I’ve decided to spend a few more days in Lviv. I want very much to see my newly found cousin, Zenovyi. His son, Viktor, has been in Israel for weeks on photography shoots. Initially he was supposed to return Sunday. He is now scheduled to return Wednesday.
I was with Viktor’s son, Victor Jr., tonight at a café for several hours. Victor Jr. called his father in Israel and I was able to speak with him for the first time since we parted in May. It was refreshing to hear his voice.
Once again he affirmed to me a familial relationship, telling me how important it is that he gets a chance to see me. I had been planning on leaving Wednesday or Thursday since I need to be in Tuscany. But I just couldn’t leave, at least not yet. Hearing Viktor’s voice and his plaintive desire to see me touched my heart. How can I leave without seeing him? Or Zenovyi?
I spent the entire evening chatting with Victor Jr. We started at a café and ended at a pizza parlor presciently named “Mafia”. During our chat, I asked Victor if he remembered anything about living in the Soviet Union. He was roughly seven years old when the former regime collapsed.
What he remembered most was the reaction of his parents. They clasped their hands over their faces and cried, “Thank God!” Zenovyi was equally ecstatic. They were happy they could have their own homeland.
Victor told me stories that his father, Viktor, had told him about life under the Soviet system. Since the Soviet Union was officially atheist, any attempt to attend church was met with suspicion. If a person attended mass, the next day “officials” would knock on the door asking why they attended church. The implication was that a person did not need church, only the Soviet system. Only the government knew what was best for its people.
When Victor was born, he was baptized secretly inside the house so the authorities wouldn’t know. When his sisters were born a few years later, after Ukrainian independence, they were also baptized in secret. At the time, Ukraine had incorporated many of the despotic behaviors of the Soviet system. Now, of course, freedom of worship is the law of the land.
Victor’s paternal grandmother was proudly and unashamedly Ukrainian. She loved to wear traditional Ukrainian clothing with the elaborately embroidered collars. However, when she did, “officials” would tell her to quit wearing such garments (even at home) if she wanted to keep her job. She had to hide her traditional Ukrainian garb.
We talked about the popularity of Western clothing during Soviet times, especially that of blue jeans. Designer jeans were intensely sought after by anyone in the Soviet Union, with people paying upwards of $500 for a pair. I remember reading news articles about Soviet officials preventing people from bringing too many pairs of jeans into the country, lest they be sold on the black market for huge prices.
According to Victor, if someone was found with Western style jeans, they were questioned by the authorities. Where did they get the jeans? Where did they get the money for the jeans? If the jeans, or anything else was provided by relatives or friends outside the Soviet Union, people were instructed to quit associating with them. As far as Soviet officials were concerned, according to Victor, only people within the Soviet Union existed. No one else in the world was important or relevant.
Victor also relayed to me about part of Zenovyi’s life when Zenovyi was young. Zenovyi’s father, Victor’s great-grandfather, built the house where Zenovyi currently lives in Kuty. During WWII, when the Germans came through, they commandeered the house. Zenovyi was only five years old and he and his family were forced to live in the house, surrounded by the Germans.
They were given little to eat, but the Germans apparently took a liking to Zenovyi and his three siblings. Late at night, after playing cards, they would give the children chocolates and various candies. Zenovyi would force himself to stay up as late as possible so he could get one of these exotic treats—something they would never be able afford or find, especially during the war.
According to Victor, the Germans were never drunk or out of control while they lived at Zenovyi’s house. They never raped the women; they were always in control of what they were doing because their focus was singular—defeating Russia.
However, after the Germans were turned back by the Soviet army, Victor relayed that the situation changed. The Soviets were inebriated, obnoxious and abusive the entire time. Victor’s imitation of them was that of slack-jawed drunkards.
Indeed, when I speak with any Ukrainian about the Russians, the characterization of the Russians is that of non-evolved troglodytes. The general opinion is that Russians are backward. Victor himself lived in Russia for awhile and he noted that the people of Moscow were much different than Lviv. In Lviv, a vibrant cultural and intellectual center, the residents were always smiling and enthusiastic. In Moscow, however, everyone was unemotional with a vacant look in their eyes.
In Victor’s estimation, they were empty-hearted, functioning merely as automatons. A millennia of oppression from the Mongols, tsars, Bolsheviks, Communists and Socialists, along with the repression of Leninism and Stalinism has rendered the vast majority to a level of automatic serfdom, in his opinion. Save for the intellectuals and liberals, the rest of the nation blindly stumbles along believing whatever they’re told because they’ve never known how to think.
In Victor’s observation, the population of pensioners and Nationalists who automatically follow the government do so because they cannot conceive of the concept of independent thought. They are so accustomed to being told how to believe, it has almost become a genetic trait.
While Victor enjoyed the delights a large, world-class city afforded with its restaurants, cafes, bars and multi-culturalism, he found himself wanting to be some place where his heart could thrive. He returned to Lviv.
Now, however, he has a stirring in his soul to leave Lviv. He’s still young (thirty-one) and he wants to see the world. He wants to visit Europe, America, Australia and Africa. He wants to see new cities, have new experiences, and meet new people. He wants to understand different cultures and religions. He finds my efforts inspiring.
I guess that’s apropos because I find him inspiring.
And he asks me probing questions about the future, destiny, how to pursue his dream. Should he return to Lviv if he moves internationally? How does he take the first step? He wants to know what it’s like to leave his home and move somewhere else. He cannot fathom my decision to give up everything and move to Italy, although it’s starting to make sense to him. It’s enticing.
He wants to make a difference in the world. He does not seek fame and fortune, only the opportunity to effect change. Not the type of change wrought by a Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein, but the change possible from a young man full of ambition and desire.
I’m going to love watching my young cousin’s personal, spiritual and professional trajectory. I hope I can help.