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My Ukraine: Memory & Identity

In Ukraine, your past can say a lot about your future. And as the country continues to struggle for the right to shape its 21st-century identity, many people are reexamining their family roots as a reminder of who they are today. RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar recently traveled to six Ukrainian cities -- Kyiv, Lviv, Uzhhorod, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv -- to talk to people about their old family photographs. What she found was a country whose tumultuous 20th-century history is far from forgotten. Fourteen Ukrainians have shared their stories, and photographs, for the "My Ukraine" project. This is but a brief sampling. Find the entire project by clicking here.

A number of Ukrainians who participated in the project kept detailed family records and had carefully preserved hundreds of photographs. Alla Husarova, a Kyiv-based journalist, traces much of her family history back to the village of Bilky in the Vinnitsya region. Her grandmother, Lesia Babukha (bottom left), pictured here as a schoolgirl, spent her entire life in Bilky. 
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A number of Ukrainians who participated in the project kept detailed family records and had carefully preserved hundreds of photographs. Alla Husarova, a Kyiv-based journalist, traces much of her family history back to the village of Bilky in the Vinnitsya region. Her grandmother, Lesia Babukha (bottom left), pictured here as a schoolgirl, spent her entire life in Bilky. 

There are very few Ukrainians whose families were unaffected by World War II, which brought first the German occupation and then brutal fighting as the Soviet Army pushed its way back west. Mykola Chaban, an ethnographer in Dnipropetrovsk, was named in memory of his uncle (left), who was killed at age 17 just days after being forced into military service. His mother found the meat pies she had baked for him still tucked in his pocket. 
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There are very few Ukrainians whose families were unaffected by World War II, which brought first the German occupation and then brutal fighting as the Soviet Army pushed its way back west. Mykola Chaban, an ethnographer in Dnipropetrovsk, was named in memory of his uncle (left), who was killed at age 17 just days after being forced into military service. His mother found the meat pies she had baked for him still tucked in his pocket. 

Some photographs provide a wonderfully unguarded look at ordinary life. Volodymyr Balega, a photographer living in Ukraine's western border city of Uzhhorod, has dozens of photographs of his parents, Yuriy and Varvara (shown at opposite ends of the table), with Varvara's students, young girls living in a local orphanage. "Her students really loved her a lot," Balega says. 
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Some photographs provide a wonderfully unguarded look at ordinary life. Volodymyr Balega, a photographer living in Ukraine's western border city of Uzhhorod, has dozens of photographs of his parents, Yuriy and Varvara (shown at opposite ends of the table), with Varvara's students, young girls living in a local orphanage. "Her students really loved her a lot," Balega says. 

Remarkable stories lie behind seemingly ordinary family portraits. Anastasia Aslanova, a young Kyiv resident, fondly remembers her grandmother Emma (left, pictured in 1932 with her mother and brother), who ran away from home after her mother died and volunteered as a nurse in World War II. She later met her husband while working at a Russian prison camp where he had been sent as an alleged Nazi sympathizer. 
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Remarkable stories lie behind seemingly ordinary family portraits. Anastasia Aslanova, a young Kyiv resident, fondly remembers her grandmother Emma (left, pictured in 1932 with her mother and brother), who ran away from home after her mother died and volunteered as a nurse in World War II. She later met her husband while working at a Russian prison camp where he had been sent as an alleged Nazi sympathizer. 

Some participants were eager to dispel what they saw as Western misperceptions about life in the Soviet Union. Lilia Bigeyeva (top center, with a group of students), a well-known violinist and composer from Dnipropetrovsk, lost several relatives to Communist repressions. But she says her family, which includes numerous musicians and artists, has a joyful side, as well. "People think there was no laughter behind the Iron Curtain," she says. "But there was a lot!" 
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Some participants were eager to dispel what they saw as Western misperceptions about life in the Soviet Union. Lilia Bigeyeva (top center, with a group of students), a well-known violinist and composer from Dnipropetrovsk, lost several relatives to Communist repressions. But she says her family, which includes numerous musicians and artists, has a joyful side, as well. "People think there was no laughter behind the Iron Curtain," she says. "But there was a lot!" 

Even the wear-and-tear evident on some old photos holds stories. Solomia Lebid, an engineer in Lviv, remembers her grandmother Myroslava as an avid photographer and an equally avid seamstress. Sometimes the two hobbies inadvertently crossed paths, as in this picture of two neighboring children with Myroslava's dog, which shows marks of the tracing wheel Myroslava used with her sewing patterns. 
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Even the wear-and-tear evident on some old photos holds stories. Solomia Lebid, an engineer in Lviv, remembers her grandmother Myroslava as an avid photographer and an equally avid seamstress. Sometimes the two hobbies inadvertently crossed paths, as in this picture of two neighboring children with Myroslava's dog, which shows marks of the tracing wheel Myroslava used with her sewing patterns. 

Many people take bittersweet pride in the illustrious past of their families in the early years of the 20th century. Oleh Hubar, a well-known city historian in Odesa, describes his forebearers as a "big mix of ethnicities and religions." His grandparents Maria and Lev Hubar (both on the right, pictured in 1916) were considered part of the city's prerevolutionary elite. A generation later, many of his relatives would be killed in Odesa's Jewish pogroms.
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Many people take bittersweet pride in the illustrious past of their families in the early years of the 20th century. Oleh Hubar, a well-known city historian in Odesa, describes his forebearers as a "big mix of ethnicities and religions." His grandparents Maria and Lev Hubar (both on the right, pictured in 1916) were considered part of the city's prerevolutionary elite. A generation later, many of his relatives would be killed in Odesa's Jewish pogroms.

Some pictures prompt whimsical commentary from their subjects, as in the case of Andriy Sholtes, a writer in Uzhhorod, remembering a fishing trip he took with friends in the early 1990s. "I think I'm looking at some extra fish we had caught to take home, prior to our departure and prior to their death," he says, adding: "Twenty is a cruel age." 
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Some pictures prompt whimsical commentary from their subjects, as in the case of Andriy Sholtes, a writer in Uzhhorod, remembering a fishing trip he took with friends in the early 1990s. "I think I'm looking at some extra fish we had caught to take home, prior to our departure and prior to their death," he says, adding: "Twenty is a cruel age." 

Several participants described the ideological disconnect they felt with older relatives brought up as true Soviet believers. Kyiv-based economist Andriy Ignatov, who has published a book based on the family of his paternal grandfather, Yuriy (seated, with the dog), says he and his grandfather frequently argued about the merits of the Soviet system. "For years, he denied there had ever been a Holodomor," Ignatov says, referring to Stalin's orchestrated famine in Ukraine. "This was true even though many of his own family members died as a result of it." 
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Several participants described the ideological disconnect they felt with older relatives brought up as true Soviet believers. Kyiv-based economist Andriy Ignatov, who has published a book based on the family of his paternal grandfather, Yuriy (seated, with the dog), says he and his grandfather frequently argued about the merits of the Soviet system. "For years, he denied there had ever been a Holodomor," Ignatov says, referring to Stalin's orchestrated famine in Ukraine. "This was true even though many of his own family members died as a result of it." 

Lviv-based architect Volodymyra Kachmar is another Ukrainian who has collected her family's complex family history into a book. As a young person growing up in Soviet Ukraine, she says she deliberately switched off during history lessons. "It was just a form of indoctrination," she says. That changed once she began researching family members like her grandfather Volodymyr (pictured here at his wedding in 1933), a lawyer who was debarred by Soviet authorities and executed in 1941. 
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Lviv-based architect Volodymyra Kachmar is another Ukrainian who has collected her family's complex family history into a book. As a young person growing up in Soviet Ukraine, she says she deliberately switched off during history lessons. "It was just a form of indoctrination," she says. That changed once she began researching family members like her grandfather Volodymyr (pictured here at his wedding in 1933), a lawyer who was debarred by Soviet authorities and executed in 1941. 

Although language is one of the issues fueling the conflict in Ukraine, many residents slip easily between Ukrainian and Russian and say it only adds to Ukraine's diversity. But language is one thing, and politics another. Volodymyr Ogloblyn, a photographer living in the eastern city of Kharkiv, was born in Russia and works there many months of the year. But he is emphatic that Ukraine is his country. "Russians love to say that Russia is a great country," says Ogloblyn, who shot this picture of fellow university students on a field trip in 1972. "I always tell them it's not great -- it's just big." 
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Although language is one of the issues fueling the conflict in Ukraine, many residents slip easily between Ukrainian and Russian and say it only adds to Ukraine's diversity. But language is one thing, and politics another. Volodymyr Ogloblyn, a photographer living in the eastern city of Kharkiv, was born in Russia and works there many months of the year. But he is emphatic that Ukraine is his country. "Russians love to say that Russia is a great country," says Ogloblyn, who shot this picture of fellow university students on a field trip in 1972. "I always tell them it's not great -- it's just big." 

Some Ukrainians express the opinion that younger generations aren't interested in their family history. But Lucy Zoria -- the youngest participant, at 24 -- says she's fascinated by the lives of her forebears. "I feel that these are people who were greater than I am," she says. "I'm just here to keep their stories." Lucy's grandfather Anatoliy Sumar was a painter shunned as an "abstract expressionist" by Communist officials. Her grandmother Asta (pictured with two admirers) was a literary editor and a frequent host to the Kyiv cultural elite. "She was the kind of person who had friends for life," Zoria says. 
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Some Ukrainians express the opinion that younger generations aren't interested in their family history. But Lucy Zoria -- the youngest participant, at 24 -- says she's fascinated by the lives of her forebears. "I feel that these are people who were greater than I am," she says. "I'm just here to keep their stories." Lucy's grandfather Anatoliy Sumar was a painter shunned as an "abstract expressionist" by Communist officials. Her grandmother Asta (pictured with two admirers) was a literary editor and a frequent host to the Kyiv cultural elite. "She was the kind of person who had friends for life," Zoria says. 

Several factors can contribute to a Ukrainian's sense of identity. Natalia Zubchenko, an anesthiologist working in Dnipropetrovsk's front-line evacuation hospital, says she owes much to being raised in a family of strong women, many of them doctors, in a city with a character that is neither "east nor west." Zubchenko says Dnipropetrovsk is a "very specific" city responsible for producing a number of prominent Ukrainian politicians -- Yulia Tymoshenko among them. This picture of Zubchenko's grandmother Nina Holovakha (at left, with her mother and sister) hints at the inspiration for Tymoshenko's famous hairstyle. 
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Several factors can contribute to a Ukrainian's sense of identity. Natalia Zubchenko, an anesthiologist working in Dnipropetrovsk's front-line evacuation hospital, says she owes much to being raised in a family of strong women, many of them doctors, in a city with a character that is neither "east nor west." Zubchenko says Dnipropetrovsk is a "very specific" city responsible for producing a number of prominent Ukrainian politicians -- Yulia Tymoshenko among them. This picture of Zubchenko's grandmother Nina Holovakha (at left, with her mother and sister) hints at the inspiration for Tymoshenko's famous hairstyle. 

Many pictures are haunting for the juxtaposition of joyous images against the grim knowledge of what was to come. Areta Kovalsky, a Ukrainian-American living in Lviv, grew up listening to stories from her grandmother Bohdana, about Bohdana's younger sister, Maria (pictured here in 1936, being held above the water). The two were separated during World War II -- Bohdana fled for the United States, while Maria, a member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, was trapped in a city under heavy bombardment. Maria was later arrested for partisan activities and spent 15 years in prison. It would be 50 years before the sisters would see each other again. 
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Many pictures are haunting for the juxtaposition of joyous images against the grim knowledge of what was to come. Areta Kovalsky, a Ukrainian-American living in Lviv, grew up listening to stories from her grandmother Bohdana, about Bohdana's younger sister, Maria (pictured here in 1936, being held above the water). The two were separated during World War II -- Bohdana fled for the United States, while Maria, a member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, was trapped in a city under heavy bombardment. Maria was later arrested for partisan activities and spent 15 years in prison. It would be 50 years before the sisters would see each other again. 

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