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Tuning the бандура
Tuning the бандура
...to Vlada, who pushed me to write this, and, despite my relative safety, insisted on claiming me as Ukrainian.
...to Jai, and all the indigenous teachers in my life who keep showing me that uprooting colonialism comes from the inside out.
...to Yevhenii, who opened my eyes and heart to the complex histories of Ukraine.
...to the land I live on, and the ancestors of this land.
...to my Lemko-Ukrainian ancestors, who keep loudly calling me home.
Early 1990’s. Філадельфія. Occupied land of Lenni-Lenape peoples, red maple, fireflies...
I’m in my childhood home among these gatherings of Jews who recently left Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine...
Various lands disentangling from Russia, yet its language still echoes in their mouths.
I hear some of their children call my father “дядя,” and for the first time, I learn about chosen family.
Горілка in the punch bowl. Older Ukrainian women belt songs around the piano. Their unhindered confidence leaves a mark on me. Folding poppy seeds into triangles of dough, I learn for the first time about armed resistance to genocide.
2020. Бокстон, Орегон. Occupied land of Kalapuya, Siletz, and Atfalati peoples, huckleberry, northern spotted owl…
Pandemic winter in a forest of moss and ferns.
Shabbat candles lit, phones off, walking the foggy trails.
Havdalah candles lit, phones back on, the new week begins. Voices resonate through shared walls, as we overhear each other's video calls: meetings with prison abolitionist groups; another work training; my weekly hour-long calls with Oryst in Ukraine. His laughter at my mispronunciations of words.
Yahrzeit candles lit by the window, we feed our beloved dead.
An intimate gathering of trans anti-zionist Jews, huddling under the shelter of cedar branches. On this holiday meant for honoring trees, we lament the uprooting of olive trees in Palestine. Through masked mouths, we say, “Not in our name.”
Melted snow. End of lease. Packing up our altars again. The Jewish tradition of constant uprooting.
Summer 2022. Польща.
Hundreds of bottles of herbal medicines, packed into boxes like bodies on a crowded train. Herbs to help with sleep, with stress, with pain. Глід, шлемника, валеріана, троянда, лаванда… familiar plant friends in this unfamiliar place.
We carry the boxes down flights of stairs, unload them from the van, and stack them by the table at the evacuation point near the border of Ukraine.
Hours pass, the small bottles are passed, into the hands of hundreds of evacuees. Prayers that these herbs might lighten the heaviness of their travels.
Dusk arrives, these medicine boxes a little lighter now. We carry them back up the stairs to be refilled. In Lublin, then in Warsaw: Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
The Ukrainian tradition of constant uprooting.
Early 2000’s. Тусон, Арізона. Occupied land of O’odham peoples, saguaro cactus, horned lizard…
We arrive at the community center with our рюкзаки packed for the week, and catch a ride to the border with a silver-haired immigration activist named Glenn. With my high school best friend in the back seat, we lean forward, listening to her stories. As she drives us through the dusty roads of the Sonoran desert, her words uncover the hidden histories of these terrains. Hearing her recount the Apache wars of the 1800s, I once again learn about armed resistance to genocide.
Dawn rises, the sun already screaming like a baby torn from his mother. We head out on the rocky trails, рюкзаки full of medicine in case we meet an injured traveler. In each hand, we carry heavy jugs to hide under desert shrubs. Water in the desert.
With markers we write notes on packs of socks for the migrating families we hope will find them. They walk through the night to avoid getting caught and caged. Glenn scribbles “Agua Pura! Biendiciones!” on the water jugs while we set snack bars on the rocks beside them. Prayers that this nourishment might lessen the deadliness of their travels.
Dusk arrives, the weight in our packs a little lighter now. Heading back to camp, we discover that some of the jugs we left out earlier have been slashed with knives and emptied by Border Control agents.
We later stumble on a pile of dried-out bones laying across the sand. For a moment we aren't sure if they're the bones of a human child, like the other bones this group found earlier this month.
The genocides never ended. Blood in the desert.
Early 1990’s. Філадельфія.
My dad switches back and forth between two forms: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
“Dr. Jekyll dad” lights up on one of our trips to the Ukrainian deli on Bustleton Avenue, when I show him how I can read the tiny candy wrappers now. Despite overhearing Ukrainian as a child, the language never stuck to him. Elated, he squeezes my small hands.
One day, “Dr. Jekyll dad” brings home a бандура for me. A family heirloom, gifted to him by one of his friends from Ukraine. Beaming, he tells me the importance of this instrument to our ancestors. After a generation of assimilation, I’m a spark of hope for repairing the broken link.
I touch the ornate patterns around the edges, smell the wood. I wrap my arms around its large body like an embrace, pluck its deep strings, feel them reverberate through me. Despite the intimidating number of strings, something about this instrument feels like home.
I don’t want to talk about “Mr. Hyde.”
January 2022. Тусон, Арізона.
The only Ukrainian deli in town, run by Olga The Matriarch.
My obvious queerness creates no border between us.
"I might not live in Ukraine this summer anymore, if this looming invasion happens,” I say. She looks at me intently.
"It's definitely not going to happen," she says. "There's nothing to worry about," she says.
“Hадеюсь,” I say.
Early 1990’s. Філадельфія.
I write secret notes using the Cyrillic alphabet to Svitlana and Ulyana after Shabbat service. Their childhoods recently uprooted from Ukraine, we reach for each other's languages.
I have different secrets now. I exchange them with Oryst, almost telepathically. He lives in Dnipro, Ukraine, 9 hours in the future. My mornings, his evenings.
We first bonded as two fags with shared interests in weird music, revolutionary histories, language learning… seeming to never run out of things to talk about. We met by happenstance but immediately recognized each other, in that mysterious way that shrivels skepticism around the possibility of past lives. Our physical distance helped override our inhibitions, making it easier to expose our raw, unfiltered confessions over rambling voice memos.
During the pandemic lockdowns, we became each other's confidants, talking every day. Sometimes in Russian, sometimes in English, often for hours.
Invisible tendrils stretch across oceans.
Oryst doesn’t want to speak in Russian anymore. I understand.
Early 1990’s. Філадельфія.
My uncle, once fluent in Russian, tells me about his first trip to Russia. He holds back details from my innocent ears, says they'd cause nightmares. Multiple days of interrogation and detainment, that’s all I know. A trauma which rinsed the Russian out of his mouth. He never spoke the language again after that.
This uncle, the carrier of our ancestral stories. Passing down his obsession, he invents little games to imprint me with the details of their lives.
That same uncle tells me it was a disgrace that I showed up to my grandmother’s funeral “dressed in drag.” He says he doesn’t understand why I stopped talking to my father so long ago. He says a lot of things. We never spoke again after that.
I have a big queer chosen family now, and it reaches to Ukraine. Oryst says he feels like we are brothers.
Faggot friends between revolutions. Five of us cackling around the kitchen table. Our bodies so at ease together, they collapse into a woven tangle of contact:
His arm of bracelets wrapped around their black lace shoulder. Their leg of fishnet tights propped up on his thigh of short-shorts. His turquoise nails rested on her head of curls in my lap.
Suddenly our cackling takes a strange turn. Everyone starts to make jokes about gulags. I’m not laughing. I ask questions. These are smart people who I trust, involved in labor union organizing, international solidarity, liberation movements, etc.
They explain that the bad things we hear about the USSR are just U.S. propaganda. That the only people sent to gulags were oppressive capitalists who refused to give up their wealth and control. That those orchestrated, genocidal famines were actually just a result of foreign sanctions. That it was only rich people and conservatives who didn't like the USSR.
I’m perplexed. The people I grew up around who fled the USSR were poor and working class. Still, I question what I know. I question what my family told me when I was growing up. My family is religious, zionist, right wing… I don’t trust their perspectives on practically anything else... Can I trust what they said about the USSR?
Questioning my reality: this is something I was trained to do. For a moment I’m silent and confused. I soon regret this.
February 24th, 2022.
2:58am, Dnipro time. 5:58pm, Tucson time.
Oryst: they might invade from the north. god I am freaking out. i’m in full panic mode.
Me: i wish i could hug you. you can call me if you want to talk. like you said, i’m much farther from it than anyone else you know.
Oryst: ok i will call you. that will probably help me. <3
4:49am, Dnipro time. 7:49pm, Tucson time.
Me: sorry i got disconnected. the internet isn’t reaching my trailer.
Oryst: it’s ok. thanks for talking. <3
4:51am Dnipro, 7:51pm, Tucson. (2 minutes later.)
Oryst: i’m shaking. russia has declared a “military operation” against ukraine. there are explosions in dnipro.
thank you so much for all the support. <3
right now we are leaving our apartment to go to Ada’s grandmother’s basement. we will try to get out of the country if it’s possible. they’ve invaded from all sides. there are bombings in western cities. nowhere seems to be safe. i feel trapped. the hours feel like weeks.
7:29pm, Dnipro time. 10:29am, Tucson time.
Me: fuck. i just woke up. i tried to call you. ...
Oryst: (Sends a series of videos of running to a bomb shelter with Ada.) i love you. and i just wanna say. we’re going to win! and you will come to ukraine this summer. and we will have a great time. thank you for being my support right now. Добранiч <3
February to April, 2022. Тусон.
Less than 24 hours in, and the profound alienation is already setting in. I can barely eat or sleep. I check for updates around the clock. Everyone around me is confused. No one relates to what I’m going through. There’s a gulf of silence when I try to talk about it. The silence is deafening.
I rapidly lose respect for dozens of activists I formerly admired, all across this continent. For the most part, when people in these extensive “radical” communities actually do talk about Ukraine, it’s only one of two things:
1. They parrot Russian propaganda’s bullshit excuses for the invasion.
2. They exclusively criticize the mainstream media’s double standards about covering Ukraine, with no mention of how absent the coverage has been for the past twenty years about Russia’s invasions of Georgia,
Moldova, Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk… which emboldened Russia to take it to this point.
In either case, they include zero criticisms of Russia, and zero empathy for Ukrainians. Masks fall from faces, revealing those who care more about virtue signaling or edgy aesthetics, than leading with a basic compassion for humanity. What happened to our values around self-determination, anti-colonialism, or defense against fascism?
I lose grip on knowing who is safe anymore. Questioning who is safe: this is something I was trained to do.
I find ways to channel my panic and rage. I organize fundraisers for my friends to escape Dnipro, or to acquire weapons to defend Kyiv. I work day and night to counter the rampant disinformation and conspiracies plaguing my community around this war, which silence or ignore Ukrainian voices. I record and publish audio interviews, compile resource lists, create infographics.
I engage in countless difficult conversations, including heated arguments with some of my closest friends. Some of the queers who I had considered “chosen family” now actively spread the lies of this fascist empire genociding my people. We don’t talk right now: a familiar familial experience.
In the midst of all this alienation, I decide to search for anyone in my local sphere who might want to collaborate. I write to huge networks of Tucson activists, forums of hundreds of people.
Aside from getting harassed by pro-Russian communists, the main response comes from two people whose Polish grandparents fled Russian terror. Despite our slim numbers, we get busy. We hang posters, print and distribute zines, promote events, hand out flyers on the street, drop banners over the highway.
April heat waves send me back to so-called Oregon, where I continue this work by teaming up with an old friend there who is first-generation Estonian. They’re the only person I know on all of Turtle Island who shares my deep rage towards Russian imperialism, in a way where it’s personal for them, and hits so close to home.
Talking with them is like a drink of water in the desert.
February 27th, 2022.
I still don’t know a single other person on this continent who knows anyone living in Ukraine. In my sleepless grief and constant fear, I feel entirely alone.
I find myself weighing the trauma of this invasion next to the trauma of my childhood. After debating it for a while, I decide to reach out to my estranged father who I haven’t talked to in over a decade.
I’m searching for water in the desert. At this point it doesn’t matter how clean or dirty the water is.
He answers the phone, says he’s at the birthday party of a Georgian family, and they just made a toast to Ukraine. Grief swelling up in his community, they still find ways to celebrate. He speaks of loved ones in Odesa and Kyiv who are escaping to Romania now. Names I remember from childhood, I see their faces in my mind, standing in lines at the border.
He brings up the lies of the Russian media, saying, “It reminds me of when I was a teenager and would listen to radio Moscow on short wave. Also all lies!”
He talks about how there are no gay rights in Russia, and how bad it will be for trans people if Russia occupies Ukraine. I’m shocked...
My transphobic, anti-gay, estranged father understands this and is concerned about it? But not my queer activist communities at home? What is this new inverted reality I’m living in? I usually disagree with my dad about practically everything... Now I agree with him, while disagreeing with most of my friends?
I remember the message I got the day prior from David, an artist in Kyiv: “I will probably join the territorial defenses instead of the anarchist detachment tomorrow. It’s more convenient for me. Now a lot of feminists, gays, queers, Jews, Muslims, people of all political views are joining the Ukrainian army.” A uniting force is blooming around defending Ukraine. Like the Apache wars, like the Jews in the Achaemenid empire, like in Palestine today, this is the people’s armed resistance to genocide.
In the coming weeks, I continue to keep in touch with my estranged father. He sends me videos from a “Solidarity with Ukraine” interfaith prayer rally in Philly, where he was invited to give a speech.
He reminds me that he still has that бандура for me in his attic. I see it in my mind: the strings warping out of tune, the bridge gathering dust, the hole of the soundboard yawning like a mouth. He invites me over to come get it, to bring it back to life.
I realize I’m still afraid to enter his house.
July 15th, 2022. Варшава, Польща.
I don’t speak any Polish. I’m supposed to be going to language school in Ukraine. I’m supposed to be with Oryst. I had changed my ticket from Kyiv to Warsaw, hoping that by summer, it might be safe enough to take the train to Ukraine from there.
Instead, today, Oryst tells me that a missile just landed very close to his house in Dnipro again. Almost five months of knowing he could get killed by Russians in any moment. I’m getting used to hearing air raid sirens in the background of his voice messages.
I go to an event at the Ukrainian cultural center in Warsaw. I have plans to finally meet with this group of queer anti-colonial activists from Ukraine who I’ve been corresponding with for months.
One of them also has family in Dnipro. When I greet her, she’s shaken up by the news of the recent attacks there. Her mother watches missiles fly from her window. We hug and I start sobbing. This is the first time I’m relating with someone who understands the visceral panic of this ongoing nightmare.
The next morning I rush out to meet them at a protest at the Russian embassy, thinking only a dozen of us will be there. I’m wrong. There are thousands, flooding the streets.
Monsoon in the desert.
July 23rd, 2022. Лемківщина.
I’m near the village where many of my Lemko-Ukrainian relatives are buried. After debating it for a while, I finally reach out to my uncle, the one who carries our family stories. We talk for the first time since my grandmother's funeral, over a decade ago. He tells me he's proud of me.
On the first night of the Lemko gathering, a folk choir performs a memorial concert dedicated to Ukraine. Finally, in this space, I’m able to let out some of the tears I’ve been holding back for months.
The next morning, there’s a commemoration of Оперaція Вісла, the forced resettlement of Lemko and Boyko Ukrainians by Soviet authorities. I end up in a conversation with two brothers whose grandparents were deported by this operation. One of them looks at me sharply and says, “Back then, 150,000 Ukrainians were forced to leave their homes because of Moscow. Now today, 7 million Ukrainians are forced to leave their homes, again because of Moscow.”
We stand together in silence for a moment. The silence is interrupted by a woman plucking a бандура on the stage.
The sound of raindrops in the desert.
Listening to the бандура, I think about the Jewish diaspora. No matter where we are in the world, we keep singing our songs. Tyrants across centuries have displaced us from our homes and taken our lives, but they can never take away our songs. To carry these songs forward is an act of resistance. For Ukrainians, this is also the story.
1870’s to 1930’s. Галичина, Україна.
Friday after sunset. Marúsya digs the бандура out from under the floorboards. Despite the ban of this instrument as part of Russia’s attempt to bury Ukrainian culture, Marúsya’s family has successfully kept the outlawed heirloom from sight. Although her uncle’s eyes were gouged by Tsarist authorities for plucking these forbidden strings, the instrument’s hidden body remains unscathed.
A family of sheep look at Marúsya strangely as she carries the bulky instrument across the pasture to her neighbor’s house. She hears their voices sing in Yiddish through the door, and they welcome her in with warmth. After rekindling the fire in their oven, she begins to play.
Decades pass. Marúsya’s grandchild, Kvitka, carries the instrument to the back room of the village shul. The Jewish battalion of the Ukrainian Galician Army is gathered there, ritually preparing to defend their homes from Russian invaders who carry red flags. Kvitka nervously improvises a melody in the Altered Dorian scale. Soldiers huddle in a circle around her, feel the vibrations through the floor.
More years pass. Kvitka plays an old lullaby to her newborn on the бандура. Her hands shake, aware that if she were caught playing the instrument, she might get sent away to a forced labor camp.
The бандура still lives under the floorboards. The music of the бандура carries on.
Early 1990’s. Філадельфія.
The sixty-four strings bend and stretch, sliding in pitch with each slight turn of its wooden pegs. This бандура doesn't know it yet, but far in the future I will dig her out of the attic, wipe off the dust, and bring her home. For now, my child-sized hands fumble over the many strings, plucking them clumsily with curiosity and надія.
Each string is an individual in a family, all bound to the same home. Some strings resonate in harmony with each other. Some create harsh dissonance. Some are wound tight, on the verge of snapping and breaking.
All of them shift over time.