The Yale Review | Maria Kuznetsova: “My Painting of kyiv”


Will the birthplace I love still exist for my daughter?

Photo illustration derived from “kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Complex” © Creative Commons / Wikimedia Commons

i married my american husband in the summer of 2014, in a place as far from my hometown of kyiv, Ukraine as one might imagine: a zoo in Oakland, California. My grandmother managed to get to the wedding from kyiv, even though it was only a few months after the Maidan revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of the authoritarian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Deadly protests had raged a few blocks from my grandmother’s house, but she wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to show off the skills she had learned at her Toastmasters club, one of her many hobbies. after retirement. After my husband and I suffered several typed speeches from the wedding that depicted our most embarrassing moments in exquisite detail, my grandmother waved her hands in the air and said, “English is not not my first language, but I didn’t. need to write anything. Then she proceeded to destroy the house.

She started off by saying I looked “almost like Grace Kelly,” made several pointed comments about all the babies my husband and I were supposed to produce immediately, then moved on to her favorite subject: praising Kyiv as the most beautiful city in the world. world. It would always be my rodine, my homeland, she explained, even though I had left as a child. To top off her speech, she presented me with a painting of kyiv, a kind of impressionist painting with several remarkable landmarks on top of each other. It represented kyiv in the same way that a T-shirt depicting the Statue of Liberty next to the Empire State Building inside a giant apple might be taken to represent New York. “This painting is not drawn in a very sophisticated style, but I still wanted you to have it,” she said, handing it to me, “so that you always remember kyiv.”

I tried to get her off stage as quickly as possible, but after several glasses of white wine, it didn’t seem so odd to be presented with a painting of kyiv on my wedding night.

English is not my first language fine, but I need to write a lot of things. Most of my writing focuses on immigrants from Ukraine and the strange nostalgia I feel when I think of the place my family left when I was only five years old. I have missed Kyiv all my life. At the same time, I could never fully belong there again: there is my accent and my lack of cultural knowledge and the fact that I have lived so long away from it. My parents, my grandmother and I, along with other members of our extended family, came to the United States as Jewish refugees when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. I did not return to Ukraine before I was a freshman, after my grandmother retired. her American job and came back.

When my father and I first returned, my grandmother took us on very long walks in the bright sunshine, making us stop at random cafes to watch her chain smoke and drink beer and listening to him insist that kyiv was the most beautiful city. in the world. As smoke rose in my face, she listed her city’s merits, gesturing extravagantly at all it had to offer: Kyiv Lavra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site! The Lilac Gardens! The blue of the Dnieper, the river that crosses the magnificent city! Saint Sophia Cathedral! McDonald’s, a capitalist marvel! Descent of Saint-André! Bulgakov’s house! When I pointed out that she should be a tourist guide, she reminded me that she was, in fact, an occasional guide for visiting businessmen, one of the fifty activities that kept her active after his retirement, in addition to the Toastmasters club.

Am I allowed to feel drained when I see my birthplace targeted by an aggressive military attack?

Although I teased my grandmother about her kyiv obsession, I felt it too. When I returned “home” to the United States, I began to take an interest in the literature of my native country. If my mind wandered, it would lead me through the ubiquitous Soviet-style apartment buildings to the tables set with my grandmother’s incomparable buttery blinis, the forty random side dishes of pickled vegetables, charcuterie and hot meals prepared by my extremely welcoming extended family. when I sat down. I thought of the joy on my father’s face as he and I strolled the streets of his childhood at dawn, of the comfort and strangeness of hearing my mother tongue spoken on the street – c was too intimate, the language that previously only belonged to my family home.

Over the next decade, I accumulated a host of kitschy trinkets from the motherland. Jewelery boxes decorated with the kyiv skyline, nesting dolls, magnets in the shape of sheaves of wheat and cheerful pigs, a broom to hang over a lucky threshold, a shot glass I rodin. I just feel a little more legitimate than a tourist. In recent weeks, as I watched my fellow Soviet immigrants post photos on Facebook, write thoughtful tweets, and change their profile banners to Ukrainian flags, I’ve been at a loss for words. Am I allowed to feel drained when I see my birthplace targeted by an aggressive military attack? Why do I feel like I have to ask permission to be genuinely affected?

kyiv was overrun while my parents were visiting me at my home in Alabama, and they spent the last days of their trip glued to their phones, relaying news of loved ones and their safety so far and military advances, or answering calls from old classmates. With these tidbits of information about what was happening to our family and the city, I always felt like I was scratching the surface. As my own phone exploded with my good wishes, I felt both more connected to kyiv than ever and also more like a fraud. A part of me wanted to say, You have the wrong person. I’m safe on my couch in America, finishing up my daughter’s Valentine’s Day candy.

I fear that soon these flippant images will no longer serve as passable representations of my home country.

I don’t know where this is taking me. I know I worry about my family, Ukrainians and refugees. I worry for my parents, who are also worried, and for all Ukrainians in the world for whom Ukraine is still home. I worry about every place depicted on the various trinkets that decorate my home. I fear that soon these flippant images will no longer serve as passable representations of my home country but as relics of a bygone era. Ghosts of landmarks burned to the ground. Or even worse, symbols of an atrocity that I still can’t or don’t want to understand.

my grandmother died in 2016, two years after my marriage. I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately, and her wacky wedding present. The painting is currently displayed on a shelf in my house, next to a jar of seashells meant to symbolize my husband’s birthplace, Santa Barbara. The painting is a poor representation of kyiv, but perhaps not such a poor representation of my own understanding of the city: not particularly sophisticated, steeped in the national colors of light blue and yellow, centered on images of the Dnieper and the magnificent churches. -the confused, timeless, confusing and beloved home in my mind.

Whatever happens next, I’m glad my grandmother didn’t live long enough to see it. I am grateful that the last time she had to evacuate Kyiv was when she was a child during World War II and not today when she was heartbroken at eighty. My grandmother, who, I realized, knew perfectly well what she was saying when she handed me this painting after her wedding speech: she had understood that “making babies” and “not forgetting your place of birth” were two distinctly related ideas. She not only wanted me to have kids, but to bring them back to Kyiv one day, maybe even to fulfill her role as an enthusiastic tour guide as we walked along the banks of the Dnieper and drank kvass in the streets .

The other morning I found my daughter in her bed with a nesting doll painted with a scene from Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in kyiv, yet another moment that I realize is “too much on the nose”, like a moment in news that feels too convenient to be real. I felt the need to tell my daughter what this doll represented. But she’s not yet four, and her concept of home is to move from the “old house” a mile away to the “new house” where we live now.. The explanation would have been beyond her, and was perhaps beyond me as well. Instead, I just told her, in English, not to play with the doll; it was time to get ready for school. But let’s imagine that I write this story, in which she could have asked about it. Then maybe I would have said something more important. I could have even switched to Russian and said, “This is your mom’s house. This is where she comes from. It’s a bit like the old house. But it’s really far. Especially right now.

Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kyiv, Ukraine. She is the author of the novels Oksana, hold on tight! and something amazing. She is an assistant professor at Auburn University and is the fiction editor of The Bare Life Review and the Southern Humanities Journal.

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