I wrote this in July last year. Inbetween trips to Crimea and Donbas, I spent a week in this central Ukrainian village, watching the sun set and the moon rise, and pretending nothing else was happening.
Baba Lena died in December – peacefully, everyone says, on her bunk by the stove in the little white-painted khata, like a scene from Gogol’s Evenings near Dikanka, and a village beekeeper’s stories of a Ukraine that never was.
Baba Lena, 95, who lived through four years of German occupation, gives her verdict on the conflict in East Ukraine’s Donbas: “That isn’t war, its hooliganism.”
Mercenary, state-sponsored hooliganism, in which civilians are dying.
Baba Lena’s village in Poltava region, like most villages in Ukraine, looks too remote, sleepy and idyllic (in a falling-down, rubbish-strewn sort of way) to have ever been near a war. These are the villages from Nikolai Gogol’s Dikanka tales, where little white houses nestle like sleeping doves under the hillside, hollyhocks and sunflowers tower over sagging wooden gates and kudriavy panichi – crooked gentlemen, or Morning Glories – twine up the frilly iron-capped gate posts.
Gogol saw these places in better days of course, before the collective farms took over, the shy maidens got emancipated and the dashing black-eyed young Cossacks put on Red Army uniform, or had to leave for Donbas and Siberia. Before the collective farms collapsed and everyone left, except for grandmothers like Baba Lena.
Appearances are so deceptive. Just a few kilometers beyond the village is a monument to a division of Soviet border guards, slaughtered here as they retreated east before the advancing German army in 1941. Their captain survived, joined the partisans and fought all the way back west again through Zhytomir and Vinnitsa and further. He was made a general, lived after the war in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kyiv – and ended up being related to Baba Lena, when her son married his daughter.
Baba Lena has never left this village in all her life. She doesn’t have too bad memories of the German occupation –or maybe she does, but she doesn’t talk about them. It was four years of some kind of stability, and like many people in east Ukraine now who have ended up participating in deadly state-sponsored hooliganism in the name of wanting a quiet life, she treasures stability above just about everything.
I suppose there were no Jews or gypsies in this village. The villagers had to work for the Germans during the day; in the evenings they could tend their own smallholdings. By 1945, families (women and children, mostly; the men were away fighting) had cows, pigs, chickens, or money from selling them. Four years is a long time. Maybe the German soldiers fell in love with local girls; thought about settling down. I don’t know about that.
Then war swept through again, from east to west this time. The Soviets came back, and the collective farm took away all the livestock and money. Baba Lena has a medal from the Soviet Union though, for ‘valiant and selfless service’ during the war, awarded in 1946. That’s what she showed me, when I asked about her war years.
Over eight hundred Red Army soldiers who died in this area between 1941 and 1945 are buried in a collective grave by the village school. The memorial stone has only eight names on it – I guess no one ever identified the rest. There is no monument to any civilians who died, though recently someone put up a new cross on the hill, to those ‘warriors who gave their lives for the peaceful present’. Even more recently – after the present got a good deal less peaceful – someone put up next to it the Ukrainian flag.
You’d think World War Two – the Soviet ‘Great Patrotic War’ – was the only thing of note that ever happened here. But up on the grassy, windswept hill is the site of a much older castle or fortress, I don’t know exactly what since the Soviet-era notice helpfully says ‘architectural monument’ without further details.
Also on the hill was the grand panichy dom, the house where a rich Polish family lived until the revolution, with their own bakery and church. The local grandmothers still talk about that, and the scandal when the Polish gentleman married a woman from the village. There’s nothing at all left of the grand house, but the cottage he built for his village wife is still standing, pretty and white and blue-shuttered, like a khata out of a Gogol tale where a black-eyed Cossack woos a shy young beauty under the lovely Ukrainian moon.
Ukraine often makes me think of that supposedly ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. Baba Lena might seem to have led the least interesting life imaginable, here in this falling down village. Nearly everyone she talks about these days is dead – in wars and epidemics, in some kind of stupid, horrible village accident, or just of old age and disappointment.
The collective farm is in ruins, and Baba Lena’s own plot is a weed-smothered expanse of potatoes and carrots and rotting melons that her grandchildren (who grew up in Kyiv, descendants of that Soviet general) inexpertly sowed but haven’t found time to come back and harvest. Ukrainians in cities still rely on their grandmothers in the villages to supply potatoes and carrots; their safety net when the gas is cut off, when the economy collapses yet again.
This black, crumbly Ukrainian earth is as close to sacred as Baba Lena gets. Everyone died, everyone left, but worst of all, they let the land be overtaken by buryan – a wilderness of weeds.
Flowers blue and yellow, birds and small bright-eyed creatures flourish in the weeds and wilderness. The river shelters turtles and floats many-petalled water lilies; beneath a fine skein of mist its still, rose-flushed surface is illusorily brighter than the twilight sky. A crescent moon is setting over fields to the west, golden as a promise… It’s illusory too that interesting times feel a long way off, happening in another country, to someone else.