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Nostalgia  Myroslava Barchuk looks into the eyes of the people in old photographs



A recollection from my early twenties came up to the surface of my memory  French classes for emigrants in Montreal. Among students in my group were people of various ethnic backgrounds and nationalities  Pakistani, Indians, Syrians, Germans, Rumanians, Greeks, Poles, Chinese, British. The time was the end of the nineteen-eighties, and for me, a young person who had just left the Soviet Union with its collapsing iron curtain, everything in my new western life caused a great excitement. What a great variety of colours, of new impressions! I liked being politically correct and friendly, I liked being a Ukrainian and I felt I represented my country  Ukraine, I tried to be more European than Russians were; I liked shaking hands with dark-faced young men in exotic headgear who used every little chance to make romantic advances to me (their hands were exquisitely beautiful  narrow palms and long thin fingers); I liked whispering something into the ears of African girls, my new friends, who sat next to me in class. Every time springy hairs of their coiffures touched my skin when I leaned too close, I wondered at how resilient their hair was. We had lunch in a sunlit dining-room, all of us sitting at one and the same big table, offering each other morsels from our dishes, feeling excited by new flavours, feeling so hot in the mouth from too many spices. I wore tight-fitting blue jeans, hippie-style boots and a Ukrainian shirt, magnificently embroidered at the beginning of the twentieth century. Once, the girl sitting next to me in the dining-room, Linda from Britain, after examining the embroidery for some time, exclaimed in admiration, Wow, how beautiful! What kind of a people is it that can create such beauty?

By saying it, Linda let me feel pride for being one of the people who create such beauty. My people who live in my native land. For so many years, the soviet regime had been trying to rob Ukrainians of that feeling of belonging not to the soviet people but to their own nation, Ukrainians. The very notion of people had been twisted and emptied of its true meaning. The soviet people, this false and inane invention, was nonetheless one of the key concepts of the soviet ideology and propaganda. Similarly to people, other lofty concepts such as conscience, dignity, honour have been denigrated and abused so much that decent people were afraid to mention them for fear of seeming insincere, hypocritical or too enthusiastically patriotic, again in the sense that the Soviets had given to this word. Many lofty concepts, deprived of their true value, began to be reacted to with suspicion and even worse  they began to be used ironically.


Why is it that for the first time in my life the full meaning of belonging to my people was revealed to me in a dining room of a Montreal school? What kind of people I belong to? Do I love my people, my nation? Do I have to do something to come to love it? What does it actually mean  to belong to my people? What kind of individuals make up my people? Can all the individuals of one ethnicity who live in a certain territory be considered my people?

The answers to these and other similar questions came to me many years later, in the fall of 2004, during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. It was then, when I stood among thousands upon thousands of protesters in Maydan (Independence Square) in Kyiv, in the driving snow and freezing temperature, shouting at the top of my lungs, Oo-kra-yina (Ukraine)! that I fully realized what my nation was all about, who my people was, and what I loved my people for.

But before that happened, I used to come close to understanding what my people was when I looked at the faces of people in the old photographs, peered into their eyes. I found such photographs in the attic of the peasant house where my grandmother had lived; I picked such photographs from the walls of the peasant houses in the villages where just a few people were left, the rest either dead or gone in search of a better life, where centuries of family traditions were brutally severed; I saw such photographs in the abandoned villages of the Chornobyl Zone (after the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster, people either fled or were evacuated from a large territory, called The Zone, and the radioactive houses stood empty and unprotected; you could not touch anything there  you could only look). Most of those photographs I had or saw dated to the mid-1950s; some dated to the 1920s. Looking at them, I always thought that these people in the photographs did not know they would die a terrible death in the Famine of 19321933; women holding little boys in their arms, did not know that in not so distant a future they would see their sons off to the fronts of the Second World War. In many of those pictures from the Chornobyl Zone that dated to the 1960s, I saw brides wearing long, white dresses and holding bouquets of large, white calla lilies (so typical and fashionable of those times) in one hand, and protectively holding their brides veils with the other. When I looked into their eyes which stared straight into the camera with which their pictures were taken, it seemed to me they saw not the lens but the radioactive emptiness of their houses. Or was it just my runaway imagination, my generally tragic view of life and of the world?


Why is it then that in the photographs of Ukrainians who lived in the late ninetiethearly twentieth century I do not see this haunted, hunted, tragic look in their eyes? In the eyes of the people in these photographs I see serenity, dignity and confidence. They are the people who did not live through the horrors of the Bolshevik revolution, devastation of the civil war, destruction of the land in the soviet collectivization, genocide of the artificial famines, liquidation of culture and people in the Stalinist repression. In their eyes there is not a trace of fear of life, of being subjected to indignities, of being oppressed and mistreated slaves. They do not know how it feels to be begging for a piece of bread from those who have just lashed them, they have not seen churches being destroyed as they look on, they have not seen books and palaces being burned. They still understand very well the difference between Good and Evil, they believe in God, they love their family, they trust they have a secure future. This secure future I see in the eyes of all these pre-revolutionary people, people from a totally different era. And though I know that their era is coming to an end, I nevertheless firmly and sincerely believe that they are looking at me from eternity.


By Myroslava Barchuk

Photographs are from the book Poltava, Rodovid Publishers, 2004.


















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