Once, she was told she had to marry only pure-bred Ukrainians. They said that families with a mother from Galicia and a father from Donbas (or vice versa) were, allegedly, doomed to split and break up for political reasons. Supposedly, the east and the west of the country were mentally different, and children in such families would have no roots.
In the old photos, all the old are young. In the old photos, the dead are laughing.
People are the focus of this story. Most of them are no longer among the living. Her relatives came from different parts of the country and became witnesses to and involuntary participants in different pages of its history.
Story one, tracing back to a Donbas mine
I put on my grandmother’s heels and walk the funny hip sway.
“Aren’t you the pretty one? Red lips, soulful eyes, such a princess!” I hear my grandmother’s voice.
I look back. She stands, leaning on the closet, smiling, holding her arms together as if praying. There is so much love and warmth in her eyes. A rebellious strand of grey hair has come out from under her babushka scarf. Old age has its beauty.
“Wait a second, I also have my ring. Your grandfather gave it to me. It is red, with a ruby. When you grow up, you will wear it. Try it on. I also have earrings, look—with rubies, as well,” Grandma pulls out a small vase with jewellery from the china cupboard.
“I will give all of it to you! And you will give them to your daughter. I wanted to raise a girl so much. . . Well, just look at those rubies,” the stones shimmer in the sun on a wrinkled palm.
Rubies in a low-cost Soviet “khrushchyovka’ flat.” Quite a contrast.
Grandma hides her treasure in the cupboard. It also holds a foreign dinnerware set and a bottle of The Red Moscow perfume. And my photos.
“Grandma, how did your mum survive the Holodomor? And the Germans, were they really that scary?”
“One German shared his tinned meat with me. And saved my house—wouldn’t let them burn it down.”
(Grandma, what is it like to serve a country that deliberately starved its own people and abandoned them to the invaders?)
I make dresses of my grandmother’s colourful babushka scarves.
“Just look at that gypsy bride! One glance with those eyes, and you will steal someone’s heart!”
Baron is in my way. Not a gypsy one, though. Mine. And why in the world would I steal anyone’s heart?
My grandfather and I go to the store. He has a string bag in his hand; his palm is rough and smells of tobacco.
Burly Grandpa smokes a pipe like Cossack Mamay. He comes from the Cossack land. Grandpa will have two shots, and I will get the candy. Bread, cheese, and eggs are swinging in the string bag. Grandpa will buy me “choco-late butter” and make me a sandwich tonight.
Grandpa does not tell my grandmother how much he loves her. Generally, he does not talk much. My Grandpa is a miner. The man is tough as steel and has a hot temper.
(Grandma, what is it like to be a miner’s wife? How is it, working heavily pregnant underground, because the Soviet Union wants its quota?)
He comes from the line of Cossacks in Cherkasy region, she is Annychka from Podilia.
They met in the destroyed post-war Donbas, which the Soviets forced them to rebuild. They did not know how to talk about love. Yet they jealously guarded it—in those precious rubies, “choco-late butter” and imported shoes. Their love was mined in a Donbas mine, like coal.
I put on those shoes again, smear red lipstick on my lips. I am a princess.
Jewellery goes to the hiding place, and foreign dinnerware to the ceiling cabinet. The old china cupboard was left in the “khrushchyovka” flat. It smells of The Red Moscow. It remembers the red Moscow.
“Grandma, what is it like to be happy?”
“Every woman has a recipe of her own.”
My Sosnivka is a mining town still permeated with Soviet times to this day. The town of my childhood.
Every year, at the beginning of summer, my Grandma Anya and I went to our cottage house. The old road was dusty, making my nose itch. Ahchoo!
Baron the Dog, who was still a puppy at the time, slept peacefully in a basket on Uncle Mytya’s bike.
The bike, called “Ukraine,” was rolling on its sloppy road. It was a bumpy ride; old brakes, which remembered the moustached Joseph, were creaking. Yet, it made it to its shelter in a quiet shade. Without the brakes, though. We lost them somewhere along the way.
They met in the destroyed post-war Donbas, which the Soviets forced them to rebuild. They did not know how to talk about love. Yet they jealously guarded it—in those precious rubies, “choco-late butter” and imported shoes. Their love was mined in a Donbas mine, like coal
I took sleepy Baron out of the basket, and we sat in the orange cottage house while Grandma and Uncle were poisoning potato beetles. Baron and I met the sunsets on the doorstep of that tiny house, shared my snacks and savoured Victoria strawberries.
“I am not an educated person. But you will be. And you will remember how your grandmother packed your snacks in newspaper and brought them to the cottage house.”
As the sun set and twilight enveloped Sosnivka, we locked up the chickens and followed the beaten path all the way to the paved road. There, I would climb into an old red wagon, and we would drive past Daddy’s school to get “some goat milk and blueberries.”
Every night, I would call my Mum and ask her when she would come. Mum had no idea. Mum was working.
Grandma used to let her grey braid down to her waist, toss a napkin off the TV and watch the soap opera Engagement Ring.
I used to read the chiller Haidamaky to Baron at night in the dim light and eat blueberries to keep my eyes healthy. A June thunderstorm was roaring outside. We fell asleep hugging: me, baby Baron and Shevchenko’s Kobzar, still not finished.
In the morning, we climbed on the windowsill in the “khrushchyovka” and waited for the green Volga. Daddy in his camo and Mum wearing a black dress with sunflowers on it would get out of it. Dad smelled like the road and Marlboro. Mum smelled like Mum. The Volga smelled like travels.
“Grandma, listen. Would you change anything in your life, given the choice?”
Grandma looks at the books in the china cupboard in silence. I know: she would choose education. Not the four years of school, but a whole university. To “pay the bills” herself and do sums easy.
My educated Grandpa used to work in Donbas mines to provide money for higher education for his sons. The Soviet country gave Grandpa everything: a one-bedroom “khrushchyovka” flat, a country house, and a high pension. In return, the Soviet country asked just for his health. For young Sashko Dyachenko from the Cossack land did not quite understand that, going down into the mine, one could stay there forever. When his pregnant Annychka was crushed by a trolley in a Donbas mine, Sashko did all his best to be transferred far away, all the way beyond the Zbruch.
They fled, leaving their cozy room and Sashko’s family in Karl Marx Street in Horlivka. They fled to the Lviv region, where the mining town of Sosnivka was just being built.
(Grandma, did you forgive the country for that trolley? Why was a pregnant woman down in the mine at all?)
The Soviets cast a long shadow on the military career of their youngest son. Yurko said something to the sons of the party elite, and kissed his shoulder straps goodbye. For a man who dreamed to serve in the army, it was a sucker punch to the gut.
I look into the dim mirror with flowers in the hall. It remembers young Annychka and Sashko, who was silent and severe even in those days.
“Grandma, who do I look like?”
“Like yourself. You do not have to be someone’s copy.”
“Am I good-looking? I do not have such a long braid like yours.”
“A woman’s beauty is in her eyes. When she is happy, they shine.”
You have so much unspent women’s wisdom, my wise uneducated granny.
I secretly remove the napkin from the TV set on the dresser. Once upon a time, it reported on the feats of the Soviets and kept quiet about the horrors of the regime led by the crazy moustached Joseph. Now, it is silent forever, for the Soviet country has gone into oblivion for good. It is a pity to throw it away, so the old dusty monstrosity observes the lives of the residents in the Soviet “khrushchyovka” from under the napkin.
It blinks like the Viy (an all-seeing evil monster from Nikolai Gogol’s eponymous novel — R.). I cover it back in a hurry.
The Soviet country gave Grandpa everything: a one-bedroom “khrushchyovka” flat, a country house, and a high pension. In return, the Soviet country asked just for his health. For young Sashko Dyachenko from the Cossack land did not quite understand that, going down into the mine, one could stay there forever
“Liars,” creaks the old china cupboard—the one that remembers the red Moscow.
There are embroidered towels stacked in the dresser, and Kobzar stands on the lower shelf in the cupboard. Kobzar was an outpost of their mental independence. Annychka spent long evenings secretly reading it to her beloved Sashko. And she embroidered her towels. Her hands were picking coal in the trolleys during the day and the threads in the homespun cloth at night.
The towels and Kobzar were brought from Donbas, where, they say, there never was any Ukraine.
“Come have some tea; it’s herbal and so delicious!” Grandma calls me from the tiny kitchen.
Grandpa makes us sandwiches with expensive “choco-late butter” and goes to puff his pipe on the balcony.
“A pipe is like a woman; one has to take care of it,” he taught young Yurko once.
The older Mytya did not like the pipe. Perhaps that is why he had no wife. While Yurko had. Both the pipe and the wife.
“Grandma, are the skies as beautiful in Donbas as they are here?” I stick my nose out of the window breathing in the starry night.
“Sure thing. We have the same sky.”
And we have the same county.
Story two, tracing back to good ol’ Austria
“Mum, what does the name Budkiv mean?”
“It means its residents will have a happy future.”
We are in the Lviv-Khodoriv commuter train. Choo-choo.
Aboard, they sell the devil’s mother, “Artek” wafers, dead souls, votes for buckwheat and The High Castle newspaper.
Choo-choo. The train’s tail disappears beyond the tilted horizon in the thicket, and the tracks keep chugging a tune of a farewell waltz: choo-choo, choo-choo.
“Grandma, do you have a happy future?” I ask my Grandma Hanya while she is milking the cow.
“Oh, what a silly thing to ask! Better come have some pierogi.”
Grandma’s pierogi are as big as Grandpa’s fist! Grandpa Vasyl has made the topping using own recipe.
I take a glazed bowl and a wooden spoon, drop my slippers, and climb the hearth. My brother Nyanyo has just come from university. Vasya the Cat tries to bum a pierog off me.
Vasko is the bane of all the Budkiv rats. From the warm hearth, the whole world is spread before my eyes. It is idyllic.
“Henya, what are they saying in Lviv? Vasy-yl,” he drawls. “Look what a nice dress Henya got for Vitusya. Henya, the hairdo is great!”
Grandpa takes a drag on his cigarette.
“Grandma, are you happy with Grandpa?”
“He’s been my man all my life. I gave him four children. What do you think?” Her eyes shine when she talks about my grandfather.
Grandpa Vasyl has blue eyes and broad shoulders. Grandpa is like as a rock—unbreakable. Grandpa is a blacksmith. Fire and war tempered steel and his character.
“He is strict but fair,” Mum says, putting me to bed.
There are no piles of books or a china cupboard here. Instead, there is an old credenza, a “Bankbettel” bench, today’s newspaper, and some fresh milk. The grandparents’ wedding photo was lost to the renovations. The mirror remembers their youth instead: Hannusya in a frilly dress and Vasyl in his military uniform.
This is where love lives. It is a different shade yet equally strong.
The bedspread smells like Mum.
“Go to sleep, Vitusya. I am here by your side.”
Grandma pulls out an embroidered towel from the chest.
“You are my youngest granddaughter. When you get married—may God let Grandpa and me live long enough to see this day—lay it down. And stand on it with your darling. For good luck.”
In the Lviv-Khodoriv commuter train, Mum bought me a book about the OUN-UIA (the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the Ukrainian nationalist political and military organizations engaged in guerrilla warfare against Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for an independent and unified Ukrainian state — R.).
“Grandma, did you see the Banderites (followers of Stepan Bandera, head of OUN — R.)?”
“You bet. Bandera himself visited us; his wife stayed with us.”
Grandpa hushes her down. Grandma goes silent. Why would she? This is so exciting!
“Halyusya—I mean Vitusya, dear—climb into the basket. Your sister Halya was going back from the field like that once—in a basket for potatoes.”
The field is large. Grandpa says that, when my future husband asks for my hand, he will have to dig the whole field first and find Grandpa’s moonshine.
Grandma is already providing pumpkins for my future boyfriends (“handing over a pumpkin” is a Ukrainian idiom for refusing a marriage proposal — R.). While Mum is providing money for my education.
“Would you like to be educated like your godmother?”
“I’d love to.”
“Would you like to get married?”
“I’d love to.”
Soon, the field will get sold, and the money will be added to my “college fund.” On that field, new owners will build a store. I will hand over my first pumpkin and, through the new fence instead of the usual wicker one, watch the lively trade on my now someone else’s land. Old Vasya the Cat will routinely have bummed a pierog.
The towel is waiting for its time.
Grandma Hanya is making pierogi in the summer kitchen. I do not even dare to blink. She picks a big lump of potatoes and makes a warm, soft ball in her elderly hands: there, Vitusya, have some.
The sun is seeping through the curtains. The radio is humming. The potatoe ball is delicious.
Grandma Hanya had no education either. She weeded beds, embroidered towels and shirts, encoding happiness in her stitches. She kept cows and geese, made the world’s best potato pierogi (cvikli, flaki, buckwheat meatballs…) and raised children. She had no time for education.
But I know that blue-eyed Hannusya of the Hordon family once wanted to become a surgeon. The Hordon lineage traces back to the times of good old Austria. The Hordon girls had to have a proper education and marry the man their father chose. But life had other plans for her: Vasyl Danylkiv from Borynychi, eight years her senior, fancied Hannusya Hordon. So, she became the wife of a blacksmith. Instead of going to a university in Vienna, she milked a cow in Budkiv in Galicia.
Druzhyna, Ukrainian word for a wife, comes from the word “friend.” She was his best friend. And the mother to four of his children—Bohdan, Yevhenia, Marusya, and Andriy.
Education remained a dream.
“Grandma, do you think I will manage to get into the university?”
“You are a winner, Victoria; never forget that. Your Halyusya managed and met such a nice Myroslav there. And she became a doctor—top-class! And what about your godmother? Halya Hordon entered, studied to be a dentist, and now, she trains others. They are strong women! You have to follow in their footsteps, do you hear me?”
“Grandma, was Bandera a cool guy?”
“He sure was.”
Grandpa was 15 when the war began. Grandma Hanya was 7. He was taken prisoner as a teenager but managed to escape. He ran back home through people’s kitchen gardens, surviving on garlic.
The Red Army had already occupied the territory back home and had taken him into their ranks. No one asked him if he wanted to fight. He was wounded and even got to Berlin. He became a blacksmith, married Hanya Hordon, and set up a Banderites’ hideout, “kryivka,” in the attic. In the house of a Red Army veteran. What do you know about risk? Grandpa was a wariat. Daredevil. Grandpa was a Hero.
For some Ukrainians, #zrada—betrayal—is in the blood. His own people turned him over. Hannusya Hordon was called in for questioning to the prison at Lontsky Street. I have no idea how she was questioned. But they could not prove anything.
“Just stay at home, lady, build communism in the countryside, help the country demographics. Gals will give birth to more, remember the saying? You want your children to have a happy communist future, don’t you?”
On pain of being sent to watch the polar bears, they continued to do their part. In public, they were exemplary members of the Komsomol (a political youth organization in the Soviet Union — R.), and at home, they were Bandera guerrillas.
No one asked Grandpa if he wanted to fight. He was wounded and even got to Berlin. He became a blacksmith, married Hanya Hordon, and set up a Banderites’ hideout, “kryivka,” in the attic. In the house of a Red Army veteran. What do you know about risk? Grandpa was a daredevil
The yard has now become unrecognisable.
Hannusya got scared and fell silent. She remained silent even when the moustached Joseph kicked the bucket and the USSR collapsed.
I keep thinking what kind of bravery it took to live two lives, an exemplary wife of a Red Army veteran and a messenger for the Banderites.
Some of her children did not get an education, because they had to do the roofing—you’d better get married, my dear girl, rather than getting an education. The Soviets did not keep the promise of a communist future.
My tongue still feels the taste of that warm potato ball, and the chest holds Hannusya’s happiness and dreams.
Story three, in which Galicia and Donbas became one
In May 2000, a stork flew over Sykhiv and tossed a screaming bundle into cabbage growing by a high-rise building in Lviv. At that time, a brown-eyed moustached man wearing a camo uniform went to the balcony for a smoke. He heard the crying and went down to look who was up at three in the morning. I was in that bundle. That is how my dad’s smoking saved my life.
This was the story of my birth as told by Mum.
She forgot to add how the stork went past that high-rise building in Sykhiv several times, because getting pregnant does not necessarily mean giving birth. How the stork brought our neighbours a boy along with me. The Angel of Death hovered above that building at the same time. He was choosing a companion. All fair in the struggle for life. Mum gave up her dream of having a daughter named Lily. Instead, she listened to the surgeon and called me Victoria. So that I would triumph over death. The dark winged angel took away the boy’s life.
Ten years later, he would come back for Mum. She would melt away like a candle from an incurable disease. And show me how to fight, even when the enemy is Death itself. When the candle goes out, the light disappears. When a person is slipping away, the whole world dies for someone. I left my childhood in the Budkiv cemetery on 19 January 2010.
“One must have good fortune to die on Epiphany. They say the gates to Paradise are open then,” I overheard some women talking at the funeral.
My dad was sporting his first white hairs. Frost was pinching my cheeks as I silently swallowed the tears.
Now, there is an Eternity between me and Mum. Now, Mum is the most harrowing and sweetest of memories. But even an Eternity is not enough to get enough of each other
Mum’s fairy tales always had happy endings. The Good always defeated the Evil; Cinderella always found her prince and went to the castle on a white horse. And when Mum got sick, I truly believed that this tale would have a happy ending too. But it was just an ending.
Because sometimes, faith is not enough to survive. Because a prince might turn into a traitor and the white horse into a fleabag. And only the stepmother from the fairy tale is the same as in real life.
But life will be a fairy tale if you take a pen and write it for yourself.
In my fairy tale, I do not write about death. But the Supreme Editor is making his amendments. And he does not show the text before its publication. For no one has the power of knowing what comes next. But something will.
Between me and Mum, there are 43 years of life, one miscarriage and a very difficult delivery. Being a late child means to absorb all emotions, smells and colours like a sponge. Hoard every stroke, adding it into the image of people who will soon become memories.
Now, there is an Eternity between me and Mum. Now, Mum is the most harrowing and sweetest of memories. But even an Eternity is not enough to get enough of each other.
Instead of conclusions
For the most part, my family’s story is voiced by women—the voices of those who had no say in anything. The women in my family were unable to get an education because some of them had to choose between university and marriage, and others had no choice at all.
In 1972, my Mum, a 17-year-old ambitious blue eyed girl, tried to conquer the Department of Journalism at Lviv University. She failed. And then, she married my older sister’s father.
When I was in the 11th grade, and my dad said he had money either for the wedding or the studies, I was really angry with him. Why does a girl still have to face such a choice in the 21st century?
In 2017, at the age of 17, I took my application to the Admissions Office at Lviv University. I qualified for free tuition at the Department of Journalism. I am diligent in my studies, partly in memory of my grandmothers and Mum, who were dependent on their circumstances and the words of their fathers.
I was raised by Anna from Horlivka and Hanna from Budkiv.
Both uneducated and blue eyed. Anna was a Cossack’s wife, and Hanna was a Banderite’s wife.
They embroidered different patterns on their towels. Hanna made potato pierogi, and Anna made varenyky with potato filling. Anna was Orthodox. Hanna was Greek Catholic.
But they believed in one God.
And lived in one country.
[This publication was created with support of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Ukraine. The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Norwegian government.]