28 November 2022Belarus

We, Belarusian Ukrainians

Belarusian children about the never-ending war

by Konstantin Charukhin
Eva. Kyiv© Courtesy of the author


Konstantin Charukhin, writer and translator, lived in Minsk until the winter of 2020.

On November 15, 2020, Konstantin and his wife Anna went out to take part in a protest rally in memory of Roman Bondarenko, who was murdered by Belarusian security forces in front of his own apartment building in Minsk.

During the rally, they were detained by the police. The family subsequently left the country and tried to settle in Kyiv where their life was apparently going back to normal – until the war began. Initially, the Charukhins decided to stay in Ukraine and engaged in active volunteering. Having faced problems with their legal status in Ukraine, however, they were compelled to move further and are residing in Poland at the time.

The following text consists of two parts that are united by one theme: both stories capture the feelings of a child, whose family was forced to escape from two countries in a row over just an eighteen-month period. The main characters are two girls of seven and eight years old. One of them is Eva, whose story is told by her father Konstantin. The other one is Sasha, whose family fled from Belarus to Ukraine, and then to the US. Sasha’s perception of herself and the constantly changing world around is rendered in the dialogues with her mother who recorded the interview.

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1.

On February 24, 2022, we were awakened by explosions – pretty much every single family from Kharkov, Kyiv, or Dnipro could begin their story with these words... Although from Kyiv, we were awakened even before the explosion in the airport, which was just three kilometers from our house: it was our fellow journalist who woke us up with a phone call early in the morning. In a voice that sounded somewhat in the manner of Yuri Levitan [translator’s note: the legendary Soviet radio announcer who informed people about the beginning of Nazi invasion in June 1941], he gave us a succinct summary of Putin's speech. As soon as we hung up, the windows rattled in their panes from the explosion.

That morning, my wife managed to visit the gas station and was lucky to have fueled up the car. With the help of my mother-in-law, we put an adhesive tape on window panes to strengthen the glass. Then, we held a family council in the kitchen. Shall we leave? But where to? And when? By car? By train? The Telegram channels we were subscribed to were full of conflicting advice and our thoughts and feelings were totally confused.

I don’t remember the reason why I stepped out of the kitchen for a moment to fetch something from my study, when I heard – apparently coming from the living room – a thin, childish voice singing slightly out of tune, with a charming solemnity:

“The glo-o-ry and fre-e-edom of Ukraine has no-o-t yet perished…”

Our eight-year-old daughter Eva stood in the middle of the living room, her first reader book open in front of her, and delivered her performance of the Ukrainian anthem. She did it for no one in particular, just facing the window and singing out this way. To complete the picture, her head was crowned with a clumsy wreath made of artificial flowers, a gift from a classmate admirer from the fall semester.

I summoned the rest of the family into the living room. We listened to the anthem through the end not even trying to sing along, for getting into the tune of Eva's extremely loose interpretation would not be an easy task. After which we went back to our discussions of the ways to retreat from Kyiv.

None of us was willing to die for nothing. None of us had a military specialty, none of us seemed to be much needed at the front, nor in the rear. We tried to be rational in our reasoning. Or, rather, we seemed rational to ourselves. By the end of the day, however, it was already too late to go. All the roads leading out of town were troubled by traffic jams as people trying to leave the city blocked all the exits. The following days brought news of further difficulties on the roads. Very soon, when the fighting reached the outskirts of Kyiv, it turned out to be more dangerous to leave than to stay. The song had nothing to do with it. Probably.

“That’s it. We are done running,” our actions at that time were more or less determined by this background thought. We ran away from Belarus already in the fall of 2020, shortly after we got arrested. Luckily, neither my wife, nor myself ended up in prison. We just heard the iron curtain creaking and starting to close. Before that, we – just like thousands of other Belarusians – did a lot of running-away from the “people in black” [translator’s note: the police wearing black uniforms].

We arrived in Kyiv shortly before Christmas, and for a long time the city felt to us like an endless holiday. On one of our very first days in Kiev, we took our daughter to the skating rink – and were overwhelmed by the loud music and the cheerful folks crowding around. It was not just because they kept celebrating, while in close proximity to the Ukrainian capital, slightly north of the border, there was a reign of lawlessness... It was the feeling of our own guilt or our own defeat. “There are happy, they are free – and they do have the right to be so. They have won this right. And what about us? Do we, indeed, have the right for all this merrymaking?” No, we were not in the position to absorb their joy, we just couldn’t sense it, the way you lose your sense of smell after Covid.

Kids are the ones who always love holidays, though. No surprise, therefore, that Eva fell in love with the City at first sight of the Dnieper river at night.

Before we left Minsk, Eva’s ideas of other countries, or state borders, or different nations were quite vague. Maps and globes were far from being a subject of her interest. She preferred fairy tales over history. That attitude didn’t change even after she started primary school in Belarus. She had dreams of homeland, but her homeland was Narnia. Until the summer of 2020, she couldn’t locate that door, no matter how carefully she would check the wardrobes or scrutinized the back of the paintings, so to say.

At the beginning of August 2020, we saw a series of amazing rainbows. One of them landed right on top of the old cherry plum in our dacha yard, which turned almost eclipsed with its thick colorful stripes. Everything in nature seemed to be promising a miracle. And it would not be fair to say that those promises ended up one hundred percent false.

Of course, we never took our daughter with us to mass demonstrations with thousands of people marching across the city. But it has happened once that she danced at the entrance of a factory to encourage the hesitating workers who were leaving after their day shift, still not sure whether they were supposed to take part in the strike. Another time, full of anxious excitement and delight, she was listening to an impromptu concert on the steps of the Red Church. The concert was held in honor of the "real" (as one of the speakers emphasized) Independence Day of Belarus: August 25. It was the first time she saw so many people together (although she didn’t have a chance to view the scene of a true “ocean of people”). We managed to leave the concert a bit early, following some kind of instinct, a few minutes before the police breakup and arrests started. The three of us just walked through the twilight city under a warm drizzling rain, then we had dinner in a café together. With a sweet sigh, Eva said she hoped we would do this more often in the future. It’s such a shame, she said, that we had never gone out like that before. We walked almost up the bridge over the Svisloch river when several prisoner vans emblazoned with fluttering red and green flags rushed past us along the empty avenue. One, two... five... They were packed with people brutally assaulted by the police. We had already been aware of what they were doing with the detained at the police stations. Eva was just peering at the passing vehicles in silence. Those days, she started decorating our apartment with the colors she saw on the street: everything was white-red-white, and she kept singing "Long Live Belarus."

That was the time when “the courtyards” came about in Minsk, one after another. The protest rallies were forbidden, but you could always go out in your own courtyard [translator’s note: the communal space shared by a few apartment buildings], with your own neighbors! People would bring out tables, lanterns, potluck food. Children would gobble the marshmallow – the treat that could put you under arrest because of its white-crimson-white color. People invited musicians, lecturers, even a magician came over one day, with a deadpan Buster Keaton-like face.

I remember that peaceful feeling we had on the way home after those “courtyards,” our daughter with us, jumping up and down or hanging in the air on our arms. It was the smell of quietness. Not a victory, not a defeat: just peace.

‘Mommydaddy! When we win…” She jumps holding our hands, as if flying over the ground. “Will I perform here?”

“Yes, you will! If only… Wow, wow...! If only you don’t eat too much marshmallows... And what do you want to dance? The Swallow from The Thumbelina? Remember it was your dream?”

“No-o-o!” – jump and fly – “I want to be a magician now!”

The Square of Changes. MinskThe Square of Changes. Minsk© Courtesy of the author

The autumn went on quiet and warm that year, almost until mid-November. One of those warm autumn nights in Minsk, on November 12, Roman Bondarenko was killed in a Minsk courtyard. He saw people in black tear down the white-red-white ribbons in the courtyard, and he went out to tell them not to do so.

It was not the first unpunished murder and not the last one, either. For some reason, however, it was the death of Roman that came as a shock to everyone. Once again, we didn’t want to risk and we decided not to take Eva with us to the "Square of Changes" where the crime was committed and where a spontaneous mourning meeting was in full swing until late night. But I took some pictures there and showed them to my daughter.

“This is a paradise,” she whispered, awed and delighted at the same time.

“A paradise of little sanctuary flames,” she added hastily, as if she was shy about something.

She moved my hand away and started flipping on her own through the photos on my smartphone. Slowly and thoughtfully. Back and forth.

Yes. Hundreds of sanctuary flames. The city darkness was blooming with those little lights.

The last photo slipped by and gave way to a colorful video: kids playing in a sandbox, their swings creaking, next to the crowd illuminated by a myriad of lights – the paradise of sanctuary flames. The children are swinging, playing in the sand, following the mesmerizing articulations of the adults: for Belarus to live and for us, not to forget... For a few seconds a fragment of a long mesh fence flashed by, all decorated with white-red-white ribbons fluttering in the cold, gusty wind.

“Did they kill him for them?” Eva reckons.

Yes. Although... not just for them, of course. But how to explain it all in a few words?

“He just went out...”

© Courtesy of the author

So did we, the next day. As it turned out, it was our last protest rally. It was supposed to be a march in memory of the murdered Roman Bondarenko, but it rather became a massacre of memory.

We were arrested and spent 17 hours in the overcrowded corridor of the police department. Through that corridor policemen kept dragging heavily beaten and injured people, men with the letters “БE” (Belarusian Speaker!) written with brilliant green paint on their foreheads. Then, of course, there was Covid. Then the trial, which, fortunately, resulted for us in just a fine. Then we left the country.

The scariest episode of her life that Eva remembers was the night following the “paradise of sanctuary flames” and the gray, murky day when, for the first time, her parents didn’t come home to put her to bed... We just couldn’t let it happen: if we end up “sent away” for a long time, she would be left alone or taken to an orphanage.

So, we escaped, and there was Kyiv, and Christmas, and the New Year’s. Eva enjoyed everything: our apartment in a building of early 20th-century in the city center, nearby Shevchenko Park (today on the playground where she liked to play, there is a funnel from a rocket explosion), the ice cream, the street musicians, and the white-red-white flags when we occasionally saw them in the city. We walked past the police officers without any fear and watched the crowds with slogans marching freely in the squares and streets of the Ukrainian capital.

Eventually, though, the dramatic contrast of the Belarusian banner was outplayed in the child’s soul by the cheerful, summer colors of the Ukrainian flag. After a year of study in Ukrainian school, the girl no longer noticed what language she was speaking: if people spoke to her in Russian, she answered in Russian, if in Ukrainian, she switched to Ukrainian. Perhaps, the traces of Belarusian (that had been assimilated superficially and unconsciously) were of some help. In particular, our proverbial soft “ts” makes it much easier for any Belarusian to pronounce the Ukrainian palyanitsia, the known “shibboleth” to distinguish native speakers from non-Ukrainians.

Oddly enough, our first (and the last peaceful) summer in Kyiv did not plant any special nostalgic memories in Eva, despite the swimming in the Dnieper River and many hours of wandering around Trukhanov Island, despite all the flowers, and smells, and ice cream, and the playground in the Mariinsky Park… She didn’t seem to be deeply impressed even by the Independence Day, with the young veterans in wheelchairs on Khreshchatyk and the crowds on the street that resembled our rallies of 2020, minus the fear.

We were on the way to take root in a new place. Having sold our apartment in Minsk, we bought another one in Kyiv, in the Solomenka district. It took us a lot of effort to find it, as our daughter kept begging: “Just not a different school. I can’t stand it!" We believed – or rather tried to convince ourselves – that we were here more or less forever. And that our daughter was now Ukrainian.

She was not scared of the sounds of explosions when the war started. Just a single time, she ran into the kitchen with “Oh, why is the floor shaking?!” (It was more surprise than genuine fear.) It was the day when a rocket hit the TV tower and, as we found out later, a married couple with a child who happened to be nearby were burned to death. She really liked it when the school switched to distance learning, since she could do some drawing, cutting, and glueing secretly during class. When the summer break started, Eva could spend all day long outside, from morning till night. Despite the never-ceasing sounds of the sirens, children climbed trees and garage roofs and enjoyed their time rolling in the mud where they dug a “pool” with their own hands.

“The happiest summer in my life! Our yard is like… you know, it’s full of anomalies! Lots of weird places around,” Eva recalls.

The Charukhins. KyivThe Charukhins. Kyiv© Courtesy of the author

That Solomenka courtyard was, indeed, densely packed with life forms. Every night, the inhabitants of two angle-shaped brick houses sat drinking and chattering on the benches – in the warm twilight or in the blackout darkness, right up to the curfew. It felt like someone's birthday party going on and on. No, it was nothing like our autumn courtyard meetings in 2020 Minsk. Our 2022 Kiev summer was loud and carefree, south-style. Our children, too, were always around, with their swings creaking in the dark. Even the most cautious ones didn’t bother to go down to the bomb shelters – they already stopped doing it in early spring.

Our departure to Poland happened kind of unexpectedly even to ourselves. The reason was a problem with documents (which was the case for many Belarusians). Eva took the news surprisingly calmly; she didn’t look particularly sad, nor delighted. It seemed like she was getting used to loss: if not the loss of the dear ones, but the loss of the places and other things that make your life full.

"Where are you from?" she asks children at the playground downtown. “From Kherson. From Nikolaev. From Lisichansk,” the little Poznań residents answer. “And you?” — "I am… from Kyiv."

When on August 1 (the Day of Remembrance of the Warsaw Uprising, as we learned later), she heard a siren howl coming from the street, she was not alarmed at all – in fact, she didn’t pay any attention, as if she felt at home where nothing can disturb your peace.

Now that the first month of classes at the Poznań school is over, she has already learned about the Partition of Rzeczpospolita Polska. Homeland is something that is pretty much always going to be taken away from you: something that you lose and run away. The cause of your loss has a name, though: with a pencil in hand and the loathing on her face, Eva is drawing the Russian tricolor – an illustration of the lesson on children from different countries in the textbook that I use to homeschool her English.

“I don't even know who I am,” Eva is pondering on the way to the library. “My ancestors are Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews, my name is Polish, and I was born in Belarus.”

“Taking root is not a good idea,” she comes to a sudden conclusion on the way to the church, which always makes us especially predisposed to far-reaching subjects. “Let’s stay here for a couple years and see what happens. What if we have to leave again. I kind of like it, though.”

“Moving?”

“Yes.”

“So where do you want to go next?”

“I can stay here until I'm eleven, no problem.”

“Where next? To America?”

“No! The owl with an invitation from Hogwarts won’t be able to fly that far!”

At the same time, if you ask her who she feels herself to be, the answer will most likely be, “I’m Polką.” She is passionate about her school and the house we are renting, which is surrounded by a little garden, and she really liked Polish language (among other reasons and probably most of all, for its special intonation, that sounds somewhat ceremonious to the East Slavic ear and that she is trying to further exaggerate).

Quite recently, when Eva was at her first steps towards fluent Polish, she could occasionally slip up the Ukrainian “yakshcho” instead of the Polish “jeśli” (“if”). Be the same token, she would boast talking about a new schoolmate, “He and I are the calmest ones of all the Ukrainians.” The yellow-blue flags hanging from windows is not a rare occurrence in Poznań, and every time she discovers another one, the daughter points her finger, "Ukrainian..." She doesn’t say anything else, and I don't ask.

On the way home from the church the other day, all of a sudden, she confessed:

“I don’t know why I cannot get what I want even in my dreams. Say, I had a dream of Kyiv: everyone was riding bicycles – mom was, and Nastya too, but I was the one who wasn’t.”

“Wait, you still dream of Kyiv?”

“Yes.”

“What do you miss?”

“I miss Zyusya, I miss Push” (The cat and the rabbit who lived with us in Minsk – we had to give them away later because of my allergy.)

“Ok, that’s Belarus. Is that it?”

“And in Ukraine, I miss my friends, and our anomalous yard...”

I was kind of reconciled with the thought that the colorful Ukraine and gracious Poland had driven everything Belarusian, everything tragic, out of her memories...

About a week before the liberation of Kherson, Eva, in a fit of artistic inspiration, covered a piece of paper with drawn "stickers" that she designed as Ukrainian symbols and slogans. One of the sketches represented the Ukrainian flag crossed with... the white-red-white [Belarusian] one. The day before the liberation of Kherson (which was also the eve of the November 11 Remembrance Day), as we were driving home in twilight through Poznań after a school concert, Eva rolled down the car window and exclaimed in excitement, “Why don’t we walk in the city at night anymore?! It’s so beautiful! And it smells so delicious! It smells of leaves!”

Yes, the smell of fallen leaves that autumn, through mid-November, was intoxicating. The first snow arrived on the sixteenth

2.

Originally, I was not planning to limit this essay by observations on my daughter, and so I sent my inquiry to several other refugees with children. The most complete “interview” with a child came from Inna, an interpreter from Minsk and a passionate lover of her city. Her family emigrated under the threat of persecution, like many other Belarusians. Inna’s daughter Sasha and my daughter Eva don’t know each other. For a little while we lived in Kyiv not far from each other and were going to bring the girls together, but the time was too short for it. Notably, some of Sasha's confessions came as a surprise to her mother.

Below you can find a brief introduction to her family history provided by Inna and a transcript of her conversation with her daughter. (Here and below, most of the names are changed.)

Sasha is seven years old. In November 2020, when she was five, my husband, her father, was arrested and eventually forced to leave Minsk. He left for Kyiv in haste and could no longer return to Belarus. Over the following year, we traveled back and forth, visiting him in Kyiv a few times for a month or two and getting back to Minsk each time, because my elderly parents needed help and my mother in particular was very sick. We were, actually, planning to move to Ukraine and so we applied for permanent residence as immediate relatives. Sasha was supposed to start her school in the fall of 2022. In the winter of 2022, we had to leave Ukraine for a little while just for bureaucratic reasons. Our final return, this time as a whole family, was scheduled for March 2022. On February 24, the war began. We, therefore, never returned to Ukraine and in the spring of 2022, we ended up emigrating to the United States.

This conversation with my daughter was recorded on November 10, 2022.

Sasha, right now, at this moment of your life, what do you think your nationality is?

— American.

How long have you been thinking this way? Since when have you been thinking like this?

— I think… Well, it's hard to tell. I guess I wasn’t thinking this way until this summer. Yeah, basically, after this summer. Because I knew some more English already, and I knew more words, and I went to the second grade in school here, and so I started feeling like American already.

Do you remember what happened in Belarus in 2020? Of course, you were still small back then. But you do remember our protests, don’t you? Can you tell me something about it?

— I remember people going out with flags – and they were going to the protests. It started in the summer. I also remember that there were OMON [translator’s note: special police units in Russian and other post-Soviet counties that serve as riot police] at the protests. I remember that I stayed home with Olya, with Lena, and sometimes with my grandma.

— Remember how scared you were when we walked past the policemen or the OMON soldiers? Do you remember when you were afraid just to enter our courtyard? (Our courtyard is located in the city center and during the events of August 2020, the area was quite often cordoned off or just shriveled closely by the police. — I.)

— Yes, I do remember.

And do you remember what exactly you were scared of?

— Maybe it’s because they had those big dogs and clubs… well, you know, the batons.

You were afraid that they would do something bad to us, right?

— Yes.

— What about the people? Do you remember some of them? Remember who we voted for?

— We voted for Babariko, yet Babariko got arrested... and then, for Tikhanovskaya, she got there by accident, though, she just wanted to find and save her husband.

— Because her husband, too, was in prison, like Babariko, right?

— Yes. So yes, she spoke up, that sort of thing. We even showed up to a very big rally of hers with some toy balloons... I also remember how dad got arrested. Dad went to the rally on Sunday, and we were home, waiting for him. I played and did some drawing. Then it was very late night already and dad didn’t come back home, so we got worried and we went out and started looking for him in different police departments. I remember at some police station, an OMON soldier came out with a shotgun and said, “All this is ours!”

— Now tell me if you remember the time when we first came to Ukraine to visit dad. What do you remember about Ukraine, what were your first impressions?

— I remember that in Kyiv there were graffiti on the walls, there was more garbage around than in Minsk, but also there were lots of trees, and beautiful streets and houses. I also remember standing in front of a small square not far from our apartment, a very small one, and there was like a statue of a young girl who was killed by the Nazis, well, you know, those Nazis who were still in Germany back then... (Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya Square at the intersection of Gonchar and Bohdan Khmelnitsky Streets. — I.)

— Did you like it in Kyiv? Did it feel good?

— Very much! I had a good friend Varya there. In the evening, we would go together to that square nearby, there was a fountain, and that’s where we usually met (Chkalov Square — I.). I really loved it. I also remember the Zoo. There was a big giraffe at the entrance. I also liked Andrew's Descent, and Andrew's Hill too. There was like a telescope in the Landscape Alley, oh wait, no, it was not a telescope, it was a searchlight. And I loved all those little sculptures too. And there was also a playground...

Would you like to live in Ukraine?

— Well, I was kind of worried a little bit that the school was in Ukrainian. But for the rest... I would like to live there, and I would be happy to go to Ukrainian school together with Varya.

What about the language? Did you like Ukrainian? Did you want to learn it?

— At first, no, I didn’t want to study it, I don’t even know why. Probably because it is very similar to Belarusian, and so it would remind me of what happened at home, what happened in Belarus, and I didn't want to remember it. But if I started a school there, I would learn the language, of course. (Basically, she has never studied Belarusian, nor Ukrainian. We are a Russian-speaking family, including all the grandparents. She was only exposed to a little Belarusian in preschool. But she was interested in Belarusian, especially during the events of 2020. — I.)

— Tell me if you remember the day when the war started. How did you come to understand it? What did you think then?

— I don't remember clearly. But I do remember that I woke up and you were just crying. So, I heard you crying and talking to someone. It must have been daddy you were talking to. (On February 24, Sasha and I were in Minsk and my husband had also left Kyiv at that moment for some bureaucratic reasons, as I mentioned before, and so he was away from us and he couldn’t return to Belarus. We talked on Viber. — I.)

— What do you think about the war now?

— Honestly, I haven't thought much about it lately.

— And back then, in February, when we had to leave, what were you thinking?

— I was hoping that it would not happen after all, that the war would stop. Then I was worried about Varya and Irusha. (Varya is her friend, the girl from Kyiv, and Irusha is my close friend with whom we often met when we were in Kyiv. She lives in Irpin and was there in the first weeks of the war, without electricity, without communication, and so on. — I.)

And how did you feel about our departure from Minsk, which happened so fast? What was your reaction? (We had to pack and leave for Vilnius to my friend in just two days. — I.)

— I felt sad, that’s it.

— You didn't want to leave, right?

— No, I didn't want to leave. Well, I mean, I did want to leave, because there is fascism in Belarus right now. But I didn’t want to leave my apartment, all of my toys, and Tanya and Petya, and Anya and Kolya (the grandparents — I.), and my girlfriends, and Svetlana Alexandrovna (the preschool teacher — I.). I'm kind of used to it now and I like it here, although I miss [all these]. Had it been a Russian-speaking country, it would have been wonderful. But, unfortunately, there are only two Russian-speaking countries: Belarus and Russia. And both are fascist ones, well, you know, at this point they are. So we can’t go back there, daddy even less so. At least, we cannot live there. (The terms "fascism" or "fascist" she uses are coming from our speech, of course: we didn’t really watch our language in her presence, especially in the beginning; we discussed everything openly and didn’t try to refrain from certain characteristics when she was around. — I.)

— Since we brought up Belarus and Russia, I would like to ask you what you think about Lukashenko and Putin. Do you know who they are, in the first place?

— Of course, I do. Lukashenko is president of Belarus, who is very bad. I don't really understand how he managed to keep his power for so many years. And he's like... in his sixties already... He is bad, because it seems like he got elected by accident, and then it turned out he was bad.

How do you know he is bad?

— Because he started taking people to jail! They smashed phones, they searched people, and caught them, and beat them only because they went out for a walk or just gathered for a meeting.

And what do you think about Putin?

— Putin is the president of Russia. I know about him, first of all, that he is also bad, and he has body guards too, he has the OMON, but he doesn’t do as much fascism as in Belarus. Well, I mean, he, too, does nasty things but not in his home country. I mean, he does bully some people, but it’s not like in Belarus – in Russia, not everyone gets bullied and in Belarus, almost everyone does. But he started a war in Ukraine and he is assaulting everyone there, too.

— And do you understand what war is?

— Well, war is when your country gets attacked… I mean, when any country gets attacked and bombed, because someone wants to take it over. They shoot guns, they attack, they kill, they invade someone else’s land, and people are looking for places to hide – in the subway or elsewhere, and they try to protect the monuments with bags, you know... Yes, I forgot to tell – I’ve got special names for them. Putin is "mummy number two," and Lukashenko is "the mummy," I mean, "mummy number one." And all the fascists and Lukashists, they are “zombies.” It’s because people listen to them like crazy.

And how do they end up zombies?

— They listen to TV and all this garbage you can hear on it.

— And us, who do we listen to?

— You know, we can also listen to it. But here is what a smart person does. You go out, and here they are, talking like this, "the elderly are paid a lot of money, everything is great about the state, people are growing rich." You go out and look — people are not getting rich, they get only taken up to prison and robbed, the retired elderly people don’t get paid anything and stuff. You go out and see all this.

So, what does the smart one do about it?

— The smart one goes out, and sees all this, and thinks: ok, we got fooled about these two things, it means that they can easily lie about everything else, — so the smart one doesn’t trust them anymore.

© Courtesy of the author

— I got it. Ok then, to wrap up our conversation, let's change the topic a little bit. Let me ask you a question. Out of all those things that are left in Minsk, what do you miss the most?

— Most of all, I miss my grandparents, and I miss Nika and Arseny (her cousin sister and her nephew — I.), and Svetlana Alexandrovna, and Ksyusha, and Elechka. It’s true, though, that Elechka herself has left.

— And what places do you miss?

— I miss our apartment very, very much, and my school, and my swimming lessons, the pool, the playground. I also miss our “Euroopt” store, the one near the school, it was an awesome store, you could buy my favorite sausages there, and the chewing gum, and the “Tic Tac” candies. You can, probably, buy the “Tic Tac” here as well, but we don’t buy here, and back there, we did. I also miss the winter, because there was a lot of snow in the winter, I had a snowball maker back there. And here, you told me, there won’t be any snow here.

And the country we live in now, do you like it?

— I like it very much. First of all, I really like my school. Second, this city is all green. It is not just its culture that makes it different. Of course, the culture too, but the cityscape is totally different from Minsk. There are those small houses everywhere, like dachas, we didn’t have them in Minsk, and on the other hand, there are also very big ones, we didn’t have anything like that in Minsk either. I like all of these. And the local people are also very nice. The parks are beautiful. And my school, I like it best of all.

— Can you tell the name of the country and the city where we live now?

— The country is called America, the city is Portland, and the neighborhood is John’s Landing.

— Sashulya, what if you had a choice now and it were up to you to decide where we live, and if we had the option to return to Belarus, or to move to Ukraine, and if there were no war… Or, you could stay here. Which one would you choose?

— Good question… I would probably still go back to Belarus… To Minsk… Oh, wait – no, I would probably rather stay here and would go to Minsk for the summer.

And why do you think you made this choice?

— Because of the school. And I really like my room here: my piano, my lamp, my room in general.

And what if we were able to take all this stuff with us?

— And the school?

— Well, no, we wouldn’t be able to take the school.

— No, I would still stay here at the moment then…

Translated from Russian by Kun

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9 June 2023