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Postcard Pretty, But A Hard, Hard Land


Letter From Ukraine

POSTCARD PRETTY, BUT A HARD, HARD LAND

It's 2 p.m. in the western Ukrainian village of Zarichya but the big old-fashioned clock on my great-aunt Pozya's kitchen shelf reads 12. I look at her wrinkled face quizzically. "That's the old time, still--the Austrian time," explains Pozya with a knowing, toothless smile as she bustles about in the yearly ritual of Easter breadmaking.

The "Austria" my aunt refers to is Austria-Hungary. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Pozya still keeps time according to an empire that vanished early this century. As I look around this three-room cottage where my aunt has lived since she married in the 1920s, I realize that little has changed since her birth 83 years ago.

The aroma of sweet paska bread fills the air, as it has every Easter. The traditional woodburning, tiled stove that takes up half the kitchen is still the only source of heat in the house. Like everyone else in the village, Pozya still draws water from a well and uses a rickety wooden outhouse. Her transportation--when she can borrow one from a nephew--is a wooden, horse-drawn cart.

Situated at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, Zarichya is my mother's birthplace. She was a toddler when her parents fled. It was World War II, and because her brother had joined the Ukrainian partisans, my grandparents feared reprisals from the advancing Red Army. My family found its way to Canada, where I was born. When Ukraine became independent in 1991 I came over, to work in Kiev. Now, I visit my mother's village where kerchiefed aunts treat me to fresh milk, home-made sour cream, and pyrohy, succulent cheese-filled dumplings.

This Easter, however, I see that they're digging deep into their pockets for my sake. Two years after independence, inflation is high and economic reforms are slow. "After 85 years, I've experienced everything--Austrian rule, Polish rule, German, Russian. But I've never been hungry. Now, I'm hungry for the first time in my life," sighs great-aunt Yavdoha.

SMALL FIELDS. Not that she yearns for any of the previous regimes. Unlike the heavily Russified central and eastern Ukraine, the western part has missed hundreds of years of Russian domination and had 30 fewer years of Communist rule. "Certainly, it's best now in an independent Ukraine," says Yavdoha. "It's just that I'm hungry, that's all."

Now, my relatives and other villagers in western Ukraine want to return to farm life. In the Ivano-Frankivsk province, where my family lives, 32% of the farmland has already been transferred to the private sector. Most of it's leased--people may still only own 1.5 acres outright and don't have the right to sell it. But the local agricultural council is trying to return the family land owned before Stalin collectivized agriculture. So, for the first time in over 40 years, many of my relatives are now proudly working the 1.25-acre fields my great-grandfather gave each of his 12 children on the day of their birth.

For most villagers, farming their own land is still a second job. They juggle shifts at the local kolhosp (farm collective) or at factories with the hours they can spare for their small plots. They use their bare hands or simple plows at best. "I have to get up at the crack of dawn to do work around the farm and then walk to work by 8," says one of my distant cousins, Nusya. The 48-year-old divorced mother of three works my grandmother's field and still puts in a 40-hour week at a nearby furniture factory. Her income of 12,000 karbovanytz a month comes to about $4.

Nusya's two teenage sons had expected to land jobs at the kolhosp, but the collective has scaled back as land reform reduces its fields. The cattle herd has dropped from 1,100 to 400. The unemployed youths help their mother work the farm and take turns weaving the colorful Ukrainian kilim rugs for which this area is famous. They then go from village to village by horse cart, selling the rugs. A serious oil shortage has drastically curtailed Ukraine's public transportation. Nusya walks seven miles to and from work daily.

The strain may show on Nusya's weathered face, but her sparkling gold-toothed smile remains constant as she scurries about, helping her older sister Paraska with Easter preparations. Nusya sits on the floor mixing buttercream by hand in a bowl while Paraska's husband Stefan lies asleep on top of the tiled stove--the custom of the country for men in the old days. "While women worked, men slept on the stove all winter. The only time they'd come down was to chop wood," one cousin says.

Paraska, 59, small and crippled by a bout of pneumonia in childhood, is happy to work her own land. She and her husband bring in little more than $5 per month. With Ukraine's inflation sometimes reaching 50% a month, it could evaporate. "But a harvest," says Paraska with a grin, "well, if a harvest is in, then a harvest is in. There's no changing that."

NO PATIENCE? As Paraska's young nephews arrive, the talk grows lively. Oleh, 21, holds the passport that he hopes will bring him fast money in Poland. Paraska complains of youthful impatience: "If you want something, you just have to work. It's not going to fall into your mouth. You have a lot to learn about patience. You have no idea how much I suffered when I was young," she says. "Fine," retorts Oleh. "You suffered, we're suffering, and now our children are going to suffer. Tell me, how much longer do we have to keep on suffering?"

The next morning is Orthodox Easter. Outside the onion-domed church, flowered kerchiefs stand out against the Carpathians in the distance. The priest's procession slowly makes its way around the crowds. Children and old women giggle as he sprinkles them and their colorful baskets with blessed water. I watch my great-aunt Pozya's face break into her wonderful grin as a huge drop of water splats on her nose.

The villagers of Zarichya are overjoyed with their newly-gained religious freedom, as well as Ukrainian statehood. I can't help but hope that one day soon economic reforms will ease their workloads, bring them into the late 20th century, and maybe, just maybe, get my favorite aunt to finally turn her big clock ahead to "Ukrainian time."Roma Ihnatowycz


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