Visiting Free Ukraine - Page Three
In The Gulag Archipelago, Russian dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “We have been happily borne - or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way - down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings.
“We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us.”
The family managed to hide their excitement, and denied any recognition of the man in the photo. Years later, my grandparents began corresponding, writing first to neighbors who relayed the correspondence, then later, directly to family, and in the 70s, my parents visited.
This story is unique only in my attempt to write it down. “Peasants are a silent people,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “without a literary voice, nor do they write complaints or memoirs.” Everybody there knows people who fled, who were persecuted, deported, or executed. It is as much a part of their reality as their gardens.
A friend of the family showed us a monument remembering her father’s daring escape from a Soviet prison in 1939. One relative’s elderly mother spent most of her twenties in a Siberian labor camp.
I heard of people who were taken away for fighting the Soviets, for criticizing the Soviets, for supporting Ukrainian nationalism, for being wealthy, for being university professors, for being writers, for singing Ukrainian folk songs in a pasture, for being related to someone who was deported, for nothing.
Another relative told me of his grandfather who fought with the Red Army on the German front. Based on a rumor that returning Soviet soldiers were being deported to Siberia, he deserted and snuck back to his village.
A third cousin, who is my own age, described how during the later decades of the Soviet Union, members of the Young Pioneers scouting organization would guard the churches to keep people from blessing Easter baskets, or else they would spy on those who did, and precipitate their very public scolding at school.
The same third cousin and his friends would work as a team during Christmas, some standing guard while the rest sang carols for their neighbors.
They’d similarly collaborate when Polish merchants snuck into Ukraine to sell jeans and other western merchandise. Once or twice, the friend standing guard falsely called an alarm, shouting “Police!” so that the others could steal a pair of jeans in the chaos it created.
Many relatives showed me baby pictures of my sister and me which my parents had sent them. They had begun corresponding more regularly after their visit in ‘74. In the background of one carelessly taken photo was the small Ukrainian crest which hung on our wall in our home in New York. “If the censors had noticed this,” my relative told me, “I would have gone to prison.”
On one hand, the oppression seems clearly hideous, but nothing is simple. Why are monuments in Ukraine vandalized? Why did Walter Duranty [an apologist for the Soviet regime] win a Pulitzer Prize? When oppression becomes culture does it ceases to be oppression? Which historians get to decide?
Another third cousin, also my own age, drove us to his father’s home in the village where my own father was born and raised.
The old, red-faced man did not hear us enter, and his son gently shook him awake. He wore a shirt, slacks, and a belt wrapped one-and-a-half times around his thin waist. I think he dressed up for our sake. He returned from his dreams slowly, then saw us and rose from the couch. We greeted one another, hugged and kissed, and did not know what to say. I could see the fresh marks of a wet comb in his hair.
There was no great gathering of extended family and no meal, lavish or otherwise. He seemed to live alone with a photo of his long-dead wife and a filthy mirror.
“My lungs hurt,” he said. “I cannot work like I used to.” He asked his son when he would help with the garden.
At the edge of the village lay the ruins of the Soviet-ear collective farm. Upon independence in 1991, it had been picked apart first by anyone who could exercise government authority, second by any gangster who could muster the threat of violence, and finally by villagers who even toppled the collective’s walls to scavenge bricks.
“In Soviet times,” the old man said, “everybody worked. Whether you wanted to or not, everybody had to work. And now, those who don’t feel like working don’t have to.”
He threw up his hands and I wasn’t sure if he spoke with regret or relief, but be sighed a long, sad sigh and said “Pity those days are gone.”
Many times during our visit, he shook his head and, more to himself than to us, said “What a pity. What a pity.”
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