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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

My Thoughts Are about Ukraine

March 2022

I intended that my Personal Blog for March 1, 2022 was going to be How to Get Rid of Vertigo, Part II. I changed that because I must write about the events of the past week. These days my thoughts are about Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. I first went to that country in January 1988 when it was a part of the Soviet Union and that trip profoundly moved me. Yes, we went to Russia also, but these days, my thoughts, feelings, and heart belongs to Ukraine.

The previous month, December 1987, Gorbachev and Reagan had met in talks. My sister and I stood in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in Leningrad, a Russian city that now and historically was called St. Petersburg. Remember that religious belief was so strongly discouraged in the USSR that it affected a person’s employment, income, and status in society. This was not just any music tour, though, but one conducted by a friend and former Friends Seminary classmate of mine, Anthony Antolini. He had found Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which the composer had conducted at its first performance in 1910 in St. Petersburg. The next conductor of it was my friend, Tony. He and his chorus had been invited to come to the Soviet Union and perform it for the 1000th anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church. Tony invited me to tag along. My sister and I had long had a fascination with things Russian and Ukrainian since we were children. We accepted Tony’s invitation.

When the chorus of 142 singers and the 40 tag-alongs walked into the cathedral in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, we saw perhaps twenty people there, older women dressed in black and fervently praying, seated, kneeling, or prostrate on the floor. Keep in mind there are no pews in a Russian Orthodox Church and services last about three hours. Tony and his chorus began to sing the liturgy in coordination with the priests present. Within an hour, Soviet Union citizens had packed the cathedral with over 600 people. How did they hear about it? By word of mouth. Young parents brought their children. Others were middle aged and some elderly. I spoke enough Russian to be able to understand their conversations. “Amerikanskii khor”, American chorus, passed through the throng. One woman walked by me and asked the time, in Russian. Happy it wasn’t 11:15, I replied, “Odinnadtzat chasov.” Eleven o’clock. My pronunciation was good enough she walked on by. A retired Russian teacher of English was talking to my sister. Later, the Metropolitan came to the service and spoke. He was the one who mentioned Reagan and Gorbachev had just met.

I had studied Russian learning about a year’s worth before we went on the trip. Why study Russian? I read the poetry of Anna Akhmatova in translation in 1972 and decided if it was that beautiful in English, I had to learn Russian to read the original. Then Tony told me about his upcoming trip. I read up on Russian and Ukrainian history, read more Russian literature, and listened to Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and others before the trip. I read more Akhmatova in Russian. I wanted to be prepared. One part I neglected.

If one can fall in love with a country, this was the beginning of my falling in love with Russia and Ukraine. The service, the music, the churches enraptured me. Tony and I went to a Quaker school in New York’s Manhattan. My family sometimes went to Meeting. My father was a Quaker and so was one sister. I wasn’t a religious person, but somehow on this trip the peace of Quakerism and the liturgy and a cappella singing of the Russian Orthodox services crept into my soul and took hold. How those two combined, I still don’t know. Now for decades in the early mornings, I still enter my study and meditate, then listen to a Russian Orthodox liturgy as I begin my day of writing.

Today I sit at my desk almost unable to work. I was a child during World War II, born six months before Pearl Harbor, finally a four-year-old when the war ended. Many would assume I did not remember any of those times, but I do. Safe in America, we did not need to go to the basement or underground during bombings. I knew about the war though. Two of my cousins had husbands in Europe. One came home and his daughter and I were fast friends. The other one came home in a flag-draped coffin. My father, age 37, married, and the father of four children, tried to enlist in the Navy, but his colorblindness kept him home. Since we lived in Berlin, New Hampshire, blackout shades were required. When we moved back to Massachusetts, we took some with us. We listened to the radio at least weekly. I remember so well cuddling in my father’s lap next to the radio.

I went through contorted gymnastics to reach my bedroom doorknob from the bunk bed because I had to run to my parents’ bedroom to escape my terror of the, one word, GermanNazisoldiers who hid under my bed waiting to grab me into their lair at the first opportunity. 

When I had my tonsils out almost two years after the end of the war, I hemorrhaged. The hospital had no clean sheets as three boatloads of wounded had just arrived in Boston from Europe and all area hospitals donated their sheets to area hospitals, including our town’s Cushing Military Hospital. During the war I had slammed my fingers in the car door and ended up at Cushing. I wanted to stay for the afternoon, as the men there seemed so much in need of a little girl’s presence and attention. They broke my heart and I wanted to stay as I obviously made them feel better. I now know they missed their own little girls at home.

Those are my experiences. I’ve never heard bombs or felt the percussions from one. None of it was real except for the wounded and recovering at Cushing, but World War II terrified this young child.

My heart broke when I went to the Pecherskaya Lavra in 1988. The damage from Nazi bombings remained these thirty-three years later. How could the damage not be fixed in all those years? This was the oldest Lavra in the Soviet Union. Even though it was officially an atheistic country, why leave a thousand-year-old work of art in ruins?

We went into the Far Caves. As we descended the narrow stairs that went this way then that, an odor arose, that musty smell of the basement of the house we had grown up in. My sister and I turned to look at one another and smiled. We felt so at home. These caves were the catacombs from the beginnings of the Lavra. Once down in the coolness of the Caves, we walked the narrow ways. We passed open caskets of monks and nuns from many centuries ago. We passed nooks with small gold altars that shone in the soft light. We passed openings in the walls at face level. What are these? I asked our Intourist guide. At that time, all Intourist guides were also members of the KGB, although they never acknowledged that. However, when talking of religion and telling me about this, the guide’s voice softened into a deep sense of reverence.

A few monks had themselves bricked into cells for the remainder of their lives to pray for the soul of a saint. They lived anywhere from five to twenty-one years before dying, already encased in this room turned tomb. Their remains are still there. Stunned by her most reverent explanation, I backed up against the opposite wall. The question of why remained in me till about ten months till I began to write the possible life of one such monk, a story that became the historical novel, Nikolin. As with any of my literary books, I become a part of the life of the characters I write about. I became Nikolin, dreamed about him and his story. This man became a part of my life. I lived his prayers, his joys, and his tragedies.

Pecherskaya Lavra entrance, Kyiv, Ukraine.

Pecherskaya Lavra entrance, Kyiv, Ukraine.

Close-up of the Pecherskaya Lavra entrance.

Close-up of the Pecherskaya Lavra entrance.

When I returned to Kyiv, Ukraine in 2007, I went to the Lavra every day. It was fully restored, I now know by the Ukrainian people in 1995. The faded gold halos at the entrance and elsewhere were no longer faded but had brilliant gold of the halos and color of their garments. I was stunned and, once again, deeply moved by the buildings, churches, and caves. I stopped at the shop they now have and spent much time selecting the icon, painted by an iconographer, that I wanted to take home with me and live with for the rest of my life. I donít even know who the saint is because the writing is in old Cyrillic or in Ukrainian and I read neither. I look at him whenever I round the top of the stairs to our second floor. Now I will send my thoughts through him to the people of Ukraine, those I know and donít know, in these so very difficult times for them.

My heart is with your yellow fields of grain and your yellow sunflowers. It is with your clear blue skies. It is with you in the chill of winter and the heat of summer. It is with each and all of you be you a soldier, a citizen, a babushka, a child or an infant.

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