Back to My Birthplace: Visiting Ukraine
This summer I embarked upon a trip to Ukraine with the Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies at Miami University where I am pursuing a Master’s in Poetry. I had conflicted feelings about traveling back to the Ukraine, as it is my birthplace and my family and I were forced to flee Kharkiv (back then known as Kharkov) in 1989.
During this time, the Perestroika allowed for Russian Jews to exit the country as refugees due to the impeding dangers of anti-Semitism. Most Jews who have re-located to the US from republics of the former Soviet Union (especially the older generations) do not show any interest in going back to visit their “homeland .” The irony of this, of course, is that the country no longer exists as a whole.
When prompted, most first generation immigrants acknowledge the beauty and wonder of their birthplace, but dismiss it as something they have already “lived” and do not need to see again. This goes as far as people of Eastern European descent losing complete interest in preserving their native language when it comes to things such as raising children. I have always been shocked and in some ways appalled by this.
I took a brief tour of Kiev while on a Russian Jewish expedition several years ago and did not think that I received an adequate picture of the place where I was born. This summer I finally decided to go back, and while I would like to report that my childhood nostalgia was reinforced with a new love for Ukraine, I think what I came away with is more confusion.
On our excursion we visited three cities: Lviv, Kiev and Odessa. Due to the current political climate, Ukraine functions on what has been coined the “bumble bee” principle. That is, given the limited amount of resources and cultural divides, Ukraine as a separate entity is working against the odds for its survival. What I saw was a mix of various socio-political conditions. Kiev, which falls more in the center of Ukraine is still reminiscent of the Soviet Union. The city is completely overwhelmed with baroque-style churches. It bustles with new-age diners where tall and sternly capped ladies serve borscht and Pierogi to anyone with the equivalent of a few bucks.
The women dress provocatively and the men are for the most part, unnoticeable. We stayed in a small bed and breakfast in front of the National Opera House, which despite its beauty, had porta potty-like facilities. Lviv was perhaps the most beautiful of the three cities, but is heavily monopolized by the Ukrainian Nationalist party, “Svoboda.” We were informed by our guide that in this part of Ukraine, it is preferable to speak English rather than Russian. Lviv has narrow cobblestone streets, a Gothic style Opera House. Right next to our hotel, a hookah bar with topless girls sitting on the stage was just one of the many attractions.
Odessa was the most diverse of the three cities, but as soon as we were able to get from the train station onto the main streets, I was overwhelmed by a man aggressively swearing at someone on his cell phone. The man was half naked, covered in tattoos, clearly drunk and battling it out to prove that he was not an idiot to whomever was on the other end of the line. Odessa is a party town. The beachfront has more eye candy (and I don’t mean this in the traditional sense) than any place I have ever been. It really is an amalgam of sensations: old ladies sell home-made crafts on side benches; half naked girls dance next to mascots; photo opps with birds, snakes, and sports cars; young adult males munching on cotton candy.
My advice to anyone who chooses to visit Ukraine (at this time) is to leave any expectations at the border, and since Ukraine is known as the Borderland (its borders are constantly changing), perhaps better advice would be to withhold expectations. The cities of Ukraine are rich in architecture, food, and party life. The general climate is still racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic. The only city in Ukraine where I saw a person of color was Odessa, and this was only because Odessa was founded on some of the same principles as the United States. This land has suffered much from purging those who made it truly cosmopolitan.
Another piece of advice, which some of us will have remembered from being born in the former Soviet Union: bring toilet paper. It is scarce.