Feature: Bessarabia – Melting Pot on the Danube
Not too many Westerners venture into the fertile wedge of Ukraine that lies between the Danube and Dnister rivers. That's too bad because, in addition to being beautiful in spots, it's also one of Ukraine's most culturally peculiar regions.
Its history is equally peculiar. From the late 15th century until Russia's victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1806–12, this region was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks named it 'Bessarabia' after the Wallachian family – the Basarabs – who controlled the area during the late medieval period. When the Russians took over, they expanded Bessarabia to include most of present-day Moldova (plus a small slice of Carpathian Ukraine). The section of Bessarabia lying south of the Moldovan border in present-day Ukraine was dubbed Southern Bessarabia, or Budzhak. Between the world wars it was part of Romania before the Soviets annexed it in 1940 and made it part of Ukraine.
Bessarabia has spent the better part of the past half-millennium getting tossed around like a hot potato by various regional powers. As a result of shifting borders, Moldovans, Romanians, Russians, Turks, Germans and Ukrainians have all called this region home, as have several more obscure groups.
One such group is the Lipovans, Russian 'Old Believers', who were exiled from Russia in the 18th century for refusing to comply with Russian Orthodox Church reforms instituted by Peter the Great. Most of them settled near the Danube Delta, where they still continue to live and practice Old Believer traditions, such as crossing themselves with two fingers, and not shaving. Lipovan churches – one example is the St Nicholas Church in Vylkove – are built in the shape of a boat instead of a cross, have two spires as well as separate entrances for men and women. The interior walls are completely devoid of frescoes.
Next up are the Gagauz, an Orthodox-Christianised Turkish group, originally from Bulgaria, who ended up in Bessarabia when the Russians annexed the area from the Turks after the Russo-Turkish War of 1806–12. Today most Gagauz live in Moldova (where they have their own autonomous republic, Gagauzia), but you'll find Gagauz communities throughout Southern Bessarabia, including an active one in Vylkove. The Gagauz language, Gagauzi, is a Turkish dialect influenced by Russian via the Russian Orthodox Church.
From a Ukrainian perspective, the most significant group to settle in this area was the Zaporizhsky Cossacks, who founded the Danube Sich (a fortified camp) just south of the Danube (in present-day Romania) after being driven out of Zaporizhzhya by Catherine the Great in 1775. Its loyalties split by the Russo-Turkish Wars, the sich collapsed in 1828 and most of its inhabitants migrated back east. A few thousand Cossacks, however, remained in the area, ensuring that a dash of hearty Cossack blood would forever be ingrained in the populations of Southern Bessarabia and northern Romania (where a strong Ukrainian community persists to this day).