a blog about Carpathian shepherds on the road, and other journeys


Sunday, 13 September 2015

Found in Mariupol

There is some good news about my quest for Romanian shepherds who migrated to Ukraine and the Caucasus. After years of trying to make contact with the family of one of them, I finally succeeded. Or rather, my friends in Kyiv succeeded and have passed the information on to me. What follows is a brief outline of the situation. 

In 1912, Ioan Preda and one of his brothers led their flock of Turcana sheep from Tilisca in the southern Carpathian Mountains (then part of Austria-Hungary, now Romania) to eastern Ukraine. They settled in a village near Mariupol and for a few years did very well. Then events caught up with them. By the time Stalin came to power, in 1925 or 1926 (I'm writing this off the cuff), things were already chaotic: the First World War coincided with the 1917 Revolution which was followed by a civil war, and widespread famine.  Stalin orchestrated the liquidation of Ukraine's farmers, and well-to-do shepherds were no exception. Ioan Preda lost all his sheep and was deported to Kazakhstan where he continued to work with sheep. One of his sons, (I think it was Pavel, but must check his name), was conscripted into the Red Army. Ioan's wife and another son fled to Romania. In 1954, shortly after Stalin's death, Ioan and Pavel returned to Mariupol (where they had owned a town house). Pavel married Nina. Ioan went back to Kazakhstan and resumed his shepherding career. I would dearly love to know where he went and what his life was like. In Bloodlands, Tim Snyder paints a grim picture of the Central Asian gulags, but a canny shepherd might possibly have carved out a tolerable existence.

Thanks to my Kyiv friends, I now know that Nina survived and - until at least two weeks ago - was still in Mariupol. My friends wrote to her in Russian (because Russian is the predominant language in eastern Ukraine), using an address I'd obtained from a letter Nina's husband had written to the Tiliscan branch of his family  in 1989. 

Since March 2014, Mariupol has been in the eye of the storm. Crimea's annexation by Russia was followed almost immediately by the rise of 'rebel' groups of Russian nationalists in the nearby Donbass region. Mariupol is a port on the Sea of Azov, as well as being an important coal and steel town*. As such it's a vitally strategic point for any group that wants to dominate eastern Ukraine. I went there with my friends in December last year, but there wasn't time to look for the Preda family. It seems amazing that Nina is still there. 

When my friends rang her she was naturally surprised. But what surprises me is the fear she exhibited at the mention of Stalin's name. Nearly three-quarters of a century after he died, she was still afraid to talk about 'that time'.  My friends and I have sent Nina some small gifts and are hoping to talk to her more. Meanwhile I am so thrilled to have 'found' her - and more importantly, to have given her Romanian cousins the news. It makes this sometimes pointless-seeming research worthwhile. 

*Incidentally, the man behind the 19th century exploitation of the Donbass coal mines was a Welsh entrepreneur, John Hughes. Donetsk was once named after him. 

Wednesday, 25 February 2015


As part of my quest for Romanian shepherds who migrated to the east, I found out that one of them had settled in what is now south-west Ukraine.

Lambrovka is a village of some 120 households in the broadly undulating steppe of south-west Ukraine. If that sentence sounds authoritative, it's misleading. I haven't actually been there, and am relying on the few photos and an internet satellite view to give me a picture. Judging by them, Lambrovka looks like thousands of other east European settlements lost in the steppe: it's got rows of single-storey houses, each with its own sheds and a rectangle of land at the back, built around a framework of straight roads. That's only a superficial view because like the region it belongs to, Lambrovka has fascinating stories to tell. And those stories are not only about its past but concern the present, too.

Since the time of Ottoman rule (1484 - 1812), the region in which Lambrovka lies has been known as the Budjak. The name comes from a Turkish word for borderlands. It's appropriate because the Budjak is almost completely cut off from the rest of Ukraine by the Dniestr Estuary and is surrounded on its other sides by Romania, Moldova and about 200 kms of Black Sea coast. 

Covering roughly the same size as Northern Ireland or half the area of Vermont, about half a million people live in the Budjak. About half of them are Ukrainians, while the rest are mainly Bulgarians, Russians, Moldovans, Albanians and Gagauz (Turkish Christians). It was probably always thus: a quick tally of tribes and races that have lived here over the past five thousand years brings together a sparkling array of names: Phoenicians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Thracians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Bulgars, Magyars, Cumans, Pechenegs, Bulgars, Tatars, Genoese, Jews, Germans, Roma, Ukrainians, Russians, Albanians and Romanians. There are surely others. 

If you're touring the Budjak, there's plenty to see without getting lost in its farmlands. You could start with the whacking great Genoese/Romanian citadel at Bilgorod-Dnistrovskii (aka Cetatea Alba and Akkerman) on the Dniestr Estuary, and head west to the pretty town of Izmail for the remains of a magnificent Turkish bastion. In Izmail you are on the northern edge of the Danube Delta, one of the world's great nature reserves, and even if you weren't tempted to cross the border into Romania, you could spend a happy day or two in the riverine towns of Kilia and Vilkove. 

Lambrovka can't compete with these beauty spots, but I was interested in it for another reason. It was one of the places which offered work to shepherds who migrated east from Romania's Carpathian Mountains. Many of the graziers concerned came from a group of villages in southern Transylvania called Marginimea Sibiului. Dating from around 1870, this pastoral diaspora spread right across southern Ukraine into the northern Caucasus and beyond. One of the families I was tracing had landed in Lambrovka. Their name was Ciorogariu and they came from the Marginimea village of Tilisca. 

They arrived in the Budjak during a period of massive upheaval.  At the time, this corner of Europe belonged to the Romanian region of Bessarabia which more or less corresponded to the present-day Republic of Moldova. Bessarabia was about to be swallowed by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, but when the young Ion Ciorogariu settled there with his parents in the early 1930s, his capital city was Bucharest not Kiev.*

During our conversation at his Tilisca farmhouse in October 2007, the 77 year old Ion told me he had spent eight or nine years in 'Lambroca, somewhere west of Odessa, not far from Borodino'. Lambroca was one of several variants on Lambrovka's name (see ** below for some others). It had been a happy time: he said he went to the Yiddish School (which is odd since my research shows there was also a Romanian school in Lambrovka), and that he had many Jewish friends (he called them jidani). Ion claimed he spoke Yiddish better than Russian. He could not remember any words, but his face lit up at the memories, and he showed us a photo of his eight year old self wearing a double-fronted, Russian style coat and an astrakhan collar and hat. 

Lambrovka was founded in 1927 as an agricultural experiment, inspired by a philanthropic German-Jewish baron called Maurice de Hirsch. In 1891, de Hirsch founded the Jewish Colonisation Association (JCA or ICA) to help Jewish people who were being persecuted in Russia and Romania. He wanted to give them the means to emigrate - to Argentina at first - but the impracticalities associated with the wholesale resettlement of millions of people persuaded him to pour funds into projects where they already lived. Maurice de Hirsch died in 1896 but the JCA resettlement scheme continued, not only in Russia and Bessarabia but also in Canada and Palestine. A Palestinian branch of the Jewish Colonisation Association (PICA) was created in 1924 by the banking millionaire and leading Zionist, Baron Edmond de Rothschild. PICA acquired Palestinian land for collective farming schemes similar to the one Ion's father must have known in Lambrovka. Inadvertently, I had run across a cause of the Israeli-Arab conflict. 

Ion mentioned that the village was part of a special project but he did not say that Lambrovka grew famous because of its vines. A correspondent on JewishGen's Bessarabia forum came up with some links. One of them led to a wine-making company called Chateau Grona (motto 'Life is too short to drink bad wine'). Grona is owned by a Jewish family from Odessa who have rehabilitated Lambrovka's neglected vineyards. The family trades under the name of Agroyug. Following that lead I found a news report from December 2014 which says Agroyug is hoping its wines will enter the Dutch market this year, taking advantage of Ukraine's association agreement with the European Union. Returning to the history page on Grona's website, I read this:

'In the 20 years of the twentieth century ICA... created Jewish agricultural commune on the territory of the then Kingdom of Romania. The commune became the prototype of the modern Israeli “moshav”. In 1926 French agronomists visited almost all of Bessarabia looking for the best areas for viticulture. They chose a site near the town of Kaushan, which they named “the ideal plot”. The land (about 60 acres ) have been redeemed , and in 1927 “in an open field” the Lambrovka village was created. The Fund built 52 houses, a winery, and a dairy farm. Around the village, the 52 hectares of vineyards was laid down. Then the Fund moved to Lambrovka 52 Jewish families from nearby villages and towns in Bessarabia. Each family received a property of 1 hectare vineyard, cow and sheep 6. French agronomists and winemakers were managing the project. The winery was provided with the latest equipment at that time. In just a few years Lambrovka became one of most prosperous villages of Bessarabia and its wines were supplied all over Europe including France. In 1937 (sic) the area was annexed by the Soviet Union, but the Jewish community continued to exist until the beginning of World War II. The entire population of Lambrovka was evacuated to Central Asia, and after the war the colonists did not return to the village, moving mostly in the U.S. and Israel.'***
(According to Wikipedia, the Budjak was not annexed in 1937, but was assigned to the USSR in the secret appendix to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, and became part of the Ukrainian SSR the following year. But the political chess game in which Bessarabia/Moldova has played pawn to various larger powers is eye-crossingly complicated - an article in The Economist from January 2015 says that the Budjak changed state hands nine times in 200 years, and it may still not have ended, if you take account of recent moves to make the Budjak independent - so to mention this may be splitting hairs.)

In eastern Europe, farming was not a traditional Jewish vocation because Jews were often not allowed to own land. Apart from Ion's memory, and the links provided by JewishGen and its contributors, my sources were limited and slightly contradictory: one said the Lambrovka project began in 1932, another implied that the village was not established on virgin soil and that somebody had been living there, or at least working the land, already.**   

Ion said his father had moved to Lambrovka from Tilisca, their Carpathian Mountain home, 'several years' ahead of his marriage (to another Tiliscan). In his words it sounded as though his dad had settled there long before Ion was born. But to a young child, a single year can seem like aeons. Ion told me they lived in a 'nice farm house', and that Ciorogariu Sr. raised not the traditional, hardy Turcanas that flourished in the Carpathians, but Karakuls. A black breed, also known as Astrakhans, Karakuls were imported from Asia. They were mainly raised for their skins. The lambs were killed at a few days old, while their coats were still curly, and their soft little fleeces became the collars and hats that were all the rage in those days. It's likely Ion's father's animals belonged to the colony: a list of its assets for the mid-1930s shows Lambrovka owned 500 Karakuls. But there was no mention of a Mr. Ciorogariu or his family.

It all fell apart when war was declared. Looking back, it seems miraculous that Lambrovka's colony existed at all. During the 1930s, hell-bent on creating the 'perfect' Communist society, Stalin deliberately starved most of Ukraine's farmers to death. He then turned his murderous attention to Poles and Jews. But when Nazi Germany entered 'the bloodlands' (as historian Timothy Snyder calls the territory between Berlin and Moscow) persecution came from the west as well. The Ciorogarius decided it would be safer to run. Packing their children into their horse-drawn cart, Ion's father and mother did a midnight flit. They sold their horses at the railway station and caught a train north to Chisinau (now capital of Moldova). Ion's father was thrown in prison for two months, but the family escaped back to Transylvania relatively unscathed.

In 1940, Hungary annexed northern Transylvania. Although Tilisca lies in the south of the region, after King Michael's 1944 coup turned Romania to the Allied side against Nazi Germany, the Russian army invaded most of the country, carrying out brutal raids in Transylvania (because of its German population) before the Moscow Armistice was signed in September 1944. Four years later, Romania's own, vile form of Communism would take hold but maybe the Ciorogarius enjoyed a few years of grace before political darkness fell again.   

Ion made his living as a hatter. He showed me the wooden formas for shaping the shepherds' traditional sapka, a tall astrakhan cap, and let us try some of his old ones on.

When Hitler's army - and the Romanians - invaded Bessarabia in 1941, Lambrovka's Jewish farmers fled to Russia. None of them returned. I appreciated something of the terror created by the Soviet and Nazi regimes when travelling by train across Romania in 2013. During a long, sleepless, freezing night in a couchette without bedclothes or heating, I noticed a frail elderly woman sitting up on the opposite seat, which she had not turned into a bunk. To withstand the cold, she had simply pulled her coat more tightly around her shoulders, and her face wore an expression of great serenity. Whoever she was, she was not bothered. In the morning, my friend and I asked how the woman had managed to survive such a dreadful ordeal. She gave us a ravishing smile and said, 'This wasn't so bad; I've been through a lot worse. When I was two, my parents fled from the Nazis in Bessarabia. They were retreating from their defeat at Stalingrad, and burnt everything in their path. My parents had no choice: they left all our possessions behind except our horse and cart, they put us inside it, and drove us to Bucharest. It took six weeks.  

After the Nazis' retreat, Lambrovka became a Soviet collective farm. In the 1950s, it fell into neglect until its recent revival as a privately-owned vineyard. Vlad Bliumberg, CEO of Chateau Grona group, told me he hopes to bring sheep farming back to the village.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

My work on Romania's migrant shepherds received a huge filip with the 2009 publication of a collection of memoirs, 'Oieri margineni in Crimeea si sudul Rusiei' ('Sheep farmers of Marginimea Sibiului in Crimea and Southern Russia'), which was edited by Toma Lupas, an ex-mayor of one of the Marginimea villages. The book is wonderfully fresh and moving and it is full of information, but it still leaves a lot of stories untold or even more tantalisingly, half-told. Ion Ciorogariu's tale is not included, but even with the ones who are, I'm fascinated to know more about their lives. The Romanian book mentions shepherds who lived alongside Cossacks, shepherds who were bewitched by Caucasian sirens, shepherds who went to Moscow to plead for their fellows, shepherds who were deported, starved, murdered, shepherds who hoarded gold roubles and escaped with their loot stitched into belts and linings... There is one shepherd who took to the road so keenly that he ended up in Japan (though admittedly not as a shepherd), and others who having fled the Soviet terror, made it safely across the Atlantic to the USA. 

* Although the region had a new name, the Moldovan Democratic Republic, and its own government, or Council of Directors General, in Chisinau. 

** Lambrovka's other names. According to the JewishGen website, it was also known as Lambrivka [Ukrainian], Lambrovca [Romanian], Lumbravka, Gofman, Gofmana, Fol'vark Gofmana, and Ungravka. 

*** Lazar Vereta, son of one of the Lambrovka cooperative's founders, told me that the village actually dated from the early 19th century. At the time when the Jewish colony was being established, Lambrovka belonged to a Bessarabian-German landowner. He sold 1000 hectares to the JCA which set about building houses for 53 families, and some additional agricultural buildings. The colony was up and running by 1932. Its inhabitants had to repay 'large loans'. Lazar says that Lambrovka's sheep were managed by 'shepherds from neighbouring villages (or from Romania as in your case).' The shepherds did not practice transhumance.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Ukrainian sleep walk: blundering into a people's war

 On my way to Georgia in the summer of 2014, I made a stopover in Kyiv. It was only a few weeks after the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, MH17, and coincided with the dismantling of the protest camp in the capital's famous central square, the Maidan. During that brief overnight stay I became friends with the young couple in whose flat I was staying, thanks to airbnb. Ukraine's situation was so devastating that I couldn't ignore it. In any case Ukraine was a crucial part of my shepherding research. It wasn't the best, or brightest, time to pursue that quest, but when my friends invited me to return to Kyiv in December to help make a film about Ukraine's struggle against Russian invasion, it was too good a chance to miss. But it was also devastating. What follows is from the notes I made at the time. At times, they became virtually incoherent because I couldn't deal with my own fear. 

Night had fallen by the time we flew over Ukraine. A few pinpricks of orange light showed that life still went on, but the vast landscape that spread out under the Boeing was almost entirely black. Actually it was a relief from the relentless illumination you get over Britain. But the reasons for it were unhappy: local authorities were not only saving money by switching off the lights, they were afraid of making themselves into targets. Our flight on this early December weekday was only a quarter full but I had a companion to talk to. She was a woman from Kyiv, on her way home after four days in Malta, where she'd been trying to get over a broken relationship and escape the winter freeze. Behind her personal story, which was touching but ordinary enough in its way, rose another one, and it stood between us like a wall of darkness to match the stygian panorama below. It consisted of all the questions we were avoiding: how long would her country be able to hold out against the Russian-backed rebels in the east? How long would Europe pretend to believe the lie that no Russian soldiers were involved? How many more people would have to die or flee their homes? And what on earth was I, a British visitor, doing here at all? It was hardly a holiday destination. Not totally sure myself, I was vague, telling her I had come to write about people. Whether she swallowed that or not, I do not know. She did try to explain that the word Russia came not from the Tsarist empire which grew out of Moscow, but from the Carpathian Mountains, where the Rus'yn people lived long before Moscow was founded. Kiev - or Kyiv as I have learned to spell it - cradled a culture far more dignified, just and worthy of admiration than anything seen in Moscow, she said; in fact she told me that 'modern' (ie Tsarist) Russia's leaders had been jealous of Kyiv's standing in the world and had wanted to grab it for themselves. I had listened to a lot of people from different countries talk proudly about their ways being the best. But what this woman said hit home. What are European values after all? What kind of civilisation do we want? Ironically it seemed that I had been following a path that led away from traditional notions of civilisation; following shepherds to the east was in a sense rejecting Jakob Bronowski's theories of the ascent of man. To what end, I was not sure; it was tangled up with a loathing for capitalist rapaciousness, for any bullying by the strong of the weak. As we got up to leave the plane, my companion, who had already shared some of her food with me, pulled out a little shoulder bag. It was decorated with a Carpathian village scene. She presented it to me with a smile of great friendliness. 'For not being indifferent', she said.

So I landed in Ukraine, where only weeks after risking their lives to fight corruption at home, the citizens of this beleaguered country have switched to a different campaign, still death defying, still largely alone. This time the threat comes from an external aggressor, whom, despite the complications of the so-called hybrid war, the international community knows full well is Russia. A power game is being played out on Ukrainian sovereign territory, but because the stakes are so high (the threat of a third world war), Western leaders will likely do nothing to intervene. Ukrainians are perfectly aware of the West's reluctance to get involved. Not for the first time in their history, they have squared their shoulders to face the threat alone. For them this is a fight for survival. Our soundings showed that about half of Ukraine's 50 million people is involved in their own defense. These are people who are refusing to be bullied, and considering the threat, and the lack of external help for their cause, their morale is astonishingly high. That's because the consequences of losing are too awful to contemplate. But the winter is harsh this year, and a humanitarian crisis is making matters even more complicated: people are starving in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk while aid meant to help them is being stolen.

I had been to Kyiv once before, on a stopover to Georgia. My hosts on that early August evening were a young couple who were earning a bit of extra money by letting a room through airbnb. Both were professionals – Tanya, the wife, was a marketing expert who had set up her own firm making traditional, hand-crafted dolls. Alex, the husband, was an MBA who had run his own business development consultancy. Tanya had also been a teacher and Alex had finished medical school but did not want to practice professionally because health service salaries were so low. Since the Maidan demonstrations began in November last year, both Tanya and Alex had given up their day jobs to concentrate on supporting Ukrainian fighters on the frontline.

Ukraine's army was in a terrible state. Since gaining independence in 1991, the government ran it down, thinking its borders were safe. Caught unawares when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, the armed forces lacked training and decent equipment. Word was that the soldiers had been employed doing odd jobs for oligarchs. In October, Ukraine went to the polls again. The faces in Parliament have at last changed - several of the deputies are youngsters who have run their own businesses and worked abroad - and there are signs that the new government is prepared to reform. (For more on this, here's an article in the New York Times.) 

In the emergency, men and women who wanted to defend their country preferred to join one of the new militias, Azov, Donbas or Dnipro, which sprang up as a direct response to the Crimean annexation. Since then, the numbers of irregular battalions had exploded: in December, there were about 40 of them. Alex estimated that the regular army employed about 140,000 soldiers, and that there were at least that number in the battalions. But it was hard to come by official figures: no state institution wanted to admit that it was failing in its job. But everybody knew how bad the situation was: Alex and Tanya were among thousands who had been collecting money and aid for fighters on the frontline. 

On that first, flying visit, I knew only a fraction of all this. But the youngsters impressed me so much with their hopes for Ukraine, their quiet, intelligent patriotism, their compassion and dedication, that I wanted to keep in touch.

So in early December, there I was again. Only this time, I went to help Alex make a film about what he called 'the people's war'. Joining us was a French journalist, called Laetitia Gaudin. Laetitia had spent eight days in Kyiv during the EuroMaidan protests; she was there when things turned really nasty at the end of February – after secret police shooters were let loose on the streets, hundreds of previously peaceful demonstrators died or went missing. Inspired by a passion for fairness and an instinct for news, Laetitia had gone to see what was happening. She and I hadn't met before and have very different backgrounds. But we were united by a sense of outrage and alarm at Putin's creeping influence in the west (by Russia’s funding of right-wing parties in the EU), by respect for Ukraine's brave attempts at independence, by sympathy for 'ordinary' Ukrainians who long to disentangle themselves from the external tyranny coming from the Kremlin and the internal tyranny of corrupt oligarchs. We also wanted to see if there was any truth in the tales that neo-Nazism was rife in Ukraine's population at large and in the armed forces in particular.

During the following week we spent two days hurtling around the Donbas in temperatures that were well below zero. In Mariupol, we spoke to soldiers of the Azov Battalion (notorious for its swastika-like, wolfsangel symbol and frequently accused of brutalities). We also visited regular soldiers on the frontline, about 20 kms from Donetsk airport. Altogether we spoke to about 20 fighters. At the Azov Battalion's headquarters near Urzuf, we looked for signs of goose-stepping gauleiters and saw only normal human beings in combat gear rather distractedly going about their unremarkable business: mending an old ambulance, practising hand to hand fighting in a desultory fashion. We heard from youngsters who had interrupted their university studies to help protect their country from attack.
We talked to an older volunteer fighter who was furious about the Russian invasion, and had left his job to join his two sons who were already in the militias. We heard about the camaraderie, the respect the soldiers felt for their commanders, how the militias were now officially recognised as part of Ukraine's security forces, how they got the army's basic pay equivalent to around 150 US dollars a month, no matter how high their rank. We listened to stories of how ordinary people bring food parcels to the battalion’s gates, and how the fighters feel they get on well with the people of Mariupol. Nowhere did we see any hint of extremism. Perhaps the fascists were hiding round a corner laughing at us. Perhaps they had sent stooges to talk to us. It didn't feel like a set up, and the rumours and press reports about the Azov battalion's neo-Nazist tendencies painted a completely different picture to the one we saw.

To get some kind of objectivity, we turned to independent observers. In September Amnesty International published a report about atrocities committed by the Aidar Battalion in Lugansk province: it highlighted abductions, beatings and theft of property from people suspected of collaborating with the pro-Russian faction. Quoting from the report: “Some of the abuses committed by members of the Aidar battalion amount to war crimes, for which both the perpetrators and, possibly, the commanders would bear responsibility under national and international law." But another Amnesty report states that the numbers of executions committed by Ukrainian militias have been deliberately exaggerated. Indeed the Russian media campaign is one of the most insidious parts of this conflict. For a brilliant analysis of how it works, have a look at Tim Snyder's YouTube lecture, From Propaganda to Reality.

In the soldiers' bunker, we were told that villagers invite Ukrainian fighters to have baths in their homes, how they bring them parcels of food. We asked the battalion members if they were fascists. From what they said and how they looked – educated, intelligent, compassionate - it seemed extremely unlikely. They did admit to liking the sense of fellowship they found in the battalion. We had heard of an ultra-right wing Swedish man and some French volunteers who were thirsting for blood, using war as an excuse for violence. In a situation like this, where nobody is checking volunteers' credentials or credos, there will always be bad apples. A 21 year old medical student from Crimea summed up what we learned: ‘We don’t want to invade Russia. We only want to protect our land. We didn’t want to shoot on our Russian brothers, but they started shooting at us.’ Another young soldier said ‘I’m a patriot, not a fascist. The fascists are on the other side’.

We asked them what they wanted from Europe. Most replied that it would be very nice if the EU would help, with training if not better quality weapons. Europe's involvement is not the lynch pin: those we spoke to are determined to defend Ukraine and whoever its main allies turn out to be, they want their country to be a fair-minded as well as a prosperous nation.

After returning to Kyiv, we went to one of the main collection points for donated aid. Alex guessed that at least 80% of the soldiers’ supplies were sourced that way. On a trip to a supermarket we had seen a basket set aside for people to give what they could. Students had abandoned their courses to work full-time at the centre. They were not fanatics, just youngsters who wanted to help change Ukraine from a basket case into a prosperous country in which social justice could thrive. Some of the students had been there for months, ever since the EuroMaidan morphed into the unofficial war in the east. We met Hrystina whose parents and grannie were still in Lugansk, a rebel held area. ‘They’re OK’, she said confidently. But she had not seen them for a long time. Using whiteboards and charts to send it where it was needed most, Hrystina and her colleagues were collecting, organising and distributing boxes of food – we noticed tubs of homemade soup with their own funny labels announcing it had been made specially for Ukraine’s brave servicemen and women – but also mountains of camouflaged clothing, medicines, sleeping bags, bullet proof vests, toiletries – anything and everything that they could find. Alex had told me one of his own shopping trips had included buying parts to mend a broken tank. The shelves were packed with beautifully wrapped boxes containing Christmas presents.

We heard how government supplies constantly went missing on their way to the war, and how the volunteers are much more careful to make sure their aid gets where its meant. We watched a vanload leaving Kyiv with two trusted volunteer drivers.

But there was still this lurking doubt: were Ukraine’s militias hotbeds of racist hatred and uncontrollable violence? Amnesty International's reports suggest that there were isolated cases but they were not typical. Still, it seemed wise to ask about it ourselves. We consulted two human rights' activists, one working in Kyiv who was called Alexandra and the other in the rebel-held regions whose name was Mariana. Alexandra said it was complicated: like us, she thought that there were a few loose cannons but that the majority of fighters were there because they wanted to protect their country from aggressive invasion. She was more worried about the refugees – she thought there were half a million eastern Ukrainians in the central and western areas. ‘It’s ironic’, she said, ‘the pro-Russian rebels in the east say horrible things about the Ukrainians but western Ukrainians, I’m thinking particularly of people in the Carpathian Mountains, have opened their doors to the refugees without missing a beat.’ 

There was another angle we thought of: if Ukraine was such a Nazistic, anti-semitic place, surely its Jewish population would know. Officially there are 80,000 Jews in Ukraine, but that figure is probably far too low because it doesn not take account of people who do not call themselves Jewish. In the Central Choral Synagogue in Kyiv, we met the assistant chief rabbi of Ukraine. He told us the synagogue was helping to house refugees (often known as IDPs, short for ‘internally displaced persons’ – what a clinical term that is!). The rabbi also said he knew several Jewish men who were fighting in the Azov Battalion and that the synagogue sent regular parcels of aid to the front. He said, ‘If Ukraine is a fascist country, then I’m a fascist’.

A week wasn't nearly long enough to carry out full-scale, in-depth research. Of course our soundings were partial. But going to look was a lot better than sitting at home wringing our hands. If our fears that western Europe is wrong to sit back while Putin gets stronger and bolder were confirmed, we were buoyed up by the positive, brave spirits we encountered. Ukrainians are afraid that western Europe is appeasing Putin at its peril. Sanctions may hamper the Russian leader for a while, they say, but it won't stop him pushing even further into Ukraine. He reacts badly to personal slights, and he needs war to mask his inadequacies at home. That may all be very well: Ukraine may be expendable in western eyes but it is a sovereign state which Britain and the USA guaranteed to protect. Ukrainians are not wasting time whining about Europe's faithlessness: they can't afford to. And actually, they have a history of taking matters into their own hands. The tradition goes back to the medieval yeomen farmers who had to be ready to defend their people's land at a moment’s notice.

This conflict has brought Ukrainians together. What sticks in my mind are the soldiers’ courageous declarations: 'I love my country. I love freedom. I must do something to stop this invasion taking place.' We heard that time and again from the soldiers in the Azov Battalion.

They also want peace, but how can it be achieved? 'This is a hybrid war: you don't know who you're fighting, or where, or when', said a soldier we met at the frontline. There is real suffering in the east. The estimated numbers of deaths caused directly by the conflict is likely to be more than 8000, twice the official number. One recently highlighted problem concerned the hijacking of supplies. One of Ukraine’s richest men, Renat Akhmetov, has been sending convoys of food and other kinds of aid. In December, Ukrainian soldiers at checkpoints began blocking their entry. The reason is that the supplies have been found on sale in Donetsk and Lugansk shops instead of going where it should have, to people in isolated villages who have had their pensions stopped, and have run out of food. But the blocked supplies are also affecting urban pensioners: people in both situations are starving. Government officials in Kyiv stopped paying pensions to citizens in the rebel areas because they do not want inadvertently to support their enemies. Winter came early to Ukraine this year, so food and heating are desperately needed. Hanging over this is the spectre of the state-induced famines which blighted Ukraine three times from the 1920s to the 1940s.

During my last few days in Kyiv, Alex gave me another guided tour: this time we went to the tower commemorating Ukraine’s devastating, deliberately induced famines. We went to the Pechersk Lavra and saw the wall plate dedicated to the Ukrainian who founded Moscow. We looked at the display of miniature art – so fine that you had to peer at each object through a strong lens - and the documentation collected by the artist about the famines. We lit candles in the cave churches. I spent an amazed half hour gazing at Scythian and Sarmatian gold ornaments. We said hello to the giant bronze statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius. And we went through the looking glass in the Bulgakov Museum (and once again, a well-known cultural figure, this time one of my favourite writers, turned out to be Ukrainian not Russian). 

Laetitia and I visited Sta Sophia, an 11th century church with a Baroque exterior. The church stands in a beautiful orchard setting. Its trees were decked with rime frost. As we walked to the west entrance, I stopped to listen to a bandura player serenading two friends. The bandura is a large stringed instrument, rather like a cello. The three individuals were elderly and sat tightly together on a bench, muffled against the cold. The plaintive songs haunted my imagination for hours afterwards: they were a reminder that war is ghastly, and that the best option for everyone is love.

But how? Surely in a just world, Russia would hand Crimea back to Ukraine. It would say ‘sorry, guv, let’s talk about our differences, not fight’. Russian forces would retreat over the eastern borders. People stuck in the middle would be given food and their houses repaired. Then again, NATO hawks would not have taunted Putin by going further east than they promised. The US and UK government would have backed up their legally binding guarantee to protect Ukraine’s borders with something stronger than silence. Russia, Ukraine and the EU would learn to live with each other; Ukraine would not be pushed into joining either of them; we would not have a polarised world where ‘west’ is seen as the enemy of ‘east’, and more than half the population lives in destitution. And so on. It has to be possible. When I was in Ukraine, talking to Alex and Tanya and their like, I began to think it might be.

Ukraine matters: it's not a far away country of which we know nothing or a non-place populated by vicious zombies (as some Russian media would have us believe), but a fascinating, well-educated nation that could be a great potential ally and trading partner – which is not an invitation to go and suck it dry. Ukrainians would like help from the EU and the USA, but true to their Scythian roots, they are not craven about it and though understandably frightened, are not likely to run away (where would they go?). They are well aware of the EU’s shortcomings. As the Slovenian writer, Slavoj Žižek says, it's not Ukraine that needs to shape up, but western Europe. Then there are the oligarchs, power wielding, dodgy freewheelers who seem not to care about anything much except themselves. Spot any differences between them and British robber barons? Should we aim to get rid of them all? Because some of them could make a big difference to Ukraine's future if they chose. One question is, can we trust the signs that some of these figures may have changed their attitudes, or are they chameleons who can change their colours according to the environment? These unknown quantities include the current president, Petro Poroshenko (who is on the face of it, quite conciliatory and pro-Western), and another oligarch called Rinat Akhmetov. Often referred to as Ukraine's richest man, Akhmetov made his fortune in his native Donbas from coal and coke mining. According to bornrich (http://www.bornrich.com/rinat-akhmetov.html) he was the chief sponsor of Ukraine's deeply unpopular president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country during the Maidan protests last year, and Akhmetov himself has been accused of violent crimes, although the charges against him were dropped. Akhmetov represents Yanukovych's political party in parliament but he is a big giver, having donated millions of dollars to charities and other philanthropic projects dedicated to relieving the causes of poverty and putting Ukraine onto a securer economic footing. Rinat Akhmatov was most recently in the news because he has
been supplying aid convoys to the eastern regions stricken by the conflict. But stomach-grinding complications arose there too, because Ukrainian soldiers were stopping the convoys at checkpoints, to prevent the supplies from being stolen and sold in rebel held areas.

These are some of the questions hanging over Ukraine, a place that for me is no longer a vaguely conflicted space next to Romania on the map but a country full of soul.

Ukrainians want peace but not at the price of being destroyed either from within or without. 'We have always been the buffer zone. If Europe will not help us, we will do it alone.'

The People's War, a Ukrainian-French-British film, is ready: if you are interested in showing it please contact me.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Melancholy lady

Viorica lives in a handsome two-storey house in a quiet lane on the south side of Sălişte. In the centre, the fine old village – which became a town in 2007 - has a veneer of civic self-importance, but there are no such pretentions here. There are many such back streets in Mărgineni villages and each one is different. To my westernised eyes, the streets and the houses and the people who inhabit them look at ease with their identity. Even now, few of these lanes and alleyways on the edge of consciousness are asphalted. It’s amazing, or rather worrying how proprietorial I feel about these places. When a jeep or a motorbike screams up and down the tracks, I feel that they are the intruders. This may have something to do with the intolerance of middle-age. Or it could be that these old-fashioned settlements and their mountainous surroundings are extraordinarily beautiful. Whatever the reason is, my short experience of the ‘slow lane’ in Romanian villages makes me want more.

This particular house is detached and has good proportions. It also has the tall boundary walls which you find almost everywhere in traditional Transylvanian homes. But here it’s said that gospodăriile were built like fortresses because the shepherds of Mărginimea Sibiului wanted their daughters to live in total seclusion while they were away with the flocks. Not even a peephole was allowed. There were certainly none in these walls.

It was around 4pm in early October. The sun was starting its leisurely descent to night. Long shadows slanted off the blond stone, plaster and stucco edifices on either side of the lane, which sloped gently down and away from us, zigzagging as it went. On the upper side, a few hundred yards away lay the village boundaries with hayfield and forest. Darkening to black, the thick trees had so far held on to their leaves in spite of the lateness of the year.

Ilie rang the bell a few times. Eventually we heard footsteps coming slowly to the gate. A woman’s voice called out, ‘Cine? – who is it?’ Fingers struggled with the catch, pulled the door open a crack. A good-looking woman stood before us. She could have been in her 70s. She wore a nondescript floral dress that fell decorously below her knees, and sensible, lace-up shoes. But what struck me most was the grief on her face.

Viorica listened patiently to Ilie’s tactful explanation as to why we were there. As he spoke, she relaxed and drew herself up; her old Mărgineni dignity kicking in. ‘I’ve already told my story’, she said, her voice crisp and pleasantly rasping. She was not rejecting us, only tired. She opened the door wider, and we slipped through the barricades.

We got her name and a page of her recollections from Toma Lupaş.  What we read was short and tragic. I was hoping that by talking to her, I’d be able to appreciate better what her memories of her family’s life in Russia meant to her.

Perhaps I was raking over old sores. But the more I delved, the more astonishing and moving these Romanians’ Russian tales became. Having struggled against oppression at home (in the sense that until the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, Transylvania was dominated by Hungarian and Saxon landowners, leaving most peasant farmers - who were mainly Romanian - out on a limb, a situation which Miklos Banffy recognised in his great trilogy about the period), the shepherds risked their lives and endured incredibly harsh conditions, first in Dobrogea and then abroad, to improve their families’ chances. Many did grow wealthy and there was a period of about 50 years when things looked rosy. In Bolshevik terms, however, the rich shepherds from Romania were kulaks, enemies of the people. From 1917 until the Second World War, and for totally different reasons, they were vilified and hounded again. Those who returned safely to Romania during this time were soon plunged into the horror of Romanian communism and most of the gold stashed away from their glory days in Russia was taken by the Securitate (Romania’s secret service).  

To western sensibilities – or do I mean British? - shepherds are not supposed to be lords of mammon. The Jewish and Christian King David’s pastoral background was an indication of his meekness and concern for others, not his power. This is one reason why Gigi Becali [a flashy and vulgar Romanian politician and football club owner who claims to come from shepherding stock] looks like an aberration; his behaviour is not only offensive to polite, educated society but his vast riches get right up the noses of the old, landed, conservative ruling class [in which countries?] whose opinions about who should enjoy wealth and power and who shouldn’t go back to the 18th century at least.

In one way Becali has vindicated the rights of working men (never mind his attitude to women), but in another he insults them. People have questioned the legality of how he acquired his huge fortune. Some admire his incredible cheek and for them he is a kind of Robin Hood, but in most terms, he is not ‘decent’. Is it any wonder that Nicolae Petruţiu and Toma Lupaş wrote with such vehemence about the moral probity of the ciobani mărgineni. In Romania to be a shepherd used to mean you were a national icon but in Gigi Becali the shepherd’s image has been horribly distorted. I was starting to understood better why the Mărgineni appeared to be so closely-knit, and why they felt so beleaguered. But the question of Romanian nationalism is not even so cut and dried as that.   

We walked towards the house. Viorica's yard was actually a small orchard with low roofed, open-fronted barns enclosing its further side. There was no sign of any animals. The L-shaped area was generous for a town garden, measuring about 90 x 60 feet at its longest. It looked as though the grass had not been cut for weeks, and there was no sign of the pretty, sweet-smelling flower borders that I’d arrogantly come to expect. Large, bare patches on the walls of the house showed where the plaster had come off. The evening shadows had fallen right across the yard, leaving no trace of warmth. 

‘My nephews have promised to cut the grass’, Viorica told us. It was embarrassing that she felt the need to apologise. ‘They cut wood for me when I can get them to come here; I can’t do it for myself any more – I have to rely on others for everything.’ She heaved a deep sigh at this sign of failing energy and turned away, beckoning us inside. We climbed a few concrete steps to the first floor of her house; underneath was a cellar, following the layout of many traditional Romanian homes. On one side of the first floor was a verandah that was enclosed with windows. Outside the windows there was a long, flat cill wide enough to carry some red geraniums and one or two vigorous house plants in pots. They brightened the gathering gloom and Viorica smiled when I praised them.

Her kitchen had pistachio green walls and felt chill. There was no fire. Viorica had not been expecting us and I imagined she was saving her fuel for a rainy day. I decided to leave everything to Ilie who had sensed the delicacy of the situation and seemed keen to take the lead. While Viorica began her narrative, I pulled out my recorder and switched it on. In my haste I forgot to double click the record button which made me lose a minute of her introduction during which she told us that her family was from Vale, a mile or so away to the east of Sălişte. It means the same in English but you pronounce it the Latin way, as in Ave atque Vale. I was lucky to have Ilie to refer to, and it was another bonus that Mrs Popîrţan spoke so clearly (although even then I didn’t always understand her). Her articulacy showed me once more that the ‘peasants’ of Mărginimea Sibiului’s war-time generation were well-educated and proud of it.  

‘My grandad on my mother’s side was with the sheep in the Crimea...’, said the voice, husky now, though whether from emotion I couldn’t tell. She held herself with dignity and I reminded myself that we were asking her to revisit memories that were probably painful and which she had already written down recently for someone else. ‘...and my bunicu (grandad) on my father’s side was in Bessarabia.’

 ‘My mother’s father came home just before the (1917) Revolution – he and my uncle got together with some other Romanians, two brothers who were also from Vale.’

In her statement, she said that good pasture was plentiful in Crimea, so her grandfather rented his land instead of buying it. Because the climate was also mild, they didn’t have to do transhumanţa any more. 
‘They took it in turns to return to Vale once a year. After the Bolsheviks came to power, the borders closed and grandad couldn’t go back to Crimea. But his oldest son was still there; he was married.’

That was Ioan Stirimin, whose unfocussed gaze stared so intensely from the sepia photo Toma had shown us. We looked at my copy of it, and I noticed how formal it seemed as he faced the camera together with his melancholy, dark-haired, beautiful Russian wife and serious little boy. In the photo, Ioan had a strong nose, a broad forehead, slightly receding hair brushed down flat to his head and a splendid handlebar moustache. He wore a shirt buttoned tight up to his neck and a rumpled suit that looked as though it had seen better days. His wife – we still don’t know her name - wore a coat or tunic with a wide collar; this too was buttoned high. Knowing what we did of their lives, the picture made them seem defensive.

 ‘We didn’t hear anything from him at all until the Second World War started. I think it was in 1942. Mamica (mummy) had a letter from him. It said he was a translator in the Romanian army.’  Toma had a photo from this period too: there was Ioan in a suit next to three Romanians in uniform. His hair is grey and his moustache has gone but the shirt and suit could be the same ones.

‘He said he wanted to be repatriated. So my mother helped to get his papers and he returned. He was with his Russian wife; they had a little girl of four. That was in ’44, before the Armistice. My uncle was very ill; after six months he died, and when the Russians came - Săliste was evacuated in ’44 for about a month - his wife took herself and the child off with Russians. She didn’t speak Romanian and I didn’t know anything about her...’ Viorica explained that Ioan had married twice; she didn’t know what had happened to the beautiful girl with the soulful face or to the little boy from that first marriage.  

The evacuation was news to me but not to Ilie, ‘Da, da, da’, he replies, understanding, fascinated. ‘And your uncle and grandfather, beforehand, did they have many sheep?’

Da, au avut multe oi, foarte multe – many, many sheep.’ Her emphasis reminded me of a conversation I’d had a couple of weeks before in Timişoara with a Romanian professor who was obsessed by the derivations of words. He told me that the ancient Latin word pecus, a flock, used to be an indication of a person’s wealth as in the English pecunious. The 19th and early 20th century flocks of Crimea would have been too.

‘And when did your grandfather first go to the Crimea?’

‘I don’t remember; the girls (my mother and aunts) were young... He was one of seven children; the oldest ones took themselves off to Russia, to the Crimea.’

‘You don’t know the name of the place?’

‘I don’t know; it will be on the stamp on that photo that I gave to Tomiţa (Toma Lupaş)... I don’t know because I was too young, all I remember is that my granddad had problems with his stomach. I’m not sure how he got home but maybe he had to swim across the Nistru (River Dniestr); perhaps he swallowed the freezing water and the cold went to his stomach.’

‘Right, so was he avoiding the borders so as not to get caught?’

‘Yes; and my uncle stayed behind with the sheep; I don’t know if they were taken by the Whites or the Reds; we knew nothing about him, but grandad couldn’t go back’. Her story was full of broken shards. In the statement she gave to Toma, Viorica said that the Bolsheviks or some of his hired hands had stolen the sheep – she used the word jecmanit which my dictionary translated as ‘fleeced’ – and legal documents which proved his ownership of them as well. I had to piece the bits together like a conservator mending a shattered antique vase. [Sometimes the pieces didn’t quite fit.]

‘Grandad brought mummy home because he wanted to die in his own country. He’s buried in Vale.’

Da’, Ilie sympathised grimly. His own family had left Russia much earlier than Viorica’s and had avoided these horrors. He looked down, reflecting on life’s tragedies.

In a statement that Viorica published two years later, she said that Ioan Stirimin had married for the first time in 1925, and his son had died at the age of six or seven. He remarried in 1938, had a daughter with his second wife, and it was this family that Ioan brought home to Romania just before he died.

The story kept taking different turns.

‘The brothers Suciu from Vale; after the Revolution, they went to America’. This was another strand of the Transylvanian shepherds’ exodus: a lot of them went to the United States (some went after escaping from the Soviet Union) and introduced brânza to the people of Montana.

‘After two years, they came home. There were four people from Vale in Crimea. One of the Suciu brothers married a cousin of my mother.’ [Was that Paraschiva Roşca?]. Her precision helped to bring the reality home but tantalisingly I still couldn’t patch the bits together.

Paraschiva had taken advantage of her generosity towards the bookish Dumitru to help Ioan Stirimin get home during the Second World War, that war which Romania waged for personal reasons with the Soviet Union and then changed sides. (?) When Ioan told his family in Vale that he wanted to get out of Crimea, she went to beat on the vice-governor’s door. That’s how in the spring of 1944 the Stirimins from Vale and Sadu were waiting for him on the platform at Sibiu’s railway station. But he was very ill from the terrible conditions he’d suffered, and in the autumn of the same year, aged 54, he died.

‘My father was from Sălişte but granddad was from Vale’. Again that sense of pride in where you come from: many of the older generations of Mărgineni still have it and Viorica was no exception.

Interested for his own sake as well as mine, Ilie got back on the shepherding case, ‘So what did they do in Crimea? Did they concentrate on sheep?’

‘Yes, yes, sheep. Before the Revolution, many Romanians had a very good situation in Crimea, each person had about a thousand head.’ Less than the 20,000 recorded in mid-19th century Mărginimea but still a sizeable flock by anyone’s standards.

‘What kind of sheep were they? Merinos?’ Pronouncing it the Latin way, Ilie guessed well: it was from their life among the Russians that Romanians learnt that the old Spanish breed produced better wool than the sturdier, dread-locked Ţurcana.

‘Who knows...’ Viorica is not a shepherd and anyway it was before her time. But the probing brings results.

‘One of dad’s sisters stayed in Bessarabia. She married a Săliştean out there. We knew nothing about what happened to her for many, many years. Then we had a letter from them; a grandson came here, and we went to Bessarabia to see matushka. We got out at the Gara Basarabeasca and they were waiting for us with a horse-drawn carriage. And even there, there was a Săliştean; he had a restaurant’ she laughs at the irony and Ilie joins in – these Mărgineni get everywhere.

At this point Viorica Popîrţan pulled out yet another strand of the tale.

‘His sister/cousin? Paraschiva and her husband [Dumitru Şandru] were shopkeepers in Sadu (another Mărgineni village). In the same comuna (district) lived a poor family with 12 children. Their father was a furrier. One of the kids, called Dumitru, had an agile mind and he loved reading. Paraschiva and her husband helped him get through school and my father prepared him for university [so what did her father do?].

In 1944 Dumitru was a university lecturer in Bucharest and during the war, he was vice-governor of Transnistria. He used to visit Sadu from time to time. Paraschiva and my mother were good friends and used to see each other a lot. Knowing that her brother was desperate to leave Crimea, mummy begged Paraschiva to ask Dumitru to intercede on his behalf. He arranged everything and a month later, Ioan came home by train. But he was very sick by that time, and he died the following autumn.’ 

Visibly upset by confronting so many sad stories at once, Viorica changed the subject: ‘You are from Sibiu?’ she asked Ilie.



‘Yes, I’ve been retired since I was 50’.

‘What pension do you get? 50%?’

‘I wish’, bridled Ilie, thrown onto the defensive, ‘Poveşti - That’s just lies!’

He stretches a little and looks at me.  It’s time to go.

Na bine – OK’.

(For more information about Romanian shepherds who migrated to Russia, please visit these pages on my website.) 

Friday, 26 September 2014

Maidan, bye bye

 In August 2014 I went to Georgia looking for traces of Romanian shepherds who had reputedly been there in the late 19th century up until the time of Stalin's purges. On the way, I made a stopover in Kyiv, capital of a beleaguered Ukraine. This is a piece I wrote about that brief first visit. (I had hoped it might be accepted for the BBC's radio programme, From Our Own Correspondent, but it didn't make it that far).

The courteous man in the crisp, short sleeved shirt made room for me next to him. Speaking excellent, slightly accented English, he helped me pay the right fare in the crowded bus from the airport to the city centre and asked me where I was from.  

“Ah, you are very British”, he said when I told him, still flustered from flying into Kiev for the first time in my life. “Take it easy, breathe slowly.” After a few moments, he tried again.

“What do you do?” 

“I´m a writer”, I said airily, “I write about sheep”. 

“Oh, that´s very noble”, my companion replied, with the hint of a sneer.  So I asked him in return.  

“I´m Russian, a journalist actually. I´m on my way back to Moscow. I was covering Wimbledon in London and I´ve just been in Spain for the golf.”  

He leafed through the Ukrainian newspaper that someone had left on his seat.  

"The EU economy isn't doing too well these days." 

I took in his tan, his smooth good looks and his simian smile. 

A few days before I´d finished Anna Politkovskaya´s searing account of corruption and brutality in the Russian state. This was a bizarre way to start my Ukrainian stopover.  Anna Politkovskaya had given her life for the truth and here was this hack talking about golf.

Oleksii met me in the street.  He was a tall, straight and slender man in his early 30s.  His face was pale but his eyes were burning.  I had found him on airbnb, and had arranged to stay one night at his flat on my way to Georgia.  He showed me the modest but spotless room in his equally spotless and modest home. Then he suggested an impromptu tour of the old city centre because “it would be a shame to miss it”. 

It was already dusk in the Maidan but the barricades were still there, along with the Christmas tree covered in placards, the rousing slogans painted onto the walls of tall buildings, the khaki tents and the tyres.  The subdued street lighting made the vast interconnected squares seem even larger than they were.  Without traffic to pollute it, the air was fresh.

“It was so quiet here in the spring”, Oleksii told me.  “It was the first time I had ever heard a nightingale sing.”

It was quiet now: a few people were still using the tents, but Oleksii said they were mainly tramps. My eyes fell on noticeboards carrying photos of the missing and the dead. One showed a man holding a cat in his arms; he looked to be no more than 35, and he was laughing straight at the camera.  

It was hot on that 6th of August night.  A couple of guys with bare chests and wearing camouflage trousers had ducked under a café umbrella in front of us near the composite portrait of Bandera, Ukraine’s controversial freedom fighter*.  Many of the young men had gone to fight separatists in the East.  Although he had been to the protests every day, Oleksii had not joined the fighters in Donetsk and Luhansk because he had been recovering from an illness that had left him bed-ridden for four years. 

When he offered to take my photo in front of a pile of tyres, it felt as though I were feeding on carrion. Hundreds of people had died here earlier in the year, and now we were moving through a carapace: the revolution was elsewhere, MH17 had crashed only three weeks beforehand, and whatever that Russian reporter had been doing, I was an intruder too. 

We left the Maidan and walked on.  We passed heroic Soviet statues that punched the air under arches of rainbow neon, and were deafened by karaoke bars.  Oleksii brought us to a halt at a parapet overlooking the Dniepr River.  The sky was quite dark by now and the river looked like an indigo inland sea. 

Walking back to Oleksii’s flat, I saw a pile of scrap metal.  It had a sign beside it, that Oleksii translated. It said “Excuse the inconvenience, we are rebuilding our country”.

We crossed a road where, in February, snipers had mown down protesters.

“I saw people dropping to the ground for no reason”, Oleksii told me.  “We heard shots, but didn´t connect them with killing.  We had no idea what was happening until we saw the tv pictures.” 

“Who was doing the shooting?” I asked.

“The secret police.” He had no doubts.

A few minutes later, we came to an avenue of handsome, floodlit buildings.  Oleksii pointed to one of them, which had a magnificent, curved and pillared façade: “That was the first women’s college in Europe.” 

Oleksii told me he had qualified as a doctor but abandoned the profession to study business because medical salaries were so low.  He was married and his wife was still at work when I’d arrived. 

After booking my room, I had found them both on facebook. They had posted a video tour of Kiev’s famous sights with themselves as the guides.  They appeared in each location wearing smiley masks made of bright yellow plush.  In war you have to find happiness wherever you can.

If I had been confused as to Ukraine’s status within Mother Russia, Oleksii put me straight.  “My country has a very long history”, he explained. “Archaeologists have proved that there were people living here 35,000 years ago, and DNA tests show they have the same genes as modern Ukrainians.”

I had tentatively mentioned Kievan Rus and the Grand Duchy of Moscow, having read that Kiev was considered to be Russia’s birthplace. 

“Kiev was here long before Russia”, Oleksii averred.

We came to more recent topics, the cloudy, push-me, pull-you situation that had developed since Ukraine declared its independence, in 1991.   

“NATO and the EU are our only hope.” He wasn’t starry-eyed about the EU, but saw it as the better of two evils.  “All I want is a decent future.  We have a chance, there are millions of us, not like in Chechnya or Georgia.  But first we have to win the war.”  

Back at the flat, Oleksii showed me the tidy bathroom, and the minute kitchen where he would make my breakfast before I left the next morning. “Will you be up in time?” I wondered, always the anxious traveller.  “Oh, yes, don´t worry: I´m not working during the day right now because Tanya and I have been collecting money to buy medicines for our wounded soldiers in the east.  We´re planning a six-day round trip by road to Prague to buy Celox, and other stuff which we can´t get here.” Celox is a blood coagulant, good for emergency surgery.   

When I gave him a donation, he looked surprised, then grinned for the first time that evening: “It´s our first British contribution.  Don´t be afraid: we´ll use it well.” In a rush of confidence I told him about reading Anna Politkovskaya´s book, which had never been published in Russia or Ukraine.  Oleksii looked confused, then understood. “They killed another campaigning journalist a few weeks ago”.

I must have been one of the last foreigners to see the Maidan in its revolutionary clothes. The next day, the authorities started stripping them away. 

As the Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing lifted from the runway on its way to Tbilisi, the passengers clapped. My neighbour crossed himself.  I wondered what the man I´d met on the bus was doing, or writing about, now. Covering some other, well-funded sporting activity perhaps, while a handful of his fellow journalists, brave to the point of suicide, were picked off for getting in their president´s hair.  

*Black, white or somewhere in between?  Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) was a leader of the Ukrainian independence movement.  He was born in the period when Ukraine was still under Austro-Hungary.  He declared Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union in 1941, eight days after the German army invaded the USSR.  Although the Germans incarcerated him and liquidated several members of his family, Bandera has been vilified for anti-semitism, for causing thousands of Polish deaths, and for collaborating with the Nazis.  He was murdered by the KGB.  According to a 2009 poll, two-thirds of Ukrainians believe Bandera was a force for good, and a third think he was very bad.  

Further reading:

Anna Politkovskaya on wikipedia

Anna Politkovskaya's book, Putin's Russia

Robert Legvold on Putin's Russia, a failing democracy

Update on the Pussy Rioters

Euromaidan press for the latest news from Ukraine


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Tracking Romanian shepherds in Georgia (and travels with Devi)

In August 2014 I went to Georgia in search of Romanian shepherds. This is an extract from notes made at the time.

So far, without much luck: all I've got to go on is a book called 'Oieri margineni in Crimeea si Sudul Rusiei', a collection of memories, documents and photos charting some of the adventures that befell shepherds from Marginimea Sibiului, an enclave in the southern Carpathian Mountains, when they migrated east with their sheep.

One of the maps in the back of this great little publication has a big yellow stain marking the diaspora.  It began in about 1870 and lasted until Stalin put an end to any aspirations of prosperity the Romanians might have had.  Their move to the east was only one example of Carpathian shepherds' long-distance transhumant journeys, but while it lasted, they not only used the winter pastures available on the northern and eastern coasts of the Black Sea, but settled there as well, establishing farms and families in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, southern Russia and Georgia. Some of them went further afield, reaching Astrakhan, Azerbaijan and even Iran. 

I first heard about the phenomenon in 2007, and I've become rather obsessed by it, as though those particular pastoralists were heroes of some kind.  It's a tricky argument to maintain.  Shepherds are usually pragmatists: they'll go where they can find better, cheaper pastures, following economic principles not romantic ones.  There's a difference between sheep owners and hired shepherds, and nowadays the latter often live like dogs.  Yet talking to transhumant shepherds in Romania has revealed something else.  Masters and employees often relish the freedom and fellowship of the road and they have a relationship to their animals that belies mere functionality.

Over the past two and a half weeks, I've been travelling through Georgia following some of the clues in Toma's book.  There aren't that many, in fact the only concrete fact I have lighted on is that Stefan Nanu of Tilisca went to Georgia at some point, either while he was working as a hired shepherd, or afterwards, when he became some sort of fixer, or a businessman.  We know he tried to intercede on the Romanians' behalf with Kalinin, pleading the shepherds' cause so they wouldn't lose their hard-won wealth to the steely Soviet state.  We also know he wrote letters home to Tilisca, and they are still in his family's possession.  But when and for how long he went to Georgia is a mystery.   

Helping me in my quest has been Devi Asmadiredja.  Half Sundanese (Indonesian), half German, Devi deserves a book to herself.  She's been living in Georgia for the last three years, during which time she's learnt to speak Georgian and Chechen and has established herself as an intrepid mountain guide.  Devi loves the shepherding life, and thanks to her, we've been chasing up any leads we can find - names of people and villages mostly - to justify that yellow stain leaking into the space between the two chains of Caucasus Mountains. (Since Tara Isabella Burton wrote about Devi for the BBC magazine, Devi could well become a household name, so I've added some photos of her here - they may not appear alongside this post, so if you can't see them, try scrolling up or down.)

Our best hope on this trip was finding out that there are two villages with names exactly or nearly the same as margineni ones.  Both are in Javakheti, south-central Georgia, near the Turkish and Armenian borders.  Hearing the word 'Tilisca' made me jump out of my skin: it was one of Devi's friends who mentioned it casually, as a place near the town of Akhalkhalaki.  Devi and I hot-footed over there by marshrutka (minibus), a journey of 15 minutes costing roughly 50p each way.  Consusingly, the windscreen bore the name 'Dilisca' in Cyrillic letters: I still don't know which is the correct spelling.

Letters apart, I could hardly contain myself, but everything went rather flat when we met a 70 year old farmer from the Georgian Tilisca, or Dilisca.  He was said to know everything about the place but told us he'd never heard of any Romanians there.  On the contrary, it had been an Armenian village since Armenians were expelled from eastern Turkey in 1830.  Before that, it was a Georgian one, with a history leaping back to a misty past that didn't seem to have room for Transylvanians.  A family of Armenian folk singers that runs the Cultural Centre in Akhalkhalaki told us that Tilisca comes from 'tiliscari' which is a Georgian word.  It means 'the door of the morning'.  If only it had opened. 

We didn't make it to Vale, the other place with an identical name in Marginimea Sibiului, but a Georgian historian agreed with my hunch that the direction of influence could just as well have gone in reverse, with Georgian names being taken to Transylvania, not the other way round.

Both countries have a strong Orthodox Christian tradition, and in the late 17th century, Bishop Antimos, a Georgian from the southern region of Samstkhe, was invited by Prince Constantin Brancoveanu to visit Wallachia.

In 1694, Antimos was installed in Snagov Monastery, in the forests near Bucharest.  He founded a printing press and commissioned a lot of other monasteries, before being exiled to Mount Sinai for fomenting trouble.  Antimos supported Wallachia's struggle for independence from Ottoman Turkey and the Greek Phanariots who had a stranglehold on Romanian politics after Brancoveanu and four of his sons were murdered by the Sultan in 1711.

If there is a wider connection between Georgia and the Romanian principalities, Antimos could well be one of the keys.  But there are other links: eastern Romania and the Caucasus were once part of Cumania, a Turkic polity that ruled a large area to the west and east of the Black Sea for several hundred years after the Roman empire ended.  Cumania gets its name from the Caucasian Kubans, whose forebears came from Syria.  There is a fortress called Cumania on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains.  Coman is a well-known Romanian Christian name.  One of the Romanian sheep farming families I know in Marginimea Sibiului traditionally gives the name Coman to one of its boys in each new generation.

Why start with Georgia, when there are firmer accounts of Romanian shepherds settling in the northern Caucasus, Crimea and eastern Ukraine?

Maybe it's just a coincidence of names that made me want to start there:  St. George being the patron saint of England, who may have got his horse-riding attributes from the Sarmatian knights who careered over Caucasian pastures and sent their chivalric traditions to western Europe, Ghita the Romanian shepherd whose spring walk I followed, and whose name is short for Gheorghe, a beloved godfather whose name was George...  It comes from a Greek word for farmer, or someone who works the land.  Georgians are famous for their practicality - they are born farmers.  It had to be Georgia. 

And now it's nearly time to leave, saying goodbye not only to the first stage of what I hope will be many other Georgian journeys, but also to the other travellers I've met here: adventurous young things who have been stopping off in Tbilisi for a few days - or sometimes weeks - while crossing entire continents on cycles, motorbikes, by hitching, on horseback or in a tuktuk (that one was Romanian!).  Fearless of political or psychological propaganda that might persuade others to stay at home and cover their heads, they've made me want to get up and go even more. 

And then there is Devi: her story, and her struggle, are for another time, and would be told better in her own words.  Without her help, I'd have got nowhere, without even the small progress made so far.  I wouldn't have met Kists (Chechens of Pankisi), Ossetians and Svans in their own homes, I wouldn't have shared chips and onions with the shepherds of Patara Khanchali, or met Ani, a German woman who's working with destitute villagers to give them new ways of making a living from their land and their skills.

Without Devi and her imperious subversiveness, I wouldn't have hitched lifts with Turks and Georgians, spent nights in an abandoned workmen's cabin or sleeping on a verandah with the Caucasus Mountains for my curtain.  I would have missed the protesters who want to stop a seven-storey hotel being built in Vake Park.  It's unlikely I'd have found myself under a lime tree in the dusk sipping wine with its maker who showed us the ceramic pots that he'd buried two metres in the ground, copying the ancient fermentation method in which everything is chucked into the mixture and left there over winter: grape flesh, skin, seeds, stalks and all.

Sadly we didn't make it to Tusheti this time, but I'm saving that up for cooler weather, and when my blisters have healed.

I could have done without being marched through the streets of Devi's favourite village in 40 degree heat 'to show to my friends what a tourist looks like', and I got a bit hot under the collar when she kept ordering me, with mock-Germanic severity, to 'SIT DOWN'.  Without her warnings not take photos or notes in sensitive situations, I might have more accurate records of people who've been living on the edge, caught in a no-go area which the outside world regards with suspicion - or doesn't regard at all - and whose daily lives are fraught with difficulties.  She was right: it could have been dangerous for everyone if my journalistic greed had got the better of me.  Learning about other people's lives, and understanding their points of view, is about listening patiently, not just clicking camera buttons.  As I think about buying stamps for last minute postcards and packing my gear for my early morning flight, I know that without Devi, I wouldn't have got nearly so far, and I wouldn't have had so much fun.

For more information on my search for Romanian shepherds in the Caucasus, visit this page and follow the links.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Protest for a free world

Look for pastoral on google, and you'll find the pages are all about religion.  There is a link between that kind of pastoral care and looking after sheep: it's all over the Bible and figures in the Koran as well, but the way priests talk about tending their human flocks can sound too lofty by half.  Of course I had it in mind when I started this quest for transhumant sheep farmers - you know, simplicity, dedication and goodness.  But the more I think about it, what I was after was examples of decent humanism.  People who really want to look after our world.  Not The Good Shepherd in a frock.  Still I think it's a shame that farming is becoming ever more impersonal and profit-driven, and when you see real shepherds, like the ones in Romania leading their grists on transhumance, it's hard not to make connections with archaic leaders of souls, many of whose names have vanished, leaving us with a few well-known ones, such as Christ and Mohammed.  It's not just their long cloaks that do it, but the patience, dogged or otherwise, to stick with the caring role.

I'm holed up in soggy Pembrokeshire, unable to join my friends in the Carpathian Mountains for the moment, but have taken heart from Romanians like Matei Budes.  He may not keep sheep, but he and his colleague, Bogdan Palici, belong to a voluntary organisation called Vira which is leading a campaign that truly cares for the world.  Vira is based in Barlad, eastern Romania, near where Chevron wants to frack.  Since February 2012, Vira has been informing the public about the true implications of having shale gas exploration on their land.  They are clear about the consequences of using the cocktail of chemicals that are needed to extract the gas.  They know that there is a danger from irreversible water, air and soil pollution, especially in a region where many people live directly from the land.

Inspired by the hardy resistance of the Salvati Rosia Montana campaign, Budes and Palici have made a documentary film about the demonstrations against the gold pit that took place last September in Bucharest.  It was a sensational turnout: thousands took to the streets to conduct a peaceful protest, and hundreds linked hands to encircle Romania's parliament house - a photo in The Guardian newspaper (23rd September 2013) caught them in a joyous moment, as though they were dancing round a May pole (for an article about the protests in The Guardian, see this page).  Here's a link to a clip from the film, Toamna Romaneasca (Romanian Autumn):


And here's a link to a recent article about Vira:


It's a chain reaction.  Here's another link in that chain, this time to Terra Mileniul III, a Romanian NGO that since 2009 has brought more than 70 non-profit organisations together, all of them working for a more environmentally friendly, less greedy, future:


This is so encouraging.  Historically, Romanians have been criticised for bending their necks before the sword, for allowing Communism to corrupt their souls, for giving way in order to survive.  Of course, it wasn't as simple as that - and the flurry of new books describing Romanians' political resistance shows how wrong that judgement is - but since 1989, the young and determined who care about their country's future are not standing idly by.  It's ages since I heard a Romanian say, 'Ce sa facem?' ('There's nothing we can do about it'), when questioned about why they put up with bad government.  We could do with more of them here.

Quiet by comparison, Pembrokeshire is certainly not free of corruption, or anti-corruption protests.  It is also famous for its environmental campaigners, its green 'shepherds'.  Satish Kumar, the editor of Resurgence, used to live here.  John Seymour wrote some of his books about sustainable living at his house in the Gwaun Valley.  The self-build housing project, Lammas, which gives plots of land to people who want to make their own eco-houses, is based in Pembrokeshire.  So are Brithdir Mawr and Fachongle, communes that help people who want to escape the rat race.  In the pretty coastal town of Newport, there are the Eco Centre Wales, which is campaigning against fuel poverty, and the Real Seed Catalogue (sourcing and selling traditional but vanishing breeds of vegetables).  Not a bad place to be, even if it isn't Romania, and even if shepherds don't lead their sheep to pasture any more.

Later: Idly grazing in cyberspace, keen to return to the nub, I found this reason for being terribly excited about the modern uses of sheep: they can eat the grass under those monotonous rows of panels in solar farms.  The piece is from an on-line magazine called Grist, or a Beacon in the Smog, but was written for the New York Times in July 2014, and, hallelujah, it's funny too.