Growing up in the Soviet Union: a short story about Russia and Ukraine

I grew up in two places. One was Moscow, with its splendor of being a capital city, and the other place was in Ukraine, in its eastern part, where I spent first two years of my life and where I would go back each summer when I had my school holidays. It used to be one nation, it used to be one people. I remember how I inhaled the smokey area from the mines that was so present in a village near Donetsk, and how that smell brought me a sense of pleasure. It was a symbol for me of cosines, of deep friendships with my cousins, of a happy childhood that could be – when everyone grows up feeling the same, being friends with each other, regardless of the origins and the language spoken. It was a united place under the Soviet Union, where everyone had the same rights, the same benefits, food and the security of a great nation, where Armenians were friends with Georgians, where Ukraine and Russia were the same, where no one would ever imagine that sisters and brothers would fight a war on the opposite sides. One of my cousins lives near Donetsk (the ‘separatist’ area), the other lives right across the border in Russia, where tanks amass, and where no one understands how come that they have to fight each other.

When I would return each summer to the southern Russia, right across the border with Ukraine, it would take us an hour to reach the village One Four, close to Donetsk and Krasnodon, in the middle of the current separatist region, where the area was smoky from the mines, and where people would speak Russian but with a soft accent, that I inherited in my speech, because each summer I would be there, spending it with my grand-parents and my beloved cousins. We swam in the river Don, and we ate fried fish and pancakes in the evening. We would run around, and no one was thinking that this child was Ukrainian and this child was Russian. We were all the same, we were all the children of the Soviet Union, naïve in our beliefs that everyone had the same rights and the same privileges. Talking about Ukraine as a separate nation, a separate country, was unimaginable then. We were all friends, we were brothers and sisters.

The One Four settlement in the Eastern Ukraine that is now a separatist area was among my favourite places. It smelled of mines, a smell that I associated with happiness and a care-free life. Children could play outside whole day long, unrestricted in their movements and whereabouts. Together with my cousin we would walk around the settlement, picking pears and apples in the park, running with neighbourhood kids, to return to delicious pancakes or amazing fried fish made by my auntie. At weekend, if we were lucky, my uncle would take us sometimes to the river Don, a magnificent river where water was deliciously warm, and where instead of beaches, there were stretches of green grass, and one could jump into the water from not very high cliffs, and then climb back for another round. It was wild and so exciting, and made such a difference with a more regulated life back in Moscow. We would stay at my cousin’s house usually for a week during the summer holidays, and the rest of summer months were spent at my grand-parents across the border, where chickens would wake us up at five thirty, but we would promptly fall back asleep, to wake up to the sweet smell of pastries made by my grand-mum. The mornings would be spent on helping around the farm, such as picking up the weed or feeding the chickens, while in the afternoon we would run around the village, and swim in the narrow, small river, together with snakes. In the evening, together with other village’s children we would all assemble in the local park, light up a fire, and sing and dance around. After spending three months in such a paradise, it was always hard for me to get back to Moscow, because I missed Ukraine and Southern Russia.

It is especially painful to see people struggling there now, and it’s not because of the Soviet Union’s big past. We were the same people, one nation long before that. Denying us the right to be called One People is simply ignoring the history of a bigger nation, a greater past. Russia was born in Kiev, it was the capital city of the Big Rus. It was the same people, it was one nation, and a great nation at that. Different religions were welcome. Various languages could be spoken. It was embracing minorities and different walks of life. One of the princesses then, Anna, once she was married with a Western prince, sent a letter back from a ‘civilized’ western land. She could write the letter, but her aristocratic husband, a prince, could only sign it with a big letter. He couldn’t even write. Rus was prosperous and educated. It was a big nation, with a big heart.

It is devastating to see people, nations, languages and faiths being turned against each other, all at once, in a nation with such a great, honorable past.

‘We have to take sides!’ – Everyone seems to be proclaiming without actually realising that the only side which can bring a peaceful solution is to recognise the great past. And despite the fact that the Soviet Union became associated with something bad, I remember how fun it was to grow up there. I was born there, and I was taught equality, great friendships, respect for each other, and acceptance of other lands, faiths, and walks of life. I grew up loving all races, languages, and belief systems.

When I see all these people turning against each other, becoming enemies after centuries of being friends, I can only cry. Half of my family is in Ukraine, while the other is in Russia. I remember how I envied my cousin who went to school in Ukraine and could speak Ukrainian. It could never cross my mind that one language is better than another, or that one nation has more reasons to exist than someone else. Yes, the Ukrainian language is beautiful, but so is Russian, and it was all the same, before a movement of Cossacks claimed a separatist way in the old Rus. Catherine The Great brought it all back together. It became again a Great Rus, with new cities, such as Odessa, being created to memorize the way of a great nation, a great, same land.

Yes, claiming that it’s all different is denying both Ukrainians and Russians the great past. It is ignoring how much efforts was put into making it a beautiful, unique land, where different languages were welcome, and where one had respect for each other. Ukraine and Russia were never really separate lands until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and all the disasters the fall would bring with it. Without its strong bulk of unity, other countries, other lands started to fight, because the collapse of the Soviet Union brought wild capitalism to all other lands. Capitalism is an ideology, a set of beliefs, imposed on us now as if it’s a must, where as children we already grow up thinking that some are better than others, that some can have a better education, a better healthcare system, and a better life. The Soviet Union, however, was based in equality and it was a great and prosperous land. Each summer I would go to my beloved Ukraine, which was the same country, and the same land, and it was, oh, so welcoming and friendly, and together with my cousins we would play, run around and laugh. Growing up as a child thinking that everyone is equal is a past I will never deny myself.

When I think of that days in the past, I experience ‘toska’. It’s a Russian word that is difficult to translate into English. Toska is a dwelling, a dwelling for the old good days, and I dwell a lot because the current tension between Ukraine and Russia, brings to me the memories of how it could be: children happily playing on the street, several languages spoken with freedom, people being kind to each other, despite the country of the origin or a language one speaks. I love Russia, but I also love Ukraine, and things were so different in still quite recent past.

Once, upon a time, there was a great nation with a great outlook at life. It envisioned that everyone should be equal, that everyone should receive education, have access to good medical care, and never be homeless, without any support, understanding and love.

with my Ukrainian cousin at the border between Russia and Ukraine

2 thoughts on “Growing up in the Soviet Union: a short story about Russia and Ukraine

  1. We might imagine, possibly rightly, that all the peoples of Earth once lived on the planet in peace. At least, relative peace. Then at some point, or perhaps several different points, something happened. Some ideas were introduced that “we are the chosen ones and should rule all the world.” Some peoples were given aggressive or belligerent ways. We can continue to believe that this happened “naturally” or as a part of “human evolution.” But I do not share that view. I think someone came here and put those ideas in people’s heads. Those people were stupid to accept such ideas, but they were enticed and succumbed. This is still the pattern today. The truth is that we all are cousins and should be able to live as such. That we must fight is a lie. We must find the ones spreading that lie and quiet them or ignore them. They are not in their right minds.

    Liked by 1 person

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