Monday, 25 July 2011


Arrived in Kiev on the overnight train from Moscow and spent most of the day sleeping – venturing out only for meals and a short walk down the main street- the ‘On The Go Tour’ of Russia lived up to its name and kept us on the go for six days!

Central Kiev is dominated by a short main street with a large square which is closed to traffic on the weekends. A beautiful independence monument rises over the square. A network of underground shops and metro tunnels lies underneath. Our first call was to the Chernobyl museum in Kiev. Although tours do run to Chernobyl 100 km north, there are suggestions it is still too radioactive for safety.

The museum is a combination of details about the accident, with experiences and fate of many key personnel involved, several of whom died in the days or months afterwards from the exposure they suffered heroically acting to minimise the damage and during the cleanup. There are many artworks from local and overseas artists responding to the tragedy. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were particularly moved by the accident. The ongoing medical problems of the thousands of people exposed to radiation, particularly children, and the millions of displaced people unable to return to the 35 communities evacuated are covered with films and displays.
Anyone who thinks nuclear power is a feasible option should come here.

Some of the plant operators apparently spent up to 20 years in prison as a result of a Soviet inquiry finding the accident was caused by the operators, despite the later findings of the IAEA that the problems were inherent in the plant design, not operator error. It seems some adjacent nuclear plants continued operating until international pressure caused them to be shut down in 2000. It is not clear how the plant workers continued working at the centre of the 30km exclusion zone for 14 years. A 20m high wall and roof now forms a sarcophagus around the plant to fully enclose it.

Ukraine’s 46m population apparently continue to be pretty dependent on nuclear power. Natural gas is increasingly available for house heating. We saw the characteristic yellow pipework elevated 3m above the ground, and running though the centre of people’s front gardens in some towns and were a bit concerned by the rusty state of some of them. We also saw a place where the ground has been burning with a natural gas vent for the last 7 years. An untapped resource methinks.

We were greeted by thunder as we left the museum and rain soon followed making our afternoon sightseeing very soggy, obscuring the views and discouraging our planned walk down the scenic old town – we enjoyed funicular rides and managed to decode enough Cyrillic to navigate the metro, but we took a taxi out to dinner at the Ukrainian folk restaurant where we found ourselves surrounded by woven willow fences, sunflowers and rural farmyard settings, enjoyed traditional foods and were entertained by a trio of musicians, moving Anna to tears on a couple of occasions. We enjoyed complimentary Ukrainian vodka shots on arrival and on leaving (orange or horseradish flavoured) making us doubly grateful we were not driving on the chaotic rundown roads.

In Kiev, we were surprised to find that some of Anna’s family, the 2 daughters of Max’s sister Mariya, had heard of our visit, and wanted to see us. Daughter Mariya was here on a visit from Spain and was flying out the next day while Ana had come in from Poltava 200km away. Along with a local couple, Ana’s son Vladimir and his wife Oxyana who speaks a small amount of high-school English, we spent a couple of hours swapping family trees and one or two photos, before squeezing into a small van to travel to the Museum of Architecture and Ukrainian Lifestyles to see examples of traditional houses and farms built on a hundred hectares just out of town. The section we visited had an example almost identical to the detailed scale model Max built of the house and yard in which he grew up. It was uncanny to walk through them.

About half an hour after we arrived we were joined by an English speaking guide who’d taken tours for 35 years and had a routine he insisted on sticking to even though we had already seen the first few sites, but it confirmed that we had understood everything our almost non English speaking family had shown us and added some helpful information. We enjoyed a late lunch on the way back and had such a wonderful unexpected day we were very grateful to have met them all and been so warmly welcomed.

Another night train took us to Ivano-Frankivsk, in the west of the country, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. We had a private cabin, but the beds seemed even narrower. We took a pre-booked two hour walking tour of the beautiful city centre with extensive pedestrian mall, churches, fountains and treed parks.

When we returned, we were met by a half dozen excited relatives, along with an interpreter Oxyana (coincidentally) who is a friend of one of the family, they hired for the 3 days of our visit. We were piled into cousin Vasilyi’s people mover and whisked straight off to the village of Lanchen 60km away, where Max grew up, collecting Vasilyi’s wife Svetlana and grandchildren Andrei (6) and Kristi (4) on the way.

There we saw Anna’s 90 year old Aunt Anna, after whom she was named. She and her daughter Mariya have adjacent houses on the block, with a large garden full of sweet corn, beans and much more which she insists on tending to herself, as well as apple and cherry trees. The favourite is the sweet cherry, a very small but extremely sweet variety. Branches full were pruned from the top of a large tree by Vadim for all of us to feast on.

Also there were another of Anna’s 7 cousins, Yura, who had driven all night from Odessa 600km away, with his son Vasilyi, grandson Dimitri (25)  and son-in-law Vladimir. While Max’s sister Anna was the only one old enough to remember Max from 1941, a couple of her children- Vasilyi and Yura, had been young when he was taken away and there were lots of stories told of him as everyone grew up. Their Baba -Max’s mother had prayed for his return until her death in 1972 and all of them had felt the absence of this much loved son, brother, uncle or nephew they never saw again.

A few old letters and photos that were sent from Australia in the early 1960’s were produced and some that had been lost were recalled as we sat under the trees. Many tears were shed as the story of how Max was taken by the Germans was recalled and how no news was heard for many years during the Soviet times as having relatives outside of the USSR was dangerous.

Tears of joy for the reunion now occurring and for recent photos of Max in his final years gave way to laughter as Anna gave Aunt Anna one of the wooden toys Maxim had made of rabbits playing drums. The great grandchildren – David Caroline Maxim (12,10 and 9, Lena and Vadim’s children) and Andrei and Kristi, gathered round for a turn, and recollections of how Max loved making things were shared. Though Aunt Anna was a little grumpy with Max for not teaching Anna Ukrainian the occasion was celebratory and Oxyana was overworked as everyone tried to share their stories over afternoon tea. We were sorry we couldn’t communicate with everyone at once.

We then all piled into three cars and drove to the property on the other side of the river where Mariya’s youngest son Vasilyi lives with his wife Bernada and sons Vladimir and Lubchek, and works the same land as Max and the next generation grew up on. There is a new house adjacent, but more than half of the original 150 year old house Max made his model of is still there, and used as a summer kitchen. It now has an asbestos roof rather than thatch and boasts a newish antenna pointed just above the horizon to a Russian satellite. Another antenna on the new house points in the other direction towards Europe. Vasilyi has been working the land for several years now after previously serving in the army and then working in the city for a while. We were very grateful to him for having renovated and maintained more than half of the old house while building his own house and building up the farm again.

To say we were surprised and overwhelmed by the hospitality is an understatement. Until a few days ago, the only contact Anna has had with the family were emails with another cousin, Vitalyi who moved to Ohio USA with his mother Helena, Aunt Anna’s  daughter, several years ago. She had written to Max a few years before he died and Anna and Lynda had begun corresponding with her son Vitalyi, who occasionally travels to Ukraine. His older sister Lena and her husband Vadim who speaks some English were our point of contact in Ukraine, through Vitalyi. That there is a wider network that’s been buzzing with the news became very obvious and everyone seems to have a mobile phone except Aunt Anna who is never very far from her land line. They were very excited to have Anna there, tinged with their disappointment that Max had never returned.

A very devout Orthodox family, they were keen to show us the church Max went to and the grave of his sister Mariya who died in 2003. So after dinner served in the garden along with the traditional three vodka toasts enjoyed by all who were not drivers we waved the party from Odessa off as they were again driving home overnight to be back at work the next day (amazing yes) and we headed off to take Aunt Anna and Mariya home via the church. Many photos of our very historic day were taken by Vadim who is a professional photographer, and had the group shots well stage managed.

Unfortunately it was too late in the day to visit the graves of Max’s parents Simon and Paruska, so that was left until our return on Saturday. We headed back to Ivano-Frankivsk talking through Oxyana all the way.

Next day we spent the afternoon in the local museum, housed in the old council building, with Lena and Oxana. Later we were met by Vasilyi, and travelled to the market cum recreation town of Yranchera in the mountains about 20 km from Lanchyn. A beautiful river flows through the gorge, with a hundred stalls on both sides. A very popular spot with locals and tourists alike, and one of the places frequented by Max. It was speculated that this is where he learnt to make the toys and carved boxes he produced for the grandkids.

The no swimming signs above the rapids were ignored as people paddled and rock-hopped at the edges, and a few swam a little further upstream. We had a fine time shopping, which unfortunately will contribute more to the coffers of the postal service, than to the local artisans and stall holders. This was followed by some traditional food for dinner in the restaurant, with borsch and a polenta dish with pork, and a special serve of dill gherkins for Anna. The live music was so infectious that we all ended up dancing.

The drive home was revealing. Even at 11 or 12 o’clock, the roads were full of pedestrians, groups of people chatting, horse-drawn haycarts, and cars driving down the middle of the road to miss the potholes. The combination of all these and oncoming traffic, led to many a tight (read dangerous) situation.

Next day we retuned to Lanchyn, and were hosted by Vasilyi and Bernarda at the farm. A walk into the hills behind the house, and a walk to the local waterhole on the river Prut gave us a great sense of the area. We dived in an swam to the other side to what Vasilyi calls the Jaccuzzi, at the base of a small rapid. By the time we had finished with toasts, dinner, family trees, address swapping and stories it was late. Even so, at 11.30pm we knocked up 90 year-old Anna at her house on the way home. They obviously have no concerns about the state of her heart as they leaned on the doorbell until she woke and let us in for a chats, sweets and hugs.

Stayed the night in Kolomiya, which is a town about 20km away. In the morning, explored the local market, mall and museum, before taking a walk to the park and lake. The rest of the day was 6 hours driving to Uzgurod, so we could get a few hours sleep before catching the 5.40am train to Budapest in Hungary.

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