Visiting Free Ukraine

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A Travel Essay by Roman Skaskiw, Fall, 2009
Link to original article and seventeen photographs:

"There is a parable of Western Ukraine about a man who was born in Austria, educated in Poland, who went to war in Ukraine, fled to Germany and was executed in the Soviet "

It's difficult to write about Ukraine without writing about history, and it's difficult to write about Ukrainian history and still leave room for anything else. I want to write a travel essay.

My parents were encouraged to visit Ukraine in the 1970s after a friend of theirs did so and suffered only a long interrogation by Soviet agents. The lady happened to run a hotel in New York's Catskill Mountains, and her interrogators revealed their knowledge even of the price of pierogies at her hotel's restaurant.

My parents speculated that she aroused more suspicion than they would because her late husband had been a star on the famous Dynamo Kiev soccer team which refused to lose to the Germans, and one of the few athletes on the team who escaped execution. That made him a symbol of Ukrainian identity and an enemy to the Soviets.

When my parents visited Ukraine on their honeymoon in 1974, the trip was closely monitored. Hotels were chosen by Intourist, the Soviet Union's secret-police-run travel agency. Monitors watched the corridors.  

My mother arranged a clandestine meeting with relatives well ahead of their trip.  She explained in a letter her intention to pray at Saint George's Cathedral on a particular day, and, in a separate letter, mentioned that she likes to sit in back at church.

When my parents wanted fruit, rather than admit none was available in the workers' paradise, the Intourist tour guide, a young woman, provided them convoluted directions to a fruit stand which, in fact, didn't exist.  

She fascinates me. The vast engines of Soviet oppression relied on people like her. I imagine her mind several ways: nobly defending the Soviet system against a perception of western capitalist propaganda, indifferent to anything beyond her paycheck, or inwardly conflicted but scared to speak out.

Perhaps this last guess reflects my idealism. The administration of government power through individual cruelty, large or small, doesn't seem to be much of an obstacle in human history.

My father arranged a car to the village of his youth.  He ran up a hill for a long look at the place he'd left three decades earlier, then hurried back to the hotel. Deviations from the official itinerary were forbidden, though not unheard of, which makes me guess the young Intourist lady was collecting a paycheck and not much else.

At the cathedral, my mother's family camouflaged her obviously western appearance with a baggy old coat and kerchief. Contact with foreigners was discouraged, and her family didn't want to arouse suspicion.

So for me, and perhaps for other children of refugees who squeezed themselves through the narrowing cracks of the descending Iron Curtain, who were filled with inherited longing for a country consumed by history, a country which (and this is a concept largely foreign to the west) ceased even to exist, whose language was forbidden, whose patriots were forgotten, whose history was Russified, whose culture and traditions seemed preserved only in Saint George's Ukrainian Saturday school in New York City's East Village where teachers constantly scolded us to speak Ukrainian, visiting Ukraine cast my childhood and family history in an entirely new light.

Perhaps my revelation is past its time. Ukraine has been independent for almost two decades now.  I should have gotten around to visiting earlier.

Upon hearing the language commonly spoken and seeing our flag, I felt strangely relieved. Part of me didn't believe the place actually existed. Perhaps I felt relief from the burden of preserving all thing Ukrainian by myself, as the attitude at Ukrainian Saturday school seemed to suggest.

But looking more closely certainly does not lend clarity to the twists and shadows of history. There is a parable of Western Ukraine about a man who was born in Austria, educated in Poland, who went to war in Ukraine, fled to Germany and was executed in the Soviet Union, and he did it all without ever leaving his village.

Much like looking into a cherry blossom or into the face of a sunflower, things only get more complicated the closer you look. What's this tension between Greek-Catholics and Orthodox faiths? Between Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox faiths?

Why do the Russians also claim the legacy of our Kozaks? What's this Polish claim to Lviv? Who collaborated with Nazis? Who were the Soviets? What brought so much of the Russian language into Kiev? Who massacred whom? Which massacre was worst? Which statues should be destroyed? Which ones erected?

Even America's refugee community represents only a fragment of Ukraine. In the aftermath of WWII, all displaced Ukrainians who were not from the west (the portion of Ukraine which had been under Poland when the war began) were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union, meaning executed or deported to Siberia -- by the hundreds of thousands [Operation Vistula 1946-47].

I was shocked to learn about the United States‚ role in forced repatriation: Operation Keelhaul, aptly name for the medieval practice of tethering a sailor and dragging him beneath the keel of a ship.

I want to describe a bar in Lviv, but this too must begin with a history lesson.

During World War II, many Ukrainians fought with the Soviets, many fought with the Nazis, and many like the Sich Riflemen, fought in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army [UPA], which fought both the Soviets and the Nazis, and resisted the Soviet Union into the mid-1950s. The partisans often operated from underground hideouts. Today, scouting organizations still make field trips to search for old hideouts in the woods.

A childhood friend of mine who now reports for an English-language newspaper in Ukraine took me to a bar in Lviv called Kraeevka or The Hideout. There is no sign. The bouncer wore what looked like a model MP 40 sub-machine gun slug from his neck.

"Are the Muscovites with you?" he asked.

"No, we're Americans," my friend told him. "Glory to Ukraine!" the bouncer said. "Glory to the heroes!" my friend replied.

During off-peak hours you might at this point in the ritual receive a free shot of honey vodka in a tin shot glass. The bouncer pulled one side of a bookshelf and opened it like a door, revealing stairs to the basement bar.

Camouflage netting hung from the ceiling.  The tables and benches were hammered together from roughly cut logs, old photos of armed partisans, alone or in small formations, hung everywhere, and Ukrainian rock music blared. The young servers wore Army-green shirts with a blue-yellow patch, the Ukrainian flag, and a black-red one, an old Kozak flag which had been adopted by the Insurgent Army and, more broadly, by Ukrainian nationalists.

We ordered vodka and a beer called "1715," named for the opening year of Lviv's first brewery, and bread, and, on the insistence of my friend, salo, or pig fat, a Ukrainian special and rumored cure-all. Think of the strips of fat on the edge of your bacon and imagine them alone.

A young artist sitting at our table sketched first my friend, then me. Another local pointed to Eurovision 2009 which played on a small television.

The Ukrainian star sang while men in ridiculous Spartan armor carried her around the stage. He told me Ukraine has had a shameful showing since Verka, a transvestite comedian/pop-star, won second place in 2007.

The bar and its dining area was crowded and full of lively conversations. At some point, a fiddler, an accordion player and a small, excitable man with a tambourine cut through the crowd.

They asked permission, then began playing folk songs which echoed in my memory back to Saint George's Ukrainian School in the East Village. Everybody sang.

There was a man in a suit from the adjacent table who grabbed the fiddler's elbow and spoke into her ear between songs. His eyes looked glazed from drinking, but besides that, he seemed to hold his alcohol well. She nodded and he began a ballad in a loud, droning voice. The musicians found his tune. He sang about betrayal and dead Ukrainian patriots.

The Germans call it Lemberg, the Russians Lvov, the Poles Lwow, and the Ukrainians Lviv.

Lviv is gorgeous. Every step of the way, you find breathtaking architecture - statues built into buildings whose balconies rest on their shoulders, opulent renaissance works, remnants of Medieval fortifications, monuments, churches of various eras and denominations, cobbled streets.

There are statues of poets, Roman Gods, and one statue of Austrian writer and Lviv native Leopold von Masoch, after whom masochism is named.

Four universities fill the city with young people.  Street musicians seem to sing or play on every other corner.  I found an outdoor book-market beneath a monument to city's first printer.

I want to write something for non-Ukrainian-speaking travelers. Unfortunately, I did not test other people's English, as I chose to practice my own Ukrainian. I sensed that compared to other European cities, Lviv is largely unexplored, which is good for authenticity and price, but bad for ease of travel.

The older people do not seem to speak much English, but many younger ones do, though they don't get as much practice as, say, those in Prague or farther west.

he tourism industry is only beginning to develop. There is at least one guided, multi-lingual tour of the city. There are internet cafes, ATMs, art galleries and museums. I could not find anyone who knew of a hostel or a place to rent cars outside of the capital, Kiev.

I made the trip with my mother. Her cousin, unsure of the date of our arrival, made three trips to Lviv's airport on the unlikely chance of spotting us. We felt like rock stars. Generations of distant relatives came to see us, their neighbors too.

My relatives included two blacksmiths, an art teacher, a laborer who travels as far as Spain and St. Petersburg for construction work, a computer programmer, a mechanic, and a security guard who gave me free tours of the museums he guards.

My mother and I took taxis or got chauffeured by family to the towns where they lived. We visited the place of my mother's birth.  She had no memory of it, but related it to her parent's stories – they had run a grocery until they fled for fear of the Soviets.  

Like most homes there, it sat on a half-acre plot with a crowded garden, fruit trees, and chickens, and here again I felt an echo from my memories of childhood.

In the United States, and after years of hard work, my mother's parents managed to buy a small retired farm in the Catskill Mountains where I spent my childhood summers.

I grew up around tangles of raspberries, sunflowers, rows of planted onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, and rhubarb. I climbed apple trees, ate pods of sweet peas from their vines and listened inattentively to my grandfather's explanations about grafting sour cherry tree branches. I never realized how accurately my grandparents recreated their home in Ukraine.

Generations of family crowded around small tables bursting with food for day-long meals with us. When our hostess noticed the small napkin in my mother's lap, she apparently thought it insufficient for our American habit and sent one of the girls running to the next room to retrieve two bath towels for our laps, but that awkwardness soon passed.

We remembered the past and discussed our present lives. We toasted our gathering with vodka, toasted the vodka with cognac, and the cognac with beer and homemade wine. They were curious about our plane ride, the airports, why my sister, mother and I live so far apart, my military experience, and where

I learned to speak Ukrainian.

Most of my relatives grew their own vegetables, slaughtered their own chickens, caught their own fish, pickled their own preserves, cured their own cheese, fermented their own wine, and traded with neighbors for ham, sausage, milk and bread.

I met descendents from three of my four pairs of great-grandparents. Sadly, my father's father's parents remain unknown to me. I met no fellow Skaskiws, though, in a village cemetery, I saw dozens of tombstones that bore the name.

I went fishing with one third cousin and his brother-in-laws. They chopped wood with an axe and roasted chicken and pork and sausages, sprinkling the meats with beer that sizzled into the fire. There were jars of pickles, bread and chocolate. We drank vodka from plastic cups, cognac and beer, vodka and cognac. I've never attended a fishing trip so exquisitely prepared for the contingency of not catching anything.

Another reason I regret not visiting a decade earlier are the vanishing stories.

The ghosts are still very much in the air -- one does not forget history in Ukraine as easily as you can in the United States -- but it's generally the emotions best remembered and not the mundane details which give them flesh and blood. The stories are decaying peacefully in the minds of the elderly, and occasionally have their sentiments carved into stone, or etched onto metal placards.

We were told how one town's Jewish population was wiped out during the Nazi occupation. There is a monument standing in a field where many Jews were executed en masse.

My mother's cousin told us her family was scared to hide their Jewish neighbors in their home, but instead offered their field. Her parents grew furious at them because every time a car drove by, they would conspicuously crane their heads above the potato plants to see it. She keeps a photo of her neighbor's daughter, Golda, in case anybody comes looking for her.

This part of the family had been fairly affluent, but the Soviets declared them Kulaks and pulled down their flax seed oil mill and confiscated their land. Eventually, NKVD agents came to take her parents away, but the head agent took pity on them for their age and ill health, or perhaps he'd already met his quota of arrests.

The man noticed the icon of Saint Anna on their wall, and told them to pray to it because it was the luckiest day of their life. Her eyes welled with angry tears when she remembers all that was taken from them.

I am a little hesitant to acknowledge a sort of genocidal rivalry in Ukraine between the Holocaust and Soviet oppression, particularly Holodomor, the famine-genocide of 1932-1933.

Over dinner, one third cousin cited John Demyanyuk, the eighty-nine-year-old Ukrainian-American who'd just been deported to Germany for being a Nazi prison guard at Sobibor concentration camp, years after having been acquitted by Israel's Supreme Court for of being a guard at Treblinka concentration camp.

"Him they'll pursue to the end of the Earth whether he was a guard or not, but not one of the Soviets was arrested. Not one! Not for starving to death a fifth of Ukrainians, not for executing all our intelligensia, not for stealing my family's land. Where are my reparations?"

Her husband and mother, who were with us at dinner, remained silent and seemed embarrassed by her sudden rage. Ukrainian history remains an open wound. Everybody knows it, but no one knows how to begin discussing it. That includes me.

In a town cemetery, a monument to the Sich Riflemen stands beside a monument to Soviet dead from WWII.

I went back to playing with her children - testing the English they studied at school. I pointed to my notebook. "And what letter is this?"  I asked. The boy read it correctly and rolled his eyes distractedly. He stood on his chair, squatted obscenely and gestured to his behind.  "And what letter is this?"  he asked. He and his sister laughed.

We visited the 17th century Zbarazh Castle and browsed the art exhibits. A sculpture called "Wheel of History" depicted clay figures struggling to push a dark disk from either side with many perishing beneath its massive weight.

In the cemetery where one of my great grandfathers is buried, there is a monument to the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, who fought against the Bolsheviks in the civil war which followed the Russian Revolution. Immediately beside it is a monument to Soviet dead from WWII. All young Ukrainian men from the area.

I already knew my grandfather had been in a Polish prison for the crime of working for a Ukrainian-language printer. I learned that in the chaos of Poland's invasion by the Soviet Union, he'd been freed and began teaching Ukrainian in his town's elementary school.

It was a Jewish neighbor who entered his classroom, and warned him that they, meaning the communists, were coming for him. He excused himself as if stepping out to the bathroom, exited the school through a window, took a back road to his home for a handful of rubles, and fled to Krakow, putting all his documents under his hat when he swam across the San River. He never saw his home again except once, when he returned to retrieve his family, including my then-four-year-old mother.

My mother's cousin told us how for decades the family had no contact with them and assumed they'd all been killed. Some time in the sixties, a KGB agent arrived and showed her parents two photos of my grandfather taken from a distance and apparently without his knowledge. They'd been taken in America.

Details like this terrify me. They suggest a very dark, sinister world existing in parallel with the one I know. It's difficult to know what to do with this knowledge. It's like seeing a ghost no one else believes is real, you yourself doubting it. Why would Soviet agents know the price of pierogies in a hotel in America? Why would they photograph my grandfather?

In "The Gulag Archipelago,' Russian dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, "We have been happily borne - or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way - down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings.

"We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us."

The family managed to hide their excitement, and denied any recognition of the man in the photo. Years later, my grandparents began corresponding, writing first to neighbors who relayed the correspondence, then later, directly to family, and in the 70s, my parents visited.

This story is unique only in my attempt to write it down. "Peasants are a silent people," Solzhenitsyn wrote, "without a literary voice, nor do they write complaints or memoirs." Everybody there knows people who fled, who were persecuted, deported, or executed. It is as much a part of their reality as their gardens.

A friend of the family showed us a monument remembering her father's daring escape from a Soviet prison in 1939. One relative's elderly mother spent most of her twenties in a Siberian labor camp.

I heard of people who were taken away for fighting the Soviets, for criticizing the Soviets, for supporting Ukrainian nationalism, for being wealthy, for being university professors, for being writers, for singing Ukrainian folk songs in a pasture, for being related to someone who was deported, for nothing.

Another relative told me of his grandfather who fought with the Red Army on the German front. Based on a rumor that returning Soviet soldiers were being deported to Siberia, he deserted and snuck back to his village.

A third cousin, who is my own age, described how during the later decades of the Soviet Union, members of the Young Pioneers scouting organization would guard the churches to keep people from blessing Easter baskets, or else they would spy on those who did, and precipitate their very public scolding at school.

The same third cousin and his friends would work as a team during Christmas, some standing guard while the rest sang carols for their neighbors. They'd similarly collaborate when Polish merchants snuck into Ukraine to sell jeans and other western merchandise. Once or twice, the friend standing guard falsely called an alarm, shouting "Police!" so that the others could steal a pair of jeans in the chaos it created.

Many relatives showed me baby pictures of my sister and me which my parents had sent them. They had begun corresponding more regularly after their visit in 1974. In the background of one carelessly taken photo was the small Ukrainian crest which hung on our wall in our home in New York. "If the censors had noticed this," my relative told me, "I would have gone to prison."

On one hand, the oppression seems clearly hideous, but nothing is simple. Why are monuments in Ukraine vandalized? Why did Walter Duranty [an apologist for the Soviet regime] win a Pulitzer Prize? When oppression becomes culture does it ceases to be oppression? Which historians get to decide?

Another third cousin, also my own age, drove us to his father's home in the village where my own father was born and raised.

The old, red-faced man did not hear us enter, and his son gently shook him awake.  He wore a shirt, slacks, and a belt wrapped one-and-a-half times around his thin waist. I think he dressed up for our sake. He returned from his dreams slowly, then saw us and rose from the couch. We greeted one another, hugged and kissed, and did not know what to say. I could see the fresh marks of a wet comb in his hair.

There was no great gathering of extended family and no meal, lavish or otherwise. He seemed to live alone with a photo of his long-dead wife and a filthy mirror. "My lungs hurt," he said. "I cannot work like I used to." He asked his son when he would help with the garden.

At the edge of the village lay the ruins of the Soviet-era collective farm. Upon independence in 1991, it had been picked apart first by anyone who could exercise government authority, second by any gangster who could muster the threat of violence, and finally by villagers who even toppled the collective's walls to scavenge bricks.

"In Soviet times," the old man said, "everybody worked. Whether you wanted to or not, everybody had to work. And now, those who don't feel like working don't have to."

He threw up his hands and I wasn't sure if he spoke with regret or relief, but be sighed a long, sad sigh and said "Pity those days are gone." Many times during our visit, he shook his head and, more to himself than to us, said "What a pity.  What a pity."

NOTE: Roman

Skaskiw served as an infantry officer with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was recently recalled for another tour in Afghanistan with the Kunar Province Provincial Reconstruction Team.

He is a 2007 graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, Stanford Magazine, Front Porch Journal, In The Fray Magazine, and on

LINK to original article and seventeen photographs:

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