Steven Boyd Saum

Perpetually Awaiting a Rebirth of Wonder

On Ukraine's Election Day, Potemkin's Centuries-Old Imperial Vision for the Black Sea Is Resurrected to Fuel a New Kind of War

DISCUSSED: Freetown, A Legacy from Soviet Days, International Observers, Rewriting Ferlinghetti in Ukraine, The Fall of Lenin, The Restoration of the Empire, An Imagined Land, Polling Place Kerfuffles, A Stork for Good Luck, Seventy Years Without War, Embalming Practices for Great Men

I. In which the mobile
ballot box is carried to the communal apartment

The Molotov cocktail hit the front door of Kherson School No. 56 in the early morning hours of Ukraine’s Election Day, on the last Sunday in May, 2014. Three polling places were inside. The entryway to the building was charred, but no one was hurt, and the polling places opened on time. The incident was not widely reported in the press—unlike the previous Friday’s explosion of the bus on the outskirts of Kyiv, or the assassination of an armed leader in Donetsk who was trying to establish a separate Republic of Donbas. Or, the day before that, the deaths of at least eleven Ukrainian soldiers in a clash with pro-Russian militants.

Later on this same Sunday morning, in the southern city of Kherson, near where the Dnieper River meets the Black Sea, on a street named Freetown, across the yard behind Polling Place No. 698, in the kitchen of a communal two-story apartment building, someone is frying onions. The pungent, sweet smell fills the blue-walled corridor on the second floor and the dark stairwell. The roof of the building is zinc and the outside walls are painted two tones of dusty peach. On the ground floor is a stomatology clinic with security bars on the windows, and upstairs are apartments and the communal kitchen. Laundry hangs from a line above the clinic.

An old man in a dirty white T-shirt and shorts and plastic sandals pulls aside the curtain to see who’s arriving: eight strangers, including a policeman in uniform. The old man frowns. If you live in a communal apartment building, you know everybody and their business; that was one reason why the Soviets built collectives in the days of Lenin and Stalin. Also a legacy from Soviet days: don’t trust a stranger. There is a woman in the kitchen, not much younger than the man, and she eyes the unexpected visitors with curiosity, if not wariness.

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Steven Boyd Saum edits Santa Clara Magazine and has written for the Kenyon Review, Salon, and other fine places. He once called Ukraine home; there he taught, directed the Fulbright program, hosted a radio show, and was arrested only once.

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