New Years in Kiev, episode 5

 The Cultural Palace( Жовтневий палац, Zhovtnevy palats)
We’d been to Uzgorod and Lviv and returned to Kiev for New Year’s. The weather had been mild and when we walked out, the golden domes of the cathedrals glowed in the winter sun.
It was a time of new beginnings, of hope, for Peristroika and Glasnost were still new, and everyone thought democracy and good times were just around the corner. You could feel hope. It filled the air,it rose from the people walking down Kreschatik Street.
Ivan took me to a cultural palace to celebrate. Every seat was filled. Beside us were rows of WWII veterans in their uniforms with medals across their chests. These were the survivors. Thirteen million of their comrades were killed in the battlefield, died in hospitals, died after the war from their injuries, were lost in combat or died as prisoners of war. Fourteen million civilians died. Eight million civilians were killed in Ukraine. I wondered if any of the soldiers had been at Leningrad where one million people died, many from starvation and freezing to death. I wondered if I could share their memories, what horrors I would see.
I expected the evening would be filled with young women in crocheted blouses and skirts, red boots, with flowers in their hair. With young men with their embroidered shirts and blue, baggy pants, doing impossible tricks as they danced. I expected to hear the balilaika.
Instead, the stage was taken over by a group of rock musicians in torn blue jeans, playing extremely loud music, doing their best to imitate what they thought was American success. The torn blue jeans were faked, of course, a statement from America about the rebellion of the over-urbanized, over-privileged middle class children of upwardly mobile parents.
On the way out, after the concert, I accidently put my chapka on backwards. On the escalator, a lot of people had a good laugh at the Canadian who couldn’t get his hat on right.
The weather was mild. Ivan and I walked back to my hotel with our coats open. There was a table reserved for me in the dining room with a bottle of wine and chocolates. “Wine, chocolates, music, beautiful women.” He waved his hand at the room packed with people already partying. “The rest is up to you.”
I sat there watching the crowd, in the heart of the heart of a country and people I love, but after awhile I went back to my room. I lay on the bed. I couldn’t get the image of the old soldiers, row on row of them, their medals polished, their uniforms pressed, watching a group of young people screaming into microphones, jumping about the stage, deliberately wearing torn clothing, out of my mind. I thought about the medals and what they meant and I wondered if the old soldiers wondered how what was happening on stage could be the outcome of all the horror and sacrifice.

The Black House, Lviv, episode4

Tonight we stay in a Soviet hotel,” Ivan said.
“What’s that?”
“A Dneister hotel in Lviv. With Soviet people. No Intourist. This is okay?”
“It’ll be like home,” I said. I was sprawled on my bunk writing in my diary. We’d left Uzgorod late and with the dark and the rain there was nothing to see from the window of the train.
“We had left before supper but Ivan promised we wouldn’t starve. He had slipped into the kitchen and now he took a package of lox, bread, cheese and two bottles of local beer out of his coat pockets.
“A picnic you call it,” he said. “Is that right?”
There was a tablecloth with Ukrainian stitching and a vase with dried flowers. Ivan was busy dividing the salmon and the bread. We had no plates so he tore the paper in half and put the food on each piece. He opened his pocket knife and stuck it into the cheese.”

“Yes,” I said, “a picnic.

I wished it were daylight. I would have liked to see the countryside. I’d heard about Lviv all my life. Every immigrant said, at some time in his story, “When we got to Lviv…” It was from here that the trip to Germany began and from there to North America. It was in Lviv they said good-bye to the Ukraine, to their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.
The salmon and the bread were good. The cheese was old and strong. The bottles of beer were large, a quart maybe.
After we’d eaten, Ivan said, help me with my English. We were sitting together on the lower bunk when the conductress brought the tea. Ivan was reading out loud from Saturday Night. I was watching the page, correcting his pronunciation. The article was on Aides and after he’d finished it, he said, I didn’t know it was so serious. We haven’t heard. I’m sorry. I just joke about the women. I talk lots. I don’t do anything.” I felt sorry for him, the way I felt sorry for myself when the information had first sunk in, that nothing was going to be the way it was ever again, like after somebody has died and at firsts you think nothing will change but it does and one day you finally accept it.
We arrived at midnight. Ivan made me get my suitcase and stand in the door well between the coaches. “No car tonight,” he said. “We take taxi.”
We hurried along the platform and down the broad steps to the taxi stand but there was already a line up. In front of us was a fashionably dressed woman with a tiny dog.
“Wait here,” Ivan said, “I go check.” When I started to wander away to look at some sculpture, he said, “Watch the luggage., These are good people but watch anyway.”
“Why do you say Dneister is home?” He had a habit of doing that, waiting for an hour or maybe a day before asking about something I had said, as if first he had to give it a great deal of serious thought.
I was busy looking out the window of the taxi, trying to see everything that went by. “Because at home there is the Dneister district and the Dneister school and Dneister everything. Everyone came from Halychena. They settled in the swamp. Berlo and Frazerwood and Silver and Winnipeg Beach and Malonton and Dneister. Everybody knows Dneister.”
The next morning I fell in love with Lviv. The entire city was a museum. I loved the cannonballs hung in chains as punishment for striking the cathedral. I loved the black house stained with walnut juice. I loved the causal way my guide Pasha said, in the town square, “There is the house of Count Dracula.”
“What do you want to see?” Pasha asked.
“All of it. Every stone.”
Pasha laughed. “Have you a year and we go out every day. Maybe not every stone but the most important things. That takes a month. How much time do you have?”
“A day.”
“A day! A day!” He threw his arms in the air.
“Show me what you want,” I said. “It’s your city.”
“We’ll take the car.”
“No, no car, no driver. We walk.”
We went through the ritual of my not being American but Canadian and how Canadians love to walk. Pasha gave the driver a package of Canadian cigarettes and told him to meet us later. We toured the square and looked at the building Ukrainian prisoners were forced to build. The day it was completed, they were executed. Then we went to the cemetery. Here Pasha told me stories of bodies buried in the graves of others until it was safe to re-bury them under their own names. There were tombs, centuries of tombs, all with stories, and endless, haphazard gravestones and plinths, a jumble of history and necessity, not at all like the orderly precise graves of Sweden with their carefully raked gravel beds, but chaotic and full of emotion.
I was still separate from it, untouched, somehow, until we were leaving and I saw a stone pillar and on it, flowers. I went to look and the flowers were in a beer can. The simplicity of it touched me. I stood there for a long time, not wanting to ever forget the flowers or the can or the pillar or the way I felt at that moment.
It was a crazy day, a day like no other, as if we were both frenzied, both wanting me to see, to feel, to be imprinted with Lviv. We went through a Gothic passageway into a courtyard which contained a statue of a man and woman joined back to back. Here, Pasha said, adulterers had been tied to display the shame of their unfaithfulness. Because of the perfect acoustics, music was played here in summer and people stood around the balconies but it was not this Pasha had brought me to see, but an opening in the pavement and steps leading down.
“They have only recently found these tunnels under the city,” Pasha said. “They are very old and no one knows where all of them go. It is good to see them but if we go down here there will be no time for anything else.”
I was torn between the two but chose to see more of the city. The sight of the tunnel raised memories of the catacombs of Kiev, of glass-topped coffins, of bodies in white shrouds, their faces covered with purple cloth embroidered with silver and gold. I’d had enough of that, of claustrophobia and death.
Instead, we went to a cathedral and chanced upon the city symphony practicing. Like the flowers in the beer can there was something appropriate about it, something better than having come dressed for the finished performance. We stood on the edge of a large crowd, listening to Bach, among a flock of gilt angels which hovered about the walls. In the center of the room a massive plumb hung suspend from the cupola and swung endlessly back and forth. I was overawed b the beauty, by the magnificence of the carvings, by the size of the building. Everywhere I turned there was something worth seeing. Now I understood what Pasha meant by my having to stay for a year to see everything. This building alone, to be seen, not looked at, but truly seen, needed a day to itself.
We went to a second cathedral and here there was no symphony, no spectators, only worshippers, nearly all old women in black clothes, lying flat on the stone floor or walking on their knees, repeatedly stopping and crossing themselves, fingering their beads, asking who knew what favour or forgiveness. The room was filled with the light and space of the New Testament. The pastel columns soared toward a glory of stained glass. But then I crossed the room to the entrance of the old cathedral which was Gothic, heavy, filled with shadows and fear, a place suitable to worship an avenging God. I deliberately placed myself where the two interiors met and stretched out my arms to either side.
“I did not intend to make this a day of cathedrals,” Pasha said “but this is on the way.”
We stopped at what had been an Albanian ghetto to look at a church which had sunk many feet into the gourd so that it seemed more like a ship foundering than a building. The gate was fastened with a chain and lock. “Lviv is built on marsh. Everything looks solid but it sinks. It is a problem.”
We stopped in a sixteenth century street. The buildings were a solid wall which came right to the edge of the cobblestones on either side. There were no signs. No people. If I had been alone, I would have walked by without stopping. Pasha opened a door and we were immediately in a small room crammed with people eating cake and drinking coffee. The conversation paused when we entered, then began again. I went with Pasha to the counter to pick out cake and to watch the coffee being made. The man behind the counter took a small metal pot and carefully measured out coffee for it and water. Then he set the pot in a bed of hot sand. When he brought the coffee to our table, it came in tiny cups. It was strong and black and like nothing I’d ever drunk before.
“Just time for one more place,” Pasha said.
The car was waiting for us. We went to a hill overlooking the city. We got out beside a tour bus and climbed the hill. There were lots of trees and the ground was covered in last year’s leaves. We stopped at the wall of an old castle. Stone steps wound upward and children ran past, chasing each other and laughing. When we reached the crest there was no one else there. The wind was cold and nearly blew my cap off.
“Is it always like this? I asked.
“Worse,” Pasha said. “But it is worth it.”
Lviv was spread out before us. A vast sweep of trees and buildings and endless golden domes and steeples. Above us there was endless blue sky and scudding clouds.
“Magnificent!” I exclaimed. The golden buildings spread out in all their glory, like something from Arabian nights. Everywhere I looked as we circled the hill were steeples and cupolas,  like the risen Christ, I thought, like hosannas in brick and metal, a golden city built on faith.
“Yes,” Pasha agreed. “Magnificent. To keep this one running,” he sighted along his arm and I leaned close so that I was looking at the right building, “took the taxes of fifteen thousand peasants every year.”
Later, when I was back on the train, writing in my diary, I tried to remember the names, the endless names, and the dates, but they ran together. I remembered instead, the tombs stained black with walnut juice and the black house and the coffee and Pasha saying that when the Americans came they wanted to argue about everything, even if they knew no history, no politics, and I wrote it all down, except for how magnificent the cathedrals were, writing down, instead, fifteen thousand, and trying t imagine it in Canada. A city the size of Lethbridge or Brandon and fifteen thousand families every year forced to pay their income tax to keep one local church running. I had intended to write a story about the cathedrals. Instead, I wrote about the stone column and the bouquet of flowers in a beer can.

Glass in Uzgorod, Ukraine, episode 3

Ruins of Nevytsky Castle

The hills were gently rolling. There were patches of snow in the woods. In the open, the snow had melted and the grass was the yellow of old ivory. Just after it started to become light we crossed a stream and the sound of the train changed, becoming momentarily deeper. While we’d been traveling, I’d grown used to the steady clicking of the rails, the creaking of the car, the slight chatter of the metal parts underneath us.
The water was running green with the melt, faster and higher than normal. I could tell this because the water poured white like thick, twisting cords over and around obstructions. If it had run at that height for a long time the obstructions would have been worn down or carried away and surface wouldn’t have been so turbulent.
We’d left Kiev the night before. We had fallen asleep right after having left and now Ivan, who usually stayed awake taking care of details, checking and rechecking our travel plans a minimum of three times, was still not awake. In Kiev, Natasha, the Intourist guide, had called him Vanya and fussed a little over him, scolding him gently, explaining to me that I never had to worry, that Ivan was known for endlessly checking details, for never letting anything go wrong. He had blushed and looked away but it was easy to see that he was pleased. Now he was asleep in that utterly exhausted way one usually sees only in children. He was sprawled on his back, his mouth open, the muscles in his face loose and relaxed.
During the night, I had wakened when the train stopped at Chop. There was a great deal of coming and going and I thought it might be more soldiers getting on but when I raised the blind and looked out, it was skiers. They were lining up with their equipment before getting onto the train. Daily life goes on, I thought, remembering the displays in the Museum of the great Patriotic War, the tables of medals and letters and personal effects and the pictures of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Ivan whispering “Only since Gorbachev. Before that nothing. Not even to ask.” Later, outside the museum, he said “Soon it will be over,” but it wasn’t over yet.
As the skiers were getting onto the train, someone else far away was being shot at or shooting at someone, or lying in a hospital or being buried. It had been like that in the USA during Vietnam and it made people crazy. Soldiers in a fire fight, all around them people being wounded, killed, and then they’d get on a plane and a day later they’d be walking down the street in Dallas or Los Angles or Boston and the war didn’t exist. Everybody was shopping or eating burgers or getting laid or doing drugs. At the same time the soldiers knew their buddies were in the jungle trying to stay alive.
In the first pale light, we passed houses that might have been from my childhood in Manitoba. Wooden houses plastered with mud and whitewashed. When the track was higher than the houses, I saw that woodpiles and outbuildings enclosed a muddy courtyard with chickens and the occasional pig. With the melting snow, the roads had turned to mud. I remembered mud like that in the Interlake, mud clinging to my boots, mud on my mittens, mud underfoot as I slipped and slid. We’d lived like that, before the roads were paved and everyone could afford a car.
Outside a small woods, I saw a father and son who had been cutting hay in a ditch. They’d piled the loose hay into a sheet which lay on the ground, had pulled the four corners together, and, as I watched, the father expertly flipped the load onto his back. The son was carrying two hand sickles. I was glad Ivan was asleep. He wouldn’t have wanted me to see this father and son. He’d be embarrassed. He wants everything to be the best, the newest, the way we did when Formica and polyester were the touchstones of progress.
In Kiev, Ivan had been proudest of the new apartment blocks. The hills had been scraped clear and the red earth looked flayed. The blocks were narrow, anonymous buildings. Beyond the buildings there were untouched hills, hills covered in trees, and then a cluster of houses from old Kiev, houses with tile roofs and patchwork fences and fruit trees. I’d recognized them as surely as if I’d lived in t hem. I’d felt I could get off the streetcar we were riding and walk to them, certain that when I opened a gate and entered a yard and said dobra dene, the face and the hand turned toward me would be a hand and face I knew.
“New homes,” Ivan had said proudly of the apartment blocks. “For the people.” When I asked him about the cutting down of the trees, about the ecology of the area, he looked confused. “We have just started to think about that,” he said. “There is much discussion.”
It doesn’t matter where you go, communist, capitalist, developers are all the same. If you put them in the same room, they’d share all the same complaints, the same problems–councils who made too many restrictions, people who protested change, fools who didn’t understand the need for housing–and they’d discover that they were not enemies but that they had a common enemy, the public, the unappreciative blockheads for whom they were trying to do so much.
Natasha had told me that I was lucky to be going to Uzgorod. The best coffee in the USSR was served there. It was true. The Turks had conquered here and though they were gone, the taste for strong coffee lingered. We drank it in the hotel and it was better than any I had drunk in a long time. I was staying in a hotel which had been built by Finns and Hungarians. My table had a Canadian flag. The first night when we had supper, the Canadian flag was there again. I wondered if it was to warn others off or if it was a matter of pride, an expression of solidarity.
Early in the day, I visited a Pioneer Palace. One of the instructors had lingered in the hall, inviting me to visit him after supper. The three of us, Irena, the president of the committee for foreign visitors, and Ivan and I had strolled through the dark, walking to a concrete apartment like the ones in Kiev. We were met at the doorway by Gregory.
“No lights yet,” he said in Ukrainian and Ivan translated automatically. Gregory opened the outer door. “No glass for windows either.” The windows were covered with pieces of plywood. He clenched his fist as if grasping something. “Peristroika,” he said. “Then we’ll be able to order glass from anywhere we want. No more ordering and waiting. With peristroika we can do anything.”
Gregory’s wife was dressed in pink and his daughter was in a white party dress. On the table were cream filled pastries and a dish of walnuts and a sliced orange. I gave them chocolates I’d brought from Canada. Gregory and his wife were engineers but that was not where their hearts were.  His wife was a poet and he was an artist. His art was not well understood, Ivan said. We went to look at Gregory’s art. He made pictures from copper. There were fifteen or twenty pieces on the wall. They were carefully done and beautifully framed. Gregory had thought up the idea himself, made the tools, developed his technique, used his engineering skills to gild the surface with touches of silver. He had become so involved with his art that he’d given up his engineering job and taken a teaching position. Once Peristroika was complete he thought there’d be a chance of tourists coming to Uzgorod and buying his work.
We drank Red Rooster. We made toasts of friendship, of brotherly love. The raspberry liqueur was so strong that it paralyzed my mouth. Gregory’s wife turned off the lights and lit a candle and read her poetry. For once, Ivan didn’t translate. She had a manuscript in front of her but she didn’t need it. She knew her poems by heart. Her voice, passionate, pleading, demanding as the lights on the New Year’s tree glowed and reflected off the gifts underneath. All the time she read, I kept thinking about the copper pictures, the tools and the techniques and the dedication which had produced them and the years it had taken and the fact that all these were known, had been known for years in North America and was regarded not as art but as a craft, a hobby, and when peristroika came to Uzgorod it wouldn’t all be glass or tourists but, perhaps, shock and disappointment.