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Visiting the Cossacks in the Old Believers’ village of Kazashko near Bulgaria’s Varna

Photo: Veneta Nikolova

Hidden among the reeds on the shores of Lake Varna, several fishing boats are resting in the quiet. And next to them rises an eight-pointed cross painted in blue to remind that descendants of the Don Cossacks in distant Russia live here. More than 110 years ago, their long-bearded grandfathers moved to these serene shores to practice the old Orthodoxy. It is no coincidence that the village is called Kazashko, and its inhabitants proudly define themselves as Cossack Old Believers or Old Ritualists. This is the smallest ethnic community in Bulgaria.

Today the lakeside village has less than 400 permanent residents. But there is no trace left of the old-time white and blue brick houses with thatched roofs. The church with the Old Believers’ icons is now locked, and on the streets, instead of long-bearded Old Believers, we see children and young people moving in a hurry. In the village centre, just opposite the town hall, there is a small renovated building, and in front of it is a typical Cossack fishing boat. This is the so-called Cossack centre. At the entrance we are greeted by the village long-time mayor Gergana Petkova. She is the only woman ataman in Bulgaria /ataman meaning a leader of the Cossacks/ and rules with all her heart and soul the small village of Old Believers:

Mayor Gergana Petkova

"In 1905 our village of Kazashko was founded. This can be seen from our coat of arms. To this day, the majority of locals, especially the elderly, are Old Believer Cossacks, who have also been called “Lipovans”. Why? One version is that the icons they carried with them, which were their main treasure, were painted on linden boards (“lipa” means linden tree), hence the name "lipovani"”, Gergana Petkova says.

The Cossak centre in Kazashko

In the 17th and 18th centuries, adherents of the old Orthodoxy fled en masse from Russia and scattered throughout the world, chased away by the religious reforms of Russian Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Peter I's attempts to modernize the country. After long wanderings, a small group arrives on the shores of Lake Varna, Gergana Petkova explains.

She was the initiator of the twinning in 2018 of the small Cossack village with Natukhaevskaya, near the Russian city of Novorossiysk, where nearly 11,000 descendants of the Old Believers live today. The Cossack centre was also established on her initiative. Here is the Sunday school and a curious museum collection that takes us back to the past of Kazashko.

"We are trying to preserve and pass on the traditions to the next generations. That was the purpose of creating this museum. These are household items used by the population and you can see how the Bulgarian and Cossack Russian traditions are gradually intertwined,” Gergana Petkova explains as she introduces us to the exhibition. And she takes us to the next room:

"Here is our Sunday school for 13 children. Not that there are no other applicants, this is just the number of place that we have managed to provide. These are old desks where their parents may have sat. Here the children have lessons in Russian language and in religion. It's like a club, it's called the “young Cossacks club”. We learn the songs that are passed down from generation to generation, we prepare holidays. Children have special festive costumes. I have a theological education and I teach them on a voluntary basis. For me, this is a very pleasant activity outside of my official duties as mayor."

The Veil of the Holy Mother of God Chursh in the village

Those wishing to get acquainted with the original Cossack culture are welcome in the village of Kazashko. In August, its inhabitants celebrate their official holiday - the Day of Sailors and Fishermen with songs, dances and delicious meals, along with guests from the country and abroad.

Photos Veneta Nikolova

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