The century-old Russian colony of Uruguay troubled by war from afar

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San Javier (Uruguay) (AFP) – Far from Kiev and even further from Moscow, the inhabitants of the small Uruguayan village of San Javier – a former Russian colony – watch with dismay the invasion of Ukraine.

At first glance, the community’s checkerboard plan, low houses and surrounding fields look like any other rural Uruguayan village – but a scratch beneath the surface reveals the history of a site founded more than a century ago. century by Russian peasants.

Although few of their descendants speak Russian or even bear Russian names, residents here insist they are ‘proud’ of their Slavic heritage, while strongly denouncing the mother’s invasion of Ukraine. country.

San Javier exhibits several Cyrillic inscriptions, a “Maximo Gorky” cultural center and five giant matryoshka dolls in the central square.

Everything points to a story “unique in Uruguay and South America”, explains Leonardo Martinez, the deputy mayor of the village of 1,800 inhabitants.

The story of San Javier began in 1913 when 300 families – originally from the western Voronezh region of Russia and followers of the “New Israel” Christian sect persecuted by Tsarist Russia – arrived in Montevideo.

Russian descendant Alejandro Sabelin poses at his home in San Javier, Rio Negro department, Uruguay, March 2, 2022 Eitan ABRAMOVITCH AFP

A few months later, around 600 people settled in San Javier, a five-hour drive northwest of Montevideo and bordered by the Uruguay River.

It was the largest autonomous Russian agricultural colony in South America and quickly became a resounding success.

A century later, the sunflower – which the settlers introduced to Uruguay – appears everywhere as the symbol of the village.

“Looking at the photos, we feel a bit nostalgic (…) for the great sacrifice they made,” said Martinez, 43, a great-grandson of an original settler.

The town hall says a “high percentage” of the current inhabitants are descended from Russian colonizers, although over time the village has experienced a mixture of people and cultures, like the country as a whole.

The local restaurant offers the typical Uruguayan grilled meat “asado” as well as “shashlik”, a type of lemon-seasoned meat skewer popular in much of the former Soviet Union.

Russian descendant Alejandro Sabelin shows his grandfather's passport at his home in San Javier, Uruguay
Russian descendant Alejandro Sabelin shows his grandfather’s passport at his home in San Javier, Uruguay Eitan ABRAMOVITCH AFP

The village square hosts Uruguayan Creole folk dances as well as traditional Russian dances.

Kill “brothers”

The village, which has its own museum, has become a tourist site for its Russian history.

Na Zdorovie restaurant and hotel are seen in San Javier, Uruguay on March 1, 2022, where the village's Russian roots are visible in the company's name
Na Zdorovie restaurant and hotel are seen in San Javier, Uruguay on March 1, 2022, where the village’s Russian roots are visible in the company’s name Eitan ABRAMOVITCH AFP

But despite these ties, not a single flag or banner proclaiming partisanship can be found on its streets.

‘I didn’t see explicit San Javier support’ for either country, Martinez said of Russia-Ukraine war over 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) away .

“We are against war, that’s obvious,” he said. “Against all armed conflict.”

Leonardo Lorduguin, a 22-year-old resident of San Javier, created a Facebook page dedicated to his village.

He is fascinated by the Russian language, which he has been learning for two years, one of the few of his generation to speak it.

But he would not engage with any of the parties to the conflict.

Like many other villagers, he insists that the first settlers came from ‘Greater Russia’ – an ancient term that includes territories outside modern Russian borders.

A girl poses with traditional Russian dolls, called matryoshkas, in Libertad square in San Javier, Uruguay, March 1, 2022
A girl poses with traditional Russian dolls, called matryoshkas, in Libertad square in San Javier, Uruguay, March 1, 2022 Eitan ABRAMOVITCH AFP

“In 1913, only Russians came, but some had Ukrainian names. They came to Montevideo and were told there was a Russian colony in San Javier,” Lorduguin said, referring to Russian surnames. and Ukrainians of some villagers.

Alejandro Sabelin, 80, is one of the only other villagers to speak Russian alongside Spanish.

Her father was born in San Javier three months after her grandparents arrived.

He recognizes that the language is lost in the community. Her own children understand Russian better than they speak it.

A picture of his grandparents hangs in his little house.

“I’m really sorry about what’s happening because it’s almost like you’re killing your brothers,” he said of Russia’s invasion of his neighbour.

Aerial view of San Javier, Rio Negro department, Uruguay on March 2, 2022
Aerial view of San Javier, Rio Negro department, Uruguay on March 2, 2022 Ivan PISARENKOAFP

Although he never visited the homeland of his grandparents, Sabelin declares: “I will never stop supporting Russia”.

But “the war is terrible, what is happening is horrible,” he adds.

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