Donbas. My relatives were miners. I did not quite grasp exactly what that meant, or what daily hazard the work implied. All I remember is that everyone, like our family, had large miners’ lanterns at home. They must have been given as gifts.
The village where my grandparents lived smelled in summers of apples and coal, and in winters of coal alone, nothing else. Most houses were a greyish-white, and most fences green. Every shape and colour in this universe came dusted with a shade of grey.
When the Russians invaded these territories in 2014 and propped up the so-called ‘People’s Republics’, we stopped talking to one of our relatives, my mother’s brother, who welcomed the new regime in Luhansk, siding with the people we called separs and vatniks. The vast majority of our relatives, however (not that there were many), remained committed to their Ukrainian identity, despite the upheaval of their towns and villages being taken over by who knows whom.
Take, for example, another uncle of mine, Uncle Vitya. A retired but still robust man, he had come back to Donbas from Russian Novosibirsk several years before the war, in 2012. He finished building his own house and was full of joyful plans. The war and the emergence of the separatist republics did not change his plans. He remained in his village in the occupied territory. At first, he used to fly the Ukrainian flag, argue with his neighbours, and try to change their minds. Eventually, someone warned him that his flag was a black mark and was about to land him on ‘the list’. He took the flag down. He put it inside, where its blue and yellow coloured the space all the more intensely.
We would speak on Skype, and start every conversation with the latest astrological forecast. Venus ascending. Mars entering Capricorn in the middle of the summer, which means all unfinished business will be completed. Poroshenko. Zelensky. Things are glum… but it will pass. We’ll be Ukraine again.
When I thought of the residents who had stayed in the occupied territories, Uncle Vitya seemed different. He lived with a sense of having a mission and was fully aware that staying behind was a choice he had made when he could have left. I tend to think of those who had stayed as people who do not exercise agency in their own life – who are simply unaware of the fact that they could affect its course. Not Uncle Vitya, however: he felt responsible for the neighbour’s boy and talked to him often, offering alternatives to a view of the world scripted by his mother and grandmother.
Uncle Vitya’s other goal was to keep his bees safe and healthy until the day when we could all reunite at his house and taste his Honey: the honey that would have outlasted the temporary chaos, the violence, the stupidity, the poverty and the emptiness. It would stand witness to the birth of a new spirit.
The emptiness came gradually. It was easy to miss at first, when it just nudged you to leave in search of a better future. Then it was an explosion – when the guns came, and the professional camera crews and the blasts. People left, locked their apartments, houses, farms – they intended to return. The place did not let everyone go, only those who had the strength to resist it. Those who had it in them to flee, to move away, to leave, to start all over again, to start from the middle, from a handful of contacts, vague connections with other people and cities that spun into the thin threads of exit. Memory held on for a while, embodied by the few everyday objects people had kept. It was strongest in the personal items: toys, hair-combs, notebooks, shoes.
The cats and dogs that were left behind, or those who had never even known human companionship, remained as the bystanders of the emptied space. They were allowed to stay on the margins.
Small nodes of human life also remained. Weak, uncertain, swallowed by the silence. They came in feeble shapes – old age, frailty, surrender. Men’s voices – coarse, masculine, obscene – boomed deafeningly in the encroaching silence. They stunned, they killed; they were searching for something. Then they would go away. They were so unlike the silence but so organically a part of it. They took up its space – the one that had been locked, the one with the toys and the combs, they settled in knowing full well they were there only temporarily. Like the animals that had been left behind, the men knew how to navigate the tunnels of this dying place. And, just like the animals, the men, too, turned to dust. If they didn’t, the emptiness took a tribute: an arm, a leg, a soul.
My grandmother had hemp – cannabis – growing in her vegetable patch. I doubt anyone had planted it there on purpose – more likely it came as a self-seeding weed. Back when my grandmother was still alive, I must have been ten or so, a man came to the house and said, ‘Aunt Nyura, OK if I go to your garden?’ As it became obvious, my grandmother did not have much of a choice in the matter: if she had said no, he would just have come back at night, or climbed in there in broad daylight, which would have been even scarier. The pretence of asking permission implied, at least symbolically, a commitment to honour someone else’s boundaries. Fragile as they were, those boundaries were all that kept her safe. The prophets of imminent emptiness carried away my grandmother’s hemp and whatever she thought about the subject.
Uncle Vitya keeps up his moon charts. He thinks we will win this war soon. The bees grow fewer – and so do the people.
Years ago, as a student, I went to a summer school in Uzhgorod, on the western border of Ukraine. These borderlands looked entirely different to the Eastern one. Men here walked purposefully, like people who had affairs to attend to. Women carried plastic bags and had their own concerns: they were on their way from somewhere to somewhere else (they, too, had places to go, and it was a good thing, although no one stopped to think about it or appreciate it) – usually home, where they carried the groceries they had bought. A vegetarian café opened recently, and a mother and a daughter sat there at one of the tables. A city of people with things to do, of busy people.
The first, tinny bells of alarm rang false: the streets were full of people, and the pedestrian bridge in the centre of the city was being repaired. The Hotel Uzhgorod buzzed with life. People ordered coffee and beer. Small groups went by – students from India.
And yet even this idyllic matrix with its really good coffee contained a bug that betrayed it. It was hidden in the children’s playgrounds. The swings, the slide, the sand-box – all the requisite building blocks were there, with one peculiar exception: there were no children. There were no families. There might be a mother, a grandmother and a stroller – but in a hurry, on their way somewhere else. They seemed to be out for a walk, but there was something surreptitious about them, the way they clung to the edge of the courtyard as if possessed by an urge to get out of there as fast as possible. The category of ‘dad’ was missing altogether. You might see a man or a woman, but never a man with children.
The playgrounds were unapproachable. They were made like that – not on purpose, of course, just instinctively. When the builders finished their work, they left, and the playgrounds remained. Abandoned. Children, for a while, tried to go there, but their desires evaporated after a few minutes on the swings or a few turns down the slide. Someone was calling their mothers and grandmothers, it was time to go grocery shopping, to go home.
Time passed and the playgrounds sank into a vacuum, squeezed tight between apartment blocks, too close to the road, too cramped somehow, the metal handles of the swings too hard and too cold, the paint the wrong colour. You’d think it wouldn’t take much: a little more room, a softer touch, some primary colours, for these places to draw in dads and grandpas. But they were not there. They were in Poland, Hungary, some in Russia. This was only talked about in the family circle, a matter for only a chosen few.
Women left too. In the best case, to study, but more commonly to take up a factory job, harvest berries or work in a store. For many families, there came a time when only the grandmothers remained. The fate of the respective grandfathers was unclear; many were already dead. Alcohol and cigarettes helped them along. Women were just as vulnerable to this affliction but the children’s lives helped them manage their own.
The children got older. Since they did not have any real playgrounds, as we have seen, they found other places to explore and grow: abandoned Soviet ruins, unfinished construction, fields and paths. They spent their lives waiting. Waiting for mum to come back, stay a while, and then leave again; for dad to come back – he would be exhausted, however, and would sleep most of the time, until he left again. Only grandmother was a stable element. Were she to disappear, the world would end. People would stop working on the pedestrian bridge (after all, who would need it?). Parents would stop coming back. How could they come back if the world had ended? If the world was empty? The school would close. Schools in nearby villages were already closing, one by one, whenever the village lost its last grandmother.
And everything was so temporary. Just one more trip to make money, and we’ll think of the next thing. We’ll finish this house, and then live happily ever after.
The children grew up, and joined the world they had come to know. In the best case, they went to university. In the most common scenario, to take a factory job, harvest berries, or man a store. For many families, there came a time when only the grandmothers remained…