My Ukrainian Relatives and Friends

On July 4, I will celebrate 13 years since, at the age of 22, I left my country forever. Since then, I never went back for a visit. After my grandfather died five years ago, I haven’t made a single call to Ukraine. Today, I read this fascinating and touching post by Spanish prof (false modesty aside, I actually suggested that it be written) and started thinking about why I have no relationship with any of my Ukrainian relatives and friends (except those who also emigrated.)

Back in the Soviet Union, everybody who tried to leave the country was considered a traitor, was persecuted and abused. Those who managed to leave were not allowed to keep in touch with those who remained. As a result, emigrating was pretty much like dying. You go away, and nobody hears from you ever again. The Soviet Union fell apart, but this attitude towards people who emigrate remained. I discovered it when I received my immigrant visa to Canada and came to my university to share the news with my friends and classmates. The second they saw me, they turned away and pretended I wasn’t there. The experience of being ignored like this by people who, for years, were your bosom buddies is not pleasant.

Then, one of those bosom buddies stole my money and said, “Well, you are leaving anyways” in explanation.

A professor – who used to like me the entire time I was at the university and who used to call me “our department’s star” – yelled that I was a traitor and that she would do everything in her power to destroy my life.

The only friend who did come to say good-bye to me and cried and hugged me was the one who was about to emigrate as well. She now lives in Baltimore and we are still in touch. (Hey, Lenchik!) Other close friends told me they were too busy to meet and say good-bye.

So I never went back. My parents, sister and aunt have visited Ukraine since we emigrated.

My mother went to visit her best friend of many decades. She brought gifts that she had chosen with care and love to suit the preferences of each family member. I saw her run from store to store for weeks trying to find the best gifts possible for the friend she loves so much. The best friend looked at the gifts, put them all back in the bag, handed it to my mother and said, “I’d rather you take your gifts back and give me their value in money.” (In case you think these people are starving or anything like that, you couldn’t be more mistaken.)

My aunt went to meet her nephew whom she babysat and adored when he was a kid. The nephew charged her for the gas he “wasted” on coming to meet her. Her niece stole her money to buy gifts for her boyfriend.

One of my aunts who remained in Ukraine stole the jewelry that had been in my father’s family for over 100 years (my father, mind you, is not related to her except by marriage) and destroyed a suitcase filled with photos of his ancestors, their records, and sentimental souvenirs. This is the aunt whom my parents helped out financially (a lot) for decades.

There are other things but they are too painful to write about at this particular moment. Please don’t think that we somehow managed to end up with a particularly vicious group of relatives and friends. The few times I tried participating in Russian-speaking blogs (run by complete strangers) I always was told that nobody had any interest in talking to a person who’d emigrated.

If I were to go to Ukraine right now, it would be like going to Greece or New Zealand, places where I don’t know anybody and would be completely alone. At least, in Greece and New Zealand I can hope to get in touch with people who read my blog and be welcomed by them. In Ukraine, I’d be completely isolated.

This was supposed to be a post on friendships but it somehow ended up being quite depressive. I will write the second part of the post later and I promise that it will be about my positive experiences with friendship.