Saturday 10 July 2021

Last summer in Izmail in Ukraine, which until 1940 was in Romania


Kevin asked me if I were blogging about our trip this weekend, and so I felt I'd better.

It's very hot here, and very quiet, there are lots of flies and it feels as if Brezhnev's dead body is lying somewhere in the Kremlin.

I am thumbing this in the heat of 32 degrees Celsius. Flies crawl over my fingers. I have given up drink and have only a non-alcoholic Heineken to strengthen me.

Back in the USSR. I mean Ukraine.

Crossing on the ferry from Isaccea in Romania to Orlivka in Ukraine takes ten minutes and then you drive half an hour to the town of Izmail, which is roughly opposite Tulcea on the Romanian side of the Danube.

Isaccea is half an hour by car from Tulcea. 
A boat from Tulcea to Izmail would be a good idea as there was up to 1939, when both towns were in Romania.

Isaccea has no attractions but more history than can conveniently be consumed on the premises, which is close to a phrase of Mark Twain's, but not close enough for me to find it on Google. 

It begins with the battle between Darius the Great of Persia and the Scythians, 500 years before Christ, and the four Christians who were martyred under Diocletian. Their graves were discovered in the early 20th century.

Why did I come to Izmail? I am not sure I know.

It also has lots of history but not much to show for it.

Dr Johnson said, and I can vouch for the justice of his remark, that the Giant's Causeway is worth seeing but not worth going to see. Izmail, scene of the famous victory of the Russians led by Suvarov over the Turk, is not really worth seeing at all, unless you are very close.

It does have a sleepy Brezhnevian charm, especially on the beach on the bank of the broad, dirty river. Swimming is prohibited because of the current, but this rule is ignored. It feels like a sepia tourist brochure from 1964 aimed at friendly socialist countries.

Modernity and commerce are far away.

I don't drive. I don't know why I haven't got round to learning except that it never seemed a particularly interesting thing to do.

A friend in Bucharest suggested a trip to Izmail. I assumed we would spend time in the Ukrainian part of the delta but when we reached Ismail it seemed my friends didn't want to go further.

I therefore found a driver and made my own way to the delta and the little town or large village of Vilkovo the Venice of Ukraine. The journey by car, on a surprisingly good road, thanks to Mihai Sakhashvili, takes an hour and a half.

Vilkovo is well worth seeing. Whether it's worth going to see I am not quite sure. It depends where you start from. 

This reminds me of an Irish joke I heard an economic adviser to Harold Wilson make, in a otherwise very dull talk in my first week at the university, but it has since been deemed hate speech and led to a Conservative politician being expelled from the party. 

The Marxists won in the end, you see. 

A German who spends every summer in the Danube delta told a Romanian friend that it's the most interesting thing in Europe. 

So it is, if the works of God interest you more than those of man.

Personally, I prefer the original Venice, where I was a month ago, to Vilkovo and I prefer God working through human beings to reeds and even cormorants. 

I wonder if this is shameful. Possibly.

Vilkovo, inhabited by a mixture of Ukrainians and Lipoveni, descendents of the Old Believers, a sect that fled the Russia of Peter the Great, is an intersection of small canals. 

That used to be the whole town, but no longer. Now people prefer roads and cars. 

People are like that. Unromantic and practical. 

The town is doing badly. The end of the USSR meant the end of a vast single market for exports of river fish reaching to Vladivostok. It was the European Union of its day.

Vilkovo is undoubtedly superior to Venice in one very important respect. It had no tourists that I could see. That means a lot. 

It's not uncooked, in the phrase of the French Communist Roland Barthes, but it's only very lightly cooked. 

It's also a cheap place to stay.

Tourism is the future, says my guide Michael, but the fighting in Donetsk and Lugansk means almost no foreign tourists visit from outside the former Soviet Union.

The young go west. Michael, who loves living in Vilkovo, says that "the delta is good for trips but not for life". 

As Marx said, one man's picturesqueness is another man's poverty. 

Michael is a happy man with a doctorate in biology and two bonny grandchildren. He takes me in a speed boat with a canopy to the sea.

In forty minutes I stand on what Michael and his colleagues at the Ukrainian Delta Tourist Board christened Kilometre 0 twenty years ago - or rather two or three hundred yards from there, as the land has encroached on the sea since then and the sign has had to be shifted several times. 

He showed me the place where the sign originally stood.

This he tells me is the newest part of Europe. 

Across the channel or canal, pelicans prance along a narrow, sandy spit. Above, the bright blue of the Black Sea; below, the muddy grey of the river. 

Suddenly a a large, dark dolphin cavorts. 

This is the tenth time Michael has seen one in the delta in forty years.

An historical note. Bolshevik Russia marched into Bessarabia including Izmail, Vilkovo and what is now the Republic of Moldova, following the infamous Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, although the pact had made no reference to Bessarabia. The annexation made Ribbentrop angry but he advised Romania not to resist.

I, of course, abominate Hitler and Stalin, as we all do (when will they disappear into the distant past?), but such a
 lot of humbug is talked about the wretched pact. 

AJP Taylor said that Russia had more right to the lands it seized because of the infamous pact, the Baltic States, Eastern Poland and Bessarabia, than the USA had to New Mexico.

On Khrushchev's advice, Stalin slotted this area into the Ukrainian not the Moldavian Socialist Republic and so Ukraine is where it is now. 

Fifteen years later Khrushchev, by then Stalin's successor, took the Crimea from Russia and gave it to Ukraine, whereby hangs a tale. 

If you do stay at Izmail I highly recommend the Hotel Zeytun in every respect except that it is on the edge, not in the centre, of the sprawling town. It has four stars, is the best hotel in the town and the staff are wonderful. A room costs €30 a night, including an excellent Ukrainian breakfast with sweet dumplings, Ukrainian porridge, cheese etc. 


  1. According to Herodotus, Darius's success consisted of getting his forces safely out of Scythian territory.

    "Than the USA had to New Mexico." The USA had no right that I can think of, but "more than" implies the existence of some right.

    1. You are correct on the latter point - they had absolutely no right.

  2. Stalin might have said in 1939 what Karamzin said in 1819. 'Let foreigners condemn the partition of Poland. We took what was ours.'

  3. Tatiana Bratescu commented:

    The Scythian campaign was decisive in that the Persians (under the command of Darius I) abandoned the attempt to subjugate the European Scythians.
    Herodotus was correct in his assessment: the Scythians owed their escape to their mobility, their lack of inhabited centres, and the skill of their mounted archers. Their refusal to submit to Persia was mainly due to the ordinary man's belief that what brought him and his tribe honour was the killing of enemies.

  4. 'Isaccea has no attractions but more history than can conveniently be consumed on the premises, which is close to a phrase of Mark Twain's, but not close enough for me to find it on Google.' It is of course from a story by Saki, 'The Jesting of Arlington Stringham'. Arlington Stringham made the jest in the House of Commons about Cyprus.

  5. KYIV, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Russia attacked Ukraine's main inland port across the Danube River from Romania on Wednesday, sending global food prices higher as it ramped up its use of force to prevent Ukraine from exporting grain.

    The drone attacks destroyed buildings in the port of Izmail and halted ships as they prepared to arrive there to load with Ukrainian grain in defiance of a de-facto blockade Russia reimposed in mid-July.

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    Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said the Russian attacks damaged almost 40,000 tons of grain which had been destined for countries in Africa as well as China and Israel.

    "Moscow is waging a battle for a global catastrophe," President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.

    "In their madness, they need world food markets to collapse, they need a price crisis, they need disruptions in supplies."

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    Kubrakov, writing on Facebook, said the Danube ports' infrastructure had been "devastated".

    "Ukrainian grain is indispensable for the world and cannot be replaced by any other country in the coming years," he wrote.

    "The port of Izmail suffered the most damage, including the terminal and infrastructure of the Danube Shipping Company."

    Russian state news agency RIA said the port and grain infrastructure hit was housing foreign mercenaries and military hardware. A naval ship repair yard was also targeted, it said.

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    RIA provided no evidence to back up its assertion and Reuters was not able to verify the report.

    Video released by Ukrainian authorities showed firefighters on ladders battling a blaze high in a building covered with broken windows. Several other large buildings were in ruins, and grain spilled out of at least two wrecked silos.

    There were no reports of casualties, Odesa regional governor Oleh Kiper wrote in a post on the Telegram messaging app.

    Commercial ship-tracking data showed dozens of international ships halting and dropping anchor at the mouth of the Danube, many of them registered to arrive in Izmail in an apparent attempt to breach Russia's blockade.

    The port, across the river from NATO-member Romania, is the main alternative route out of Ukraine for grain exports, since Russia's blockade halted traffic at Ukraine's Black Sea ports in mid-July.

    Two industry sources told Reuters operations at the port were suspended. Seaport authority head Yuriy Lytvyn said on Facebook that repair work had already begun and the port infrastructure continued to operate.