Plains near Poltava
Ukraine, October 2016
Sunflower fields are abundant around Poltava, Ukraine. It is an important local industry and has been for almost a century. It is autumn now so the remains of the plants are black and the black earth is plowed, waiting for new seeds. Wide-open spaces with slow rolling hills with impressive views unfold with every turn.
The taxi driver takes me to the birth house of Gogol, the famous writer of Ukrainian origin. He wrote in Russian, the lingua franca of this part of Ukraine and made his career in Sint Petersburg. But his roots were here, in the heart of middle east Ukraine. Here the Hetmans (the Cossack leaders/warlords) were warring each other and as a consequence lost a crucial battle against Czar Peter the Great. An alliance with the Swedish King did not help them. It is here in 1709 eastern Ukraine lost its independence, only to be regained in 1991-1993.
Gogol: Tales from a village near Dikanka
Apart from his style of writing Gogol’s physique was laughed about. He was small and had an ugly nose. Russians often refer to Ukrainians as Gogol’s. We are now not far from Dikanka, a little village that inspired Gogol to write his first essays: Tales from a village near Dikanka; full of superstition and country life as it was then (around 1880).
The taxidriver is surprised, even disturbed as I ask him to turn off the road and drive along a muddy track towards what I think is a village. Actually it is more a hamlet with a few scattered houses spread wide apart.
Fields with kabachok (our name is the fancy french courgette) and pumpkin are on both sides. Heaps of them, this autumn harvest, are on the side of the patches of land. Kabachok is a poor man’s food. It grows everywhere. Most want to forget the taste of it, it reminds of poverty and sovjet style Kindergartens where kabachok soup, fried kabachok, and all other thinkable variation was on the daily menu.
Walking with the taxi following me on a watchful distance I notice the wonderful gardens carefully kept not just with vegetables but also with a wide array of flowers. They are a contrast with the rickety houses with uninsulated roofs and an outside well. There is electricity I can see from the lines. But also care is taken to give the houses some appearance: the white paint looks as if it is being refreshed every year and the colors of the windowsills and fences (each patch is fenced) are bright. Every house has a dog, watchfully barking as I pass along.
Olexandra does not want to be photographed but is willing to make some conversation in a mix of Russian and Ukrainian. I am a welcome diversion and obviously from far away. Hers is a friendly face and full of smiles. I can see the stainless steel tooth repair sovjet style when she laughs. She must be around 60 but age is difficult to tell here, years count double in these conditions. Do I have children she askes, the most important in life?
Olexandra’s husband passed away and her son lives far gather from quickly spoken Russian. She does not see him often. Now she is busy taking the bulbs out of the ground and some vegetables to dry for the winter. Her main companies are two dogs and a cat. No, I cannot enter her house, there is nothing to see there. I understand this and can think about what it would look like. It is not easy to have so little means. From outside I notice the windows repaired with a plastic sheet. I wonder how she will keep warm in the harsh winters. I buy some flower bulbs from her.
The local drunk passes by, it is 10 am and the wodka can be smelled from meters away. What else is here to do? His interference does not make the communication easier.
I walk along and make some photographs on the road of another babuska (in Ukrainian babutsja). Making photos is seen as dangerous. Some demon may take the picture and cast a bad spell. I remove the picture in compliance with my privacy rules.
The taxi driver who brought me here is growing more uncomfortable. Why do I want to see this and talk to these miserable people. Nothing noteworthy is here. There is little sympathy for the underdog in Ukraine it seems. I would like to stay longer and talk a bit more but my Russian is not good enough and the driver insists so we continue to Dikanka proper.