Sometimes, a friend would share how they see their funeral but one never expects to be made to fulfill their will. In this raw and poignant piece, Sofia Cheliak recollects her best friend Victoria Amelina as well as generations of Ukrainians whose lives have been cut short by the cycles of mass murders and repressions perpetrated by Moscow.
It was in the first year of the full-scale invasion. I don’t remember which month. I do remember that it was cold, although, since the lamps were working, it means that there wasn’t a blackout at that time of day; that, or russia had not yet come to target infrastructure. We walked down Pekarska Street in Lviv, turned around the corner, passed the main entrance to Lychakiv Cemetery and carried on down the street, walking past the building that was once the russian consulate in Lviv. Again I mentioned the evening of 22 February, when people dressed in black burnt papers in the consulate’s yard. The fires burned all night. The next day, the employees of russian diplomatic institutions left Ukraine. I wrote to you about it back then, but this route was a lovely opportunity to tell you about the event in detail.
You listened and then suddenly interrupted me.
‘Sofia, I’d like to be buried in Lychakiv cemetery if I ever have the opportunity. Could you organise this for me? I spend most of my time in Kyiv, but I have a categorical dislike of Baikove cemetery’.
I started laughing; I said that you would have to be the one burying me in Lychakiv.
‘But Sofia, I also want to be cremated. You can work out how to get that done’.
At that moment, we walked past the block of flats where the 1970s cult funk music composer, Volodymyr Ivasyuk, used to live. The KGB killed him in 1979, but his funeral in Lychakiv, Lviv’s main and grandest cemetery, became one of the first protest actions for an independent Ukraine.
Lviv, late November 2020
You had come to see me for a catch-up. That day was the day of remembrance for the victims of the Holodomor, the genocide planned by russia with the aim of finally solving the ‘Ukrainian peasant question’. You had come to comfort me after the funeral of my colleague Levko Hrytsiuk, who was a literary translator from Swedish. The reason for his death was his depression, and back then I also was struggling with my own. We chose to meet up in Atlas, a historic establishment on Lviv’s Market Square. In the thirties this restaurant was a gathering place for cultural activists of various ethnicities, Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish, and German. It was there that the literary collective Moloda Muza (‘Young Muse’) held their soirées. Most of the visitors who frequented Atlas in the 1930s did not survive Soviet or Nazi occupation.
That evening we talked about the influence of generational trauma on our lives. I relayed my family history, and you relayed yours. You spoke about your family’s experience of the Holodomor. Since all of my relatives are from western Ukraine, I have no such exposure to it as those who lived in the eastern and central parts of the country. Instead, I talked about my brave aunties who joined the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and later were incarcerated in russian concentration camps in Siberia.
The establishment was half-dark inside, candlelit. That evening we got to know each other properly: a girl whose family was from Lviv and a girl whose family was from eastern Slobozhanshchyna Ukraine, both of whom had ended up in Lviv and carried the baggage of familial memory that formed them.
At some point an acquaintance of mine came up to us, clearly looking to chat one (or both) of us up. We said that it wasn’t great timing because we were wanting to catch up, to which he replied:
‘Ah, I see, you’re having your girl talk’.
After that we would refer to any conversation about trauma, genocide, and repression as ‘girl talk’.
Kyiv, October 2022
You joined a group of international authors and participants in the Lviv Book Forum; I was taking them to the capital city to show them the Kyiv region and to introduce them to local activists working towards Ukraine’s victory. You had said your goodbyes with us and started on your own way home from Podil to Olimpiiska metro.
We ended up in the most extensive missile attack that Kyiv had thus far been subjected to.
A few minutes after you crossed a road nearby, Taras Shevchenko University’s main campus was hit by a missile. The second one hit the children’s playground next to the Khanenko Museum, a little further up from where Alla Horska, one of the first Ukrainians to document the crimes committed by the Soviet occupying powers, used to live. Along with fellow dissidents Vasyl Symonenko and Les Taniuk, she found a mass grave of victims of Soviet repression in Bykivnia Forest near Kyiv, and as of now the names of the nearly 19,000 victims buried in the forest have been established.
The next day, you, I, and the American journalist Jon Lee Anderson stood over the missile crater. I could not express fully to you how scared I had been, how much I would worry about you every time you went somewhere without me. I lived under the illusion that if something were to happen, I could protect you, put on a tourniquet or do whatever was needed, and be by your side.
Alla Horska died from a blow to the head. You and I had been waiting for the revelation of direct evidence that the KGB was behind Horska’s death, and justice to be served. Victoria Amelina died from a blow to the head caused by the explosion of a russian missile in Kramatorsk. We know for certain that russia is guilty of her murder, and I hope that we will win just punishment.
Lviv, night of 5 to 6 July 2023
I dreamt of Vika, who told me that I should get up and move to a safe place. She was still in her nineteenth-floor Kyiv flat and she will be just fine—but I had to hide.
I woke up, and a few minutes later the first explosion rang out.
That night a missile landed less than a kilometre from my flat.
Lviv, day of 5 July 2023
The funeral of Viсtoria Amelina
In the end I managed to work it out, how to fulfil your wish.
That’s what best friends are there for: to choose you the best spot in the cemetery and to find you the prettiest urn.
Image: Sofia Cheliak’s archive.
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