Donbas is back in print!!!

Read excerpts:
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III

Vanya today:
Visit to Oregon Middle School

My Friendship with Mas Oyama


DONBAS DIARY (the long version)

5/13/99 Tonight: "Years ago, if I'd gone back to the Donbas it would've destroyed me. Now it doesn't bother me. Why? A psychiatrist could have a field day with me, no?"

The clock seems to have stopped in his mind. A part of him expects it to be unchanged, as if we were taking a trip in time as well as space. He said "I didn't want to tell you this, but I wanted to climb up that tower and look around." The tower was built of wood and is almost certainly gone.

5/18 J has started dreaming again, and being unreachable in his sleep—inconsolable—as if this was a job only he can do.

5/19 I realized exactly how I feel about this trip: the way I have felt being winched up the initial slope of a roller coaster: artificially calm, slightly breathless.

5/20 The roller coaster (which is an emotional one) has already taken its first plunge. The hours before we left, J was very down. He said "I feel like I'm going back into the coal mine."

5/21 J can hardly believe it: the Ukrainian authorities just glanced at his U.S. passport and waved him through! He half expected to be arrested for escaping 52 years ago.

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Photo by Kristen Peterson
5/23 Kiev to Donetsk J had a bad moment when we were bussed out to the little propeller plane, and it said DONBAS on the side in big orange Cyrillic letters. It was very casual, like a commuter plane, the daily 7:05 to the Donbas. Considering the agony it cost J to get in and out of there, this was disorienting to say the least.

5/25 Yesterday we drove out to find Mine 28, where J worked. We just got hold of a driver and jumped in his cab and took off in more or less the right direction. No one had even heard of Rovenki—not in Donetsk, and not in adjacent Makayevka—the city where J's sister died. We kept stopping to ask people, and after a while they said they thought it was near Snezhnoye ("Snowy"). Our quest left the main highway and twisted through a labyrinth of villages. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, you'd come upon a statue of Lenin presiding ironically over the ruins, or some other socialist-heroic monument topped with a motheaten red star. They haven't bothered to dismantle this stuff, they're letting the weeds do it. Lenin looks so forgotten standing there, so dated and irrelevant. Everybody ignores him; it's funny that he now belongs to the failure and decay of his bad idea.

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Photo by Kristen Peterson
From Snezhnoe we were sent on towards Antratsit ("Anthracite"). Now we were seeing conical slag heaps with rail tracks up their sides ending in a tag end of track dangling out over the void—J's "tower." J said that when he saw the first one, "My heart did a double-take." He told me later, "I wanted to reach out to it"—two tears spilled down the sides of his face—"it saved my life."

Now everyone we asked about Rovenki said "Oh yes, it's down this road." Near the sign at the Rovenki town limit, we were directed into an area of interpenetrating mines and villages that almost certainly is where J worked. We kept asking old people for directions to Mine 28 and getting contradictory answers. We suffered from a terrible language barrier—J, the only one of us who knew any Russian at all, was dumbstruck, confounded by the fact that he was right there, yet he recognized nothing. He was disappointed by this betrayal of his memories and expectations, until I reminded him of the classic movie "The Time Machine," the way Rod Taylor sits in the same spot on earth while the world molts and metamorphoses around him. Then it made sense.

The driver knew a "shortcut" back by highway, so while finding the place had taken 5 hours, getting back took only half as long. Except for that moment when he saw the tower J had failed to connect emotionally with the past; the mission felt incomplete. The drive back was enough quicker and easier so that we could imagine a better-planned encore, so we spent the next day setting it up. We went to an old Intourist office and found an interpreter and a car and driver. I have been particularly obsessed with finding Nina or Lisa or Katya—one of the girls/women who worked with J and shared food with him, who would now be an old lady. I can't, I don't, I won't believe they are all dead. I am stubbornly sure there's someone there to welcome him and close the circle. What's striking is that as we've gotten closer, the fear and suffering have fallen away and what he's feeling, for that time in this place, is love.

5/27 Back to Rovenki Our translator explained that many mines are inactive because it costs more to run them than the income they produce. At a half-functioning mine called Schachta Luganskaya, perhaps Mine 28's granddaughter on the same coal vein, we learned that Mine 28 was closed and

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abandoned, but they could show us where the entrance had been—now the grounds of a closed shoe factory. A lovely woman named Lyudmila, who looks a little like Susan Sarandon, offered to come with us to find places and surviving people.

Schachta Luganskaya had an active slag heap—black with severe, precise lines and a track running up it—and not far away was a dead one, like a dead volcano, reddish and rugged, still smoking but beginning to sprout vegetation too, on its way to

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Photo by Kristen Peterson
becoming just an old hill, and that was the one that J built. Truly, he made a large contribution to the mass of that little mountain, and that mark he made on the earth is still there after 50 years.

As is the mark he made on women's hearts, evidently.

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Photo by Kristen Peterson
J mentioned some names of women he'd worked with at Mine 28, and everyone agreed that at least one of them, Dusya, was still alive. So we went off to find Dusya's house. Jacques remembered her as a beautiful young woman, fiery and defiant—all the Russian men wanted to hit on her but nobody got very far. Out came a little old woman, with very few teeth, merry little blue eyes and good high cheekbones. As soon as they told her who J was, she knew him. She picked up her apron and wiped tears from the corners of her eyes; she crowed, "Vanyushka, Vanyushka!" and babbled to him in Russian, "Do you remember this? Do you remember that?" She sang out to us that he had been a beautiful strong young man and "all the girls had their eye on him." She kept murmuring "Molodyets, molodyets," which translates as "brave guy."

J was too stunned to take in much of this. His Russian pretty much deserted him. To deflect the raw force of emotion, he took safety in benevolent-padron mode, giving Dusya a twenty-dollar bill ("What's that?" she wanted to know) and asking her what she wanted from New York. "A lot!" she shot back. "A washing machine." So now he looks forward to coming back and giving her one.

After we saw Dusya, we drove to the metal gate of the closed shoe factory on the former grounds of Mine 28. We went in, and walking into the woods, found what had almost certainly been the entrance to the mine shaft: a downward-angled hole in the ground, now filled in with earth and leaves. J realized that he was now truly in the Time Machine—almost certainly standing on a spot he'd stood on over 50 years before.

Back on the road to Rovenki, Lyudmila told us to stop by an open meadow. By the roadside stood a rough tablet, like a gravestone, and as we approached it we were amazed to see the hollow-eyed face of a prisoner, one hand holding a strand of barbed wire. Lyudmila explained to our translator that it was a memorial to all the prisoners who had lived and died here. It had been built at the instigation of a local math teacher—himself now dead—who was obsessed with history and felt this part of it must not be forgotten. Although J didn't recognize anything, slowly it dawned on us that this, this meadow where the only sign of life was a staked, grazing calf, must be the place where the prison camp had stood, where J buried so many of his friends. The Russians had not built anything here for fifty years, out of respect for the dead.

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I was so moved by this evidence of the compassion the ordinary Russians had felt for the prisoners and the interpenetration of their lives—prisoners and villagers had worked in the mines side by side. I asked J if I could take his picture with the monument. He did not want to, and he was right, but when I persisted, he sat down on it and—laughed. In death's face.

5/31 Back in New York, finding that the trip's effect on J has been releasing—his memories are more accessible, no longer so dangerous and taboo, and the emphasis is on the happier ones, the friendships, the work. It's as if the barbed-wire fence of trauma that quarantined off that part of his life and brain has been taken down. Sharing it with friends and with me also helped. "Donbas" is no longer a private wound in his psyche. It's a place on earth, with a life that has gone on as his has gone on. And while that robs it of some of its black magic, it has also lessened the dread and isolation.

5/5/00 We are about to go again—this time more consciously, I think. We're not in a daze of disbelief. That was protective, but at a price—we sort of sleepwalked our way through that visit.

5/15 Donetsk Sure enough, the plane was one of those little propeller tubs with "DONBAS" on the side, but this had lost its shock value.

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At the airport we found a cab driver, Sasha (like about every second Russian or Ukrainian you meet) who said he was a coal miner too, and J was soon swearing in Russian and had him roaring with laughter. By the time we got to the hotel, they had struck up a deal for him to take us to Rovenki. The young man we met at Intours last year, also a Sasha, will come along to translate.

5/16 In Big Sasha's car on the way to Rovenki, Little Sasha told me that 1.5 percent of Ukraine's population is fabulously wealthy; everybody else is poor. There is no middle class. There are no jobs for the educated and willing, and no pay for the employed, since the state is the employer and the state is bankrupt, robbed dry by its president and other kleptocrats. Ukraine makes Russia look prosperous.

At Schachta Luganskaya we asked for Lyudmila, who had helped us find Dusya. (We'd decided not to buy a washing machine till we'd made sure she was still alive and well.) After a warm greeting, hugs and kisses, Lyudmila announced that when word had gotten around of J's return, another one of his old work-mates had come forward: the supervisor of his shift, Marusya—someone he'd known much better than Dusya because he worked with her every day the summer he worked on the tower. J's reaction was "Oh my God."

So we packed ourselves back into the car, and Lyudmila guided us through the labyrinth of mud-carved ruts and gullies to a splintery blackened wood fence facing some kind of dully roaring mine machinery, and a waste pond where a few little boys played, probably poisoning themselves.

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The little woman who came from behind the fence had a beautiful, alert and merry face carved with deep lines, one gold tooth in front surrounded by missing ones. As she came out of the gate she said to J, "Vanya!" which nearly stopped my heart. They really recognized each other. J might not have known Dusya, but he knew Marusya's face through all its changes.

She told us that her husband was very ill and senile, and that he wandered around at night and wrecked things—Alzheimer's, it sounded like. Then she invited us in, saying in factual apology—without shame—that she'd given up housekeeping since her husband's rampages made it futile. Her house was small, low-ceilinged, settling and crookedy. A few chickens strutted around the dingy courtyard. Through a doorway we could see her husband lying emaciated on a bed, staring out a window in empty-eyed misery. Marusya told us her son and his wife are both doctors, but they haven't been paid for months and get help from her and her husband, whose pension at least still comes regularly . . . about ten dollars a month!

Terrible as her situation is, I was prevented from feeling too sorry for Marusya by her absolute lack of self-pity, her hard vitality, and in spite of everything, merriment. She joked and laughed a lot. She has a strong voice and an almost aggressive quality, as if the only way to keep such a life from flattening you is to push back harder.

We said we'd come back, and drove through some more ruts to Dusya's. Dusya came out, also pushy and merry, and demanded good-humoredly to know where we'd been all this time! We promised to come back the next day with the washing machine and left to drive back to Donetsk, J still marveling numbly at having found Marusya. The full force of their reunion hadn't hit him yet, however.

5/18 We decided to take a day off to rest, since we were both exhausted. We spent the

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day sleeping and reading. And then, that night, it really hit J. Although seeing Marusya had triggered it, it was a kindly lieutenant of the guards he was suddenly remembering. A lieutenant who had specially looked out for him, but had to hide it; who would say to him, when he left for work, "Look out, Vanyushka," but only when no one was listening. Remembering this kindness, J started to cry harder than he ever has. I cried too. He was exhausted, sore and drained afterwards. I tried to tell him that tears were good, that some of that long pent-up emotion has to be let out, but it really was a platitude. Not that it was bad for him to cry—it was natural and necessary—but it wasn't easy, and it didn't give him ease.

In the morning, when we had to go back to Rovenki, he was sick. He was overwhelmed with a wave of weakness, and didn't want to go. We got in Big Sasha's cab and went off to buy the washing machine. J was dopey and a little confused, as if in a trance, so weak that Big Sasha had to help him in and out of the cab. We stopped at Dusya's first and unloaded the washing machine and they invited us to dinner. Then we went to Marusya's and gave her a roll of over 400 hryvnias, about $80. We sat outside in the courtyard, and J actually conducted a conversation in Russian with Marusya, who was chattering away, full of memories. J understood and responded in his trancelike way, but mostly he just sat there smiling, abstracted and faraway.

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Back at Dusya's, outside in the courtyard they had made a very pretty table out of almost nothing. J was silent while everyone else laughed, ate and drank vodka. Halfway through dinner he needed to sleep so badly he almost keeled over. They showed us inside, and with Big

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Sasha's help we stumbled up a few stairs and lay down together on a bed. J was breathing rapidly, yawning a lot and clearing his throat. Was he having a heart attack, I wondered? A stroke? He fell asleep almost immediately and I just lay there and watched over him. After a while I figured out with some relief that what he had was a fever.

When he woke up, the Sashas got us into the car and we left. J was really ill, burning hot, alternately dozing off and asking if we were on Queens Boulevard—the way home from JFK airport—which I found piteous. He'd had enough and wanted so badly to be home that in his delirium he'd made it so.

Back at the hotel, we got J inside, and he got undressed and into a hot bath, and then he couldn't get out by himself. I had to climb in and help lift him. I was pretty sure he was just reacting physically to being clobbered emotionally—the hardest hit he's taken since Omar died. It was a direct penetration from now to then, too intense for his heart and mind to bear. I slept lightly, listening to his breathing. Around 4 A.M. it slowed down, and from then on he was fine.

A quote found in Olga Silverstein's The Courage to Raise Good Men should be illuminated over our doorway:

"She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them."
     -- Shakespeare, Othello

10/17/00 Third trip to the Donbas. This time, at Big Sasha's invitation, we stayed with his

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mother, Nina, in her second house, built with State loans during the Soviet era. None of the plumbing or electricity works quite right, but it's immaculately clean, physically and emotionally warm.

This trip is both less and more magical. J is beginning to take it more in his stride, to integrate it without the shocks of the first times. He can no longer speak Russian with Marusya (like some creature out of Mary Poppins that's forgotten its mystical origins); she rails and tugs at him and he just looks blank, unless Little Sasha translates. Since the winter is coming, the winter J remembers with such dread, we brought along down coats for Marusya and Dusya.

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The great find of this trip was Nina, another of the girls from Mine 28, whom we'd mistakenly thought dead. She was actually the one J's boss Sirienko suggested he marry: an elegant, delicate little creature with birdlike gestures and a mouthful of missing teeth. J could recognize her, too,

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and she remembered smuggling handfuls of semichki (sunflower seeds) and cornbread to the prisoners and hiding the fact from the desyatniks. On our second visit to Rovenki Nina invited us over for a meal in the rather nicer house she shares with a daughter. We all drank a lot of vodka at dinner, and Nina moaned with pity for the prisoners of 50 years ago, including her late husband, who was a prisoner of the Germans. The Nazis had occupied Ukraine and deported and enslaved many Ukrainians.

J did not get as thrown, this time, by seeing his old Donbas friends. Seeing Marusya last time broke the ice. He was very emotionally affected by Nina, but it wasn't a traumatic flashback. He seems to have made a path now between the past and the present that is firm and well trodden, not treacherous. As his experience there becomes less of a minefield for him, it becomes more real in another way to me. For the first time I can really grasp that he was a healthy young boy from a good family who was taken prisoner and made a slave laborer. It's come out of the realm of myth and into time.

I observe that Oregon now has more of an emotional grip on J than Rovenki. Maybe he is instinctively gravitating more towards the future, and giving something to the young, than to the past.

2/8/01 Hard to believe this will be our fourth visit to the Donbas in two years. But first, we went to a karate tournament in Ekaterinburg, Russia, in the Ural Mountains—where the last tsar was killed, where Boris Yeltsin was born—and where it was 35 degrees below zero when we got off the plane.

What it feels like: like being attacked with razors. It goes for you real quick. For the first few seconds it's kind of refreshing and exhilarating, radical and extreme. Electrifying. Empty. Blue. Then it starts to hurt. I can't believe J escaped in this weather. He couldn't have lived. Yet he claims it got this cold during his escape a couple of times. He said that when he stepped out of the plane and felt that -35_ air, "grrrrrrrr—it was like an old friend." (With friends like that, who needs enemies?)

2/14 It's about 3 A.M. the day we will drive to Rovenki. We slept so much of the day, just to stay warm by staying in bed while the gas was off (some kind of screwy kleptocratic rationing), that I couldn't sleep.

The two Sashas were waiting for us at the airport. The weather was remarkably warm—I'd guess in the mid'30s F—and they told us it was the first day without a heavy fog that might have diverted our flight.

Our welcome was warm but Big Sasha's mother's house was not, since the mayor of Donetsk has been rationing natural gas to three districts, for some incomprehensible rationale. The gas is only on 3 hours daily. Then in the middle of supper the lights went out and we were plunged into darkness, absolute for the first moments till our eyes adjusted. Then Nina and Sasha lit candles and a flashlight so we could see to eat. We lit our way to bed with candles and huddled under the covers in our clothes to keep warm. I woke in the middle of the night aware that my scalp was freezing. I finally lit the candle we used while the electricity was out, since there's no other bed lamp, and came back to this chronicle. I haven't slept all night.

(later) We're sitting in the car in the snow, waiting for the two Sashas to register our visas. J just reacted violently to the sight of an old rusted iron coal car outside Big Sasha's mine.

2/16 On Aeroflot on the way home. We never did go to Rovenki on Wednesday. It was snowing, and J and I relieved Big Sasha greatly by coming to the conclusion before he had to broach it to us that the roads would be impassable, maybe dangerous. Even if we'd made it all the way there on the highways without mishap, we would surely have gotten stuck on the back roads to the village. It was a relief to us too to decide not to go: it would've been one ordeal too many. We left money, pictures, and a down coat for Nina with the two Sashas to take out there once weather permitted.

J was acting strange, dazed. He insisted on going to McDonald's with a childish stubbornness that exasperated me. Then we went home to Big Sasha's and were expected by his mother to attend the 9th birthday party of her grandson Seryozha, Sasha's nephew. A long table was laid out, laden with salads and cold cuts. Forget it: J had to sleep. He was crashing, and I was the one who'd been insomniac all night. He fell into an abnormally deep sleep and only whimpered when I tried to rouse him. Then suddenly I put it all together. It was the coal car: seeing it had been another flashback for him. I saw how it physically jolted him—he recoiled, rocked back in his seat as if he'd fired a bazooka—but I didn't realize right away that it had torn a hole through time in his brain just the way seeing Marusya the first time did, and that he was similarly ill in the aftermath. He didn't have a fever this time, but he was in shock. He had insisted on going to McDonald's as an antidote to the coal car: he was grasping for some piece of America to pull himself to safety!

Once he woke up and acknowledged this, he was better—hit by it consciously instead of unconsciously. He grappled with it for the rest of the night, but face to face. It's those confrontations that he goes there for—it doesn't have to be with a person, it could be with an inanimate object, like that old rusty coal car he used to be so intimate with, putting his back against it to tip it over. Even though they are very hard on him, they also lance the abscess of traumatic memory and let it drain and air.

Listening to the BBC World News in our Moscow hotel room last night—earthquake in El Salvador, mothers of seven homeless; war and AIDS in Africa; terrorism and retaliation in Israel; freezing refugees in Afghanistan—you realize how exceptionally blessed middle-class life in the U.S. is. If that's the refuge McDonald's inarticulately symbolized to J, more power to him.