Exploring My Immigrant Identity While Visiting Communism Memorials

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“Privit!” thundered the immigration official at Borispil International Airport. After an uncomfortably long silence, she slowly slid my stamped passport under the thick plexiglass window without breaking eye contact. I breathed a sigh of relief. Although remnants of this Soviet era hospitality may startle some travelers, for me, it feels like home. My exhausted body relaxed as I spotted my sister in the crowd; it had been a long twelve years since I had last visited Kyiv, Ukraine.

Grateful that my suitcase full of textbooks had miraculously arrived from Toronto, I prepared to spend the next few months of 2019 halfway across the globe, without interrupting my university degree. Unlike attendees of traditional brick and mortar post-secondary institutions, my online school offers students the privilege of completing their courses from anywhere. This past summer, I was a guest in several countries, completing assignments in rattling trains, overcrowded buses, old creaking Ladas, and ubiquitous Eastern European marshrutkas.

Although I call Ukraine home, my background is complex. Holding dual Canadian and Polish citizenship means the Polish community is flabbergasted at my halting Polish language skills, while Ukrainians fail to understand why I cannot speak Russian as most of them do. No one, including me, can even name my accent.

polish flag

ukrainian flag

My ethnic Ukrainian family was forced to leave their homeland during the late 1940s. Much of them settled in western Ukraine, and northwestern Polish territories near Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast. I spent the first few years of my life in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, followed by a move to Toronto. Once I grew older, I spent many years living and working across Canada and abroad. Displacement has defined much of my family’s history, so I grew up hearing many stories of pain and loss. Over the years, I have prioritized visiting places that teach me more about the context of my family’s trying story–memorials and museums

that stand to honor and remember the pain and joy woven into the past.

Back in Kyiv, my taxi sped past winding streets crowded with typical Khrushchyovkas— traditional post-Stalin structures. Introduced during the 1960s as cost-effective and temporary, these housing blocks still stand all over the former USSR. These low-rise, functional buildings are my equivalent to someone else’s nostalgia for Toronto’s CN Tower or NYC’s Empire State Building. For my parents, however, these buildings are reminders of years of hardship they concealed from me .

At times, I question the ethics of visiting these places stained by past suffering. There are some places I cannot visit with good conscience. When I speak of returning to Ukraine, people ask if I plan to visit the Chornobyl exclusion zone in Pripyat–the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters. Out of respect for those who lost their lives, their homes, and their health, I have never been. However, I also have a direct connection to the Chornobyl exclusion zone. When the explosion occurred, I was only living 600 km from the blast. I remember taking potassium iodide to block the effects of the radiation.

 

room of rubble after explosion
Photo by Mick De Paola on Unsplash

Although I refuse to visit this particular site, I have visited many other memorials and museums recalling tragic events. Past travels have taken me to Budapest’s Memento Park —holding remnants of old communist statues and monuments—and Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide–focussing on the atrocities carried out under the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.

Building on these experiences, in the summer of 2019 I continued my quest to understand communist regimes, genocide, and war crimes in Kyiv. The sheer size of Kyiv’s Museum to the Great Patriotic War, dedicated to the events of WWII, is unlike anything I have ever seen, featuring striking Brutalist architecture alongside the monumental Rodina Mat (Motherland) statue that towers over the landscape, silver sword, and shield gleaming. Although Ukraine’s decommunization laws are evident throughout the country, the hammer and sickle have not been removed from the statue’s shield—a reminder of Ukraine’s brutal Soviet history. Further West in Lviv, Ukraine, “The Territory of Terror Memorial Museum of Totalitarian Regimes educates visitors on the city’s German and Soviet occupation.

Continuing south, I crossed the border into northern Romania to visit the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance in Sighetu Marmatiei. The Memorial shares information about political prisoners, and the Elie Wiesel Memorial House teaches visitors about the famed Nobel Peace prize-winning author and Romania’s Jewish population.

After a short flight to the Caucasus, I found myself in Gori, Georgia, a small town about an hour from the capital city of Tbilisi. Gori is the birthplace of Ioseb Besarionis dzе Jugashvili, more commonly known as Joseph Stalin. While in Gori, I planned to visit the Joseph Stalin Museum and learn more about my family’s history. Unlike the rest of the country, residents of the town whole-heartedly support their hometown hero, reveling in the remnants of a system that wiped out generations of opponents, leaders, and educators. The Museum felt like a glorification, in a country where approximately 600,000 Georgians were sentenced to the Gulag.

On the final leg of my journey, I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of Istanbul, Turkey’s famed Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) in the moonlight. While in Istanbul, I crossed the historic Bosporus, where the Ottoman Empire changed the trajectory of history in this region.

spired roof of mosque

A few days later, I found myself in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Den Haag (The Hague), The Netherlands—a fitting end to my journey of understanding the past.

A few months after my return to Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, possibly altering the future of travel forever. My plans to relocate via a student exchange have been put on hold, as my already fragile health makes me fearful of my vulnerability to this virus. I approach the very idea of travel itself with greater depth these days. Discussions about how we travel, where we travel, why we travel, as well as the power of our passports and the ease or unease with which we cross borders are becoming increasingly frequent. We live in an era in which statues of violent and colonial pasts are being taken down all over the world.

While traveling, I still struggle to make sense of my family’s suffering, however, while visiting these memorials, I have grown to understand that a country is not only history and tragedy, but also joy and resistance—even in areas with deep historical wounds. Memories of that summer are full of emotional days of reliving the past, but also of sunflowers, ancient wooden churches, soft varenyky bursting with potatoes and cheese and smothered in fried onions, crowded marshrutkas, and the sound of my name spoken by the voices of my family’s people. I am learning to reconcile the coexistence of pain and joy in history and in the present.

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