SOME STEPS IN THE PAST: AN ATTEMPT AT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
by Mikhail Yeselson
6. MY CITY (1)
I traveled throughout all the former Soviet Union on business but, returning to Kiev and going by streets from the airport, I thought over and over: "My God, in what an incredibly beautiful place I am living!"
Of course, there were many wonderful places in the Soviet Union, which you could see and enjoy them. You could come to St. Petersburg to walk among the demolishing grace of its palaces, sorrowfully and quietly looking at the Neva's calm current. You could go to Moscow to stand on the long-suffering cobblestones of Red Square in front of the Kremlin. You could fly to Siberia in order the cool brilliant charm of Baikal Lake would enter your heart and stay there forever.
Instead that you could visit to Ukraine, in the vicinity of the little town, named "The White Church," and see my primordial land, lying in the shade of gardens and woods, around banks of the crystal-clear stream of the Ross river, under the infinitely high, light blue sky where white, imponderable, fluffy, small clouds were going on their ways.
In spite of that I invite you into the capital of this country -- Kiev.
Because it is my city and I love it!
I love the endless chains of its parks and the well-shaped lines of the trees on its streets and boulevards; gold sand of beaches and the cool muddy Dniepr's water; noons in June, loaded by the rustle of crumbling down tiny white-rose chestnut petals, and hot July noons, plunged into honey intoxicating smell of lindens; ancient mossy stones of Gold Gate and small yards, suddenly opening for me the remains of past times; an evening promenade in the Main Street and bright-trimmed crowds of people filling up all of the squares and streets of downtown in the days of celebration.
I love its temples: light St. Andrea's church flying in the blue sky over the Dniepr's cliff; murky St. Kirill's church; big, glittering St. Vladimir's cathedral; rushing up spires of Polish chapel; and, of course, only one synagogue, which even to look at was dangerous before.
I love the crazy-lazy summertime when mirages of desert stream above the melting asphalt of roads and all the people not at work are moving onto the Dniepr's shores. Oh, you don't like swimming in the river? Well, go upstairs into the upper park where the beaches below seem to you studded with small brown M&M candies. Sit in the deep shade of the spreading chestnut, in front of the summer public stage and near the salespersons of ice-cream. Keep waiting for the evening, swallowing one portion of ice-cream after another. If it is a weekend, you can hear the State Ukrainian Symphonic Orchestra headed by famous conductor. In the weekdays some young groups will play loudly and rhythmically. Is this not the very meaning of pleasure? Maybe you will have a sore throat tomorrow but don't worry, stay in the sun for a half-hour, and it'll be fine.
I love the silence of the surrounding woods in the early fall, berries, hiding in the thick grass and mushrooms under a blanket of yellow pine needles. Not all aerobic may be compared with the quiet hunting for the mushrooms! We would get up in the darkness and walk very easily with our empty backpacks on our shoulders and big lunch baskets in our hands. We would return at home on all fours, carrying baskets with mushrooms in our teeth, and immediately fall asleep. Many hours of cleaning and baking mushrooms were waiting for us ahead...
I loved my city in the winter when all of its stadiums changed to the big skating-rinks. We were young, our skates clinked on the hard ice, many-colored lights reflected in its plain surface, music pealed, and brightly attired girls glanced at us... There were magnificent evenings!
The most beautiful Kiev was seen by the First of May. The spring had stepped into Kiev by that time, and soft sunshine wrapped up everything in the city. The white candles had already appeared on the green chestnut-trees. Women threw off their heavy winter coats and looked so attractive; all the men, absolutely all of them, pulled on white shoes, white trousers and white shirts; men, women and children went to the ceremony named demonstration that looks as a carnival but had a political meaning.
(Imagine, that President Clinton stands on the Macy's steps, and new-Yorkers pass by Macy's carrying Clinton's big portraits and yelling "Long live Bill Clinton and his Democratic Party!")
We had too little holidays. All the people were glad for the spring, sang songs and danced right in the streets. When I was a toddler, I sat on my Dad's shoulders; years later I supported my son on my neck. I passed by the "tribune," stared at the faces of top officials standing there, and sometimes thought about them: "Why? Why do just those persons determine our life? Who are they?" The demonstration was usually finished by two o'clock and a holiday lunch waited for us on the table that was covered by a snow-white tablecloth. This holiday had already died by the time when Communism vanished; sometimes I feel sadness recollecting it.
However I cannot keep silence about another time because the cities have, like people, their history, their days of glory or shame, joy or fear.
My city had never seen such terrific beauty and dreadful, as in that May, after explosion in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The funny spring sunshine was bright and indifferent. Endless lines of cars carrying water and hoses brought down streams on houses, trees and grass, washing off radioactive dust. Young grass flashed, foliage on the trees was unnaturally bright, green, and magnificent.
However, the city was dying. There were no kids playing soccer on the glades, no infants walking near their mothers, no babies in the carriages. All of them got out or kept waiting in the long lines in the airports and the railway stations. Nobody was strolling on the streets. All the people ran to hide in their homes; all slits in the windows and doors were plugged up; the vacuum cleaners were turned on almost constantly. Men and women who came inside from the street took off their coats and fled to the shower. Big bosses lied on radio and TV, but secret recommendations were: "No staying under trees and near bushes, no walking without a hat, no going outside when it's raining, no..., no..., no..."
But nothing could break us down, we joked and sang merry songs. For example, next two lines about our permanent turning on vacuum-cleaners were very popular at that time:
Thanks to Chernobyl reactor number four
For the cleanness of my floor!
So, what sort of people lives in my city? The hasty inhabitants of Moscow and cool St. Petersburg's residents consider us Southerners. Our habits and accent amuse them. Our "g" is close to the English "h," (but their "g" sounds like an English "k") and we stretch almost all the vowels. We like to speak and to laugh loudly, we like to meddle in other people's affairs and to cluster in a crowd on the streets.
...Imagine that someone gets off the bus in any of Kiev's streets. People are running by him about their business in various directions. The newcomer is also from Ukraine, therefore, he does not draw anybody's attention to himself. He stands in the middle of the sidewalk and asks, simply talking to the air: "How do I get to X-street?" Two men sharply cut their running and stretch out their arms toward opposite directions. An old woman comes up to them. "Hey, people, don't fool him. He hasta go right, then left, and two blocks down, get on the bus for ten blocks, get off, and X-street will be anywhere nearby."
A lean and impudent street kid appears. "Hey, man, why do you have trouble with these people? Take a taxi and go where you want." The second one appears: "Why do you think he has money for a taxi? Just look at this buddy! To get a dime for the bus he swiped it from his granny."
Five other men join them. The crowd increases, forgetting the newcomer and switching to their own business.
"Hey, kids, what do you want? There is the movie theater across the street. So see a movie and have an ice-cream. Don't meddle in adult affairs."
"Do you know what the street he is looking for was named before the war? Sorry, girl, not before the last war but the one before that. You cannot know its name, because you weren't in the world yet."
"Hi, mate, I haven't seen you for ages. What are you doing here?" "I mean this guy in the center sells anything." "No, he stands as a post and keeps silence. Maybe he's dead. Let's go drink some beer, shall we?"
A kind Samaritan comes up from the crowd and pulls the newcomer's sleeve. "They are driving you bananas, aren't they? Don't let them talk your head off. I live on this street and, although I have to go to the opposite side of town, I'll take you there, come on, or you'll get lost."
So come to Kiev and you will never lose your way.
...Frank Sinatra sings: "My kind of city Chicago is." My kind of city is Kiev and I want you to love it, too.