Even the tea has a name

“What kind of tea would you like?”

We’re here to talk about dead bodies. But this is a sushi bar, and the music is too loud, and there has got to be tea.

“How about Sencha? It’s Japanese.”

“Sencha,” Yuri says, “Is a village in Poltava region.”

We’re here to talk about bodies buried under the wrong names, or under no name at all. We haven’t met before, and I never know how to start these conversations. I don’t know how to be professional, and I’m uncomfortable talking to soldiers. Maybe neither of us quite know how to begin.

We talk about Poltava region instead. I tell him about the village there I know, lovely and overgrown and tumbledown, one of those Ukrainian villages where you’d think nothing ever happened, although in fact a whole battle front was wiped out there once.

“The village with a beautiful hill?” he asks. “With a cross on the top? I was born in that village. I put up that cross.”

He asks in amazement: Do you know that street…? Do you know this family..? I ask. The turtles in the river? The mushrooms in the forest? I tell him about my last visit there, in September. It was perfect autumn weather, the sky a deep dark blue, the sun with a clean sharp edge to its warmth. Golden leaves fluttered down over the small whitewashed house beneath the hill, where the commanders of the Red Army’s Southwest Front met on 19 September 1941, to decide whether to surrender, or whether to keep fighting the surrounding German forces.

Altogether, 600,000 men in the Southwest Front were killed or captured in August-September 1941. Soldiers were mown down like grass coming over that beautiful hill, or as they forded that river full of turtles. The reedy marshes by the river smelt of corpses for years afterwards. My friend’s grandmother, baba Lena, then a girl, helped bury the unidentified bodies in a grave for unknown soldiers at the top of the hill.

gorodishe kirponos house.sm

The plaque reads: In this house on 19 September 1941 the last meeting of the war council of the Southwest Front was held under the command of General-Lieutenant Kirponos

“It was me who persuaded the local council to mark the anniversary of that meeting,” says Yuri. “I told them, an important historical event happened right here, and no one does anything to remember it. There are all those soldiers buried on the hill, and no one even knows where, let alone what their names are. That’s why I put the cross up there.” He pauses. “That’s why I’m doing what I do now.”

Baba Lena, I think, perhaps didn’t much want to remember. I tried to ask her about the war years once; she went abruptly and comprehensively deaf.

This September for the anniversary, about fifteen children – all the pupils from the school which serves three villages – turned out in their best vyshivanky, fidgeting their way through speeches. “The two weeks the army held out here,” said some village councillor, “delayed the German advance and determined the fate of Moscow.” “The Soviet Union wasn’t militarily strong in 1941,” said someone in army uniform. “And there was a repeat of that situation in Ukraine today; now the enemy is different but the main thing is still to love our country and be ready to die for it.” “In 1941 General Kirponos had a choice,” said a local historian, “to surrender with his thousands of men like Vlasov, or to fight to the end and die. He  chose to fight and die. They all chose to fight and die because they were real soldiers. The Germans,” went on the historian, “wanted lebensraum, living room, to settle this land for themselves. But those men who died in 1941 were heroes fighting for their land, and now we’re in a different war but we still need to love our land and fight and be ready to die for it.”

gorodishe kirponos anniversary.sm

The leaves fluttered down, the fifteen or so children fidgeted, and the old men in decrepit old suits turned to watch when a bicycle or a cart loaded with gigantic turnips passed on the potholed road. I wondered if the speechmakers saw the irony in what they were saying. This land which so many people died for, which they were urging the young to die for again, is being abandoned daily. The Germans wanted living space but here is space where no one wants to live. These few children left will leave as soon as they can, because there is no work here, no money, no future. The fields of rich black earth are disappearing back into nature at its most intransigent, its most beautiful.

I wonder if it was such beautiful weather, that September more than 70 years ago. There were ghosts here, but not the ghosts of 1941. This landscape in Poltava region, weeds and maize and sunflowers, abrupt hills topped with trenches and escarpments built for previous wars, is exactly the same as Luhansk and Donetsk regions in east Ukraine. It was on top of just such a hill that I saw searchers like Yuri in 2015 dig up an unnamed body, a collection of bones in anonymous, rotting camouflage.

“He crawled out of the sunflowers,” said the local man who’d brought us there at sunset, to show where a year before someone had buried this man without a name, before the dogs ate him. “The Ukrainian column came at around six in the evening. The shooting started over by those bushes, and then they turned and went back and the bombardment started from there, from the plantation… He crawled out of the sunflowers. And here under the sloe tree he died.”

When you’re about to die, when you’re running for your life across a hillside, do you have time to notice the sunflowers and the sloe tree? Do you think: What a day to die! Do you think: How cruel and heartless it is; do you think: Thank god this will still be here when I’m gone. Do you love it; do you hate it; do you see it at all; do you wonder if your enemy sees it the same way as you. Do you think: This is my land and I’m glad to die for it, to be a hero for the future of this dusty weed-blown piece of shit that’s supposed to be my land even though I’m actually from Novosibirsk; Grozny; Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk? Or maybe you’re from Luhansk region, Poltava region, maybe you were born in this village, and you think: What a fucking irony, I’m going to die here right on the doorstep of my home, I’m going to be shot and drown in the river I’ve swum in since childhood, and my family will never know what happened to me. I’ll lie there forever under the reeds or I’ll be dumped in a common grave on top of the hill and my family will never know I’m there and will spend the rest of their lives waiting for me to come home.

gorodishe cross.sm

Here lie buried the soldiers of the Southwest Front who died in September 1941. Eternal glory and memory to the heroes

We’re in a sushi bar to talk about dead bodies, and I wonder how Yuri, a soldier in today’s war who searches for the dead without names, thinks about all this stuff. Our tea arrives. Sencha from Japan. There’s a Japanese film that has a ghost in it with no name. The ghost can’t enter any house, because who would invite in a person without a name? It waits endlessly outside the door, a black, half-formed presence, begging wordlessly to be allowed to enter. At last a girl who has had her name stolen from her feels sorry for it, and asks it in. Once over the threshold, its hunger is so vast that it swallows up everything there is inside.

I turn on the dictaphone. Yuri begins to speak, and the tea gets cold, undrunk.


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