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Chornobyls'ka Zona (Chornobyl Zone)

The Dream

Our hosts led us into a small sitting room, explaining that a young girl with a puppy and a pair of scissors had locked herself in here some years back, slashed all the hosts’ paintings and left her own marks all over the walls. When I looked, I could see some designs emerge – one wall had the face of a clown, all done in relief with tears and slashes, the cutting line with curled up plaster and wallpaper on one edge creating a 3-D effect. The markings were violent but also quite brilliant. The hosts tsk-tsked over the damage done, but they had left the girl’s work all the same. It was a showpiece.

Down and out in L’viv

Such a black hole of doubt, despair, and sorrow – even sunny L’viv cannot penetrate the bleakness of my mood. Charming European stonework, lions, ivy, scrollwork, cast iron balconies with stone urns and shields, winding cobbled streets glazed in sunshine and greenery flashing everywhere – trees only in bud and offering shade as translucent as a gauze curtain. People stripped to shirts and leggings, the occasional somnolent one sweating profusely in a foolish winter coat; tomatoes selling at half more than in Kyiv, cukes at about the same. I look and tears blur everything, puffing, swelling my eyelids with sadness that I can’t seem to shake.

I feel such hopelessness about my land, its leaders and its future. Watching the tired clothes and worn bodies of women my own age in their endless search for food and goods for their families sends another flood of tears sliding down my cheeks and smearing my glasses. My companion patiently walks me around the sunny center, asking if my eyes are stinging, just as my aunt had asked me earlier if I was getting a cold. I say, “Yes,” and we go into an ice cream parlor for tea. It is a relief not to have to explain my pointless unhappiness.

The following day, equally sunny and less miserable, my niece and I tramp off to the main cemetery – kladovyshche: placing higher, in Ukrainian. We wander in free, but after visiting the pompous tomb of a soviet colonel – before whose glorious bust two dissidents have been reburied under a rough birch cross and blue & yellow flag – and the grave of Ivan Franko, with its soulless heroic soviet-style kamenyar (stoneworker) – obviously placed long after Franko’s 1916 death – , a matronly cemetery guard hustles up to us on stubby-skirted legs in her twin-set sweater and insists on her take of 15 karbovanets each – the lordly sum of half a cent at the current exchange rate.

Scrambling over a hill among wild ancient trees is an intense clutter of ostentatious but derelict gravestones and tombs, mixed Ukrainian, Polish, and Austrian dead with a sprinkling of latecomer Russian inscriptions. Under a ludicrous stone gothic canopy, replete with two steeples on each end, lies a Polish bishop in nondescript grey. Soviet nonentities sport bizarre tomb markers of shiny tin or aluminum: obelisks and trapezoids defiantly replacing symbols of religious abstraction with symbols of mathematical abstraction. One marker stands askew, dented by the fall of a tree or rock, too alien to be believed in this place of granite and wrought iron. Among the tall leafy trees, this jumble of Ukraine’s history is somehow comforting.

Before a different entrance, now locked from public access, we find a monstrous collection of bulbous partocrats facing the unused gate in V-formation, the dead elite of the dead regime. Pigs’ heads, I think, some with space-age glasses on their erudite faces – lunettes for lunatics? The sculptors have made no effort to hide the silken lard these souls lived in.

In the morning, I take the train back to Kyiv.

Ukraine is basically a rural country. Compare it to the US, which, with a population of 280 million has 3 urban centers with populations over the 8 million mark and dozens of cities between 2-5 million. Ukraine has only one city at just under the 3 million mark (Kyiv), and only a handful of others in the 1-2 million range. Within a 40-minute drive of downtown in the 3 American megalopolises, you see only more downtown; a 20-minute drive from downtown anywhere in Ukraine and you’re in the country: two-storey brick cottages or bungalows of stucco and open fields – patchwork plots the size of an urban backyard, each carefully marked off from its neighbors by the tiniest of paths – the width of a small foot – so that each owner in this land of no ownership can grow his or her potatoes, peas and bees in comfort, assuring their family’s supply of fresh produce in this land of endless deficits.

Outside L’viv, the City of the Lion, spring has taken everyone by surprise, greening grass, trees and brush in a dramatic two-day leap from snow flurries to high sixties temperatures. Without waiting to pack away their heavy coats, the people are already out on the black soil with spades and shovels tending the seedlings they planted just weeks ago during the first warm spell and luckily have not lost, to judge by the faint green beard of growth.

Behind a beige stucco building, pale green grass and budding trees by the tracks of our train, two leggy girls and a boy, 5th graders, play a centuries-old game, hopping on one then another foot, plaid skirts flapping, white-socked feet in flat shoes, eyes on the ground, keen on whatever markings are the key to their game, as the sun quietly and easily slips to the horizon towards that most charming of angles, when everything leaps into brilliant relief – twilight. Dark bread and thick L’viv ham, a small ripe tomato and a slightly sweet soda of no specific flavour make the most delicious supper in this quiet car.

In the fields of pockmarked soil, sturdy women in shirtwaists and kerchiefs bend heavily over their rows of seedlings, a man in wellingtons brushes sweaty hair back from his forehead and, arms akimbo, surveys his tiny kingdom, a white goat with black patches stands on a slip of hilly green, mistletoe dangles from still-naked trees whose crowns glow in the late sun.

By the tracks at Zlochiv, a woman in tweedy sweater collects some greens in a bucket while her border collie challenges her black goat. A little toss of horns and the black-and-white canine retreats to a respectful distance.

In the compartment next to ours, the same nauseating Russian pop starlet whines her repetitive tune for about the sixth time in the hour or so that we’ve been rolling – the worse for being off an unevenly playing cassette. Oh, for some Channel 1 Ukrainian Radio…

The countryside is poor, lumpy, human. Used intensely but not with the desperate perfection of the hungry Japanese, nor with the complacent wholesomeness of the expansive Americans. Somehow churches have their domes and crosses back. Riverlets trickle between banks of trees or new grass, silvery tracks on their way to some marsh or pond.

The smell of burning coal seeps into our car as the train moves on, past yet another small town. A potbellied man in undershirt leans on his hoe way below in a field and watches us go by. For some reason, ridges of soil in uneven but not natural-looking mounds often flank the railbed.

In a far field a boy does handstands: one, two, three, and a tumble, for three watching buddies and a dog. The life of this country, like that of any poor neighbourhood, is not hidden behind closed doors and drawn drapes. Barefoot kids and bantam hens run together. Next to an overrun garden, frail and crippled babusia in her dark swath of dress and scarf, gnarled hand rising to her face as though to catch silent tears at some sudden memory.

On top of a hummock, white goose watches us pass, like a fat feathered sentry. Tidy fields and gardens everywhere, the lines of busy planting a score to spring and eternal hope. And in one instant, the length of a sentence, we’re entering Ternopil’. A boy crouches with a tiny black pup in hand as his brother in cutoff jeans hoes a plot the size of a large bathroom. The man next to me, face the inflamed redness too common among heavy drinkers of horilka, says he’s not sure if this is Ternopil’ because he hasn’t been this way in 25 years.

It’s a poor land, but enough good food and leather to keep most people fairly happy. I look at these people with their endless cumbersome bundles, the uncivilized and outright stupid setups, especially for transport.

A red elektrichka to some outlying village, or to L’viv or Chernivtsi, stands on the track next to ours: suddenly hordes of people come swarming over the tracks from other trains, struggling to get on this one. Elderly women with two and three lumpy sacks barely clearing the rock-strewn tracks; fathers and mothers hanging on to children of various sizes as well as purchases and lunch bags; pairs of young men and women tandemly carrying huge duffel bags over-loaded with contraband; everyone worried that the train will start to pull out just as they get to the door; everyone crowding the front car while the elektrichka sits on for many more minutes without conductors or signals. Is there no scheduled departure?

The endless burden this life is for them – and still, there’s hope, there’s a future, there is love and family and the soil. These are not soft people.

Down and out in Kyiv

In the TV reflection, this room looks small, delicate, inviting, swathes of sunlight lighting the red and green curlicues of my rug, gleaming off the beveled glass of the honey-brown case and reaching into the hallway ready to welcome strangers at the front door. The grey poly-lace curtains I’ve drawn back from the balcony windows beg a shaking, if not a long, warm, soapy soak after six months of gathering soot and dust.

Instead, I find myself barking at my friend Lena and at her mother; later I quarrel with another friend. It may be that so many months’ strain is making itself felt; it may be that I’m just depressed.

The day trundles along.

I finally win my favorite game only to have the program crash before my glorious victory can be recorded for posterity! I play some more in between half-hearted efforts to edit a story. Then Lena comes by and we go off to Podil to visit her favorite monastery and church.

We walk down to the Dnipro for a view. I keep trying to imagine what it was like here before they built anything – back to the very early years of Kyivan Rus’. For a while we watch the dark, surprisingly clean water flow by between our concrete seawall and the islands of summer, fully green but so far beyond my reach.

I tell her how upset I am: I haven’t come to Ukraine, to the land of my ancestors, to help imperial Russia and her Malorossy ; I came here to help Ukra?na. If my own people refuse to use the language of the land, they can all go to the devil.

After L’viv, Kyiv is nothing but russki yazik all over the place. “On the buses, I feel like shouting ‘Is there one true Ukrainian in this place, one person who isn’t too ashamed or too lazy to use the mother tongue of this country?’ Why’d we bother with independence if we’re going to keep acting like a Russian colony anyway? If people can’t even rally to reclaim their language, they aren’t likely to change much else, either.”

Lena smiles at my vehemence and says without irony, “They say that if the Ukrainian government decided to Ukrainianize tomorrow, the Jews would all be speaking Ukrainian in a year, the Russians in three years, and the Malorossy in ten.” Although her parents are both 100% Russian, Lena speaks flawless Ukrainian.

I look up at the golden domes of the Pecherska Lavra. “Russia will always win over us as long as she succeeds in creating the enemy within: every time a Ukrainian citizen chooses to speak Russian, the inner enemy wins another victory.”

Leaving the river for the old town square, Lena and I find a bench by a stagnant fountain and sit awhile watching pigtailed girls hop-scotching and parents hob-nobbing and she says “I could just sit here forever and not move.”

The air buzzes bluely around us.

“And soon you’d be covered with blossoms,” I say to her, my mood lifting like a pigeon from the asphalt. “In the winter snow would cover you up to the eyebrows, then in the spring birds would start building nests, plucking your hair bit by bit until they laid eggs” – plop plop into her hair – “and then the chirplets going ‘FEED ME, FEED ME’. And after about three years, your head would be bald as an eagle’s.”

We laugh and sit there, not moving anywhere.

In the Heart of the Country

On a hot Thursday evening in late April, my friend Oles’ persuades me to join his sister’s family and him in a spur-of-the moment trip to plant potatoes. His hometown, Uman’, is the ancient provincial capital mid-way between Kyiv and Odesa. His mother has called in a panic, saying that all her neighbors have already planted their gardens and her potatoes are starting to rot and, anyway, she couldn’t possibly do the whole thing herself and, besides, they can’t wait any longer because soon it’ll be too hot to plant anything. The last thing Oles’ needs right now is an unpaid day off, but family is all – something I am really beginning to love about this land of mine. Besides, I think, the weather’s just turning hot and when’s the last time I had any blisters on my fingers?

We squeeze into a rattly white Lada with his sister, her husband and their 10-year-old daughter, and the beaten-up outskirts of Kyiv gradually turn into truly beautiful rolling countryside. As we munch on butterbrot and apples, we are rewarded with a blazing sunset that almost makes us forget the miserably potholed two-track highway we are jittering along.

Night has fallen by the time we drive into town and see blue flashing lights and trucks stopped to either side of the roadway. Captured contraband? Somebody’s Zhyguli sideswiped someone else’s Lada? As we drive closer, an orange Zaporozhets faces us by the right side, body skewed and windshield smashed to bits on the driver’s side. Someone’s dead, that’s for sure, but it turns out to be not the driver: on the road by the car a woman in her fifties covered by blankets except for her bloodied head. Ambulances haven’t arrived yet. She must have been crossing in the dark, something hard to avoid in this land of chronic energy shortages.

Beautiful, historical Uman’

Friday we get up to a sunny, cloudless day and go wandering across town with Oles’ and his niece Olya. His sister and her husband left at six this morning to negotiate a load of manure to spread on their family plot.

Uman’ is a big disappointment at first – dusty, dirty, dead-end town with no visible commerce, no culture, no architecture; sandy, beaten-up streets with potholes like obstacles in a military tank manoeuvering exercise and flanked by trees amputated by sadistic city gardeners.

The central square was once the meeting point of the five main streets. One street is under repair now, three still accommodate a trickle of beaten-up cars that dribble through the town (gas is even more expensive than in Kyiv), and the fifth street has long been blocked off by the communists in order to build a tower for themselves, a tan-colored brick high-rise which, like the rest of their efforts, stands ugly and unfinished, a monument to the Soviet penchant for spoiling things with ill-considered obduracy.

In the center of the plaza, a stubby-looking Lenin points – “at the central Gastronome” locals like to say with a smirk, but more likely at Moscow – from a nonedescript pedestal in an equally unadorned grassy patch. Two 12-foot pines are the sum total of the landscaping on this graceless spot.

The streets around the square are called Sovietska, Oktyaberska Revolutsia, Lenina, Piontkowska, and Kolominska (Piontkowski, a local Jew, was the head Bolshevik who established the local CP; Kolominska is a town near Moscow). Piontkowska is the street that the CP building now blocks. Of course. As we wander around, I notice other street names: Karla Marxa (once called Sadova or Ochard and leading to the famed Sofiyivka Park), Paris Commune, Spinoza, Uritskoho (Uritski was Lenin’s party buddy), Urbaisa (Piontkowski’s lieutenant). Though a few streets are still named after European Jews of the Enlightenment – a legacy of the historically large and active Jewish population of the city – not a single street name reflects the rest of the history of Uman’ or of Ukraine. In fact, I cannot find a single Ukrainian name on any of the streets at the end of this second year of Ukraine’s independence.

Next to the heap of unfinished brick left by the communists is a white building with a neo-classic front: half-meter wide pillars at its entrance and a widely pitched roof. It’s an old Polish church that was turned into an art museum by the communists decades ago. The upper half, steeple and choir, is long gone.

Inside, we pay our minuscule dues and walk into a dampness that is peeling the surface off one or two good contemporary paintings. A sculptor is on exhibit now, as well as a slew of paintings of the Carpath region. Maybe 10-12 canvases including one excellent, lively portrait of a bunch of Hutzuls making music. There are paintings of other subjects – one showing robust girls working the fields in crisp white headkerchiefs and pert bosoms; in true socialist fashion, they look totally Oriental rather than Slavic (I guess Papa Lenin was hard to resist…). This constitutes fully one half of the Uman’ museum’s entire collection.

In the middle, on a partition, hangs an exhibit of schoolchildren’s work, quite out-of-place since it’s craft, and most of it less than remarkable: straw encrustation, beadwork, dried flower arrangements, one or two doodles.

On the other side of the partition seems to be the permanent collection of this minute museum: the tomb of Madame Kasimira z Kozlowskych-Ivanskych, a square granite sarcophagus with the obligatory nubile woman served by two cherubic toddlers; a number of unexceptional classic 19th century sculptures: slightly sentimental, realistic busts and a mother-child group; some mediocre antiques; and, surprisingly, a small collection of world-class 19th century oil portraits: an elderly woman by one painter and a series of five children and adolescents by Horovets. Apparently he’s local, but this museum provides no information about anything. I wonder where his other works might be, as he is, without doubt, an accomplished portraitist.

One or two more second-rate plaster pieces and we’re out the damp door into sunshine again. Looking back at it from the entrance, the museum is a barren place, a hollow white space more than two stories high with unadorned medallion windows. There’s no feeling of church in there anymore, despite the tomb.

Outside we walk the plaza to the far side to fetch some ice pops – fruit-flavored ice milk with a chocolate coating. They cost a princely 5? each. The sidewalks are full of people but far fewer kiosks and vendors than in Kyiv. Like Simefropol and Uzhorod, there seem to be generally fewer consumer goods available.

Past the star-spangled obelisk we saunter, licking our pops, to the reconstructed orthodox church. For years it has apparently been just four walls to the open sky, but today it has an intensely white ceiling and interior, with some icons framed in yellow aluminum. The central iconostas is quiet but at the rear altar the priest, a man and a young woman are singing a service. Unlike the majority of churches I’ve seen so far, here the seller of icons and candles and her customers seem oblivious to their place and are carrying on a loud conversation over the chanting of the cleric. I am even more disturbed when some new people walk right up to the main altar talking loudly, showing less respect than even a minor state museum might merit. We leave.

Another block down and we find the Kolhosp Market – a far poorer version of its big city cousins. The hot item for girls today is a fuzzy bun cap of glittering synthetic fibres in flashy purples and reds. The girls stuff their hair into it and walk around looking like a sea anemone’s hitching a ride. Shades of The Puppet Masters. Should I get one for Oles’s niece? But the price isn’t right. Not a bargaining bunch, these Umanites.

Alongside the psychedelic anemones, cool olive jeans and flashy acrylic blouses we find split pigs’ heads, gleaming fluorescent-white salo and intestines, homemade cheese and kefir. Oles’ picks some salo and cheese, at prices 2-5 times below the going rates in Kyiv.

In a far corner of the market, a man sitting on a motorcycle with a sidecar is selling fuzzy black-and-tan pups in a small wire basket. Irresistibly cute – except that he has the mother muzzled in a nasty way. A small group of men have gathered and are showing interest. But every time a man or a puppy starts moving around, the mother goes wild, snarling, salivating, tearing at her chain. The owner seems to intentionally want the bitch to be agitated, perhaps to advertise the pups as being aggressive stock, potentially good guard dogs. Only young punks and middle-aged middlemen are standing around here. Eventually a policeman comes up and talks in a low voice to the owner and he subdues his dog a little.

In a briefcase just two yards away, a small pointy nose pokes its way out and two bright raisin-sized eyes look around curiously: a small chestnut-brown mink. The owner has another, ruddier-coloured mink in his arms. I think better of stroking a feral critter, but they are extremely cute.

Having exhausted all the possibilities of the market, we go out a back path towards the edge of the old Uman’ fortress. Oles’ points out where it was knocked down and in its place a munitions factory built to dominate the highest hill. This spot used to be the only entrance into the old fortifications, and the town was quite impregnable for a while. Now Uman’ feels utterly soulless to me, especially after Kyiv and L’viv. The heavy footprint of the Soviet regime has crushed it far more deeply and permanently, it seems. Still, some beauty is begining to show itself among the ancient stucco bungalows and their young blossoming trees.

The trail at this point runs into a small ravine and past a car-port like structure on one ledge of the hill, opposite the munitions factory. Here, at the end of September every year, 3-5,000 Jews of the Lubavitcher sect show up to mark atonement and the start of a new year, to celebrate their saint, the founder of this very conservative Hassidic sect. They mourn and pray and fill all available hotels with their somber black-bearded and hatted bodies. The Uman’ and Kyiv mafias apparently fight over who will get to handle the visitors with their very desirable greenbacks. For chauffeuring, for food, for lodgings.

In front of us on the path, a teeny-tiny black and white kitten, barely 3-4 weeks old gingerly toddles in the grass. Three boys about 13-14 years old seem very interested in it. I feel panicky inside, knowing what some boys might do to such a vulnerable living thing. I bend down to play with the kitten and the boys step away. The kitten isn’t old enough to make sense of my fingers. It’s not entirely at ease, but too young to know how to scare this unknown monster off. When I stand up to go, one of the boys comes forward again, picks up the kitten and takes off with his buddies. I still feel uneasy, not sure the kitten is ‘theirs’ or what they’ll do with it.

We come out onto a main road that dips further down to a small valley through which flows the Uman’ River. Hardly a river today, its waters drained off by irrigation, mismanagement of land and the depletion of the forests that sheltered it and prevented erosion, it’s now barely a stream. Like L’viv, Uman’ suffers the indignity of chronic water shortages: water is supplied for 2-3 hours in the morning and mid-evening only. Every bathroom reeks of the dampness that comes from tubs and pails of emergency water always standing full. From our side, some construction can be seen going on in the lush valley. Oles’ is startled, then perturbed, then concludes that they’re building another parking lot, and becomes upset. His conclusion surprises me as, given the present state of the nation, parking lots, particularly on the grassy banks of a barely flowing river in a faded provincial town, would hardly seem like a construction priority.

Olya meanwhile is leaping around, collecting flowers and weaving a garland of dandelions. We head up the hill, leaving her in a sea of yellow. Oles’ and I commiserate about the fate of Uman’s river. It aptly represents the typical outcome of 70 years of Soviet rule: little progress despite the wanton destruction of some of the richest, most productive territories on earth. We head up the hill ahead of Olya and when she finally catches up to us, empty-handed.

“What happened?”

“O, it broke…”

On this side of the hill, across the street from the entrance to the munitions factory, is an official marker to two famous local kozaks, Honta and Zalizniak, announcing the coming of a proper monument to these two heroic fighters. In 1768, Honta and Zalizniak had been about to fight each other, allies of the Poles vs. the unaligned. When they met in the town of _____________, instead they joined forces and slaughtered the Poles in the area. The Soviets interpret this historic event as allies of the poor vs. the Pany, the lords, the rich, without acknowledging the kozaks as freedom fighters against a foreign oppressor. Shelest’, a very pro-Ukrainian premier in the 1970’s who erected the ‘pre-monument’ (“Coming soon, to a historical site near you…”) was shortly afterward removed from office and exiled to Moscow, punishment indeed for anyone, let alone a closet Ukrainian nationalist. His successor, Scherbytski, reneged, of course, and the monument-proper was never erected.

“The walls of the fortress were three meters thick,” Oles’ says. “There’s nothing left of them now.”

We are drifting back up Sovietska Street when a small kiosk catches my eye, and sure enough, when I leave I am one history book, one medicinal herb book and eight kids’ books heavier. The pile of all-Ukrainian books has cost me barely half the price of one of the psychedelic anemones. This little kiosk was a motherlode, something I’ve notice before: I can often find a better selection of Ukrainian texts outside of Kyiv, than in the capital.

Spring Planting

On Saturday, we drive out to the family’s main plot of land, 8 sotky, or hundredths of a hectare. It’s less than a quarter-acre.

“If I don’t plant the beets today, my mother will harangue me no end,” Oles’s mother says, fishing among the plastic wrap, little cloth sacs of flowered cotton and rolled up seedbags with Cyrillic labels. “Here we are. These are good for borshch. People often use vinegar for borshch.”

“I use vinegar…”

“Traditionally, we never used vinegar; we used beets and tomatoes. Once when my daughter had a fever, the doctor told me to use beets. So I made her some plaster out of shredded beets and in a half-hour her temperature dropped by a degree. Later I did it again and her temperature dropped some more. You can use vinegar, but beets work better.”

She hoes a row and asks me to fetch some water. I take the aluminum pail down to the sink hole and fill it. A few snails swim at the surface.

“Good.” She watches me water the row and begins to sow the beet seeds. “My mother’s unhappy that she can’t be out here planting with us.”

“I know. She complained yesterday that she’s not much help to you. I said, what do you mean ‘Not much help’? Look at the pile of potatoes you peeled for us all.”

“My mother is used to struggling all her life, to working hard.”

“It seems to me they spent so many years telling you all Glory to the Struggle that people forgot how to take it easy, to be happy.” I set the pail down and Oles’s mother smiles at me, as though my comment pleases her unexpectedly.

“It’s true, my mother has never rested.”

We finish sowing the row.

“Now pumpkins. Look at this soil.” She turns over some wet black clods with her hoe. The soil is black as rinsed coffee grounds. “This isn’t the best, either.” She hoes a few more clods. “This soil’s so clean, you could eat it. Not a stone, not a root in it. Just black earth.” She picks up a handful and separates it with her fingers. “Chornozem. Such incredible soil…and they ate my grandfather.”

I take a handful of seeds and ask her how to sow.

“Here, I’ll do it.”

“What’ll I do then? Why don’t you hoe and I’ll sow?”

“OK, here’s how. Stick each seed in tip-down, like this.” She places the bright white seed into the shallow hole like a coin into a slot. “Four to a spot.” She sets three more plump seeds into the soil about an inch apart and gives me the rest of the bag. “I was really small, about 3, when the famine began, but I remember a few things.

“My grandfather, Petro Muzyka, was kurkulized . Like most people, he was simply a hard-working farmer with six hard-working children in the village of Lisove. He lost it all in 1925, when they sent him away to Siberia for seven years. When he came back, the famine was in full force. He and his wife were no longer young – he was at least 60 by then and really worn out. Despite his age, they forced him to work in the radhosp fields every day. He was given an unheated room and assigned to a field that was 20 kilometers away. He would walk the distance every dawn, work like a horse until dusk, then walk 20 kilometers back.

“They crushed his fingers in a door,” she adds, holding up her own soil-darkened, earthy hand. “They scorched the beards of some of the churchmen, to force them, too.” She bends over to hoe the last of the pumpkin row. Without straightening up, she finishes her story. “One day he must have felt too exhausted to walk all the way home without a rest and stopped by a house for a drink of water. One of the villagers saw him go in. He never came out again.”

I feel as if all the air has disappeared when she says this. But she isn’t done.

“My mother knew two women who ate their own children.” She straightens up and wipes her hands on her apron. “They must have been psychotic, but these terrible things went on. My mother told her husband one day, ‘I don’t want to live any more – life is too terrible.’ My brother was just a baby then and she was terrified that he would die. She kept praying to God, ‘Please, if you care for your people, do something! Help us!’ But things just got worse. One day she stopped praying and she never prayed again. If it weren’t for our cow giving birth and providing us with milk, I don’t know how we would have survived. Older children and men starved fastest – they really needed to eat. And children were often cannibalized by strangers.”

By now we have hoed and sowed three rows of soy and cucumbers. The wind has died down and it is comfortably warm. My palms sport warm, fat blisters. “So women and younger children did better?” I ask, not a little surprised.

“For some reason, they lasted longer.”

I go for another bucket of water while she digs and scrapes. “My father, as the son of a ‘kurkulized’ peasant, had a bad time of it. He was beaten and harassed and spent his life terrified that he would be imprisoned or exiled, and lose what little he had. He worked like an ox, night and day. He’d come home and not even change his clothes, just nap a little and run out to work some more. All this to prove that he was not a kurkul.

“You know, it was years before those who worked on the radhosps even had passports. They could not go anywhere without the express permission of the head. And they weren’t paid anything.”

I sigh, finding all this information very painful. Other friends had also told me bits and pieces about life as a state-owned peasant, and I’d visited one of the villages myself. “It seems to me that the people here have been even worse off than the serfs in the 19th century. They’re basically slaves to the State.”

“That’s exactly what they were, slaves, and it hasn’t gotten much better today.”

I look at the strip of dark soil we have worked for the past two days, 8 hundredths of a hectare on a long slope that ends in a creek and, through a trickle of trees, runs up another slope. To either side, similar strips run parallel, some already showing a tiny fuzz of green. I can only think of one positive point: “Well, you do get free land, which is something that we’ve never had.”

Golden Years

Oles’s grandmother is 86 years old. She’s come down with a very painful earache and his mother must take her to the hospital. Of course, they don’t find anything diagnosable, and she is told to lie down if it makes her feel better, to avoid drafts, and check back in a few days. Some dubious medication is prescribed, but no one believes it will much help.

“Starist’, tse ne radist’ – age brings no joy,” she says, wringing her thick hands together and pushing the beige kerchief off her ears a little, though her hearing was too poor for that to help any more. “I don’t want to live any more…Everything hurts. This,” pointing to her heart, “and my back…my ear…my head….” With the khustka permanently wrapped around her head and concealing all her hair, she looks surprisingly like a Muslim old woman, except she’s not in black. After her daughter has tied up her wispy honey-brown hair again, Oles’s grandmother lies down on the couch once more, letting out tiny groans and looking as though she is about to cry. The rest of the family have driven off to get the load of manure that was ordered yesterday and must now be paid for and delivered.

“Can you still read a little?” I ask.

“No. I can’t read. I never had time to learn.”

“Are you bored?”

“Yes, very,” she sighs.

“Tell me a story. Tell me about the war.”

“At the time when the Germans left and the Soviets came, I was sick in bed with the flu and a fever. A Soviet officer came into our house and said ‘Hey you, you cooked for the Germans, get off your back now and cook for me.’ But we had never cooked for the Germans! They had a kitchen that travelled with them and we occasionally brought them baked goods or preserves, but we never cooked for them.

“The Germans were quite different. One time I went to milk the cow and found a German there, brushing her down. He was brushing her really nicely and patting her and said to me, ‘Good morning, Mama.’ He plunked a kiss on the cow’s nose when he finished. On the other hand, when one old man tried to get a loaf of bread from their store, a different German wouldn’t let him. They were not all the same.”

I stand behind her and work her shoulder muscles a little. She seems to enjoy it.

“… Eventually life got a bit better.”

I make us some tea with strawberry preserves.

That night after dinner, we turn on the television and I recognize an actor I met at the Ivan Franko Theater last fall. At the time he impressed me with his strength of feeling for Ukraine and Ukrainian language and culture. Tonight I’m in for a shock, however. The program is a special sponsored by GM’s Ukraina Motors of Kyiv. The entire show in Russian only, with an equally renowned female actor co-emceeing. At one point the performers begin singing a parody of a traditional Ukrainian song “Bud’mo ukrayintsi” (‘Let’s be Ukrainians”) substituting the words “Bud’mo yevrayi” (‘Let’s be Jews’). I feel stunned and I think, could Koreans imagine a prime-time Seoul variety show performed in the Japanese language and singing “Let’s be Japanese”?

Then I think, how painful it must be to need money so desperately…

May Day

The next morning I peek out the front door around 10 o’clock and heard a band playing, see a red banner sneak by between buildings. “Oles’, there’s a May Day parade!”


We grabbed sweaters and shoes and went out, but the parade is already gone.

“Not very substantial, was it,” I say.

“Let’s go down to the central square anyway, and see if they’re still there.”

It dawns on us that the main street has been blocked off when we see several cars turned away. We figure there has to still be some action. A few meters further, a white Lada has stopped across the road and a policeman in shirtsleeves stands next to it. When we come closer, we can hear the driver saying to the young officer, “What is this?! These guys murdered more than 100 million of us in the last 300 years and you’re letting them march through town? What the hell is this? When are you going to stop?!”

Oles’ likes what he hears and walks over to the cop: “Yeah, why are these rotters walking through town? We’ve been independent for almost two years and they’re still at it.”

I pipe up: “I’ve never seen a town that would shut its main streets down for a parade as insignificant as this.”

The cop looks from one to the other of us. He seems neither for nor against what we are saying, but I sense that he, too, feels that the event is much ado about nothing. We turn and walk off; the other complainant drives off, too, and next thing we know, cars are driving down the central street again.

“At least it was only for 20 minutes,” Oles’ remarks. “In the past, this went on until 1 p.m. Three hours.”

The plaza looks fairly quiet – there are no more banners, no musicians, no flags on the actual streets. A small crowd has gathered on the sidewalk. We walk up to see what the point of attraction is. Two women and a girl in pigtails are standing behind a table with books, and behind them, on the wooden fence, is an exhibit. At first I think they are the May Day celebrants, but the sign behind them says:

“Socialist fascism or Communist fascism – what’s the difference?”

Below the swastika is a whip, a billy club, a gun, and an SS cap. Below the hammer-&-sickle are the same weapons – and a red Army cap.

“They have terrorized and destroyed us equally” says the text at the bottom.

Next is a series of black-and-white photographs showing priests blessing a collection of skulls, a crowd of coffins in a snowy yard, heaps of human bones in an opened trench. Then there is a long list with the heading: “This is only a partial list of the people in the Uman’ region known to have been murdered by the communists.” The list must contain several hundred names, and there are several additional lists on the fence.

As I buy a book on Ukrainian history and donate some money to the cause, we become aware that there is some sort of commotion in the main square where Lenin’s arm still points towards a very depleted Gastronome. A young woman, a couple of men and some police mill around in the area before the monument, and at once we notice that the word “KAT” has been spray-painted in black on the pedestal since yesterday. I think I’ve heard the word before, but I don’t know what it means in Ukrainian. All that comes to mind is Krazy Kat.

“A kat is a hired thug,” Oles’ explains, “someone who’s been given the right to legally beat up and even murder people on behalf of a landlord or a tax collector. There were a lot of people like that under the Poles. It also refers to a hangman, an executioner.”

Just then a military jeep drives up beside us, and the woman and the youngest of the men are escorted from the monument area to it. The long-haired woman from the display suddenly appears, takes something from the other woman, and begins to walk briskly past the jeep, back towards her table.

Next thing we know, two men, one in plain clothes and one in uniform, run up and grab her by the arms. She struggles out of their clutches. The policeman goes around to the driver’s side of the jeep, the undercover agent grabs her arm again and begins to drag her back to the waiting car. She struggles with him, then gets in, still struggling.

People around us mutter, some critically, some approvingly. I say aloud, “Since when are people treated this way here?”

The jeep drives off.

A white-haired woman standing in front of us says in Russian, “Such troublemakers!”

I turn to her. “What business does Lenin have in our town center, anyway. He’s not even Russian, let alone Ukrainian.”

A woman to our right replies, “There are 600,000 refugees in Tadjikistan, you know…”

“What does that have to do with us, here?”

She begins to rant and rave about some conflicts and refugees without much sense, so I return to the situation before us: “People should not be treated so roughly, and certainly not a woman who did nothing wrong. Lenin has no place in a Ukrainian town; he’s not our hero!” On that note, we walk back to the exhibit.

To our surprise, the woman with the long brown hair is there, packing up her display.

“What happened?” we ask.

“I popped one of the military guys in the forehead and told them they had no business taking me in. I have property here and I need to take it away so it isn’t vandalized. The Rukh leader’s wife told them that I had nothing to do with it. She simply handed me the balloon of ink. So they stopped the car and let me go.”

We laugh at the tempest in the teapot and say good-bye to her.

“Where is the Rukh leader himself?” I ask Oles’ now.

“He’s in the hospital. He’s been there since a bunch of guys ambushed him and beat him up about a month ago.”

I shiver. I didn’t know these things went on in the small towns of Ukraine.

Part-way down the block towards the market, a cluster of well-dressed communists are walking with some small banners and one woman is talking to her prepubescent son in Russian. Oles’ asks them why they are carrying red banners. The man begins to address us aggressively in Russian. I laugh at him: “Why are you using a foreign language? Learn to speak Ukrainian – then I might listen to what you have to say.”

The man sputters angrily, “Bunch of khakhly .” “Foreigner,” I snap back. “Learn the language of the land.” And we walk on, the communists muttering behind our backs.

“These people don’t seem to be aware that the of power center has shifted. They only want to cling onto the privileges they’re used to,” says Oles’.

“It’s a pity to see them still exerting influence on the young,” I say. “That’s what bothers me the most.” But what is more striking, I realize as I walk on, is the well-dressed assuredness of these people: they are used to being the power elite and they haven’t given up their positions yet… They would fit in perfectly with the ‘town & country club’ set back in the USA.

May Day, May Day…

Medium shot. Moscow. Nervous rookie riot police collapse almost immediately, despite helmets, shields and truncheons, before the onslaught of the belligerent, burly avant-garde of communist demonstrators with their red banners screaming for the return of Lenin and Empire.

High shot, then close-up. Like a speeded-up clip from the 20’s, a small dark-green fuel truck suddenly shoots out from among a line of parked vehicles and crushes two policemen against the bumper of a parked truck in the next row. One is flung aside, the other falls down, his useless shield pinned between the two now-immobile hunks of steel.

Medium shot. Kyiv. The statue of Lenin at the foot of Taras Shevchenko Boulevard. A small crowd of middle-aged men and women carry their red banners and flags and lay wreaths at the base of the pedestal. Around the edges, clusters of three or four can be seen gesticulating, as though in heated argument.

Medium shot, panning. Kyiv. Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), about 800 meters away. A sea of blue and yellow flags fills the area around the five fountains and spills across Khreshchatyk to the plaza where another statue of Lenin has long been replaced by billboards advertising a bank. Here, too, the occasional cluster of gesticulating citizens can be seen. People are smiling, cheering, singing songs of their beloved Ukraine. The red and black flags of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) can be seen here and there.

Shots 3 and 4 never appear on any newscast outside Ukraine. Shots 1 and 2 are flashed the world over and within days more money is committed to Russia. This is the good child syndrome: Mom and Dad are too busy dealing with Joe the JD to think about his younger, better-behaved brother.

The Land That History Forgot

In January 18, 1654, a heavy-set elder kozak wearily signed a paper in the presence of the imperial emissary. Slowly he settled his two-feathered hat back on his head, stood up, bowed deeply, wordlessly and left the church. Outside the stars shone bitterly in the dark prairie sky and a wind howled, ready to tear a careless coat clean off its wearer’s back. Horses whinnied nearby, shivering their whithers irregularly.

Bohdan Khmelnytskiy, perhaps the most successful democratically elected hetman in the history of kozak Ukraine, thus ended months of frustrating consideration of the unhappy choices before him: his neighbors, Russia and Poland were once more making aggressive noises, a pack of wolves baying at Ukraine’s vast and ungovernable doors for the thousandth time. To the south, the Ottoman court had changed and animosity towards an infidel ally was widespread. The Tatars had repeatedly proved their unreliability. In order to secure some peace for his carved up land since the successful uprisings 3 years earlier, he had to find an overlord to stand behind his wobbly domain. King, khan, tsar, sultan. He knew he had to sign with one of them and the diabolical question had been, which enemy was the least voracious?

In the end, a less painful history with the neighbor to the north, and the shared Orthodox faith, led to Khmelnytskiy’s choice: Alexei Mikhailovich, Tsar of Muscovy.

But the Periaslav Accord chained the ancient land of Rus’ to its hungry northern offspring in a bitterly uneven relationship that officially was only to end 337 years later. Indeed, it marked the beginning of the history of what came to be known as Ukraine as an appendage to what came to be known as Russia.

The words of the imperial oath of loyalty he and his council had just sworn stuck in his throat like a fine fishbone. Buturlin had held his ground, however, and short of abandoning the agreement altogether, the kozaks had to finally accept the unilateral vow of loyalty that made them not weaker partners in a mutual pact, but vassals to their liege. With Poland, at least, the concept of equality with the Polish king had not been disputed. He crossed himself in the dark and prayed to the Mother of God that he would not live to regret this day.

The Winter of Our Discontent

January has crept upon us with a nasty twist of cold weather, sun like a bitter lemon in a grey cup of tea, spine-wrinkling, ear-jabbing, finger-curdling cold. Only -6° C but polar sensation. Kobza on the player, hottish tea in my cup, cold borscht in my belly – even cold borscht tastes full and creamy. Waste not, want not. In any case my waist has been shrinking and this does no harm…

Hoarfrost laces the trees, a ghostly dream cloak that brings home the Arctic for all its beauty. In the dark my body swims with delight. I only dreamed alone before, singing of Ukra?na, sad tenderness turning to joy.

Another day like a twist of lemon in the sky, on the train between Fastiv and Minsk, the heat in the compartment drives me to the cooler space between cars, between worlds, between realities. I stare out the window at the frosty landscape swimming past and in a sudden clearing, in the moonlit dark, some men on horseback are clashing, sabres and pistols rattling over some cause, a small host of kozak ghosts reminding me, This is your land – you must live here. I start to cry.

1) Chernobyl is the Russian name for this Ukrainian disaster area.
2) Malorossy is a Russian term meaning ‘Little Russians.’ Upon forcing unification with Ukraine in 1654, the Russians quickly began to deny the existence of a separate Ukrainian culture and language by referring to Ukrainians as their little Russian brothers. Today the term refers to Ukrainians who have so internalized the oppressor culture that they believe themselves to be Russians, not Ukrainians.
3) ‘Sparrow’ in Ukrainian.
4) Kolektyvne hospodarstvo: general term for collective farm.
5) Smoked pork rind with a deep layer of pure lard attached.
6) Kurkul (kulak in Russian) was the traditional name for wealthy ‘gentleman’ farmers, those who had enough wealth to hire workers to do their farmwork for them. Under Stalin’s forced collectivization of farmland, the term was greatly expanded to include any peasant who had a successful piece of land and more than two chickens to his name. This process of forced collectivization was most devastating in Ukraine, where peasants were used to working their own land, unlike their Russian counterparts, who had historically lived in communal settlements called obshchina. Stalin, in fact, attempted three times to force collectivization, and it was not until he masterminded the mass artificial famine of 1931-33, killing some 6-8 million Ukrainians, that he finally broke the backs of Ukraine’s peasant-farmers.
7) Radhosp or radianske hospodarstvo is another kind of collective structure, a council farm.
8) Rukh means ‘movement’ in Ukrainian and is the name of the National Movement, the primary democratic, pro-Ukrainian political force.
9) Khakhol is a derogatory term Russians use to refer to Ukrainians. It comes from the topknot that kozaks used to wear. Its Russian counterpart is katsap, referring to the ‘goat-like’ appearance of the beards that were historically popular among Russians. Ukrainians traditionally preferred moustaches to beards.

August 29, 1993

Published on 26/04/2006


Author: RL Chomiak

27/04/2006 00:03

The Franko gravestone-monument of a "kamenyar" was done by Serhiy Lytvynenko, a sculptor who died in New York in the 70's. He was of the so-called "Petlura emigration" -- Eastern Ukrainians and allies of Poland, whom Poland screwed when it signed the 1920 pact with USSR. SO -- the monument-gravestone was built between 1920 and 1935, because I saw it as a child in Lviv. I.e. - it is definitely is not Sov. My father attended Franko's funeral with his father and told me about it whenever we visited Lychakiv. So how do you like the new mayor of Lviv? For some reason he is never called "oligarch" although he is.


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