Aleksandra lived through the Holodomor, the famine inflicted by the Soviet regime on Ukraine in the 1930s, and was taken by the Nazis as a labourer to Germany. After the end of World War II, she made a new life for herself in the Netherlands. She did not like visiting the country of her birth: “What is there for me now? During every visit, I stare at graves, and they keep increasing in number.”
Aleksandra’s granddaughter, Lisa Weeda, named her debut novel after her grandmother and wove the story of her family with the history of Ukraine. The war in Ukraine had not yet begun when Weeda published her novel in the Netherlands in 2021. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to destabilise Ukraine had already long been going on then.
Russian propaganda portrayed the Maidan Protests in Ukraine that called for closer ties with the European Union as a coup sponsored by the West, especially after protesters ousted ex-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was close to Moscow and fled the country. Russia used the unrest to annex Crimea in 2014 and the republics Donetsk and Luhansk were founded in the Donbas, to the east of Ukraine. Both republics have yet to be internationally recognized.
Ukraine: the land of the Don Cossacks
Weeda’s novel, which is part fictional, part factual history, begins with the protagonist Lisa wanting to travel to Luhansk to find the grave of her uncle Kolya. Her grandmother has asked her to place a cloth embroidered with the name of all their family members over the grave. The red threads signify life, the black signify death. A soldier at the checkpoint stops her from going further, saying, “This cursed birthland of your grandmother is no country for flying visits. It is too dangerous. Do svidanya (Goodbye).”
But Lisa manages to slip through a cornfield and is suddenly transported into the past, into the magical palace of the Don Cossacks, referring to people living along the Black and Caspian seas who have had a long tradition of independence.
Walking through its numerous rooms, she travels through the entire century. “Every room is a different part of the family history, but also partly a different part of Ukrainian history,” Weeda tells DW in a conversation about the book. In the novel, her great-grandfather Nikolai is always by her side. He has longed for his daughter Aleksandra all his life and has suggested she should stay in the West, in safety, instead of living under Stalin’s oppressive regime.
The author became interested in her family history much later in life. Her grandmother did not speak much about her life in Ukraine and the Soviet Union after she married in the Netherlands, Weeda explains. Relatives often came to visit, but then they visited Amsterdam and the famous tulip fields close to it. “For a long time I did not know that I had Don Cossack blood,” Weeda says, adding she did not even know what a Don Cossack actually was.
Through research, Weeda learned that her ancestors on her mother’s side lived in Donbas. They were free warriors, who founded a kind of predecessor of the Ukrainian state in the 17th century, until it was suppressed by the czar. They never wanted to be a part of the Soviet Union and were deported in droves and murdered. For today’s Ukrainian, the Don Cossack is a hero and that is why the statement “We would rather die than live like slaves” is the key message of her book. ” While writing the book, I asked myself, how can I show people that it’s not easy to be free when you are repressed all the time?”
Donbas in Ukraine’s history
That is why the Dutch author created special creatures for her story – deer with arrows in their backs: “They are strong animals, but also wounded. And that is for me, what the Donbas and Ukrainian history is about,” she says. She explains that the deer are like forefathers who know the country’s fate intimately and who take the reader by the hand and guide them through the dark times.
In the book, Aleksandra’s father Nikolai says how the side they were on was changing constantly and it was never their decision. His friend Oleg talks about how much blood was spilled on their soil and how new, clean soil must emerge, but one does not give the earth any time.
Famine in Ukraine
Back in the magical palace of the Don Cossacks, where Lisa’s grandmother lives as a young girl, her carefree childhood is short-lived and soon after, Stalin’s henchmen seize the harvest of small farmers and later deport them for being “kulaks,” wealthy merchants. The Great Famine begins and goes down in history as a genocide called the Holodomor.
In the book, Lisa is repeatedly threatened by piles of grain that may engulf her at any moment as she passes through the rooms of the palace. It symbolizes the fact that the palace’s builders have stolen the corn to finance the structure as a symbol of power. ” When I was in Moscow in 2018, I felt like a nobody. The architecture just pushes you down. And the palace of the Soviets, and it was one of the biggest projects that Stalin wanted to have built during his reign,” Weeda says.
But it never came to that. The Nazis marched into Ukraine. Many, who had suffered under Stalin, including Nikolai’s family, had hoped for better times, but it was not to be. Like many girls, Aleksandra was taken away from her family and brought to Germany as forced labor. After the war, she married a Dutch man.
Russia’s shocking invasion
Aleksandra is 98 years old now. She has lived longer in the Netherlands than in Ukraine, but she has always kept in touch with her family, Weeda says. “The past years have been really tough on her. She’s still strong. She wants to do everything by herself. But we lost Kolya, and we lost Igor. This was a big shock for her,” she adds.
The Russian attack has also badly affected Aleksandra as well as the fact that her beloved relatives are on opposite sides. Like her father says in the book, their blood flows away from each other like the Donets [a river in Eastern Ukraine], which divides them not only on the map. He doesn’t know if they can reunite in the end.
Peace in Ukraine is still elusive
Lisa Weeda hopes that the war will soon come to an end, but she says, ” Since Putin’s reign, there’s already 20 years of brainwashing of the younger generation who really believe, I think, that Ukraine belongs to Russia.”
Ukraine, on the other hand, is completely broken and the generations to come will be angry and hate their neighbors. “You pay a high price if you live in this area. I think the consequences of this war will last at least half a century,” she adds.
There is a scene in the book, in which the part of the family living in the Netherlands visits relatives in Odesa. Her uncle greets the guests saying he hopes they experience love in their country despite the fragile situation. He hails their ancestry, which lies somewhere in the middle between Ukrainians and Russians and raises a toast to the peace that still eludes the region.
Featured image:A protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo: pix-4-2-day/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0