Chapter 6 ~ Logistics and landlords

At this point we were being swept along with events, and going where there were open doors, without knowing exactly where it would lead. Sometimes we got our signals right and sometimes we got it wrong, but as long as we tried to do what we thought the Lord was showing us (even when we got it wrong), He did not forsake us.

By now we had settled in East Ukraine right where the Dnipro river is joined by the Samara river, and start flowing south past Zaporizhzhia towards the Black Sea. The city was originally named Ekaterinoslav. It had been founded by Potemkin, the famous general and alleged lover of Catherine the Great of Russia. He named the city in her honour, but after the Revolution the Communists wanted to erase any memory of the aristocracy, so it was re-named Dnipropetrovsk. Today it's Dnipro for short.

The Dnipr river is the main water supply for all of Ukraine, and as I mentioned, it waters the extremely fertile steppes in the centre of the country. In fact someone told me that when Hitler invaded Ukraine, they started scraping off the top soil from the steppes to ship it back to Germany. We also learned that historically Ukraine was called "Russia's Bread Basket."

I found a picture of the main street in Dnipro, "Prospekt Karla Marxa". The first couple of places we lived were fairly close to down town.

That far East almost everybody spoke Russian. During Stalin's reign he forcibly moved a lot of people from all over Russia to the Donbas region to get the industrialization started. Dnipropetrovsk happen to be located between the enormous coal mines in Donbas and Kryvyi Rog, which happen to be sitting on a gigantic reserve of iron ore.

Before we arrived in Dnipro, it had been closed to foreigners for security reasons. They were manufacturing rockets and military hardware and had a number of universities, including metallurgical institutes. In fact, when Ukraine gained its independence Russia lost a key ingredient to its space program.

Since that time Kiev and West-Ukraine have been pushing the Ukrainian language into the educational, governmental and legal system. This did not go over too well with the predominantly Russian speaking population in the east.

I suspect some of the reason for the recent fighting between Ukraine and pro-Russian elements in Donbas has to do with the fact that the governing parties in the east and center of the country were eager to promote a distinct Ukrainian identity. On top of that certain western nations have also been busy trying to pull the strategic country away from Russia.

At the time of our arrival the city was not exactly a work of art, and first impressions were muted, even if some of the buildings, like the main train station, did have some of the Soviet era monumental-ism. Overall the city had more the air of a strategic location for manufacturing and engineering.

I found Ukrainians to be intelligent, respectful, well educated. Schools had very high standards and were disciplined. The people we met at that time were eager to learn. On the tram you could even see people reading weighty stuff like Dostoevsky or Russian poetry, and when engaged in conversation they would ask deep questions. It was often a challenge to give them a satisfying answer, but refreshing it was!

There was a real spiritual vacuum. It was a tough place for sure, and daily survival was a struggle. Every inch of progress was like moving mountains, but in spite of the hardships, or perhaps because of them, the people we met were for the most part humble and open.

We learned to appreciate what people had to go through by living and working alongside, facing the same obstacles, waiting in the same endless lines for paperwork, dodging the same police checkpoints, eking out a living often under depressing conditions. Grey and forlorn apartment complexes, dirty and smelly elevators, leaky heating pipes and dilapidated infrastructure.

When we needed some permission or paper work, which seemed to be all the time, for just about anything, you had to learn how to deal with the various government officials. Someone gave me some good advice which taught me one of the tricks of the trade. You'd bring along a paper-bag with a box of chocolate and a bottle of vodka. When entering the office you'd would place it next to his desk and say something like, "here is a little something for the family." The official would then lean over and peek into the bag, then you'd get your paper stamped. - Unless of course the fellow had an extra star on his shoulder, then it would be advisable to give brandy instead of vodka.

After some years we could no longer renew our foreign car permission at the local office. Then we had to drive to the nearest border, usually Russia - eight hours round trip. First out of Ukraine then into Russia, turn right around, back out of Russia and then into Ukraine again with the new car paper. Each of the four crossings was a gauntlet of officials waiting with their respective rubber stamp, and few could believe that a foreigner from the west didn't have his back pocket full of dollars. Needless to say, my bargaining skills acquired in Asia came in handy :-)

These challenges put my faith to the test and made me realize how short on "Christian graces" I really was. Or as the fellow said, "things like that either makes you loose your Christianity, or teaches you to use your Christianity!" At times I'm not sure I scored so well in that respect.

Eventually I learned that if you could get them to smile, it made things easier. Life in the Soviet Union was supposed to be a serious affair and the impression was that "fun" under Communism was considered somewhat frivolous, but sometimes you could manage to throw them off guard with a smile and a joke.

It happened inadvertently once we were stopped by some heavy duty looking officers in a fancy Landcruiser in Kiev. They were wearing leather jackets and carrying automatic weapons. They placed themselves on both sides of the car and while the policeman on the right side asked the passenger if we were carrying drugs or weapons, the fellow on my side asked if I spoke Russian. I answered "only a little bit" in Russian, so the officer on the passenger side thought that we were only carrying "a little bit of drugs and a few weapons." When the misunderstanding dawned on them they broke down laughing and sent us on our way.

* * *

The second house we lived in was close by our first place. It was a bit of a battle to move since our first landlady turned belligerent and demanded reparation for a sofa she claimed we had ruined. Originally she had told us we could dump the sofa if we didn't need it. She then refused to unlock the garage, where our stuff was stored. After some discussion and negotiation we did manage to placate her and from there we moved into a house belonging to a kind widow one street over.

The third house we lived in was slightly bigger. It was located north of the river in an area called "Predniprovsk" we called that place, "the white walls house" (not to be confused with "The White House"), because when touching the walls the white calcium stain came off on your clothes. That landlord had a business going on buying and selling scrap metal. He was also raising a pig in a shed in the garden - ha!

About a year later when looking for a new and better place, a fellow came up to me and said with an impeccable British accent, "I understand you might be looking for accommodation". That was Vladimir, who to my surprise was living right next door.

Vladi, as we called him, was the perfect gentlemen he was a professor of philology, and to make a long story short we rented the back of his semi-detached house while he lived in the front.

I remember Vladi had a bookshelf with the twenty or thirty some volumes of the entire Encyclopedia Britannica occupying most of the shelves in his bedroom, and he spoke several languages fluently. He became our forth landlord.

In the next chapter I will tell you about a curious incident that happened in that connection.

Chapter 7 ~ The Phone Line Balancing Act   ( TOC )