I have always been fascinated by Soviet history. I grew up at a time when the Iron Curtain was firmly drawn and what lay on the other side was beyond the bounds of my imagination. I have a dim recollection of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the tiny glimpses of the Soviet capital that the TV coverage allowed. But I was just a child then and my interest in the country’s history and politics were yet to emerge.
I first travelled to the Soviet Union in 1989 on an organised tour shortly before embarking on my Russian degree at university. Flying low over the countryside on the approach to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, I remember seeing mile after mile of forest. “Oh, so they have trees in the Soviet Union,” I naively thought to myself. (Duh! Of course there are trees, Russia’s covered in trees!).
Until that moment, anything beyond the images I had seen of Red Square or the Olympic stadium felt utterly unknown. The whole country seemed such a closed world that I had no way of picturing it at all. I still feel the same way about North Korea today – it is sealed off so completely that I cannot imagine what it looks like.
Back in 1989 I knew nothing of my family still living in Soviet Ukraine. I did not even know that I had cousins there, descendants of my great-grandfather’s siblings, who remained in Kiev after most of my grandmother’s family emigrated to the west in the early 20th century.
Two years later I returned to the Soviet Union as a student, for a year-long immersion into Russian language and culture in the city of Voronezh. I arrived, part of a group of 30 students from British universities, just days after the failed Communist coup of August 1991 against Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform agenda of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’. Less than four months into my stay, the Soviet Union was dissolved, leaving its previously united republics in a state of chaos and disintegration.
Some time after my arrival in Voronezh, a large envelope arrived in the post from my father. It contained a series of family trees, an envelope with an address in Kiev, and an old photograph of a mother with her two daughters. These are your cousins, the accompanying letter said, you can look on the family tree to see how you are related. You could try to get in touch.
Dad had received the address and photo from my grandmother’s cousin Claire in Philadelphia. Claire had visited the Soviet Union back in the 1960s and made contact with another cousin, Sulamia, in Kiev – the photo now in my possession was taken during that visit, of Sulamia (Claire knew her as Sveta, her Soviet name) with her children Irina (Ira) and Miloslava (Mila). For some years after her visit, Claire had sent parcels of clothes and food to the family in Kiev, but eventually lost contact.
I wrote a letter and introduced myself. Some weeks later I bought a train ticket to Kiev – well, not literally. It was impossible to buy a ticket from Voronezh to Kiev. First, I bought a ticket for the overnight train to Moscow, 500km to the north, which deposited me at the capital’s Paveletsky station at 6am the next day. From there I headed across town to Kievsky station and queued for a ticket to travel 900km southwest to Kiev, leaving that evening and arriving the following morning. It was a long and convoluted route to travel 600km due west. I don’t recall what I did all day in Moscow between the two train journeys.
Once in Kiev I made a phone call to the number Claire had sent to my Dad, and asked for Sveta. My cousin Ira remembers that my call took her aback. She recalls a foreign voice on a crackly line asking to speak to her mother, who had died two years previously. It was upsetting for her to have to explain that Sveta had passed away. My phone call came out of the blue, she says, she hadn’t received my letter – perhaps I didn’t send one after all; perhaps it got lost in the post, a common occurrence at the time.
It took a while to find the address. It was January 1992, just a couple of weeks after the Soviet Union had been disbanded, and already street names in Kiev were changing from Russian to Ukrainian. The map I bought had the new Ukrainian names, while the road signs still had the Russian versions. It was all very confusing. But at last, I found the right building and knocked on the door, my heart pounding with nerves.
There I met Ira, then in her late 30s, her husband Sergei, father Mark and two children, Alyosha and Masha – it was usual for three generations to live together in small Soviet apartments. Ira called her sister Mila to come over, and the two women disappeared to the kitchen, conferring in whispers. When they emerged, they told me they were both in agreement. They knew as soon as they set eyes on me that I was family. “You look just like our cousin who lives in Odessa,” they said. Ira wrote to me later in a letter, “You have Unikow eyes” – Unikow being the family name that unites us. Old family photographs confirm that this is undeniably true.
I made a second visit to Kiev in early summer that year. Once again, the letter I sent from Voronezh failed to arrive and Ira was out of town. Mila took me back to her little apartment on the left bank of the River Dnieper, shared with her husband Grisha, daughter Yulia and Grisha’s parents.
Over the days that followed, they showed me some of the sights of Kiev then took me to their dacha in the country – a rustic wooden house with a garden where they grew vegetables. We travelled there in a tiny car that was so ancient and dilapidated that it felt like it was held together with bits of string. But they were some of the lucky ones. Not many people in Kiev were fortunate enough to own a car.
I remember Yulia, aged 8 or 9, skipping around the garden wearing a brightly patterned dress. It was one that Claire had sent from America for Mila when she was a little girl. A gift from the West, it was precious, something to treasure and keep for the next generation.
It was discovering my cousins in Kiev that first nurtured my interest in family history, and in the Jewish history of Ukraine more generally. I owe a lot to Ira and Mila and their children, both for this reason and also for the friendships we have developed over the last three decades. They now live in Germany and we keep in touch, mainly on Facebook. Recently Ira, now the family matriarch, has been sharing with me some of her childhood memories and family stories from the post-war years, and these will be the subject of my next article.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.