Essays

My Painting of Kyiv

Will the birthplace I love still exist for my daughter?

Maria Kuznetsova
Photo illustration derivative of "Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Complex" © Creative Commons / Wikimedia Commons

i married my American husband in the summer of 2014, at a location as far from my birthplace of Kyiv, Ukraine, as one could imagine: a zoo in Oakland, California. My grandmother managed to make it to the wedding from Kyiv, though it was only a few months after the Maidan Revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of Ukraine’s authoritarian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Deadly protests had raged just blocks from where my grandmother lived, but she wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to show off the skills she had learned in her Toastmasters club, one of her many post-retirement hobbies. After my husband and I had suffered through several typed-out speeches from the bridal party that depicted our most embarrassing moments in exquisite detail, my grandmother waved her hands in the air and said, “English is not my first language, but I did not need to write anything down.” Then she proceeded to bring down the house.

She started by saying I looked “almost like Grace Kelly,” made several pointed comments about all the babies my husband and I were expected to immediately produce, then transitioned to her favorite topic: praising Kyiv as the most beautiful city in the world. It would always be my rodina, my motherland, she explained, even though I had left as a child. To cap off her speech, she presented me with a painting of Kyiv, a kind of impressionistic tableau with several notable landmarks on top of each other. It represented Kyiv in much the way a T-shirt depicting the Statue of Liberty next to the Empire State Building inside a giant apple could be said to represent New York City. “This painting is not drawn in a very sophisticated style, but I still wanted you to have it,” she said, thrusting it at me, “so you will always remember Kyiv.”

I tried to usher her off stage as quickly as possible, but several glasses of white wine in, it did not actually strike me as all that odd to be presented with a painting of Kyiv on my wedding night.

english isn’t my first language either, but I do need to write a lot of things down. Most of my writing focuses on immigrants from Ukraine and on the strange nostalgia I feel when I think of the place my family left when I was just five years old. All my life, I’ve missed Kyiv. At the same time, I could never fully belong to it again: there’s my accent and lack of cultural knowledge and the fact that I’ve lived away from it for so long. My parents and grandmother and I, along with other members of our extended family, came to the United States as Jewish refugees when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. I did not return to Ukraine until I was a college freshman, after my grandmother retired from her American job and moved back.

When my dad and I returned that first time, my grandmother dragged us on extremely long walks in the bright sun, making us stop at random cafes to watch her chain-smoke and drink beer and listen to her insist that Kyiv was the most beautiful city in the world. As smoke wafted in my face, she listed the merits of her city, wildly gesturing at all it had to offer: the Kyiv Lavra, a UNESCO world heritage site! The Lilac Gardens! The blue of the Dnieper, the river that flows through the gorgeous city! St. Sophia’s Cathedral! McDonald’s, a capitalist wonder! St. Andrew’s Descent! The home of Bulgakov! When I remarked that she should be a tour guide, she reminded me that she was, in fact, an occasional guide for visiting businessmen, just one of the fifty activities that kept her active after her retirement, in addition to the Toastmasters club.

Am I allowed to feel gutted when I see my birthplace targeted by an aggressive military attack?

Though I teased my grandmother about her Kyiv obsession, I felt it, too. When I returned “home” to the U.S., I began to be interested in the literature of my homeland. If my mind wandered, it took me through the ubiquitous Soviet-style apartment buildings to tables laid with my grandmother’s unmatchable buttery blini, the forty random side-dishes of pickled vegetables and cold cuts and hot dishes set out by my extremely welcoming extended family any time I sat down. I thought of the joy on my father’s face as he and I strolled through the streets of his childhood at dawn, the comfort and uncanniness of hearing my native language spoken on the streets—it felt too intimate, the language that had previously belonged only in my family home.

Over the next decade, I accumulated a host of kitschy knickknacks from the motherland. Jewelry boxes adorned with the Kyiv skyline, nesting dolls, magnets in the shape of sheaves of wheat and jolly pigs, a broom meant to be hung over a threshold for good luck, an I <3 UKRAINE shot glass and an I <3 UKRAINE keychain that has been on my keys for so long that I only noticed it again this week. Last year, my now three-year-old daughter got obsessed with taking apart one of the matryoshka dolls; I cut my foot stepping on one of the open halves, which my husband declared “a little too on the nose.” But he treasures his own Lakers-themed nesting dolls, picked up on a visit to Kyiv. All these souvenirs add a Ukrainian flavor to our home, but they can’t exactly capture my longing, as an “Amerikanka,” for my rodina. I’m left feeling just one notch more legitimate than a tourist. These past few weeks, as I’ve watched my fellow Soviet immigrants post pictures on Facebook and write thoughtful tweets and change their profile banners to Ukrainian flags, I’ve been at a loss for words. Am I allowed to feel gutted when I see my birthplace targeted by an aggressive military attack? Why do I feel like I need to ask permission to be authentically affected?

Kyiv was invaded while my parents were visiting me at my home in Alabama, and they spent the last days of their trip glued to their phones, relaying news of relatives and their so-far safety and of military advances, or fielding calls from former classmates. With these scraps of information about what was happening to our family and the city, I still felt like I was scratching the surface. As my own phone blew up with well-wishes, I felt both more tied to Kyiv than ever and equally more like a fraud. Part of me wanted to say, You’ve got the wrong person. I’m safe on my couch in America, finishing my daughter’s Valentine’s Day candy.

I’m worried that soon these jaunty images will no longer serve as passable representations of my home country.

I don’t know where that leaves me. I do know that I am worried for my family and the people in Ukraine and the people becoming refugees. I’m worried for my parents, who are worrying, too, and all the Ukrainians around the world for whom Ukraine is still home. I’m worried about every place depicted on the various knickknacks that decorate my home. I’m worried that soon these jaunty images will no longer serve as passable representations of my home country but relics of a bygone time. Ghosts of landmarks burned to the ground. Or even worse—symbols of an atrocity that I can’t or don’t want to wrap my head around quite yet.

my grandmother passed away in 2016, two years after my wedding. I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately, and about her goofy wedding gift. The painting is currently displayed on a shelf in my home, next to a jar of seashells meant to symbolize my husband’s birthplace, Santa Barbara. The painting is a poor representation of Kyiv, but maybe not such a bad representation of my own understanding of the city: not particularly sophisticated, infused with the national colors of light blue and yellow, centered on images of the Dnieper River and the gorgeous churches—the jumbled, timeless, confusing, beloved home in my mind.

Whatever happens next, I’m glad my grandmother did not live long enough to see it. I’m grateful that the last time she had to evacuate Kyiv was as a child during World War II and not today, as a heartbroken eighty-year-old. My grandmother, who, I have come to realize, knew perfectly what she was saying by handing me that painting after her wedding speech: she understood that “making babies” and “not forgetting your birthplace” were two distinctly related ideas. She not only wanted me to have children, but for me to bring them back to Kyiv one day, perhaps even to take on her role of enthusiastic tour guide as we walked along the banks of the Dnieper and drank kvass on the streets.

The other morning, I found my daughter in her in bed with a nesting doll painted with a scene of Kyiv’s St. Sophia Cathedral, yet another moment I realize is “too on the nose,” like a moment in a short story that feels too convenient to be real. I felt the urge to tell my daughter what that doll represented. But she’s not yet four, and her concept of home revolves around moving from “the old house” a mile away to the “new house” where we live now. The explanation would have been beyond her, and was maybe beyond me, too. Instead, I just told her, in English, not to mess with the doll; it was time to get ready for school. But let’s imagine I was writing that story, in which she could have asked about it. Then I might have said something weightier. I might have even switched to Russian and said, “That’s your mama’s home. It’s the place where she’s from. It’s kind of like the old house. But it’s really far away. Especially right now.”

Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kyiv, Ukraine. She is the author of the novels Oksana, Behave! and Something Unbelievable. She is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University and is the fiction editor of The Bare Life Review and the Southern Humanities Review.
Originally published:
March 12, 2022

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