Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A destroyed shopping mall next to The Kharkiv Region State Administration Building in Ukraine on April 22.SOPA Images/AFP/Getty Images

Julia Zarankin is the author of Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder: A Memoir.

The last time my feet touched Ukrainian soil was on January 28, 1978, when my parents and I boarded a train in Kharkov bound for Vienna. Exit visas in hand, we catapulted toward a new life in a new world armed with 13 suitcases filled with the finest Soviet linens, flashlights, toolkits, pins and other goods to sell at the local market. Like many émigrés from the former Soviet Union, we never made it to our projected destination – Israel – and instead applied for political asylum at the only embassies accepting Soviet Jewish refugees at the time: Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America. My parents almost settled on a future in Germany, but chance intervened: My father’s cousin from Edmonton visited us while on sabbatical and convinced us Canada was a safer, better place to raise a Jewish family.

Although I haven’t been back in 44 years, the landscape of my memory remains almost entirely rooted on Ukrainian soil – in Kharkov, Odessa, Kramatorsk, Donetsk – the very places Russia is ruthlessly destroying. Although I have no conscious memory of these cities, I imagine them constantly: The formative landscape of my life revolves around places I know exclusively from my parents’ and grandparents’ stories, and watching them turn to rubble feels like an obliteration of my past.

Growing up as an immigrant in Edmonton, and later Vancouver, my entire existence felt foreign: from my parents’ accent, to the cow’s tongue sandwiches in my lunch box, to our homemade soups that we ate as a first course – pervoye – and the enormous polyester bows my mother tied in my hair. I struggled to explain the whereabouts of my grandparents to friends: Though still relatively young, they’d been fired from their jobs in Kharkov and Odessa since our emigration branded them as enemies of the people, and as refuseniks, they were denied exit visas from the Soviet Union.

In the evenings, tired of explaining my strangeness to others, I found solace in photo albums that introduced me to my extended family. In those black-and-white photos, I met my grandmother Ester, who managed the financial department at the Kharkov Tractor Factory; my grandfather Grisha, who was a foundry director at the Novokramatorsk Machine Building Plant; my grandmother Nusya – also an engineer – who had taught at the Kramatorsk Industrial Institute; as well as aunts, uncles, cousins who had been doctors, musicians, accountants. When my parents bought me the Reader’s Digest Atlas of the World for us to fantasy-travel, the only place I wanted to visit again and again was the double-page map of the Soviet Union where I traced my family’s footsteps, learning place names along the way: Sorochintsy, Poltava, Kharkov, Odessa, Kramatorsk, Kotovsk, Golovanevsk, Donetsk. The places where my relatives had once been somebody, and not just poor immigrants.

Among the more sentimental keepsakes my parents brought with them into the great unknown was a faux-gold-plated medal presented to me – along with a birth certificate – by hospital staff on the day of my birth: On one side of the medal, Lenin stood in his quintessentially regal pose, arm outstretched, and the other side featured my name, birthdate and place of birth engraved in cursive Ukrainian, set against an enormous sun. For years, whenever I complained about not fitting in among friends who dressed differently, didn’t have to speak Russian at home and ate at McDonald’s instead of picnicking with hard-boiled eggs, my parents had a sure-fire trick to reassure me. They would walk over to the desk where they kept our most prized possessions – diplomas, financial information, letters from my grandparents – bring out the coveted medal from its box, read the inscription and assure me that few people in this new country were special enough to receive such hardware at birth.

And yet, in spite of the medal, when it came to defining my identity, I’ve always opted for simplicity and referred to myself as Russian Canadian. How could I explain the complicated truth: I’m from the former Soviet Union, a Russian speaker whose family lived in eastern Ukraine for generations because as Jews, the Russian Empire had relegated them to the Pale of Settlement? I envied people whose identity fit neatly within the geographic borders of a nation, but calling myself Russian was easier and relieved me of having to deliver a history lesson every time somebody asked me about my origins.

That my passport listed Ukraine as my birthplace made me uneasy: I neither spoke the language nor knew much about Ukrainian culture. Though I’d been living in Canada since age 4, my identity still operated according to Soviet definitions of ethnonationality branded on the fifth line of one’s passport, which, in my case, would have read evreika – Jew. Add to that the complicated history of Jews in Ukraine – the conflict, discrimination, bloodshed, pogroms – and I definitely didn’t feel Ukrainian. Passing as Russian was easier: I spoke the language fluently, taught Russian literature to lifelong learners, and assuming a Russian identity prevented me from feeling the reverberations of intergenerational trauma my family had experienced as Jews in Ukraine.

On February 24, everything changed. The day Russia attacked Ukraine, I sat glued to my computer trying to comprehend how such a violation of sovereignty was possible. Feeling completely powerless, I did the only thing I could: Instinctively, I started referring to the city of my birth by its Ukrainian name, Kharkiv, rather than Kharkov. The vowel change might seem insignificant, but it marked a shift in my thinking. I could no longer bring myself to say “Kharkov” aloud without confronting the stench of imperialism, violence, destruction and forced occupation. I have stopped telling people I am from Russia, because not only is it disingenuous, but it embraces an oversimplified understanding of history.

I had been planning a trip to Ukraine with my parents when the war began – I’ve long wanted to walk along the Deribasovskaya with my mother and watch a soccer game at the Chernomorets Stadium in Odesa, in honour of my grandfather’s love for the sport, and visit the concert hall in Kharkiv’s State Music Lyceum, where my father played his first solo piano recital. The trip feels particularly urgent now, although I’m terrified of the scars that will greet us when we return. Once it’s safe.

In the meanwhile, I’ve been bolstering the landscape of my memory with the long-overdue homework of educating myself by reading Ukrainian literature and history and gaining a greater appreciation for the complexity of the region. I am thinking more critically about the ways in which imperial expansion historically marginalizes, erases and deprives other peoples of their legitimacy. The horrific war – now in its sixth month – is forcing me to rethink who I am, how I teach, where I come from and how I see the world. I’ve started to embrace and unravel the thorny strands of my complicated identity as a Russian-speaking Jew born in the former Soviet Ukraine, and now proudly call myself Ukrainian Canadian.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe