Monday, November 28, 2022

Souvenirs From Kyiv


Souvenirs from Kyiv / Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

Now something different; this is a set of six linked stories set in Ukraine during WWII, written by an American with Ukrainian family ties. It's quite similar to many historical novels written about this period in tone and description, but it differs in its setting (this isn't a Paris WWII novel) and in its exploration of the little known political realities of Ukraine as it was being overrun by Nazis and Soviets alike.

The stories stand alone, but also connect. The first one centres around Larissa, a famed embroiderer with a shop in occupied Ukraine. A German officer comes in and wants her to make him a special shirt, embroidered with all her famous folk embroidery. This request, for a traditional shirt while the Germans are destroying Ukraine, is another example of the way folk culture is made into a quaint souvenir rather than respected in its own right. Larissa can not refuse, but she sews her resistance into the motifs. And her statements have consequences. I thought this story was very well done, and I related closely to Larissa and her decisions. I really liked this story.

Another focuses on Mykhailo, a Ukrainian who is a German solider on leave, travelling through Ukraine on Christmas Eve, hoping to get to his family. He doesn't, but he does end up being taken in by another family, and their words (along with all the things he sees from the train) change his views and also the actions he will take in future. This is a powerful story, and one to read as war rages in Ukraine at this Christmas season, to remind us of how our personal decisions can help change things. 

We also meet Marusia and her family who scatter to safety when Nazis come looking for her partisan brother. And there's Lida, a young girl forced to labour in a munitions factory in Germany. And a few more memorable characters, too. Many of these stories are based around interviews that the author did with her own family members -- she's a first generation American, with Ukrainian parents and family.

All these stories together create a wide view of some of the past events in Ukraine which people who don't already have a natural interest in the region might find very illuminating. The author really focuses on the personal and emotional costs of war, for individuals, families and the wider nation. I think it's a solid addition to the wide range of WWII stories out there, exposing a region which got the worst of both sides but is often neglected in discussions of this era. Ukraine's perspective in this war isn't often shared, so I think this is an important contribution to this genre. 

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