Saturday, September 25, 2010

Stepping To The Edge

The city of Odessa was founded by Catherine the Great to be a southern Saint Petersburg. I haven't been to the latter, but I certainly wasn't impressed with the former. My impression wasn't aided by arriving to grey skies and morning drizzle after six gorgeous days in Crimea. The grid of wide, tree-lined avenues seemed too impersonal, the grandeur too contrived. It may be the most cosmopolitan city in the country thanks to its port, but that just makes it a bland European city, lacking the wacky edginess of other, post-Communist Ukrainian cities. Instead it had the seediness that comes with being a port, namely in the proliferation of suspect "internet clubs" that aren't internet clubs at all but are just a front for gambling (apparently all casinos were closed down last year after the mafia behind the industry didn't pay a sufficiently large bribe to the government, and so they've migrated to the online world where the authorities are powerless). The only sight of note is the Potemkin Steps, made famous by this scene from Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin, one of the most influential in cinema history. Once again reality gives it quite a beating with an ugly port at the bottom which is home to a great carbuncle of a hotel that blots any semblance of a view. Not that Eisenstein would have minded that much since the actual event never actually occurred, and at least the purveyors of Soviet memorabilia and people offering photo opportunities with large birds of prey have a place to make a living (no kidding about the last one - I saw three separate people with birds ranging from golden eagles to snowy owls loitering around the steps hawking their pets to tourists for a photo op. Very odd indeed.).
Up close and in reality the Potemkin Steps are pretty disappointing, especially as they've built a main road right at the bottom.
But Odessa, for me, was but the gateway to the oft-ignored (even by Ukrainians) southwestern corner of the country where truly few people venture. The region's historical name is Bessarabia (which also comprises today's Moldova), and I remember when, as a young teenager, I first heard the name, I imagined some exotic, Middle Eastern paradise, and so was a little non-plussed when I discovered that it differs little from the rest of the Ukraine i.e. flat, green, big fields. The area is extremely fertile as three of Europe's biggest rivers (the Danube, the Dniester and the Dnieper - and if you don't count rivers that are entirely within Russia then they are the top 3) drain into the Black Sea around here. But in spite of its agricultural richness, or perhaps because of it, the area has remained very underdeveloped and rural. For a long time this was the end of the world as far as the Russian empire and Soviet Union was concerned, with the wetlands of the Danube and Prut forming significant physical barriers, and this feeling of remoteness is still there today. The last 15km of road to Vylkove rivals anything in India or Cambodia for potholes and it took the bus some 40mins to cover this last stretch. As one guy I met in Vylkove told me, "there's absolutely nothing in town: no jobs, no opportunities, nothing. It's a hellhole." So why go there? Well, the town, thanks to its non-strategic and absolutely neglected position, became a refuge for a Russian religious minority known as the Lipovans, or Old Believers. They are Russian Orthodox but split from the church (or the church split from them) in the 17th century after the patriarch of the time noticed that there were a large number of differences between the Orthodox religion in Russia and the one in Greece. Since Greece was the origin of the church he decided to change the rites and practices of the Russian church to bring it more in line with the Greek ways, thought to be older and therefore purer. The changes were too much for the dyed-in-the-wool Old Believers who clung to their old ways and were cast out as heretics and so they fled to this god-forsaken corner of the empire where they could practice their faith in peace. So what were the schismatic differences that caused such a rift? Among the most important were the way in which the sign of the cross is made (Lipovans use two fingers whereas mainstream Orthodox use three), the number of Alleluias (again, two instead of three), and the number of loaves of bread for the Holy Communion (seven instead of five). As you can see, these were weighty differences indeed and required banishment. The supreme irony is that it's most likely that it was the Greek rites that had changed over time and not the Russian ones. Be that as it may the bearded Lipovans (the conservative ones are not allowed to shave their facial hair) came to Vylkove and set up shop, building the town from scratch and setting up their own churches. The town is famed (if that is the right word) for its canals which the locals had to dig to drain the marshy ground, although comparisons with Venice are even more of a stretch than for Mopti. From the banks of the Danube you can gaze across at Romania, which might as well be an ocean away for the lack of contact between the two sides, and for which I will have to be patient as instead I turned north towards Moldova.
An Old Believer church in Vylkove, shaped (allegedly) like a boat.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Funny enough, the Lipovans have been re-received in the Mother Russian Orthodox Church in the late 70's, after centuries of anathemization.

Too late for many to care, now that they have their own church and in the age of modernity they can print their own books, replacing those centuries old Bibles their parents used to pray with.

I would actually be interested to go to the Lipovans in North Siberia, in those parts only accessible by plane. I heard there are 3 Lipovan villages who are still fully autonomous, living in perfect isolation and praying with the Bibles from XVIIth century.