It was a long time ago… Well, maybe not in those wondrous days of yore when absolutely anyone, without exception, could simply buy a train ticket and pop into any Ukrainian city—without any invitations, passes, proof of familial relations to the seventh generation, or a busload of verification papers. Not then. That fairy-tale life was over. Our story happened after 2014.
You could still feel tension, but it was on the wane. So, the residents of both countries gradually recovered from the initial shock and resumed their cross-border travel. They went to visit family and friends, to find work, while some even went to study. Sure, not all of them, but still quite a few.
That’s how one wonderful Ukrainian fellow named Taras ended up here in Russia.
His parents belonged to those Ukrainians who were quite well disposed towards Russia. They were born in the byegone era when both Russia and Ukraine, in addition to a whole bunch of other currently independent states, were united in one country. In turn, their own parents (that is, Taras’s grandmas and grandpas), like any other old-school folks, didn’t understand and resented the disintegration and disorder of the post-Soviet times. They kept thinking that no matter what, all those peoples are just as good as anyone else. As for the “rich and powerful,” they should take care of their problems themselves. That’s the ideology they used to bring up the new generations in their family.
They didn’t fully understand what actually happened in 2014, either. Truth be told, there were many people like them at the time. Well, we have to say—there were many others, too. As it happens, everything gets messed up during any crisis. But to them it was a pity that Russia all of a sudden became a hostile country far beyond their reach. They also dearly loved their Ukraine. And they waited for all that mess to dissipate and things return to normal. A simple Ukrainian family… The vast majority of families are like them. All they want is to live a peaceful life, that’s all. Far removed from political squabbles of any sorts.
We should also add here that they were practicing Orthodox Christians who attended services at the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church—the one that naturally commemorates our Patriarch Kirill. And it was the church where Fr. N, a good friend of mine, served. I am not too sure now if I can openly speak of him or anything in light of the recent events. What times we are living through!
So, the life back then went on as usual. The shock of 2014, like I said, was gradually forgotten. The people lived as before, prayed, worked, helped around the church as much as they could, took care of the gardens at their dachas, planting and gathering the harvest, and then conserving it for the winter. They kept things simple and straightforward in life.
That’s how we, the humans, are. We assume that if bad things happen to others, it can’t ever happen to us. It simply can’t, and that’s that
Sure, they heard in the news, of course, that Donbass was being bombed somewhere. But it was as if far away from them. Somehow, it just wasn’t their business… But that’s what all of us are like. We assume that if bad things happen to others, it surely won’t ever happen to us. It simply can’t, and that’s that…
Taras went to study at a university someplace in Russia. His university was known to offer a top-notch training in the area of his interests. Besides, they had relatives living nearby who had settled there a long time ago.
He studied with the long-range goal of finding a job in Russia and applying for a permanent resident status later. He wasn’t sure what red tape he would have to overcome, but there seemed to be a chance to have it approved. He definitely thought of visiting his parents and friends back in Ukraine. And vice versa.
Who could imagine what the future had in store for all of us…
While studying, he met Irina, also a student. She was a local, Russian by nationality.
At first they simply hung out together or bumped into one another at student parties, and later became friends. As it happens, they soon fell in love. A typical love story about two students, for there’s nothing better than being young! Who cares for nationalities, citizenship, or borders—love knows no borders.
They dated and their love grew stronger. They realized they wanted to be together forever.
The time came when Taras went to meet Ira’s parents. He made an official proposal.
This is not to say that her parents were delighted to meet their daughter’s future husband at first. A foreigner, so to speak. But how nice it would have been if he were British, or German, or French. Well, as a minimum, he could be some shabby Pole (at worst!). It would definitely materialize into a bright European future for their precious offspring.
As for this one… Hmmm, he is neither one of ours nor one of theirs! A “subforeigner,” overall. Not to mention that his country is rather poor as well. On top of that, he is originally from some backcountry sleepy town. He even has that Ukrainian accent… Neither one thing nor another, a foreigner only in name… Anyway, that’s what they thought of him. They were ordinary, stereotypical folks.
But that was at first. Taras easily and swiftly charmed them. He was a smart, business-oriented, good-looking, and gallant young man; but what’s more important, he wanted to have a family. I think that generally one of the distinctive traits of a Ukrainian man is that he is driven to marry and start a family.
Initially, Irina was only able to speak to his parents on the phone. Then they paid them a visit. It didn’t take long for the representatives of the older generation to find common ground, and everything was going really well. Soon, another Russian-Ukrainian family unit was formed in our land. Don’t we have plenty of them here?
The only thorny issue left unsolved was a church wedding. Ira’s family wasn’t religious at all, but Taras’s family insisted. But even that problem was settled. They got married in church. What won’t you do for the sake of love!
Everything that happened to them before and after their marriage was pretty much trivial. They graduated from the institute and became employed, took a loan and purchased an apartment. They even got a cat. They held off having kids, though.
Taras received his permanent residency, soon followed by his new citizenship. He seemed to have found in Russia his happily-ever-after. It surprised no one. Again, there were so many like him there. He even lost his Ukrainian accent. He was assimilated.
He returned to his hometown with his young wife for a visit. Everyone was happy to see them, including his friends, family, and former parishioners.
He seemed to have found in Russia his happily-ever-after.
All they did back in Ukraine was visit people, day in and day out. A kebab cookout here, an “ukha” fish soup there, and moonshine with a homemade cherry liqueur in between. Mmmm, that drink is so-o-o good! Next, they’d taste some “real” homemade pork fat, or “real” Ukrainian ratatouille-style garlicky eggplants, or a meal of crucian carp with a large tub of mixed salad. For some reason Ukrainian women like to cook everything in big bunches and have food served in large tubs. And it’s beyond words how tasty everything is. I myseld know. It’s not simply local cuisine; it’s a disaster for the waistline.
Then, they’d take time to enjoy a steam bath and later spend hours lounging long past midnight inside a friend’s backyard. Talking, remembering the past and making plans for their bright future. Ira even managed to become a godmother of someone’s baby at Fr. N’s church. Longing for a Russian-born sponsor, her husband’s friends invited Irina to baptize their child.
To tell you the truth, his parents even took offence at them. It was like, they came to visit them, but they never saw them at home. They only came home to sleep. Alas, such is life… And when it was time to go back to Russia, Taras’s mom would pile up treats and gifts to take home with them.
“Mom, please, not too much,” Taras would plead with her.
“Sure, hon, just a tiny bit… Who said it’s a lot?.. Just a couple of tomatoes from the garden…”
A couple of tomatoes would mysteriously turn into of dozens of home-canned jars, loads of freshly gathered goodies from mama’s garden, and tons of saloi that had to somehow be packed neatly inside their luggage. That salo had to be wrapped really carefully so it wouldn’t smell and stir the customs officers’ curiosity. It was prohibited for export, you know… But they went to get Fr. N’s blessing, and he even held a prayer service for travelers, so the customs officers acted as if they suddenly went blind or lost any sense of smell.
His mother would also come for a visit. Her arrivals were quite occasions. As soon as the train stopped next to the platform, this matronly woman would triumphantly emerge from her third-class sleeper. Following her would be a whole gang of jolly, tipsy guys who, escorted by the conductor, would be dragging along her endless sacks, boxes, and huge shopping bags. We have to clarify: the conductors weren’t tipsy, no way! They were on duty, after all. But they looked quite contented.
Next it would become clear that during the train ride, Taras’s mom was busy treating half the railway car along with the attendants with her provisions and liqueurs. In return, all of them worked hard to help her hide all of that bounty away from the watchful eyes of the customs officers. So, everyone seemed to have enjoyed their time together.
Once at their place, they’d first enjoy a sumptuous feast, followed by a deep housecleaning that she would always start immediately upon arrival:
“But what can those young ones do themselves…”
Plus, she kept asking for grandkids. Well, somehow they were able to make do with just having one kitty—who quickly realized that Taras’s mom, guided solely by her grandmotherly instincts and due to the lack of a grandchild, would stuff him, Tishka the cat, to the gills. And it would be something a lot more exciting than that sickeningly familiar cat food. So, he’d come purring and circling around feet. Then he’d stare at her as if he, a shameless, eight-kilo beast of a cat, was starved to death by his monstrous owners.
Then a grandson named Seryozha was finally born. But that was later.
All in all, they lived in peace and friendship and had it good. Both of his parents cherished the dream that one more month and they will see their children (or maybe they will be able to visit them in Russia) and the long-awaited grandchild. They haven’t seen him yet. Maybe, three more months to wait… They’ve already waited for so long.
There will come another summer, with its lazy sunny days, the easy swimming in the river, and the relaxed life at their dacha. A Ukrainian grandma will finally be able to feed her grandson. He is definitely thin as a rail. Naturally, he is! Her daughter-in-law is surely clueless as to how to feed her grandbaby right.
Then, she will take him to meet Fr. N. She will show off her grandson to everyone: Look, mine is the best of them all… The smartest, the most handsome, and the best-fed grandchild in the whole world! Not to mention that he is a shining example of all kinds of virtues… Now all those grannies at church will have to quit teasing her as they did before: “You, Petrovna, are an oddity, everyone around has grandkids except you…”
The arrival of the pandemic spoiled all those glorious plans…
The borders were closed, the people were stuck inside their homes; but even when the pandemic was on the wane, no one knew whether they were allowed to travel or not. Maybe they could, but not as a family, or maybe their son could, but a grandchild couldn’t, or maybe no one was allowed… They spent two years worrying and wondering and still unable to see either their son or their grandson.
Then, both of Taras’s parents got sick, and they were hit hard due to their advanced age. So, even if the borders were opened, they wouldn’t be able to travel due to health issues…
But they kept on dreaming of seeing their only grandson. They cherished the dream and kept asking for him to come. It wasn’t like Taras didn’t want to, either. He was allowed to travel across the border as a first-degree relative. But his son—he was too young to travel without his mommy. Again, it was far from certain that he’d be allowed to enter Ukraine. Maybe if he were to travel by car… But then again, some drivers were being turned back at the border crossings.
He went to see them on his own in the fall, just a few months ago. He brought photos and videos with him. They were also able to Skype with Ira and little Seryozhka. But really, how can you satisfy the insatiable Grandma-Grandpa love with this Skype thing! Well, it seemed like the pandemic was almost over. Lord willing, another year, and Ira with her son will finally make it there to see the old folks. The thought of their future meeting consoled them as they dealt with the problems of poor health and old age.
Taras got together with his old friends, like he always did before. They ate and drank like in the old days, and made plans. The ate the same tasty food and held the same hours-long conversations. He brought the gifts to Ira’s godson and his parents, who enjoyed them greatly.
He also attended services at his former parish. Everyone was as happy to see him as before, because they’d known him since childhood. He would answer questions about life in Russia. Sometimes he was asked amicably while some others looked askance. But everywhere people are different …
His homestay was over and Taras had to return to Russia. He kissed his parents and promised that they would meet again real soon…
Two-or-three months hadn’t even passed since their last meeting… A mere two or three months… They hadn’t even finished off his mama’s goodies when everything that was so real only yesterday suddenly disappeared and sank into oblivion. Or, could it be that the here and now of today is a hellish illusion?..
The ground moaned… The people froze, paralyzed with horror. They took a breath, unable to breathe out. Next, what previously seemed impossible—or if possible, then for someone else or only for those far away—frightfully steamrolled over both countries.
Life as we knew it was over, becoming an unreal, illusory dream
“Damn you, scum,” Irina read in a message she got from her godson’s father. “And your son with you!”
It was written by the same man who only a few years ago asked her to become godmother to his child and enjoyed the gifts she sent. “Thank you, sweetie,” he would text her back, adding a heart emoji… He was the one they shared food and drinks with, sitting around the table. They also sang songs together, both Russian and Ukrainian…
“We’ll shoot you like a mad dog,” a second cousin texted Taras from Ukraine, “if you dare to come here again.”
They used to break bread with him, his blood kin… Now that Mishka was mobilized, he hated Taras because he was living in Russia. He also hates Russia fiercely, like poison.
Mishka’s mom also called Taras’s mom to curse her. Why her? Well, for nothing, it’s just that her son married a Russian girl and lives there… So, he is an enemy… They broke bread with her too… A close family…
Then there was another cousin, Victor, from Donbass. He was Mishka’s cousin, too. Victor fights for his land, arms in hand. Brother against brother… Are we or are they sleeping, or is it for real? Will we ever be able to wake up from this nightmare?
As for Russia, one of Taras’s neighbors, Vova, is in the military. A grown-up man. He used to help them with anything they needed to fix around the house. He is about to be sent there… He asked Taras to go to church with him on the eve of departure. It was his first-ever church visit. Teary-eyed, he stood next to the icons. Soldiers also cry.
“We are closing the church,” the women helping around the church told him. “Come back tomorrow for the service.”
“I am not going to be here tomorrow. I… I will be gone tomorrow…”
So, Taras and the church women are praying for soldier Vladimir. Just yesterday, he was completely unaware of the future dawning upon him. Neither were the rest of us.
Back in Ukraine, there was also Van’ka, his childhood friend. They were classmates, next-door neighbors, and together they attended Fr. N’s church. Once Taras moved away, Van’ka used to visit him in Russia. He was mobilized, too.
As soon as everything started in Ukraine, his parents quit coming to Fr. N’s church. How could they if he commemorated the Patriarch, their enemy! But Van’ka always treated Fr. N as if he was his daddy. So, he came to him in secret: “Pray for me, tell me what I should do…”
But what could Fr. N tell him if he himself was overcome by fear and heartache? When his parish, so united only yesterday, was painfully ripped apart? There was one day when batiushka said during the sermon that all of us should pray and seek repentance. Some of his parishioners took his words about repentance as treason: “Us? What for?” They got mad and left, showering curses at those who stayed behind…
“May the Lord keep you from harm!” was all he told Ivan. “Pray. Try not to get killed or to kill someone else…”
That was all…
Taras is praying, too. He prays that his brothers Mishka and Victor, and his friends Vovka and Van’ka, fighting on different sides of the front line, never meet one another and won’t have to shoot at each other…
This is life… The life we could only read about in novels like Sholokhov’s, And Quiet Flows the Don. We were shocked and terrified, yet we still didn’t believe how it could be for real…
Taras’s parents were too scared to step outside…
At first, they were afraid of those who just yesterday were friends but suddenly had grievances about their Russian daughter-in-law. They also held it against them that their son had become a Russian citizen. Not everyone, of course, but a minority. As for others, they might have also harbored resentment but they kept them to themselves. While some others instead reassured them. People are different everywhere, right? But it is also true that, despite our differences, we are oh-so astonishingly alike.
Then, they got scared because the sounds of fighting grew louder… So, everyone hid in the basements without any electricity, water, or food. Their little children stuttered and wet their pants out of fear. No one could believe that it wasn’t all just a bad dream… It is happening to them today, right now… How could that be?!
Then, the phone connection was cut off… That’s when life became a living nightmare for Taras. How are they? What’s going on there? Are they alive? Judging by the news—they were right at the delimitation line. No chance to step outside, no chance to leave the area. And the phones went dead… As he kept trying to dial their number, pressing those buttons on his phone, he knew that the damn phone will remain silent; yet he kept on calling them anyway…
He also listened to what others were talking about. For some, all was plain and clear to see. Taras saw it plain and clear, too. But those others didn’t have anyone there. He had his mom and dad there… So, for him, all people were now divided among those who had it all plain and clear to see and those who had family left in Ukraine. For the latter group it was far more complicated…
A father is being buried, but his son can’t be there… Unable to pay his last respects… Grandpa never met his long-awaited grandson… Will his Grandma live to see him? Will she?..
“Did your call get through?”
“We couldn’t connect, either… We have a granny there, she can’t walk…”
“Our family is on their way! They are out!”
“Ours are still there!”
“Mine are crying and pleading: “Pray for us!”
“Taras, my son… Papa died…”
The phone worked, but it’d be better if it didn’t… His father had died. No, it wasn’t a bullet or an explosion. It’s now quiet where they are, and it seems that no one died. Someone stages protests on the streets but no one arrests them, thanks be to God… Yes, not much available in the local stores. Those who have dachas are doing alright. All those canned goods. Besides, everyone is sharing… The medicine is gone—that’s really bad.
Taras’s father had been sick for some time. His heart failed him.
“We will bury him… Batiushka will help, son. Just don’t you try to come. Please, don’t come…”
But how could he come anyway?.. His father is being buried and he can’t be there… He can’t pay his last respects… How can it be?.. A grandpa who never met his long-awaited grandson… Will Grandma live to see him? Will she?.. O Lord!
Taras is crying into his pillow. A healthy, young man crying like a little boy… He wants to believe, but he can’t believe… He wishes he could forget everything, get drunk and unconscious and then wake up… But no, he isn’t dreaming.
Like a long-gone dream was the time when they, he and his wife, were sitting at the table with their Ukrainian friends, drinking that cherry liqueur and singing those songs. Kebabs, Ukrainian dumplings, a steam bath… Apricot and mulberry trees towering high around them… How they asked Ira to be a godmother… Those long evenings they spent together, when no one wanted to leave, and how they loved one another and enjoyed each other’s company…
His second cousin Mishka (Taras used to visit him in western Ukraine) has also vanished like a dream. How they went swimming in the river, fought and made up… They dreamed about how they would visit one another once they grow up…
His cousin Vit’ka, gone like a dream… Is he alive?
His friend Van’ka—also a dream… His childhood friend who couldn’t even fight properly…
Vovka who helped them fix the sink. Vanished, too…
Fr. N… His beloved batiushka… And our parish, so warm and welcoming… Where everyone loved one another. How they teased his mom: “So, what’s up with you, no grandkids, huh?” A dream…
His dad also became a dream. A big, strong man… Carrying him, still a young boy, on his shoulders so that he could see a local Victory Day parade. A small provincial parade but how important it was for everyone around… Or here he is as a smiling old man… His grandson finally born… Finally! He’ll see him real soon… And he’ll hug his only grandson… And he’ll live long thereafter…
His mom, with her sacks of goodies, leaving the train carriage:
“But what can that daughter-in-law really cook!”
Keep talking, dear mommy, anything you want, don’t stay silent… A dream…
Taras is sleeping and all of that is just a dream… May his dream never stop, please, come back… Only don’t disappear…
But the earth groans… The people take a breath unable to breathe out… A wave of terror bears down like a steamroller. When will it stop? Will it ever?.. Will it go back to normal?.. Only God knows…