“I’m going home,” says the old lady, hands trembling. There’s no point in arguing. She forgets everything now ‑ everything except the one thing it would be practical to forget: home. Despite a life spent inside the Soviet empire, she never learned the pragmatic value of forgetting.
Hanna is an eighty-two-year-old Ukrainian from the Donbas region. She’s family, but I can’t help fulfil her wish. Her neighbours said they’ve seen a tank in her garden.
Hanna can imagine the tank. Or she could have, before her memory began going. Until recently she would have remembered what they looked like, the good old T-34s she’d seen as a girl during World War II. She didn’t talk a lot about those times though, not about life under Nazi occupation nor about losing her father, a Ukrainian soldier in the Soviet army. One of the same tanks from the past might be sitting in her garden again, in 2014, a robust metal beast amidst her fragile gooseberry bushes.
We were lucky enough to bring Hanna to the peaceful western part of Ukraine just in time, so she wouldn’t have to see all of this herself. But she kept asking when we’d take her home. Which of us wanted to break the news about the tank in her garden?
But we decided we had to tell her. If she understood there was no home to go back to, she might release her longing.
We told her everything: about the tank in the garden, the trenches that went through the field, the landmines, the shelling lightening the sky, and how one of the shells left a hole in the red tile roof her husband had put on. We held back nothing, though she was old, and the neighbours might have been mistaken; maybe the tank wasn’t exactly in Hanna’s garden, but a bit further out.
There was every reason for Ukrainians to panic and make mistakes in 2014. We had not yet grown accustomed to war. Over time, many of us learned to move on. Others can now identify the type and calibre of a weapon from its mere sound. But in 2014 we were just beginning to discover the meaning of war.
Hanna’s fellow villagers found themselves not only between the literal firing lines, but between Russian propaganda on the one side and utter lack of information on the other. Contradictory rumours surrounded every event. Even the news about one little garden were contradictory. As though the villagers couldn’t trust their own senses. Unlike Russia, Ukraine hasn’t been at war since its independence in 1991. Until 2014, Russian shells had fallen only on Chechens or Georgians, and some of us still weren’t sure whether the latter hadn’t somehow deserved it. I remember myself as a kid trusting every word on the Russian TV channels about the First Russian-Chechen war. Many believed the Kremlin’s stories. Now it was Ukrainians’ turn to deal with the lies, yet we were as unprepared for the disinformation wars as we were for shelling.
I did what I could: I’m a writer, and writing the truth is perhaps my best way of defending Hanna’s garden. I could not protect anyone from the Russian artillery, so I tried to take up arms against their lies.
Before her memory began failing her, Hanna was one of those who didn’t need an explanation of the hybrid Russian-Ukrainian war. The old lady, who’d worked as a crane operator at one of the Donbas plants, grasped what was going on better than many of her younger and more educated neighbours.
Four generations of the family were scattered all over Ukraine. Some, like myself, lived in the peaceful west. Others lived on the front lines in the east. Some remained in the cities under occupation. There were those who’d moved to Russia a long time before the war. We all trusted different information sources and believed different facts. Those who lived in Russia now searched for excuses to justify the invasion into their native Ukraine; the Russian media was eager to help them with that. We tried not to argue over the phone or at the dinner table.
I wonder if Hanna’s sudden memory lapse had something to do with her children referring to her home as a lost cause. The more we urged her to forget it, the more it became the only thing she spoke about. “I’m going home,” she repeated in Ukrainian, the only language she used when speaking to us. “Yes, of course,” Hanna’s eldest son comforted her, in Russian.
He hadn’t spoken Ukrainian since leaving the house with the red tile roof to study in the capital of former Soviet Ukraine. Unlike Hanna, her children all spoke Russian. Giving up the Ukrainian language and embracing Russian instead, the “language of the unity of nations” as the Soviets called it, was common. Hanna’s children never returned to their native language, even after Ukraine achieved independence. Forgetting had become a way to survive and even prosper in the USSR; often it worked too well. But a couple of times, after a shot of cognac, I heard one of Hanna’s sons suddenly speaking perfect Ukrainian. One could assume he needed the cognac for courage ‑ as though the regime were still executing Ukrainian artists and scholars. As if the regime were still starving millions of Ukrainian peasants to death.
Hanna and her son spoke to each other in different languages until the end. She never made it home. We buried her on a cold day at one of the cemeteries on the outskirts of Lviv. None of her relatives living in Russia came to say goodbye, though we assured them it was safe. Russian media had persuaded them otherwise.
After Hanna died, I began visiting the war-torn regions to give readings and get to know the people. Many Ukrainian artists and writers were eager to support those who lived in harm’s way, and they wanted to undermine stereotypes which claimed the country’s soul was divided between east and west. I come from a city more than six hundred miles from the Donbas. In order to connect with my audience at readings, I would sometimes begin by telling them about Hanna. She was so ordinary but so important. You could see the entire country’s history embodied in that one life — a commonplace fantasy which often leads a writer to a novel. As though any single life could encapsulate the whole bloody story.
Homo Sovieticus was a sarcastic term used to describe average conformists in the Soviet era. In fact, the true reasons compelling conformity were no laughing matter. To some extent, every one of us has been affected by decades of fear, silence, and deliberate forgetting. After the USSR collapsed, some had a hard time adapting to a freedom they’d never known. Their old identities shattered, they were especially vulnerable in our post-truth era.
In retrospect, I understand why Hanna remained immune to the lies. She’d never become a Homo Sovieticus, and she was all too ready for 2014.
Born in the USSR in the 1930s, Hanna was a child of the unlikely survivors of Holodomor, a genocidal famine that killed millions of Ukrainians. She remembered her parents’ stories of the terror. She lived through Stalin’s Great Purge and survived Nazi occupation during World War II. What made Hanna immune to the propaganda in 2014 had been hard-won. It was her memory, her knowledge of Ukrainian history. Her children were free to not know it and buy the party line instead ‑ they were born under a different sun. For Hanna, that would have meant forgetting her own life. Even on her deathbed, she repeated her wish to go home. As if it was already her habit to remember whatever others would want her to forget.
Over the course of her life, despite the efforts of Soviet propaganda to distort and reframe historical events, Hanna believed in the reality of her memories. She had been a simple crane operator, which may have saved her. Unlike Soviet journalists, teachers or scholars, she wasn’t forced to repeat lies too often. She must have noticed how propaganda shaped the minds of her children, and she must have allowed this to happen. She was busy trying to survive. Neither the writing of history nor cultural preservation were her bailiwick. By the time Hanna had children, Ukrainian elites who would have served as caretakers of cultural memory had already perished at the hands of the Soviet state. So Hanna kept her memories to herself ‑ the point is, she kept them.
The events that Hanna’s generation endured made them almost fearless. The one remaining fear was for their children; never wanting them to experience what they themselves had endured, never wanting them to face the same terrors and privations. That’s why they chose to remember while keeping their memories to themselves. As a result, in her last days, Hanna ended up speaking different languages with her sons.
Homo Sovieticus is a catchy, sarcastic reference that has become popular shorthand for describing millions of Hanna’s children. Humour helped us to survive the Soviet times. But what the label conceals is tragic. Homo Sovieticus sounds irreversible, a life sentence, as though such an identity were inscribed in one’s genes. In fact, this isn’t about genes; it’s about false memories and malleable identities. It is about accepting lies in order to survive and prosper while forgetting the truth of the past. It is about them being the easiest prey to the post-truth era deceptions. So the cycle of lies and forgetting never breaks.
Though the Soviet Union collapsed decades ago, the Sovieticus syndrome hasn’t been entirely eradicated. Yesterday’s “Soviet Man” has morphed into today’s “Amnesiac Man”. Homo Sovieticus has mutated into Homo Oblivious.
Can the experience of generations of Soviets living in constant fear, amid a culture of lies, be used to inoculate us against the disinformation and fake news so rife in the twenty-first century? Can we become more like Hanna and less like her bewildered children? Certainly remembering is easier said than done. Where does memory begin? Perhaps it makes sense to start by looking at those facts which tyrants want us to forget. Whenever the official line insists we look away, we should make it a point to take out our binoculars and our microscopes.
Eventually, despite the shelling and the threat of mines and other booby traps, Hanna’s eldest son did visit the family home. As it turned out, there was no tank in the yard. There was, however, a hole in the red tile roof, a piece of a shell lay on the doorstep and a small abandoned trench had been cut into the garden. All was quiet, so he stood there, looked around, and tried to memorise it all.
Victoria Amelina is an award-winning writer living in Ukraine and the US. She was born in 1986 in Lviv and before becoming a writer worked as an engineering manager; she holds an MS degree in Computer Science. In 2014 released her debut novel, Fall Syndrome, or Homo Compatiens. Her second novel, Home for Dom, won the Best Prose Book award at Zaporizhya Book Festival and was shortlisted for numerous other awards. The story above first appeared on the Arrowsmith Press website: https://www.arrowsmithpress.com/homo-oblivious