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Tuesday, 1 December 2020

A Century of Ukraine - the Life of Ivan Mikhailovich Raichuk

On the 8th of May 1926, Ivan Mikhailovich Raichuk was born in Kitaihorod in Western Ukraine, a mid-sized village on the Dniester river, just north of the Moldovan border around 25km from the historic city of Kamianets-Podilskyi.

This is the story of his life, times, descendants and legacy over a tumultuous century in the borderland of Europe.

There is little easily-available information about Kitaihorod; it barely shows up on maps, but the internet records that it was a Jewish shtetl with a population of around 1,000 at the turn of the 20th century and probably somewhere about the same at the turn of the 21st.


Ivan Mikhailovich was not Jewish but Ukrainian, and grew up speaking Ukrainian; other nationalities in this patchwork borderland (the literal translation of Ukraine is "borderland") include Hungarians, Poles and Jews and the land has been ruled over at various times by Mongol, Polish-Lithuanian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. 

After the conversion of Ukraine to Christianity in 988 and the emergence of Kievan Rus', the country was annexed into the Russian empire in the late 1700s and briefly achieved a short-lived independence during the chaotic aftermath of the 1917 Russian revolution (with Kamianets-Podilskyi as its capital). By 1922, it had become the Ukrainian SSR after being ceded to Soviet Russia under the 1921 Treaty of Riga; this brought some level of stability but not prosperity.

The Soviet genocide of 1932–33, now known as Holodomor ("death by starvation"), left millions dead as a result of a  man-made, intentional famine which rejected outside aid and saw confiscation of all household foodstuffs and restriction of population movement.

This was the Ukraine that Ivan was born into and worse was yet to come.

1941 saw the start of Great Fatherland War with Germany; a brutally pragmatic non-aggression pact had bought time for Germany to win victory on its western front and for the USSR to prepare for the inevitable. Aged 14, Ivan was captured and transported as forced labour to the Austrian hamlet of Höflein, a few kilometres north west of Linz with around 100 residents.

He was well-treated there, like one of the family; properly clothed and fed, he was worked no harder than anyone else. In some ways he was the lucky one; he had been captured to work as a farm labourer to allow the sons could go off and fight on the front. He survived, they didn't.

After the war, Ivan was given various options - stay, return or go to a third country such as the UK or USA. He chose to return home to Western Ukraine where he met and married Ganna Ivanivna Gatsmanyuk. She was five years older than he and had been previously married, but was now a widow after her husband had died in the war. There was also a baby daughter, Alexandra, whom he brought up as his own and who as an adult moved to Odesa, a port on Ukraine's Black Sea coast, where she had two sons, step-grandchildren to Ivan.

Ganna lived in Vrublivtsi, a settlement of a few hundred house on the banks of the Dniester only a few kilometres from Kitaihorod but over an hour's walk away.


The communists authorities were notoriously suspicious of anyone who had been abroad and returned; the ostensible fear was that they may have been recruited as spies, but a more practical concern was an ability to question communist propaganda about Soviet lifestyles vs those in the West.

There is no evidence that Ivan suffered from Soviet officialdom as a result of his time spent on enemy territory and it was perhaps ironically this experience of life abroad that gave him a broader perspective about the world generally, given the narrow confines of his subsequent rural life.

"Village" in Ukrainian refers not so much to population size as to lifestyle; Ukrainian villages are, effectively, groupings of smallholdings, detached houses built on plots of land of various sizes with vegetable gardens, orchards, flower beds and pot stills for samohon (home-distilled spirit, aka moonshine).

The local currency here is largely barter; you might trade some fruit for eggs, milk for a lift into town, a cut of meat is the butcher's fee for slaughtering your livestock.

A typical smallholding size is around 1,000 sqm and with electrification being a key aim of the early Communists' modernisation programme, most village homes had electricity by the 1920s and 1930s for cooking and a radio; however, cold storage, running water and flushing toilets remained a rarity for many decades.

Civic amenties amounted to a post office, a small general shop, a church (the Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin) and a bus stop on the main road to Kamianets-Podilskyi around 2km from Ivan and Ganna's home. Entertainment, such as it was, probably consisted of name days, birthdays, religious festivals and perhaps just sitting around in the yard in good weather.

The farmland of Vrublivtsi was collectivised under Stalin into a kolkhoz (collective farm) and Ivan worked as the kolkhoz vet, making him likely the most highly-educated person in the area. At home he tended his vegetable garden and orchard and kept small amounts of livestock; several rabbits and chickens plus a pig and a cow for as long as he was fit enough to do so.

Two children were born in the 1950s, with grandchildren arriving in the 1970s and 1980s.

The older girl moved from the village to the nearby town of Kamianets-Podilskyi into a professional job and living in a newly-built apartment in a low-rise development on the edge of town. It sat one one edge of a loose square with a grassy central yard, benches and a small playpark. Behind and beyond the flat were village-type houses, detached dwellings with outside toilets, kitchen gardens and livestock.

The sound of cockerels crowing in the morning served as a daily reminder and literal wake-up call of how close you were to a peasant lifestyle, which the roughshod communist naming of the street could not hide. It was Ulitsa Frunze - Frunze being the Soviet re-naming of Bishkek (the capital of Soviet Kyrgyzstan), itself named after Mikhail Frunze an associate of Lenin who had been born there.

Following his sister's lead, the younger boy moved to the capital Kyiv where he studied engineering, listened to music (western pop whenever he could get hold of it), married and settled down to start a family.

Eventually, there were four grandchildren (as well as two step-grandchildren), all girls and all living at some point in Kyiv. The oldest granddaughter went to study English at Kyiv State University, later followed by her younger sister who, after taking a business degree in Ternopil, moved to the capital in the post-communist era to work in the very western discipline of advertising and marketing.

By now, the Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine had finally won its independence. Shortly afterwards, the country agreed to give up its nuclear weapons under the Budapest Memorandum in return for guarantees of security for its territorial integrity and political independence.

For all the political progress, the unwritten rule in education remained that male students took the more rigorous English translation course which would equip them to be KGB officers or technical translators whilst female students had to settle for the English teaching course, designed to turn them into schoolteachers of a language that, at the time, they hardly dared hope to speak in one of its native countries.


It was whilst living in a student hostel, that the oldest granddaughter met an eccentric British language student on her 19th birthday. He had travelled with a party from his university in the UK for a term's placement and, being a foreigner, was placed in newer, better accommodation that was not available to native Ukrainians. 

The ring-leader of the party, a student with connections in the year above and an inside track, had then persuaded the group to move en masse from this accommodation block into something more authentic where they would actually get to meet local Ukrainians and be able to practise their language skills.

The hostel was made up of two wings on several floors with rooms of four bunks. If you were lucky, only two or three of the bunks would be occupied, giving a bit of space - or, importantly, room for a foreign visitor for a couple of months who might be persuaded to write you a letter of invitation to the UK.

The process of getting the UK was not straightforward; there we no direct flights from Kyiv and embassies for this newly-created country had not yet been established either. Travelling overland meant a train to Prague and from there a scheduled coach to London. But the embassies were not keen on the idea of letting someone in if they did not have a clear way out. So, after getting your letter of invitation from a UK student, you then had to have it countersigned at the British consulate in Kyiv for authenticity and travel to Moscow to get a UK visa from the embassy, then visit the French and Belgian embassies (in that order) to get your transit visas.

You didn't necessarily need to be on friendly-enough terms to expect a welcome and accommodation on arrival; just getting the authorised written invitation would enable you to get a visa and you were bound to find some low-level work somewhere that didn't ask too many questions so you could improve your English, stock up on western products like jeans and trainers and come back with a wallet full of valyuta - foreign hard currency that would hold its value during the Weimar-style hyperinflationary years.

Such was Kostya's plan; invite the eccentric language student to shack up with him and his buddies, then work the charm offensive to get the invitation.

Social life in Ukraine in those days generally meant eating and drinking with friends, or friends of friends. So as a show of good faith, Kostya took his long-haired new best friend to meet his girlfriend who was helping her roommate celebrate her 19th birthday.

The rest is pretty much, as they say, history: Kostya's plans to be invited to the UK went completely awry as the hostess and his guest took a liking to each that quickly developed into a relationship that had both of them contemplating the prospect of marriage within weeks - albeit unbeknownst to one another.

It would be several years before the eccentric student, by now a graduate and on the cusp of becoming a young professional with a presentable haircut and his first suit, would visit Ivan Mikhailovich in Vrublivtsi. A direct flight to Ukraine was now possible; from there he would take an overnight train to Kamianets-Podilskyi and finally a lift with one of Ivan's daughter's local contacts was arranged to get him to the village for a couple of weeks of R&R in return for a little work on the soil and occasionally fetching buckets of water from the pipe half a kilometre a way.


In his late 60s, Ivan was now a widower and could no longer manage to keep a cow, so his livestock consisted of a pig, chickens, rabbits and a series of dogs, all called Reksik, as well as growing fruit and vegetables that he would smoke to preserve for the winter.


The visit took place just before his granddaughter's wedding; Ivan was unable to travel for the UK leg of the ceremony, so a celebration was organised by the mother of the bride in Kamianets-Podilskyi with extended family travelling in from Siberia, Kyiv and Lviv.

A few months later, on an unusually mild day after a long, hot UK summer, Ivan's oldest granddaughter married her scrubbed up Russian-graduate fiancé at a town hall in the north of England and began a new life that would see her move to London, Vienna and finally Cambridge.

Her native Ukraine's hard-won independence remained under regular threat, increasingly so in the 21st century: 2004 saw the President poisoned and the resulting "Orange Revolution", 2014 saw the Euromaidan revolution which deposed Kremlin stooge and convicted criminal Viktor Yanukovych.

Russia, fearful of a democratic, prosperous, pro-EU Ukraine on its border, responded first by seizing control of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and then by invading eastern Ukraine and installing pro-independence puppet leaders. The play was brutal but simple: turn Ukraine into a failed state that would halt EU and NATO expansion. Thus, it would inevitably fall back into the Russian sphere of influence and overturn the Western rules-based order - in that part of the world, at least.

The threat of democracy could not be allowed to seep into Russian kleptocratic despotism and this low-level aggression would act as a further warning to anyone looking to meddle in Russia's backyard. After the economic chaos of the Yeltsin years, Russia was back; if this time it was neither a global superpower nor a reformed quasi-democracy, it was at least a regional dictatorship, fuelled by oil wealth, that could act however it pleased in its "near-abroad".

The USA and UK (as co-signatories of the Budapest Memorandum) failed to live up to their obligations of preserving Ukraine's territorial integrity; noble-sounding words of outrage and solidarity may have been spoken for domestic audiences, but meaningful actions were not taken in practice. Indeed, Russians and Russian dirty money continued to flood the Londongrad laundromat.

By now Ivan was in his late 80s; like many elderly, widowers, he had become a creature of stubborn habit and refused to leave his home and move in with his daughter, despite the freezing temperatures in winter and the physical demands of a self-sufficient agrarian lifestyle.


He lived to be 88 and eventually died on January 16th, 2015. He is buried in the Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin in Vrublivtsi, next to his wife Ganna.

In life he was not a physically large man, of below-average height with the wiry build of someone living off the land; photos of him in middle age show only a slight filling out. Whether it was his education or early life experiences, he retained to the end a sharp mind with an interest in the world around him beyond his village and country. A curiosity matched with self-modesty and a strong-willed nature, to the occasional point of stubbornness, was his gift and legacy to his descendant generations.

He lived to see all four of his great grandchildren and, with some modernisation, his home became something of a summer retreat for them during the long school holidays.

Where 21st century Kyiv has become a self-confident, middle-class sort of city full of cafes, bars and supermarkets with deli counters, wine aisles and freshly-baked bread, the roads in Vrublivrsi remain rough tracks and the lifestyle has changed little in a century, if not longer; a few weeks in summer spent there is akin to glamping, with only the occasional nod to modernity; there is a phone signal (in the right part of the kitchen garden) and down by the river Dniester, an hotel has been built with facilities for day-visitors.



The lifestyle is rural, but far from idyllic; it is hard physical work at the best of times but there are fresh fruit and vegetables, home-made cherry wine, and both a physical and spiritual connection to the land for visitors prepared to roll up their sleeves and work the soil.

In a different world, it would be an international tourist destination. For now, it remains just another small, remote western Ukrainian village, a millennium old but facing an uncertain future with an aging, dwindling population.

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