Tuesday interview: only now am I learning to live with the past

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Her family lived through the horrors of forced starvation under Stalin. Julie Marshall reports on Czarina Daria’s gripping tale

Czarina Daria spent her childhood in Horsforth, Leeds hearing tales of the horrific way her Ukraine-born mother Anastasia had been treated in her home country, first by Stalin’s draconian economic sanctions and then in 1941, by the invading Germans.

Anastasia, now in her 80s and suffering from dementia, witnessed seven of her eight siblings die of starvation when Stalin instigated a man-made famine that killed millions. She was forced to stand and watch when German soldiers shot and then hanged six young boys from the village to teach the locals a lesson.

Czarina, 63, now living in North Wales, says: “As I was growing up in Leeds, my mother spoke of the unbelievable hardship she suffered as a child. They didn’t have shoes and in the winter had to wrap their feet up in rags; she saw bodies piled up in the streets and left to rot.

“One particular story that has haunted me all life is that of my mother’s baby brother. He died of starvation in the night and, when they discovered him the next morning, half his face had been eaten away by rats.”

Following the German invasion along with all the other young people from her village, Anastasia was torn from her mother Svetlana’s arms and slung in a stinking cattle truck to be sent to work on a German farm as little more than a slave. She was made to sleep in the barn, beaten and starved and was forced to steal raw eggs just to stay alive.

She managed to escape and was placed with another family who treated her more kindly but was then sent to work in a munitions factory and was almost killed when it was bombed by the allies and she was trapped under a pile of rubble.

After the war, Anastasia was liberated by the Americans and was sent to England to begin a new life.

Czarina, says: “My mother and father joined the hundreds of other ‘displaced persons ‘ in Leeds. We lived among a vibrant community of Poles, Hungarians, Latvians, Russians and, of course Ukrainians and I grew up speaking Russian as my mother’s grasp of English was poor and I loved the music, the food and the culture – and still do.

“My mother was very lucky. Most Ukranians who survived the war in Germany were forcibly repatriated to the USSR because of the Yalta agreement. My mother’s only surviving brother Misha was liberated by the British Army and it was their policy to send all Russians and Ukrainians home – despite the fact that the majority didn’t want to go. Stalin had decreed that anyone who had allowed themselves to be taken prisoner be classed as a traitor and so they were either murdered or, if they were young like Misha, were sent to a Siberian Gulag and sentenced to hard labour – working up to 14-hours a day in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable.”

Misha survived his time in the gulag but a few years later was falsely accused of murder, found guilty and executed by a firing squad.

It was not until 30 years later that Anastasia, accompanied by Czarina, then 17, was able to make the dangerous journey by train back to her homeland – something few westerners had ever attempted and especially two women travelling alone.

As their papers were checked countless times by guards Anastasia risked being arrested as a traitor and was forced to explain why she had not returned to Russia sooner.

This incredible journey has been documented by Czarina and incorporated into her first novel; To Ukraine with Love was published on Amazon a couple of weeks ago.

Although fictional, the facts contained in the story are largely true – only a couple of incidents and the names of those involved have been changed. Even after all these years Czarina is terrified that members of her extended family in Ukraine would be in danger if the authorities could identify them.

The journey that forms the central narrative of To Ukraine With Love was undertaken in 1968, two years after Anastasia had applied for a visa to travel across Russia, still very much hidden behind the iron curtain.

During the ten-day journey mother and daughter were arrested in the Netherlands for the lack of a visa and spent countless hours tied up in bureaucratic red tape. Eventually Anastasia and Czarina arrived at the very same station Anastasia had departed from 30 years earlier and travelled to the village to meet Svetlana for an emotional reunion at her tiny three-room cottage which was sparsely furnished with very little in the way of modern conveniences.

It was forbidden to bring currency into Ukraine but Anastasia sold most of the clothes they’d brought with them – also a crime – to raise money for her mother.

Czarina said: “We bought my grandmother a fridge, up to date cooking facilities and a tiny little black and white TV. With only ten rubles a month pension, the rest of the money we raised was enough for her to live on for at least couple of years.

Anastasia and Czarina visited Ukraine on a number of other occasions to visit Svetlana and were with her when she died..

Years later Czarina took her own young sons to see the grave of their great grandmother and learn something of their heritage.

Czarina began writing To Ukraine With Love 10 years ago but work and family got in the way and it was not until she went to live in North Wales 18 months ago that work began in earnest. The novel was completed in November 2014.

She says: “I always knew I’d write this story down one day to let people know just what happened in the Ukraine before and during the Second World War. Many people don’t even know where it is although the recent media coverage has thrust it into the spotlight.”