My Ukrainian Roots

My Ukrainian roots are currently traceable as far back as the late 1800’s. However, before I introduce you to my ancestors dating back 4 generations I want to tell you a brief history of Ukraine, which dates back 1,400 years.

As far as we know Slavic tribes occupied central and eastern Ukraine in the 6th century A.D. and played an important role in the establishment of Kiev, my hometown. Christian missionaries spread the Christian faith and the Cyrillic alphabet influencing Kiev’s leader at the time, Prince Volodymyr, to convert the population to Christianity in 988. In the 11th century, Kievan Rus (very prosperous era for Ukraine) was, geographically, the largest state in Europe, but internal conflict among its lords led to decline in the 12th century. To add to the devastation, Mongols raided Kiev repeatedly in the 13th century. By 14th century most of the Ukrainian territory was conquered by Poland and Lithuania. Ukrainian peasants who fled the Polish effort to force them into servitude are known as Cossacks, a very popular traditional Ukrainian style many are familiar with: loose-fitted clothing (tied at the waist), long moustache and shaved head with a long ponytail at the top. In 1667, Ukraine was again divided, this time between Poland and Russia. In 1793, when Poland became divided, Ukraine was mainly integrated into the Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) Empire in the west and the Russian Empire elsewhere. During this time also, writers and intellectuals tried to stir up the nationalistic spirit by trying to reestablish the Ukrainian state with linguistic and cultural traditions. One of those poets and artists is the famous Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861). Imperial Russia, however, imposed strict limits on attempts to elevate Ukrainian culture, even banning the use and study of the Ukrainian language.

Somewhere around this time (late 1800s, early 1900s) my great-great-grandparents were born. My paternal grandfather’s (Leontii Dudenko) mothers’ (Anna Galina Mukha) parents were Arseniy Mukha and Antonina. Leontii’s father’s (Ivan Dudenko) parents were Kondrat Dudenko and Ganna Izubinko. My maternal grandmother’s (Svetlana Chemikos) mother’s (Nina Chuiko) parents were Ivan Lisenko and Alexandra (Shura) Lisenko. Unfortunately, almost no information is known to us about my great-great-grandparents’ childhood except what we can imagine according to the general history presented to us of that era.

During the earlier 1900s World War I and the Russian revolution shattered the Habsburg and Russian empires. Ukrainians declared independency, forming The Ukrainian People’s Republic. This independent state was very brief because the Soviet Red Army forced the Ukrainian Army out during Russia’s Civil War (1917-1922) led by Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin and Ukraine became incorporated into the Soviet Union, which ended up lasting almost 70 years. In 1924 Stalin came to power and created totalitarian terror. During this time millions of people were executed or exiled to Siberian labor camps.

Arseniy Mukha with his cow (For which he was arrested and labeled Kurkul’)

My great-great grandfather, Arseniy Mukha, fell victim to the Bolshevik raids of the Ukrainian villages during this period. The goal of the Bolshevik party was to create socialism/communism among society by forcefully taking personal belongings from people and dividing it equally among all peasants. Using such excuses and tactics the Bolsheviks were basically robbing people of goods and taking them elsewhere, some for personal use, but definitely not dividing anything equally. They destroyed tons of villages and many lives. Those refusing to give up personal property were called Kurkul’ (fist; penny pincher; cheapskate). Arseniy owned a cow which he was supposed to have reported and presented to the authorities. When a raid hit his village officials discovered the cow and arrested my great-great-grandfather, immediately forcing him to deport to Siberia for tough labor work as punishment. His wife, Antonina, had already been deceased, leaving Arseniy as the sole provider for his two young children, Anna Galina (my great-grandmother) and Musya. Arseniy said his goodbyes, suspecting he would never return and left his children who were under 12 years old to fend for themselves… Anna Galina would later retell the stories to her children of her extremely tough childhood, working any and every job she could just to survive and provide for her younger sister.

Arseniy Mukha with his Russian (second) family

Arseniy Mukha was never heard from again. Story has it that shortly after his arrival in a Siberian camp, Arseniy escaped and changed his name to Ivan Mukhin. Only years later did his abandoned children in Ukraine became aware that he had created a new family and a new life in Russia with his new wife, Maria, and three children, Nina, Vanya, and Gena. Interestingly enough, after such an intriguing discovery all siblings met and became extremely close, closer than most biological siblings.

Alexandra Lisenko (Great-great-grandmother; center), Nina Lisenko (Great-grandmother; left), Anya Lisenko (Great-aunt; right)

Meanwhile, my maternal great-great-grandparents met and were becoming close in south-central Siberia, area near Lake Baikal (not far from the Mongolian border and surrounded by mountains, forests, and wild rivers), hometown of my great-great grandmother. Ivan Lisenko traveled through this particular region likely while working for  Russia’s Trans Siberian Railway system. Soon after meeting Alexandra (Shura), Ivan married and whisked her away to Kiev. Alexandra and Ivan had six  children in total: Two kids who passed in very early years (likely due to illness), my great-grandmother Nina (1919), Anya (1922), Volodia (1927), and Tamara (1929). The Lisenkos lived a very decent life in Kiev: A nice home and an abundance of food for all members of the family. Ivan Lisenko was a member of the Communist Party as part of his career advancement to Chief of Kiev Railroads, providing a certain security for his family unable to be afforded by most living in the Soviet Union.

Dasha (Great-grandmother)
Anna Galina (Great-grandmother) with all five of her daughters

As I mentioned before, my paternal great-grandmother Anna Galina (1912) was an orphan, living in a Severinovka village, working odd jobs to survive. Great-grandfather Ivan Dudenko (1911) was living in a nearby village called Chernogorodka with his family, also experiencing a peasant’s life during these times of Civil War and Bolsheviks’ invasion. Little is known of my father’s mother’s parents’ history due to a lack of surviving family members and broken communication. We do know that my paternal mother’s mother was Dasha who married a Polish immigrant Jan Wojtkiewicz, my great-grandfather. Jan likely changed his name when he arrived to Kiev, having escaped Poland’s anti-Semitic vibe toward his Jewish heritage, as well as to avoid being drafted to the military. My great-grandfather left Poland an elite conductor/musician and arrived to Ukraine a fugitive shamed by his family for having left his “responsibilities” to serve his country.

Baba Anya (Great-aunt) with my sister Yuta
Grandmother, Svetlana Chemikos

Under Joseph Stalin’s leadership the Soviet Ukraine also experienced Holodomor or Famine-Genocide (1932-1933) intended to murder the Ukrainian population by man-made starvation. Some believe that the famine was planned by Joseph Stalin to eliminate a Ukrainian independence movement. Soviet officials confiscated all household food and rejected outside aid, causing 7-10 million people to perish within months. Cities and roads were littered with the corpses of those who left their villages in search of food. There were even widespread reports of cannibalism. My great-aunt, on my mother’s side, Anya (Lisenko) used to tell my younger sister and I bedtime stories about her Holodomor and WWII experiences. As a 10 year old child, she recalls scraping tiny bits of grain from shelves and attempting to make a meal out of anything possible, rationing her food into a few bites per day, hungry rats crawling at her feet during nighttime. I used to love listening to Baba Anya’s (granny Anya, as we called her) childhood stories about everyday struggles during Stalinist Era. She made them sound like eerie thrillers, instigating more curiosity within me. Only as of recently when I began researching the detailed history of Ukraine did I realize the significance of Baba Anya’s tales.

Karyl’s’ke Village (today)
Monument in honor of the Soviet soldiers who died during the liberation of the Karyl’s’ke village from the Nazi invaders

During World War II (1939-1945) Kiev again was heavily damaged. 200,000 people were killed and 100,000 were sent to Germany for forced labor. My grandparents, from mother’s and father’s sides, were all born around this time. Their stories of childhood during wartime are horrific. Everyone lived in extreme poverty and food remained scarce. In many cases Nazis ended up feeding Ukrainian people during their occupation in exchange for room and board. The Soviet Army, on the other hand, ended up murdering tons of their own with careless war tactics intended against the enemy. Great-great-grandfather, Ivan Lisenko, evacuated his wife (Alexandra) and kids (Nina, Anya, Volodya, and Tamara) to the Karyl’s’ke village (Chernihivs’ka Region), 255 km away from Kiev, seeking shelter from German invasion. His ties to the Communist Party almost guaranteed exposure by neighbors and execution by the Nazis had they raided their home. The year was 1941 and my great-grandmother Nina already had a 4 year old child (Svetlana Chemikos, 1937). Baba Sveta (as we call her) remembers carrying food supplies in her little apron, provided by German soldiers. She said that had it not been for the Germans who occupied the Karyl’s’ke village her family and other villagers would have starved. The Soviets were less concerned about feeding their people as they were about forcing the Germans out of the territory. Baba Anya’s tearful account of her siblings, Volodya and Tamara, being bombed by the Soviet Air Forces in front of her eyes was very heartbreaking to hear. Forty innocent civilians were killed that day as they stood in line to collect honey from the German soldiers. She told the story, shook her head in disappointment and muttered that that was how they lived.

Leontii Dudenko (Grandfather; 1946)

My paternal grandfather (Leontii Dudenko, born in 1936) and grandmother (Svetlana Dudenko, born in 1939) had also come into existence at the brink of WWII. Ded Leontii (grandpa Leontii) says looking at his ribs and skinny-starved frame in the mirror reflection is a clear memory in his head to this day. The village (Chernogorodka) he resided in with his parents also endured bombings, shooting, food shortage, and hostage captivity by the Nazis. One day, in search for food, Leontii and his father, Ivan, journeyed to a neighboring village through the forest. Encountering Nazi soldiers, they were escorted, rifle tips shoved in their backs to a nearby abandoned school where a group of Soviet partisan prisoners were already awaiting their deadly fate. The Nazis called Leonti a “little partisan” and his father whispered, “Nahm kapetz” (basically meaning that we are in big trouble and this is the end for us). They were forced to scrub the school spotless before being released, but only after being identified and verified as ‘innocent civilians’ by other locals.

Leontii Dudenko (Grandfather; 5th grade)

Kiev was liberated on November 6,1943, by Soviet troops. However, the post war years in Kiev were marked by intensive restoration of the damage caused during the war and a new kind of waves of Stalinist terror. Ded Leontii tells me that in 1947 Ukraine experienced a second type of Holodomor (man-made famine) where again food was very scarce (rationed by coupons) and more purges, executions, and mass exiles to Siberia took place. The worst features of the Stalinist police state began to dissipate during Nikita Khrushchev’s (1953-1964) and Leonid Brezhnev’s (1964-1982) leadership. As the new leader of the Soviet Union, Brezhnev’s conservatism and carefulness resulted in sustained political stability within the country. However, his hostility towards reform and active cultivation generated a period of corruption and socioeconomic decline.

Svetlana Dudenko (Grandmother) with my dad, Vyacheslav Dudenko
My mother Marina Chemikos

Both of my parents were born during this era. My father, Vyacheslav Dudenko, was born in 1961 to Svetlana and Leontii Dudenko. My mother, Marina Chemikos, was born in 1963 to Svetlana and Leonid Chernomaz (her biological father, later being legally adopted by her step-father and adopting his last name). My maternal grandmother, Svetlana, already had two children, Irina (age 8) and Marina (almost age 1), by the time she met Anatolii Chemikos in 1963. She was working as a teller for the Ukrainian Railways and Anatolii was a frequent visitor to the station, purchasing tickets for the military, as part of young soldier duty. They flirted and immediately fell in love, marrying months after their first encounter. With Irina and Marina in tow, Svetlana and Anatolii Chemikos began a new life together, completing their family with a baby girl Anastasia Chemikos in 1967.

“The current generation of Soviet people will live under communism” was the final phrase at the Communist Party of the Soviet Union congress in 1961, promising that communism will be built fully by 1980. Such is the aura that enveloped Kiev and all of Soviet Union for these first 20 years of my parents’ lives. “Russification” was the main objection, a process during which non-Russian communities, voluntarily or not, give up their culture and language in favor of the Russian one. Literature was repressed, no one was allowed to travel abroad to the forbidden capitalist world, consumer goods were in deficit, “breadlines” (name adopted for lines of any type goods) stretched around blocks. My mother recalls sewing and re-sewing clothes just to have options other than one outfit. Some people took risks by traveling to nearby European countries and smuggling clothing back across borderlines. Those who had “connections” negotiated and traded goods and services on the hush. My maternal grandmother often provided hard-to-come-by railway tickets to customers who would in return bring her fruits, chocolates, and meats unavailable to the masses. The country’s military and urban population volunteered, or was volunteered, to lend a hand in harvesting and storing kolkhoz (farm) crops and do community work. School kids were forced to wear uniforms with the Komsomol (youth division of the Communist Party) star of Lenin and the red scarf (pionerskiy galstuk) of Young Pioneers of Soviet Union. The Soviet economy continued to falter and encouraged the black market and corruption in the Communist Party. Vodka, however, remained readily available, and alcoholism was an important factor in both the declining life expectancy and the rising infant mortality rate. This type of stagnant life was simply accepted and when Brezhnev died in 1982, the next leader attempted to reform the system by relaxing controls, completely collapsing the economy as a result. My mother gave birth to me six months before the end of the Brezhnev Era…

2 thoughts on “My Ukrainian Roots

    1. Thank you Volodya! Writing this article was so incredible. I had to interview all my grandparents and relatives whom I had access to. It was emotional in a good way 🙂 Would love to read yours.

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