The Horodecki House (also known as the House with Chimaeras or the Gorodetsky House) is an incredibly fanciful building that sits across from the presidential palace in Kyiv. There’s so much going on here with it – to start, it is essentially a Ukrainian response to Gaudi. Art Nouveau, multi-layered and designed, with animals, plants, and other organic elements merging with busy rococo-ish elements.
The history of this building is also incredible – designed in 1902 by Władysław Horodecki, a Polish architect, it was intended to be sold as luxury apartments. Horodecki’s debts led to changes of ownership, including by a sugar factory, and during the Communist era, the building was carved up into smaller communal apartments, used as a refuge for evacuated actors, abandoned during WWII, and used as a medical clinic until 2002. The building had almost split it half at its foundations by that time, and the restorers had to threaten to board the medical clinic in to obtain the space for restoration. It eventually was fully restored to Horodecki’s original plans, and is used today for presidential and official capacities.
It came back into the limelight this spring during the Russian invasion, with Zelenskyy using it as a background in his videos announcing he was staying in Kyiv and calling on Ukrainians to resist.
You can walk through it on streetview, and I’d really recommend taking the time to look at the details – the frogs lining the rooftop parapets, or the flowers and tentacles emerging from ceiling chandeliers.
Man with a Movie Camera is a 1929 silent movie from the Soviet Union, following daily life in Kyiv, Odesa, and Moscow. It’s groundbreaking the same way Prokudin-Gorsky’s full-colour photos from 1911 are. The film is cut almost at a modern pace (which audiences at the time found far too fast) with meta shots of the cameraman filming. The director, Dziga Vertov, used or created a huge number of modern camera tricks – fades, wipes, slow-motion, extreme closeups, split screen, freeze frame, stop motion, and far far more. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, and feels like it should be an art-house film in a gallery – it’s hard to digest just how old this movie is due to its modernity.
Vertov’s artistic career continued until the start of the Stalinist era, when the official establishment of socialist realism as an art form pushed all more novel and creative forms of art. Vertov went from one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated art directors to an editor of newsreels, but did at least avoid the worst of the purges.
The whole movie (about an hour long) is available freely online. Since it was a silent film, there is no soundtrack, so many later ones have been added. I particularly like this version; it adds to the hypnotic artistry.
Firecrosser is a 2011 Ukrainian movie that is both fascinating and deeply, deeply weird. The movie follows Ivan Dodoka, a Soviet fighter pilot from Ukraine, who is shot down and presumed dead on the Eastern Front during WWII. His wife, who is of eastern Tartar origin, doesn’t believe he is dead and waits for him after the war, holding off the advances of a drunken and manipulative former friend of Dodoka’s.
Dodoka is indeed alive, but after surviving German capture and returning to Soviet hands, he is sent to a Siberian gulag (a fate that awaited many Soviet former-POWs in real life). He escapes, and then the movie takes a weird turn – instead of returning to find her, he heads further east to find her family, and then through slightly unclear circumstances, ends up in being moved by locals for safety through the Russian far east, Alaska, and into northern Canada. There he tries to repair a plane to fly back to the USSR, while living in a remote First Nations community. When he learns of his wife’s death, he then stays in Canada and becomes a chief in the community.
The pacing is incredibly fast – this feels like this could be twice the length to get all the plot twists and details in. It was also a very, er, European depiction of First Nations (you could tell none of this was actually filmed in Canada) and the main Indigenous characters spoke English with stilted, over-perfect, almost American accents. Turns out all the actors were Ukrainian.
The other weird thing is that this is purported to be “based on a true story” – even that is a bit of a stretch. There was a real life Ukrainian pilot named Ivan Datsenko who was officially killed in WWII. When Soviet journalists and officials came to Canada for Expo 67 in Montreal, a Ukrainian journalist claimed he met a Mohawk chief that could speak perfect Russian and Ukrainian. The rumour became that Datsenko had not been killed in the war, but instead had made it to Canada and had been living undetected among First Nations for the past 20 years.
The movie takes this for fact and interprets this as a remote nation in northern BC / Yukon – which is slightly more plausible than the Mohawk Nation, which is south of Montreal along the border with New York, and not remote at all – it’s basically urban. Any pics claiming to be him are all people with tipis and in traditional dress (or stereotypical versions of it) from prairie nations like the Blackfoot. The Mohawk, who are on the opposite side of Canada, have a different regalia, built permanent longhouses instead of tipis, and were long urbanized / victims of Canada’s cultural genocide by the 60s. But what really makes the original urban legend ring pretty hollow is that we’ve never heard of this in Canada.
We learned in school about Grey Owl, a British man who faked being First Nations, but nothing about Datsenko – and trust me, if a Soviet fighter pilot successfully faked his way into Canada, convinced the Mohawk to let him pretend to be one of them, and then was discovered during Expo 67? We love these kind of stories. He would be on every Canadian trivia quiz and there would be an exhibit on him in the Diefenbunker or the War Museum (probably next to the disguised German WWII weather station that was only discovered in Labrador in the 70s).
Still, I do like a good war movie, and Firecrosser was definitely something different.
Part 2 of interesting podcasts from and about Ukraine – Part 1 is here.
BBC History Hour: Ukrainian History Special – An overview from the BBC of major events in Ukraine’s history from the past century, with reporting from the period and modern analysis. It’s particularly the events that are well known outside of Eastern Europe: The Holodomor, Babi Yar, Chernobyl, but also Crimea as a Soviet holiday hotspot.
Remember What’s Next: The History of Ukrainian Jews – A Jewish history podcast looking at the larger history of the Jewish community in what is now Ukraine. Covers the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, the Pale of Settlement, the origin of the shtetl and Hassidism, and pervasiveness of antisemitism in both Russia and Ukraine.
Ukraine Without Hype: Russian Imperial Antisemitism – Ukraine Without Hype is a really good quality Ukrainian-based podcast; the first half covers recent news, including war updates, while the second half is in-depth interviews and discussion. This episode also looked at antisemitism and the war in Ukraine, building off the Russian Foreign Minister’s insane conspiracy theory comments about Jews. The episode looks at the use of conspiracy theory and antisemitism as part of “Russification” and larger Russian expansionist aims into Ukraine.
Black Diplomants: War in Ukraine with Inna Sovsun – An interview in a Kyiv coffee shop with Inna Sovsun, a Member of Parliament with the opposition Holos Party and university professor. She covers how life has changed since the Russian invasion, both personally and in the workings of the Ukrainian government.
Nash Holos: Ukrainian Roots Radio – A regular podcast focused on the Ukrainian-Canadian community. There’s episodes of Ukrainian music and culture, artists and exhibits between Ukraine and Canada, book reviews, and updates on the war and helping Ukrainian refugees get to Canada.
There’s a LOT of podcasts on Ukraine available right now, mainly focused on the the Russian invasion and analysis about Ukraine’s future. As always, I’m trying to prioritize podcasts that by Ukrainians or feature Ukrainian voices, though there’s plenty of good material out there otherwise – understandably, Ukraine has been on everyone’s mind lately. Here’s what I’ve been listening to over the last few weeks:
BBC: Ukrainecast – A daily podcast that the BBC started when the Russian invasion happened, focusing just on stories, interviews, news, and analysis on Ukraine and the war.
Highlights from Ukraine – To bolster the previous podcast, Highlights from Ukraine is a short summary in English of what’s in Ukraine’s media that day. It’s run by Ukrainians, and gives even better coverage of internal politics that may not make it into foreign reporting.
UkrainianSpaces: Queer Pride – UkrainianSpaces is an English language podcast that gets into discussions on Ukrainian life, culture, and reality that may be missing from foreign narratives. This episode is both on and by Ukraine’s LGBTQ community. The hosts speak with one of the organizers of Kyiv Pride, who has been getting requests from foreign media to comment on how the war has affected them and the community. However, the media has been asking for stories of suffering, and ignoring the stories of Queer Ukrainians fighting the invasion, or how Ukraine had been making significant strides for the community before the war. Really interesting and introspective podcast.
Fighting For Ukraine – Short daily updates from Yuriy Matsarsky, an Ukrainian journalist who is actively fighting in a civilian militia. Warzone updates, what he’s seeing on the ground, and what he’s feeling as a Ukrainian fighting for his homeland. He also has a GoFundMe up to help support him and his family – they’ve left the country and like all fighting-age men, he is staying.
Deconstructed: The War Over Ukrainian History and Identity – An interview from the Intercept with an Ukrainian sociologist that takes a bit of a different spin from the above podcast. It’s a more non-nationalist interpretation of Ukrainian identity looking at how the Ukrainian government is structuring identity, and the problem of corruption and oligarchs in Ukraine that has rarely been spoken about since the invasion started.
We’re all pretty familiar with the Chernobyl disaster (I’d recommend Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy for a good book on it, or even the well-researched HBO drama from a few years ago), but it was back in the news recently for being caught up in the Russian invasion. Russian convoys kicked up nuclear dust in the Red Forest and there were rumours of Russian soldiers digging positions without even using protective equipment. The plant is now back in Ukrainian hands, and media has been allowed in:
However, there’s an interesting story that doesn’t frequently get told – that among the abandoned vehicles and buildings are several WWII Soviet tanks, rusting away and too radioactive to move. They were part of a plan to blow a hole into the plant to drain the water before a steam explosion happened – a plan that never went through, and instead divers, miners, and plant workers drained the tank manually.
For a longer, more comprehensive history of Chernobyl, Plainly Difficult did an excellent documentary into the disaster itself:
Like many pieces of history right now, there’s a deep divide over who it truly “belongs to”. The Kievan Rus are claimed as foundational nations by Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, and is part of competing narratives over Ukraine and an independant nation vs. a “brotherly nation”/subset of Russia, as the Kievan Rus were based in Kyiv, and originated Russian royal families. However, the Kievan Rus’ foundational dynasty were originally Varangian – Swedish vikings that had traded, raided, and settled down the rivers into Eastern Europe, and they largely held a loose confederation of land, not a single unified empire.
One of the best stories of the Kievan Rus is the tale of St. Olga of Kyiv – a woman who was probably sainted to stop her from murdering more people (this actually happened a lot in the late viking era). Her story is likely largely embellished in the historical record, but boy it is a hell of a tale. This is where the reference of “sending pigeons” from Ukrainian stand-up comes from – to destroy an enemy city by requesting a bird from the rafters of each house of the city as her wedding gift, then tying burning cloth to all the birds and letting them fly back to the thatched roofs. The whole great gory story is here, worthy of an action movie:
The town of Chernobyl didn’t just spring out of nowhere on April 26, 1986 – it was a long-standing town in northern Ukraine. Chernobyl the town is about 15km south of the power plant (most plant workers lived in Pripyat, the company town built around the reactor). The town has a deep Jewish history, and has been a site of Hasidic pilgrimage for decades – there still is the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty today.
The Jewish community in Chernobyl, like other Jewish communities in what was the Pale of Settlement, faced pogroms and violence through the centuries. The majority of the Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust. After the war, the surviving Ukrainian Jews faced the repression of organized religion in the Soviet Union, and many left for Israel or North America. Those who emigrated over the years still feel deep ties to the region, like the Twersky family of Chernobyl Hasidic lineage (warning: Holocaust footage):
When the nuclear disaster happened in 1986, the town of Chernobyl was evacuated and abandoned, with the Ukrainian and Jewish populations scattering across the Soviet Union. Most of the USSR’s Jewish population would later emigrate to Israel, the US, and Canada at the end of the Cold War, though there still is a solid Jewish population in Ukraine today, including Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.
From the folks at The Great War channel, a really good look at the development of modern Ukrainian identity in the late 19th century, how Ukraine was built out the remains of Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires at the end of First World War, then folded into the USSR after the Russian Civil War.
When I covered Chile last year, I came across The Chile Reader – turns out there’s a whole series of these useful books on different Central and Southern American countries. The Ecuador Reader is a great big tome of short primary and secondary documents following through Ecuador’s history – historic letters, poems, academic texts, travel journals, and more, all with explanations giving historical context and tying it all together.
As a smaller country that’s been pulled into different neighbours’ orbits (especially Peru and Colombia) and one with three extremely different regions – the coast, the highlands, and the Amazon, Ecuador doesn’t really build up the same coherent national narrative that Chile does. Instead, those internal and external tensions make up so much of Ecuador’s story – and how politics, capitalism, labour and Indigenous movements try to bridge those gaps.
The influence of Indigenous people in Ecuador’s history is particularly interesting – about 25% of the modern population is of Indigenous origin, while another 50-60% are of mixed European and Indigenous background. However, like most other places in the Spanish Empire, Indigenous people were so thoroughly marginalized that for a while they were not even counted on the census or as citizens. That drove a lot of separation from identity and a process of “othering” that still is not undone.