Ideas Archipelago USSR | Ukraine
Kiev, 24 August 2020. At the March of the defenders, on the occasion of the 29th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. | Photo: Photos123

From the USSR to Maidan, a corridor of memories

Essayist Kateryna Mishchenko was seven when Ukraine became independent and 30 when the pro-European protests on Maidan Square triggered the war against Russia that continues to this day. Since then, she says, her Soviet past is not merely a backdrop, but an enemy whose legacy is still omnipresent. This is the second article from our series on the 30th anniversary of the breakup of Soviet Union.

Published on 7 January 2022 at 08:47
Kiev, 24 August 2020. At the March of the defenders, on the occasion of the 29th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. | Photo: Photos123

If I cast my mind back, I imagine my memory bank as a dormitory, and myself as someone wandering the corridor, the rhythmic patter of my steps a permanent auditory backdrop that you stop noticing over time. Perhaps the dormitory became a warehouse of sorts for me because I lived in one when I was a young child, and now I can’t rid myself of that place. And maybe this spatiality from my childhood determines how I continue to situate memories: it’s where I collect the stories overheard from behind the doors of various rooms.

I was six years old when I got my first taste of Soviet social institutions’ brutal nonchalance towards pain: after I pleaded with her for a long time, my mother offered to pierce my ears – at home. I ecstatically agreed. She poured alcohol into a saucer, set it on fire, and held a huge “gypsy” needle up to the flame for a while, then pierced my first ear and put a little gold heart-shaped earring in it. It was so painful that I wailed and ran to the refrigerator at the other end of the room, categorically refusing to continue. My mother and sister tried to convince me to keep going, arguing on behalf of what was “normal,” that it wasn’t nice for a girl to go around with one pierced ear, like a pirate. I had to come back and endure the horrible procedure. The second ear, where a golden heart appeared after my protest was “suppressed,” ached and oozed for a long time. That’s how 1990 began for me.

Until 1991 we lived in the railway workers’ dorm right next to the train station in the city of Poltava; we were just about to move into a three-room flat in a new bedroom community, where my father had been one of the construction workers. My father was actually a communications engineer, but a few years earlier he had started working a “second shift” in construction; there was a social program that offered housing to construction workers. One of the images seared into my mind from that time is of my father sleeping.

Surely the safest thing you could be as a post-Soviet person in the 1990s was a child

My sister and I were ordered to keep quiet while we were at home, so that my father could get some sleep. There was something ritualistic in this respect for his rest – as if we were preserving the inviolability of his private space while he recovered from the intensive expenditure of his strength and time. He spent his time so furiously that it seemed he already had one foot over there, in the future that was just about to begin: we would move to a new house, I would start school, and everything would be different.

Somehow the news of Ukraine’s independence made it even to my politically insensitive seven-year-old ears. I remember that my father and I were walking down the street, away from the sound of passing trains, and I asked: “Is it a good thing that Ukraine is independent?” My father answered, “Yes.”

My mother helped my older sister put on a Pioneers’ tie, making a pretty pillowy knot, whereas I didn’t even become an Octobrist [Communist youth movement] when I went to school. My first teacher, who resembled a young long-haired mermaid, had long manicured nails, with a fat black spot on each of them. Her hand resembled a fan with five eyes, the breeze from which corrected my handwriting so that it slanted “properly” to the right. Writing that slanted to the left still bore the spectre of Lenin sitting in prison, making an inkwell out of bread and writing with milk. To a child, as I was at the time, that was the story of a person who took pleasure – in the possibility of writing as in food – in the most inhospitable conditions.

Surely the safest thing you could be as a post-Soviet person in the 1990s was a child. As a child you are grateful to the world that it exists at all; you’re not trying to assign it a grade. You take everything pleasant as surplus, and you repress everything painful, pushing it off to the better times of adulthood. Besides, my family lucked out: for two years my parents went to work in the military towns of theWestern Group of Forces, which had been stationed in East Germany. We lived in different places, always at a distance from the outside German world. We were taken to the Russian school by bus; sometimes German children would shout “russische Schweine” – “Russian pigs” – at the bus as we rode past.

We spent our longest stretch of time in a settlement in the middle of the forest. The teachers at the local school were military wives, and the pupils came from all across the Soviet Union – a real-life friendship of the children’s nations. Out of inertia we referred to our countries, which we were supposed to go home to, as the Union. The “Soviet” part disappeared; our mental transition away from a shared fatherland happened gradually. My father worked as the head of a cinema, showing movies to the soldiers, while my mother repaired the damaged film reels. It was a big all-encompassing world on an island lost in the German forests.

Our German adventure came to an end in the summer in Potsdam. We lived in the half-abandoned Volga radio station. I braided decorations out of the colourful wires that the station building seemed to be overgrown with, listened to the music that had been left there, and watched German television without understanding the language. It was as if here, at this last stop before returning home, a non-operational radio station named for a body of water, that corridor appeared, surrounded by turbulent waves of time. For me it was a sort of non-place, and the sense of anonymity it conferred made me wonder whether I was returning home or traveling to some sort of new world.

I often felt lost, wondered who I was, ruminated about things that weren’t part of my life: faith in God and adherence to collective traditions, whether hidden or overt

If I carried this ambivalence within me upon our return to Poltava, externally I unambiguously came across as a newcomer, especially with my “outsider” way of dressing and because I didn’t speak Ukrainian. It was yet another period of re-finding myself and looking for ways to make sense of the new reality. I remember history classes where I simply didn’t understand what the teacher was saying, because I didn’t understand Ukrainian.

Eventually I learned it and buried myself in my studies. The director of my run-of-the-mill school was inspired by the post-Soviet emancipation of pedagogy and wanted to experiment. My class was all girls, and we studied programming, economics, and a mix of natural sciences that were normally taught at older grades. Later we read testimonies from elderly Poltavans about the Holodomor, the artificial famine of 1932-33, and we studied poetry from the 1920s and 1930s by famous repressed authors from the Poltava region. We weren’t indoctrinated in nationalism and at the same time the fog of silence surrounding the terror in Soviet times wasn’t allowed to settle in, but we didn’t cover the Holocaust as its own topic. I learned about it later, while preparing for school Olympiads and intensively studying German – and thus German history.

If I were to try to sum up my Soviet/non-Soviet childhood, I would say I see myself as the child of a family that belonged to the technical intelligentsia, not dissidents but skeptical of the Soviet regime. There was no religion and there was no ideological fanaticism. When they were in their thirties, my parents returned from Germany to Ukraine to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs within the reality of the “market economy,” while my sister and I were supposed to study hard and try to “swim out” on our own, without assistance. I often felt lost, wondered who I was, ruminated about things that weren’t part of my life: faith in God and adherence to collective traditions, whether hidden or overt. And only later, through conversations with my contemporaries from other regions and backgrounds, did I come to think of my origins as being quite Soviet in the sense of the notion of the “new person,” deprived of a past and committed to the future.

When I was eighteen, I had another encounter with what you could call “Soviet procedure”: I had my tonsils torn out of me in the Poltava regional hospital. And I really do mean torn out: I was belted to the chair and injected with an anaesthetic, though I could still feel everything, and my tonsils were cut out with a scalpel. If I remember correctly, I then had to spit them out, and as those little bloody things were lying on a saucer, the doctor joked that now the street dogs would have something to eat. It was really very funny.

I associated any sort of discipline with Soviet structures, which slowly started to die off in some spheres but held firm in others. Today I understand that surveillance and discipline are not Soviet in and of themselves; they can be put to use perfectly well by other regimes too. Still, I wanted to get as far away as I could from it all. Especially from having to take part in the absurd—for example, working at a university where lecturers were threatened with fines for letting students come to class after the bell and where, by the way, the very presence of a bell was never called into question. But I wasn’t always successful in my attempts to escape. The world of an internal emigrant that I had constructed in the 2000s changed in the winter of 2014.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ukraine became a different country. For a moment the worst was behind us, but then it turned out that everything was just getting started

On my thirtieth birthday the Maidan mourned those who had died, and Crimea was annexed. Life seemed to be controlled by the news feed. The bit of my biography connected to Russian relatives and Crimea was excised. It was through these events that I came to understand the essence of things that would seem to be quite fundamental: true humanity, awful impressionability in the face of state repression, loneliness and mutual support. It’s no exaggeration to say that Ukraine became a different country. For a moment the worst was behind us, but then it turned out that everything was just getting started. Before we’d even had a chance to experience our own grief, to dream about what we wanted to build, people mobilized for the self-sacrifice of war.

Society and state lost their chance to take a big leap forward; instead it was an era of sluggish evolution, which here they call reforms and progress towards Europe, and powerful counter-revolution, prompted by Russian aggression. And both of these processes were spurred on by the global trend of the decline and marketization of the public sphere and discourse. Within a few years, riding a wave of stubborn desire for post-Maidan renewal and an end to the war, a superstar president appeared, who boldly brought creative improvisation into politics, enlivening that domain. But the changes in the politics of time dictated by the war persist to this day.

The past (the Soviet period) ceased to be the backdrop, it became the enemy. The fiercer the battle against it, well captured by the term “decommunization”, the more the suppressed indecency of our Soviet legacy comes to the surface. We are still living off it like parasites, off the infrastructure built in Soviet Ukraine. Just look at the developers who want to put their housing complexes near a metro station, schools, and nurseries, where communication links are already in place, so that over time they can drain all those resources. Today’s ideological projects swarm Soviet memorial or cultural sites instead of proposing the creation of new symbolic spaces, more equitably distributed across cities.

And now I too am looking afresh at the past and beginning to understand the space that was created even before I was born, but as soon as you reach a certain depth this space disappears. I see that the lack of regard for the materiality of the past is matched by a lack of regard for the labour of people whose professions used to be highly respected: from my friends who work at universities, artists, the cultural precariat, to educators more generally, or transport and healthcare workers.

In September 2021 the famous Soviet and Ukrainian artist Florian Yuriev died. He was a multidisciplinary artist and educator who was always full of plans. He designed the crest of the city of Kyiv and the unique building everyone calls the “flying saucer.” This cosmic work of art can be found in western architectural catalogues, but in Ukraine that doesn’t win any points. In the final years of his life Yuriev, along with architects and artists of my generation, fought to keep his work from disappearing from the map of Kyiv. Now it’s surrounded on all sides by a shopping centre from one of the capital’s biggest builders. Yuriev even suggested integrating the “saucer” into the project as a compromise, but the value of the building, the authority of the artist, and the attractiveness of the new project mean nothing at all. The builder did whatever he wanted, counting on the fact that Yuriev was over 90 years old and sick.

The unknown past is strewn about; I see it in photos of the Soviet artisanal tile being torn down in metro stations, replaced by the cheapest thing possible, its only source of value its capacity to launder money. But alongside that something else is happening, something not very noticeable but extremely important: people come and collect the discarded tile, so that it can at least become part of an archive. Maybe my childhood longing for tradition has finally taken form – and the time has come to extend a hand to those who built this country half a century ago, to take from their hands what they managed to preserve in their time. And then the question of who I am will be more honest and, in all likelihood, will continue to surprise me.

Kyiv, November 2021.

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