Jul 25, 2022
15 mins read
I am very happy more people are getting interested in Ukrainian culture and asking me questions about our history and way of life. I love answering these questions, mostly because they're opening my own eyes. I would talk about some episode from my life that I always perceived as completely normal, and then I would say it out loud and get this whiplash, like "Wait, WTF, that wasn't OK!" Like, the fact that in my school we had a subject called Russian Literature, but we had no World Literature. Like, the fact that in my year children were divided into 4 classes, and 3 of them would receive their education in the Russian language and only one - in Ukrainian. That was happening in Independent Ukraine by that time! That's not OK! I also remember this single Ukrainian class being considered weird and high-maintenance by the teachers. For the first 8 years of school I studied in one of the Russian classes, and for the final two transferred to the Ukrainian one. My teachers would pull me aside and tell me: "Do you realize that everything is taught in Ukrainian there? EVERYTHING! Math, biology! Don't do it, don't transfer, it's going to be so hard, your grades would drop!" Yeah. Repressing Russian speakers my ass: I was actively discouraged from speaking Ukrainian and getting my education in my native language in favor of Russian. Disgusting. I still transferred, my grades did not suffer, and I loved it there! Suck it, headmistress!
So, anyway, I realized that my own life and my family's story are also part of history and represent something important. I took a hard look at what I know about my family, which is - fun fact - not a lot. In post-USSR space, nobody knows much about their ancestors. We have no heirlooms, no old family-owned businesses - it was all taken away by the Soviets. They did not want people to know their ancestry, they did not want them to know where they came from, what nationality, or what values they had - basically they wanted to erase any identity a person might have, and turn them into a faceless cog of the "proletariat" machine. Being poor was praised (oh the brave poor people rising and overthrowing the rich bastards! how heroic!). Getting any sort of "luxury" items was ridiculed, and telling anyone you come from a rich/noble family was just asking for relentless ridicule. It is reflected in Soviet culture: all the rich characters or those who aspire to become rich are basically caricatures and punching bags for the jokes.
So I don't know much about my ancestors. I asked my parents to learn all I could and I asked my grandparents, but even they could not tell me a lot about their own siblings for reasons that would become apparent further down the post.
I made this little family tree (excluding all the aunts and uncles) and that's as far as I could get. Now, please allow me to introduce you to my family. I know that my great-grandfather on my mother's side had 11 children during the times of Holodomor. Back then there was this Law of Three Spikelets (basically this law says that you can get arrested for "stealing" as many as three spikelets from the wheat field), and when he had nothing to feed them he went to the field and picked up some grain that fell onto the ground after the harvester had already collected the crops. When I say "some" I mean he brought it home in his pocket. Someone saw him, ratted him out, a black KGB car came to his house, took him from his house in front of his family - and nobody ever saw or heard from him since. Excuse me for bringing up a russian and extremely Ukrainophobic writer (as you know I studied russian literature in school, I can't help it), but if you've watched/read "Master and Margarita", it describes those episodes when a black KGB car rolls into the neighborhood and people around just scatter. That's not just a boogeyman story, that was real. And I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that putin is an ex-KGB officer. Just another fun fact.
If you want to learn more about Holodomor, I would have recommended the book called "The Yellow Prince" by Vasyl Barka, but I don't think it was ever translated into English. Much like this blog, the novel tells a story of what it was like from a perspective of a regular Ukrainian person. Be warned, however: it is a heavy read, it can leave you with honest to god trauma. It did for me. I read it 10 years ago, and I'm still terrified of it. Although, now that russia is trying to force another Holodomor onto the world, it becomes relevant again.
Anyway, one of those 11 children was my grandfather. I know that he was from Moldova and that at some point in life he got transferred to Syberia. That's another thing the USSR did: rip people from their homes, mix them up, make them forget where they come from and who they are. So my grandfather ended up working in Syberia as a prison guard. I know what you think, and no, I have no idea what sort of prison it was, but from what I gathered about the way that prison operated, it was not a concentration camp, so thank god for that. There he met my grandmother.
Now, my grandmother was born in central russia. She got educated to become a nurse and, since back then the USSR was just telling you where to go and what to do, she was also sent to work in Syberia. There she worked in a hospital and would often go to prisons to conduct regular medical examinations of inmates. My grandfather fell in love with her, and apparently one of the inmates tried to do something to my grandmother, and I obviously don't know the details, but my grandpa beat up that inmate and was fired.
I am not sure what happened next, but they got married, had children, and eventually "received" a room in a communal apartment in Odesa, Ukraine as recognition of their hard work. Did you notice this little magic trick? A person from Moldova gets sent to Syberia, and then a decade or two later a RUSSIAN family gets sent to the South of Ukraine. (They would do it often. I used to know a russian girl my age who was born in Syberia, and her parents received a room here, in Odesa, too, just before the collapse of the USSR. They sold the room and bought an apartment here, then send their children to study and live here in said apartment. They are still here, still russian citizens with russian passports, owning two apartments and a house, raising kids and everything.)
Now, a little bit about communal apartments. You can see them in nearly every Soviet movie. It's a big apartment, usually has a big long hall with doors leading to numerous bedrooms. It has 1 kitchen and 1 bathroom that you have to share with the rest of the residents. So my grandma and grandpa and their three children received a ROOM in such an apartment. 5 people in 1 room. According to my mom, it was horrible and they were really unlucky with the neighbors. Somehow they managed to switch apartments with another person and move into a different, smaller communal apartment. That's where my mom grew up, and gradually, as people were moving out, my mom and grandma would buy out their rooms and eventually would get an entire apartment to themselves. At one point my mom's sister would have a child and start her own family. By the time I was born that apartment with 5 tiny bedrooms would have: my mom, my dad, my grandfather and grandmother, my cousin(?) (my mom's sister's daughter), her husband, and her child. It's complicated, I know. So basically it was turned into a huge family nest. Only, they were not getting along. I will not bore you with dp,rstic squabble details, the bottom line is I grew up there, my parents still live there, and at one point in my life I will have to go to court over the ownership of that apartment. But that's a whole other story and not important right now.
After they moved, my grandmother would work in a local hospital. My grandfather would be very inconsistent getting some very unrelated professions: after being a prison guard in Syberia he would become a brigadier of the builders who built this pond in Odesa, and then drop that job and become a confectioner at a sweets factory. My mom always said she thinks of herself as a Ukrainian because this is where she remembers growing up, but she only started learning Ukrainian when I went to school. She would help me with homework and learn the language. She worked all her life at Odesa astronomical observatory, and that's where she met my dad.
Moving on to my father's side of the family.
Now, my great-grandmother is the most interesting person I have ever heard of, and I may or may not have started this entire post specifically so I could tell you her story. She was a daughter of a rich wine-maker in the Odesa region. They had a pretty decent estate with a vineyard and had a pretty comfortable life. That was around the time the airplanes were just invented and she fell in love with a pilot. One of the first pilots in the world (well, maybe not really, but for DRAMA let's say it was). Her father was against their relationship and told her that he would disown her if she marries him. My great-grandmother said "OK" and married the guy. Then the October revolution hit, the USSR was formed, and her husband was sent - you guessed it - to Syberia. At that time her father lost the estate because - remember? - rich people were the enemy and it did not matter that their life was a result of generations of honest hard work. Then de-Ukraininization started. A lot of Ukrainians were torn from their homes and relocated to Syberia. At some point, my great-grandmother's husband died there. By that time, there were a lot of people from the South of Ukraine, so that woman gathered them all together and they just WALKED home. Like WALKED from Syberia to Odesa. Open the map and look at that distance. I don't know if I believe it either, but that's how my grandma told me this story, and so I am telling it to you now. I mainly consider it my family "legend", ESPECIALLY this next part:
My great-grandmother was sort of in charge of that little caravan of people, she was the one deciding which roads to take because it wasn't easy to navigate the roads back then: people were looking for runaways, there were a lot of bandits, etc. The way she would decide which road to take was by fortune-telling, and she would do it with beans. Again, no idea about the details, but as my grandmother showed it to me, you grab a fistful of beans, spill them on the table, then separate them into little groups of 2-5, and then the number of these groups and beans in each group is supposed to tell you things. I do not believe in fortune telling, but according to my grandmother, this is how her mom led all those people from Syberia to Odesa without a single incident, perfectly avoiding all danger.
Magic aside, the fact remains that she was one of the Ukrainians taken from home and moved to Syberia or other removed places of russia (the fact that she returned is just her being a badass). While my grandmother on my mother's side was a russian who was settled here in somebody else's place. Like, just within my family we can see a clear example of the Kremlin taking Ukrainians from home and putting russians in their place. Which is exactly what they are doing right now: over 1 000 000 (ONE MILLION) of Ukrainians have been forcefully moved to russia since Feb 24, 2022. 200 000 of them are children, and NOT all of them are orphans. Meanwhile, they are bringing new people into occupied territories, our children in Mariupol are having summer school right now where the teachers brought here from russia "prepare" them for russian curriculum. Basically, time moves on, but russia plays by the same rulebook.
So, my badass of a great-grandma lost her husband, lost her home, returned to her motherland and started a new family on the ruins of her life and her country. My grandmother was born here, she was a child when WWII happened, she lived in occupation, but remembers very little. She remembers the bombing, she remembers hiding under the table and the sound of airplanes and being very scared. Growing up she admired teachers and would always dream to become one, and she would even pass an entrance exam to the institute, but they had no money for her to take a photograph for the documents needed for that institute. And so merely for that one little detail, she never got an education, and her whole life she worked at a plant making bricks. It was hard and exhausting work, and she was always both proud and envious of me for fulfilling her dream and becoming a teacher. I am the first person in my family to get higher education, and thinking about the reasons why always makes me very sad.
Now, my grandfather was born in a village in 1931, so the very start of Holodomor. Until this day I do not know how his parents managed to feed the family and not eat him. Cannibalism, especially of little children, was, unfortunately, a thing. And it was way worse in villages. Again, "Yellow Prince" tells about all these horrors.
But he survived, he grew up, he went to school, and he got to study there for whole 4 years before he was taken from school and forced to work on a tractor in a field. You heard me: they took an 11-year-old boy from school, put him behind a wheel of a tractor, and told him to go work. When he was 14, one day he would be very-very tired so he would stop the tractor and lie in the grass to catch a nap. His friend came by to visit him (again, another child), he saw my grandpa sleeping and decided it was a great opportunity to jump behind the wheel and ride on a tractor for fun. Before my grandpa would manage to catch and stop him that boy would accidentally plow a part of a neighbor's field and I guess ruin some of his crops because that's actually a story of how my teenage grandfather spent 6 months in prison.
As you may guess, he HATED the USSR with a burning passion. He never had any education besides those 4 classes, but his mind was amazing. He was always inventing these little household items, always fixing things, always making new things, and that's how he taught my father, and my father taught me. Honestly, with me being a girl, they did not teach me a lot (and I am especially terrible with electronics), but I helped fix the roof and the tiles in our yard were not only laid but made by our entire family. I would always get involved in some of their repair activities. They would try to shoo me away back to the women of our family, but I am stubborn and I picked up a thing or two while bothering them. The best I can do is assemble some furniture and hammer a nail or two, but still. I try.
My grandpa was brilliant. I am certain that if he had a chance to get his education he would have been an amazing engineer. His mind was crystal clear and sharp until his last breath. His dream was to become a sailor, but same as with my grandmother it wasn't meant to be and he ended up at the same brick plant. They would fall in love, get married, and eventually, the government would give them a plot of land. It was just an empty plot, but they made it their home. They built a house there completely with their own hands, they planted a little orchard, a kitchen garden, a tiny vineyard, and they would make their own wine (just like my great-grandmother's parents. I think it's symbolic). They had some chickens and when they retired they got goats. They would have two children: my dad and my aunt, and they got to live their lives as honest and hard-working people, and they would raise their children to be the same. With only a high-school education my father could drive a car at 14, fix a car engine at 16, in his life he worked as a builder, plumber, electrician, carpenter, mechanic, and did house renovations. Now he works in an office, he taught himself some programming languages and writes apps all by himself.
I don't really know what the point of this post is. I guess it's that the fact that I am here is the result of both russian genocide and my ancestors' defiance in the face of it. My very existence is both sides of a coin at once. Also, it shows me that there isn't a single generation of my ancestors, for as far as I can trace it, that wouldn't suffer at the hands of russian imperialism and their unethical methods of enforcing their "russian world".
I really-really hope that I get to be the generation that stops it for good. This is why I am doing my best to fight. This is why we all fight.