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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

God (If You Exist) Bless Us All

January 2023

Ukrainian flag lying on top of a field of wheat.

A friend wrote me at Christmastime. He ended the letter with God (if you exist) bless us all.

I wept.

To walk the fields of Ukraine. To feel its earth beneath my feet. To see its history of a World War II destroyed Jewish town. To visit the Pecherskaya Lavra, the first monastery of Orthodoxy in the country, established around 1100. To stand on the banks of the Dnieper River. To listen to the cultural and religious a capella music. To meet the people. To stand on the banks of the Black Sea. To write a novel about the beginning of the Orthodox church and the Pecherskaya Lavra. To be in the National Philharmonic Hall of Ukraine, and in its Lysenko Hall.

I first went to Ukraine in 1988. I accompanied my prep school classmate, Tony Antolini, or professionally, Anthony Antolini as he conducted the Cabrillo Slavonic Chorus in performances of Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysosdom. Rachmaninov debuted this liturgy in St. Petersburg in 1910, its only full performance till my friend Tony found most of it at a monastery in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He put a few, very few, finishing touches on it. He was invited  to the USSR to perform it in various places, conducting 142 singers in a capella performances in cathedrals, lavras, and concert halls. The Chorus also sang folk tunes of American, Russian, and Ukrainian culture.

In Kiev, in the Lysenko Hall of the Philharmonic Building, my friend became Maestro Anthony Antolini. Maestro. I’ve seen him on his hands and knees under a table in a classroom at Friends Seminary, a Quaker school we attended. Now he stands in a tuxedo and white tie to a standing ovation from 1,500 people.

By chance, I sat next to Andrei from Mikolaiv in southern Ukraine. He was 12 or 14 in 1988. Now he will be perhaps 50. —Oh Andrei, are you still alive?

He spoke Ukrainian. He knew where California was, where Tony and most of the singers were. I lived in Kansas at the time and surprisingly, he knew where Kansas was. He spoke no English. Our conversation went like this.

“But I’m not from California. I’m from Kansas. Do you know where Kansas is?” I asked him in Russian.

“Kansas. Da. University basketball. Kansas University basketball. Kansas State University basketball. Wichita State University basketball.” I was impressed.

Andrei, where are you? How are you? Are you still alive? Are you fighting? Are you wounded?

I gave him a Cabrillo znachok (pin) and he showed me his soccer znachok.

Next to him was a handsome middle-aged man who leaned forward during the performance, elbows on his knees, tapping his foot to the spirituals. He gave me a broad beam of a smile, raised his eyebrows and winked in delight at the rhythm of In His Ca-o. After the encore, speeches, and gifts to Tony, he turned and spoke to me excitedly in Russian. Having studied English for three years, his son, Nikolai, spoke fluent English almost with no accent. The man who was so delighted by the spirituals was a descendent of Mykola Lysenko, the Ukrainian composer. He wrote a note to me, which I translate.

This hall is named after Nikolai Vitalevich Lysenko, and I his grandson, have the great hope that we shall not forget this evening, and the relations between two great nations can become more strengthened. I want to meet with my American friends.

Nikolai V. Lysenko with best wishes.

Just now I listened to Mykola Lysenko - Prayer for Ukraine - Молитва за Україну on YouTube. Look it up. It’s worth listening to as you look at bales in a Ukrainian hay field. Weep. Weep for the fields that do not look like this anymore. Weep for the people who are hungry. Weep for the people who are cold. Weep for the people who live in the dark of winter. Weep for the soldiers and citizens who are wounded or killed. Weep for the people who have post-traumatic stress. Weep for the Ukrainians who have lost their homes, villages, towns, and cities. Weep for the Russians who fight and do not want to.

I live in Alaska where our Senator Lisa Murkowski met with the two Russians who sailed 300 miles in a small boat to escape conscription into the Russian army for this illegal invasion and war. They landed on one of our islands and have been given amnesty in our country. Imagine sailing across the Bering Sea in late October. Imagine the desperation to risk your life to fight for what you believe in, be it your country or your life.

It has been a very long time since my country has seen war on its soil, 157 years ago to be exact. Unless you fought on foreign soil in a war since World War I, you have no idea and even then, that was not on your own land as you worried about how your family was. Are they alive? Uninjured? Still in our home?

Where are you Andrei? Where are you Nikolai? Are you alive? Are you safe? Are your families safe?

And what of my Russian friend who, introduced me to the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva thirty years ago and now ends his Christmas letter, “God (if you exist) bless us all.”

I weep for two countries I’ve visited several times, whose classical, liturgical, and folk music now live in my soul. And to my friends, Ukrainian and Russian, “God (if you exist), bless us all.” Protect them. Bring them peace.

Rolls of hay lying in a field.

My husband’s family has many ranchers who used to grow wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Now they grow alfalfa. Fifty years ago, with smaller bales of 90 to 110 pounds, I sometimes helped him load his flatbed with 990 bales and drive to the barn to stack them for winter feed. I don’t know hay like a rancher, but I have some appreciation of the work and value of fields of grain. I also know the beauty of the fields.

I wrote a historical novel about the beginning of their Christianity, their Orthodoxy in the country, Nikolin (Northwest Publishing, 1994). It received honorable mention for a Benjamin Franklin Award for Young Adult fiction.


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