Where the Rivers Come Together

September 2018
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"Where the Rivers Come Together" is a photography and writing project by Gabriela Bulišova and Mark Isaac that explores the surprising diversity that exists in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, which is home to as many as 133 different national communities. Although the city is dominated by Ukrainians and Russians, its spirit and public life are defined by the much smaller groups whose influence extends well beyond their actual numbers, creating an unmistakable heterogeneity in the city’s language, culture, and cuisine.

Mykolaiv was created by Prince Grigory Potemkin at the confluence of the Southern Bug and Ingul Rivers for the purpose of building warships. But at a time when Ukraine and so many parts of the globe are enmeshed in war and conflict, Mykolaiv’s diverse communities have lived almost entirely in peace for generations. Bulišova and Isaac explored this paradox by focusing on individual members of these communities, interviewing them to learn more about their personal experiences and to better understand their strategies for peaceful coexistence. They made portraits of the participants and then paired them in diptychs with a place or object of great importance to each person’s cultural heritage.

In an article accompanying the photographs, the artists highlight the very personal, face to face approach of Mykolaiv residents as a key reason the city has been able to maintain peace and friendship over the years. However, in the age of fake news and the instant amplification of prejudice and hatred, younger community members are turning to social media as their most important means of engagement, raising important questions for the future.

Walking down the streets of Mykolaiv, a former secret shipbuilding center in Southern Ukraine, you might think that everyone looks vaguely the same: white, Slavic, bundled up against the wind and cold that swoops in from the two rivers during the winter. But your impression would be wrong, because this somewhat insular city, off the tourist track and struggling to produce new jobs and compete with nearby Odessa for attention, is home to 133 national communities, according to an official list created in a 2001 census.

True, this city that was once famous for its warships, is dominated by Ukrainians, who make up approximately 84 percent of the population, and Russians, about 12 percent of the population, according to a 2017 opinion poll, but the city’s spirit and public life are nonetheless defined by the much smaller minority groups whose influence extends well beyond their actual numbers, creating an unmistakable texture of diversity in the city’s language, culture, and cuisine. And at a time when Ukraine and so many parts of the globe are enmeshed in war and conflict, these communities have lived together, largely in peace and cooperation, for generations.

How was the mosaic of modern-day Mykolaiv created? According to a legal edict of Catherine the Great in 1762, all those who wished to come to the Northern Black Sea coast were invited and provided with benefits and assistance. As a result, a wide array of different ethnic groups came to the region. In 1789, Prince Grigory Potemkin created Mykolaiv as a shipbuilding center, and many specifically settled here to obtain related jobs. The Jewish community arrived to support shipbuilding almost immediately, and the State Archives of the Mykolaiv Region record the creation of a mosque in the 19th century to support Islamic sailors. Germans helped establish agriculture in the region and played a role in the creation of a commercial port.

But jobs were only one reason for the influx of diverse peoples. A large number of the communities fled conflict or oppression in their home territories. The significant Bulgarian community, which dominates the Ternovka neighborhood, fled their homeland to find freedom and safety in Mykolaiv. Many Georgians escaped from the Abkhazia region in the early 1990s, when war resulted in “ethnic cleansing.” Meshketian Turks fled ethnic conflict in Uzbekistan in 1989. Yazidis escaped from genocide in the Middle East, hopscotching from place to place until they arrived in Mykolaiv. And like most Ukrainian cities outside of the war zone, Mykolaiv is home to people who fled the conflict in the east or the annexation of Crimea.

Even as the two rivers brought together so many people fleeing violence and oppression, they also witnessed extraordinary brutality and bloodshed during Axis occupation and the Holocaust. Not only were Jews rounded up and shot in Mykolaiv, they were methodically killed in surrounding villages and were marched in large numbers from Odessa to northern Mykolaiv Oblast and massacred there. A Roma massacre targeting mostly women and children also occurred in the same region, near Kryve Ozero. All German residents of Mykolaiv were exiled by Soviet authorities to central Asia and Siberia before World War II -- where they often experienced hard labor, torture and death -- because of their perceived connection to the rise of Hitler. Holocaust remembrances are not well attended outside of the communities affected, and leaders worry that the younger generation is not sufficiently focused on the importance of preventing these tragedies from recurring.

Ill-treatment of Jews and other minorities can also be illustrated through the history of cemeteries in Mykolaiv. An early cemetery built for Jews and Karaites was paved over to create a trolley depot and housing, and a new cemetery was opened elsewhere in the city. The second cemetery was then destroyed to build Mykolaiv’s zoo, with only a few graves moved to a third “international” cemetery. Today, only meager traces remain of these historically important sites.

Jews made up as much as one fourth of the city’s population early in the 20th century, but they now number only 4,000 to 5,000 of the half million local residents1. They report an uninterrupted experience of anti-Semitism throughout the years. During the Soviet era, it often manifested itself in slurs and diminished educational and work opportunities. After communism, a wave emigrated to Israel, but those who remained in their home city continue to experience anti-Semitism. Most recently, someone fired a bullet into the window of the Jewish Community Center -- a place where small children and youth often congregate2. The incident, which occurred on May 9, 2017, the day of celebration of the end of World War II, was clearly intended to send a message.

For a time, in the 1920s and 1930s, the communist era embraced certain markers of nationality, such as folk dance, ethnic theater, and schools that taught native languages and traditions, and even enshrined these identities on passports. In later years, however, the USSR increasingly did not tolerate -- and often forthrightly punished -- the use of native tongues or the expression of national identity. Members of minority communities were confronted or even attacked for using their languages or expressing any identity other than “Soviet.” Polish language books were confiscated, their schools were shuttered, and they resorted to teaching their language secretly to keep their traditions alive. Bulgarians recall an incident in which members of their community were threatened for using their native language in a bar. And both communities reported discrimination in seeking jobs because of their foreign-sounding names and their connections to other lands. By the early 1930s, the Soviet emphasis on de-nationalization of Ukrainians was linked prominently to the process of collectivization and to the Holodomor.

Was the peaceful coexistence of different nationalities during the Soviet era a real camaraderie, or was it enforced, at least in part, by Soviet authoritarianism? Some communities believe that divisions were suppressed when the goal was to create “Soviet Man,” an idealized person whose only mission was to enthusiastically build communism. The leader of the Polish community, Yelizaveta Selyanskaya, remembers a saying, “Friendship is expressed on the theater stage, but they will be able to kill each other later.” In reality, she noted, there was not an actual threat of violence against these “ordinary” individuals (although artists, writers and intellectuals who were perceived as threats to the ideals of communism were indeed targets of exile, imprisonment and even death). Instead, members of minority communities in Mykolaiv were simply not accepted, particularly those that didn’t speak Russian or join the Communist Party, such as Poles, Germans, or Jews.

Even if conflicts between minorities were hidden in the background (or expressed themselves in other ways, such as the Great Terror under Stalin), they were not as pronounced as in other parts of the world, where sharp ethnic strife defined the local populace. A fundamental foundation of peaceful coexistence kept this municipality extremely calm in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Almost every national community reported a significant improvement in the ability to express their identity in the post-Soviet era. Following the collapse of communism, most of the nationalities celebrate their origins publicly in a yearly Druzhba (Friendship) Festival. The Festival begins with an impressive display of colors, including plentiful national flags and diverse traditional costumes on parade. It continues with the sharing of traditional cuisine, one of the most powerful forms of diplomacy. And it finishes with song and dance, another form of communication that evades boundaries.

The Druzhba Festival is organized by the Council of National Societies of the Mykolaiv Region3, a local non-governmental organization specifically devoted to supporting the interests of national communities. Lolita Kaimarazova, the current leader of this organization, was preceded in her job by her father, Sultan Murad Kaimarazov, who helped create the organization in 1992. When no one else wanted to lead the newly-formed Council, he took the job himself and helped build the organization into what it is today. Now he has turned it over to his daughter, who works to achieve consensus among the groups and to fight for their interests with city government.

Their work created a climate in which the communities no longer report government interference in their activities, but some bemoan a lack of interest and support from city officials for their goals4. Almost all of the nationalities maintain community centers that celebrate the culture of their homeland, and many offer courses in their native tongue. For example, the Polish community holds extremely popular language courses in their center, and Georgians teach their language at a local college. A controversial new law, requiring that all public school courses be taught in Ukrainian, will affect the schools in the south and east that now instruct students in Russian, but it will not affect most of the national communities who teach their languages in other settings.

The ability to worship freely has also dramatically improved in the 20 years of Ukrainian independence. Many of the nationalities, such as the Bulgarians, the Poles, and the Armenians, have their own churches and freely pray in their own traditions. The Jewish community has an active synagogue, still standing after several others were destroyed during World War II. And many residents feel that their house of worship is a place of respite in their lives. Zhanna Oganesyan, a 17-year old resident of Mykolaiv, values the Armenian Church, built in 2012, as a place “where I can find peace for my soul.”5

A notable exception is the Muslim community, which numbers about 15,000 in Mykolaiv. Although the city had several active mosques in the past, none exist now, and the most important mosque from the past lies in ruins behind a locked gate. When we visited with a member of the community, Hussein Isaev, a broken minaret was all that remained, open to the elements at the top and filled with debris, including a porcelain sink wedged into one of the windows. He stepped inside and said a modest prayer with his hands outstretched.

Absent a place of worship, Muslims are forced to crowd into a cramped former storefront that can’t accommodate men and women for prayers on the same day. While the Muslim community has appealed to the city for a location to rebuild a mosque, their request has not been approved. And the local imam, Abdullah Temirbulatov, is concerned that this refusal could aid radical forces in the Muslim community instead of encouraging moderation. In contrast to other minorities, Muslims face discrimination in employment and especially against women who choose to cover themselves. For this reason, some women try to blend in while walking in public, covering themselves only in the prayer house.

At the same time, Muslim leaders claim that Ukrainians are converting to Islam. Bakhtiyar Gyulsanamli-Bey, an Azerbaijani Muslim who has written books about his faith, proudly introduced us to one convert, who is more devout than many people who were born Muslims. The young gentleman told us that he changed his religion after learning more and more about Islam and deciding it to be the one true faith. He made the switch despite his perception that Muslims are disadvantaged in Ukrainian society.

Crimean Tatars, who are Sunni Muslims, have experienced repeated exile over the years, including a particularly cruel forced relocation to Asia under Soviet rule. In contemporary Ukraine, they are held in high regard, in part because they are indigenous to the territories of Ukraine, but more importantly because of their opposition to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the persecution they experienced as a result. Feruza Ibragimova, who ran a successful restaurant in the Crimean village of Meganom, came to Mykolaiv in 2016 after her job was taken away in Crimea. She chose Mykolaiv because of its Southern location, where, she states, the “people are sunny and lighter.”6 Her new restaurant, My Crimea, was opened within a month and is now a popular community gathering place, serving many of the same recipes she prepared at home. Despite railing against the “human stupidity” that resulted in the annexation of Crimea, she now sees herself as a different person who is “thinking globally.” And she points to a Crimean saying to express her vision of the future: “If you leave, you must plant a tree so something will grow.”

While the Muslim population may be growing, some communities are shrinking or facing existential dilemmas. The small Yazidi community has endured repeated genocides in its history, including the current one perpetrated by ISIS in Northern Iraq. But unless the Yazidi religion reforms its rules that exclude those who intermarry, Yazidis must confront the possibility that their faith may not survive in Mykolaiv or elsewhere. The tiny Karaite community, which now consists of only a few “pure” Karaites, has a similar rule, and all of their children and grandchildren have intermarried. They openly discuss the dilemma they face as the last generation, using humor to manage their painful loss. The Jews of Mykolaiv must also confront the possibility that their community centers will not have sufficient financial support and will need be served from the larger city of Odessa.

National or religious communities are not the only kind of minority in Mykolaiv, which is home to the first officially sanctioned gay and lesbian organization in Ukraine, LIGA, which was registered in 1996. The conservative south is an unforgiving place for the LGBTQ community, which remains largely hidden because of fears of violence and discrimination. LIGA’s planned pride events have been canceled due to threats, and the organization uses video cameras and other security at its offices to ensure safety. The recent murder of a gay man has caused the gay community to lower its profile even further. But in private, LIGA continues to forge ahead, working to improve its community center, acting as a resource to newer gay and lesbian organizations, expanding health care services, and focusing in on parents and close relatives of LGBTQ people as a path toward more acceptance and equality.

The largest and most important community in Mykolaiv is, of course, Ukrainians, and many local residents are extremely focused on preserving and protecting Ukrainian culture and heritage, particularly in the context of attacks on the nation’s sovereignty. This expresses itself in many ways, including a focus on national and local history, archaeology, efforts to safeguard the natural environment, participation in right-leaning political movements, and artwork that is focused on the ancient history of the region and its peoples. Many Ukrainians celebrate their Cossack heritage, sometimes through reenactment of Cossack traditions, such as making handmade clothing, fighting with Cossack swords, and firing antique rifles. And some insist on speaking Ukrainian, even in the deep south where Russian is omnipresent.

The minority communities also take great pride in their support of Ukraine and its independence. Perhaps no story matches that of Galina Minyailo, a retired Belorussian meteorologist who twice made the long journey to Kyiv to participate in the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity. The second time around, the Yanukovych government blocked the sale of train tickets, but she made it to Kyiv nonetheless, where she served on the front lines for two weeks, at times standing only feet from the Berkut, or government riot-police units. She said that violence was sometimes averted because there was so much smoke and flame obscuring the view between the two sides.

Despite these sentiments, there are those in Mykolaiv who do not embrace patriotism. After a prominent statue of a Cossack in Victory Park had its arm broken, someone put the Cossack’s arm in a splint, but the statue was vandalized again several days later, this time with anarchist graffiti on his body and the traditional Ukrainian string instrument known as a bandura on his back. The statue was cleaned and painted, but the splint is gone and his arm remains at his side, a constant reminder that a completely unified Ukraine is elusive.

According to one local curator and educator, Alexandra Filonenko, many local residents eschew both Ukrainian and Russian nationalism because Southern Ukraine is a “liminal zone” with a unique history and blend of cultures. She argues that, before the Russian Empire held sway here for an extended period, the Greeks, the Ottoman Empire, and other prominent cultures played exceptionally important roles, and the history of Southern Ukraine is significantly different from the rest of the nation. Tetyana Ostapchuk, Professor of Philology at Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University, elaborates on this by claiming that Southern Ukraine is not so much a place of “border memories,” or a place where the link between collective memory and territory is established, but instead a place of “border amnesia,” where the links between memory and the land have been severed, detaching people from their own history and preventing them from confronting their trauma. In her mind, the Soviet era, with its attempted erasure of national identities, is only the latest effort in this regard.

Despite the improvements for most national communities in the post-Soviet era, some individuals speak wistfully of the advantages of the Soviet system that have slipped away. Under Communism, a man from Azerbaijan, Yunus Aliev, noted, “we worked for free, went to school for free, and lived for free.” Now, he said, “I have money, but I have a pain in my soul, since I never before saw a grandmother in the street begging.” In his view, the results of labor once went for the good of the nation, but now they are in “private hands” and “the door is open for those who know how to work it.”

Oleksandr Pronkevych, Dean of Philology at Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University, expresses concern about the persistence of Soviet thinking in the post-Communist era, complaining that citizens are trapped in the mindset of “Homo Sovieticus” and don’t believe they can bring about positive change7. For some, this feeling may derive from the perceived failure of the political system, which remains controlled by oligarchs and mired in corruption despite two revolutions in ten years. It may also find its genesis in the ongoing economic straits of the nation: Ukraine is the second poorest nation in Europe, salaries are exceptionally low, and talented young people dream of leaving the country to expand their opportunities, creating a damaging “brain drain.” Often, it is the small things in their own communities, like roads with elephant-sized potholes that never improve, that create a sense of helplessness about the future.

As in other Ukrainian cities, while most statues and images of Communist leaders have been removed, traces of the Communist past persist. Although a relief of Lenin’s head was wrenched from the exterior of a shuttered shipyard, his silhouette remained distinctly visible until it was finally covered by workers in May 2018 prior to a visit by President Poroshenko’s wife. In the courtyard garden of a nearby apartment complex, a sign above a children’s swing proclaims, “Glory to Working Hands!” And most people still call the main pedestrian street “Sovietskaya,” despite the many signs that now read, “Soborna.”

At the same time, there is a pervasive sense that Ukraine is not yet truly European. While the Revolution of Dignity was spurred on by the desire of many to integrate with Western Europe, most still speak of this as an aspiration rather than a reality, and a frequently overheard comment is, “We are a civilized nation, after all.” It is a defensive remark that serves only to remind conversants that there could be some doubt. In the same vein, Ms. Filonenko, one of the leaders of the arts community in Mykolaiv, frequently reminds local residents on Facebook to “Keep calm and be sophisticated.”

For generations, more than 130 national communities built warships together, side by side, and sent them out into the world from the placid waters of the Ingul and Southern Bug Rivers. Now, the shipyards lie mostly in ruins, jobs are scarce, pensions are meager, and people worry about what the future will hold for their city and all of Ukraine. As an intractable conflict continues in Eastern Ukraine and so many wars persist around the globe, the very personal, face-to-face approach of Mykolaiv residents to diversity and cooperation suggests a useful path for maintaining peace and friendship among a wide variety of peoples.

Mr. Aliev and Shamil Ismailov, an Azeri poet, seemed eminently civilized as they celebrated with their Georgian friend, Valeriy Ekhvaya, at an elegant Georgian restaurant. Their friendship is strong in part because the Azeri government provided fuel for free when conflict broke out and Russia cut off supplies to Georgia. But their devotion to each other goes beyond this geopolitical consideration.

Mr. Ismailov criticized the Russian approach of “divide and conquer,” which has been used repeatedly throughout the region, not just in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. But he held out hope that relationships between individuals, like those that prevail in Mykolaiv, can overcome this aggression. In his mind, “Politics makes divisions, but that is not the way that people relate on a daily basis.” Members of the Karaite community had a similar thought: “As they say in Odessa, there’s a big difference between politics and the people.”  

That’s the same message delivered by Tamara Belousova, a vivacious Russian woman who emphatically embraces partnership with other national communities. “We want everyone to know that we are working hard for peace and understanding among peoples,” she says of the Russian community, with a smile that is unquestionably contagious. Now, she takes time out of her schedule and travels long distances to personally participate in the celebrations of other nationalities, since she believes showing respect and admiration for their background will help build and maintain tolerant relationships.

However, as the leaders of these diverse communities age and a newer generation steps forward, this approach faces disturbing challenges. In the age of fake news, misinformation and the instant amplification of prejudice and hatred, more community leaders are turning to social media as their most important means of engagement, raising questions about whether civility can be maintained.

  • 1.Mikhail Goldenberg, leader of Mykolaiv Jewish community, personal interview, March 12, 2018.
  • 2.Galina Romanenko, member of Mykolaiv Jewish community, personal interview, March 13, 2018.
  • 3.http://www.niklib.com/social/organizations.en?id=77
  • 4.Lolita Kaimarazova, personal interview, February 3, 2018.
  • 5.Zhanna Oganesyan, handwritten statement provided to authors, October 3, 2017.
  • 6.Feruza Ibragimova, personal interview, April 13, 2018.
  • 7.Dean Oleksandr Pronkevych, personal interview, January 22, 2018.
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