Olga Kulaksız Featured
Comrat (Gagauzia),  Moldova

What does it mean to be Gagauz?

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Comrat, Gagauzia
Olga Kulaksız
Gagauz Food

The Place: Comrat (Gagauzia), Moldova

“Rising above a sea of the grey architecture that was a hallmark of the USSR, an island of vibrance in the form of a bright-yellow orthodox church topped with gold domes scattered the rays of sunlight spilling from the horizon…”

Read About Gagauzia

I expected to be engulfed by sprawling suburbs at any moment. But seconds turned to minutes, and then to hours, as I rolled around the twists and turns on my way to the Comrat, the capital of the Gagauz Autonomy, and all I saw were villages, marshland, and a farmer leading a donkey. A Moldovan flag stood side-by-side with another, less familiar one, fluttering above a sign welcoming me to yet another one of Moldova’s oddities, an enclave of culture with it’s own Turkic language and no written history; Gagauzia.

Purely aesthetically, there is little contrast with the rest of the country. Its’ economy struggles along with Moldova’s, it’s architecture reflects that of the ex-Soviet world, and its production, like that of the country it sits in, largely comes from agriculture. Rising above a sea of the grey that was a hallmark of the USSR, an island of vibrance in the form of a bright-yellow orthodox church topped with gold domes scattered the rays of sunlight spilling from the horizon, the only source of vividity in a world that would be drained of colour until the Spring. A stones-throw away, a labyrinthine Turkish-style market hid under corrugated iron panels, trapping the shouts of salesmen and women in cramped passageways adorned with everything from fur coats to fruit.

Where the hostility was almost tangible between Transnistria and the rest of Moldova, there was no overt indication of animosity between Moldova and it’s autonomous territory in the South. Gagauzia declared independence in 1991, but stopped short of igniting a conflict like it’s cousin did in the 1990s, and instead settled for being granted it’s own government and autonomous status in 1994. But although I hadn’t crossed any national borders, once I finally reached the city, the area’s autonomy, and the differences in culture that underlie it, became more apparent. It struck me that even Moldova’s fractures are fractured, when I noticed the many Gagauz exclaves dotting the map towards the Southern tip of the country.

The white star and crescent of the Turkish flag flew above buildings emblazoned with plaques indicating that they were funded by the Turkish government; it seemed an open secret that the country was attempting to project a sphere of influence in a region it’s government has deemed culturally similar to it’s own. Whether the tactic was working was open for debate; ask a Gagauz resident whether they identify at all with Turkish culture, or whether they will even admit that their language is more-or-less the same as old-Turkish, and I found I’d typically generate a hostile response. Though Gagauz culture still persists, albeit at a diminishing rate, it remains an enigma, and my trip there left me with more unanswered questions than I arrived with. Gagauzia seemed to confer a convoluted identity to its’ residents, many of whom gave me differing, often opposing views when I asked about their roots, history and culture.

Comrat, Gagauzia


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Olga Kulaksız, 57, Culture Centre Director

There is a Gagauz cultural centre in the Odessa region in Ukraine, and I am the director of that centre. It’s not academic research or anything. I am the director, but there aren’t many people that work there, so those that do have to do everything.”

See Olga's Full Background

I was born in a village near Comrat. Now I live in Ukraine, in another village with two different names; a Gagauz one and a Ukrainian one. I have a family; three children. I have been working to learn the Gagauz language for around 35 years. There is a Gagauz cultural centre in the Odessa region in Ukraine, and I am the director of that centre. It’s not academic research or anything. I am the director, but there aren’t many people that work there, so those that do have to do everything. 

What is special about Gagauzia?

“Everyone knows their own region. Gagauzia is a corner of the world. In this region, we have our own culture, our own meals, our poetry and our stories.”

See Olga's Full Answer

Everyone knows their own region. Gagauzia is a corner of the world. In this region, we have our own culture, our own meals, our poetry and our stories. Our carpets, and the decorations on them are different from the rest of Moldova. Our food is a little different. We even have our own language, but I don’t count that as much because every community has it’s own language. The music here is different.

I can say that Gagauz people are hardworking. If they start a job, they will finish it. If it is not finished, they don’t do anything else. Only after that do they go home and wash. 


– Play the audio clip below to hear a traditional Gagauz song –


When you think of who you are, do you think of yourself as Gagauz, Moldovan or Ukrainian?

“I know the Moldovan language and I know the Ukrainian language; I know their songs and their literature. But… I feel I am a Gagauz.”

See Olga's Full Answer

It doesn’t matter where I live, I feel I am Gagauz. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Ukraine or Moldova, I am Gagauz. I know the Moldovan language and I know the Ukrainian language; I know their songs and their literature. But it doesn’t matter, I feel I am a Gagauz.

Bulgarian people tend to say that Gagauz people are Bulgarian, and the Turks say we are Turkish. But we say we are just Gagauz.

Can you think of a time you have been proud of Gagauzia?

“I am proud when there are new books and new writing in the Gagauz language. These sources can tell the younger generation of Gagauz people about their roots, and how their culture can survive.”

See Olga's Full Answer

I am proud when there are new books and new writing in the Gagauz language. These sources can tell the younger generation of Gagauz people about their roots, and how their culture can survive. There is a horse farm nearby, there is a nice restaurant that reflects Gagauz culture, and there is a carpet-making centre in another city. So, we reflect our culture in every part of Gagauzia, and I am proud of it. Our efforts to preserve our culture are not enough, but we are creating more and more projects. 


Gagauz Carpet
Gagauzia Flag

  – (L) Carpets and artwork in Gagauzia – (R) The flag of Gagauzia; the 3 stars are said to represent past, present and future, as well as Gagauzia’s 3 municipalities –


What do you think the future of Gagauzia and the Gagauz language is?

“Of course, we fear for our language; we are afraid of it dying. But we make an effort every day to prevent that.”

See Olga's Full Answer

Of course, we fear for our language; we are afraid of it dying. But we make an effort every day to prevent that. We don’t stop. In our schools we are teaching our language, so we are teaching it to our children, and we have documents to teach them about our history. Most of the Gagauz families want to teach their children the Gagauz language. We know that they don’t speak the language in their homes any more, but we are still fighting to teach them. I have a son living in Odessa, Ukraine, and a grandson, too. My son speaks in the Gagauzian language with his son, while the mother speaks the Russian language with him. But my grandson always says “I am Gagauz”, and he is growing up with Gagauzian culture.

In Gagauzia, we need to know the Romanian language, because it’s the language of this state. For example, I now live in Ukraine, so I know the Ukrainian language. But, actually, the Gagauz language should be the first language that we need to know in Gagauzia. It should be everywhere, in every job. We should use the Gagauz the language. But that isn’t happening now.


– Play the audio below to hear olga answering the question above in the Gagauz language, which is officially listed as endangered by UNESCO


What is the biggest change you’ve seen in Gagauzia in your lifetime?

“Under communism… we were free to speak our language. We knew every word, but it was an old language, and we could just speak it, we couldn’t write it. Now… we can write our language.”

See Olga's Full Answer

In Romanian times, we were talking in the Gagauz language. I don’t know too much about it, but at that time it was very difficult for us; the Romanians were so strict, and when you did something wrong, their punishments were so severe. Under communism, under soviet Russia, we were free to speak our language. We knew every word, but it was an old language, and we could just speak it, we couldn’t write it. Now, we have been able to develop a written version of our language; we can write it down now. We can do it in schools, or we can use it for research, and to write books.

Additional note: Since Gagauz was originally only a spoken language, very little writing exists about the language and culture’s history. Nobody truly knows how the Gagauz people came to inhabit a tiny region not far from the black sea, and historians still argue today about their origins.

How did you feel when Gagauzia was granted autonomy?

Romania wants to unite with all of Moldova. Before we were granted autonomy, we could not say “we don’t want to be a part of Romania”, but now we have a region of our own, and we can say how we feel about that.”

See Olga's Full Answer

I was happy at that time. I was proud of Gagauzia. Until that time, everyone said all of us were Moldavian. But today, we can say “we are Gagauzian”. Romania wants to unite with all of Moldova. Before we were granted autonomy, we could not say “we don’t want to be a part of Romania”, but now we have a region of our own, and we can say how we feel about that. 

Additional note: Gagauzia was granted autonomy in 1994 when the Moldovan government passed the “Law on the Special Legal Status of Gagauzia”. Included in the autonomy was any region that had a population that consisted of over 50% ethnic Gagauz, as well as those with between 40-50% who also voted in favour of joining it in a referendum. The region had actually declared independence three years earlier, but this hadn’t escalated into a conflict like that following the Transnistrian separatist movement.

Do you feel any connection with Turkish people since the languages are similar?

Turkey is Turkey, and Gagauzia is Gagauzia. The two languages are different, but of course there are lots of similarities between them.”

See Olga's Full Answer

Turkey is Turkey, and Gagauzia is Gagauzia. The two languages are different, but of course there are lots of similarities between them. They are 95% the same. We are relatives with Turks, and we have connections with Turkish people. They invite us to their conferences, their festivals, and so on. 

Additional note: Gagauz is very similar to old Turkish, so much so in fact that my host, Ali, a native of Turkey working abroad in Moldova at one of Comrat’s Turkish schools, acted as my translator with Olga, and was able to converse with her fluently. I have overheard some suggesting that Gagauz people are simply descendants of Turks who converted from Islam to Orthodox Christianity, though that allegation was met with opposition from others.

Can you give me an example of some traditions that are unique to Gagauzia?

When a baby boy is born in a family, the father takes a wine bottle, and then puts it at bottom of well. When that same boy turns 18-years-old, they go back out to retrieve the wine and they drink it!”

See Olga's Full Answer

When a baby boy is born in a family, the father takes a wine bottle, and then puts it at bottom of well. When that same boy turns 18-years-old, they go back out to retrieve the wine and they drink it! This is only the case with a boy, not a girl.

Wine cellars are special here. If something needs to be fetched from them, or if there’s work that needs to be done down there, it is always the men that do it. Women just bring food down to them. If there is disagreement between two men, they come to a cellar, drink a little wine, and solve their problems. Women only enter cellar to set the table, and to give them food. They bring the meals there and leave. Women have no right to contribute to the conversation or to disagree with the men during the discussion. The men should solve the problem. When there is a wedding, also, the men come down to discuss the plans, and whenever there is a big decision to be made, men go to the wine cellar.

When they are in discussion, the woman comes to set table. She has 2-3 minutes to do that. In those 2-3 minutes, she tries to understand everything that is happening in the discussion. Then when she leaves, she goes to tell the people who are waiting outside! That 2-3 minutes should be enough for her to understand.

We also have a wine festival, and one for spring. There is one for traditional Gagauz dress, and another one for Gagauz carpets. In Ukraine, we have another festival as Gagauzians; the Gagauz people and traditions day. Things like Christmas and Easter are celebrated the same as the rest of orthodox countries.

Additional note: I was told it also used to be thought that, if a bride wore a white dress on their wedding day, they would have a difficult life. So, when they got married, they used to wear brightly coloured dresses to ward off misfortune.


Gagauz Dress

 – Traditional Gagauz Clothes –


What are some foods that are unique to Gagauzia?

“We… have Kaurma, which is sheep meat that we cook in it’s own fat. After that, we separate it from the bones, and we can eat it either hot or cold.”

See Olga's Full Answer

Kivirma is a good meal for Gagauz people. When I go somewhere, I always make some and bring it with me. It is made with thin dough. There is cottage cheese put on top of it, and then another thin layer of dough is put on that, and then another layer of cottage cheese. You can have three or four layers. Then you put egg and cream together and mix it, before spreading it over the dough and putting the whole thing in the oven. There are some different types of kivirma. For example, sometimes we take the dough with the cottage cheese and roll it up.

We also have Kaurma, which is sheep meat that we cook in it’s own fat. After that, we separate it from the bones, and we can eat it either hot or cold. And on the side we pickle tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, apples and other kinds of things. We fill peppers with cabbage and have them with the pickles.

What dish should I try to get a taste of Gagauzia?

Kaurma, Chorba some pickles and a little wine!

Life According to Locals #Comrat #Gagauzia #Moldova #InterviewsWithLocals Click To Tweet

Olga Kulaksız


The Plate: Gagauz Cuisine

“The tendrils of practical Soviet culture that have rooted themselves in every aspect of Eastern European life, including food, had receded. It was new; exciting. A hint of what I assume was chilly brought a tingle that danced on the tongue, but was tempered by the sweetness of carrots boiled just enough to be soft, but not so much that they lost their texture.”

Read About Gagauz Cuisine

I sat on cushions covered with intricate and brightly coloured patterns, faced with a sprawling, and slightly intimidating, array of different traditional Gagauz dishes. I’d prepared for one, but Olga had accompanied my host family and I to a restaurant nearby, and told the owners that we were there to try everything Gagauz, so my first, and as of yet only, foray into the local cuisine thrust me in at the deep end.

Just like the patterns we sat on, the colours of even the simplest dish of the selection, Chorba (soup), were livelier than those of the Moldovan kitchen I’d left behind. Whether it was in my head since I’d encountered a new pocket of culture or not, it seemed more exotic; there were more oranges and reds, more spices and undertones. The tendrils of practical Soviet culture that have rooted themselves in every aspect of Eastern European life, including food, had receded. It was new; exciting. A hint of what I assume was chilly brought a tingle that danced on the tongue, but was tempered by the sweetness of carrots boiled just enough to be soft, but not so much that they lost their texture. After so much mamalyga that sits in your stomach like a rock, I felt relief. Gagauz food was light, and less overwhelming than that of Moldova, despite the imposing spread before me. Potatoes hid beneath a slick, oily, yellow surface, but were creamy enough that they merged with the base of the soup itself, contrasting with the slight resistance the peppers and carrots gave with each bite. We sat outside, but a warmth exuded from the table, shielding us from the wind’s wintery bite, and we slurped down a broth that thawed the soul.

The Chorba was an unexpected appetiser, but the Kaurna I was ready for. A pile of bones clad with meat sitting inelegantly in a bowl gave the impression we were eating scraps of another meal, and thick, patchy chunks of fat still clung on which were hard work to avoid. The strong, pure and meaty taste was highlighted by the complexity of the prior dish, and, reflecting the culture around me, it seemed like a blend of Turkish and Eastern European cuisine; a slightly heavy quality brought by the ample fat combined with seasoned meat that I imagined wasn’t too far off the kind you’d find at a Kebab shop in Istanbul.

As we dug into our meal, my emersion of Gagauz culture was shattered when my host informed me that, really, this was all Turkish food; another point of contention I never had the chance to discuss with any other locals. In a hushed voice, he told me that, to him and his friends, Turks and the Gagauz people are separated like the layers of an onion, with just a thin, translucent skin between them. I left the restaurant, and eventually Gagauzia, perplexed by the nature of Gagauz identity. But, then again, it seemed some of the locals themselves were conflicted about what it means to be Gagauz, too.

Gagauz Food


Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!


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Pros & Cons of the Soviet Union
You may also be interested in:  Inequality & Youth Culture in Moldova

Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

6 Thoughts on What does it mean to be Gagauz?
    Hilda
    21 Jul 2019
    9:23am

    Yet another part of the world I did not know of. Thank you for improving my geography and appreciation of places so unfamiliar to me. I take my hat off to Olga and her patriotism.

      Tieran Freedman
      24 Jul 2019
      9:13pm

      Glad you found it interesting, and don’t worry, I had no idea where Gagauzia was either before I researched Moldova!

        Mutlu
        10 Aug 2019
        7:04pm

        Hello, it is an interesting post. I am in Chisinau right now and I am off to Comrat tomorrow morning. I am originally from Turkey and I guess we would feel very close if anyone speaks a smiliar language to Turkish but I guess the Gagauz don’t feel in that way and I respect that.

        They say Gagauz people don’t have the same dna like Turks but there isn’t any set dna for Turks either . For example, a friend of mine’s grand parents were born in Greece and according to DNA ancestry he is 25 per cent greek even though he calles himself Turkish.

        Anyways, thanks for this great post.

        Mutlu

          Tieran Freedman
          10 Aug 2019
          7:48pm

          Hey, thanks so much for the feedback! Yeah it’s so interesting, because I’ve heard so many conflicting opinions about what it means to be Gagauz. Some say they are Bulgarian, others say Turkish, and some say they are just Gagauz.

          A friend of mine sent me a study that seemed to suggest that Gagauz people have more Bulgarian DNA, but acquired the Turkish language. If you want, I can send you a link 🙂

          I hope you enjoyed Chisinau and that you’ll have a good time in Comrat! How long will you be in Moldova for? Did you get the chance to visit Transnistria?

            Mutlu
            10 Aug 2019
            8:57pm

            Hi, your welcome. I have visited Bender and Tiraspol today. Loved it. A very hot day here in Moldova. I did my best to see as much as I could. A very good experience. Came here for four days. Sadly tomorrow is my last day.

            We use the term Turkish for only people from Turkey or descent from Turkey . I prefer to say Turk or Turkic if I refer to other nations like Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan so the Gagauz may not like to
            be referred as Turkish. If you know what I mean.

            Gagauz people’s origin is a mistery but once I read their language is based on Seljuk Turks so around 1200’s I guess. Compareing their language to Uzbek or Kazakh, without a doubt, I understand easily what they say Like the interview with olga kulaksiz ( her surname means earless by the way )

            Yes please, do send my the link.

            Kind regards

            Mutlu

              Tieran Freedman
              10 Aug 2019
              9:33pm

              How did you find Tiraspol? I also interviewed a woman who lives there, I found it very interesting.

              I can’t imagine Moldova in summer, I cycled through it in Winter so I got quite cold! Ah that’s a shame, but it is a small country so I’m sure you got to see a lot of it.

              Ah yes, my mistake. I have there is a theory that they are descended from Turkic nomads. Here is the article my friend sent me which goes into more detail about it: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19107901

              Are the Kazakh and Uzbek languages similar to Turkish? I didn’t know that. I recommend you speak with some locals about their culture. Unfortunately I was only able to do that when I had my host (who spoke Turkish) with me to translate, but it was fascinating. I’m sure since you’ll be able to understand them it would be enlightening.

              Haha really? Do you know if it’s a common surname?

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