Friday, 31 January 2014

The Missing Link: Part 1.4: Kiev to Odessa

world-map odessa


Today’s posting is the tale of a train journey.

I love trains. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember and most of my best travelling has been done on them. Indeed, only last week I went on a trip to London with someone whom I’ve known for a while and yet, sat together on a train for less than two hours and I learnt far more about them than I had in months. There’s something about trains that makes that happen, human beings in close proximity, in a non-place between two worlds, that makes them open up and really get to know each other. Strangely though, this happens far less on aeroplanes, in cars or buses. Trains do it best and that’s why I love them. In a fortnight’s time I’m booked to travel around South Wales on a few and I must admit, I’m rather looking forward to it. Who shall I meet? What shall I learn?

On the trip from Kiev to Odessa, (or ‘Kyiv to Odesa’ if you wish to be very Ukrainian about it all), I learnt a lot. I learnt about a whole tribe of people that I never knew existed, thousands of Bulgarians descended from a group of settlers who fled the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th century and started a whole new life on the plains of Ukraine. It was a fascinating story and, if I ever see him again, I shall thank Genaidy heartily for telling it to me.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:



1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II) 


3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

3.5: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

3.7: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

3.8: Viseu de Sus to Bucharest

3.9: Bucharest (I)

3.10: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip


Journey: Kiev – Odessa

I like great railway journeys and I like great railway stations to embark from.

And Kiev’s railway station certainly falls into that category. It is huge and it is monumental and as well as sleeping in one part of it, I had also spent an evening drinking in its restaurant which is without doubt the most spectacular station eatery that I have ever been in. A large vaulted space, more ballroom than buffet, adorned with fabulous socialist realist murals depicting idealised scenes from life in the old Ukrainian SSR. They truly are the stuff of communist brilliance and fantasy: a combine harvester ploughing through fields of grain or a beautiful Italianate garden looking out onto a gigantic coal mine with slag heaps. The Soviets truly had brought art to the people and as I nursed my beers, I loved them for it.[1]

ML050 Kiev’s station buffet

But now I was leaving that grand terminal and heading for pastures new: Odessa, the grand city on the shores of the Black Sea. In entered my four-berth cabin on the magnificent Soviet Era train and settled down to enjoy the journey, the next link in the chain which would close the gap between my European and Asian wanderings.

I viewed the scenery on and off until a few miles beyond Zhmerinka by which time the light was drawing in. To be fair, the scenery on offer, like on the trips to Konotop and Chernobyl, was none too inspirational. One doesn’t tend to visit Ukraine for the landscape as the country is largely empty and undulating, enormous fields of grain punctuated by trees, villages and swathes of uncultivated land. It is a vast space and a distinctly un-European space.

Asia and Europe are essentially one gigantic landmass yet they possess very different characters and histories. Asia is, and always has been, a big place: huge, multinational empires or kingdoms stretching for thousands of miles. Europe, on the other hand, has always been intimate, a patchwork of tiny kingdoms and principalities. Prior to the modern age, only one power, Rome, succeeded in managing to unite the majority of it into a single political entity yet when one looks at a map of the Roman Empire one can see clearly that it was based around the Mediterranean not the continent, held together by sea lanes as much as its famous roads. And even Rome was piffling in size compared to the vast empires of the Mongols, Chinese and the Russians.

The main reason behind all this is geography. Asia is largely plain, a vast steppe stretching from Minsk to Macao, across which invading armies could sweep, devouring all in their path and uniting all into their huge empires. Europe, on the other hand, is all mountains and valleys, the only plain of note being Hungary, (where, incidentally, one of the most famous of all the nomadic Asiatic tribes settled). The difference was clear to me in 2002 and 2003 when I did my two great trips, across Asia from Japan to Konotop and then across Europe from Bulgaria to the Netherlands. My aim had been to see how Asia evolved into Europe and in many ways I found the great cultural barrier to be the border between China and the former Soviet Union, Oriental to Slavic. This distinction however, is somewhat superficial and false, a product of the last two hundred years, not two thousand.. The Chinese had colonised westwards and the Russians eastwards and this was where they’d met. The indigenous peoples of that region however, the Kazakhs and the Uyghurs were far different; nomadic, Muslim, Asian.

But the change in landscape I had not yet witnessed. Russia and her satellites seem very European because all her tsars after Peter the Great, (and the Bolsheviks after them), had looked that way. But her landscape is pure Asia and travelling from Kiev I knew that I was still very much on my Asian tour. The question remained therefore: when would I enter Europe?

Besides watching the world evolve before your eyes, the other great thing about train travel, particularly long-distance overnight train travel, is that you always seem to meet someone interesting. In my compartment there were two other men talking loudly in Russian, (or Ukrainian, I honestly can’t tell the difference), whilst I read my book and wrote up my diary. When I’d set it down though, the one opposite me tried to start up a conversation. I answered as best I could in my dubious Russian stating my name, age, nationality and so on before explaining with great apology that my Russki ain’t too hot since I don’t actually speak the language but instead speak Bulgarian as I once lived there, but since the two are similar there’s a lot of crossover.

To my surprise though, instead of this admission causing our conversation to peter out into niceties as often happens, this caused a smile to spread across the face of my travelling companion and him to declare, “No problem! I am Bulgarian!”

“Really? Where are you from in Bulgaria? Varna? Sofiya? Plovdiv?”

“No, no, I am Bulgarian but I am not from Bulgaria. I’m from Ukraine.”

Genaidy – for that was the name of the man whom I was talking to – was a member of a Bulgarian minority of, according to him, around half a million,[2] who live in Ukraine in the far south-west of the country, (the bit which separates Moldova from the Black Sea), the Budjak Province, centred around the town of Bolgrad, (lit. ‘Bulgarian town’). I’d never heard of them before, but having a fervent interest in both Bulgaria and minority peoples in the Balkans, I was eager to learn more so we talked on into the night about his people and mine.

The Bulgarians of Ukraine – or ‘Bessarabian Bulgarians’ as they are sometimes referred to – moved to the region voluntarily during the reign of Catherine the Great. Despite there being evidence of human habitation in the region from ancient times, when the Russians took over it was somehow largely empty and Catherine wanted settlers to till the land. She looked to her brother Slavs under Ottoman control, the Bulgarians, and in bands they came. They did not however, come alone, for there were others as well; Genaidy told me about a village near to Bolgrad called Zhortnevoe which is even today populated entirely by Albanians who also made the trip and in addition to them, there were the Gagauz.

The Gagauz I had already encountered during my time in Bulgaria. Near to where I worked in Varna there was a village full of them and in the city’s ethnographic museum, an exposition on their costumes and culture.[3] They truly are an intriguing bunch, a group of Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians who ended up living largely in southern Moldova, (just a few miles north of Bolgrad). But quite how did a group of Turks get to become Christian, (or Bulgarians get to speak Turkish), and in Moldova? No one is quite sure, but at the last count anthropologists had come up with no less than twenty-one separate theories to try and explain the mystery.[4]

Genaidy had a lot to say about the Gagauz as he knew them well. I asked how integrated they were with the local Bulgarians and Ukrainians and he told me that there was a degree of separation. My belief is that true integration comes with intermarriage, (which may explain why in the UK the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have integrated notably less than say the Caribbeans or the Poles), but Genaidy explained that whilst the Gagauz could intermarriage since they were of the same faith, they tended not to as they generally put race before religion. This tendency had become more pronounced since the establishment of an autonomous Gagauzia in Moldova in which Turkey, he claimed, invests a lot of money and promotes a Pan-Turkic identity.

Returning to the Bessarabian Bulgarians, Genaidy told me that fortunately they had suffered little and not been persecuted during World War II and the years preceding it. This was primarily because prior to the war there little chunk of territory had lain within the borders of Romania, not the USSR and so they had been spared the horrific Holodomor and the terrors of collectivisation and the purges. The region eventually became part of the USSR in 1940 after a secret clause in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of the year before in which it had been agreed to had it over – along with the territory of the present-day Republic of Moldova – to the Soviets. During the war they also fared well compared to other minorities within the USSR for whilst Bulgaria was an ally of Hitler, there was a clause in the alliance forbidding them to take up arms against their Slavic brothers the Russians, so the Bulgarians in the Soviet Union were seen as being quite trustworthy indeed. In fact the only discrimination they really suffered was that the Soviet censuses routinely put down the numbers of Bulgarians as being far less then (Genaidy reckoned) they actually were.

Our conversation then moved onto the topic of religion. I’d been intrigued whilst in Kiev to learn that whilst Ukraine is overwhelmingly Orthodox, the country is still religiously divided with there being no less than three separate Orthodox churches there.

Unlike Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy is divided into separate patriarchates which generally hold sway over a particular national territory, (e.g. the Bulgarian Patriarchate in Bulgaria and the Romanian Patriarchate in Romania), but in a new state like Ukraine, things aren’t so clear cut.

The largest church in Ukraine (abut 68% of the population) is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarch). Prior to the establishment of an independent Ukraine, all Orthodox churches in the Ukrainian SSR fell under the jurisdiction of Moscow and after independence this situation continued for most churches. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarch) has its headquarters in the Lavra where I’d visited that day, it generally conducts its services in Old Church Slavonic and is particularly popular in the Russian-speaking east of the country.

The next church is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarch) which was formed after independence when the Kiev Metropolitan Filaret broke away with the blessing of the new national political elite to create a Ukrainian national church free from Russian influence. This commands the allegiance of about 15% of the population.

And then finally there’s the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church which was formed when Ukraine was briefly independent during the Russian Civil War and which conducts its services in Ukrainian. It was persecuted severely under Stalin but survived in exile and was given state recognition again in 1993. It’s adherents number some 10% of the population and are found largely in the Ukrainian-speaking west.

But which of these do the Bessarabian Bulgarians follow? They are in the west of the country but they don’t speak Ukrainian. Do they follow Moscow then or perhaps instead their own Bulgarian Patriarchate? Genaidy was very firm in his answer.

“The Moscow Patriarch. This is the true Patriarch, not some later invention. We have always followed Moscow and we always will.” Of course, if I’d thought about it properly, I could have guessed. These Bulgarians feel little if any allegiance to an independent Ukraine for they are products of the Russian Empire which invited them in to a better life two hundred years before when the Bulgarian Orthodox Church did not even exist, (they were still under the Patriarchate of Constantinople then). Bulgarian they might be, but they are also citizens of a far greater multinational entity in which they were not dominated by the local Ukrainians. Their situation clearly demonstrates one of the major problems that nationalist politicians have whenever they divide up a multinational empire: inhabitants who belong to none of the national groups and who owe their whole reason for being there to that empire which is now being dismembered.

But whatever patriarchate one may follow, Orthodoxy remains of huge importance to many Ukrainians as was obvious from the huge crowds displaying obvious piety and religious fervour at the Lavra and also from talking to Genaidy who loved to discourse on his faith. His wife, he told me, had a PhD in [Orthodox] “Religious Etiquette” but on the other hand his sister had converted to a Reformed Protestant church which had caused some problems. “She says that candles and icons are a sin but how can they be when you can connect with God so powerfully using them?” he asked me. I replied that as a (admittedly very Catholic) Protestant myself, I didn’t see them as such and thought his sister to be quite wrong, for I too find them powerful spiritual aids. This caused him to launch into a lengthy philosophical monologue on the power and sanctity of icons which, I must confess, I understood very little of, but I nodded in all the right places and when finished, greeted my new comrade warmly before turning in for the night.

ML051 With Genaidy on the overnight train to Odessa

Next part: Odessa

My Flickr Album of this trip

[1] Although in terms of the gigantic fields of grain being harvested, it was also more than a little cruelly ironic, for the Central Station building was constructed in 1927-1932, (designed by O. Verbytskyi), during the height of the Holodomor, the manmade famine of 1932-3 which caused the deaths of millions of Ukrainians due solely to the Soviets not allowing the peasants access to all that grain that was being harvested.

[2] This statistic and all the others that follow are all what Genaidy furnished me with. Later on I shall compare them with the official version of events.

[3] See my travelogue ‘Balkania’.

[4] Menz, Astrid (2006). "The Gagauz". In Kuban, Doğan. The Turkic speaking peoples.

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