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It's Complicated - Lost Boys Press

 

Like everyone I know, I have been watching the people of Ukraine. I have watched clips of families with their lives in bundles on their backs walking, walking. I have seen the buildings destroyed—homes, theaters, and stores. It is surreal to watch the video of Ukrainian soldiers hunkered down in suburbs, firing at the enemy and defending the country and its people. It is understandable to be horrified by these images. I worry and pray for them to remain strong and fight off the Russian invaders led by a madman. I hope they will prevail. The whole world hopes for that outcome.

It is simpler to have hope on my side of the line. It is easy to define good and evil, siding with the Ukrainian citizens, armed and defiant. They are the underdog fighting a bully. But it is not so easy a definition on the other side of the line. On the other side, it’s complicated. 

Published by Two Dollar Radio, I Will Die in a Foreign Land, by Kalani Pickhart is a look at the other side. Set in Ukraine in 2014, the book is a deeper look at a country at battle, digging past headlines that simplify reality. While the plot relies on the violence that results after Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, cuts ties with the European Union and aligns himself with Russia and Vladimir Putin, the story is nothing without the people who are caught in this unrest, the latest battle between the Ukrainian people and Russia. Spanning six months, the book’s main characters build the complexity of the story, their lives unfolding and woven together because, and in spite, of the complicated relationship between the people of Ukraine and Russia.

The captain, Aleksandr Ivanovich, is a former KGB officer who now lives in Kyiv. He is old and has lost everything he loved in life except music. As Kyiv explodes in protests and activists are injured and killed by the Berkut police, the captain plays a piano on the street, buoyed by the sight of the women with flowers in their hair and men holding the blue and yellow flag aloft. After he is injured, a doctor at a makeshift hospital in a cathedral cares for him. She finds a phone number and a cassette tape. We learn about Alexsandr Ivanovich in snippets throughout the book, testimony from the tape that reveals who he is and his connection to the doctor, Katya.

Adopted as a child, Katya moved to the United States with her Ukrainian parents. After her son dies tragically, she returns to her homeland and finds herself in the middle of the protests in Kyiv. Working at the makeshift hospital, she not only meets the captain, but also Misha Tkachenko, a widowed mine engineer. “It’s a miracle that she knows these two men: Misha and the captain.” Katya’s story becomes intertwined with both men, one a lost path to her past and the other a sorrowful path to the future.

Misha arrives wounded at the cathedral with the help of Slava. Politically pro-Ukraine, Slava has escaped a childhood of abuse in Odesa. Misha is a refugee from Chernobyl. Wounded and alone, the two find friendship and safety with the other. As Misha grows closer to Katya, Slava finds comfort in Dascha, a journalist from Luhansk. While in Ukraine, the city is pro-Russian. “The older generation tells the younger generation that under Russia, things were better.” Dascha refutes Slava’s belief that to support Yanukovich is criminal. Dascha reminds Slava that journalism doesn’t show only one side. “To ignore one reality over the other is dangerous because it is not fully the truth.” Slava finds herself mesmerized by Dascha, her complicated point of view an enigma to the activist. 

Each character is connected by some thin tether, but as the captain’s tape unwinds and his past is revealed, the tethers become stronger. From different Ukrainian cities, each bears their own truth in the midst of the violence unfolding in Kyiv. It is not until the end, when a momentary peace descends on Kyiv, that the truths of each become one, woven together by past violence, dissents, love, and loss. 

It’s a complicated book about a complicated part of the world filled with complicated people with complicated pasts. It seems all too simple to tsk and shake my head in disbelief at the videoclips I watch on television. It is too easy to narrow my thinking and designate one side good and another evil. Truth is never that single tether that ties people together, however. It is many strands woven as one, frequently unraveling. That’s the other side revealed by this book, one that should be read and read again.

Like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, the Kobzari, Ukrainian folk singers banned by Stalin in the 1930s, sing throughout the book. They sing the history of Ukraine, as a country and a territory. Its people—Ukrainian, Russian. Socialists. Fascists. Democratists. One song is a folk song:

 

My mother dear, what will happen to me

if I die in a foreign land?

 

Oh, my dearest

you will be buried by strangers.

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