As I write this, I’m sitting in an art gallery in Pawling, where I currently have work in a show. Today is my turn to gallery sit. Of course, today was also one of those crazy days where I just couldn’t seem to get out of the house on time (and I loathe being late). All my frustration melted away though on the drive here. I live about an hour from Pawling, NY and the drive was refreshing: the trees are starting to turn so there was a panoply of color, perhaps not as vibrant as some years, but still beautiful, and it’s finally, FINALLY getting chilly. I just hope it stays so. I’m happiest when it’s 65 and overcast. Lol.
I haven’t had much of a chance to post updates here the past week or so. Of course, we’re preparing for Winternights, and the slew of ancestor holy days that round off October and guide us into the time of the Hunt. Normally, readers who subscribe to my newsletter would have gotten a fuller update, but I’ve had some problems with mailchimp and I’m in the process of moving to a different distributor. October’s newsletter is going to be a little late but it will happen.
Meanwhile, since it’s harvest time and a nice time to put root vegetables to work, here is my household’s recipe for borscht. This is an incredibly nutritious soup. When I was cooking it last week, I actually said to a friend that it’s probably the healthiest thing I’ve ever cooked! Every Ukrainian household has its own iteration of borscht, so if you have a recipe that looks different from this, that’s ok. There are as many borscht recipes as there are people to cook it.
UNESCO has recently declared Ukrainian borscht an endangered cultural tradition. It’s the perfect food for chilly weather and if you’re sick, as my Ukrainian house mate told me, it’ll cure what ails you. Lol. She was quite adamant too, about how it should be prepared. My kin on my dad’s side are Lithuanian, so borscht was never really a thing for us. I have opinions on vertinas (dumplings) though every bit as fierce as any Ukrainian cook on the subject of borscht. So, if this isn’t the way your family makes it, that’s ok. There are as many variations as there are cooks to make them.
Also, this is a soup that will keep. There’s a Ukrainian saying: the best borscht is yesterday’s borscht. It keeps well and is best served with a dollop of sour cream (I don’t like sour cream so to my house-mate’s horror, I omit this in my own portion), a garnish of parsley, dill, and some good, hearty bread. Enjoy.
Traditional Ukrainian Borsch
4-5 medium beets (diced)
3 cups cabbage (shredded)
2-3 medium carrots (diced)
4 medium potatoes (cut into 1-inch pieces)
2-3 pounds of beef shank (bone in if possible. You can remove the bone after the stock is made. It’ll be tastier with the bone.)
1 onion (diced)
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar (I add more to taste usually, and sometimes even a bit of red wine)
Olive oil and butter
2 garlic cloves (minced)
salt (to taste)
Freshly ground pepper (to taste)
For the broth (which can be made the night before)
10 cups water
2-3 lbs beef shank with bone
3 bay leaves
10 whole peppercorns (I just pour out a handful and toss them in)
2 carrots (peeled and cut in half)
1 onion (peeled and cut in half)
sour cream (optional)
fresh dill, parsley, and scallions (finely chopped)
- Place the meat (leave the bone in), water, carrot, onion, peppercorns and bay leaves in a large pot and bring to boil. Turn the heat down to very low and simmer for about 3 hours.
- Take the meat out, let cool and cut into pieces. According to my house-mate, one should aim to get two to three bites out of every piece of the meat so when cutting it up, size that accordingly.
- Filter the broth through cheesecloth and put back on the stove.
- Start bringing the broth back to boil over medium heat.
- Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet (use the largest you have). Place beets in the skillet and cook over medium high heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add about half a stick of butter, maybe another dollop of olive oil followed by onions and carrots. Add salt to taste.
- Continue cooking for 10 minutes then add tomato paste, vinegar, sugar and 1 cup of hot broth. Turn the heat to medium and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add red wine (optional—a good dollop), adjust vinegar as desired.
- Add the meat and potatoes to the boiling broth and cook for 15 minutes. Add more salt and pepper as desired.
- Now, add the beets, carrots and onions and wait until borscht comes back to boil.
- Add the shredded cabbage with chopped garlic and cook for 15 minutes –until the cabbage isn’t hard.
- Add salt and pepper to taste just before the borsch is done, but taste it first to make sure you’re not over-salting. I personally have a rather heavy hand with the salt. All the salt in our home is blessed to drive out evil, which has only made me have a heaver hand with it in cooking! I really have to watch myself. IF you end up oversalting, boil up a couple of potatoes and add them to the borscht. They’ll absorb some of the salt and help balance out the taste. This works for any stew or soup. Of course, peel the potatoes and cut them into one inch chunks before setting them to cook.
- Turn off the heat, cover, and let sit for a half hour.
- Sprinkle the dill, parsley, and/or scallions in the bowl just before serving—I do this to each individual bowl rather than on the whole pot. Likewise, I add a dollop of sour cream to each bowl, not the entire pot.
The recipe is a guide…if you want to add more carrots, more beets, more potatoes or meat, go for it. I tend to have a rather heavy hand with salt so keep that in mind. Also, balsamic vinegar and/or red wine will make the stew tastier, but this can translate as saltier to the palate so taste as you go and adjust accordingly. Serve with a good hearty bread.
That’s all from me for today. I’ve got to get back to work. Since we are in the time of all our ancestral holy days, and since food ways are an intrinsic and powerful part of remembrance and honoring our dead, feel free to talk about your family’s foodways, special ancestral dishes, and such in the comments. ^_^
You can donate to help Ukraine and have whatever you want inscribed on a shell here. It’s very important to follow payment instructions precisely.
Slava Ukraini. Geroim Slava.
not my holiday but I can’t help posting these. “eggs” in Russian and Ukrainian can be slang for “balls.” The title of this article is “our balls/eggs are stronger” referring to an easter custom (that my Lithuanian family also practiced) of cracking eggs together to see which one broke first. the unbroken one had luck for the coming year. You can pop the link into google and get a translation.
My Ukrainian friend sent this to me, cracking up at the memes. For those who do celebrate easter (this weekend is Orthodox easter), have a blessed one. For those, like me, who do not, enjoy the memes in the article. Here’s one of my favorites. Easter bunny came to visit and gave a present to the Russian ship Moskva. *snickers*. (As an aside, if you do Russian on Duo Lingo, there’s an awful lot of “do you have “eggs”?” questions. My friend overheard one of the lessons and burst into laughter saying that whoever put the content together was having a bit of fun. ha ha).
As promised, here is part 2 of a much longer interview that I conducted recently with Ukrainian Freyja’s woman Tove Freyjadottir. You may find Part I here if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Now, let’s jump right into part two. My questions are in bold and then Tove’s response unbolded. If there is bolded text in her response, it is her own emphasis.
GK: What is at stake for Ukraine here? What factors do you think contributed to the current war? How did we get here? I ask this, because many of my readers, especially in the USA, may not be aware of the history and politics that led up to this current point. It’s a long, long story.
Tove: What is at stake? Well, if Ukraine succeeds and wins this war, repelling Russia to its natural internationally established borders, it will spell the end of Russia as we know it. Putin will likely not be able to sustain power after a defeat of this kind. Of course, this is why we also know by past experience that no matter what his diplomats say during the negotiations, he will not stop.
For Ukraine, should Ukraine lose this war, its existence will be wiped off from the face of the earth. Almost every man, woman and child will be executed, tortured, or shipped off to Siberia or some place even worse.
Galina: for those who may doubt the veracity of this, this is precisely what happened when Lithuania was taken by the USSR. Native Lithuanians were shipped out, native Russians shipped in. It’s an old, old strategy of colonization and conquest. We’re already seeing this with Russian aggression in Bucha and other parts of the Ukraine that have been occupied.
Exactly. Ukraine’s land will be milked by Russia for all that it can give until no life will be left in it, because Russia will do what it has done for years to its own people – rob and blame someone else for it. Ukrainian history, language, art, and culture will be deleted off the face of the earth or appropriated as Russian. This is particularly important to understand for those who urge Ukraine to negotiate for peace with Russia or those who would like the West to put pressure on Ukraine to negotiate for peace – any area of Ukraine, over which Russia takes control, will suffer the fate of Buchi. The two regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russia has controlled since 2014, are home to the most inhumane human rights abuses, and one of the most notorious prisons in the world. There has been a culling in that region, people who spoke out against the occupation have disappeared now for years, services have been reduced to almost nothing, and every cultural location and center have been deleted. The very prison I mention above was created inside of a museum of Soviet architecture, where all art was either burned or melted and a prison was built in its place. The entire area is a concentration camp which has been operating for so long, it’s a ghost town. Many more will be killed if Ukraine surrenders and all of it will become a sparsely occupied land of slavery, murder, and degradation.
This invasion has already essentially threatened every nuclear non-proliferation in existence, because it announced to the world that alliances only hold when convenient and encourages the idea that if a nation wants to guarantee its security, it must be nuclear capable. We can now, and probably should, expect every nation to attempt to grow its nuclear arsenal and only hope that MAD will keep the world safe from a nuclear war. The way that the West has dealt with the Ukraine issue virtually guarantees it.
It’s as simple as an if-then statement. Ukraine in 1994 surrenders over 3,000 nuclear warheads – to Russia no less! – in return for US, Britain and Russia guaranteeing its security. It was not spoken at the time, but completely understood by all sides, that this need for security comes from its concern that at some point, Russia will attempt to invade Ukraine. Ukraine was invaded in 2014 and a portion of its territory taken over by the Russian military, following an overthrow of then –read “Putin’s flunkey” –President Yanukovich who decided that he could disregard the wishes of a nation and instead favor his own alliances when making public policy. US and Britain did nothing to stop this or help Ukraine take their land back, instead we all watched as there is a mock referendum under Russian rifles with more people voting than actual people living in the region. So…. What does this mean for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty that Ukraine, US and Britain signed?
Russia invades again in 2022. United States vows it will not get involved in another war, which is completely understandable since we just exited Afghanistan. That is wise – except again, we default on the agreement that we will not allow Ukraine’s security to be jeopardized after it gave up 3,000 nuclear warheads in 1994. I ask, if you were another country with an aggressive neighbor and had a signed nuclear non-proliferation treaty with US, how safe would this treaty make you feel? What if the neighbor was a nuclear power, like Russia? How valuable is a treaty when it’s just been exemplified to the entire world that no one had any intention to honor it if its inconvenient? If I were an advisor to Ukraine, immediately following this war I would begin its nuclear weapons production. It seems to be the only thing that Russians understand and the one thing that will keep them from invading (maybe.)
Galina: as an historian (particularly an historian with a Native American husband), I have to point out that the US has a shit record for maintaining its treaties, alliances, and protecting its allies. Though, it does a better job than Russia.
NATO’s reaction to this conflict is particularly troubling. Although this is not officially written into their charter, NATO was specifically formed to repel the encroachment of Soviet Union. Since Russia has somehow been able to take over the seat of USSR on the UN Security Council, we can safely assume that UN – and NATO – essentially sees Russia and USSR as the same threat. NATO has repeatedly stated that they will not be involved militarily into the conflict in Ukraine. So, an organization that was specifically created with the purpose of preventing Russia’s expansion, has refused to get involved militarily into their war of expansion. The reason seems to be because Russia is a nuclear power. So, will this reason will stand when it comes to Poland, or the Baltics? NATO has expressly stated that they will not be involved. It’s important to prevent a nuclear war, but their non-involvement essentially negates the purpose of their existence. Despite their loud statements, their actions suggest that they will not get involved with Russia, or any nuclear power, no matter what they will do, including genocide and entire annihilation of a nation-state.
These are simply cold and hard geopolitical facts, and if Ukraine loses, we can expect much worse compared to this. We can now forget the goal of universal disarmament or hope that NATO will prevent annihilation of entire nations via Russian expansionism. However, there is a deeper and much more fundamental issue at stake here that can dis-balance the world in an even more fundamental way.
Ukraine, a democratic nation, is fighting with an autocratic nation 10 times its size. If Ukraine loses, it will be a case of a democratic nation falling to a dictatorial one, not due to internal conflicts or lack of cohesion, but due to an outside invasion of an aggressor we failed to stop. It will mean that a strong man nation can do as it likes with the world doing nothing to stop it, it will mean that might equals right without any boundaries. It will mean that diplomacy and international rule of law does not exist. It will be a failure of not just democracy in Ukraine, but failure of the democracies around the world to support one. We will likely see democracies fall across the world at an alarming rate, because we have just proven to dictatorships around the world that we are unwilling to stop them and so they can act with impunity.
We must acknowledge this reality, otherwise we are playing fire with suspension of disbelief. However, suspension of disbelief will not work this time, because reality is here. Not dealing with it will be pretty much like ignoring your student loans – one day, your wages will be garnished and there will be nothing you can do about it then.
I have heard many Western leaders – as well as Ukrainian political figures – in the last month say that Ukraine’s fight is a fight for democracy and for the ideals that the West espouses. I know we have heard our leaders use this rhetoric before, and frequently with some pretty bad results, so I realize how suspicious this type of language can be. That being said, in this case, it’s not only accurate, it fails, due to its frequent misuse in the past, to grasp the gravity of how true this statement is. For the very first time in a long time, we are actually asked to stand for democracy and liberty. We are asked if we truly espouse our values, in democracy, free speech and free society.
GK: Why such extreme scenarios? What are the reasons for the zero-sum game in this case?
This may seem farfetched to those not intimately familiar with Russian and Ukrainian history, but the plain truth of this situation is this: a democratic Ukraine cannot exist next to an autocratic Russia. This simply cannot be and the Moscow of today will do what it can to prevent it. There are various historical, ethical, religious, and ideological factors at play here that make this attack inevitable in my view, and I will dive into the historical portions of it, because they are central to this. History aside however, as of now, the most important fact that must be understood is this: on the territory encompassing Ukraine and Russia, there can be only one model of government – Putin’s model or the model of a democratic Ukraine. Both cannot exist at the same time. The survival of Russia’s autocracy depends on this.
GK: Historically, Russia has never really been free. They’ve never had the type of democracy that exists in the Ukraine or other Western nations. There was Tsarism, Communism, gang-rule, and Putin. There isn’t a history of freedom really …ever.
That’s why I am not exaggerating here. If in a black mirror universe Zelensky announces that he is disbanding the Rada (Ukrainian Parliament), declares himself President for Life, that all laws will come from him and are essentially him, this war will end. Putin will give Zelensky a call, commence friendly relations, and Russian troops will immediately exit the territory of Ukraine. A dictatorship is something that Russia can understand and get behind. This is as simple as a math equation – a democratic Ukraine cannot exist next to a dictatorial Russia. Either Russia will turn Ukraine into a dictatorship or destroy it. Allowing it to stand as it is now, developing a Western democratic government, would spell the disintegration of the current Russia as we know it.
See, what’s important here is to understand that Putin is afraid, he is afraid for his own skin.
He has committed many crimes, before he ever invaded Ukraine, and he is afraid. He is fighting for his own skin and the skins of his cohorts, and they are all criminals. If he loses this war, and democracy comes to Russia, he will need to answer for everything he has done.
GK: It is fascinating seeing pictures of Putin with his top military advisors. He’s totally isolated at one end of a huge table and I thought, “that’s a man afraid of his own.”
Seriously. If Russians do not take a hold of their own country, and deal with Putin right now, Russia will fall apart into small little parts
GK: Disintegration of Russia? How would this look like? And why?
If Russia fails to either turn Ukraine into a dictatorial state with itself as a model, or annihilate it from existence, it will spell the end of the modern current Russia. It will substantially weaken and eventually end the reign of Putin’s presidency. Russia is not simply a monolithic nation, it’s comprised of federations that have their distinct cultural and regional histories, traditions, and beliefs. With the end of a strong and powerful regime and leader, these federations, during the commencement of the power struggle that would occur as a result of the power vacuum after Putin’s departure, will each opt for their independence. This will not only be Chechnya; Siberia, Ural, and other regions, that have their own religious and historical story to tell, they will all become their own autonomous nations. One only has to look at the particular cultural identity and history of Siberia and look back at the days when Communists would kidnap Siberian shamans and with the words “you think you can journey and fly? Let’s see if you can fly now” throw them out of planes to destroy the culture of those regions to understand the deeply buried animosity that can easily develop into a need to self-actualize.
GK: Yes, readers, historically this was exactly how the Communists treated the shamans of Siberian tribes. I can confirm this from my own research.
In a word, one can argue that Russia is also fighting for its survival. Putin understands that once Ukraine becomes democratic, it will be the end of his reign. Of course, if Russia would have true democratic elections, none of this would have had to happen, but for a nation that has never had a democracy in place this is not an option that is likely to occur.
GK: What ideological ideas do you think play a role in this conflict and how?
In the history of Russia and Ukraine, there have been two unrealized but incredibly monumental projects, incredibly lofty dreams. Both of these have been unrealized as yet, and either one would change both nations as we know it if they did.
The first is the dream of Westernization. This was a dream of Peter the Great, who modernized and Westernized Russian society, economy, and military. He was one of the greatest Russian Tsars, and one who coined an expression “make a window into the West” but was unfortunately only partially successful. This was a project that he never got to finish. This project again came close to becoming a reality with the First Russian Revolution, the February Revolution of 1917. It was the Second, October Revolution, that came within the year of the first that brought communism to Russia.
GK: the people slaughtered a sacral leader. I understand why – Nicholas was an incompetent leader – but that brings a horrible curse on the land. It’s pathological.
The first revolution was the revolution of the bourgeoisie, of Western thought, of intellectualism and liberalism. Some of the greatest Russian thinkers of the 20th century, originally repressed by the tsar, came to the fore and wanted to become a part of the new Russia. This attempt at Westernization also failed however, because the bourgeoisie were a temporary government that had only partial power. The remainder of the power was in the hands of the workers and freed slaves (the serfs) that were freed less than a 100 years ago but that still were living essentially the way they did prior to the end of serfdom. During this brief window before it closed via the second communist revolution, there was an unrealized possibility: a dream not only of Westernization, but also a democracy.
The second unrealized dream was one of independent Ukraine, or, as it is called now in Ukraine, “Незалежна Україна”. This second dream was very much like the first dream in its zenith, one of democracy, but not for the whole of Russia, but specifically for Ukraine.
It is this burgeoning dream, one of independence and democracy, that Ukraine is trying to make a reality today. I say “still trying to realize” because Ukraine may have obtained its formal legal independence in 1991, but Russia has consistently tried for the past 30 years to undermine its dream of democracy and Westernization by offering Ukraine money in return for its voice and its favor, by flooding its political parties with deputies and candidates that have been vetted by Russia’s FSB secret police or in many cases actively working for them, by bribing its businessmen to favor Russia’s policies and in many other ways. Russia has tried to do anything and everything they could possibly do to keep this democracy from taking hold. But make no mistake, the 1991 independence of Ukraine, its 2004 revolution and again the Maidan Revolution of Dignity of 2014 – all of these have been Ukraine’s efforts to make this project of a democratic and Westernized Ukraine a reality. This is why the subject of “repression of Russian minority within Ukraine” is a complex one – what do you do when a good portion of the Russian population in the country is likely working for the Russian spy network with plans to subvert and curb Ukrainian democratic systems? What do you as a country when political parties are formed with the intent to undermine the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state, parties that are funded by foreign governments with plans to occupy the land and take away its independence? Ukraine has walked a tight rope between probably its most favorite of democratic ideals – free speech – and its reluctant need to deal with situations of outright treason and foreign agents working on its lands. These are not mere allegations, many political figures within these parties have currently used the invasion of Ukraine and occupation of certain towns to force them to acknowledge them as new mayors which they did not elect and then announce they are separating from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation – in the midst of large scale protests of the people, under Russian gunfire.
At this point, Putin has able to create this system of absolute power, and they all answer to him. However, if Ukraine becomes an independent country, a democratic nation, it will give Russia an idea that they have never had. Russia has no such lofty idea, up to now they have known only one way to live- with a tsar and an empire. They have no other ideas. If this idea cannot be actualized for them, it will be all over.
GK: Russia has been repeatedly saying that Ukraine is a new idea, a new nation, and we know that it was founded in 1991. Is there a historical precedent to the Ukrainian nationality? Or was it, as Russia says, simply a Russian ethnicity simply speaking a dialect of Russian?
To say, as Putin has, that Ukraine is an invention of USSR is not only incorrect, it’s laughable. This is easy to disprove – just ask the Turks. They have been fighting and making peace treaties with Ukraine for at least 500 years.
This dream of an independent Ukraine is not a recent creation. It’s incredibly old. One can say that it started on the steppes of Ukraine approximately 500 years ago, when the Cossacks formed their own autonomous nation called Zaporozhia Sech. They were the first ones to refer to the wild uninhabited lands as Ukraine. To conceptualize how incredibly long ago this was, United States as a nation has only existed under 250 years.
Even on the linguistic level, one can trace the development of Russian language via a transition of a more ancient form of Ukrainian through an ancient language called Church Slavonic.
GK: I’ve studied both Russian and Ukrainian, and omg, it is so obvious to anyone with a linguistic background that Ukrainian is the original language, the older language. Russian is polished, and we have Cyril and Methodius and a healthy dose of Byzantine culture to thank for that. Russia is the language of imperium and orthodox Christianity.
This is why we often hear that Ukraine is the beginning of Russia. Russian culture evolved out of the roots of Ukraine. This is why so many traditions, even culinary recipes, are found in both Russia and Ukraine. Add to it a history of autonomy and nationhood, treaties created and broken, freedoms granted and acknowledged, Russification, repression, imprisonment, and ethnic cleansing, and you will end up with two nations, one placing the other in bondage and committing mass murder and torture all the while claiming love and fraternity.
The most important thing in understanding the historical dimension of this conflict is to understand that Russia and Ukraine describe history of the past 1,000 years in different and sometimes diametrically opposing ways. In a word, you can read Russia’s view on historical events involving Ukraine’s history, and find the same events described in a completely different light by Ukraine. I will try my best to point out what they agree on, and what they disagree on, and make my own opinions, based on what information we have. Should you attempt to look for historical information on both nations, your sources will tell you what they think of history.
Archeologists would echo the humor in this statement because we can actually trace the Ukrainian people currently living in that territory as far as the Stone Age and even further. There is evidence of the people migrating to the Dnieper River from Africa around 44,000 years ago, and if we go into pre-history, to our cousins the Neanderthals, we find evidence of them residing in the area about 150,000 years ago. There are even bones of Homo-Erectus found going back about a million and a half years ago at an archeological cite discovered about 10 years ago on the territory of Ukraine. Humans occupied the territory of present-day Ukraine since the height of the ice age, and there have been continuous settlements there. DNA shows this progression in the modern Ukrainians themselves, it’s undeniable on a biological level. There are over 200 cites discovered all over Ukraine that show this to be a fact. To summarize, Ukraine is one of the oldest human settlements in the world.
GK: Those interested can learn more here.
Tribes formed there ever since, the Cukuteni-Trypillians replaced by the Cimmerians, who were in turn replaced by the Scythians and then by the Sarmatians. It was even a home to Greek colonies on the Northern Black Sea and saw the formation of the Pontic Kingdom, who was then defeated by the Roman Empire. In short, this ancient land has been home to many ancient civilizations, each a zenith of their own time period. It was in the III century AD. between the Don and the Danube appeared Goths who came from the north. The Snake Island, made famous at present by the defiant response of the Ukrainian officers, was a sacred resting place of the Greek Hero Achilles. Many Greek temples are found in that area, specifically to Apollo. Even today there is a small population of ethnic Greeks living in Ukraine who speak a version of ancient Greek known as Pontic Greek.
The roots of these two nations come from the same place – Kyivan Rus’ with its capital Kyiv. Its important to note here that “Rus’” is not the modern country we know today as Russia (“Russia”). This is an 8th century ancient dynasty that no longer exists. This was the first Slavic kingdom, loosely joined together by multiple small principalities. This kingdom existed from 9th to 13th century, coming to an end when the Golden Horde attacked Kyiv and leveled it. The great Kyevan Rus’, founded by the Vladimir the Great and the Yarosav the Wise, the Rurik Dynasty, was invaded and pillaged in 1237 by the Golden Horde. When the Golden Horde invaded the ancient lands of Ukraine, Moscow was virtually non-existent, a tiny town built around a swamp. The Golden Horde concentrated its power in Moscow and strengthened it against foreign nations around it.
This Kingdom, Kyivan Rus’, is one of Putin’s major arguments why Ukraine is a part of Russia. However, this is inaccurate, as even the name suggests. The truth is, Kyivan Rus’ was, at most favorable to Russia, a nation that was the predecessor of Ukraine and Russia, an ancient kingdom that preceded both nations. In truth, however, it was formed before the existence of Moscow with Kyiv as its capital, and some arguments have been made that rather than Russia, this was actually the beginning of Ukraine, with Russia eventually forming and gaining power during the reign of the Golden Horde. If anything, however, this common root in itself, Kyivan Rus’, has also become a part of the dispute. Since the first great Slavic kingdom was the Kyivan Rus’ with its capital in Kyiv and its formal language an archaic version of Ukrainian, did Ukraine in effect exist prior to Russia and this great kingdom was Ukrainian, or was it Russian, its existence temporarily destroyed by the Golden Horde and re-established after it has been weakened and left the Slavic lands? Ukraine says it was Ukrainian, while Russia says it was Russian. What you calculate in that the population of these countries spoke an ancient version of Ukrainian, lived on the territory of present-day Ukraine, and have direct DNA connection to these people, the argument that this nation, Kyivan Rus’, was actually the first Ukrainian nation, rather than Russian, does hold some ground. Genetic records certainly back this up and show that modern Ukrainian DNA connects to the people who lived in that area since the Bronze Age, likely to the Yamnaya culture.
In the IV century, the Huns invaded the Black Sea steppes from the depths of Asia, pushing the Goths to the remote regions of the Crimea. This is why the actual indigenous population of Crimea are the descendants of the Tatar tribes.
GK: Crimea: there has been a lot of discussion on whether its historically and ethnically Russian or Ukrainian. What is your take?
My father used to say, if you want to know who are the actual indigenous populations of the land, go to the cemeteries and look at the headstones. The oldest grave sites will tell you the true story. Crimea may have been won by Russia in 1856 and given to Ukraine in the 50’s by Khrushev, but the Tatar gravesites on the peninsula go back over 2,000 years. The Crimean Tatars are a small indigenous population in Crimea. Since 1856, consistently repressed first by the tsarist Russia, deported, killed, and sent into camps by Stalin, and eventually repatriated back to Crimea once it was safe, in 1989-1994, after the Fall of the Soviet Union.
There is a reason why the Tatars came back to their indigenous home only after the fall of the USSR, and this tells us which nation treated the indigenous best, at least in their view. They came back because they knew that as part of Ukraine, their minority status will be respected. Indeed, Ukraine is probably the only country in the world (safe from the obvious example of Israel) that has purposely and consciously elected a Jewish President into office, a president that has always known he was Jewish and made no secret of it. This was simply not an issue during his election. If you have any questions about how Russia treats minorities, take a look at how it has treated the Crimean Tatars since they illegally annexed the peninsula in 2014. Their cultural centers and museums have been closed, their language has been outlawed, and anyone demanding the repeal of this has “disappeared”. In fact, the Crimean Tatars have asked the NGOs who have tried to get involved to stop speaking to Russian authorities about it, because this only causes purges and disappearances.
GK: Back to Ukrainian history – you said that it was when the Golden Horde decimated the Kyevan Rus’ that the population of Russia and Ukraine started to develop a separate history. How did this come about?
The great Kyevan Rus’, founded by the Vladimir the Great and the Yarosav the Wise, the Rurik Dynasty, was invaded and pillaged in 1237 by the Golden Horde. The Golden Horde concentrated its power in Moscow and strengthened it against the neighboring countries.
This is when the path of Ukraine splits from the path of Russia. What is also fascinating and a little bit disturbing is how Russian history, down to their history books in primary schools, tells a distinctly opposite historical account. This is a very important feature as to why this war has occurred. There are two narratives that are in play here, and the Ukrainian has been mostly silenced until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
After the power of the Golden Horde waned, the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth has taken over the lands we know today to be Ukraine. Poland is largely a Catholic country, and while there were some nobles who were Ukrainian and Christian Orthodox, these eventually lost their language and adopted the Catholic faith to curry favor with the controlling elite.
GK: It pisses me off so much. Lithuania held onto her traditional polytheism until one of its Grand Dukes married a Polish princess in the 14th c. It sickens me. History shows when polytheists marry outside of their own traditions, those traditions suffer up to and including eradication.
Absolutely. That is so true. Moreover, this all left the peasants alone and unprotected, subject to increasingly repressive laws. The divide between the Catholic and the Orthodox also created a lower and repressed class of citizens. Fairly quickly the Ukrainians were prohibited from owning land – leaving the land of their lord, essentially creating a slave class called serfs with little to no rights. So repressive was this regime with no representation, that many serfs escaped to the wild steppes of Ukraine, which were dangerous, and frequented by bands of Turks looking to kidnap them and sell them as slaves, rather than remain at the behest of the Polish lords.
The land of Ukraine was wild and uninhabited, a dangerous place, and those living there could fall victim to attacks from the Turkish Tatars. The Crimean Tatars were a slave dependent economy. To give you an impression of the extent of this, between the years of 1450 – 1586, there were 86 raids and 1600 – 1647 – 70. Each raid could bring as many as 30,000 kidnapped Ukrainians, but usually it was around 3,000. The serfs who moved to the steppes for freedom would have been very vulnerable to these attacks.
The Cossacks were not a specific ethnicity, they came from the surrounding regions looking for the freedom to form their own lives. In fact, the word quasaq itself is derived from Turkish, it means “freeman”. The first Cossacks started to appear in the steppes of Ukraine during the 1500’s, and eventually started to form their own structured society, complete with a powerful military. By 1600’s, they would make the raids on the Turkish villages themselves.
For centuries, Cossacks aligned themselves, and by turn, fought with, the Turks, the Rzeczpospolita (Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth) the Tsardom of Russia, the Crimean Khanate, and the Ottoman Empire. They were no longer freemen looking for adventure, they formed their own society, with an elite class and a full functioning army. Upon joining the Cossacks, a person had to undergo 7 rigorous years of military service. There were no prisons, but this is because the punishments were strict – a Cossack who killed a fellow Cossack would either be buried alive with the dead body or beaten to death. This nicely prevented misbehavior.
One of the most fascinating things about the Cossacks is that they had one of the first types of democratic societies in the world. Their leader, called a hetman, was an elected position. During the time of war, he was followed without question, but during the time of peace, he could easily be criticized or even replaced if he should become unpopular amongst his men. The term of office was unlimited – until the people decided it needed to end.
The Cossacks were infamous for being powerful warriors on the field of battle, for mastering gun powder, and for their small and agile ships, called chaiki. They were passionately democratic and furiously against any control over them by another state. All officials were elected, and they had a speakers circle, called ocrug. When the ocrug was held, everyone had the right to speak. There was a saying amongst the Cossacks, that a man’s wife is not his servant, but the truest friend and the best of counsel. I often wonder to myself, is this why the Ukrainian word for wife is “дружина”, the root of which means friend? I am not a philologist or a linguist, but I do like to think that it may be.
GK: yeah. In Russian when a woman gets married she “goes behind her husband”. When a man gets married, “he takes a wife.” That’s quite a different model.
Yep. In fact, Cossack women enjoyed a great deal more freedom that women did in Russia during this time period. There have even been a few instances when they themselves lead armies when their husbands were dead or taken prisoner, and have been jailed by the aggravated Russians for doing so.
While Ukraine currently is a democracy and the office of the president has limits to his term,
It amuses me to compare the old Cossack system of government to modern Ukraine, and reminds me of how Zelensky refuses to grant Russia’s demands without a referendum. There is a continuity there – if the Cossack leaders remove themselves too far from the wishes of the people, they will be removed from office.
While in the beginning the Cossacks were committed to fighting the Tatars, sometimes joining the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, they started to eventually turn away from that alliance because the Polish King would renege on the promises he made as soon as the battle was over.
So here you need to bear with me, because here enters the convoluted history of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Pereiaslav Articles of 1659, Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654 and the dismally different ways in which Russia and Ukraine view both these documents. To stress how important these two documents, are, written almost 400 years ago, are, they actually played a part in why it was specifically Crimea that Russia invaded and occupied since 2014, claiming it should really be a part of Russia.
Bohdan Khmelnytsky, born in 1596, came from a noble family. He joined the Cossack ranks after a Polish aristocrat killed his son and his wife and burned his house to the ground. To him, and to many, this was an example of how uneven the relationship between the Ukrainians and the Pole has been at the time. The Cossacks have continuously demanded for rights on par with the Poles for their nobility, but the Poles would not give in. This response was influenced by the fact that the Polish nobility were Catholic and the Ukrainian Cossacks were Christian Orthodox. Following the murder of his family, Bohdan Khmelytsky caused an uprising that made him legendary as a hetman. Allied with the Crimean Tatars, after several decisive battles in which he and the Cossacks were victorious, he negotiated a peace in 1649 with King John II of Poland. The agreement recognized an autonomous Cossack state within the Commonwealth called Zaporozhian Hetmanate.
However, the Cossacks had too many enemies and this was a vulnerability – the Swedes, the Polish-Lithuanians and the Tatars. Eventually Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the hetman of the Cossacks, decided to make a treaty with the Russian Tsar to protect the autonomy of his people. This is where Russian history rewrites Ukrainian history with a flourish of a fan fiction writer.
In reality, the original treaty, Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654, was a temporary alliance between the entire land of Ukraine, which Bohdan Khmelnytsky claimed, and the Tsar of Russia. This was a necessary alliance for the Cossacks, it would earn them an ally that would support and protect their independence and sovereignty against powerful border nations, the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth especially. Immediately after the agreement was made, the Cossacks, as part of their Treaty with Russia, captured the city of Lviv. The Russian troops captured Vilnius. However, while this was happening, the Swedes unexpectedly attacked the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, and Russia turned around and signed a new Treaty with the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, and repelled the Swedes.
GK: I think this is where one of my favorite anecdotes from Vilnius comes. When the Swedes attacked, the people prayed to Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn (Whom I believe is syncretized with Ausrine, the Goddess of dawn) and the iron gates of the city miraculously fell on the Swedish army killing a ton of them.
A fitting greeting. LOL. After that though, Khmelnytsky was enraged. Not only was he not even invited to the negotiation as one would do with an ally, the treaty between Russia and the Commonwealth was in opposition to the tsar’s Treaty with the Cossacks. To Khmelnitsky, the Russian tsar just reneged on his agreement – and this is after the Russian envoys took it to every province of Ukraine and had every person swear allegiance to it. The agreement stated that Russia was required to supply its troops in defense of the Cossack Hetmanate against the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth. This of course would no longer be possible if the tsar had a separate agreement with the Commonwealth.
Boghdan Khmelnitsky wrote to the Tsar comparing Russian behavior to the Swedes, “The Swedes are an honest people; when they pledge friendship and alliance, they honor their word. However, the Tsar, in establishing an armistice with the Poles and in wishing to return us into their hands, has behaved most heartlessly with us.”
By this time, it was too late. In 1659 the Pereiaslav Articles were brought forth. Khmelnytsky’s government drafted a modified version of the Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654 that was more advantageous to Ukraine (the Zherdev Articles). Taking advantage of the hetman’s difficult position (Pereiaslav was surrounded by a 40,000-man Muscovite army), the Muscovite government rejected the new version and imposed a falsified version of the 1654 treaty and 14 ‘New Articles’ that considerably restricted Ukraine’s sovereignty. This new version forbade the Ukrainian Cossack state to conduct foreign policy or sign military treaties and gave Moscow unrestrained right to station their troops anywhere in Ukraine. The right to elect or depose a hetman, one of the most central foundations of the Cossack life, was forbidden by this “treaty”. The hetman himself was forbidden to appoint or remove members of the General Officer Staff and regimental colonels, and that authority was given exclusively to the Cossacks’ General Military Council. Cossack leaders thenceforth who attempted to break Ukraine away from Muscovy were to be executed, and the Ukrainian Orthodox church was subordinated to the Moscow patriarch.
This is how the people, whose very name descended from the word “freemen” became enslaved.
Russia to this day refutes that they have reneged on the agreement, has stated in various ways that Ukraine and the Cossacks voluntarily wanted to become vassals of the Russian state, and have even at various times in history claimed that Ukrainians always wanted to join the Russians and where one people.
The Cossack Hetmanate became the land of the slaves, and Ukraine was split in two, the Western side going back to Poland and the East – occupied by Russia. The treaty, signed in 1686, lost shortly after, and rumored by the Kremlin to be located in their vaults, once again took the freedom of the Cossacks away.
GK: Tell me more about this treaty. I studied Russian history at least when I was in school the first time around and I never heard of it – which should surprise no one. How many of us educated in the US can go in depth with all the Native treaties that our government has broken?
This treaty that Bohdam Khmelnitsy made with the tsar of Russia, the Pereisaslav Agreement, is one of the most contested, argued over, and contrary pieces of political history in the Russo-Ukrainian political relations. To begin with, the document has been missing almost immediately after it was signed, and each side contests the content in the “copies” that have been made. Russia, for their part, has contended that they have the original, but that they can’t show it on Lenin’s orders. Yes, this is not a typo.
In 1954, during the elaborate celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the Ukrainian-Russian union in the USSR, it was announced – not by scholars but by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – that the Pereiaslav Agreement was the natural culmination of the age-old desire of Ukrainians and Russians to be united and that the union of the two peoples had been the prime goal of the 1648 uprising. In the official Soviet interpretation, Khmelnytsky’s greatness lay in the fact that he understood that “The salvation of the Ukrainian people lay only in unity with the great Russian people.” In “honor” of this agreement, Nikita Khrushev gave Crimea to Ukraine. It has been argued that one of the reasons, besides the obvious strategic ones, that Russia took Crimea in 2014, was because Ukraine was unwilling to grow closer ties with Russia and this insulted the new Russian “tsar”.
In vain did the Cossacks, who provided the tsar with the needed military assistance to extract such a treaty from Poland, tried to align with other nations. Their continued attempts at re-establishing their autonomy only lead to more and more repression, when in 1775, Ukraine became enslaved, and every Ukrainian became a serf. The word Ukraine was banned, the Ukrainian language was banned, and the Eastern Territory was renamed “Malo-Rossia”, which means “little Russia”, showcasing the Russian attempt at Russification. Even the word itself was a prison sentence.
It is likely that Russia has simply destroyed the document and turned the Cossacks into slaves. To be a serf meant you had no right to leave the land of the master who owned it, that you had no right to marry or own the fruits of your own labor. While formally masters originally could not move the serf from the land, this rule eventually became defunct and serfs were often sold. In fact, the first instance of a slave being sold in Britain was a serf.
GK: YES! I learned this just last year in a class I took on colonialism, religion, and race. I was shocked.
Prior to this, the autonomy of the Cossack state was apparent, and declared by the Polish King himself. Their elected leader, Hetman, managed their own national and international policy. After Russia’s influence, the hetman became a post appointed by Moscow and the Cossacks would no longer rule themselves.
Conversely, some Ukrainian politicians such as Ivan Zaets, member of parliament, even take the view to completely ignore the Pereiaslav agreement saying, “that there was no Pereyaslav agreement, as no treaty had been signed at Pereyaslav.” He went on to say, “in the course of three hundred years [of Russian rule] they took our soul and sold it to the devil”
Thus, followed decades of repression and Russification, in turn following rebellions that have been quashed, after which even more repressing policies followed. Ukraine remembering them as fallen heroes for its independence, and Russia calling them traitors – to Russia. Its a pretty familiar pattern. This is how Mazepa was declared a hero of Ukraine, to the indignation of Russia. Mazepa was an educated Ukrainian nobleman who eventually became a Ukrainian hetman and who supported Peter the Great in his war expeditions, until he realized that Peter the Great policies repressed and abused Ukrainian people, and failing to change these, eventually decided to sign a treaty with Sweden. On the field of battle, however, both the Swedes and the Ukrainians lost, and Mazepa was declared a traitor by Peter I. Mazepa was able to sign an agreement in which Sweden recognized Ukraine’s full autonomy and promised the support of its military to ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty against foreign aggression – specifically Russia. As a hetman, his people’s well being was his prime concern, but apparently for Russia, this should have been second to the tsar’s imperialistic aspirations (sounds familiar?) In May 1709, a Russian force destroyed the Cossack Sich and the tsar issued a standing order for the immediate execution of any Zaporozhian who was captured. According to the terms, the Swedish troops would be treated humanely, however, most of the Cossack troops were executed for treason or sent to Siberia. It was a massive defeat which spelled the end of Ukraine’s hope for independence for the next two centuries.
Today, Mazepa is remembered for his rebellion and celebrated for having the courage to fight for an independent Ukraine, and, as a result paying the ultimate sacrifice. In 2009 the Cross of Ivan Mazepa was created to honor Ukrainian citizens who have distinguished themselves. In 2015 the Cross was presented by Ukrainian President Petro Pereshenko to the director of the documentary ‘Winter on Fire’, a film about the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014. Furthermore, the ten hryvnia bank note is dedicated to Ivan Mazepa. He remains one of Ukraine’s strongest symbols of resistance to foreign rule.
Thus, the tradition of associating Ukrainians with Mazepa, which began in the aftermath of the battle of Poltava, continued over the rest of the century, with the terms Mazepist and khokhol expressing the negative attitude toward Ukrainians in the Russian Empire.
Today, the treaty, Mazepa are all used in Russia’s propaganda machine. This is why we hear Russia admonish Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainian nationalism is not new, it has been an unceasing effort for 100s of years to claim its own right to its own soil. To Russia, it has always stood as treasonous – to its own idea of imperialism. The uprising of Stephan Rezin, a Cossack pirate and a leader in 1670, the uprising of Pugachev in 1774 – these are all branded as criminals by Russian law even today. Russia still uses non-existent treaties from 17th century to claim that Ukraine should still be subservient to the Russian Patriarch, and when in 2019 they declared independence from the Russian Orthodox Church it only served as another reason to invade and attempt to subjugate. It has always been an intent of the Russian government to have a puppet government in Ukraine that was under Russian rule.
It’s a Russian tradition, to quench Ukrainian independence, install puppet governments, rename Ukrainian cities, and strip Ukrainian leadership of power and Ukrainians of free elections. All must answer to the Russian “tsar.”
The Cossacks would serve in the tsarist army, and even beat Napoleon back to Paris. Once upon a time, Napoleon said that if he only had 10,000 Cossacks, he would conquer the world. During World War 2, 90% of Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis, so when Russia likes to quote that they lost 30 million people in WW2, they are really referring to USSR, all of the 15 republics. Ukrainians lost about 12 million people during WW2. During Holodomor, a famine induced by Stalin in the year between 1932 and 1933, 7 million more Ukrainian lives were lost. This was done again, to quash the insurgent Ukrainian fight for independence.
GK: I just want to emphasize that: Stalin purposely created a famine with the conscious intent to starve millions of Ukrainians to death. Readers can learn more here.
To this war, to Putin, to all who are trying to figure out, how is it possible that Ukraine is still fighting, and why doesn’t it surrender to salvage the people that are still remaining, I can quote a famous Cossack who was the leader of the last Cossack revolt Pugachev. When he was finally arrested and interrogated, he was asked, how he, a lowly criminal could go against the monarchy. How is it that the people were still fighting when he is incarcerated? He answered: “I am not the raven, only his offspring”.
GK: I think that’s a good place to end part 2. I know this has been a long and deep dive into Ukrainian history, but it’s necessary to know where we all come from, to really understand what’s going on today. There will be a part III so stay tuned, folks. I’ll have it in a week or two, as soon as I have a chance to proof and edit (I only edit for commas, apostrophes, and spelling lol – which Tove fully approved).
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.
His last communication with European leaders stated that it might be the very last time he talked to them. Putin has basically put a bounty on his head. Ukrainian President Zelensky doesn’t have any military training. He was a professional comedian before running for president and yet he is showing terrifying courage in the face of the assault on Kyiv. He has donned fatigues along with leading members of his cabinet and has taken up arms with those fighting the street to defend his nation. Today, he refused American offers to evacuate him, preferring to stay to fight for his nation and his people. THIS is a president. #Standwithukraine
(links to all of this are on my twitter – I tend to post my political stuff there).
Lithuania is preparing an appeal to the Chief Prosecutors of the International Criminal court against Russia for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
There are demonstrations against Russia’s invasion all over the world. Better to call it Putin’s invasion because thousands of Russians are demonstrating against the war and in favor of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and in favor of peace all over their country. They’re getting beaten and arrested for it too.
Putin is threatening Sweden and Finland with “liberation”.
Elderly women (we’re talking in their eighties) are taking up rifles and going out to defend their country in Ukraine.
On the Island of Snakes, (historically where Achilles and Patroclus are said to be buried, an island of heroes), Ukrainian soldiers were told to surrender by a Russian warship. Knowing they would die if they didn’t, their final words were “Fuck you” to the warship. CNN chose to censor their final words. May these soldiers be hailed.
In order to blow up bridge access into Kyiv and thus give the city more time before Russians breached their defenses on the ground, a Ukrainian soldier knowingly blew himself up to detonate the charges. Horatio at the bridge. Hail him.
Putin, after massive losses of manpower has called in Chechen mercenaries. They are colloquially referred to as Putin’s Isis.
The Taliban is counseling restraint in this war, which isn’t telling Putin to back off but is still…weird coming from the taliban (I’m flabbergasted by this, and my brain still doesn’t compute).
Finally, because this amuses me to note- Pornhub has banned users in Russia. They receive a message that they cannot access the service and a picture of the Ukrainian flag.