The Museums of Kyiv
Babushkas, in all their weathered plumpness, command a respect and obedience in that country, the young nation’s only primary sources for a history its youth are free to forget. The Babas, as they’re often called, squat, kerchiefed, only convey emotion through the varying intensity of their sun-spotted grimaces, by the relative depth of the lines all across those cloth-wrapped faces. Their entire squashy form follows suit, for what they wear in the sweat of summer or the bite of a Serbian-tinged winter is merely a series of draped fabrics and beige orthopedic footwear.
Baba knows she is a grandmother to you; she is everyone’s grandmother, regardless of blood, and a hypercritical one at that. “Where’s your hat?” she will demand if she sees you on the streets of the oblast in January, improperly bundled. “Girl!” or “Boy!” she begins each time, “It’s winter and it’s freezing – where’s your hat? You will die! Go home and put on your hat!” Whereupon you really don’t have any choice. You had none from the moment you left your apartment.
She takes residence in the grungy outskirts of the cities and villages, and has assumed several characteristic roles to earn money for her widowed or spinstered circumstance. She mans the garbage fires outside town, where massive piles of waste – perhaps twelve feet high, as no glass or plastic is ever recycled – are set ablaze whenever they become too sizeable. The acrid pollutants rise up with powerful fumes into the smog-tinted sky, and the Baba in question tosses in additional garbage at random to fuel the combustion: newspapers, train tickets, the carcass of a starved stray. She is paid in kopeks for the work, which lasts as long as it needs to and is uniformly unsurprising.
If she doesn’t have the lungs for the fire piles, and if she’s willing to admit that, the Ukranian Babushka might herd goats in little paths beside the gravel roads of the mining towns. In these regions the children know geography by their occasion to be in any one place: their neighborhoods are identified as “Mine Six” or “Anthracite.” No one bothers the Babas and their goats, though everyone says hello as they pass, knowing that to be out of favor with the town’s oldest specimens would be far more inconvenient. The goat-herders are notably gentler on their charges than on any human member of their community; while they never go so far as to pat the goats or speak to them beyond barking an order like “Dvizhai! Poidti! Move! Go on,” the squint of suspicion leaves the Baba’s eye as she hunkers down against the wall of a dilapidated cottage to watch her stock nibble on the dried nubby grasses of an Eastern Bloc summer in drought. Her hands will sit folded over her lap and hidden under long sleeves of grey fabric, her pouchy cheeks hanging still in a posture not unlike contentment. If asked why the crones keep goats specifically, most citizens settle on the simple and truest response: Kompaniya.
The place in which the tourists will find her, the nation’s Baba, is in the many museums of Kyiv. In a brilliant stroke of employ, stuffy museum directors all across the capital city have long since hired Babushkas to sit in each of their galleries and exhibits on a thin plastic folding chair. From their seats, the Babas (no more formally dressed than those in the fields or beside the fires) perform the tasks that no one else wants to: “Nyet!” they yell at the tourists, who are hopeless to understand. “Tikha!” – she is telling them to be quiet, because their loud, indiscernible tones as they remark on any given display are death to the reverence each museum strains to maintain. She screeches at them to put their cameras away as well, and to walk the proper direction through each room of the building. “Nepravilnaya doroga,” she snaps, and exasperatedly indicates the arrows on the floor. Wrong way. To see any of this, their native narrative, out of order is an insult. Any visitor is obliged to take in the history as those before them didn’t have any choice but to do. You start with World War One, then on to the Holodomor famine, not the other way around, because 12 million people don’t just die and reappear.
Because of their advanced age, the authoritative Babas serve an incidental, additional purpose inside Kyiv’s museums: they are themselves exhibits, keepers of history. But they are never asked the story, and perhaps if they were they’d hold it too close to the chest, too wrapped up in layers of cotton.
In the museum of the Chernobyl disaster, there is the body of a dog enclosed in a case off to the side of the artifacts room. A puppy, taxidermic, with eight limbs. It was the radiation after the blast: useless legs sprouting from the tail, two out of the back (draped disjointedly over each side of the abdomen), one out the top of the head. It is the size of two open palms. The fur is dusty under the glass. You will never manage to snap a picture of this tiny nuclear oddity; you will never come close. She will limp and shuffle toward you, a howling yell to pierce the hanging peace of the memorial and a stubby finger wagging in your face – you, tureesti, ignorant to rules and to everything else; you, who won’t soak this place in even if you do walk through it in the proper direction; you, who won’t leave with any one photograph like a trophy – who hasn’t seen anything yet, if you think of that mutt like a tragedy.