Luck Will Still Smile on Us: Reconnecting with Ukraine from Minneapolis

April 10, 2022

For weeks before Russia invades Ukraine, the beautiful country of my mother’s birth, I exist in parallel universes. From my apartment in Minneapolis where winter has run unbearably cold, I watch news reports: Predictions of an attack are constant and almost certain. It is the end of January. Memories from the summers I spent in Soviet Ukraine as a Nigerian-Ukrainian child flood back, each one at first a balm and then, at the turn of a thought toward war, a hurtful thing. I realize that I still hold the belief that Ukraine is like a second home to me after Nigeria, where I was born and lived most of the year with my Nigerian father and Ukrainian mother. I suppose it must be said that existing in parallel universes isn’t new to me; it is too often my lived reality as a mixed-race woman connected by birth to more than one culture. But listening to the daily news in those weeks before the invasion, I experience the added sense that something was unravelling in a frightening way, going dangerously awry in the world.

From the very same apartment which I share with my husband, 10-year-old daughter and our dog, I read a Facebook message written by my cousin Sasha who lives in Mariupol, the Donetsk region of Ukraine where the conflict with the Russian-backed separatists has been going on for years. “Sashko” we called him back in the carefree days of our youth, and I still picture him as he was then, self-contained and confident, always ready with a wisecrack. He assures me that all is indeed fine and that the news reports are not to be entirely believed, that the threat is being overplayed by the media. He thinks Russia is likely to attack in a non-lethal way through cyberspace.

In his words, I find reassurance, for which I am desperate, that a Russian invasion of Ukraine will never happen — that it is inconceivable in this new century. But as the days pass and the situation intensifies, the sense of reassurance gives way to an unsettling feeling about what Vladimir Putin is capable of doing, to thoughts of Russia’s military might.

On Saturday, February 19, five days before the invasion, I attend a peace rally for Ukraine at the Minnesota State Capitol. The day is bright and sunny but bitterly cold, and I stand alongside Ukrainian-Americans and fellow Americans, some of whom have Latvian roots, holding up the “I Stand with Ukraine” sign I made with my daughter over breakfast that morning. I also hold up a Ukrainian flag one of the organizers gave me, its light blue hue blending with the radiant sky.

Among the hundred or so activists there, I am the only person with brown skin, and when a conversation with an older man turns ever so discreetly as to why I’m there, I say my mother is Ukrainian. So were my late great-grandmother Baba Masha, I want to say, and my late grandparents, and so are my aunt and uncle and their respective families. But I limit my sharing and turn to follow the words of Senator Amy Klobuchar as she denounces the idea of war and reiterates Minnesota’s support for Ukrainians. I continue to hold the weight and depth of my affiliations to Ukraine close to my heart. It is also true that living in the United States, a country so focused on itself and its own social issues, has weakened those affiliations. As has the mere fact of distance. Now the thought of invasion has jerked them to the fore.

Minutes earlier, as I had pulled into a parking spot in front of the Capitol, I could not hold back tears. I sat in my car and watched people — men, women, children — climb out of their cars with their colorful signs, with a shared hope for peace and sustained democracy in a land so dear to them. Thinking of my own familial ties to the country, especially my late grandparents, of whom I have fond memories from visits during my childhood, I tear up again when the Ukrainian national anthem is sung in chorus at the end of the rally: “Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom / Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians …

My fingers are numb from the cold but I take a video and text it to my mother, who lives in Illinois. She responds with one word, “good” — and in that word, I hear the spirit of resolve that has guided and sustained her from the day she left Soviet Ukraine with my Nigerian father to the present moment.

My mother has talked openly to me about the early years of her life with my father, whom we lost to complications from diabetes in 2000. They met at a student party on the campus of the University of Kyiv to commemorate Nigeria’s Independence Day. My father lived quite comfortably within the premises of the university, where he studied veterinary medicine, fully supported as he was by the Nigerian and Soviet governments. He encountered racism, mostly taunts and name-calling, from “stupid people,” my mother said, and mostly outside the university. They married and then left for Nigeria after his studies, because my father doubted that he would ever be able to build a career in Ukraine. These are the stories that further complicate and diminish my connection to Ukraine, that require delineations of loyalty to one ethnicity or the other. And yet what comes rushing to fill some of those fraught spaces is the unwavering love I have often felt from my Ukrainian relatives since I was a child. It is unlike anything else I’ve experienced, because of the unique source from which it springs, that confluence of interracial love; it is also what compelled me to go to the rally that day.

As the new week begins, I stay in close contact with my mother, who speaks daily to her sister, my Aunt Katerina, still living in Kyiv. Aunt Katya is a permanent fixture of my childhood memories. If I close my eyes, I can still see it all: the orderly apartment she kept in Kyiv with its efficiency-sized kitchen; the way she rose at the break of dawn to make us breakfast; the occasional torte she brought back from the store, deliciously layered with chocolate, nuts and cream. It is after one of those calls with my aunt that my mother implores me to write about my grandfather, who was captured by the Germans in World War II, but escaped by jumping off a train into a river by the Polish border.

I am struck, as always, by the story of my grandfather’s bravery when he fought for the Soviet Army, part of which I have included in a novella I’ve just finished writing. I have already written about it, I tell my mother, and I will write about it again, not only because it is relevant to my family history but because it underscores that we as human beings haven’t moved beyond the barbarism of that era.

On the morning of Thursday, February 24, after a fitful night’s sleep, I roll over in bed to check the news. Russia has invaded Ukraine. The parallel universes between which I’d been suspended collapse into each other. This is a tough time for Ukraine, I tell my daughter, as I get her ready to catch the school bus. I explain to her that despite all our best efforts to shore up solidarity and support, war has begun. Then I anxiously call my mother. She tells me my cousin has fled Mariupol by car with his dog and is headed west to Kyiv, where his ex-wife and son also live. However, for the past few hours, all contact with him has been lost. In the coming weeks we will experience many of these moments, when our minds, reeling with worst-case scenarios, desperately rush towards hope. Maybe the cell towers have been destroyed, I say; maybe, my mother says, he’s just stuck in traffic. I hold onto these words too as I try to go about my day, responding to email and text messages of concern from friends as far as Nigeria and Holland, and checking the news in an increasingly heightened state of rage. I read that the Russians have taken over parts of the eastern region of Ukraine; they now have their eyes set on the nuclear zone of Chernobyl, close to Belarus.

I take a break and walk my dog in a nearby park, a stone’s throw from the Ukrainian Center where I’ve spent many a weekend with my family enjoying traditional dances and borscht served with potato-filled perogies. The dog bounds happily through the fresh snow like a bunny, her ears clipping the cold air. I shiver in my thick parka, imagining what it is like to fight a war in the winter. A few hundred feet above us, something buzzes, and the dog and I look up to see a black drone zipping through the gray sky. Later, I call my mother to ask about my cousin. He is safe in a hotel in Dnipro. He couldn’t get farther due to bombing.

On Friday, February 25, I wake up to more images of Ukrainians fleeing toward the Polish border, many of them women and children; the men aged 60 and under, my mother tells me on the phone, have been called to bear arms. I also see the troubled faces of African students in these images of desperate flight. I think of my father and his experience in Ukraine when he was a student; I worry about the students’ fate, hoping that they too will be offered passage into Poland or other parts of Europe. Soon I see articles on war and racism, decrying the unfair treatment of Africans and their families seeking to cross into Poland for refuge. I find that I had been travelling on a moral road with sure footing but am now less certain, my loyalties swinging wildly from one continent to the next, from one ethnicity to another. But I eventually allow myself the grace of deferral; first Ukraine must win, then it must heal and address longstanding wounds.

On the phone, I ask my mother if my aunt and uncle, now in their 70s, will leave for Byrlivka, the small village about a hundred miles outside of Kyiv where my grandparents’ old house is located, and where I spent long summer days as a child. No, she says with defiance in her voice, they will stay in their seventh-floor apartment in Kyiv, which is under attack. And in that response, I hear not only her fighting spirit but also those of millions of Ukrainians who cherish their right to sovereignty.

In the distance, from our own seventh floor apartment, I see an eagle-like bird flying high and free, following the icy path of the Mississippi River. Before my mother hangs up, she asks me if I remember the poems of Taras Shevchenko, and I say I do, vaguely, which is the truth. My mother tells me she will send me something by Shevchenko, our national poet of resistance, who was born a serf, and hangs up. A few minutes later, I hear a pinging sound and see that she has texted me a quote by Shevchenko: a fragment of a defiant ode.

I decide to make a pot of borscht to take my mind off the state of things. Borscht —which I loved as a child in Byrlivka — often warms my heart and energizes my spirit. But today I move around the kitchen sluggishly as I grate beets and cut potatoes and carrots. My husband asks, is it Ukrainian borscht? (I have made Russian borscht in the past.) I nod vigorously.

On February 26, the second day of the invasion, I awake to news that the Russian Army is being repelled by Ukrainian forces and armed civilians. I remain fearful and log on to social media, having left it in dismay on the day of the invasion after a Nigerian friend, whose mother is Russian, changed her profile photo filter to include a picture of the Russian flag. That flag’s red, white, and blue had hit my eyes like shards of ice. She supports her president, she’d said, and railed against the Ukrainian friends on her feed.

My friend and I grew up together in the northern Nigerian town of Vom, where our similarities — we both had mothers from the Soviet Union and fathers from Nigeria — anchored and bolstered our friendship. How did we get here?

But I am more interested in seeing what my Ukrainian relatives and friends have posted on their feeds. Until just a few days ago, before the invasion, there were photos of life as usual — an outing to the park with a young child, a birthday celebration for a parent; now there is shock and anger, and in some cases, photos of tall buildings with sides dissolved like wet papier-mâché. I take a pen and write down my thoughts on random scraps of paper, including bits about the weather in Minneapolis, where the temperature has risen above freezing for what feels like the first time this winter; this is also what I do every time I speak to my mother. I call her to check in. She has heard reports of the dead bodies of soldiers, both Russian and Ukrainian, lying in the streets. Those poor young men, she moans, someone needs to come and get them. I ask about her brother, my Uncle Vitya, who lives in Drabiv, a city not far from Byrlivka. Vitya is a complicated man with a complicated history, but also with the softest of hearts and a gift for the accordion. My mother says she hasn’t been able to get in touch with him (maybe he misplaced his phone or changed his phone number), but she would contact his daughter on Facebook. Earlier I had also contacted my cousin Sasha through Facebook to tell him I was thinking of him and would be here for him. He writes back. Keep us posted, I wrote, and stay safe. I am still writing those words every day.

¤

Angela Ajayi’s first story, “Galina,” published in Fifth Wednesday Journal, won the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Her essays, book reviews and author interviews have appeared in The Common Online,Wild River Review, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where she is a contributing book critic. A former editor, she also teaches writing classes at the Literary Loft Center. She holds a BA in English literature from Calvin University and an MA in comparative literature from Columbia University. Her recent short story, “Our Beautiful Ukrainian Mothers,” is in the Fall 2021 issue of Pleiades. She is writing her first book.