Thursday, 4 September 2008

My Ukranian soul

I have decided that really telling people that I am Russian, which I normally do, is too misleading. To say that I am Ukrainian makes a lot more sense. Although it doesn't make the usual description of my origin a lot easier.

The usual drill is of course that I am Russian, born and raised in Estonia, living in England with a British passport (and an English hubby:). Yes, I do have to go through such a lengthy description because if I simply say 'I am Russian', which I used to do in the past, people make big eyes, smile in that kind of 'ohh, something a bit different' way and ask 'where from in Russia?!' If the enquirer happens to be born outside the European land, I am a lot likelier to then have to go into the whole Soviet Union used to be one big Russia thing...tiring, for me and for them.

I am in Lviv now - the beautiful and dusty city in the west of Ukraine full of girls with unbearably high hills, desperate for some male care, in all senses of this word..The city has belonged to so many countries in the last century that to say it has one definite identity is impossible. It has the Austrian-German architecture, Polish food, Russian self-importance and a definite Ukrainian pride. I had never been in the western part of Ukraine, in spite of spending numerous summers in Ukraine when growing up (with my mum's family in Nikolaev, and my dad's relatives in Crimea - all very Russian parts of the country). I am fascinated by how strong the sense of the nation you experience here. All around you people speak - sing really - Ukrainian. You can address people in Russian on the streets, but only just about. I can't say I feel hostility, I don't, but you feel quite clearly that this is a country with a different history and different future from the big Mother-Russia next door.

God, I would like to give you an deep, philosophical and analytical, description of the political and historical intricacies of Ukraine, but I can't. What I can do is to say a few words about my feelings; and what I am experiencing right now is something quite curious, something I'd like to observe and watch for the next few weeks, both from outside and inside.

I stopped feeling like at home in Estonia a long time ago; well, let's be frank, I never felt like at home there, for various reasons, many of which were and are self-inflicted. Now when I go back I am interested in talking to Russians about their attitudes towards Estonians. Albeit, it is a very sensitive and volatile subject which I can't handle well yet. Now that I've travelled through Latvia and Lithuania, having spoken to some of the 'ingenious' people I started getting a bigger picture (hm, not that I ever believed in the 'rightness' of Russia..). I don't feel I know a lot more about the complex history of this region, but I feel I ought to ask will sound pathetic to you, but I can finally see that you can't really experience a country without trying to understand its history - and its present too of course.

Going back to Ukraine. I stumbled across an absolute gem of a museum in Lviv today. It's called The museum of religions. You'll be interested to know that up until about 1986 it was a Museum of atheism. Lovely, isn't it? It is a usual dusty, Soviet style museum that displays dry facts, expecting visitors to know what things under the glass mean, but then I started looking a bit deeper and I uncovered all sorts of interesting things.

I asked the little old lady why the name of the museum had been changed. After some hesitation she told me (in great secret) that really this was the only way to survive. Atheists are not well regarded in the country, and even 20 years ago were not. The museum used to be a lot larger, in fact the joined Dominican church was part of it, but now they've separated and are fighting for who's going to keep what (apparently, many churches treat icons in an appalling way, painting them artificially, hence completely ruining them).

There was a large display - forgotten and very badly lit - full of such artifacts as letters written to the big daddy Stalin in the 1940's by Orthodox religious figures urging him to 'assist' them in getting the pesky Catholic (Polish) churches in Ukraine to convert, to 'go back' to the Russian Orthodox church; how it was vital to 'encourage' catholic nuns to move into Orthodox monasteries...there was a letter from the main man, Orthodox Pope equivalent, addressing the Catholic leaders in Ukraine, saying how sad he was to see such separation between the churches and that, really, practices were very similar anyway, so why don't you just 'come back' to the friendly Orthodox 'party'.

What's all this got to do with my declaring to be a Ukrainian?? Well, obviously, it is not that I have decided to become a Ukrainian patriot, but as very popular here Carry from Sex and the City says 'it got me thinking'...on the one hand I feel warm and so homey here (the Ukrainian speech and quiet little babushkas all around me remind me of my mum, and even my peasant grandmother Katyusha, make me melancholic and tearful), on the other hand I feel a certain connection to the big black mess created by my predecessors in the wide Slav land. Did I mention that my granddad had been a KGB major?

All a lot of fun. I promise to stop just writting and put lots of pictures next time, 'cos food here is f*cking fantastic, my comrades!

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