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.
Vilkovo is far from the only oddball village in Bessarabia. Up inland and north of the river, in an area populated mainly by Bulgarians and Gagauzi Turks, there's a lone Albanian village called Zhovtneve, although locals prefer its pre-Soviet name, Karakurt.
It didn't take long from the time I arrived before I was hauled off by a crowd of excited kholkozniks to the village bar. The conversation then quickly turned to Yugoslavia. It wasn't what I expected to hear.
'It's unjust, unjust,' grumbled Pyotr, laying his hand flat on the table for emphasis. 'Peaceful people are suffering, dying. Why is NATO trying to decide problems between Serbs and Albanians? Of course I support the Albanians of Kosovo, they are my people, my nation, my blood. But how can one Albanian tell six Serbs what to do in their country? That's how I feel.'
Sonya, an army doctor, had a sharper message. 'This is American aggression,' she said. 'And if they come to Ukraine, we will be ready.'
Some 1,800 ethnic Albanians live in Karakurt. Their ancestors fled from what is now Romania in the early 19th century, shortly after Bessarabia was annexed by Russia. Another 1,500 or so Albanians live in three small villages in southeastern Ukraine. Their ancestors left Karakurt after the Crimean War.
Karakurt today is like an ex-Soviet nation in miniature form. Its leaders are highly Russianized; its ordinary people are largely peasants with a mostly passive attitude to politics. And the tiny community even has its tiny cultural intelligentsia. They have formed a small Albanian cultural association, Rilindja ('rebirth'), aimed at reviving Albanian folk culture and stopping the process of assimilation into Russian culture.
Rodion, a young member of Rilindja, has had many contacts with Albanians from Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Albania. He's been to Istanbul and they come to Karakurt for cultural exchanges. Naturally, Rodion has a very different view of the war.
'I believe the best option now is for NATO to start a ground war,' he says. 'The next best would be step up the air campaign. This war won't end until Kosovo has independence. The Albanians of Kosovo can never live together with Serbs in one state after this.'
His neighbors start shouting over him. They say Milosevic has already agreed to give the Albanians autonomy. One suggests the war is an American plot to weaken the European Union, a popular explanation in Russian media. 'But I'm a radical,' Rodion shrugs.
Rodion hopes to eventually earn a doctorate from the Albanian university in Tetovo, Macedonia, after the Balkans settle down. For now he occupies himself with gardening and his three-man comedy troupe, the Empire of Laughs – 'our national theater,' as Rilindja members jokingly call it. They use a big Albanian flag as a prop – as odd and obscure to most Bessarabian audiences as it would be anywhere – and poke fun at the ridiculous pomposity of provincial bureaucrats.
Rodion also has time to listen to short-wave news broadcasts from Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. Most of his fellow villagers get all their international news from the Russian television station ORT, which has hardly mentioned the atrocities being committed by Serbs in Kosovo, he says.
The Communist Party newspaper in Bolhrad, a mostly ethnic Bulgarian town next to Karakurt, has vehemently supported Milosevic and denounced the 'Albanian bandits' of Kosovo, he adds. But Rodion says he isn't worried about the media whipping up negative attitudes toward him and other Albanians. 'Everybody here knows us, they know we aren't bandits,' he says.
During most conversations I'm obliged to continuously drink the host's homemade wine. Wonderful Zaiber and Cabernet and something they call '1,001.' The other thing you are obliged to do in Karakurt is tell and listen to jokes. Mostly they're Russian jokes, but one seems of local origin: An American meets a Bessarabian and asks, 'When did you live better, in Romania or in Russia?' The Bessarabian thinks a bit, then answers, 'In that moment when the Romanians had already fled, and the Russians hadn't arrived yet.'
As I headed out of Karakurt I met three elderly women, sitting together on the bench that each village house has in front of its fence. It's the same scene in Vilkovo and across Bessarabia. The language changes, the facial features change, the headscarf style might even change, but everywhere you go across Bessarabia, you see the same three old ladies on the bench, gossiping and munching sunflower seeds.
How long that will last, and what will come next, no one can say. Or even much wants to think about.
Tom Warner is the former editor of the Post.