When I think of Ukraine – an ancient but new country wedged between the Black Sea, Russia, and six smaller states of the former Soviet Union -- I remember first the beauty of the people and the landscape. Only then do its recent troubles surface in my memory.
I remember the clever, smiling faces of two ambitious teenage girls we got to know. I remember the robust older women, the babushkas, red-cheeked and bright-eyed in their bulky clothes and colorful kerchiefs, selling souvenirs, bottled water, and lottery tickets, sometimes sweeping, raking, cleaning, doing what they needed to live.
I remember sailing into Yalta’s wide bay, gazing on the forested mountains descending to the white crescent of the city. I remember when our boat emerged from a high-walled concrete and steel lock on the Dnieper River into a wide lake surrounded by windblown farmlands. I remember the gilded magnificence of the domed Orthodox cathedrals of St. Sophia and St. Michael in Kiev.
I remember the view from the top of the 192 Potemkin Steps that descended from the Baroque old city of Odessa down to the modern port on the Black Sea, the panorama spoiled only by the gawky hotel tower built by the Communists on a graceless pier extending into the sea.
I remember discovering Chekhov’s little white house in Yalta, surrounded by the trees and flowerbeds of his garden, and then walking through its crowded rooms, past his desk, his chair, his clothes, his family photographs. I remember the beauty of a middle-aged actress, bright shawl slung around her shoulders, acting out scenes from Chekhov’s plays a few steps from the house in which he wrote them.
I remember the autumn foliage growing brighter and more colorful as we traveled north from the sea and the Crimean peninsula to the capital city of Kiev. I remember views of villages and small Orthodox churches, often surrounded by clusters of gold, orange, and red trees. I remember the daring athletic prowess of the Zaporozhian Cossacks leaping and twisting on their powerful galloping horses.
I remember hiking down seaside cliffs to the Greek colony of Cheronese, then making our way on ancient cobblestones between the remains of stone buildings, white-capped waves beating at the shore beyond. And I remember the pure, simple, modern lines of large Neolithic statues representing the serene and wise Mother Goddess, before violent male gods usurped her.
I remember the long, curving street of Andrew’s Descent as it made its way down from the old town of Kiev, passing houses centuries old, St. Andrew’s church poised on an outcropping, scores of vendors (selling souvenirs, clothes, family heirlooms, and art), two small museums in historic houses, a zigzagging flight of wrought iron steps rising to a small park and viewpoint over the city, and finally near the bottom the unique Museum of One Street, dedicated to the colorful and varied history of this street.
I remember Sunday afternoon in a children’s playground on a hill near the Ukraine History Museum in Kiev, scores of young children romping and tumbling with their parents on elaborate play structures, climbing on and crawling under and over and sliding down giant animals and freeform shapes. I especially remember a small boy taking photographs of his parents with his father’s cell phone, all of them grinning with complete joy.
I remember the beauty I saw in the hopeful, even optimistic, expressions of the men and women I met and talked with. They were uncertain how their country was going to proceed and despaired of the brainpower and talent that is fleeing Ukraine (as it is all of the former Soviet bloc countries), but despite the difficulties and frustration, the tenacity of their belief in their country was beautiful.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press.
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