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Revisiting Ukraine

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The sun is at its zenith as shorn-headed boys somersault off the pier and splash thunderously into the spangled Dnieper River. Out they come and in they go again, jumping, tumbling, flopping, wallowing and laughing with the infinite abandon of youth. This scene, with all its qualities of an impressionist painting, is my most enduring memory of my journey up the Dnieper River from Odesa to Kyiv in the summer of 2018. It encapsulated for me a nation that appeared supremely at ease with itself, gratified with its peaceful, post-Soviet existence.

I’ve thought of those boys often since the war began, of the father and his young daughters drowsing on the wharf in their swimming costumes, of the women in bright polka-dotted dresses walking through the overgrown park at nearby St Catherine’s Cathedral in this riverside city of Kherson. It was one of many stops on the country’s major tributary, which arcs north-eastwards from the Black Sea through farmland quilted in sunflowers, scattered with pitch-roofed farmhouses and burnished occasionally with the domes of Eastern Orthodox churches.

The majesty of these cathedrals — some built by Russia’s advancing imperialists in the 18th century — was at odds with the expansive, unassuming people I met along the way: the woman dripping honey onto my wrist for a tasting at Odesa’s market; the old men waving from beneath candy-striped umbrellas propped in their tinnies as they fished along the river; the young man showing me how to use the Geiger counter during a tour of Chernobyl offered by his newly-established tour company.


'The concept of war was never far away: this region had once been the volatile borderlands between the Ukrainian Cossacks, Crimean Tatars and Ottoman Turks, and the history is rich in the local guides’ retelling.'


In Kremenchug, a woman welcomed me into her home for an afternoon tea of korovay (home-made bread), khrustyky (fried pastry with honey) and apples and pears from her flourishing vegetable garden. Spring flowers were blooming in pots hanging outside her back door, and all along the garden’s clipped borders; her daughter carried a pet rabbit in a basket, and a kitten lay snoozing on the floor. It’s a snapshot tucked safely into my memory.

But the concept of war was never far away: this region had once been the volatile borderlands between the Ukrainian Cossacks, Crimean Tatars and Ottoman Turks, and the history is rich in the local guides’ retelling. In Odesa, I explored the catacombs which had been transformed by the partisans into bunkers, schoolrooms and hospitals during the Nazi occupation in WWII.

In Zaporozhye, we passed through a lock into the Dnieper Hydroelectric Dam, which had been bombed by the Red Army in an effort to slow the Nazis’ advance; the resulting flood deluged the river’s shorelines and drowned tens of thousands of people.

‘We say this dam was constructed on the bones of our citizens,’ said guide Tanya Solovyova.

Upriver, in Dnipro, we drove past a grand old building into which around 11,000 Jews — mostly women and children — had been herded and later shot during WWII. The 1930s edifice was later turned into a shopping centre, but a memorial plaque recalled the lives lost inside it.

The country’s most recent conflict — ongoing skirmishes with Russian-backed separatists in Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk, just 230km east of here — had been memorialised at an open-air exhibition: a latticework of bronze flowers had been superimposed upon an ambulance wrecked in battle; bullet-ridden place names from affected villages were lined up like a column of condemned POWs.

More than two centuries earlier, Catherine the Great and Grigory Potemkin had advanced southwards through this region during their campaign to expand the Russian Empire; their success is commemorated in palaces and cathedrals, statues and monuments lined up all along the river from Odesa to Kyiv.

Now Russia advances again, destroying as it goes progress, memory and the lessons of history. The names of the cities I passed through are enunciated on the evening news bulletins like a mournful rollcall: Zaporozhye’s nuclear plant is controlled by Russian troops; Kremenchug’s oil refinery is destroyed; Dnipro’s airport is obliterated. The ruin is inconceivable.

In Odesa, Tanya Solovyova had walked me to the top of the city’s famous Potemkin Steps, which embody in their design a striking optical illusion: peering up at them from below, where they meet the Black Sea, I could see only an endless staircase arising into the heavens and tapering to a slender point; but from the top, the staircase appears flattened into a broad and easily-navigable landing. The steps are a metaphor, Solovyova said, for the capacity to overcome hardship with perseverance and determination.

‘When you are battling you see only the obstacles,’ she said. ‘And when you have accomplished it, you see only your victories.’ We can only hope such fortitude sustains this nation as it resists yet another, brutal onslaught.





Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist. 


Main image: Bullet-ridden signs in Dnipro. (Catherine Marshall)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Ukraine, Peace, Dnieper River, History



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Existing comments

History lies heavy on the beautiful land of the Ukraine. It has been invaded and divided by different empires. Stalin was responsible for millions perishing during the unnecessary famine he created, then it was invaded by the Nazis. The Christianisation of Russia began when Vladimir, Prince of Kiev was baptised. Russians and Ukrainians are ethnic cousins. This war is madness! Putin is like the reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible. The sad fact is, if he is 'offed' as it is reputed Stalin was, his replacement will probably be worse. God save both the Ukraine and Russia and their suffering people.

Edward Fido | 13 April 2022  

In Dante's Divine Comedy, Hell is portrayed as nine circles of torment deep within the Earth; it is the "realm of those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellowmen. "

Dante's allegory depicts the lifelong struggle of the soul's quest to find God, with the Inferno vividly portraying the inevitable consequences of sin and depravity.
It would be most interesting to watch the welcome Satan gives to the unholy Trinity of Kirill, Putin, Dvornikov, together with their harvest of bestial soldiers as they enter in despair, realising the truth of the verse : Mark. 8 Verses 34 to 38 KJ version " For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

Francis Armstrong | 26 April 2022  
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Putin isn’t a simpleton but a psychological analysis of his decision to invade Ukraine shouldn’t take up much space. Unless Kiril is a simpleton (or an atheist impersonating an Orthodox), a psychological analysis of why he supports the invasion of Ukraine will take up much space.

One hopes that someone writes that book soon, and publishes it in English, so we can use it as a textbook in algorithms of casuistic denialism quite possibly applicable to those who deny the Magisterium, or, at least, those who purport to use logic to deny the Magisterium.

roy chen yee | 27 April 2022  

In August 2016 Francis opened an inquiry into the role of women in the church. He agreed that women cannot be ordained. They also cannot preach because they are forbidden to become deacons. Any magisterium that peddles this half-baked male supremacy nonsense where 600 million members are female, is in grievous error. Just as Galileo was forced to recant that the earth revolved around the sun (the infallible teaching of that 1616 magisterium), the current magisterium teaching on women's equal rights is equally wrong and subject to correction.

Francis Armstrong | 27 April 2022  

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