Saving the soul of Russia's exiled Lipovans
Lipovan people who fled persecution in Russia nearly 300 years ago to seek refuge in Romania are now struggling to keep their customs and traditions alive.
Babushka Yuliana Mitry can still chant the words to dozens of the ancient songs the Lipovan people brought to Romania's Danube delta as they fled persecution in Russia nearly 300 years ago.
But as her ethnic Russian minority struggles to keep its customs and traditions alive in a globalised world, the 69-year-old grandmother fears the songs of the Lipovan could one day be lost for good.
Mitry's people left their historic homeland in around 1740, seeking refuge in a far-flung corner of the Danube delta, now a UNESCO world heritage site, where they lived through Ottoman domination and a communist dictatorship.
Also called "Old believers", they were facing persecution after refusing to accept the new rituals introduced to the Christian Orthodox Church by the then Russian patriarch, Nikon, according to historian Alexandr Varona.
Nestled between freshwater lakes and the reed-covered marshes, a few kilometres from the Black Sea, Sarichioi is home to one of the oldest Lipovan communities.
This is Romania, but the language heard on the village streets is Russian.
"Out of 3,867 inhabitants, only around 100 are ethnic Romanians," explains Vasile Dolghin, the local chairman of the Lipovan community.
Around Easter, three- or four-hour masses are celebrated according to the ancient Orthodox ritual, day and night.
Dressed in long skirts and bright, flowery headscarves, hundreds of women attend the services in a space separate from the men.
Based on the crowds thronging the two main churches, a casual observer could be fooled into thinking Lipovan traditions have never been livelier.
With globalisation comes changes
"But things have changed a lot. Most of the young people have gone to work in the city or abroad. Though they know Russian, they prefer to speak Romanian, it's easier," grandmother Mitry tells AFP.
Once a fishing village, Sarichioi now counts more construction workers.
"In the old days, wedding celebrations used to last two days. Now, they only last one. And we no longer have time to sing all the traditional wedding songs. They might be lost forever," Mitry says.
Dolghin set up a folk choir, with Mitry one of the singers, in a bid to preserve the Lipovan musical heritage.
The isolation of the Danube delta, where some villages are reachable only by boat, helped Lipovans maintain their ancestral traditions until early last century. In northern Romania, they used to live in rural communities where they were in a majority, meaning they could speak Russian.
"For about 200 years, the Lipovan way of life remained more or less the same," says Miron Ignat, who represents Lipovans in the Romanian parliament.
But after World War II, the communists imposed urbanisation and collectivisation. Many Lipovans ended up in bigger towns, where they were in a minority. Speaking Russian became ever more difficult.
And religion, which constitutes the "core of Lipovan identity", was severely restricted.
Romania's Lipovan community officially counts around 38,000 people, in a country of 22 million, but their true number is most likely around 100,000 according to historians and church registers.
After the fall of the communist dictatorship in 1989, travelling and studying abroad became easier. That brought new challenges but also new opportunities.
"I left Sarichioi to study in Bucharest. I wanted to see something else," 28 year-old George Frol recalls.
"In the end, leaving allowed me to see that there are Lipovans all over this country but also abroad. The sense of being part of a larger community has grown. Also, on the internet I managed to make friends in Russia," he adds.
Fluent in Russian and Romanian, Frol is now editor-in-chief of the Lipovan magazine Zorile, whose name means Dawn. He returns often to Sarichioi.
Attempts to keep Lipovan’s traditions alive
After 1989, the Lipovan community, together with other minorities, asked the Romanian government for children to be allowed to study in their mother tongue.
Today some 1,800 primary and secondary school pupils are studying Russian as a first language, receiving on average four hours tuition of which one is devoted to Lipovan traditions.
After years of neglect, Russia too has started to support the Lipovans by sending them books, and organising summer camps.
But the Lipovans have no desire to "resettle" in Russia. "Our soul is Russian but our country is where we were born, where we grew up, that is to say Romania," Dolghin insists.
Keep ancient customs alive is even more of a challenge in cities but Olimpia and Vladimir Makarov, a young couple from Tulcea, which lies north of Sarichioi at the tip of the Danube delta, are determined to do so.
Their 10 year-old son, Andrei, learns Russian and religious songs at the local Lipovan church.
"I am optimistic for the future of our culture," says Olimpia, a nurse. "What my children will learn about the Church will always remain with them."
"Our ancestors fled and suffered to keep their religion," adds her husband Vladimir, whose Slavic roots are visible from his blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. "After 300 years it is our moral duty not to let it fall into oblivion."
Isabelle Wesselingh / AFP / Expatica
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