One of my goals during the trip was to avoid airplane travel as much as possible. I have come to really dislike airplane travel as it has become more and more unpleasant over the years and has always been the least interesting form of travel. You spend time in a sterile bland environment, have to make sure that you have no sharp objects or bottles of fluid more than 3 oz in size in your bags, stand in endless lines, get searched, sit in uncomfortable seats, eat pseudo food and, if you are flying a long way, experience jet lag.
The first leg of my journey eastward from Kiev to Kharkov was by train. I have felt for many years that travel by train is really the only civilized way to travel. The train from Kiev to Kharkov was somewhat like a commuter train with regular seating instead of a four-person coupé. Apart from the fact that the air conditioning, which worked fine when it was on, was periodically turned off for some reason, making it fairly stifling and putting somewhat of a damper on my enthusiasm, it was a pleasant enough journey. If you had not been to Eastern Europe during the Soviet era, the train trip would not seem at all unusual. But in those bygone years it seemed that all forms of public transportation were always packed with people, all plainly dressed and carrying parcels, bags and various items. It was uncomfortable and people generally looked grim. That was standard. There are a couple of those kind of people on this train as well but the new standard rules in this train car—it is filled with young, attractive women dressed in tight jeans or mini-skirts and high heels and literally every single person is either talking or texting on their phone.
Kharkov is one of the few cities in my itinerary that does not involve some kind of research into the Ukhtomskiy family. It is, however, a city where my father may have lived for a time. For many years, I thought that my father was born here as he always stated this as his official place of birth and it is listed as such in his U.S. immigration documents. In reality, he was born in a tiny village northwest of Kharkov. He, like most immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the post-World War II period, was very careful about what he revealed about his past. Sometimes this was to protect those left behind, and sometimes it was to protect themselves.
After finding out that my father was born in the village of Sidorovo Yaruga and not in Kharkov, I assumed that the rest of what was stated in his papers may not have been accurate either: that he worked in a sugar factory at the age of 15 there and then was sent to dig trenches near Belgorod (to the east). But a cousin of mine, the son of my father’s brother, who was the only other member of the family that had immigrated to the U.S., informed me, when I met with him in Kiev, that his father had been in Kharkov during the war. It is possible then, that my father did live in Kharkov at some point during the war as well.
At any rate, I had never spent time in Kharkov and some of my relations live in the area so I included it on my route. I had briefly seen Kharkov in 2001, on my last trip to Ukraine, but the city made little impression on me. It seemed then to be run down and depressed. I had a completely different impression when I arrived this time. Though it was close to midnight when my train arrived, the streets were full of cars. I was staying with some of my relatives and one of them, Artem, introduced me to the concept of the “parallel universes.” His example, given one evening as we strolled around the city after dinner, was the contrast of activity between the main thoroughfares, where traffic was constant, horns honking, people out in droves, and bright lights, and the streets running parallel to them, where there was no traffic or people and, very often, not even any street lights. It truly was like moving from one universe to another—from all your senses being assaulted by invasive sights and sounds to a different universe of almost complete darkness and silence.
This same concept applied to his apartment. The exterior of the building, a large apartment house, was unprepossessing and the interior common areas even less so—dark, dirty, gloomy with the ubiquitous tiny elevator. Artem’s girlfriend had even put up a sign asking people not to behave like pigs (meaning, they should clean up after themselves in the common areas).
But upon entering the apartment, it is, yes, a parallel universe. (Think The Matrix when a door leading from a nondescript corridor opens into a completely different environment—or Alice in Wonderland for those who aren’t Keanu Reeves fans). The apartment is bright, spacious, and newly remodeled with attractive furniture and even an aquarium. I am pleasantly stunned. I am, after all, most grateful that they have invited me to stay but they are a young couple, just starting out. I was anticipating sleeping on a makeshift cot in a common room but I even get my own room and am lulled to sleep watching the fish lazily gliding around their marine environment.
Kharkov is an old city, founded in the 17th century but much of it (70%) was destroyed during World War II so relatively few older structures remain. Nevertheless, the city center has an old world feel and there are a number of large parks and green belts. Many things have changed in the last 20 years (traffic jams, pizza ,and sushi are now commonplace, people are annoyed rather than resigned when service is poor, there appears to be some disposable income among the general population with people eating out occasionally and shopping more) but there are certain things, however, that should not yet be taken for granted despite these changes.
My first order of business is to print out some travel vouchers and to buy a train ticket for the Krasnoyarsk-Harbin part of my journey. My travel agent was unable to buy the ticket for this segment of the journey and informs me that this can only be done locally (meaning, in Russia) but since railway travel between Ukraine and Russia is routine, perhaps I could even obtain at ticket in Kharkov. I set off in the morning with Artem’s girlfriend to find an Internet cafe where we can print out the vouchers since Artem doesn’t have a printer. Oddly, several places that advertise themselves to be Internet cafés in the neighborhood only have gaming stations. I am informed that this is common practice now and that many cafés have converted to this type of business since it is much more lucrative. They are also apparently trying to fool local authorities since (perhaps) they have to pay more taxes on that kind of business. One legitimate Internet café, in a rather bright and gaudy shopping mall, has plenty of terminals but no ink in their one and only printer. And when will they have a new printer cartridge? Well, that might be tomorrow or the day after… We forge ahead and finally find a place that has what we need.
The train tickets, however, are another matter. The local ticket office personnel can’t even call up Harbin in their computerized train schedule. I begin to have my first niggling worry that my journey across Siberia may not be as direct as I had hoped. Artem suggests simply buying the ticket on-line and finds the Russian railways website but we are given the message that there are no tickets available for this particular train. My teeny niggling worry ratchets up a notch. Are there that many people traveling from Krasnoyarsk to Harbin? And must they all do so the week that I am there? This particular train is the Trans-Manchurian and is a weekly train so options are limited. I postpone this issue for a later time as we have people to meet and things to see.
I try to visit war memorials and monuments as well as memorials to victims of Stalin’s repression. during my travels. Every family in this area of the world was touched by these events in one way or another—fathers, sons and brothers killed in the war; women and children killed in bombings, sent to concentration camps or work camps, or dying of starvation; family members or even entire families arrested and sent to the gulag. In Kharkov, there is a war memorial called “the beating heart.” The memorial is a tall statue of a woman and the sound of a beating heart is heard when one approaches the monument. This is the sound of a mother’s heart, suffering for her son who died in battle. It is a solemn monument and there is also a cross raised to honor the dead.
There is a World War II memorial in the city center is treated with less solemnity as I am told that it is popularly called “Four men carrying a refrigerator.” The original intent was to depict the four men with some military equipment but it apparently didn’t turn out very well.
We make another stop for water. Water is not potable in most places I visit. In hotels, tourists are generally warned about this and sometimes bottled water is provided (if not, you had best buy your own). The locals go to a local well and there Artem fills several jugs with drinking water. The water is piped right out of the ground. Interestingly, there are small pools where people even bathe in this water as it is considered very healthy. Since the weather is warm, there are a lot of people splashing, wading and socializing. It is a pretty place but Artem tells me that it used to be much nicer. For some reason, the powers-that-be decided to cut down many of the trees and, as in many other places, this one is undergoing renovation. This is considered an expensive part of town and the area around the water well is surrounded by fairly large homes, many still under construction. Artem estimates that such homes may cost as much as $300,000. I am stunned. This is, after all, Kharkov, not the San Francisco Bay Area. Due to the housing crisis in the U.S., property values in overbuilt areas have dropped as much as 30% in the U.S. so homes that used to cost half a million in my town are going for, well, a little over $300,000. I mentally cross Kharkov off my list as a cheap place to retire.
To properly celebrate our family reunion, a picnic is planned for my last evening. The main course is, of course, “shashlik” (skewered barbecued meat) at another “parallel universe” location. To get to it, we walk along a very busy highway with roaring traffic (since alcohol will be consumed, driving is not an option) and stroll into a recreational area by a reservoir. The sound of traffic immediately disappears and there is an illusion that we are in some rural area instead of in the middle of a busy Kharkov neighborhood. The evening is quite pleasant and we are so involved in eating, drinking and playing volleyball (not necessarily in that order) that we miss the last call to rent a boat to row out into the reservoir. This may not be a bad thing in the end as I’m not sure anyone (at least the men) are in proper form to row a small boat around a lake in the twilight hours.
I don’t get any clarifications about the exact whereabouts of my father during the war. That information is lost as anyone who knew him then has passed away. I end up with more questions than answers when I get documents from the International Tracing Service in Germany where my father’s place of birth is listed as Luck, Poland (now Lutsk, Ukraine). I know that many Soviet citizens stated that they were from Poland in order not to get sent back to the USSR after World War II. As Lutsk is much further west than where my father’s family lived, it seems to me that he probably passed through there when he was en route to a German labor camp, and, remembering that name, he wrote it down as his place of birth in later years.