Leaving the Square: stories from Ukraine

Vira walks on unsteady legs through the streets of Sambir. From time to time, she talks to herself as she takes short steps to dodge the hazards on pavements covered with ice and snow. It is January and the temperature has dipped below minus 20. The morning breeze slashes the lips and one can barely take one’s gloves off. On reaching us, Vira looks up and smiles faintly. Vera in Russian, her name means “faith”, though she is not a believer. She is embroiled in a lawsuit against the Ukrainian state, from which she is demanding the pension of her late father, the local boss of the NKVD, the KGB’s precursor. She rejects the pension that corresponds to her as a former civil servant in one of the dusty military institutions from the previous era, though at almost one hundred euros a month, it is not an insignificant sum amidst the country’s crisis and with a devalued hryvnia, Ukraine’s currency. She says she has been deceived by the state. Such mistrust of the state is common; historically, it has worked in favour of the ruling classes, people like Vira’s father.

Belonging to the NKVD brought respect based on terror, but also status and privileges. As in Orwell’s Animal Farm, in the new Soviet society, everyone was equal, but some more than others. Vira is one of those people whose situation became virtually frozen, like Sambir’s pipes these days, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Her gas and electricity have been cut off after she stopped paying the bills.