Content warning: indecent disposal of human remains, human atrocities
Family family family!
It’s hard to believe just how much family I have here in Ukraine. It makes for an interesting way to see the country! This is three days of familial experiences so once again… this is going to be a longer catch-up post!
So everything went super smoothly renting a car thanks to our Travel Research Sponsor, Cobblestone Freeway! I was kind of hoping for an old timey Lada but…. The new VW Passat is driving very well for us.
I was a wee bit nervous driving in Ukraine since so many people have warned us of the crazy drivers and the bad roads. But I have driven in some crazy road conditions and my dad did it 11 years ago so… Why couldn’t I?
Following the car pick up, we hit the road to Piddubtsi, the birth village of my grandfather, Rev. Ivan Makuch. I was expecting the roads to be terrible, and was pleasantly surprised when we were on the highway to see that they weren’t! I thought maybe people were exaggerating, or that everyone who warned us of it had outdated information.
That was, until we turned onto the secondary highway.
It happened just when I had become comfortable with my driving. We turned off the main highway and there was a small hill. So I maintained my speed and just over the crest of the hill, the good road stopped and the terrible road began. I didn’t have enough time so slow down, so we were really introduced to true Ukrainian roads with a bang!
The journey took down this highway probably took twice as long as it would on a regular road. It is insane! It’s like navigating a minefield. If you could only see other cars driving and weren’t aware of the road conditions you’d like everyone was drunk! Pot holes 3 feet wide by 9 inches deep – sometimes two like this side-by-side. Matt said he never saw anything like that when travelling to Ghana – and they had been at war for 20 years. So if Edmontonians want to complain about their potholes…. They ain’t seen nothing yet!
The drive deep into rural Ukraine is incredibly beautiful. Matt kept saying that we were entering fairy country… and he’s not wrong. Having spent the last three days seeing a good cross section of rural Ukraine, you can understand where all the folklore and legends come from.
In Ukrainian, “Dub,” means “Oak,” and “Pid,” means, “Under.” So the name of my grandfather’s village means “Under the Oak Tree.” There is a gorgeous line up of 5 or 6 giant oak trees lining the dirt road to the tiny village. Surrounding the village are huge, flat plots of land filled with root vegetables as far as the eye can see – literally! There were 4 or 5 giant mountains of harvested turnips by the entrance to the village.
Entering Piddubtsi feels a bit like going back in time – or going to the Ukrainian village. Only even older. Only 45 people now live in the village. And it is only two roads. I seemed to remember that my grandfather’s house was the first on the right when you entered the village, but there was no longer anything there. We drove for a bit, and you got the sense that we were outsiders. Everyone was staring us down, and knew that we weren’t from there. We parked the car so I could try and remember where his house was, and this old Baba peeked her head around one side of the house, checking us out. She then came around the other side, “Dobrey denj!” I said. She waved and disappeared. She then popped her head around the corner once again then started coming out to the road, so I started chatting with her. I told her that I am from Canada, and my grandfather was born in this village, Ivan Makuch. And that I came here to see his village. Teresa ( immediately knew who the Makuch’s were. She knew that there were 3 brothers (who were Stephan, Ivan, and Iakiv), although she doesn’t really remember them since she was so young at the time. She told me that the one house was torn down, but that the name “Makuch” was written in Polish on her well. So we went to go look. I didn’t see it but…. Maybe she knows something I don’t?! Or maybe she is just confused. We chatted for awhile and then I went back to the road.
A man biked by and I stopped him to ask if he knew anything about the Makuchs. Which he did, and said that they have moved away to the next village. I was a bit confused (as I know where my family lives in Ukraine.) Turns out that there were actually a few Makuch family names in Piddubtsi – not all relations. Which is still really interesting to me. Teresa came out to talk to me and the man on the bike (Zenyk), and they talked about the Makuch family for a bit. And then she said that her house was one of the Makuch houses. Later I learned that it might have been (as far as I understand), rented out to them at one point by the village Hospodor … landlord, or something! She invited us inside, which was a very unique experience.
We went back onto the road eventually, and a woman was marching down the street. She said that one baba called another baba who called her and said that there was a Makuch in town and that we wanted to see the church. Which we did, but hadn’t mentioned it to anyone! Lida is her name, and she is QUITE the character. Matt thinks maybe she had started her day with a little horilka (vodka), because she spoke very loudly and liked to talk – a lot! She let us into the church which was very cool since no one in our Canadian family has gone into the Church since my grandfather left! She told us how the church used to be at the centre of the village. But the war destroyed a lot of it, and after the war the borders were established. And the Polish border now runs through what used to be the centre of the village.
I got the sense that the village never fully recovered from that. It feels quite poor. Everyone we spoke to said everyone is leaving. But the people who are there have what they need.
Lida then invited us back to her home for some coffee. However, that was a lie. Because as soon as we came in somehow more and more and more and more food appeared on the table. Everything she made herself – including the Domashniy Horilka aka Home brew. A banquet of meats, cheeses, fish, vegetables. Everything incredibly delicious, and pretty much as free range/organic as it gets. As you walk outside and see her garden and her animals. She and I shot the sh*t for awhile. She is a riot. And she echoed what so many people in Ukraine keep telling me – how many young people are leaving Ukraine to other places in Europe for work. She described how difficult life is in the village. The road is terrible, people forget about them. Everyone keeps leaving. However, she had everything she needed on her small plot of land. Food. Water. Shelter. And Horilka.
Following our visit with Lida, we went to the graveyard. Half of it is maintained, but the older half has completely grown over. Lida told us that if we went in that we would never find our way in. But we ventured through thick, overgrown brush to find the graves of my ancestors. Which after a few minutes and a few sticks in the eye, we did! Which was pretty exhilarating. The first we found had fallen over (which Patrick tried to re-erect, but later got stuck underneath it!). But the rest were still standing. The graves of my great grandparents, great-great grandparents. It was a very cool experience – and a great adventure through the brush.
Speaking to some of my family later, I learned that when my grandfather came back to Ukraine in the 1990s, that he didn’t want to return to visit his village. He said it would be too difficult for him.
The next day we were headed to my paternal grandmother’s ancestral village, Solyanuvatka! Kateryna (Hnat) Makuch’s journal chronicling her emigration from Ukraine during WWII is the account that inspired Blood of Our Soil. So I was very excited to have the opportunity to return to her village under this context.
My father’s cousin from Canada suggested we get in touch with one of our relations nearby, Olesia. I got her information and only had a chance to contact her the day before, but she insisted we come over for lunch. She lives in the cute town of Truskavets. Olesia is my age, 28, and feels a bit like my Ukrainian counterpart. My baba left Solyanuvatka with her two sisters and brother. Olesia’s grandmother was my grandmother’s first cousin, and they lived two doors down from one another. However her Baba, Olya, decided not to leave. So it was a very interesting experience connecting with her!
She studied as a therapist, but currently isn’t working as she has an adorable 2.5-year-old daughter, Violetta. An energetically precocious cutie patootie! Her husband, Yaroslav, is also lovely (and could speak a bit of English as well, which Patrick appreciated!) Following another banquet of a lunch, Olesia hopped in the car with us and took us to Solyanuvtka. Olesia grew up in Dobromyl, the next village over from Solyanuvatka. Her Baba remained in Solyanuvatka, and Olesia would ride her bike to visit with her Baba.
I had the chance to chat with Olesia a little bit on our 1.5 hour drive, and asked about her thoughts on Maidan. It feels like whenever you bring up the subject of maidan and the revolution, everyone says the same thing. That it was a terrifying time. Even if you weren’t in Ukraine. Olesia studied in Lviv, so she had heard of students she had known going to Kyiv to protest.
Solyanuvatka is definitely fairy country. While the land around Piddubtsi was majestic in it’s long stretches of flat fields, Solyanuvatka sits quietly, tucked away in a valley surrounded by rolling foothills. The sun was descending toward the hills as we arrived. The air feels nurturing. Baba’s house is this adorable, pink cottage tucked away behind a large, rectangular yard peppered with orchard-like trees. It sits quaintly behind a wooden fence, and lined with what is now an eclectic, overgrown garden. Apparently the woman who lives in the house is known throughout the village as…. A little odd. Olesia told me that she “drinks too much.” So the home hasn’t been very well maintained, but you absolutely get the sense of that it once may have been.
We looked a bit around the house, then went to the garden in the back – which, too, is completely overgrown. Behind the place where the garden once stood is a small cluster of trees, and beyond that is a small hill which descends to a small wheatfield, which leads you to a magical pond. The pond is absolutely adorable, and sits in this private cluster of giant trees. I couldn’t help but imagine a small Baba running around, playing in the yard with her sisters. Olesia playfully chirped in that it would be a great place for a (imagine thick Ukrainian accent) “Romantic date” for our “baba and dido.” To boot, there was even a rainbow. YES. A real rainbow – which is the sign of true magic!
Olesia used to ride her bike from Dobromyl to Solyanuvatka to visit her Baba. So much of Blood of Our Soil reflects on my experiences of summers growing up with my Baba and their cottage. And this place had such a cottage-like feel… And it is so cool that across the world, Olesia was having a similar like experience of magical times at her Baba’s cottage. She says she would bike over, and they’d go run in the fields and chase the cows, and spend hours and hours picking mushrooms. I always felt like my cottage was a magical place, and I truly got the same feeling here in Solyanuvatka.
Olesia used the word “spokinu” to describe it. And I recognized the word but couldn’t quite put my finger on the English translation. I tried “tycho,” which means “quiet,” and Olesia said it was a little different, and pointed to her heart. And then I understood what she meant, and truly felt it in my heart. Peaceful. And Solyanuvatka is very “spokinu.”
However, just outside the village, there is a salt mine which employed a lot of the village back in the day, and where my great-grandfather apparently worked. It is also the site of yet another Soviet atrocity. Just before 1941, Soviets would kill Ukrainian and Polish nationalists they believed to be a part of “UPA,” The Ukrainian Insurgent Army which was both anti-Bolshevik and later, anti-Nazi. They then took the bodies in trucks to through the town. Olesia described that the villagers would complain about a smell, but didn’t know what it was. Turns out that the Soviets were hiding the bodies of the people that they killed in the salt mine.
The old kitchen area still remains, but it is completely run-down. There is a memorial (interestingly designed by Olesia’s father!). And further up the hill – almost so far that we thought we were on a wild goose chase, is the old entrance to the salt mine in the ground. It has now been turned into a memorial to commemorate the 3500+ people who’s bodies were inhumanely disposed of here.
It is interesting starting our trip here in the west, knowing that we will be heading to the east soon to delve deeper into the effect of and sentiments toward the conflict. I can’t help but image if the country was reversed, and there was conflict in the west. It would be affecting my family. Olesia’s husband might be compelled to leave for war, leaving her and Violetta. Rebels might destroy the monuments and the red & black UPA flags that show up throughout the towns. So many elderly people are unable to leave their villages because they have no money, they’re not healthy, or they have nowhere to go. What if that was Teresa? And she had no access to water, electricity, medicine, or her pension?
Just some food for thought….
Today we left Lviv and had yet another family day – this time in Berezhany. A town in the Ternopilska Oblast (province). It is a town of about 60,000 people. Despite this, the address of my family was the only location my Google Maps has not been able to find! I had to find the house the old fashioned way – by asking people on the street! Technology has failed me. What is this, 2006!?
Well, we did end up finding it despite the failings of google. Today we met with my father’s first cousin, Ivan Makuch, his wife, Halyna Makuch, and their daughter, Olya Makuch. And had a really wonderful time. Although I don’t think that we are going to be able to eat again for another three days. Immediately, we were greeted with another feast of home grown food. Literally, the majority of it was grown right on their property (except the bananas because Ukraine is not a tropical climate!) It is cool, so many homes in Ukraine don’t have yards, but rather they are all gardens. They’re in a town, not a village, but even so they have chickens, ducks, and a few rabbits…. Which they’re not keeping as pets if you know what I mean…
Following lunch, Olya took us on a tour of Berezhany. Although it is relatively small, it has an extensive and interesting history! It was established in 1395. And there is a Ukrainian church from 905 AD! However, she first took us to the graveyard to show us another UPA memorial – this one dedicated to the UPA members from Berezhany who died. And ironically, right beside it, is the grave of a 19 year-old-boy from Berezhany who died in 2014 in Eastern Ukraine. Apparently, it was devastating for the town, and his mother is essentially inconsolable. Even these 3 years later. He was her only child. They have also erected a monument at the school for him. Olya told me that in Chernivtsi, where we are going in a few days, you see these memorials everywhere.
Olya taught us about the extensive Polish influence in Berezhany, which, as she pointed out, you see everywhere in the architecture. It was really interested to learn about these occupiers of Ukraine as well. You can also find a lot of Polish graves in the graveyard. And students come from Poland to maintain the graves, write down the names, and go back to archive the information. Poland controlled a Halachyna (Galicia, the region that covers a lot of Western Ukraine). There were landowners who came and would build mansions in the towns, which still remain. She took us to the village of Rai (only 3 km away), at the top of this hill. There was this Hospodor (landlord) who built a huge mansion surrounded by an incredible park. The villagers were his labourers. It is now a hospital for sick children, and the park itself is open to the public. It is absolutely beautiful, and has a bit of a fairy-country feel as well.
Olya took us as well to the municipal building. In the centre, it looks like just a bunch of rubble – which is weird to see in a municipal building. But, apparently this is actually a memorial. When the Soviets took over, they apparently demolished and used gravestones from the cemetary to build the roads. So the roads in the centre are made from the former gravestones of the townspeople. Yet another example of disregard for human life demonstrated by the Soviets.
We then headed back for dinner **fyi we were definitely not hungry once again. Matt and Patrick were genuinely concerned about being forced to eat too much.** And they were right to be afraid, since cousin Ivan told me that Patrick couldn’t leave until he finished all the food on the table – which he put a pretty good dent into. After dinner, we Facetimed my dad (because we live in the future), and then chatted a bit.
The conversation eventually led to the current Ukrainian climate. Olya is very well spoken, so it is an honour to hear her thoughts on it all. Halyna and Ivan offer a unique perspective as well. They had a lot to say, but it was particularly interesting to hear that there was someone in Berezhany who had to flee Donetsk, and came to live with his parents in the town. And Ivan & Halyna drew the parallels between the situation in the East and what their parents (my grandparents) went through. People have to grab what they can and flee sometimes in the middle of the night.
All they know is what people who have fled the conflict zones tell them, since press is extremely limited. And officials don’t say anything. Or if they do, it is not true. Halyna has a sister in Crimea. But they can’t talk to her – they can’t telephone or get her on the internet because everything is so heavily monitored.
They said that they feel like Ukraine relies on its diaspora to help them. Because their own government can’t provide what they need. I asked them when it ends? And they said no one knows. That it never will.
We gave our loving goodbyes and headed for Ternopil. Only one night here, then we are going to visit the birth place of my maternal grandmother in Velikiy Lazuchin. Then we head for the Carpathian mountains for a little bit of R&R!!
Thanks for reading, pals. And stay tuned!!!
Ps. Didn’t proofread this so…. sorry!!!! :p