It’s time for collecting birch sap in the woods round the village. Pulled from deep underground the sap runs quick under the trees’ skin, just a little thicker than water, a touch sweeter, a bit more green, a bit more gold. Tastes like nothing; like things growing. Like every year.
Eight-year-old Styopka has a big sloshing bottle of sap he’s collected, hung from the bicycle handlebars. As we walk along the village main street he shows me the plinth where Lenin was standing last time I was here. “Dad cut him down, before he left. Got his saw and sliced him right off.”
Like many men here Styopka’s dad Tolik is a monumental mason, trained in the granite quarries nearby that turned out Soviet monuments and war memorials and gravestones. For the last few years he’s joined the thousands of Ukrainians working in Moscow, where he can earn enough to keep his three children back home fed and clothed, buy crocuses and lilies for the garden and a wrought iron gate of great pretension with lions on the gateposts. His wife divorced him a couple of years ago but he still stays with her and the children when he comes back, in the house with the fancy gate (both gate and divorce a great topic of village gossip).
When he’s back he teaches Styopka how to collect birch sap, where to pick mushrooms: things Tolik’s great grandfather would have known, and that Tolik learned when he was Styopka’s age, when Lenin was up on the classroom wall and great-grandpa was the one no one talked about.
Tolik is as patriotically Ukrainian as can be. He teaches Styopka things he never learned himself when he was Styopka’s age: that great-grandfather, arrested in 1937, was a machine gunner in a local resistance movement that fought against the Soviet collectivisation of their lands. The family has relatives in Russia – who in Ukraine hasn’t? – but they don’t really speak anymore; blood is thicker than water but politics are thicker than blood. In Moscow Tolik lives with other ostarbeiters, speaking village Ukrainian, earning money carving memorials for dead Russians.
“Dad’s going to look for work in Poland,” Styopka tells me. I assume it’s for political reasons – and it turns out it is, in a way. “His boss in Moscow said that because of the crisis, people have even stopped dying.”
People haven’t stopped dying in Ukraine. The plan is to replace Lenin with a monument to the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ who died on Maidan. The village cemetery has just extended into a new patch of earth levelled ready for the next deaths from illness and alcoholism and old age and war. There might not be enough well-paid work for Tolik but the monuments get bigger and fancier every year; great slabs of the local granite with portraits engraved on the front and pictures on the back of a dream car, a favourite birch grove, a machine gun.
Last time I was here, over 200 call-up papers had just been delivered to local men, Styopka’s mother Natasha told me. I thought she’d be worried about Tolik going to fight in the ATO (Anti-Terrorism Operation: Kyiv’s official name for the war). “It doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “Firstly, Tolik’s in Moscow. Secondly, he’s not registered anywhere. And thirdly, we’re divorced.”
This time, I noticed billboards in the neighbouring town centre showing the faces of three local men who’ve died in east Ukraine. Heroes Never Die. Next to them there’s a billboard for ‘Paris boutique’ selling cheap perfume, and another advertising swimwear.
The village has two returned war heroes from the east, brothers. Sasha drinks most of the time, and cries in his sleep. He came back to find his job had been taken by someone else; after three attempts he gave up trying to get the papers confirming he’s an ‘ATOshnik’ (one of those strange new words that’s entered the language, it means a participant in the ATO, entitled to benefits). His brother Serhiy is in the ‘spetsnaz’ – special forces – who stood for months on Maidan in Kyiv fighting protesters, until they killed the Heavenly Hundred – and got killed themselves, some of them. When Serhiy’s division came back from Maidan local people gave them funeral wreaths, and spat at them. Serhiy went straight from that to become an ATOshnik fighting ‘separatists’ in east Ukraine. Heroes Never Die.
I wonder what pictures those brothers would have on the back of their gravestones, when the time comes for them to go down into the ground. Hope that time doesn’t come soon. They can’t afford to die; both have small children, younger than Styopka.
All the village children are collecting plastic bottle tops to make prosthetics for wounded Ukrainian soldiers. I wonder what kind of prosthetic you could make for Sasha’s wounds. Styopka has collected 120 tops so far. Another boy in his class collected 600! Have I got any bottle tops? Have I got any English coins? Styopka collects coins too. All children like collecting things; I remember how satisfying it is, like building a world that’s only yours.
Now Styopka’s collecting facts about England. “Are there lots of castles?” Yes, I tell him, some are ruined, some are like museums, some are still lived in… “Is there a lot of traffic in London?” I tell him about double decker buses, and how if you sit at the front of the top deck it looks like you’re going to crash when you go round corners. “Are there horses on the streets?” I tell him about mounted police. “Are there carriages?” No, I say; well, every now and again, when the queen is going somewhere…
London sounds like a fairytale. In the next village to this one, children still go to school every day by horse and cart. When I first tried birch sap, it was like a fairytale. Horses and carts too. The tale of the great-grandfather, which changes a little every time I hear it. He was arrested in 1937 and the family never found out what had happened to him until the 1990s. His children looking up at the windows of the prison in the neighbouring town for years afterwards, wondering if he was still in there, never knowing he’d been shot three days after his arrest.
Now he’s in a romantic Ukrainian novel about that local resistance movement, a predecessor of the Heavenly Hundred and the ATOshniky. Heroes Never Die. I guess no one will ever know where he’s buried, under what uncut stone for a gravemarker, birch trees for a shelter. Birch roots pulling up the sap each year from under the ground where he lies.
For now, the ATO is like a fairytale for Styopka; something you can fix by collecting bottle tops, like his dad can fix history by chopping down a statue of Lenin with his stone cutting tools.
For just for a week each year the sap runs quick under the birch trees’ skin, a little thicker than water. Tastes like nothing, like things growing. Like every year.