A few miles outside of Kolomyya, Ivano-Frankivs’k Oblast, western Ukraine.
The sound of scraping hoes fills the land, scratching the black soil searching for weeds, stones, and other foreign objects to remove from the lines of crops, as they piston up and down in a rhythm known only to their owners. Horses pull plows, occasionally neighing their displeasure, kicking up tufts of dust over the land or stomping at the biting flies which nick at their ankles.
Crows come from roosts high in elm trees which dot the rolling landscape, where the villages lie, to see if the new gashes in the ground offer anything for sustenance. It is a land of plenty. It is a land often plundered.
The soft sounds are punctured by the thunder of modern fighter jets which rumble off in the distance as if a storm is just over the horizon. This is the first time I have heard them in a dozen springs. It is a new air force base I am told. Perhaps one day there will be flights from Munich to a place closer to my wife’s family farm because of the runways now used as an air force base. That would be a positive development.
In these parts these things happen without much warning. This new juxtaposition between the modern and ancient is not lost on the visitor, for the locals it is just another period of unrest in a history of it. Perhaps they do not hear the jets as they fly in the deep blue sky.
Ukrainian hands hold the handles of the hoes, hands old enough to remember the deep droning of diving Stukas from Operation Barbarossa three quarters of a century ago. Two decades before that, it was the growl of early model armored cars as Red Bolsheviks fought White Mensheviks for control of the Soviet Union.
The Czar’s hussars were before them, the Sultan’s Janissaries before that, Hungarian, Romanian and Poles all had a turn even earlier. And now the Russians are back at it again in the east of Europe’s largest country, though 500 kilometers away, but there will be little warning if things get hotter here in the west. It is this country’s history. All they want is a Ukraine for Ukrainians.
At the end of the school year, always on the last Friday in May, each school has a large celebration on campus, perhaps not unlike many schools in many places. Here it takes on a different hue. These graduates are the country’s last and only hope.
There are no seats to stand up from, everybody tolerates the hour of speeches with no complaint. The speeches recognize the work of the pupils, teachers, and administration. Everyone knows there is much to be done. My niece is one of the students. She was the most awarded in the oblast (state) for her Ukrainian, English, and German language skills. Might she and her classmates change the country and the world?
The national anthem is played. Everyone in attendance knows all of the words and belts them out proudly. Perhaps they might hear them in the capital, Kyiv, and make the changes this country so desperately needs. They might be heard in the Kremlin, where the screws will be tightened again, the little “Ukrainian Brothers” shown once again who the bosses are, as they have always been, and hope from a Russian perspective remain to be.
Priests now do their thing. They chant in the Orthodox tradition, half-singing, half-praying. As if choreographed, the crowd crosses themselves ending on the heart, again in the Orthodox tradition.
Many of the young students say that maybe this country has too many traditions to make the changes needed, perhaps they will just emigrate to the EU. Another tradition. My wife and I are trying to get our niece into Germany to study and stay. Let somebody else fix Ukraine’s problems; we want what is best for our family.