Kyiv-based Irish photographer Bradley Stafford takes us on a dreamlike journey to Ukraine’s southwest
In Ukraine’s far flung southwest, life doesn’t feel Ukrainian in the way it does in Zakarpattia or Volhynia. In fact, you could argue that the region isn’t typically Ukrainian at all. Bessarabia is a region that has played host to a smattering of conquerors and empires, including the Nogai tribes from the Northern Caucasus, the Ottoman Empire, Romania, Moldova and the Russian Empire. It 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 past is reflected in the ethnic make-up of the region today. Romanians, Moldavians, Russians and Ukrainians still live here. So too do the Gagauz, a group of Turkic speakers who are mostly Eastern Orthodox Christians, some of whom also live in a semi-autonomous region of Southern Moldova. As a result of large resettlement projects carried out by Tsarist Russia, Bessarabia is also home to Bulgarians and Albanians who fled the Ottoman Empire to avoid Islamization.
On my recent trip, Bessarabia seemed stuck in time. There was little evidence of Soviet rule to be seen, save for a few communist blocks in Izmail, the region’s largest city. The region felt more like an Imperial-era province, which makes sense given that the majority of buildings were built during that time.
The first stop on my Bessarabian trip was Izmail.
Izmail is like no other city I have seen in Ukraine. The footpaths, roads, promenades and parks there are incredibly neat and tidy and immaculately maintained. Sadly, this is a rarity in the country thanks to corruption. For whatever reason, these selfish and negligent ways have yet to permeate the walls of the local government buildings in Izmail and long may that continue.
The city lies along the Danube at Ukraine’s southwestern frontier with the European Union. Romanian islands are only a stone’s throw away from the historic Izmail Memorial Park, a newly renovated promenade with beautiful blue churches and a mosque from Ottoman times. Nearby is the Danube Navigational Institute, the main educator for the port, the biggest industry in the city.
Izmail wears the look of an elongated village with no buildings exceeding five stories in central areas. Once you turn off Suvorov Avenue, the main thoroughfare, the buildings take on a quintessential village appearance with small, multicoloured homes lining both sides of the street and neatly dressed in protruding vines.
Less than 50km north of Izmail lies the town of Bolgrad. According to various reports since the last Ukrainian census in 2001, Bolgrad and the surrounding region is home to the Bessarabian Bulgarians of Ukraine. Over 60 percent of the region’s population is ethnically Bulgarian, yet current residents have all either grown up in the USSR or in 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 the Russians against the Ottomans. This is one reason why so many headed for Bessarabia after the war.
The town itself is the polar opposite of Izmail: it’s very unkempt and in desperate need of renovation along its roads and in central areas.
Before I left for the nearby village of Karakurt, a woman showed me a book of poems entitled The Winds of Bessarabia by Ivi Dermenzhi, a local from Bolgrad who now lives in Odessa. The poems were translated into five languages: English, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Gagauzian.
I arrived in the village of Karakurt around midday, just as the students were heading to the shops on their break. A number of young children passed me on the streets at various points and each and every one of them greeted me in Russian.
The village sits on a small hill, folding down onto a football field that is surrounded by small houses. There is a stillness to the place. Not even 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 to the House of Culture where I was to meet my host Maria.
Maria was waiting outside on the steps of the Soviet-era building with one of the many village cats. She welcomed me inside and shared news of my arrival with her colleagues. The House of Culture contains a museum divided into two rooms, a library and a large theatre. She took me upstairs to the museum first, which displays traditional Albanian dress. The next room was dedicated to old agricultural tools and household items. It was one of the finest museums I have ever seen of its size, and in excellent condition. A shelf filled with old radios looked like it belonged to the set of a Cold War thriller. The tour was interrupted with an invitation to eat with Maria and her colleagues. We ate tomatoes soaked in salt and dill with rice wrapped in red pepper skins, an unknown meat which was incredibly tough but tasty, and washed it all down with about six shots of Cognac each.
The second half of the tour was challenging but fun. I joked in my broken Russian that I would be a better photographer now that I was hammered. She howled in response. Next, she took me into a sparsely lit theatre. The roof had incredibly ornate details, and I was blown away by its beauty.
The last stop was the library. The shelves were lined with books about Ukraine and Bessarabia. Maria showed me a book of photographs that contained pictures of councils and groups as well as the different nationalities of the village and their traditional dress.
On the walls hung many paintings celebrating the village’s diversity and the colours of the Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Albanian and Gagauz flags.
I thanked Maria and her colleagues as I headed down the steps of the House of Culture and past the bust of Skenderbeg, the Albanian national hero.
See more of Bradley’s photos on his website
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