Interview with Ukrainian Freya’s woman Tove Freyjudottir — Part 1
This is the first part of a multi-part interview with Gyðja-in-training Tove Freyjudottir. Over the next few weeks, she will be sharing her thoughts and experiences watching her home city of Kharkiv, where she still has immediate family, being bombed.
This interview will be broken up into several parts, since it turned out to be quite long. I plan on posting a new installment every week or so until the interview is complete. For those who may have questions for Tove, or want to reach out she kindly gave me permission to share her email: elise33 at gmail.com. You may also follow her website here.
Firstly, I’d like to thank you, Tove for taking the time to answer my questions, especially at such a difficult time. I want to start by giving a little of your background for my readers. Tove is a long-time Heathen devoted to Freyja, and she also honors Dionysos and His Bacchic retinue. She has a degree in political science from Adelphi University, speaks three languages (nearly four – I’ve heard her manage in Italian in addition to English, Russian, and Ukrainian), and is currently studying for ordination. She was born and raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine leaving in 1989 when she was twelve. She has returned several times and the soul of her land Ukraine is knit into her very bones.
GK: Tove, I know that you grew up in Ukraine when it was still part of Soviet Russia. What was it like growing up under Soviet control? How did your family decide to come to the US?
The one thing that I remember the most that I think everyone living under that regime remembers is the silence. I find that the hardest thing that people in democratic countries have understanding about communism, and a dictatorship like USSR is the lack of free speech and a horrific lack of information. I remember when I was about 7, a chapter from a book written by Victor Hugo, on a little girl called Cossette, was turned into a small pamphlet for little kids. We read it as a short story about a little girl, terribly poor, neglected and cold, dragging an enormous barrel of water to a tavern where she was treated worse than a dog, until a stranger appeared at the hotel and performed the most miraculous of rescues, not only saving this child but providing her with a protector. Deeply affected by the beauty of the story, I learned that the book was “Les Miserables”, but not matter how much I wanted to read it, not only could we not find it, my parents told me not to ask anyone about it. (Eventually, many years later, a friend of our family proudly gifted me a copy). It simply did not exist. Most things didn’t. There was no way to acquire any information, especially at the time before the onset of internet. I think that people in a society that has free speech laws have a hard time conceptualizing a country where there is only one dialogue being taught since birth, and no alternate dialogue is allowed to exist.
GK: I remember in 1989 doing a semester in Vilinius –when Lithuania was still under the Soviet boot. The book “Children of the Arbat” had just come out but was banned in the USSR. A Lithuanian teacher asked me what I’d most like to read and I mentioned it and she turned pale and shushed me. Of course, then she looked around to make sure no one was watching and opened her desk drawer and gave me a copy of the book! She was risking, I later realized, more than just her job.
Many books were banned, for example any novel by Michael Bulgakov, one of the most prolific authors of the 20th century in USSR. A banned book didn’t simply mean you couldn’t find it in the local library. It meant having possession of it could be 15 years in prison. 15 years was the maximum term in prison, but most people didn’t survive past 2. If you did, there was likely something wrong with you, and that level of sociopathy was probably not someone we would want out on the streets anyway.
The court of law was not a place of justice. In a system where both the attorney representing the defendant, the prosecutor, and the judge answer to the same authority doesn’t give much of a defense to the accused. The verdicts were usually decided before the onset of the trial, and most people tended to believe that if you were being tried, it was because you were guilty, so the cases were decided pretty quickly. When I look at the developments in Russia in the last few weeks I am having an incredible de ja vu. Nothing is as it seems, and nothing is done for the reasons that are announced. If a person is being tried for corruption and theft he likely just pissed off his fellow co-conspirator, who is a person of legitimacy. The most frustrating thing about talking to people who have always lived in a democratic system is that they fundamentally take at face value what people from such countries say. American politicians do have a tendency to have talking points, but the difference is, they are still held accountable for those talking points. In USSR, no one was ever held accountable for them and should anyone mention such an idea, you would be reprimanded the first time (if you were lucky), and disappear the second time. This means, lies are bold and told with impunity. There is no legitimacy to anything anyone says if they can’t be held accountable for it.
GK: I can tell you just from the young people that I teach, that most have no concept of what it was like, and how tightly controlled people’s thought-worlds were.
The KGB was very involved in the regular life of the people. Knowing that they would be mistrusted, they often would recruit regular people with regular jobs. This was an old and familiar method: they would call someone into their office and present him with some kind of a provocation. A person was forced to become a “reporter” via blackmail.
These people would then report when they would hear anyone speak or act in a subversive way. This didn’t have to be anything grand, someone could simply show distrust in a political speech, or say that they don’t like a new state policy. Any dissent no matter how mundane and small, could get someone to be called into the KGB headquarters. We once knew someone who was arrested for selling pair of jeans.
GK: Why jeans? What was the issue there?
It was considered a distinctly Western expression of freedom and anything Western, anything from a capitalist i.e. free society was viewed with disdain. People would ask: where did you get the jeans and since the society was locked, chances were you had bought them illegally. If you were caught selling jeans, you could be convicted. People would go to Eastern European countries – East Germany, Bulgaria, etc. buy goods and sell them back in the USSR. This was illegal and punishable by years in prison but people did it anyway.
GK: That sounds horrific, and a level of social paranoia I can’t quite fathom.
People disappeared very easily, and this turned the society into a society of snitches. Your next-door neighbor, your teacher, your distant cousin could “belong” to the KGB. People would sometimes also use this to get a leg up. For example, during the Stalinist era, in 1940s’, my great uncle, who was a major and operated a prison, was one day taken out of his apartment in the middle of the night. My great aunt described that in the dead of night, as they were asleep, they received a knock on the door. Agents came in and dragged him out of the house without even giving him a chance to put on street clothes. She screamed and cried, and her children still remember her running down the street in her nightgown crying and begging them to return her husband. She never heard from him again, but another man, who reported him, took over his job.
Because of this report, they [the KGB] confiscated what property they had, including moving her out of her apartment. I am not sure if she was separated from her children, as that was common practice then, but this was before I was born and that part of the story didn’t survive to me.
Twenty years later, after the death of Stalin, she received a notice that apologized for the execution of her husband. No other reparations were made besides the letter.
I grew up in a Jewish family. Being Jewish in USSR was a terrible thing to be.
Our passports, which showed a person’s nationality, were stamped with either, Russian, Ukrainian or Jewish. Whether you were Jewish or not, it’s not something you wanted to have in your passport. It meant you would not be accepted or allowed to enter a university or be promoted to any position. For example, we had a relative who was a captain who worked up north in the area of Siberia. When he asked for a justified promotion, his supervisor said, “A Jew can’t be a major! That will never happen!”
If anything happened in the area, if investigators were looking for any kind of criminal activity, Jews would be automatically on the list first. They were viewed with suspicion; it was believed that fundamentally, Jewish people would betray the state first. For this reason, and because due to a clerical error made during the liberation of the concentration camps my grandfather was able to get a passport that marked him as Ukrainian, I also held the nationality of Ukrainian. Due to this, my parents chose not to tell me that we were Jews (I became Heathen in my thirties) until I was about 10. They told me they were afraid that being a little girl, I would tell someone.
GK: my father always told me that being religious of any sort could be problematic – as in ending up in a labor camp “problematic”!
Religion was officially treated with disdain, but unofficially regarded as an enemy organization. Anyone entering a church , was put on a list. Mind you, I say a church because there were no synagogues in my city. The last one that was there before I was ever born was forcibly turned into a gymnasium. There were always KGB agents hiding in plain clothing, and they would note people who strayed from the proper behavior. I had not been inside a religious institution or even understood religion until well after I left Soviet Union.
GK: I know – the lack of a religious upbringing has led to interesting lacunae in our work together. On the upside, you had nothing to unlearn in terms of religious behavior! It never occurred to me how absent religion had been in your childhood until I mentioned it to you once and we had a conversation about how the antipathy the USSR in general and communism in particular had/has toward religion had shaped your youth.
The Soviet Union always stressed science and exploration being juxtaposed against religion. They really pushed the (false) idea that if you were intelligent, you’d understand religion was backward and that it stifled thought. That’s really how they portrayed it everywhere.
GK: What do you think about religion now?
I think it’s not religion that forces people not to think logically or curbs intelligence and exploration; I think that’s a position that humans take and they can use religion or a number of other things to do it. The reasons Soviet Union specifically denigrated religion is because it was deeply intertwined with Tsarist Russia, and they wanted to weed out any semblance of hereditary rule in Russia. The fact they did it even as late as the 1980s and that there are still monarchists alive in Russia today indicates that from a purely power perspective, there was a connection between Orthodoxy and Monarchy and a deep understanding before the revolution that the Tsar was appointed to rule over Russia by God. There was a peaceful demonstration in Russia long before the 1917 communist revolution. In 1905, when the people marched on the Square and peacefully implored their Tsar for help, they referred to him as their “Father”. To them, he was the father appointed by God to watch over them. That connection was so deep that it was a central tenet of the Soviet Union to consistently attempt to break and eradicate it.
GK: How do you feel today, knowing that native polytheism in Russia, Ukraine, pretty much in all the former “republics” is growing? So is Heathenry if the number of emails I get is any indication.
I absolutely love this development. I find it particularly fascinating how the Russian Orthodox church juxtaposes itself against contemporary Polytheistic developments.
GK: I know that in Russia, Ukraine, and I believe Bulgaria, there have been multiple vandalisms of polytheistic sacred spaces, sadly, by Orthodox—they left crosses and icons after destroying the god-poles and other sacred items– and in Lithuania, just this past year, the Catholic Church intervened to prevent Romuva from receiving state recognition.
This lack of tolerance on the part of the Christian traditions in the Baltic and Slavic lands, I believe goes to the issues of legitimacy. There are particular historical turning points that happened here and those again go back to Ukraine: namely how Russian was written down and how it became a language. How it evolved out of Ukrainian and the place that Greek and Christian Orthodoxy played in that. There were two Greek priests who decided to transcribe Ukrainian and this new language became intertwined with authoritarianism and the Church and Christianity attempted to bind itself to those countries to the exclusion of all other faiths. The question of these faiths may in the end be a question of who has the right to pray over those lands.
GK: Yep. Cyril and Methodius were sent on a mission to Christianize the Rus by the Byzantine Emperor in the 9th century. The language they systematized became Church Slavonic – and I’m really simplifying that whole process here. What is clear though if one reads Ukrainian and Russian is that Russian is much, much more polished. Linguistically, and to a stunning degree, it obviously came from Ukrainian and passed through the mediating “hands” of the Church.
If we look at Russian politics today, specifically the case of Navalny, his biggest criticism of the Putinist regime was his attempt to legitimize his dictatorship through the Russian Orthodox Church. The movie https://www.thedailybeast.com/alexei-navalny-video-details-dollar13b-mansion-on-black-sea-said-to-be-vladimir-putins-secret-russia-estate that got him imprisoned affected the Russian people with such anger towards Putin because it showed explicitly how Putin is attempting to usurp a throne to which he has no licit right.
The question I would like answered is, how was rulership determined prior to the onset of Christianity?
GK: I don’t know. I’ve read the Primary Chronicle but I don’t think that can be taken as an unbiased account.
It is clear however that religion in these lands fights to claim political legitimacy and binds itself to governance. What’s troubling is that then Christianity will claim sole right to the land. It has in the past and it doesn’t want to give that power up. Look at what’s happening in Poland with the Catholic Church – they’re demonstrating and are still trying to free themselves from a government intertwined with Catholicism. The problem there is that the Catholic Church basically decides what happens next on every political level. It was the same in Russia with the Orthodox Church. Ukraine has its own autonomous orthodox Church (which really pissed Moscow off) and a Jewish President. Ukraine has no issues electing a Jewish president in a Ukrainian Orthodox society. I’m not sure the same could be said of a non-Catholic in Poland and I know it wouldn’t happen in Russia and when you think about it, that’s really troubling. It’s clearly not an issue of Orthodoxy itself – many Ukrainians are Orthodox—it’s the use and abuse of power. That’s really what it is and polytheism is incredibly threatening to the power the Church carries. It is their goal to bind religion to the land and to government making Christianity a requirement.
GK: for those unfamiliar with the develop of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, I recommend Fordham’s “Public Orthodoxy” site — an online journal that has lots of articles explaining why this is so controversial with Moscow and how Orthodox autonomy works.
Religion is difficult because we often use it to govern our ethical values (GK: that was not necessarily the case with polytheism, where ethics came from philosophy and or community nomoi. That’s very much a monotheistic thing). How do you argue against the only legitimate religion telling you to vote for a politician?
GK: we haven’t figured that one out either, not fully. Religion is always a problem when it intersects with government. Media can be a tricky player there too. What was that like when you were growing up?
There were no protests. There were no speeches. We only had 5 newspapers that all reported the same news, and 3 channels on the TV. At 9 o’clock in the evening, all 3 channels showed the same news. The news had nothing to say except “the harvest was good this year”. In fact, this phrase was repeated every single night in different ways, no matter how there was no bread in bakeries, and no produce or meat in the stores. They had to report, no matter what the reality was, that they have exceeded their 5-year plan. If any other statement was made, there would be a prison term. It was understood that there was always over performance.
In reality, it would have been impossible that anything but horrendous underperformance would be pandemic at the collective farms. In order to keep the farms operating, the government instituted a law that only those people who had a propiska could remain in a given city. This means, they had an official piece of paper that showed they were listed on the apartment they were residing in. There was once a very sad incident in my neighborhood where a father and a son lived in the same apartment for decades. To “get” an apartment was very difficult because you would had to be put on a list for an apartment, and usually the wait was about 20-30 years. You could not be put on the list unless you already lived in the city. His father didn’t bother putting the son’s name as a resident, and died suddenly and prematurely. Since the son was not signed into the apartment, the building, of course for a “price” immediately gave his apartment to someone else and he had to leave the city limits right away. My father said that he heard that he was traveling through the deepest of the Siberian lands.
This was done in part to ensure production at the collective farms. Anyone that was born at a collective farm or for whatever reason ended up there had their passport removed immediately. They were not “signed into” any city, and so could not be located (live) anywhere else but the collective farm they were on. The only way to leave would be to enlist into the military, so all the young people enlisted, and then entered universities and never came back. In three decades only old people remained at the farms.
GK: how is that not serfdom? (A type of slavery, deeply embedded in Russian culture, that emerged in the 16th century. Serfs were bound to the land, to specific noblemen, could be sold, and were considered property).
It’s exactly serfdom. It’s actually worse. There’s a faceless quality to a state doing this versus a feudal lord. The feudal lords were at least to some degree responsible for the land, and wanted to see it prosper. When a faceless far-away government body forces people to work the land but removes any right they have to it, it becomes a hopeless life bereft of drive or meaning.
Living on the farm was one of the worst things that could ever occur to a person. You had no passport and no right to leave. You were not paid with money for any work you did, but only in small token amount of food that you grew, barely enough to keep yourself fed. Ownership was forbidden, so you did not own anything, not even your labor. Farm life is hard physical labor, and you owned none of it, not the land, not the grain, not the livestock. You couldn’t even partake of what you produced, only what was partitioned to you. People on the farms lived the way people lived before the onset of electricity. They often didn’t have heat.
GK: something those so enamored of socialism and communism here in this country might want to consider, hard work not being their métier sarcasm. Did your family live on a collective farm?
We lived in a city, one of the largest in Ukraine. It was famous for its metallurgical factories that produced military grade parts. My grandfather would wake up at 2:30 in the morning, so that he could take his large thermos, and go down the street to take up his place in line for milk. The milk cistern would arrive at 6:30 am, and you got there too late, all the milk would be gone but the time the line got to you. Many left without any milk.
GK: Were there any positives?
The education was excellent, much better than it is here, because a lot was expected from the students, not just in terms of regular subjects but in terms of behavior. There were little sayings that kids could remember, that reminded us of all sorts of behavior that the government would want us to emulate. They were such as “respect must be given to the older ones, concessions must be given to the younger ones”. It was common societal practice, for example, that a younger person sitting on a train or a bus would immediately offer their seat if an older person would walk in. Of course, we were kids, so we would make fun of these, for example, we would tell the older kids “we respect you, now concede your seat!”
GK: LOL. I like that though, the respect for one’s elders, respect for education. I remember once you showed me the school grading books that students carried with then to school called “dnevnik” (a daily) that were used when you were a student and there was a whole list of conduct rules at the beginning. I was quite impressed. As a teacher I can’t help but think, “if only.” (We took a break while doing this interview while I made coffee. While doing that, I set out alcoholic offerings for our household spirits, which led to our conversation segueing to drinking).
Alcoholism was widespread. People often died from what was called “white shakes”, (in the US we call it ‘delirium tremens’) an extreme version of alcohol poisoning that occurs if you have been binge drinking for days non-stop. So many adults were alcoholics that children seemed uncared for. Most industries didn’t function well and to have anything that functioned you would need to bribe someone. Bribes weren’t just widespread, they were the only way to conduct business or survive, they were the tax of the communist world. No industry thrived. Nothing ever worked. Everything was old and dilapidated and no matter how many “5 year plans” people made, no one actually cared unless they could get in trouble. My father worked at a metallurgical factory, that had over 2,000 employees. He once said that out of 2,000 only two didn’t drink; one had an ulcer and the other had a heart condition. Although my dad had an engineering degree, he decided to work as a worker at the factory, because under communism a worker would be paid more than the supervisor, so there was no reason to become the supervisor. There were often signs at businesses that said “perekur”, smoking break. The sign often remained for most of the day. The joke was, you started drinking when you got to work, and didn’t stop until it was time to go home. My dad once said that there was a large spinning slicer in the factory, and that at least once a day someone fell into it because they were drunk.
Because in part of how industry functioned, and in part because no one had any parts to produce anything anyway, the goods were virtually non-existent or awful. There was only 2 or 3 types of dresses. They were not cut to accentuate anything or make anyone feel good about themselves, they all looked the same and meant to make you feel a part of the collective. A few decades ago there was an exhibition of Soviet Era undergarments, I believe in France, and the shape of underwear itself was something to behold. I sometimes wonder if they purposely tried making clothing look so awful. There was a running joke at the time, that there was a left shoe factory and a right shoe factory. The left shoe factory broke, so they just put two right shoes for retail. This referred to the fact that there was literally, only one prototype of a shoe. This below is an excellent article on the state of clothing during USSR complete with pictures.
GK: Omg. Readers, just go to the link…look at what passed for underwear. Omg.
It’s important to understand, that this wasn’t just about some underwear or a pair of jeans. USSR robbed people of their dignity, individuality, and any sense of beauty. They banked on the idea that if they have no information coming into the Soviet Union, then no one would know. But this ultimately underestimated the human nature. Human nature needs beauty, and eloquence to thrive. It needs a place to speak its voice loud and clear, its own individual voice. It needs self-respect and a cultivation of passions to stimulate creation. In a word, people knew what they were missing and wanted it that much more.
GK: I’m going to bold your statement about dignity. That is, I think, at the heart of what makes communism and socialism, or any dictatorship so terrible.
If I could pick one word to describe the Soviet life, it was “lies”. The state lied to us about history, productivity, beauty, the future and the state of our nation. In return, we had to keep quiet about our views, our interests, and our thoughts. We had to lie about what we produced and how much, what we wanted and what we were doing with our lives. No shift from the typical mentality was allowed.
This is a faint memory for me, but a much more central for my parents. I recently watched the now undercover media outlet in Russia on YouTube (which Putin is preparing to ban soon), where the newscaster interviewed a correspondent in Kyiv, who was there for a limited time but now ended up being stuck there during the war (“war”: a word that is now punishable in Russia with a 15 year term). She said how strange it was, being around people who said what they wanted. She said that after being in Kyiv for a few weeks, she started doing it as well. She said, how easy it is, to get used to this concept, free speech. How quickly she adopted to that.
In the 80’s, when I was a little girl, was a time of amazing reforms. For the first time singers would sing about the utter sadness and the doom of that life. They would sing about the lack of freedoms, the forced ugliness, the lack of artistic freedom. No one still dared to protest.
When we finally arrive in Italy in 1989, my father told me a story. He said that there was once a director from Soviet Union who came on a tour to Rome. He saw as the twilight was descending people laughing and walking down the street in masks, dressed in beautiful clothes. He asked the concierge what was the holiday that they were celebrating. The answer was, there was no holiday, this was just how people were here. He defected from the Soviet Union the next day.
GK: I don’t blame him. How did your family decide to leave?
It was my mother that was the impetus for us to leave USSR. She said to me once that she would have done it in the 70’s, but I was born in 76, and she didn’t think it would be safe to travel with an infant. The border got closed in 78’ and didn’t reopen until 1989. She said, she didn’t want me to live that way, always looking over my shoulder. She felt that to live in USSR meant I would have no future. She was right. What reward is there in a country that doesn’t value achievement? That deleted the truth and silences the people instead of addresses its problems? The kind of system that has no checks and balances to it? The kind that deals with issues by pretending they don’t exist and sends anyone who voices opinions on those issues to a prison cell?
Everyone wanted to leave. A million people immediately packed what they could take with them and left. In 1989, when the border opened, a million people left immediately and the number was so large, that it took almost a year for US embassy to process us all. If you need to know whether something is bad, the best indicator is, how many people from all walks of life are running away from it. When a million people leave at once, that is the best indicator you can get.
GK: Readers, this concludes the end of part I. We have at least two, maybe three more parts to come (Depending on how I decide to break up the interview. I’ve been transcribing it little by little). Please feel free to contact Tove if you have any questions. She kindly allowed for this and I give her email above. I’m hoping to have part II next week. Until then, be well.