Back from Ukraine, where I’ve been on assignment for Canadian Art magazine shadowing Donald Weber, a talented Canadian photographer who is perhaps better known in Europe than here. Donald takes photographs of shortchanged Ukrainians living miserable lives—in Chernobyl, for his book Bastard Eden, and now of Brechtian down and outs in the city of Dneprodzherzhinsk, a steel and chemicals factory town principally remembered as the place where Leonid Brezhnev was born. (This, to be distinguished from Dnepropetrovsk, the larger regional capital renowned for its university chemistry department but also the unfathomably savage teen killers known as the ‘Denpropetrovsk Maniacs’ who were finally imprisoned last year.)
In Canada, the majority of Ukrainians settled on the prairie, mostly in Saskatchewan, in three waves the first of which was in the last decade of the 19th century when some 170 000 immigrants were sought out and admitted by Clifford Sifton, then Minister for Immigration, who, not messing about, famously described a “good quality” immigrant as “a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born to the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for 10 generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children.”
In Ukraine, I landed in Kiev and then started immediately on a nine hour drive along an awful broken tarmac road, to Dneprodzherzhinsk, through what was effectively one field: Saskatchewan East. The coats are made of wool or nylon but there is still—at least in this corner of the troubled country—a large peasant class drawing water from wells and living in thatched roof houses and getting by God knows how. As if the reminder of Saskatchewan did not make the extraordinary migrant logic of Ukrainians in Canada abundantly clear, in Dneprodzherzhinsk, but for the odd T-34 tank reminder of the bygone Soviet Empire, it would not have been far-fetched to imagine oneself in Toronto, at the corner of Bathurst and Steeles, the broad six or seven storey apartment buildings resembling, inordinately, the places where many urban Ukrainians came to settle in Canada.
Travel can be a deceptive thing—arrival, anyway. Dneprodzherszhinsk in the spring is much like Toronto or even Montreal can be, dirty icy snow receding, streets strewn with litter and gravel, the sky grey and the air cold. It was easy, tired as I was from the international flights and then the nine-hour drive and then my arrival in a what seemed a dreary, polluted city, to come to all sorts of grave conclusions about life there, some of which are undoubtedly valid. I think, for instance, of the bottle recyclers , and all sorts of better destinies you can imagine for your kid. Or the woman who, in Kiev, came on to me hard—not a prostitute, I was quite sure, but someone desperately trying to figure out how to take care of her children. These moments are unspeakably sad.
But keep your eyes free of prejudice, and alert, and after a few days one is aware of at least the possibility of beauty—of the human spirit, of the landscape as it was and still can be. The “Dnepro”, the broad river that courses through Dneprodzherzhinsk is toxic, but along its banks are parks that the citizens of the town were starting to amble through in anticipation of the moment when the dormant plains and woods of the steppe would burst into verdant being. The countryside was Mother Goose or Grimm fairy tale country, with geese in the fields and shelters at the foot of birch and cherry trees lining fields of rich dark soil, women raking and sweeping their homesteads but also the sides of the road. A part of me yearned to be back a month afterwards, when the whole place would be in heady bloom.
The reason I was in Ukraine was fundamentally upsetting—men are islands and there is no question, as we are reminded again and again, that we are exceptionally fortunate, here in Canada—though after several days of Dneprodzherzhinsk, I was reminded of what an Inuk, John, once said to me and my friend William T. Vollmann years ago in Resolute, still the Northwest Territories then, in a piece of dialogue that went like this:
Bill: “So what’s the worst thing about living in the Arctic?”
John: “Learning how to survive, I guess.”
Bill: “And what’s the best thing?”
John: “Umm. Learning how to survive, I guess.”
“You live in any place long enough and you learn to call it home.”
In Dneprodzherzhinsk I’d swiftly become used to the Montana, the hotel I was staying in where the bar was called the Manhattan and had a great big blowup panorama of New York at night with the World Trade Center towers still in the picture, but large red maple leafs adorned the place because the son of the owner had lived in Winnipeg for ten years, while studying. I would write in the bar in the morning, and set out into the town in the afternoon and evening, often enough so that I began to learn its nooks and crannies. By the end of the week, when I arrived in Kiev for a night or two prior to my flight home, my first instinct—despite all the toxicity, despite the apparent misery—was to say to myself as my taxi whizzed into the city centre, “All cities are alike. Have to get back to the country.”
Read Noah Richler on Puerto Escondido, Mexico, in the Toronto Star