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Old Believers, Reeds and Fish
Very close to the border with ROmania, in southern Ukraine, there is a tiny town which is called Vylkove. It is often compared to Venice, but the only thing that justifies this far-fetched comparison is the presence of many canals. In fact, Vylkove does not have streets in the usual sense of the word — its streets are its canals, and the only means of transportation are boats.
Tetyana KRYVENKO, accompanied by her friends, went there to investigate.
The first thing we discovered upon arrival in Vylkove (we travelled 250 kilometres from Odesa to Vylkove by car), was a sort of “a tourist base” whose only service available seemed to be an inquiry office. The gates of “the tourist base” were locked, and the sign said, “zachyneno” — “closed”, but knocking at the small window of the inquiry office near the gate brought to life a voice which asked what we wanted. We said we wanted, if possible, to hire a boat and look around. The disembodied voice said that “if Petro is anywhere around he will take you on a tour.” We heard a telephone number being dialled, a muffled conversation followed, and we were told, “You’re in luck. He’ll be here in several minutes.” Then the voice added, “Incidentally, there’s a hotel round the corner. You can leave your things there, and, you know…”
We went “round the corner” to discover a big peasant-style house which did function as “a hotel.” I don’t think it could lay a claim even to a very little star if it were listed in a hospitality business catalogue, but the rooms were clean and had beds in them. What else do you really need in a place like Vylkove?
“Conveniences” like washstands and toilets were outdoors.
Petro arrived in a huge boat which could carry a couple of dozen people. Petro was middle-aged, sun-tanned, smiling and friendly. His stories and previous reading provided us with a brief history of the place. What it looks like today we saw with our own eyes — houses on tiny islands and on piles and reeds along the canals were the things that met the eyes. And the balmy quiet with no traffic noise — only splashing of the water beneath the boat and cries of the seagulls above.
Vylkove was founded in 1746 by staroviry, or “old riters,” or “Old Believers,” who were attracted to the place not so much by the beauty of the scenery (with the mouth of the Danube nearby), but rather by the fact that the place could be easily made into an impregnable fortress. Many natural canals, big and small (locally called “yoryks”), crisscrossing the area, enhanced both the scenic beauty and the natural defences. Today, a considerable part of the town is taken by picturesque water canals along which scuttle narrow and sharp-bowed boats (in shape they resemble much larger “chaykas” or “seagulls”— boats the Cossack used in the 17th and 18th centuries for naval operations against the Turks with devastating success).
In the eighteenth century the town sat on the border between the Russian and Turkish Empires; later Vylkove was incorporated into the kingdom of Rumania (one of the Rumanian kings was said to like this place and go there to fish and have talks with local wise staroviry men). After the Second World War, the town was returned to Ukraine.
There is a frontier post in Vylkove because the border with Rumania passes almost through the town, but there is not much to do for a handful of border guards there.
But who were and are those staroviry? For an answer we have to go deeper into history.
In the mid-seventeenth century, czar Alexis (Aleksey Mikhailovich), whom later generations considered to be the very model of a benevolent and gentle ruler, was on the throne. In spite of a generally peaceful character of Alexis’ reign, Muscovy, the country he ruled, kept slowly growing in size, flexing once in a while its military muscle.
Nikon, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a powerful albeit controversial figure, launched a series of church reforms of a debatable necessity. It is not for us to join the debate — let historians decide the finer points of it. In the opinion of many believers, the Church was being made into a tool of the state, into what we might call today “an ideological foundation” (there are, of course, other interpretations of the Raskol, The Great Schism). It triggered a process similar to the Reformation in Western Europe. A considerable number of the faithful and their families opposed Nikon’s innovations. They called for retaining the old style of the liturgical procedure, the Byzantine Rite, and the adherents of this movement came to be called staroobryadtsi (stary — old + obryad — rite; hence “old riters,” or Old Believers — staroviry). The movement, that soon split into several sects, had its leaders, hardly less charismatic and persuasive than Nikon, and the priest Avvakum was the most ardent among them. The tsar sided with Nikon against Avvakum, and in those times theological debates easily transformed into political strife. Avvakum lost the battle of faiths and was burned at the stake (later, Alexis changed his attitude to Nikon who was disgraced and sent into exile). Across the length and breadth of the huge country there began persecution of the staroviry. The “Most Peaceful” tsar even issued a decree encouraging his subjects “to root out the heresy” and burn those staroviry who persisted in their beliefs, at the stake.
Persecution of the staroviry grew in intensity and acquired a genocidal character. The most fervid supporters of the staroviry movement chose to die in mass ritual self-immolation which they called “baptism by fire.” When Peter became the sole ruler of the nascent Russian Empire, repressions against the staroviry continued unabated. They fled to the most remote parts of the Empire where they hoped they could practice their religion free of persecution. Many of staroviry went to the north of the country, some of them went to Siberia, and others went to the south-western lands where, at that time, the central power did not quite reach.
In the early eighteenth century, the staroviry of whom there were many among the Don and Kuban Cossacks, rose in an armed uprising but it was crushed by the army. The surviving insurgents fled further west and east, to Ukraine, to the lands bordering on the Ottoman Empire. Some got as far as the Danube where they settled down, founding new villages and building churches. In many of those border areas they mingled with those Ukrainian Cossacks who had survived the defeat of Ivan Mazepa’s Cossack army at Poltava. The staroviry who lived on the western and eastern banks of the Danube were spared the horrors of persecution and exile in Siberia, mostly because the Russian Empire had little or no control over those Danube territories.
Life in tamed wilderness
From the very start the staroviry communities lived in accordance with a set of strict rules, industriousness and discipline being the most encouraged qualities. At the same time, they were — and are — very friendly and hospitable to travellers and guests who happen to visit them. Idleness and alcohol drinking were looked upon as the greatest sins. Most of these features of staroviry communities have been preserved down to our days and we experienced their most sincere cordiality and exceptionally generous reception when we visited Vylkove.
Vylkove of today is not only staroviry but they determine the general tenor of life. Their men are heavily bearded, many of them are blue-eyed. Both men and women wear clothes whose style dates a couple of hundreds of years back. They speak a dialect which is a mixture of Ukrainian, old Russian and Rumanian. They are fiercely independent and recognize only one authority — God.
But we came to Vylkove primarily to enjoy the scenery rather than to explore the lifestyle of Old Believers. And Vylkove is a very picturesque place indeed. Vylkove and its environs are rich in fish, birds and other animals, among which there are some that have been listed in the books of endangered species. Catfish are said to grow to great sizes but we did not see any of them. But we did see great numbers of birds of many species.
We were treated to an excellent dinner of fish, cooked in large pieces, with hot spices. The local wine proved to be very good too. Though staroviry themselves are not supposed to drink alcohol, they make wine, and very good wine at that. Besides, there are quite a few of those among the locals who do not belong to the staroviry community.
In addition to fishing, one of the local businesses is dealing in reeds which are very good for some commercial purposes. These reeds are even exported.
There is a popular joke told and retold in Vylkove: a Vylkovite who has had too much of novak (young red wine, much appreciated by the locals) sways when he walks, only back and forward, but never to the sides — thus, even if they fall, they will not fall into the water. Those strips of soil and wooden planks that stretch along the canals are so narrow that one half-step to the side and you find yourself in the water. We were much surprised to see some bicycle traffic — mostly children — over timber sidewalks that stretch along some of the canals.
Later, we discovered that tourist companies based in Odesa do send tourists on one- or two-day trips to Vylkove, and organize meals which are highly appreciated.
In summer time, the provincial quiet is somewhat disturbed by droves of painters who come from all over Ukraine to paint in the open air. The number of tourists is growing too.
I have fallen in love with this enchanting and enchanted place.
This kind of rosary, called lestovka, is still used by the Staroviry Old Believers.
A typical “road crossing” in Vylkove.
The iconostasis in the Mykolayivsky (St Nicholas) Orthodox Cathedral.
The monument to the first Staroviry settlers in Vylkove.
Tourist boats are moored here.