Among the ideas with which Peter the Great returned from the West were that Russia's Orthodox religion needed 'reform' and that men should be clean-shaven. Most Russians went along with it, but there was a stubborn few who were having none of it. God don't shave and we ain't shaving neither, they said, it ain't fitting, it just ain't fitting. Or something like that.
But the authorities were determined to see the project through. So the refuseniks packed up their kit bags and hoofed it all the way down here to make their home with the frogs and the storks on the lower Danube delta. At the time, this area was still in the Ottoman Empire. But to be more precise it was nowhere. Nobody was out here and nobody was coming out after them. They learned to make rowboats and canals and turn marshes into arable farm plots. They built stone churches, kept up the old calendars, the old icons, and of course, their beards.
They call it 'Ukrainian Venice,' but instead of a city on the sea, it's a village in the middle of a marsh. It's still full of 'Old Believers,' as they came to be called. There has even been a post-Communist revival of the churches, although the younger generation is more keen on discotheques. I happened to show up on their St. Nicholas' Day, which is a big holiday for them. They had long tables set up outside the church lined with old men and ladies munching bread and sipping borshch and wine. There was even a German TV crew there to record it all.