When I think of Ukraine the first thing that comes to mind is Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: Jonathan’s journey to seek his origins in his grandfather’s village in Ukraine, a shtetl (a mainly Jewish village) that was razed to the ground by the Nazis. While the story covers historical and family events, it is also about the relationship between the young Jewish New Yorker and his chaotic Ukrainian family that accompanies him on his journey, Alex, his grandfather, and the dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior.
The second thing that comes to mind is that small masterpiece A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by British-Ukrainian novelist Marina Lewycka. On the one hand it tells the absurd story of a 84-year-old father who wants to marry Valentina, a 36-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, and his daughters’ struggle to prevent the marriage from taking place. On the other, as he writes a history of tractors, the father tells the family history of a Ukrainian engineer living under Stalin, during the purges and famine.
St Sophia’s Cathedral, Kyiv. Photo: Ben Adlard. Source: Flickr
These two novels are unlikely to be of any use to me on my journey and or to help me understand Kyiv and the Ukraine today, but at least they add to my enthusiasm. Anyone who manages to weave together comedy and history has my complete and utter admiration.
Nowadays, though, we hear about Ukraine without a hint of humour, and with very little historical gravitas. A war is raging in the east of the country, with trench warfare and bombings. It has left, and continues to leave, thousands of victims on the ground, while Maidan’s popular and progressive revolution has been virtually stifled by sniper fire in the town squares, and by the rise of far right groups such as Pravi Sector. The Crimea has decided more or less of its own accord to break away from Kyiv and annex itself to Russia. These rapid, epoch-making changes are taking place as Europe looks the other way, preferring not to talk about it and passing the hot potato to the US. What’s more, the region – and the West as a result – is being bombarded by two equally powerful, diametrically opposed propaganda machines: Putin’s pro-Russia one, and the pro-Ukraine, pro-America one backed by Poroshenko’s government and his billionaire friends. Basically one side is depicting the Russians as being oppressed by the Ukrainians, while the other claims that the Ukrainians are under threat from Moscow. An autocrat on one side, oligarchs on the other. In the middle, the citizens, both victims and instruments.
Over the next few weeks Radio Bullets will attempt to tell you about precisely that, the civil resistance of the citizens who carry on despite it all, creating, working, dancing, acting, helping those weakest and trying to build a more open, sustainable Ukraine. This reporting has been made possible by the journalism exchange programme coordinated by the online magazine Eurozine.com, and supported by Open Society Initiative for Europe, which promotes interaction between Ukrainian independent media and alternative media in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Greece.
Meanwhile, I am getting ready to leave. Passport (which is being checked obsessively), money, video camera, audio recorder and snacks. I’m leaving today and have a 36-hour coach journey to look forward to. That’s right, because one of the stories I want to pursue is that of the carers, thousands of women who since the turn of the millennium have come to live and work in Italy, mainly for our families. Every Thursday and Saturday (from Florence, Rome, Bologna, Milan), they take the coach to go home to their own families, who have become increasingly like strangers to them, to see those children who take money for their university education but who resent you for abandoning them when they were eight or ten, and that husband who in many cases has remarried but still asks for cash.
And this is just the beginning of the Postcards from Kyiv. I too hope to find a Ukrainian family, and a dog like Sammy Davis Junior Junior to guide me.
Postcard from Kyiv #1
Postcard from Kyiv #2
Postcard from Kyiv #3
Postcard from Kyiv #4: Maidan and the freedom of press