There is a village in Odessa called Zhovtneve which was formed mainly by the Albanians 200 years ago ho sought asylum from persecution in the Ottoman Empire, and received an offer of land in southern Ukraine from Russian empress Yekaterina II.
The villagers have much sentiment towards Moscow – a lot more than to Kyiv, and are growing more anxious over the worsening of relations between the two countries.
Half of 2,800 residents of Zhovtneve are ethnic Albanians. They predominantly live on the eastern bank of the river Karasulak. The other bank is populated mostly by the Gagauz, a Turkic group that has an autonomous district in Moldova, right across the border from here. The village is home to 11 ethnic groups, including Moldavian, Russians and Belorussians.
At first glance, looks like any other village in Odessa region. But a more careful look reveals houses that are more elongated, and supported with a row of columns on one side. These are traditional Albanian dwellings. They resemble a long string of rooms, one after another.
“There are very big cultural differences on the west of Ukraine and here on the south,” said Piotr Kirpik, one of the residents of the village, who is half Albanian and half Gagauz.
Kirpik believes that Ukraine should remain united in its current borders, but he also thinks that the idea of federalization makes sense. However, federalization for him and the locals means more autonomy for the region, election of local authorities and more command over budget for the community.
Ukrainians know little about the Albanian community, which is significant in Odessa. Also known by another name, Arnauts, they gave their name to two streets in the city of Odessa, Big and Small Arnautska. There were only about 3,000 Albanians living in Ukraine in 2001, when the last census in the country was conducted. Most of them are based in Odessa region.
Odessa-based political expert Artem Filipenko said that national minorities of the region traditionally have always been rather pro-Russian.
Maria Bitova, another Albanian who heads a library and the Albanian museum of ethnology in Zhovtneve, shows off pots for cooking bryndza, a type of homemade cheese made out of sheep milk, shearing scissors, shoes for shepherds and a bronze statue of Skanderbeg, the national Albanian hero.
Bitova says that while local children love to visit the museum because they only get to speak Albanian there. “We no longer remember many words that our grandparents knew,” she says.
Kirpik says that the Albanian language has evolved, but the local community saved the version their forefathers brought to Ukraine. “So when people from Albania came to visit us here initially we didn’t understand each other at all, but later we found the common words,” he said.
Svitlana and Dmytro Stasko are Ukrainians, but they live in one of the oldest Albanian houses remaining in the village along with their five children. Svitlana Statsko came here when she was nine-years-old. “It’s nice to live among the Albanians here, they are very reasonable and hardworking people,” she said.
On the green meadow at the Gagauz side of the village Piotr Radugov is watching over a big herd of sheep, a dozen goats and one bull. He says all his cattle belongs to residents of just one street who live there. “The Albanians’ herd is on the other side,” he said pointing at the sheep across of the river. Almost every family in Zhovtneve keeps livestock.
The worries will be set aside, however, for a big holiday called Kurban, celebrated by this community on May 6. Although they converted to Christianity hundreds of years ago, Albanians, Bulgarians and Gagauz also celebrate some pre-Christian traditions and sacrificing lambs every spring.
People set tables out in the street and all the neighbors eat together the sacrificed lambs and celebrate this big holiday until the next morning,” Kirpik says. “This is one more thing that unites all of us here.”