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Photo of postcards from Moscow and Ukraine from the 1980s

”Thoughts on how my grandfather visited Ukraine 28 years before I did.” Joanna Urbańska, one of the In Between? participants, compares her experiences from Bukovina with those of her grandfather.

 

My grandfather had been a teacher and as such he went on a trip to Ukraine with a group of teenage boys. For him this was not holiday time. Being responsible for these children doubled the pressure that came with his first time being so far away from home and family. Moreover, the trip took place in August 1988, a year before the Polish transformation. His wife says: “These were the times of communism. And these riots...! Do you know how nervous I was here with children while he was, you know... And here there were riots all the time. If they would come back or not... When they were leaving, there weren't any riots, they began later here!” My grandfather and his group stayed in a pioneer camp in the woods near Kharkiv and their interactions with local inhabitants were limited. In fact, he states that: “There, you understand, I think it was forbidden to leave the camp. And we would sneak out through a hole in the fence..."

My encounter with Ukraine was very different, but in some ways also similar. The aim of our “In Between?” study visit in Bukovina was to carry out ethnographic research and for that contact with the local people was necessary. We had many more opportunities for such interactions, due to the mere fact of staying in a hotel situated almost at the heart of Chernivtsi. Even though I visited Western Ukraine, many people expressed their concerns, alarmed by the on-going Ukrainian-Russian war. My grandfather went on his trip during an unsteady time for Poland and I went on mine when the situation became rough for Ukraine. Both of us also experienced a language barrier, but he dealt with it a lot easier, having studied Russian at school.

What my grandfather probably remembered the most about his visit was the train ride itself. In a postcard that he sent from Moscow he wrote: “When I'm writing this letter we've already been travelling for 36 hours. I don't know how much is still ahead of us”. In the end their journey lasted 52 hours and included a whole day of waiting for the train from Moscow to Kharkiv. Their ride back followed the exact same route and took just as much time. I cannot compare these experiences to my own, but what I want to focus on is border crossing. When asked about the border, my grandfather recalls: “At that time it was all Russia. Everything was Russia. The Russians were ruling it all. Only afterwards, 10 or 15 years ago, did it fall into pieces…” Nevetheless, I can easily relate to his stories about border crossing, even though he was referring to the former Polish-USSR border. A man he met on the train told him: "They [the officers] have even taken my socks off, but I haven't washed [my feet] in a long time, so, whatever...". The story continued, in my grandfather’s own words: “They searched him everywhere. But when it came to us, they only asked us questions. In the past they used to control everyone very thoroughly, they searched everything. It wasn't appropriate for them to do that to the youngsters. They asked me what I had. I said: this and this. They searched us in no time and they were gone." When I was crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border I felt the situation was somewhat similar. I, being a Polish citizen, received smiles and polite questions from the officers. In the meantime, my fellow travellers with Ukrainian passports were treated rudely and their possessions were double-checked.

My grandfather tends not to differentiate between Russians and Ukrainians, he even uses the terms interchangeably. He speaks as if he was under the impression that the Soviet Union was in fact populated by Soviet people (though he strongly emphasizes the differences between them and the Poles). “One time they [the pioneers] asked me if we would play football with them. I asked the boys: ‘Are we going to play?’, and they answered: "Yes, we can". I hadn’t known that all of these boys who were there, played in Warta [football team in Poznań]. So we won 2:0. They [the pioneers] couldn't get over it for a week. They said we should play again and this time we won 3:0. They stopped speaking to us. A Russian man cannot be defeated, you understand. They were teaching them [the pioneers] that. Do you know what they were doing? They were given just a bit of food and nothing more, and they went hiking for 2-3 days with their guardian. It was a sort of a survival camp.”

On one hand my grandfather speaks of Soviets as a separate nation, but on the other he has some history knowledge that lets him distinguish between Russians and Ukrainians as separate groups. "Stalin murdered half of the people of Ukraine, you understand... You know, what he did? He took away all the food. There were obligatory deliveries, and when they [the Ukrainians] didn't give enough food, he sent there the police and whatever people had hidden, he took everything away from them. And people died of famine, some people... many people died of famine."

In his stories, my grandfather presents also a different image of Ukraine. He mentions that their group was under observation, which at the time they didn’t realize: "And you know, they were watching us, I didn't know that. We were on a sort of a ground floor and there was also a basement. And one girl had a nice toy, of this remote-controlled kind, you know. And she was standing on a kind of a balcony... And the toy was riding there, downstairs... Right away, out of nowhere, a guy appeared, you know, from that basement, and wanted to catch it. A moment later, two more appeared, grabbed him and he was gone. He disappeared, I don't know where he came from.” Surprisingly enough, my grandfather does not remember being scared of being under surveillance and more importantly, he comes up with an explanation: "People there were normal, very polite, you know... Elderly... Only they were worried about us, because it was Ukraine, you know, different kinds of rebels".

Surprisingly, Polish national narration that often portrays Ukrainians as “different kinds of rebels” was also a starting point for many arguments even between Polish and Ukrainian researchers in our Bukovinian “In Between?” group. Obviously, modern day Ukraine does not follow the invigilation practices of the USSR. I think that nowadays, not only is it right to distinguish between Russians and Ukrainians, but it is necessary. Being in Ukraine it is impossible to forget which country you are in. In Chernivtsi every pole on the side of the road was painted blue and yellow, and the national colours were omnipresent on cars, doors and fences.

In the eyes of my grandfather Ukraine of late 1980s was definitely a great and rich place. He remembers that the architecture struck him as very sophisticated and more technologically advanced: "There was a golden dome, you know... Golden! I don't know how it was made, but it was really golden"; "There were 16 [underground stations] and all covered in marble. Everything in marble, everything... It was retty". He also points out a wide range of goods that some shops had to offer: "They had a lot of toys, there was a lot of toys there. If here [in Poland] there weren't such toys, they were there [in Ukraine]." With some kind of pride he exclaims: "So you see, I am a man of the world. They [his relatives] were in the West, but I was in the East!" For him, in 1988, the East was the world.

I think that after the fall of the USSR, for many eastern Europeans “the world” moved to the West – Germany, France, USA. What I observed and felt during my study visit was a very strong emphasis put on Ukraine’s bond with the western part of the world. This can be especially seen in Bukovina which used to be under the Habsburg rule. That period is cherished and often referred to, as indicated by the German language courses and summer schools, and bilingual German-Ukrainian books.

The stories that I presented are just a little part of my grandfather’s memories from his trip, but I think they are the most relevant ones. My aim was to show how some phenomena that my grandfather encountered in 1988 are still present in Ukrainian reality as seen through the eyes of the Polish visitors, even though their context is completely different now. Of course, such processes are unavoidable since the world changes every day. However, no matter how much political, geographical or social contexts get altered, the memories stay the way they were. To my grandfather, Ukraine is still the place that he visited 28 years ago: he even e keeps using present tense while describing it. For me, this is a great example of the idea of being “in between”. We, as people, are constantly trying to balance the actual, objective contexts that are thrown upon us with our own feelings and beliefs. It is not so much a clash of ideas as it is an attempt to follow official narratives without losing personal experiences. In my opinion, to be in between is to respect differences, understand reality and stay loyal to one’s values.

 


 

Joanna Urbańska - an aspiring cultural anthropologist and Hebrew student at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Passionate traditional music singer and traveller. 

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