Albanians of Ukraine Struggle to Keep Identity Alive

Albanians of Ukraine Struggle to Keep Identity Alive

 Far from their ancestral homeland, tiny minority faces dwindling numbers, assimilation and split allegiances between Moscow and Kiev.

Being Albanian is complicated in Ukraine. Just ask 19-year-old Sasha Popov. “I understand Albanian and grew up speaking it, since my mom is Albanian, and my dad is Bulgarian,” he says. “But I only started speaking it as a teenager, when I began hanging out with my friends. I prefer to speak Albanian with them,” he adds.

Popov comes from Zhovtneve, a small town in Ukraine’s Odessa region nestled beneath Moldova and beside Romania. Zhovtneve is unique in Ukraine because 60 per cent of the inhabitants are Albanians. The rest are Bulgarians and Gagauz – ethnic Turks – proof of the many powers and nationalities that have laid claim to this part of the Black Sea region.

“I identify as an Albanian, although I speak Bulgarian. I have never been shy about saying I’m an Albanian,” says Popov, puffing out his chest a bit and smiling.

Popov studies information technology in the larger regional city of Izmail but goes home on weekends to Zhovtneve with his ethnic Bulgarian friend, Vlad Zhlyaskov, 18, who studies in Izmail at the maritime academy.

In Zhovtneve, they relax at the cultural center, home to a cafe frequented by young Albanians who come home at weekends. It is a meeting point and a place to share their common heritage. Upstairs is a one-room history museum and an Albanian cultural center with modern pictures and maps from all over Albania.

The youngsters are connected to one another, but less so to a larger Albanian national narrative because their knowledge of the Balkans is often minimal. The most that the group can muster to say about Albania is to recount a memory of a visit from an Albanian ambassador several years ago.

Another of Popov’s Albanian friends, Afonya Gridur, 19, says he used to be a member of the Rilindija dance group that performs in the culture hall. But he is too shy—or too cool—to show off his moves, preferring to take a drag on his cigarette.

Down the road from the cultural center is Zhovtneve’s primary school, which welcomes pupils in five languages. Banners in Ukraine’s blue and yellow read “Welcome” in Gagauz – a relative of Turkish – Bulgarian, Albanian (written in Cyrillic), Russian and, arched above them in the biggest letters, Ukrainian.

The school teaches students from all five backgrounds lessons in Russian, literature and language in Ukrainian, and some speak in their native tongues in the hallways, though with the influence of television and pop culture, most are more comfortable in their common language of Russian.

“Fewer children address one another in their native tongues in the hallway than they used to,” a teacher remarks. Many prefer to speak in the language they all have in common, Russian.

Across from the school a donkey is tied up in front of an orchard. Villagers go about their business and, down the street, the elderly sit outside their high-fenced properties on benches, greeting one another and discussing the latest string of violence and upheaval in Kiev, Moscow and the places between.

The Albanians mostly use the Tosk dialect of Albanian, with some Russian words thrown in. Words like “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” are more commonly spoken in Russian rather than Albanian. And, instead of the contemporary Albanian toast “Gezuar”, they say “Shindet dhe Beriket,” an older phrase that is still used in among Balkan Albanian speakers to wish someone good health.

After school, Oleh, 15, plays outside with Islam, an ethnic Bulgarian, as they wait for the shepherd to bring their sheep back from pasture. “When I am playing with my brother, we play in Albanian,” he says. “But when we are all together, we play in Russian.”

Asked to introduce himself in Albanian, he struggles until a group of older women sitting on a nearby bench help out. One goads Oleh on, encouraging him, and he repeats the words in Albanian after her.

Without classes, books, or TV, Oleh has only his parents and elders to teach him the language of his ancestors. In Zhovtneve, where tolerance and intermarriage have persisted through years of wars, occupations, and agricultural collectivization, Albanians are struggling to maintain their identity without a shared sense of attachment to a country other than Ukraine, with a language they don’t know how to write.

Sasha Popov has a few simple books in Albanian but he can’t write or progress further without someone to teach him. “I have books at home in Albanian, a few school books, but that’s it,” he says.

Oleh’s neighbor, Pyotr Kirpik, says he tried to watch Albanian TV but could not follow it. “We can only communicate with Albanians (from Albania or Kosovo) in person, we can somehow understand one another if we speak slowly and gesture,” he says.

“We used to have Albanian satellite TV but we could not understand it because the people spoke so quickly and their language has evolved in the last 200 years,” Kirpik adds.

Far from their old home

Ukraine’s Bulgarian community, which is approximately 140,000 strong and concentrated in the Odessa region, has strong ties to Bulgaria. It receives help from organizations supporting Bulgarian culture, language and schooling at all levels and there are numerous cultural centers throughout Ukraine. Most Gagauz, Orthodox Christian ethnic Turks, live close to Gagauzia, a breakaway part of Moldova lying just across the border, where they can travel easily.

But Ukraine’s several thousand Albanians have been more or less alone and far from home for 200 years, disconnected from the Albanians of the Balkans.

Now they are no longer confined to Zhovtneve’s Albanskaya Mahala, or Albanian quarter, however. The community has looked to the Internet to connect it with other Albanian communities in Ukraine, and with Kosovo and Albania, to help educate a new generation of Albanians in their language and culture.

The Albanians who wound up in Ukraine were Orthodox Christians who joined forces with Tsarist Russia to fight against the Ottoman Empire. In the 18th century, a group of Albanians left Korce, in southern Albania, recalls Sasha Dementli, an Albanian from the Zhovtneve who recently published a book about Albanians in Ukraine. After forming a regiment in the Russian Imperial army, they were repaid for their service with land in southern Bessarabia, where Zhovtneve is, and further northeast, in Crimea.

In 1811, they founded Karakurt, which means “Black Worm,” in Turkish, for the black widow spiders that were prevalent on the land.

The territory switched from the Ottomans to the Russians and then the Romanians from the late 1800s until the end of World War II, when it became part of Soviet Ukraine. The pre-war Romanian authorities opened the first village school, now a crumbling building behind the rebuilt Orthodox church. Most elderly people still understand Romanian, although they look upon that era as a period of occupation.

Lingering traditions

Local Albanians have preserved their language, some foods, and some traditions. Every May 6, they celebrate “Kurban,” giving a Muslim name to the Orthodox St. George’s day.

“Our ancestors saved these traditions and I am thankful to them,” Dementli says.

Kira Syupyur, an Albanian from Zhovtneve now living in Izmail, speaks also of traditional cuisine like mamalik, a polenta dish resembling kacamak, a Bulgarian lamb stew called kavarma, and sarma, a variation on the common Balkan and Eastern European sour cabbage stuffed with meat and rice.

But many traditions were lost as the territory was transferred from one country to another from the 1800s onwards. The 1917 Russian Revolution brought other challenges. Kira’s husband, Misha, speaks of a grandfather he never met. He was a kulak, or land-owning farmer, who held private land and animals, and who, as a result, was sent to the labour camps in Siberia and never returned.

Allied with Nazi Germany, Romania took control of the territory again in World War II, when it became part of the Ukraine. In 1947 the Soviets changed the name from Karakurt to Zhovtneve, which means October in Ukrainian, in homage to the October 1917 revolution. Under the Soviets, many villages were renamed. Another village nearby is called Chernoarmenskaya, or “Red Army.”

However, residents are trying to bring the old name back. Groups on Facebook and other social networking sites call it Karakurt, and at the village’s bicentennial celebration in 2011, it was referred to by its old name.

Zhovtneve was a small farming village but under the Soviet Union life changed dramatically. Most of the residents were brought to work on the Kholkhoz, or collective farm. Kira Sypyur remembers that back in those days children from 10 to 12 were excused from school in order to pick grapes in the vineyards.

But not much changed else in the village’s appearance. “There are five streets,” Misha Syupyur says. “The one known as Zarechnaya, or “Across the river,” is where the Gagauz, also known as Chitaki, live. On one side is where the Bulgarians are, and on the other are Albanians,” he adds.

The Albanians in Ukraine have meanwhile moved around and intermarried, which means that the population of those declaring themselves as Albanian has diminished. There were 5,258 Albanians in the Soviet Union in 1958, concentrated in Ukraine. By 1970, that number had fallen to 4,402 and by 1989, only 4,085 remained, one of the smallest recognized minorities. The most recent data from Ukraine’s 2001 census listed 3,308 Albanians, 1,740 of whom spoke Albanian as their first language.

Historian Dementli spent several years researching his book about Albanians in Ukraine and wants to promote Albanian culture and language. But the current government doesn’t concern itself with such small minorities, he complains. He hopes the governments of Kosovo and Albania will provide assistance or sponsor exchanges. “Unfortunately, no one wants to deal with this or finance it,” he says.

“We had a cultural center in Odessa, but it closed. There was a center in the village, but it closed. With the kind of enthusiasm now, it won’t happen,” he laments.

“It needs money and energy, and for young people to become interested in their heritage,” he adds. “Our children and grandchildren need to know where we came from. They don’t know how to write in Albanian. It would be great to travel there and speak with people in Albanian – to learn to write.”

Zhovtneve’s one-room Albanian culture museum consists of old looms, rugs, some furniture, clothing and household objects. A pair of traditional shoes, or “yapinga”, is on display. While most traditional Albanian songs, dances or poems have been lost, Yuliya Karanyeva is trying to revitalize Albanian heritage for young people with a new dance troupe, called Rilindija.

“We can learn new dances and songs on the Internet and on television,” she says, brandishing the traditional dance costumes worn by her troupe.

Rilindija performed traditional Albanian dances and songs learned in this way at the cultural center at the village’s bicentennial. Dancing is one way for residents to reclaim their heritage and history, she says.

Another is the drive to revive the village’s old name. “We all say that we are from Karakurt now, not Zhovtneve,” Karanyeva adds.

Divided loyalties

Ukraine’s current political divisions have further confused Albanian identity and allegiances.

In Zhovtneve, inside one of walled home compounds, Pyotr Kirpik and his wife, Lena, work in the garden, tending to beehives, feeding the chickens and planting. In Albanian, he gives instructions to Sofia, an older Albanian woman who helps work in his vineyard.

“This is always been a diverse part of the world, we all speak many languages but we always interacted in Russian, and we want to continue to do so,” he says as a Russian soap opera set in the Tsarist days (subtitled in Ukrainian) plays in the background.

Members of the community who have been friends for years have mixed opinions on which country they would like to live in. Lena also wants closer ties to Russia, because of the security they felt in the Soviet Union.

“We are far, very far from Kiev,” she says, planting cabbages. “It is awful what is happening. Our daughter is in Russia, we have cousins there, our whole lives we were with Russia, and are now,” she adds. “I don’t want to hear anymore that we are separating from Russia.”

Her husband would be happy if Russia annexed the territory outright, incorporating it into a corridor of territory in south Ukraine along the Black Sea from Crimea to Izmail and including Moldova’s own breakaway regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia.

“I want to be a part of Russia,” he says. “Western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine are two different nationalities – two different cultures.” At the very least, Kirpik adds, Ukraine must change into a loose federation, just as the Russian government has demanded. He has fond memories of the Soviet Union and what he felt was its acceptance of all nationalities, in contrast to the growing Ukrainian national sentiment in the capital, Kiev.

“In those days everyone spent time together… everyone came to everyone else’s assistance … it didn’t matter if they were Albanian, Bulgarian, Gagauz, Russian, Ukrainian, Jew,” Kirpik says. “How can I suddenly become Ukrainian if I was an Albanian my whole life?” he asks.

But not all local Albanians think that way. Kirpik served as kum, or best man, to Misha and Kira Syupyur. They watch TV online in Ukrainian and have a little picture of Ukraine’s jailed former Prime Minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, in their dining nook. “I don’t want Russia, I want Europe,” Kira Syupyur says. “People have to change, to move forward.”

Zhlyaskov guards his words about what he wants for the future of his country, instead expressing concern that his fellow students at the maritime academy could be mobilized if the conflict between Russia and Ukraine escalates. As far as 19-year-old Popov is concerned, when asked about what sort of future he wants, he just smiles: “Maybe I’ll go to Albania.”/BIRN//Oculus News

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