How do you know that you love your homeland properly? Why would a war draw you back to the place you tried to escape in peacetime? What does it mean to inhabit a language that comes with political baggage?
Three women authors who were born just before their country’s rebirth reflect on belonging, identity, and displacement. Olesya Khromeychuk, Sasha Dovzhyk, and Iryna Shuvalova come from different parts of Ukraine — west, southeast, and center — but their texts are replete with shared experiences. All three left Ukraine to live elsewhere, but their essays are declarations of uneasy love for the country they left behind.
This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
‘Why did you come here? Young people like you should put their effort into rebuilding their own country. We had to run away; you didn’t!’
My father sat silently and listened to a lecture on how to love his homeland properly. It took place in a Manchester pub that looked like it hadn’t seen much renovation since the men and women like the one delivering the speech purchased it to have a home away from home when they settled in the UK after World War II.
It was 1996, and my father was a new arrival of yet another wave of Ukrainian immigrants. The difference between him and the man sitting opposite was that one had arrived in the aftermath of a world war and the other as a result of the collapse of a communist empire. Neither was a willing immigrant (few immigrants leave their homes entirely willingly, and those who do tend to call themselves expats). But one of them believed he had the moral high ground to chastise the other because he had come as a war refugee, whereas my father had come as an economic migrant so that we, his family, wouldn’t have to leave the newly independent Ukraine and follow him into immigration.
‘No, I don’t know of any jobs round here’, said the man in the Manchester pub who knew how to love his homeland better than my father did. ‘Really, you should have stayed and built Ukraine. Here, let me get you a drink. Glory to Ukraine!’
My father would have preferred to help build Ukraine, but now, having declined the offer of a drink, he set out to find a way of helping build Manchester.
When my father left Ukraine, the country was in a pitiful state. The 1990s gave rise to organised crime that went hand in hand with corruption, unemployment, and a general disregard for the rule of law. By the 2000s, things were changing: the cities looked less dilapidated and felt safer. I was a teenager who had just fallen in love with her town, the theater, and a boy. The last thing I wished for was to be uprooted. But I wanted to study in a university and that meant that my mother would have had to pay a massive bribe to get me in, no matter how good my grades might have been.
Building Manchester, picking strawberries outside of Brighton, and doing any job that came his way, regardless of his skills or experience, my father struggled to support us in Ukraine. I wasn’t made aware of this at the time – my mother confessed to it many years later – but there had been times when all she had to feed us with was a box of cooking apples. She tried to figure out how to grate them and put them in borsch to make them last a week.
Post-Soviet economic hardship, not dissimilar to an armed conflict, came crashing down on us. Like many families, eventually, mine was no longer able to withstand it. We abandoned my pretty hometown and joined my father in the UK.
And so, it was I who was now sitting in a similar pub that also needed renovation, only this time in London, and being told how to love my country properly by immigrants who had ridden the wave of exile a few decades before me.
‘We are Ukrainians. We’ve always been Ukrainians, no matter how hard it was for us. We spoke the language and taught our children to speak it. We couldn’t go back when the USSR was strong, but we did our bit to make sure it collapsed’.
‘We are Ukrainians too’, I responded for myself and a group of young people I had recently befriended, sitting nearby. I had no intention of staying quiet like my dad had done four years prior. I was 16 and bold, as 16-year-olds tend to be.
‘No, we are true Ukrainians. You are Ukrainians from Ukraine’.
It took me a while to figure out what the difference was, and why a perfectly innocent fact sounded like an insult.
The implied distinction was the same as that between a war refugee and an economic migrant. The ‘true Ukrainians’ represented a stateless nation, surrendered to Stalin’s insatiable territorial greed. ‘Ukrainians from Ukraine’ were representatives of a nation reborn out of the rubble of the Soviet Union.
I was indeed born out of that rubble. I could taste the grit on my teeth for years to come. I went to school in 1991, when the red scarf of the Soviet uniform was no longer tolerable and something new was being invented every few weeks to give us a sense of identity; when the omnipresent Lenins gave way to Shevchenkos on city squares (at least where I came from), but the school textbooks still spoke of Red Square with pride.
The ‘true Ukrainians’ spoke an archaic language of countryside nightingales from the verses of folk songs. My Ukrainian was contemporary, and it was contaminated with Russianisms.
Most importantly, the implication of the division was that ‘true Ukrainians’ can only be forced out of their own country. Those who leave it voluntarily are nothing less than traitors.
Unlike my father, I came to the old London pub not looking for work. My dad continued working all hours to pay my university fees. My bartending jobs were just about enough to cover my rent. I came to offer my skills as an unpaid volunteer; to work with kids from the Ukrainian community and make them feel as passionate about theater as I did. After a few attempts, I chose to leave the place to ‘true Ukrainians’ and visited it rarely.
My life turned into a series of identity crises. Being openly Ukrainian means being a full-time geographer – ‘no, Ukraine is not part of Russia’ – a linguist – ‘no, we speak a different language, even though most of us speak Russian too’ – and a historian. Eventually I did become a historian and started to study the region professionally.
My doctoral research was on displacement caused by World War II. I ended up interviewing people belonging to the same wave of migrants that had criticised me and my dad for leaving Ukraine. Some of them had been no older than 16 when the war broke out. I could relate to their stories even if I hadn’t experienced the upheavals of war myself at the time. I could understand the desire to be a ‘true Ukrainian’ despite the fact that in postwar Europe and North America this nationality was highly unpopular and frequently misunderstood.
I called my first book ‘Undetermined’ Ukrainians, a phrase I borrowed from a 1947 instruction document that was intended to help sort displaced persons into neat categories but failed miserably when faced with Ukrainians:
For persons formerly living in the Ukraine [sic], but whose nationality has not yet been established, the expression Ukrainian ‘Undetermined’ may be used until such time as they are classified as being of a definite nationality or as being Stateless. (PDWP/58378, 15/03/1947).
Another document reiterated the Western view of Ukrainians at the time:
[T]here is no Nation called ‘UKRAINIA’ [sic] and it is only a term descriptive of an area in Europe, parts of which happen to be owned by determined states. In this we think it bears a close relation to the term ‘Jew’ which describes the religion of a certain sect of people who live in every country in the world. (PWDP/59808/23, 18/03/1947).
On one occasion, Ukrainians were referred to by the British POW camp officials as ‘doubtful Poles’.
Over the years of my life in the UK, I defended my identity, resented it, hid it, altered it. I might not have known how to love my homeland properly, but I knew I loved it. I felt that love especially strongly when the war in Donbas erupted, Ukraine lost territory to the Russian occupation, and the conflict took thousands of lives. I came closer to appreciating the loss felt by the wave of World War II refugees: not only were they uprooted, but they also had to helplessly watch their homeland being destroyed. I understood their frustrations with us, ‘Ukrainians from Ukraine’, for seemingly not cherishing what they had lost but never abandoned in their hearts.
Twenty years after my first visit, and 30 years after Ukraine achieved independence, I happened to visit the same London pub again, now refurbished and recently reopened after lockdown. I sat and watched the new arrivals walk through the door. Some of them had run away from the military draft, others had fled the warzone itself, others still had left for the same reason my father had: to support a family back home and avoid immigration at least for them.
I watched them buy their drinks, ask one another if they knew of any job vacancies, play with children that no longer spoke Ukrainian comfortably to parents who didn’t yet comfortably converse in English. I sat with my friends nearby: some of them were from the original group that had been labelled ‘Ukrainians from Ukraine’. The ‘true Ukrainians’ of 20 years ago were no longer around. Had I and my friends taken their place? Were we the ‘true’ ones now? The ones with an archaic language, with an idealised image of Ukraine that never existed anywhere other than in our imagination?
Leaving the pub, I picked up my phone to wish my dad a happy Father’s Day. He thanked me and laughed. We didn’t celebrate it back home. But our home is now in London. So, we celebrate it.
Dr Olesya Khromeychuk is a historian and writer. She received her PhD in history from University College London. She has taught the history of East-Central Europe at the University of Cambridge, University College London, the University of East Anglia, and King’s College London. She is the author of ‘Undetermined’ Ukrainians: Post-War Narratives of the Waffen SS ‘Galicia’ Division (2013) and A Loss: The Story of a Dead Soldier Told by His Sister (2021). She is currently the director of the Ukrainian Institute London. You can visit her at her website: olesyakhromeychuk.com.