By MELODY NIXON
“Wake up and help us fight before they come for you.”
2001. It is a dark night. The expanse of the Black Sea below offers space from Europe’s light pollution. I am sleeping alone in a park in an Eastern European country that I have been told never to come to because the risk of abduction is high for foreigners. That has turned out to be only rumor and speculation, so far—Ukraine is the friendliest and most open-hearted country I have visited. Still, tonight as I try to sleep on this park bench in Yalta, Crimea, all the propaganda-fueled rumors come back to me. I don’t know what it is—perhaps the vision I’d had of my mother sitting next to me on the beach earlier in the day, telling me to be careful; perhaps the snake I’d almost stepped on as I pushed through the undergrowth to find a space to stretch out. It slithered, bright green and a yard-and-a-half long beneath my frozen footstep. Either way, immense, prickly forces stir in the bushes all night long. The mafia waits to drag me, kicking and screaming, into a life of submission the moment I fall asleep. Men with square jaws and knives are creeping up. My senses stalk about my body on high alert, triggered by subconscious images of grey trench coats, rain, military displays, and nuclear radiation; images ingrained by the Western media I have consumed in the Cold War’s long shadow.
But instead of gray skies and rain, Ukraine has shown itself to be a place of warmth. I have traveled through the large land’s wheat and sunflower fields and its centers of industry, culture, and religion. In two months of staying with local families, taking buses, trains, and taxi vans, I have found myself in a country of art and architecture: port cities, ancient Greek settlements, wooden Russian Orthodox churches, synagogues, and 11th century golden city gates. Soviet architecture mingles with neoclassical mansions and baroque opera houses; monuments to academics and artists stand near monuments to independence and the motherland.
Unscathed by my night in Yalta, I travel around Crimea by rickety bus. I am enthralled by the peninsula’s pink-and-purple sunsets and rocky coastline. In Feodosia I stay with a very Russian babushka—grandma—in a vine-covered cottage. We sit under the grapevine in the warm autumn evenings, sharing pancakes and fresh fruit. Some evenings vodka glasses are placed on the plastic tablecloth between us, and I understand. I drink with her. She speaks Russian, as does much of the island—I am only beginning to learn Ukrainian and have even fewer words in Russian. Still, we gesture at one another, pull out maps, draw pictures on the back pages of my journal. Somehow, in that way of lonely people who are eager for conversation despite its limitations, we “talk” long into the night. We discuss the Russian economy and her hopes for it to strengthen; we talk of globalization and travel, the old days of the Soviets and thought police. Babushka longs for those days, though she knows they were complicated, hard: sloszhny, trudny. Like the rest of Crimea she calls the currency rubles, while she hands over Ukrainian hryvnia banknotes. She travels, she says, only between Moscow and “Krim.” As she crosses the land between Crimea and Russia—through what was designated the “Left Bank” when Russia and Poland vied for control over Ukraine in the 17th century—she doesn’t disembark from the train in the way stations. I begin to get a sense of the varying allegiances in this land, its complex rivers of identity.
In Kerch, on the eastern tip of Crimea, the woman I stay with won’t let me leave until I give her more money. I have paid her sixteen hryvnia, or fifty cents for the night, which is what she asked for. But she and her son are hungry, she tells me the next day. Hungry, she says, making a gesture of food into mouth that will haunt me. Her son is very thin. In her kitchen she has just bread and homemade jam, and she makes me morning “tea” by mixing the jam with hot water. Ukraine only left the Soviet Union a decade ago, and its economy is slowly adjusting. The transition to capitalism has not been easy. On average, Ukrainians are subsisting on $17 a month, less than a $1 a day. The unemployment rate is approaching forty percent. Though I have about $300 to my name, here I am immensely wealthy. My privilege is that of the westerner who can choose to enter and exit.
I give her more money—for fish at the market, she tells me—but I don’t know if it will make a difference. It seems like there’s a long way to go until recovery. The Crimeans I meet look to Moscow for relief from their everyday economic terror. Other Ukrainians look west while discussing and fearing Moscow. The whole country, I feel, is in the shade of Russia.
I leave the city limits of Kerch and stand on a cliff looking further east: below me a misty, deep Black Sea. Beyond that, the distant regions of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Chechnya. The east, from where Russian troops will come to annex Crimea in 2014, and to invade the rest of Ukraine in 2022.
2020. A student, Ukrainian, at Columbia University struggles to explain Holodomor to his fellow students—struggles, because he cannot believe they have not heard of it. “Ten million,” he says, “ten million.” That’s the number of both immediate and subsequent deaths from this “manmade” famine, engineered, many believe, by the Soviet government in the early 1930s. It is widely held that the famine was designed by Stalin to eliminate a Ukrainian independence movement, though contemporary Russian propaganda blames the west. There’s tension in the room as the student’s sense of alienation turns to anger. His classmates are mostly young Americans, in their late teens, well-educated but shaped by their own cultural lenses. “How is it possible you do not know about this?”
2001. I approach a group of elderly Ukrainians gathered around a park bench in Lviv. With links to Transcarpathia and the Carpathian Mountains, Lviv sees itself as western, more aligned with Hungary and Poland than with Russia. Here, Ukrainian is spoken with pride; Russian, spoken in the eastern part of the country, is not welcome.
The women and men sit in dappled light beneath fruit trees and talk animatedly. Their clothes are simple, their faces crinkled with decades. The bench is situated on a wide promenade, with young professionals on lunch breaks strolling by in the afternoon sun, Coca Cola from the nearby factory in hand. The sense is of two time periods, two worlds, existing together: the 19th century and the 20th, the Soviet and the capitalist. “Excuse me,” I ask in broken Ukrainian, “May I take a photo?” Or rather: “Photo—can I?” The women and men, all around 80 or 90 years old, turn to me and without any attempt at politeness say, “No.” “No, no, no.” Many times. They stare and wait for me to move on. A sense of autonomy, or suspicion, overrides any urge to please a foreigner. These are survivors—of Holodomor, of World War Two, of the Soviet Union. I am a 19-year-old from the other side of the world who knows none of that. And they want to enjoy their conversation, in peace.
2001. My first morning in Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city and a port town on the south coast, I walk in confused circles. The streets all seem identical and labyrinthine. Ornate façade blends into baroque limestone gate. I am hot and tired. The bus journey here from Crimea through Melitopol took many hours over night. Even so, the streets spark a hunger in me, not just for food but for books, art, and history: here is Gogol Street, named after the Russian playwright who was born in Ukraine. Potemkin Stairs, near where the 1905 workers’ uprising took place and inspired The Battleship Potemkin, a classic of silent film. Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, park, and square: named for the “father” of Ukrainian literature. He is celebrated everywhere, and I marvel at the way a poet, a playwright, is held up so highly, and what that says of a country’s values.
Thirteen years after my visit to Odessa, the city will become a crucible for the west-Russia divide. The Euromaidan protests that first erupt in Kyiv spread throughout Ukraine, as protestors seek to expel a corrupt president who has just thrown out an agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. In response, a wave of pro-Russian counter-protests sweeps Ukraine. In the south, pro-Ukrainian supporters and pro-Russian protestors become embroiled in a fight in Odessa’s streets. The Russophile protestors are driven into the Trade Union building, and the building catches alight; at least thirty-one perish in the flames. Russian media labels the Ukrainian supporters neo-Nazis. The idea of protest begins to be turned on its head, as it is in much of the world in the 21st century.
The Ukrainian Svoboda or Freedom Party that drives the Euromaidan protests (but later falls from favor) has a particularly 21st century nationalistic, far-right bent. The party builds on the roots of Sloboda Ukraine, the free settlements established by Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks in the eastern part of the country during the 17th century in defiance of serfdom, but these hopeful roots have been muddied with cynicism. The party commemorates Ukrainian theorist and one-time supporter of Hitler, Stepan Bandera, and like so many “freedom” movements of today, the idea of liberation has become bound up in notions that inhibit the freedom of others: ethnic nationalism, anti-Semitism, and a kind of neofascism.
It is this neofascism—on the rise globally, not nearly distinct to Ukraine—that Vladimir Putin will use to justify annexing Crimea in 2014. He is, he says, saving Ukrainians from the “new Ukrainian leaders who are the ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice.” Eight years later he will return to the deaths of pro-Russian counter-protestors in Odessa, to cite a security threat and attempt to justify a full-scale invasion. And so Putin equates Ukraine with the west and the west with neo-Nazism, while declaring war on a people. As though fascism can be stamped out by authoritarianism. As though Russia’s own brand of extremist white supremacy is beyond scrutiny.
2022. I read pleas for help as Putin’s forces prepare to advance on the southern city of Odessa. The Russian military has just bombed an art school in Mariupol that housed 400 civilians, including children, killing many of them. There are reports of civilians being loaded onto buses and sent to “distant cities” in Russia against their will—the echo of history jars my spine, grips my jaw. I feel it in my body, but I can’t wrap my head around this horror. I don’t know if this is numbness, or if I can’t open my heart fully to the news of this war because I feel personally connected to this place. I know some of the streets and buildings in Kyiv that have been destroyed; I admired some of the same monuments that the people of Odessa are sandbagging; I meandered along Derybasivska street where they are laying out anti-tank hedgehogs.
But perhaps in part this numbness is internal: I have just had a baby, and the news of babies and children being killed in Mariupol is too much for my heart. The stories of women giving birth in a bomb shelter without medical equipment are too easy for me to visualize. They also don’t go together, these concepts: brand new life and war. A new parent cannot accept what war does to the future; parenthood is an expression of optimism, war the end point of cynicism and nihilism. So there’s war. And then there is baby.
2001. Odessa. I’ve made friends with a woman named Irina whom I met when I first arrived in the city. (“You can stay with us!” she proclaimed, when I was stuck in a square and couldn’t find any accommodation). I have been living with her and her family—her partner Sergei and her rebellious toddler daughter—and spending time with her parents and sister. They sit me down at their table and ask me questions like, “Melody, what is your reason for being here, what is your life philosophy?” and “What would you like with lunch, beer or vodka?”
Irina introduces me to her young friends who want to learn about my country. “I dream of going to New Zealand,” says Vasili, whose young wife is pregnant with their first baby. “But I am not a wanderer like you,” he tells me. “I want to go to there for my family. I want to go there to have a life that I can enjoy, to be able to live. I want to go there so my child’s life can be better than this.”
Irina has managed to escape the unemployment that faces forty percent of her compatriots. This morning while she was at work, I ironed her sheets in a bikini top and looked out of this seventeenth floor view over the Black Sea. Large ships maneuvered in the port. The horizon, as usual, was hazy. Björk crooned in the tape deck as the waves on the shore far below stormed in.
I’m just so happy to have an opportunity to stay here in Ukraine for another month. There’s something about this country that I cannot place but is so subtly beautiful and intoxicating. It could be the generosity that arises in a place where private property is not God. It could be the post-Soviet feeling, and the fact these people have lived in, been trained in and altered by, a force so different to any I’ve encountered. It could be the architecture of this city, so curved and multicolored.
Odessa is full of beautiful limestone houses from the 1800s, pastel-washed and ornate. Below them runs a labyrinth of catacombs, old mines that were used by smugglers and in the Second World War, partisan fighters. My hosts walk me around the Catacombs and describe the resistance that had been led, literally underground, here. Over 2,500 kilometers of tunnels shielded kitchens, barracks, and ammunition rooms. And as my teenaged friend Natasha describes the resistance her political and historical awareness strikes me as especially cultured and telling of this place’s insurgent spirit. How many of my teenaged peers in New Zealand could narrate their country’s history of resistance struggle?
Resistance runs deep here. In the 17th century, Cossacks and peasants with the support of Tartars overthrew Polish rule. In the 20th century, partisans fought against the German invasion from the tunnels beneath this city. Women partisans fought then, just as female Ukrainians fight in 2022. This is not a country that takes—or cedes—its independence lightly.
2022. On social media there are images of neonatal babies evacuated to shelters in the eastern city of Dnipro as bombs fall on the city. In mainstream media, the snaking line of a military convoy stretches 65 kilometers outside of Kyiv, a waiting serpent. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s desperate yet defiant tweets speak of fighting until the end. A young Ukrainian marine chooses to blow himself up on a bridge outside Kyiv, because he has been tasked with destroying the access way to halt the Russian advance, but the explosives won’t ignite independently. His photo, with a digital candle superimposed, fills my social media channels, as do photos of refugees at the border of Poland. By the middle of March, 2.3 million refugees have fled Ukraine.
I recall my body, alone and vulnerable, on a park bench in Yalta. I imagine fleeing my country, sleeping rough, looking for a way out. Doing that with little in hand but a child I am responsible for. The threat of the man with the knife and hard jaw.
One month into this brutal invasion, I still cannot take in the images of violence. I think of each person I encountered in my months in Ukraine: babushka, Irina, Natalia, Sergei, and so many others—and how these people with their disparate political allegiances (Russian, Ukrainian) approached me with open hearts. How they each had stories heavy with history that they brought with them into the 21st century; family roots and alliances that attached them to the west, to Poland and beyond, or to the north and east, to Russia. Centuries of networks that Putin’s bellicose rhetoric ignores.
I think of Sergei and Vasili, who will have been conscripted under current Ukrainian martial law. Vasili and his wife, who didn’t make it to New Zealand. Irina and Natalia, who may have been tempted to fight, like so many female compatriots. Who no longer answer my emails.
In 2001 Ukraine had just left the Soviet Union, and remnants of the old system abounded. Journalists were still under threat; 11 had been killed in the preceding five years. Every week there were reports of new, non-fatal and fatal attacks, all amid the economic hardships of the day to day. “What do you do about this?” I asked Natalia and her friends. “How do you keep going?”
“We have no choice,” they told me. “Or we leave.” Their words echo in me like gongs. You have no choice, or you leave. Or you have no choice.
*Note: travel excerpts are taken from journals in 2001, and all effort is made for a factual rendering of events. Names have not been changed.
Melody Nixon is a Kiwi-American writer and academic. From 2013-2020 she served as the interviews editor for The Common.