Debra Romanick Baldwin, Contributing Writer
On March 21, 2003, I wrote an email out of the blue to a poet whose poems I had just discovered — poems that moved me greatly. “Thank you for my tears,” I wrote, and her reply, thanking me for my email, pointed out that I had written to her on International Poetry Day, a happy coincidence.
The poems in question were the Chernobyl Poems of Lyubov Sirota, and the poet, Lyubov Makarovna Sirota, was an eyewitness to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
In 1986, she was living in Pripyat, a thriving city of more than 50,000 people located less than two kilometers from the nuclear power plant. (The Soviet authorities, of course, were anxious to suppress the extent of the catastrophe, which is why Pripyat and its inhabitants remained conspicuously absent from official news reports). She worked in the city’s arts center, directing children’s programs as well as writing and directing her own plays. Then, on the night of April 26, catastrophe happened. After a whole day of uncertainty and misinformation, Lyubov and her young son Alex (nicknamed “Sasha”) were loaded onto buses along with other inhabitants of Pripyat. They had left everything behind.
This month, she is a refugee once again, and her experience offers a face behind the abstract events in the news.
I should start by saying that for 11 years now, I have not only corresponded with her regularly, but also worked extensively with her on English translations of her poems and essay, “Excessive Burden,” which chronicles the agonies of the women of Chernobyl and the heartbreaking illnesses of their children. I hope to write a book about her. It is an astonishing experience to read her expressions of a spirit that remains indomitable in its love despite unspeakable pain and unimaginable heartbreak, steadfast against bitterness. Indeed, “Lyubov” means “love” both in Ukrainian and Russian, and it is what her poetry exhorts us to over and over:
Do not kill an angel in yourself.
Do not cut, do not break the wings.
Do not believe in greedy predictions
promising you earthly abundance.
For though his look is sometimes hard and bitter
as you step along the cruel path –
only he can grant you love.
In 1986, after being relocated to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Lyubov began the slow process of adjusting to displacement, poverty and health problems. However, in the months and years that followed, she met fellow poet and translator, Victor Grabovsky, and despite her chronic ill health from radiation exposure, she flourished in her creative work, writing poetry and essays and co-authoring Rollan Sergienko’s Chernobyl film, “Threshold.”
Largely through the efforts of Professor Paul Brians of Washington State University (better known on this campus, perhaps, for his book, “Common Errors in English Usage”), her work gained exposure, translated and anthologized internationally. Victorcontinued in his own work while he was chief editor of Kyiv National University Press, producing volumes of essays, poetry, translations and two novels and receiving the Oheinko Prize in 2012 for distinguished contribution to Ukrainian letters. Of particular interest to our campus is his book on the little known poems and prayers of Karol Józef Wojtyla.
Then, last spring, Lyubov and Victor, who has now retired, decided that they would sell their small apartment in Kyiv in order to make it possible for Alex at last to buy a small cabin in a district near Pripyat. They would use the remaining money to buy an even smaller apartment in Gaspra, in Crimea. They had vacationed in Crimea some summers past, and now it was the place they thought they might live. Lyubov emailed me when they arrived,and I asked if it was a place that her son and his family could stay for vacations. She replied: “No, my dear, Sasha and his family could not live with us here, because the overall size of our apartment is 31 square meters [334 square feet] – along with a balcony, a tiny hallway, a tiny kitchen without a gas stove, and a small bathroom with a toilet and a good shower.” But she added: “Of course, there are still many unsolved problems but, thanks God, all difficulties and problems already have gone to the second line. In addition, all difficulties are solved much more easily against the background of the amazing sea every morning and wonderful, fabulous nature. So we’re looking forward to new creative Crimean period of our lives. My Kyiv friend Lena said, ‘You didn’t buy an apartment, but health and life!’ (Wait and see!)…” (7/14/13).
Five months later, what they saw, from afar, was EuroMaidan, as protestors took to the streets in Kyiv’s Maidan Square to protest Victor Yanukovich’s abandoning an agreement that Ukraine would seek closer ties with the European Union. Watching it live-streamed on the Internet, Lyubov was enthusiastic about the protest, which she viewed as being about much more than economics, but rather about freedom itself. She told me later that “Many priests of different Christian denominations offered services and prayers on the Maidan stage (almost every hour) and even leaders of other religions were there often together (including Muslims and Jews!) — it was one of the amazing spiritual features of the Maidan … Prayer in common is a weapon which evil fears!” On Dec. 13, she wrote: “Unfortunately, we with Victor are far from EuroMaidan, like you, and we can only pray for our victory, victory of Love and Peace in our dear Ukraine!”
We lost touch through most of January and by the beginning of February, the situation became tenser. She wrote on Jan. 24, “Forgive me, my dear, that I failed to respond to you immediately, because now we have a terrible and emotional stress days in Ukraine … The one thing, that no matter from anything, I try to do — is every day to put the most important information on Google and Facebook, so that more people can know the truth about the events in Kiev and Ukraine … And of course we constantly pray for our victory over the anti-Ukrainian gang in power …” And that was the refrain over and over from the protesters in the square: “Criminals, out!” Thanks to her links, I, too, was able to watch the square via live streaming.
On Feb. 18, events in the Maidan took a violent turn: Government snipers began shooting at peaceful protesters, and in the next four days, over 100 protesters were shot. The protesters fought back, setting a huge defensive wall of debris ablaze, and arming themselves with Molotov cocktails. The violence only ended when President Yanukovich fled the country.
Then, on Feb. 25, the specter of violence turned its attention to Crimea. I received an email from Lyubov that day: “My dearest Deb! In this time I can’t write you, so sorry! But I’ll try to write you soon. Now I only can to say that situation here in Crimea is very disturbing and dangerous. Please pray for us!”
On Feb. 28, after Russian troops finally formally invaded Crimea, I lost touch with Lyubov. Internet connections and television stations had been severed. Of course, I was frantic, and I hunted through old emails to see if I could find an email contact for Alex, which I did. He replied on March 1 that his mother and Victor were going to attempt to leave by train. On March 3, Lyubov wrote me that they had made it back to Kyiv, and then to Alex’s little cabin:
“Thanks God and Sasha today in morning we with Victor and Radyasya [their cat] arrived … The way was so hard, therefore now I can’t write you more. I’ll try to do it tomorrow…”
Of course, I wanted to know everything, what made her leave then. She wrote:
“We did not want live any more in a territory occupied by aggressors — in lies and injustice! Besides, it was getting really dangerous, especially for Ukrainians. One night I heard some very heavy car drive up to our house, and then voices and the sound of feet on the stairs — and already I was thinking that these unidentified armed men could at any moment … break down our door. It wasn’t much better to stay isolated in the apartment, with the electricity shut off, no water or internet (the Ukrainian TV channels were disconnected before the pseudo referendum!)”
I asked her how she made it out, and she explained:
“When Sasha learned that ‘strange’ military cars and so-called ‘unidentified military people’ had captured the train stations and other places in Crimea, he immediately bought us tickets through the Internet. We had to go the very next day. I called to the train station and asked whether the train was stilling going to Kyiv. The dispatcher answered me: ‘Today it’s going, but what will happen tomorrow, I do not know!’ … In short, we were fortunate that we were able to leave the Crimea before the searches started on station platforms and in trains. For two days after we left, they have broken computers and similar equipment of people. And this is what I feared most, because in addition to documents and some other necessary things that we naturally took with us, we took the most important thing: our laptop, with all our creative works and our archive! So, thanks to God and Sasha we managed to leave Crimea in time … However, now again, as after the evacuation of Pripyat, I’m again without shelter and livelihood … But then I was young, healthy and still full of energy … And now I and Victor have neither one nor the other, nor the third. Of course, I understand that, that it’s all temporary difficulty, that life somehow will get arranged …”
So now, 28 years after being evacuated from Pripyat, Lyubov Sirota is homeless again, and back on the border of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. She cannot go back to Crimea; she has lost her savings, for she and Victor do not know what will become, what has become, of their little apartment in occupied Crimea; their son’s one-room cabin is not big enough to accommodate his wife and child and his parents, too.
Here in Irving, I reread a poem of hers that I translated in the summer of 2010, now echoing in ways she could not have imagined:
For My Son
I build the house from dewdrops,
I weave walls from fragrant grass …
I build the house, for us together, my son,
from clouds desperately billowing…
From forest scents I weave a carpet,
and a birdsong – slate for a roof!
Let our house sing, laugh, cry, breathe and rejoice –
to be in such an open space!
I build the house on four winds, near four roads
that all messages may fly to us.
So that sorrow, pain and fear
are ground into the roadside dust…
I build the house from dewdrops
and a light refracted by a smile…
I build the house on very unsteady ground, –
Forgive me this impracticality,
You can read more poems at http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/chernobyl_poems/chernobyl_index.html. If you want to send or add your own expressions of support, please email me at dbaldwin@udallas.