UKRAINE: ON THE EDGE OF AN EMPIRE
The other day I saw two girls of around fourteen come skipping out of a playground. The very same second a long car tore out of a side street at full throttle and raced towards them, careering crazily along the tramlines. I thought the girls must have a tryst. But they didn’t get into the car; they just continued on their way with an independent air. The car overtook them with a roar, then stopped. The girls tried to go around it or retreat, but that was not to be – the men in the car were obviously gripped by the thrill of the chase, eager to get their hands on the catch.
Then everything was curtained off by trees. Then I saw the girls had retreated into the park. Our park is a poor place to hunt. It’s transparent, with wide-open spaces, and there are always plenty of fishermen sitting round the pond, a whole troop of strong, sporty men, fascinated by the process, not the catch. It’s unlikely these chaps would sympathize with the problems of pleasure seekers who reckon fourteen-years-old is ‘just the job’.
I calmed down about the girls and thought for the umpteenth time that Moscow is a dangerous city. Once I too had lived in a city fraught with danger, and I first moved there when I was just the same age as those two girls. But everything had been different then, and I used to walk the streets alone in the evenings. Later, when I was no longer a schoolgirl but already in my first year at university, I would roam the deserted outskirts in the company of a young man who had fought his way through the war; it never even occurred to me to feel afraid. That town had other dangers: war, silenced elsewhere, still continued there. But girls could take a walk in peace, and no-one started a brawl in the dance halls.
Lvov: my youth. A strange, fearsome, romantic town on the edge of the world. The four post-war years, the years of my youth, an amazing sensation of newness, as though I have been born into this world anew. The long journey from Tashkent has faded, receding into the mist with its heated goods wagons and “passenger” carriages where a coupe is crammed with thirty people, where you sleep sitting up with your legs tucked under you, and where, if you linger in the loo, those waiting bang on the door with their fists and shout menacingly, “Hey, you in there!” We live in Hotel Europe and wonder at the frivolity of the Poles who have renamed room 13 “Twelve A”.
With the war over, everything associated with our evacuation remained in the east, but the centuries of wars had spared this old-fashioned town to the west, so out of the ordinary, so beautiful. The teeny-tiny streets of the centre with their medieval houses, each with three windows, had evidently seen a lot of trade; there is German Street, Turkish Street, Greek Street, and all of them are tiny, just two, three or four houses. Merchants must have come to Lvov and taken up residence in three houses, each with three windows in the facade. How quaint they are, the unceremonious names of Lvov’s streets! Like ‘Yan from Duklya Street’ for instance. I never did find out where Duklya was, whether it was large or small, nor how its native son Yan made a name for himself. Then there is ‘Under the Oak Street,’ another name which lets the imagination roam free.
The ‘sovietists’, busy renaming the streets, spare no effort as they try to uproot this free spirit, and, moving from the hotel, we live on Democratic Street, better known to the locals as New World.
Perplexed Polish ladies and gents eye the name plates wanly. Standing not two feet from the Sapega Street they have known since childhood, they timidly ask the incomers where Stalin Street is, then hurriedly correct themselves: Comrade Stalin Street.
The town which had weathered swordfights, stone catapults and bombing raids was now about to fall, to be brought down by a wave of incomprehensible changes, alien words and customs. It was being rocked by earthquakes; the first of these were weak, but they were frequent. The Poles were preparing their exodus, and the lamp-posts were dappled with little white notices: ‘Fashionable furniture for sale.’
We easterners toured the apartments as though going round a museum. ‘Come on in and take a look. We have suites in African ebony and mahogany. What do you mean, you feel awkward? Just come on in. Feel free.’ We succumbed once and, despising ourselves, visited a rosewood apartment all draped in pale blue silk.
But it is a different apartment which sticks in my mind. I can see it now - small, wretched and half-empty, with some sort of basin on a stool and a huge canvas of a naked woman on the wall. Two quiet old folks lived there, husband and wife.
We left, subdued: who would offer them refuge in Poland if even here in their native land they lived in such poverty? But we understood. They were not moving in search of help or comfort, they were moving away from us.
Lvov constantly amazed me by how different it was from Moscow or Tashkent: a black-bearded gentleman with a pipe is out for a walk in plus-fours and gaiters, leading a bulldog on a chain; an elderly lady takes a cat in a red harness for a walk.
On one of my very first days there I saw a column of German prisoners being led by. Suddenly a woman darted off the pavement, broke through the ranks and thrust a loaf of bread at one of the Germans. The escort shoved her aside but the bread had already been handed over. She stood there, angry and proud, unabashed. They pitied prisoners here; no-one judged her.
Lvov didn’t take kindly to us. A rumour would suddenly rustle through the market: ‘A “sovietist” is looking for lice in the potatoes.’ That meant that a self-confident woman, an incomer, was making herself at home sorting through the vegetables, putting only the best ones on the scales. The local Ukrainian stall holder, suddenly flaring up, would say harshly: ‘Get out of here. I won’t sell you anything.’ A whisper would run through the ranks and the local stall holders – old and young alike – would suddenly unite, all looking the same, their stone faces wrapped in taut headscarves as they muttered through clenched teeth, their lips barely moving: ‘It’s not for sale. I’m not selling anything.’
Nothing like that ever happened to us. They didn’t perceive us as ‘sovietists’. And we didn’t care for the Soviet authorities anyway. How often in Lvov did I hear the words: ‘We’ll save you, my girl!’
They were waiting for liberation, these Lvov folk, for some just end to the war. But who would liberate them? Bandera and Melnik?1 Or the allies, who would suddenly miraculously leapfrog half of Europe and land in Lvov? I didn’t believe in such miracles. And, to be perfectly frank, I didn’t want them, either. Some of us may not have cared much for the authorities, but we had waited for victory for four years. With Mother’s rusty coat thrown over my shoulders, I had run out into the yard on many a dark winter morning to hear the radio bulletin from the loudspeaker in the neighbouring street. How we rejoiced that day when the news of victory finally came! Crazed with happiness, we roamed the streets until the May dusk, singing and shouting ‘Hurrah!’ with our young voices grown hoarse.
Incidentally, I rather liked it that so many people were endeavouring to save me. After all, it was not only the local students who said it; ‘easterners’ like us would say it too, though I heard it most often from my classmate Volodya who had fought the whole war in the Red Army. He had run away to the front a boy and returned four years later a hero, bedecked with medals, wounded, shell-shocked, suicidal, and furiously embittered by the fact that nothing in this life had changed.
‘I’ll save you,’ he would repeat. But I was not afraid of anything anyway. I would cross the whole town at midnight on my way home from a friend’s, whistling for some reason, even though servicemen were killed here each night and at dawn the road sweepers would find amputated epaulettes on the pavements. Why epaulettes and where did the bodies disappear to? Epaulettes on empty streets, like scalps. A posting to the outlying regions was tantamount to a death sentence for a party official.
I was, probably, foolish and carefree, but Lvov never harmed me. One afternoon I was out walking when I suddenly heard the thud of footsteps. A man was running towards me, another hard on his heels, revolver in hand. Like any Lvov girl, I immediately understood: the man running is one of Bandera’s men, the one chasing him is an NKVD2 guy in plain clothes. I ducked into the nearest courtyard. Then they both tore past me – there was an inner courtyard in every house, you see, and from there you could get to somewhere else. I went out and continued on my way along Democratic Street, formerly New World.
Lvov didn’t treat me badly and I loved it. Old-fashioned, western, elegant and dangerous, with the refined landscapes of Striisky Park and the primitive, rough-hewn stones of the medieval catholic church.
It was love at first sight for us: a young woman, her face yellowed by quinine, and a slip of a girl, half child, half-teenager, in coarse stockings darned all over, shuffling along in galoshes instead of shoes, always fainting from hunger due – as we soon found out – to hunger-induced tuberculosis, we had suddenly plunged into an utterly unfamiliar world and felt the modest charms of the bourgeoisie.
And those charms soon drew us in. My first frock was sewn by an acquaintance from Russia. The second was already hemmed by Polish hands – the style, elegance and lines, I could sense all this at once, from the very first calico pinafore.
One thing led to another: from Mrs. Piroshkova the best seamstress in town and Mr. Piroshok the best tailor, we bought a matching coat and hat. Then there was the best hairdresser in town, Mrs. Nyunya, and the best manicurist and cosmetician. At fifteen, with as yet uncured TB, I experienced my first cosmetic bath; the second, I think, came around forty years later.
But Mother was incapable of saying ‘no’ to anything. ‘Would you like a private librarian?’ Of course we would! And a woman would appear in our house with a basket and a catalogue, and all sorts of books like The Mysteries of Paris, The Wandering Jew3, The Slums of Petersburg4, and the works of Andre Gide would shower into our apartment.
The apartment had previously housed the canteen for some military unit. Even the hatch was still there, cut into the kitchen door. The apartment seemed vast and luxurious to us – three rooms, a bathroom with a wood-burning boiler and the kitchen. Two rats lived in the kitchen. When Mother was carrying meat over to the stove in a frying pan they would hop about next to her, like dogs, trying to drag a piece away.
We boarded up the door into the kitchen and cooked on the little stove until spring. The rats had left and the house was now bustling with a general spring clean. Zosia the Ukrainian maid, tow-haired, tousled and gaunt, would either join Mother in animated conversation or, suddenly coming to, would cry out: ‘Leave me be, please Ma’am, it’s such a pigsty in here!’
She called Mother “Mrs. Engineer” (my step-father taught in the technical college) while our other neighbours were “Mrs. Chief” (her husband was head of the fire brigade), and “Mrs. Officer”.
One day two polite comrades paid us a visit. As I realized later, they would have been much obliged if we kept tabs on “Mrs. Officer’s” household. Glowering at me so that I would not blab about my friendship with the major’s younger sister, Mother said curtly: ‘No, we don’t have anything at all to do with that family.’ I was taken aback by her lie but I held my tongue.
The town’s best doctors quite quickly cured me from the early stages of tuberculosis and I was back at school a year later, only to skip classes, either alone or with a friend, lured by the splendours of Lvov’s flea market.
It was in a huge square, and you wandered through it like a museum: fans, lace, little boxes... There were old ladies with lace collars, and gramophones standing right on the tarmac, singing with the voices of Utyosov, Ruslanova, Leshchenko, Shulzhenko5, bringing snatches of Soviet Russia and snatches of emigre Russia into the life of fading bourgeois Poland. And all of them – Soviet Russia, the emigres and bourgeois Poland – were equally dear to our hearts.
It was the old books that attracted us most. I have carried one of them with me for half a century, even though I have preserved very little in my nomadic life.
But it is a keepsake of Lvov, of the town of my youth which I can see before me now, just as though I had been there yesterday. Faces, buildings, scenes all surface, large as life.
And here is one of them, still amazingly bright; it must have lived all these years in my soul.
It is evening, I am walking alone. I wander over to some dance hall. It is a long, poorly-lit building; either the light inside is dim or the dancers have kicked up the dust with their heels so that it stands in columns, obscuring the light.
Someone in leather gloves... How they dance, those young men in prosthesis-gloves, each having lost a hand, and thus the ability to work with both hands, at the front! How they make up for their lifelong loss with complex, desperately beautiful dances!
‘You can dance a tango with your soul,’ I was told by a very serious, pale girl, Raya, with whom I once saw in the New Year. And dance with her soul she did, as did her partner. They always danced together – a freckled girl and her brother, a morose lad with huge grey eyes and a leather glove on his missing hand.
Those one-armed dancers – maybe there weren’t so many of them after all – are imprinted in my memory like a symbol of the post war years.
In that long, dim, unfestive hall where a radiogramme poured out its songs and where the dust stood in columns, I was quickly picked up by a tall, thin lad in military uniform without shoulder straps, his soldier’s shirt collar undone, and a sailor’s striped top showing beneath. He was fair-haired with screwed up, pale eyes, not good-looking but manly and well-built, and we went on to spin dance after dance, the linda6 and all the others. But it is the quick, rollicking linda which sticks in my mind. Then he disappeared off somewhere and I was left alone; people didn’t strike up relationships there, they danced. When they called the last dance I was with a policeman who suddenly stopped and said: ‘Go and put your coat on before they finish, otherwise someone might pinch it’. And I obediently went over to the tables piled high with coats, dug mine out, put it on and went out, alone, not in the least disappointed but happy, having got from that hall all I had come for – dances, as many as your soul could wish for.
We were reckless, carefree girls. We skipped classes, ran off to dances, bought cheap tickets for the opera and then sat in the front row. But we were serious, intellectual maidens; we read the classics, and our friendships with young men were touchingly innocent. Twelve girls in our class were in the running for the class medal. But it was not awarded to any of our group; the one silver medal went to a mediocre student nicknamed Earth Toad.
We disdainfully ignored that turn of events. Or at least, so we thought. We knew the word ‘influence’, of course, but not even Raya S. had been awarded the gold medal, and she was the head of the Regional Party Committee’s daughter, and one of the very best pupils. As for the word ‘bribe’, well, it was quite alien to us.
Nevertheless, how glad we were when we found out that each one of our dozen had got the place she wanted, and we had all passed with straight A’s. It was as though we had proved something to our stupid, slow-witted school.
Lvov University was a true temple of learning and the professors at the Department of Slavic Studies seemed to have emerged from some far off pre-revolutionary never-never land.
That was certainly where Prof Sventsitskii had come from. And just as for fifty years I have carried with me a book bought at the Lvov flea market, so for fifty years I have carried with me the memory that I studied under a legendary Slavist, the memory that this squat little old man with lively, dark eyes, a thick white beard and white fluff for hair, with his clear, fine voice and amusing, antiquated quirks was not someone I had dreamt up but someone who really did walk into our lecture theatre.
They immediately threw six languages at us, and, sensing the atmosphere of Great Learning, we asked for two more optional ones – Sanskrit and Ancient Greek. Though I must admit, we never even made a start on them.
We held the older students of the academic community in high esteem. Finding myself in the home of one of the coryphaei – or rather, in his room (he rented it together with his sister, my friend) – I began respectfully questioning him on philology. ‘Ah yes, Learning, learning...’ he said sourly, then out of the blue asked animatedly: ‘But Miss Katya, how are matters with your heart? I saw you in the park with such a handsome chap.’
At first I couldn’t remember which handsome chap. There were a lot of young men in our year, especially in the Ukrainian Faculty where I went to study English. Those boys in their first year at the Ukrainian Faculty wore embroidered shirts, little short of traditional smocks, and in the breaks they didn’t dash about the corridors but sat in the lecture theatre and sang in chorus, so powerfully, sweetly, beautifully.
Having sensed that a large alien country had swallowed it up, this small peasant nation – I thought – was hurriedly forging and fortifying its educated class. There were only two girls in the Ukrainian Faculty, and an awful lot of poets.
In response to a student questionnaire: ‘What do you love most of all?’ one of these poets replied: ‘The blue sky over my native Carpathians.’ ‘What an idiot!’ our girls said indignantly. ‘It’s just a light-hearted questionnaire and you have to give a light-hearted answer. No, he’s nothing but an idiot and a nationalist.’
But the Ukrainian lads weren’t the only nationalists. A Jewish student wrote a girl a letter in which he bitterly berated her for her friendships with Russians and Ukrainians. The matter blew up, he was tried, and expelled. I don’t know what became of him.
Another student spoke his mind so freely during a seminar on Marxism-Leninism that he was taken straight off to the loony bin.
The young group I was part of disintegrated. There were only six of us to start with. One quiet, unnoticeable lad was killed by a stray bullet. The young man we rented our room from – one of us, from the east – was soon arrested because of some dealings with Germans, dealings they would put you behind bars for in even the most gentle, ‘civilized’ of countries. His wife, my friend, Lyuba, left to live with her sister in the village. I remember, that arrest didn’t cause any surprise; clever, cutting, sarcastic and recklessly careless, he had certainly got himself noticed in the technological college.
In general Lvov didn’t prompt caution. Life there was real, alive, and the opposition fighting the Soviet authorities was real, too. The authorities had more than enough on their hands and we lived more freely than they did in the east. We, for example, were not hounded into the Komsomol. If you wanted to, you joined; if you didn’t want to, you didn’t.
I remembered that fondly when I was summoned before the head of the Komsomol at the institute in Kharkov. He banged his fist on the table: ‘We must put an end to this!’ By the end of the semester, despite all my obstinacy, I had to write a statement7, and a flowery one at that. As I walked through the hall someone was loudly reading it out: ‘Our country is a beacon...’ How embarrassing! But in Lvov I didn’t even know where the Komsomol Committee was!
A few years later I met a sweet, pretty woman in Koktebel. She was gregarious and kept her cool, but our beds stood side by side and I remember how she would smoke in silence for a long time every morning when she woke up. She was Marusya Galan, the widow of the writer Yaroslav Galan8, knifed in Lvov by Uniate9 students who had approached him in the guise of would-be poets. And earlier, also in Lvov, her first husband had been killed. Someone joked darkly: it’s dangerous to marry that woman.
I think it was dangerous to live in Lvov. Murder and suicide, arrests, Komsomol meetings where someone’s life was suddenly broken, and the chance death of a student riding back from his home village on the roof of a train carriage. A quiet, unnoticeable lad.
This was all around me; it happened to my friends, my acquaintances, my fellow students.
The fearsome town of Lvov, the splendid town of Lvov: the best four years of my life.
1 Both leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, founded by Andrij Melnik (1890-1964) in 1929. The OUN split in 1940 with Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) heading a more revolutionary branch based in Ukraine while Melnik lead the more moderate wing in exile. They fought for independence first from Poland, then from Soviet Russia. Melnik escaped to the West and died in Luxembourg, Bandera escaped to Germany and was assassinated by the KGB.
2 The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the forerunner to the KGB.
3 Two extremely popular books by the French writer Eugene Sue.
4 By Vsevolod Krestovsky. Like Sue's novels, this deals with the social ills of the industrial revolution.
5 Leonid Utyosov, a Soviet comedian and jazz singer born to a Jewish family in Odessa; Lydia Ruslanova, one of the greatest and best-loved singers of Russian folk songs who tirelessly toured the front during World War II; Pyotr Leshchenko sang mainly tango and foxtrot. He considered Russia his fatherland but was never allowed to return there; Klavdia Shulzhenko was born in Ukraine, sang for Soviet soldiers and was awarded the Order of the Red Star. She was perhaps the most popular female singer of the 1930's and 40's.
6 A very quick, lively dance somewhat similar to the Charleston.
7 In the Stalin era people were often coerced into writing statements or declarations of their supposed misconduct.
8 Yaroslav Galan (1902-1949) was a famous Soviet writer, an anti-fascist who criticised the nationalist movement and wrote strong satires against the Vatican and the Eastern Catholic Church.
9 Members of the Uniate or Eastern Catholic Church.
Translated by Carol Ermakova
with thanks to Robert Chandler for his suggestions.
First published (in Russian) in Neprikosnovennyi zapas (Emergency Reserves), a journal for literary criticism and essays,
supplement to Novoye literaturnoye obozreniye (The New Literary Review), 4 (12), 2000.