Lily Hyde | The Atavist Magazine |October 2023 | 1,479 words (5 minutes)
This is an excerpt from issue no. 144, “Two Thousand Miles From Home.”
Oy, bida! Oy, bida bida bida
A ya ba, a ya baba moloda
LYDIA KUZNICHENKO IS SINGING a Ukrainian folk song to the baby she’s holding in her arms. The tune is cheerful, although the words translate as something like: Oh, woe is me! And I’m a young woman. Lida, as she is known, is still young. She has grey-green eyes and dark golden hair, a face not meant for grief. She laughs and teases the baby: “Yes, yes, is your grandmother young?”
Sitting with Lida on the bed in her small brick house in the village of Ridkodub, Ukraine, I am wearing a heavy bulletproof vest that is supposed to protect me from the war raging outside. The baby, buttoned into a white onesie and a little blue jacket, has nothing to protect him except his grandmother’s arms. He is very small, not quite three months old.
Outside it’s a cold, pale winter’s day, December 30, 2022. We are in the Kharkiv region, about 20 miles west of the Russia-Ukraine border, and seven miles from the front line of the war between these two countries. A set of shelves in the room is piled with folded baby clothes and blankets—pink, blue, lemon yellow, white. On the veranda outside, tiny clothes and socks are pinned to a line, having been washed by hand in water heated on the old-fashioned stove. The house is a simple Ukrainian village home, warm and quiet except for the crackle of wood burning in the stove. When there’s a long, deafening roar outside that makes the windows tremble, or a series of more distant thumps, I’m the only one who flinches. The baby wriggles, then sleeps.
Both of them do—there’s another baby in the room, on the bed. The infants have a good many adopted uncles in Ridkodub, men who wear camouflage, army boots, and bulletproof vests. They think the babies are twins at first. “No!” Lida corrects them. “They are daughter and grandson. They are nephew and aunty.” Their names are Vitalina and David, and they have seen more woe in their few months on earth than many of us could imagine in a lifetime.
If Lida were to tell these babies a story instead of singing a song, how might she start? Perhaps like this: There were three women—Liuda, Lida, and Lera. They were from two generations of the same family; they lived a few miles from one another, and they all became pregnant just a few weeks apart. But a war came between them and divided them from one another. One of them traveled 2,000 miles to come home; another was lost.
No. That story gets too sad too quickly.
Perhaps she could start like this: There is the story about David and Goliath. Little David went out to fight the giant Goliath, who threatened to destroy David’s whole nation. And everyone thought that Goliath would win in three days, but little David would not be defeated.
Yes, that’s a better way to begin.
LIDA’S FAMILY, the Slobodianyks, are a big, close clan. Arkady and Halyna moved from the Vinnytsia region, in central Ukraine, to Ridkodub, in the Kharkiv region, in 1986 with their four children. Lydia and her twin sister, Liudmyla, were still babies when the family relocated to work at the kolkhoz, the Soviet collective farm. Another daughter was born in nearby Dvorichna.
Lida and Liuda, as they were known, did everything together. Liuda was the eldest by five minutes. They studied at the local school and sang in the school choir. When they were 12, they started helping out at the farm, too, milking the cows. The twins performed together at local clubs and concerts, two girls with bright faces, harmonizing as they sang rich, plaintive Ukrainian folk songs. Lida had her first child—a son, Maksym—at 18. Liuda followed three months later with a daughter.
Maksym was a timid, serious baby. Lida bounced and tickled him, and sang nonsense songs to coax out his smile. The baby’s father left the family early on. Maksym grew up close to his mother; he had her green eyes and dark blond hair, but not her lively, outgoing temperament. A brother was born, then a sister as cheerful as Lida; Maksym remained the quiet, stubborn one.
By the mid-1990s, the kolkhozes had become private farms, but otherwise it felt as if not much had changed in their uneventful corner of Kharkiv region. Fields of wheat, maize, and bright sunflowers stretched to meet big skies, like picture postcards of the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag. The Oskil River wound past Dvorichna, between high, chalky banks overgrown with wildflowers and riddled with the burrows of steppe marmots.
As the children grew, the family gathered regularly; the farthest any of the five adult Slobodianyk siblings and their families had gone was to the regional capital, also called Kharkiv, where the oldest brother lived. Everyone else lived within a few dozen miles of one another in the district of Kupiansk. By the end of 2021, Arkady and Halyna had 15 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and perhaps soon there would be another: Maksym had recently startled Lida by bringing home a girl he’d met at agricultural college. Her name was Valeria Perepelytsia, or Lera for short. A girlfriend! Not Lida’s shy Maksym—who, by the way, was only 17. The young couple had already started talking about having a baby.
EARLY ON February 24, 2022, a sound like the sky tearing in half ripped through Lida’s dream.
It was dark, not even 4 a.m. The house in Ridkodub was quiet, her younger son, Dmytro, and daughter, Uliana, peacefully asleep. It was just a horrible dream, she decided. She dozed off, then woke again to another loud noise. Perhaps someone was setting off fireworks outside.
When she looked out her window, she saw that the sky in the northeast, toward the Russian border, was on fire. It was not a dream or fireworks. It was what the United States had been warning of, the thing no one in Ukraine wanted to believe could happen: Russia had invaded Ukraine.
Russian troops had amassed along the Ukrainian border for months, as Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that the neighboring country needed “denazifying” and “demilitarizing” while insisting that Ukraine was really part of Russia anyway. Despite U.S. and EU warnings, few Ukrainians thought there would be an attack beyond the eastern end of the country, where Russia had fomented a conflict in 2014 and effectively occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Kharkiv bordered Luhansk and Donetsk—and Russia. But no one was prepared for Russian missiles falling on civilians and destroying infrastructure all over Ukraine. On the morning of February 24, Russian tanks not only crossed the border into Kharkiv region, but advanced on Kherson and Mariupol in the south and toward the capital of Kyiv to the north.
Lida phoned Maksym, who was staying with Lera and her family in Velykyi Vyselok, about 17 miles away, across the Oskil River. The call woke him up. “How can you sleep,” she yelled, “when the war has started?”
Maksym had been watching the news closely and messaging with his older cousin in the Ukrainian army. But his cousin had not prepared him for this. Lera, however, knew exactly what war was. She had experienced it before, eight years ago in Luhansk. She remembered how her mother hid her and her younger sister in the wardrobe during the bombings, and shared with them the only food they had: half a loaf of bread per day.
Now she and her mother scrambled to dress her baby brother, Artem, and gather a few essentials. Lera’s instinct was to run, although she didn’t know where to go. Grad rockets roared right over the house. Lera’s younger sister, Alyona, had been five when the Perepelytsias fled their home in Luhansk region. Now the buried trauma surfaced. She crouched like the little quail—perepilka—of their surname, put her hands over her head, and screamed.
No one went to work that day. People hid in basements and root cellars as planes and helicopters flew overhead and columns of tanks and artillery drove through Ridkodub and Dvorichna. They were unmarked, and Lida’s neighbors weren’t sure which country they belonged to; it was only on the very last column, which came through at about 4 p.m., that they saw a Russian flag. The few Ukrainian defenses near Dvorichna and Velykyi Vyselok were quickly overwhelmed.
On February 27, the mayor of Kupiansk, the administrative center of the district, surrendered. Soon Kherson fell in south Ukraine. The remaining Ukrainian forces near Lida’s home retreated to defend Kharkiv, which for the next three months was bombarded as Russian forces sought to take the city. But in the settlements near the border, after that first day when Russian troops passed through, everything went strangely quiet.