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Coming Straight from the Soul — interview with Varvara Yushchenko, ex-premier Viktor Yushchenko’s mother
Everyone in the village of Khoruzhivka, which is in the Oblast of Sumy, knows Varvara Yushchenko who lives in a house surrounded by a fence with a green gate. There is a welcoming smell of cooking potatoes and borsch that greets when you enter this cozy nook of a house. Mrs Yushchenko treats her two sons, Viktor, the former prime minister and now an MP, and Petro, a businessman and also an MP, who once in a while come from Kyiv to visit with her. One of the walls is adorned with photographs of smiling grandchildren; one of the windowsills is lined up with house plants — begonias, roses and lilies. “Look at this one,” the hostess says, pointing to a flower. “It’s just come into bloom to greet you.”
She leads the way into the room with a portrait of Shevchenko on the wall. “It was on my husband’s sixtieth birthday that our children gave us this portrait. Of all the portraits of Taras that I’ve seen this one I like best. He looks so handsome and not at all old like he does in many others.”
Mrs Yushchenko who used to teach mathematics at the local school for many years, regards Shevchenko as the greatest teacher of all. “My God, my God, what a tragic fate this man suffered! And why? Because he loved Ukraine so much, it was so dear to his heart. At times, I get too busy with home chores and my thoughts are about all kinds of mundane things but then I look up and look at this portrait, into Shevchenko’s eyes — and my soul is all atremble!”
Mrs Yushchenko, 84, is active and sprightly for her age. She keeps a goat, chickens and a couple of doves. “I used to have six of them,” she says, “but only two are left. A hawk must have stolen the others.” Her sons keep insisting she moves closer to them to the capital but she refuses to leave her village: “It’s my paradise here, and I will never leave it for any other place.”
You devoted a major portion of your life to teaching, didn’t you?
Over forty years. Forty years of my life with the schoolchildren. Two years before the war (Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 — tr.), and the rest of my teaching career unfolded after the war. What a joy it was to have the school reopened after the war! The Germans retreated sometime in early September 1943, and on the 19th of that month, Oksana, another teacher and my childhood friend and neighbour, came running to my place, shouting: “Varvara! They’re opening the school tomorrow!” I looked up in disbelief at her — I was digging up beets, it was the harvest time, you know, and said: “Oksana, you must be kidding!” But she was dead serious. It was so hard to believe that life was getting back to normal.
But were there enough teachers and students to start school, so shortly after the Germans’ retreat? The war was still going on, wasn’t it?
Oh yes, there were! All those who had survived wanted to teach and study so much! When it was announced that we start school on the 20th, the good news spread so fast by word of mouth — there was no radio or TV, you know. There were hundreds of kids who turned up eager to study. Incidentally, these days there are only about 150 children studying at our local school…
What motivated you to become a teacher in the first place? Were there any teachers in your family?
No, there were not. It’s an interesting story, my becoming a teacher that is. I graduated from a secondary school in Nedryhaylivka back in 1939 but I was not issued a graduation certificate. The local education authority decided that 14 young graduates, who had been selected for whatever merits, were to be sent to a teachers’ training college in Lebedyn. We were robbed of a chance to choose our own careers in life — such were the times. We were told: “You’ve got a secondary education, now you’ll study to be elementary school teachers.” And that’s it. Most of the boys were drafted into the army — the country was getting ready for war. It was a crash course for us — after just a few months of intensive studies and 28 exams teachers’ diplomas were issued to us so that we could start teaching in the fall. And in September we were at work, teaching.
I felt I did not have enough education and wanted to continue studies, and in 1940 I became a correspondence student of the Hlukhiv College, but I completed my studies only after the war, in 1952, when my elder son Petro was already a big boy. In fact, my husband Andriy graduated from the same college and at the same time I did.
Bride and wife
Did you meet Andriy when you were a student?
In fact, I had known him for a long time. We were classmates in school, and we were good friends, but before I tell you the story of Andriy, I have another story, and it’s quite a poignant one too. Strange things happen in life. Listen to this… In 1939, five of us, young teachers, were sent to work at a school in the village of Derkachivka. Among the other teachers there were some young men who were soon to be drafted into the army, seven of them, in fact, and five out of the seven single, not married! They had had some previous experience in teaching and they gave us all kinds of advice — how to handle an unruly class, how to explain things to the children, that kind of thing. They eased our way into teaching, and did it in a very nice way. They were young, handsome and cheerful. But it came time for them to leave for the army. On a Sunday, when I happened to be alone in the house I shared with three other teachers, I heard a knock on the door. I was just getting ready to sweep the shavings from the floor — wait, it needs an explanation. You see, the floor in the house was wooden, made of pine planks, not painted. If you scrubbed the planks and actually scraped them, they looked so nice, yellow and cheery, and we had done it the previous night but did not have time to clean up.
So, back to the knock — I answered the door, and one of the young male teachers walked in. He held an elongated book in his hands and I saw that he was nervous — his hands trembled. And I stood in front of him holding that broom. He stepped closer to me and suddenly blurted out: “Varvara, I’ve fallen in love with you, you know, let’s get married, please, right now. I’m leaving tonight. We’ll register our marriage and…”
I was so taken aback I was at a loss what to do or what to say. “Are you in your right mind?” I said. “It’s so unexpected. Besides, who will register our marriage? It’s Sunday, and the marriage registry office at the local council is closed!”
Then he showed me the book he was holding, saying that it was the register — he had picked it up at the council building without anybody being aware of it, and now he could enter our names into the register himself. “Nobody will know,” he insisted, “only you and me! I don’t want anything from you, it’s just something I would be able to hold on, a hope.” He kept pleading and his insistence made me actually cry. I told him to stop it and get out of my house. But he would not leave, saying that all of my friends were already married. To which I retorted that it did not mean anything to me and I intended to remain single. Then it was his turn to burst into tears and he left. And I kept crying for the rest of the day.
Did you ever see him again?
No, but it’s not the end of the story. Two or three days later, I received a letter from him, the next day — another letter. And then again. He was writing about many things, very convincingly and eloquently. He enhanced his letters with drawings — he definitely had a talent for drawing. Practically every day there was a letter from him! He was sent to Moscow where he was attached to some army headquarters. I began writing back. His letters were like those an elder brother or father might write. He wrote about life values, about good and evil, about true love, he gave advice, said clever things about teaching, insisted I keep studying, gave me all kinds of moral support. When several days passed without a letter from him, I began worrying. All through the year 1939 he kept regularly writing, and when in 1940 he was sent to Central Asia, he did not stop writing either. Then the war broke out but his letters kept coming from the front. The last letter came in August 1943.
And on October 14 — I remember the date because it was right before the religious feast of Pokrova (the Intercession of the Holy Virgin — tr.), I had a dream in which I saw a huge cross that shone like a moon with something white, like a bed-sheet, at the foot of it. It reminded me of a grave. When I woke up in the night, the first thought that came to my mind was: He’s no longer among the living. But later I thought it could have been a sign that either my brother or any of my many male relatives who were at the front had been killed.
His letters stopped coming. It was only in 1956, when the Commemorative Books which were published then and which contained the names of those killed in action. I looked him up in the lists and found his name and the date when he was killed — October 14, right before Pokrova, 1943. What do you say to that? Wasn’t it a prophetic dream?
His last letter was a long one, but I remembered the following words particularly well: “You should know this — we, the two of us, live on this earth for each other, and if God lets us survive this war, we will love each other for the rest of our lives, we’ll have sons and we’ll raise them in good spirit.” So it turned out that it was he who had been sustaining my hope for the better all those years, rather than the other way round. I believed in him, his letters became so important for me, I was waiting for him until the end of the war.
And how does Andriy come into this story?
When in August 1945 he came to the village from the front — he was one of the first to come back — I told him my woeful story. “You know, Andriy,” I told him, “these years of war were so hard on all of us. The Germans brought so much suffering, and the only thing that sustained me, the only comfort, was the letters from my sweetheart. He became the dearest person on earth to me through his letters. I’ve been waiting for him to come back…” I never told this to any of my girl friends but for some reason I felt I could tell it to Andriy. Andriy was like a good elder brother for me, he had an empathic understanding of things. At first, it was this warm feeling and empathy between us, and then gradually it transformed into profound love. We got married on December 31, 1945. He had always been a neighbour — the house he lived in was a couple of hundred yards from my house, but in earlier years I never thought a day would come when we would become husband and wife.
Did you go to a maternity ward to give birth to your first son?
No, both my sons were born at home, and I did not take any pregnancy or after-birth leaves from work.
Is it true that it was your son Petro who talked you into having another child so that he would have a younger brother?
Yes, in a way (Mrs Yushchenko laughs saying this). Petro was about six or seven years old when one day he came running home, all in tears. You see, there was a family living practically next door to us, who had three children, and we had only one son. And when on that day Petro learnt that there was this third addition to the family, a son named Viktor, he positively demanded that we have a new baby too, “How come,” he wailed, “they have three kids, and I’m alone here! It’s not fair! Let’s go to the cabbage patch of our garden to look for a brother for me!” Petro must have been told that the new baby had been discovered among the cabbage heads. And he kept insisting that we be on the lookout for a baby boy.
Do you have your own principles of children’s upbringing?
I’m not sure you could call them clear-cut principles, but… They say that a lot depends on giving a good example to follow. Yes, it’s important of course but I do believe that there are certain things that babies imbibe with their mothers’ milk and that will, to some extent, determine their future life. Something that comes straight from the child’s parents’ souls. In our life we lived through different periods, there were very difficult years on our way through life, but no matter what, we always lived in peace and in love. And our children saw it and absorbed it. Our son Viktor has always rewarded people good for evil. We did not have any particular upbringing plans for our children, we were just there for them. We made it clear to them that to work was good. They saw us work hard, they helped us with whatever they could. Our sons can do all kinds of chores and things in the household — they know how to work in the vegetable garden, how to mow grass or grain, how to tend beehives. Incidentally, Viktor is an excellent bee-keeper! My grandpa had an apiary, then my father looked after it, and still later it was Viktor who did the bee-keeping. I always lived around places where there was a lot of honey.
Does your son Viktor cherish his childhood memories?
He does! He keeps many of his childhood souvenirs, even his crib. Once, on his visit, he found a tiny old frame of a window that used to sit in the wall near our big peasant stove. He cleaned the frame, washed the glass and said that would install it into the wall of his summer house to look through it at the world the way he did in his childhood.
Do your grandchildren come on visits too?
Yes, sure they do. Sofiyka and Khrystynka, my youngest grandchildren, were on a visit to me here quite recently. They were so eager to see what it was that I was doing at the stove and they kept coming too close to have a better look. I was a bit worried lest they get hurt and I found a couple of old things like an old rubber hot-water bottle or a flashlight for them to play with. It’s such a fun to watch children play, it gives me so much joy.
Sofiyka was taught several songs at home and here she sang them, dancing to her own music, “Oh, you naughty girl/ you’ve deceived me / you’ve cheated on me!..” I told her parents, Wasn’t it a bit too early for a kid her age to sing such songs? but they just laughed and said that the tune was too good to be missed. Well, that’s life. I hope God will grant them joy and happiness.
Varvara Yushchenko is a very hospitable hostess and she will entertain her guests and treat them to goodies as long as the guests choose to stay but she acts in accordance with the saying, Welcome the coming and speed the parting guest.
Mykhaylyna Skoryk talked to Mrs Yushchenko