When I was a teenager, my brother was telling me of a picturesque village of the grandma of his girlfriend, with a big Catholic Church seen from the other side of Dniester. At that time, I haven’t even imagined that I will be an often visitor of this place.
Practical Information: Location: Transnistria, 130 km NE of Chisinau Hours to spend: 3-4 hours Open: 7/7 Important: Have your passport with you, as you’ll need to cross the border with Transnistria.
Today Rashkov or Rashkovo is a small village in Transnistria with a population of 2,000 people. Most of them Ukrainians (80%) are carrying their daily village activities: weeding out, feeding cows and goats on the background of monuments and ruins hinting on the bygone prosperous life of this village. As in other settlements, the post-soviet crisis affected the economic and social life. Young and middle age people are leaving the village since there are no jobs, and those who stay try to make a living in the difficult conditions of an unrecognized country not realising the touristic potential of the village.
Tough history behind
Greenery, water, good soil make a perfect location for human settlements in all times. Archaeologists find in Rashkov artefacts from Upper Palaeolithic Age, Ancient Gets, and Slavic tribes. In 1387, the Lithuanian Duke Vitovt builds the fortress “Kalaur” and Rashkov evolves as a suburb of this fortress. Unfortunately no remains of the fortress are found today, but the year of foundation 1402 makes Rashkov the oldest village in Transnistria.
The location near the Dniester River, at borderlands is both a blessing and a curse for Rashkov. It ensures prosperity as a trade point but as well it passes from one ownership to another. The formation of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth puts Rashkov under Polish control and Polish cultural influences. In 1648 it’s time for Bogdan Khmelnitsky to conquer the region and his son Timosh with his wife Ruxanda, the daughter of Vasile Lupu, the Moldovan Voivode (just on the other side of Dniester) move to live in Rashkov. Can you imagine the importance of the settlement if prince moves in there? Soon, Timosh Khmelnitsky is killed in a battle. The legend says the widow stayed in Rashkov and was crying so much that a spring appeared out of her tears. Even today, the water spring is called by the locals “Pans’ka krynytsea” – “Lady’s spring” or “Ruxanda’s spring” found in the centre of the village, near the synagogue.
The town is polytechnic with Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Armenians. The Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz mentions the town of Rashkov as a big town located “on the edge of the world”. Rashkov is often referred as the most remote Polish town. In 1793, this region becomes part of the Russian Empire due to the division of Polish Kingdom. Political instability and incursions make Rashkov to lose its status of a town. Nevertheless, in 19th c. economic and social life is going pretty well as the ferry point is working actively making Rashkov an important trade point. You can imagine the scale of this “village” as in 1901 historical documents mention 2620 orthodox parishioners, 1162 catholic parishioners and 1500 Jews, all living peacefully next to each other. The 20th c. brings again a new politic power – Soviet Union. In 1930 due to the forced collectivisation many leave the village. After-war years are marked by the construction of kolkhoz, electrification and soviet ideology. In 1990 Rashkov enters its latest political administration – Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, largely known as Transnistria, an unrecognized state at the Eastern border of Moldova. As history shows, one may never know for how long…
Today only some buildings and ruins are the last witnesses of the former richness of the medieval town of Rashkov. We are going to explore the few of them.
The Church of St. Caetano from Rashkov can be seen from every point in the village. The white towers are catching our gaze from across the Dniester or from nearby laying hills. Even for the first time, it’s easy to find the path leading to the oldest Catholic Church in Moldova. It is built in 1786 on the initiative of Polish Prince Josef Lybomirskyi for Catholic Armenians living in the region. The architecture is typical for Polish catholic churches of 18th c. with Baroque elements, however inside decoration are modest and neat. Later, Romano-Catholics from surrounding settlements are frequenting this church as well.
Due to the Soviet anti-religious policy, the Church closes in 1932. Soviet authorities use the building as granary and later as joinery. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the Church is ceded back to the Catholic community. Today religious ceremonies are gathering again few Catholics remaining in the region. Thanks to the Polish support, the church is renovated and it is acting as a community centre.
Going down from the Catholic Church, the village road takes us to the ruins of a synagogue. Even if you don’t know anything about Jews from Rashkov, the size of this construction can make you understand it used to be an impressive building. Chasid Jews build this synagogue in 1749. Today the roof is missing, trees and grass are growing inside. The entrance is blocked as well by some trees. Still, this does not stop us entering and admiring the synagogue and merely the main wall with its “Aron Kodesh”, so called “Torah Ark” – holly place for keeping Torah. Some Hebrew letter, decorations, colours are visible. The synagogue had a special worship place for women, on the second floor. To get there, we find the narrow aisle in the wall on the left from the entrance. Today is a good spot for a panoramic view, however a bit dangerous.
Since Rashkov is located at the edge of the empire (Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, etc.) Jews are not constrained and enjoy the conditions of a prosperous living. Around 2,000 Jews live in Rashkov in 19th c. and three synagogues are in the medieval town. The Soviet antireligious policy affected Jews as well as Catholics. The arches of the main synagogue are destroyed in 1930s, the other two were turned into warehouse and administrative building. Curiously, even today, the Village Council finds itself in the former synagogue and the warehouse is still closed. In 1930s many Jews move on the over side of Dniester to the village Vadul-Rashkov and form there a new Jewish community. The old Jewish cemetery still exists there. Today no Jews are living in Rashkov and chances for restauration of Jewish heritage are very little.
It is amazing to observe the tolerance that once lived in this place. Just a few meters right from the synagogue, the ruins of the Orthodox Church can be found. It’s the “Pokrovskaya” (“Protection of Our Holy Lady”) Church built in 1740. Our days only ruins are playground for children. Seven Orthodox Churches are in Rashkov in 18th c. Today only two can be found. The Church of the Holy Trinity is located near the bus station and the House of Culture. It was built in 1787, survived political alterations and it is operating our days.
Landscapes of Olympus
Beside this rich historical background, the landscapes of Rashkov are impressive as well. The village is located in the valley of Dniester River and protected by high hills that make a natural wall. Locals call the most prominent hill “The Red Rock”. In fact, the rocks are white-ivory.. but when the sun goes at dusk, rays are falling on these rocky hills colouring them indeed into red stones.
The Red Rock is so impressive and visiting it is a must. Locals love to make picnics nearby, so the way is easy to find from different parts of the village. When arriving in front of the Red Rock you fill so small in front of the power of nature. After contemplating the millenary stones, we took the path to the right, on the opposite from the Catholic Church. The path is gradually going up, the breath is more frequent and in 20 minutes we are up on a kind of natural stone platform for a panoramic view. The landscape is breath-taking! Several years ago we came up calling this place “Olympus”. We could imagine as Greek gods looking from the top of the world at the life happening bellow: arrows of countryside houses, the Catholic Church, the village with similar name – Vadul-Rashkov on the other side, the Jewish Cemetery in there, the river Dniester that always was a border, and even today separates two countries, one independent, and another one dreaming of recognition.