semi-autonomous rule in Southern Moldova. But as a result of large resettlement projects carried out by the Tsarist Russia, the region is now also home to Bulgarians & Albanians who fled the Ottoman Empire to avoid Islamization. The colourful make up of the regions' population is evident in the cities, towns and villages with some of them either predominately Bulgarian, Albanian or Moldovan while others are a peaceful collection of some or all of the above.
The region appeared to me to be stuck in some sort of strange time warp. There was not much evidence of Soviet rule to be seen, save a few commie blocks in Izmail, the regions largest city. From what I could see, the region felt more akin to that of an Imperial-era province, given that the majority of buildings were built during that time.
Life appeared calm, peaceful, simple, it was almost as if I had step foot onto an island in the Black Sea. The rolling landscapes that I had dreamed of seeing for many years were everything I had hoped for them to be and at the end of my trip, I saw similarities between them and the people: warm, inviting, hospitable, homely.
The first stop on my Bessarabian adventure was Izmail.
Izmail is like no other city I have seen in Ukraine. Its' footpaths, roads, promenades and parks are incredibly neat and tidy and are immaculately maintained. Sadly, this is a rarity in Ukraine thanks to corruption, but for whatever reason these selfish and negligent ways have yet to permeate the walls of the local government buildings and long may that continue.
The city lies on along the Danube at Ukraine's south-western frontier with the EU. Romanian islands are only a stones-throw away from the historical Izmail Memorial Park, a newly renovated promenade walkway with a couple of beautiful blue churches and a mosque from Ottoman times. Nearby is the Danube Navigational Institute, the main educator for the biggest industry in the city, its' port.
Izmail wore the look of an elongated village with no buildings in central areas exceeding five stories. Once you turned off Suvorov Avenue, the main thoroughfare, in any direction, the buildings took on the quintessential village appearance with small multicoloured homes lining both sides of the street neatly dressed in protruding vines. Apartment blocks from the Soviet era were kept to the outskirts of the city near the main train station and this facet of the architectural planning only aided in making Izmail as beautiful as it truly is.
Less than 50km north of Izmail lies the town of Bolgrad. The journey north along the bumpy road was as picturesque and wonderful as I had hoped ever since first reading of the region. According to various data reports since the last Ukrainian census in 2001, Bolgrad and the surrounding region continues to be the home of the Bessarabian Bulgarians of Ukraine. Over 60% of the town and regions population is ethnically Bulgarian, yet the current residents have grown up either towards the end of the USSR or in an independent Ukraine. Their ancestors headed for Bessarabia at the end of the 18th century from their homeland in what was then the Ottoman Empire. During the Russo-Turkic wars of the same century, many Bulgarians fought alongside their Russian counterparts against the Ottomans. This was one reason why so many headed for Bessarabia after the war.
The town itself is the polar opposite to Izmail, in that while it's clearly smaller its also not as well kept. The town is in desperate need of renovation work along its roads and central areas. I was met with peculiar looks while walking its streets and suburbs but as soon as greetings were shared and my reason for being here explained, they opened up immediately to the idea. The receptionist at Hotel Inzov was just as surprised when a foreigner stumbled into her hotel. There can't be much foreigners that make it this far south.
The next morning I asked her if she could call me a taxi to the nearby village of Karakurt. It turned out that she was from Karakurt and was even more astonished at the idea of a foreigner wanting to go there to take pictures. I informed her of my plan to meet some Albanian ladies which had been pre-arranged to which she responded:
"Oh, but they're not just Albanian there. They're Bulgarian, Gagauz, but also Ukrainian too!"
Before I left for Karakurt the next day, she showed me a book of poems entitled ''The Winds of Bessarabia" by
Ivi Dermenzhi, a local from Bolgrad who now lived and worked in Odesa. Each of the books poem were published in five languages: English, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Gagauzian. She was evidently proud of her roots and of her towns people, but most importantly she was happy that she could share her love of this incredibly diverse region with a complete stranger from a foreign land. I have since ordered the book and cant wait to read it.
The next morning a toothless taxi driver named Tolyan drove me the short ten minute drive from Bolgrad to Karakurt. He demanded in a strange dialect of Russian that I chose a specific place in the village to be dropped off at as opposed to my idea of 'anywhere will do'. We arrived at the village school around midday, just as the students were heading to the shops on their break. I immediately noticed how they all wore dark hair and non Slavic features. Inquisitive glances were thrown in my direction as I set off to explore the village with my camera. A number of young children passed me on the streets at various points of the excursion, each and every one of them greeting me in Russian. They knew I was a stranger here, but at once I was put at ease at their overt friendliness. It was just how I experienced the locals of Tirana and Shkoder a number of years ago, the loveliest, warmest people you are likely to encounter.
The village sat on a small hill, folding down onto a football field that was surrounded by small houses on its outer rim. There was a stillness to the place. Not even the prospect of school kids on their lunch break could disrupt the peace and quiet. I continued back up the hill, stopping off at a shop and a small blue church to gather my thoughts before heading for the House of Culture where I was to meet Maria.
Maria was waiting outside on the steps of the Soviet building with one of the many village cats. She welcomed me inside and shared the news of my arrival with her colleagues. The House of Culture contained museum divided into two rooms, a library and a large theatre. She took me upstairs to the museum first, the first room displaying the traditional dress and typical interior of Albanian culture. The next room of the museum was dedicated to old agricultural tools and household items. It is one of the finest museums I have ever seen given the size and condition of its exhibits. A shelf with old radios was of particular interest, none of them out of place from the set of a Cold War film thriller. The tour was interrupted briefly with an invitation to eat with Maria and her colleagues. We broke break and ate tomatoes soaked in salt and dill, rice wrapped in red pepper skins, an unknown meat which was incredibly tough to chew but tasty and washed it all down with about 6 shots each of Cognac.
The second half of the tour was challenging but fun. I jokingly said to Maria in my broken Russian that I thought I was now a better photographer now that I was hammered. She howled in response. She took me into a sparsely lit theatre. It was an impressive size with probably more seats than villagers. The roof had incredibly intricate and ornate detail and I was blown away by its beauty.
Last stop was the library. The shelfs were lined with books about Ukraine and Bessarabia. Maria showed me a book of photographs, containing photos old and new of various councils and groups as well as the different ethnicities of the village and their traditional dress. ''Albanians, Bulgarians, Gagauz, etc". One of the photos above portrays the national dress of these ethnicities from left to right in the same order as listed above. On the walls were hung many paintings celebrating the diversity of the village, either depicting a hand or a sunflower in the colours of the Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Albanian and Gagauz flag. This small village in the deep south of Ukraine really is a lesson to so many parts of the world, particularly in a time of so much hatred for others due to their differences.
I thanked Maria and her colleagues dearly as I headed down the steps of the House of Culture and past the bust of Skenderbeg, the ancient Albanian warrior. I continued on to the village slightly drunk but overall, delighted with the experience. The warmth of the people all over Bessarabia had truly blown me away. I had unfounded high expectations for the trip, namely due to a romanticized notion of the landscapes and the villages collected throughout the years from the pages of various books and I was truly ecstatic that the journey had met my every expectation and more.
As I wondered out of the village towards the main road, I asked a couple of elderly men if I could take their photograph. As was now the norm to me at this point, they were excited and full of questions for a foreigner in their village. I had a hard time understanding their dialect of Russian but somehow they understood mine and they happily smiled and waved for the camera before setting off into the Bessarabian sunset.