“Remember Also Me: A Mosaic of Interviews from Ukraine, [part four]” by Laura Swart

This is the fourth of a series of interviews about the war in Ukraine, which began February 24, 2022, with the Russian invasion. Laura Swart interviewed doctors, nurses, hospital patients, security personnel, humanitarian workers, and pastors. The speakers are not identified for security reasons.

Part Four. The Soviet Union

Let’s pretend you were a troublemaker; you wanted to stand up for your religious rights or political rights. The Soviets didn’t arrest you as a religious activist or a political activist. They arrested you as a thief. Because everybody stole; if you didn’t steal, you didn’t eat.

The Soviets taught Ukrainians how to steal and they taught them to drink and how to be totally immoral—because that way you can do whatever you want with the people. So let’s pretend you are a teacher. If the parents don’t give you a nice bribe, you don’t give that student a good mark. And so you can get Party connections or money—in other words, the bribe gets you something that you need. A student that is poor to average, you’re now grading them 90 percent; and brilliant, hard-working students get average marks. So who gets into higher education? My aunt and uncle gave me cousin the equivalent of a year’s wage in bribes just to get her into university. She was able to become an accountant. You still have to provide bribes just to make sure you get the marks. If your parents don’t have the money, you’re not going to get ahead. You’re not even going to get into the program. Do you want to have a surgeon operate on  your gallbladder or appendix who only got through medical school because of money?

I’m a pharmacist. Okay, your child is sick. You you bribe the doctor to get seen and now you got a prescription. Let’s pretend—let’s say something like penicillin. You come to me and my pharmacy. I don’t have penicillin. You put down the equivalent of a day’s wage, and all of a sudden, I’ve got it. But you still have to buy the penicillin. So the whole system was built on corruption and was designed that way. One of my younger first cousins was on a motorcycle with a boyfriend and wiped out, and her knee was totally scraped up and infected. She was in hospital, and they’re doing dressing changes and stuff like that. It’s all a farce. She said the nurses were good to her on the days that her mother could bring butter and eggs for them. If there was no butter and eggs, then she was on her own. This is how the Soviet system works.

The older generation of course, they didn’t teach their kids about the horrors of Stalin, because they didn’t want them to have that memory. It was better if you didn’t know. They were thinking about how to survive in the Soviet system. You don’t want to raise your kids to be troublemakers. Because they’re not going to get an education. They’re not going to advance. They’re gonna be milking cows on the state farm. So again, it’s a denial, denial of identity. Many parents spoke Ukrainian but they taught their kids Russian because they thought that would get them ahead.

Kosta Korcari, Stalin

So, you know, people that grew up under the Soviet yoke were taught that they’re all one great Slavic people. But the eleven percent who voted in the last election for pro-Moscow parties are definitely not pro-Moscow now. Because when soldiers come in rape and pillage and massacre people, that love is gone.

Independence was declared on August 24, 1991. The Communist Party of Ukraine saw this as a way of breaking away from Moscow, but still, they said, to confirm this, we are going to have a referendum on December 1. A film was produced in the West called Harvest of Despair, and it talks about the Holodomor, or death by hunger.* It was translated into Ukrainian, and they showed it prior to the referendum. Now I think seventeen or eighteen percent of the population is ethnic Russian, and ninety-one percent of the population voted for independence. I mean, I’m 100 percent sure that when people were reminded of the horrors of Stalin, what the Russians did to the Ukrainian people, they didn’t want to be part of Moscow because they knew life would be better in Ukraine.

When 1991 happened, it was relatively peaceful. A few people were killed. And so you’ve got these Communist Party directors, all of a sudden became democrats and businessmen—and stole everything—and kept the same system in place. And so again, if you wanted to get higher education, or even public education, or health care—or say you want to open up a restaurant—well, you’ve got to pay a lot of people off just to get the permits. And then organized crime came in. You know, the rackets. Now you gotta pay these people off. Well, you know, who are these people? Remnants of the Communist Party. And some are saying, Oh, how good it was that it was a bloodless regime change. They got independence peacefully. But I think it would have been better if there was some cleaning of the garbage; the corruption would have been reduced, perhaps. I don’t know. That’s only speculation. But independence didn’t clean the garbage out. The price of freedom is sometimes blood. And we’re certainly paying for it now.

I want to tell you that after the Soviet Union fell, many Western countries didn’t even know about the existence of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan. Between Ukraine and Russia, there are plenty of differences. Firstly, in Ukraine, we have freedom of speech, real freedom of speech and freedom of words. You have a right to express yourself in social media; you have a right to belong to any religion that you want to belong; you have a right to make some anti politician protests. If you are not satisfied with the politics of your president and government, you have the full right to demonstrate your dissatisfaction. But Russia right now is a giant country, the citizens of which are victims of propaganda because in Russia, all of the power is in the hands of a few people. And these people have another view of the world. They’re thinking that the Soviet Union didn’t fall—that it still exists, and they are strongly persuaded that Ukraine, Belarus and other post-Soviet Union countries must be in the field of influence, so they don’t have a right to be free, to choose their path or decide how to develop themselves. And that’s why Putin started this invasion at the beginning.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ukrainians and Russians Together!, 1920

People are stuck in the era in which they live. People’s experiences under the Soviet Union were very different than people that were in western Ukraine, because remember, western Ukraine after the First World War, except for that part that was attached to Czechoslovakia, was incorporated into Poland. My dad was born in 1926 in western Ukraine, but technically, he was born under Polish occupation. So, I mean, his life experiences are very different from someone who was born in the 1980s and grew up in Soviet Ukraine.

Look at Finland and Sweden right now. Traditional neutral countries. They’re saying they want to join NATO because they’re scared of Putin. You remember that Finland was invaded by Stalin at the outbreak of Second World War? Stalin wanted to incorporate Finland as part of the Soviet Union. The Finns fought back. They came to a stalemate and made a peace treaty; they gave up a piece of Finland. The condition was neutrality, just like Austria is neutral—but screw this. They don’t want neutral. You think Putin won’t invade a neutral country?


*The Holodomor is the topic for next Thursday.

Laura Swart is a novelist, poet, and playwright. She has taught creative and critical writing to adults for over thirty years, encouraging students to find and raise their writing voices. Her humanitarian work around the world—most recently in Ethiopia and Ukraine—have shaped her thinking, her teaching, and her writing.

From Laura Swart: My profound thanks go to the men and women who shared their lives and their stories with me. Thank you also to those who translated during interviews. Finally, Borys Sydoruk, chairman of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation, spent several hours teaching me about all things Ukraine. Thank you.

If you would like to support Ukrainians who are helping Ukrainians, consider donating to Dental Hope, which provides free dental work to victims of the war throughout Ukraine. 

[These interviews were further edited and arranged by ACM‘s S.L. Wisenberg.]