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Excerpt from the essay "Bloodlines (Or, Although a Good Man, a Muscovite)" When I graduated from high school, my father took me on a long-awaited, much-anticipated trip to Ukraine. He and I would visit our relatives Marina and Yarosh in the village, but mostly we would just be tourists, stay in Western hotels in the major cities, eat at the best restaurants, sightsee, souvenir shop, inject dollars into the local economy and understand that we are being useful to someone. Diaspora families are always doing this.
My father bought for us what was, in 2007, the only English-language guidebook available for Ukraine. It was published by Lonely Planet, and the cover photo was of a castle, situated over a craggy cliff that dropped into what appeared to be a vast ocean. The castle had gothic windows, spires with flags, and princess balconies, all the whimsical features one associates with Disney, and the scene was filtered orange by a low sun. It looked majestic, but I didn’t know then that the castle is actually a miniature, roughly the square footage of a small house. In the cover photo, there was no way to measure for scale.
I remember studying the picture and information inside“The Swallow’s Nest is one of several châteaux fantastiques located near Yalta on the Crimean peninsula”and comprehending, perhaps for the very first time, that Ukraine had an entire border made of water. Chorne More, the Black Sea. Palaces and oceans must not have been part of my grandmother’s Ukraine, or surely I would have heard about them. All I ever heard about were the pigs, the potatoes, the purling river Ikva. I was taken by the orange Swallow’s Nest, but the idea of this bigger thingthe Black Seapiqued my interest primarily because of how it might supplement our vacation: I was a teenage girl who wanted to lie on the beach and come home with a tan.
Tato, why don’t we go to Crimea? I asked my father.
We don’t want to go there, he said. It’s heavily Russified.
Just trust me, he waved his hand, the way people do when swatting a fly.
I dropped the issue without a fight and didn’t think about that conversation again until a few years later, around the time when this awareness started to emerge that our family was more afraid of something than other familiesat least, it seemed, more afraid than the mostly white middle-class families that formed the periphery of my childhood. Or perhaps our family’s fear was more specific. It was fear manifested as quiet contempt.
On that first trip in 2007, I bought a t-shirt from the souvenir vendors in Lviv’s Vernisage Market. I slept in it every night for a month because it was so soft. I saw nothing wrong with the shirt, and neither, apparently, did my father. In large purple letters it read:
Дякую тобі боже що я не Москаль.
Thanks be to God that I’m not a Moskal.
My attempts to assign more complex vocabulary to this phenomenon have not felt entirely fruitful. This isn’t xenophobia, because after decades of occupation, oppression, murder, surveillance, a state-engineered famine, and the current ongoing invasion, my family’s distaste for Russia isn’t exactly irrational, as the definition suggests it should be. In Greek xenos refers to the strange, foreign, or unfamiliar, and that part isn’t so cut-and-dry either. Though western Ukrainians especially tend to “otherize” Russians, it is also true that by most visible markersculture, religion, physical attributes, lifestylethe groups aren’t so different at all. Both Busia and my father speak Russian in addition to Ukrainian. This is not a straightforward case of hating the unfamiliar.
Maybe bigotry is closer, but that term places special emphasis on opinions and ideas. Is it bigoted to dislike those who march through the world with imperial aims? Those who seem incapable of treating you without condescension?
Instead, it might best be characterized as enmity“a very deep unfriendly feeling.” The word enmity conjures up a hostility of biblical proportions: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers.” In this analogy, the Russians are, of course, the dust-eating serpent. Enmity is a literary word, one that implies hatred left over from some long-ago circumstance. There is also an element of passivity. It has been this way since before we were born. It has always been like this. This is part of us.
Taras Shevchenko, the 19th-century poet who wrote Kateryna, meant the poem as an allegory. Soldier Ivan represents the Russian Empire, while Kateryna is the feminized, virginal, and subjugated Ukrainian nation. Shevchenko himself was born an imperial serf and didn’t have his freedom purchased until age 24, when, interestingly, a Russian poet was able to use his influence in Shevchenko’s favor. Luckily, Shevchenko was a talented artist.
Today Shevchenko is considered the father of modern Ukrainian literature and a useful national symbol. He remains highly venerated in Ukraine and his face appears on the 100 hryven bill. Busia and my father both have embroidered portraits of the mustachioed poet in their living rooms. Many Ukrainians do.
Table of ContentsContents
Note on the Text
The Village (Fugue)
On Our Way Home from the Revolution
Bloodlines (or, Although a Good Man, a Muscovite)
Instructions for Parents in Upbringing Children
Duck and Cover
Article 54 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR
The Village (Interlude)
Encyclopedia of Earthly Things
The Village (Reprise)
I Saw the Sunshine, Melting
The Village (Da Capo)