|Select magazine number|
An old man who collects old postcards — both he and his collection have interesting stories to tell
Regular visitors to Andriyivsky Uzviz, a long and winding street steeply descending from Upper to Lower Town of Kyiv which, since the 1980s, has been an open-air art centre, must have noticed a conspicuous, bearded man who has become a standard feature of Uzviz. Though I visit Uzviz frequently, I met the man I speak about for the first time at a tourist exhibition when he came up to the Mizhnarodny Turyzm (International Tourism) Publishing House Stand looking for little calendars that we publish.
I, Yevhen Budko, the Senior Editor of the Mizhnarodny Turyzm Magazine, luckily happened to be at the exhibition right at the moment when the man asked for calendars that we gave out free. We struck up a conversation; the man introduced himself — Borys Zaporozhchenko. The more we talked the more intrigued I was getting. Mr Zaporozhchenko turned out to be much more than just a collector of little calendars. I asked him for an interview and he granted my request.
Mr Zaporozhchenko, as far as I understood you’ve been collecting those calendars for quite some time. How many of them have you got in your collection?
Over eighty thousand. I reckon it’s the biggest collection in Kyiv but I know that a Moscow collector has over two hundred thousand little calendars in his collection. That’s a lot of calendars, you know. There are no special catalogues — say, similar to philatelic catalogues — that could help you get your bearings in the world of calendars. Collectors of calendars compile such catalogues for themselves using the in visio method (in visio is Latin for “by way of seeing”). Practically no series of calendars are published anywhere, except, maybe Spain where you can even subscribe to calendar publications. I can’t afford to subscribe but I keep trading and swapping calendars with calendar collectors in other countries, for example, in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and in Warsaw.
Why did you choose to collect calendars?
Because they reflect history, the history of my life, of my country and of other countries. When I browse through my collection I reflect upon the events and facts of history this or that calendar is associated with. In this respect they are better than postage stamps. Calendars are good only for one year and being short-lived they can tell you more about one particular year than postage stamps can. Calendars are excellent reminders of geography since I have them from so many places in the world. And also, many calendars are little works of art, particularly those that have been published in recent years. Some are just tiny masterpieces of printing and design. Besides, many calendars carry high-quality reproductions of paintings on their faces. Calendars come in all kinds of shapes — ornate, with holes, as pendants, what have you. They are made of all kinds of materials too, tin foil and transparent plastic among them. In the soviet times, the variety and quality of local calendars were mostly low, and the best calendars were printed only to be distributed abroad or for foreigners who came on visits to this country. Some of those were available to us, locals, only if they had flaws and as such were considered to be no good to be sent abroad. Foreign calendars with pictures of new models of cars or with portraits of pop stars or other well-known people helped us to learn more about life beyond “the Iron Curtain.” Some foreign calendars were frowned upon by the soviet authorities — those with naked girls on them, for example.
Are there calendars in your collection that you value particularly high?
Yes, of course — for example, a calendar published in 1919 in Ukraine. It is one of the oldest. It looks like a small booklet with a map of Ukraine on one of the pages. Historians should have a good look at it — the map shows Kuban region in the east of the country as part of Ukraine and it may throw a new light on the events of those years of civil war. I have a calendar from such a distant country as Peru and calendars from the Vatican which are considered to be among the rarest. Several calendars from India have images of Indian gods and goddesses printed on them.
Where do you keep all those calendars of yours?
In hefty albums. Calendars are sorted out chronologically and thematically. So far, I’ve got forty-five such albums, about fifteen pounds each.
Where do you get those albums from? They must be specially designed to hold calendars, mustn’t they?
I make them myself, not only because such albums would be pretty hard to find, but simply because I would not be able to afford them.
Does that also mean that you have acquired most of your calendars free of charge?
Not exactly, I did pay for some of the calendars but once I calculated how much in total I had paid for the calendars, then divided the sum by the number of calendars in my collection and it turned out that on average each calendar cost me seven kopecks. I look for calendars at all possible places where I may find them, exhibitions and publishing houses in particular. Not always do I get the red-carpet treatment, you know… Some people think I’m slightly gaga, and even my family are of the opinion that I’m a basket case.
When did you start collecting calendars?
Not too long ago — eighteen years, to be exact. In fact, it was my son who sort of got me into it. In the nineteen-eighties many had that itch to collect things — stamps, coins, stickers, what have you. And once my son who was in the first grade then, brought home several crumpled calendars. It was how our collection began. My son soon grew indifferent to it but I never coolled off.
May I ask what kind of education did you have? And what was your occupation?
I have degrees from two technical colleges and for a long time I worked at a factory that produced radio equipment for the military. In the soviet times, there was this paranoia of secrecy, and such military factories were referred to as “mail boxes.” So I worked at “a mail box” with such and such number. In addition to military equipment, we made television sets and that’s what we were “officially” known as — TV makers…. It was so painful to see so much money wasted on military equipment that nobody actually needed… Books helped me a lot in my struggle to preserve human dignity. My father had a big library at home and I continued collecting books and now, I think, I have one of the largest private libraries in Kyiv. In fact, it is books rather than calendars that are my main interest.
Do you have some rarities or curios in your collection of books?
I sure do. I have, for example, a set of the Soviet Encyclopedia which began to be published in 1926 and the last volume appeared in 1948. Many entries make a very interesting or shocking reading. Say, the ‘P’ volume with an entry about Poland in it. The volume was released in 1940, that is after the partition of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The entry reads at the end, “The imperialistic, reactionary Poland which was made up of incongruent parts and where power was in the hands of Polish magnates and bourgeois who mercilessly exploited the people, has thus come to an ignominious end that effectively terminated its history.” How do you like that? The soviets said in 1940 — Poland will be no more! To say a thing like that in an encyclopedia! At second-hand book stores you could find that volume as late as early nineteen-seventies. In the second edition of the Soviet Encyclopedia which was published in the nineteen-fifties there was an entry about Beria, Stalin’s top KGB man who, after Stalin’s death, was arrested and executed. The subscribers to the encyclopedia were obliged to come to the stores from where they purchased it and sign up papers which said that they, the subscribers, had indeed removed the pages containing the entry about Beria and had glued in new pages with an entry about the Bering Sea. It turned out that only short entries were devoted to all the other seas — except the Bering Sea which had two full pages devoted to it!... It is not only knowledge and information and ideas that I get from books — thanks to my bibliophilic interests I met a lot of wonderful people…
Do you have any other hobbies?
I do. I make souvenirs and sell them at Andriyivsky Uzviz. I’ve been doing it for about twenty years. And thanks to these souvenirs I met a lot of interesting people too. Once, a foreigner came up to me, and we fell into a conversation and it turned out he was a great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy! His name was Luigi Albertini and he lived in Italy. He was a professional photographer. He took my picture and later I had it printed in many copies. I gave these prints to many artists and poets and writers who frequent Uzviz, saying, It’s a link to Leo Tolstoy. And I saw they were emotionally moved by it. I sent Luigi calendars with pictures of Yasna Polyana, the place where Tolstoy lived in his later years… On another occasion, a Briton came up to me in Uzviz. I am not sure whether it was my beard that attracted his attention or my souvenirs, but anyway we talked and when I found out he was an English lord, I said, “Your Lordship, could I shake you hand? I don’t think I’ll ever have such a chance again!” And we did shake hands! Another Briton I met in Uzviz turned out to be the first Ambassador of Her Majesty the Queen to independent Ukraine. He wanted to see more of my souvenirs and we went to my place in his car and it was only then that he revealed his identity. It was in 1992, and my soviet fears were still very much alive — an employee of a secret military factory, you know, taking the British ambassador to his place… It did take some time before I fully realized that things had indeed radically changed… When I wanted to give the ambassador a rare edition of Shakespeare as a gift, he refused to take it, saying that diplomats could not take such expensive presents.
You are a person of a technical education and of an engineering occupation, and yet art and literature are among your evidently profound interests. What was your family background?
My grandfather was a senior priest in the Land of Poltavshchyna. After the revolution of 1917, he was arrested as “an enemy of the people” and executed by the Bolsheviks. My father who did have artistic talents, could not receive an education he wanted to because he was “a son of an enemy of the people” and the only education he could get was that of a veterinarian. In his free time, he created pictures by embroidery, using a very difficult, “Chinese” technique. People looked askance at him — a man doing needlework? But he must have passed some of his artistic talent to me. Then there were books that spiritually gave me a lot… Once I met a restorer from Kyiv, a very interesting personality. He invited me to his studio to show the restoration work he did. It was mostly icons and when I saw these masterpieces of old times brought back to life, their beauty made me realize that I had something of an artist in me. It was the time when the soviet military-industrial complex was falling apart and many people, me included, found themselves out of work. I had to make a living and I opted for creating artistic photography and making souvenirs. Uzviz was an obvious place to go to and sell my works. My creations turned out to be good enough to be in demand, and Uzviz became my working place. I go there practically every day, in any weather and in all seasons of the year. In the heat of summer and in the cold of winter I’m there, no matter what the state of my health is. In recent years, Uzviz has lost some of its original artistic spirit, it has become too commercial but that special aura is still there, and I’m proud to be part of it.
What kind of photos do you take?
Mostly they are portraits of Kyiv and of Kyivans. I use different techniques, I draw things into the photographs when I feel they need such an enhancement, I frame the photographs and offer them for sale. People do like my works and buy them. I ask the customers where they are from and many turn out to be from different countries of the world. One of the customers was from New Zealand. I even receive letters from some of the people who have purchased my souvenirs. I was told that one of my works found its way into the White House in Washington.
You keep calling your works “souvenirs.” But many of your souvenirs deserve to be called art!
It’s for others to judge. I call them souvenirs because they remind people of Kyiv, of Ukraine — and of me too. In this respect, I could be probably called in jest “a promoter of Kyiv and of Ukrainian culture.”
Why in jest? Your souvenirs are indeed a good cultural promotion of things Ukrainian. Those people who make your acquaintance in Uzviz must find you no less interesting than your souvenirs!
Probably so. Besides, I’m one of the very few Jewish children — if not the only one — who were born in Kyiv during the Nazi occupation and survived. This fact qualified me for a pension from the Holocaust Fund and they pay me 130 Euros a month. It’s not much but this money and what I earn from my souvenirs keeps me alive. I don’t have to beg or collect empty bottles to sell them like so many others have to do… Once, a journalist from Germany came to talk to me about my unique status of being probably the only child born in Kyiv in the years of German occupation who has survived in the Holocaust. Later, this journalist published my story in Germany.
Would you care to repeat it for our magazine?
All right, I don’t mind. My mother studied at a college in Moscow before the war, majoring in chemistry. Upon graduation, she was sent to work in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), Russia. Her husband was arrested during the Terror of the 1930s and executed. She fled Sverdlovsk and came to Kyiv, with all her possessions in one suitcase. Here in Kyiv she met my father… When in September 1941 they tried to flee from Kyiv which the Germans were about to capture, the column of refugees they were in, was stopped by the German troops. Jews and communists were ordered to step forward. Many did — my parents did not. My father was not Jewish and probably my mother did not look particularly Jewish and was not spotted as one, but a black haired Ukrainian woman who stood close by was thought to be Jewish. She was dragged out and shot with many others. In the chaos that followed, my parents lost each other. My mother made it back to Kyiv somehow but the apartment house she had lived in was not there any longer — it was destroyed as many other buildings in the central part of Kyiv were, either by shelling, or bombing. She was given shelter by some people she knew. My father was badly wounded but survived and eventually also made it back to Kyiv. They did meet again and that’s how I was conceived… It was my father who acted as a midwife when the time came for me to come into this world and he assisted my mother in childbirth. He was a veterinarian after all.
Practically all the Jews of Kyiv either had fled or were machine-gunned in Babyn Yar (a ravine in the outskirts of Kyiv, the scene of the Jewish massacre — tr.). It must have been an enormously lucky chance your parents survived in the Nazi-occupied city.
It was nothing short of a miracle. They kept moving from place to place, kept hiding. Ukrainians helped. My mother was double-lucky when she managed to get an identity card issued by the German occupation authorities that said that she was an Armenian…
Did your parents have any problems after the Soviets came back?
They did. The secret police asked my mother, “How did you manage to survive when so many other Jews were killed?” However, she was not accused of collaboration or of being a German spy left behind, and they let her be. But she did have a problem of getting a job. Employers were suspicious… My postwar childhood was not very happy, as you might guess. Poverty, hunger, rags instead of clothes. I remember many children getting killed or maimed by mines, shells and bombs that had been left lying around in great numbers. I remember with pain being called “a kike” behind my back and then into my face, I remember my mother’s reluctance to talk about her ethnic background… It was then that I began to understand the great power that words have. My teacher of Russian literature at school helped me a lot in mastering the skill of expressing myself and she inculcated love of literature in me. It was largely thanks to her that I became a voracious reader. Later, I even began writing poetry. And I secretly read books by authors who were banned by the soviet regime. It all helped me to preserve my sanity and dignity in the absurd soviet world.
Do you realize you are a living witness of the times when history was made?
Aren’t we all of us such witnesses of history in the making? One era goes, another comes. Aren’t we living through another revolution? (the interview was taken in late November, right the midst of the Orange Revolution — tr.). I do hope that this time there will be no bloodshed and a solution to most of the problems will be found, and Ukraine will remain one, united nation which is made up of people of many ethnic backgrounds who will live in piece and in harmony…