Monday, December 7, 2009

Ideas Float: A Starobilsk Heritage Project

I have lots of ideas but ideas can be tricky. They sound good on paper, but they may be unrealistic to put into practice. Most important, they have to come from the bottom up, from the needs and interests of the people of Starobilsk. A PCV can help, but not lead, can suggest, but not implement alone.

This is happening with an idea for a Starobilsk heritage project. It's floating.

The idea was born on a walk I took around town with Olga. It was a lovely fall day, bright and sunny. A knowledgable guide, Olga pointed out the architectural features of houses and buildings and told stories about them.

Here is the home of a well-known author, name of Gaston. He lived in Starobilsk for about five years, died tragically. Over there is a home built in the 19th century. See the beautiful details around the windows and along the roof. This home near the park is the only one in town built in the Queen Anne style; it is now a store. The park used to be an Orthodox cemetary. The Soviets built a park on it, with the massive Lenin monuments, to give a message about the importance of the state. That large mansion across from the old technical Institute, now being restored, was used during the 1930s to interrogate and torture prisoners. People went in and never came out. The brick structure with the chimney towering over the town is an old fire station. Oh yes, this lovely little church near the park: not grand and elegant, but a witness to history, including the building of the park. The stately church near School #3, Saint Nicolas, our main Orthodox church, is also a witness. It is full of beautiful icons. The church on the road to Lugansk is a monestary, for women. Here we are. Let's go in.

What a fascinating tour. And the inside of the church and the monestary grounds are beautiful, like all churches here and throughout Ukraine. If churches could talk, the stories they could tell!

I had looked at all these building before, on my way to and from the center of town, but I hadn't really seen them. Not with an eye for the detail and the story.

After that walk with Olga, I asked questions and learned more. I took pictures. I probed for information. The grandest buildings seem to have been built in the 19th century, under the Tzars, before the revolution. Some buildings are pre-World War I, a few survived World War II. Imagine the stories. Tales of love and family. Of music, art and culture. Tragic tales of war, starvation and death. Of fear and trembling. Of dreams deferred.

Those buildings that went up after WWII, though not noted for their beauty, also house untold stories. Towns grew up overnight around manufacturing and mining plants, and with them those drab, colorless, utilitarian apartments that still dominate the landscape in many Ukrainian towns.

The few people who survived the war, which left the country in ruins, were desperate, sad, hopeless, a pervasive post-traumatic stress syndrome. People sought comfort and security. They welcomed a sense of family and community. They welcomed the help of the state. This is a critical chapter in Ukraine history. Then there are stories of "Khruschev buildings," efforts to divide up these communal apartments so that families had their own space and more privacy. It's a revealing development that also awaits a historian.

Starobilsk is the oldest town in Lugansk oblast. It has a rich but largely unheralded history. I'm not sure how much of the history is written, but it is remembered. The memories and oral traditions are astounding. They need to be captured for the ages. The historian in me wants to uncover them all. But for now, this idea of a Starobilsk heritage project is floating. It will find a home in time, if that's what people want and some organization is interested in taking it on.

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