Participants: Kateryna Serova (K.S.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.), Evghenia Jane Rozbytska (J)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022

K.S.: I studied Engineering at the University of Kyiv for six years (laughs), and then I started work in design. Then I got married and had four children (laughs). That’s all. 

N.M.: Shortest life story ever.

K.S.: This is me. You asked about my profession. 

N.M.: Were you born in Kyiv? 

K.S.: Yes, I was born in Kyiv.

N.M.: Was your family from Kyiv as well?

K.S.: My grandfather on my father’s side was. (speaks to J in Ukrainian)

J: On her father’s side, Katya is the fifth generation to live in Kyiv. 

K.S.: My father’s mother is from Russia, and my mother’s mother is also from Russia. My mother’s father is from a Ukrainian village. 

J: Both grandmothers are from Russia, but from different places.

K.S.: Yes, different places. My mother’s father was from a not-so-small village in Central Ukraine. 

N.M.: And do you know the stories of how these grandmothers got married?

K.S.: Yes, I know them. It was my great-great-grandfather who first came to Kyiv. He was an engineer. He came to an engineering…(speaks to J in Ukrainian) 

J: Her grandfather’s grandfather came to Kyiv for an engineering exhibition, and he remained with the family in Kyiv. A babushky? 

K.S.: Babushka, da. Father and mother got married because of my grandfather. I will speak about my father first. 

J: Katya’s surname is Serova. And her father’s surname is Serov. So, on her father’s side, Katya has the same roots as the famous Russian artist Serov. Katya has deep roots into the Russian bohemian. Right? (laughs) And her father’s mother, her grandmother on her father’s side, comes from a rich family. 

K.S.: Not rich. Intellectuals. (intelligentsia)

J: The Popov family. They had connections to religion. They were religious…

N.M.: Were they priests? 

J: Yes, yes. Their family was persecuted because of their religious connections. Her grandma didn’t want to tell her this. Grandma came from a family of priests. When the Soviet government came, her grandmother’s father became the enemy of the state. That’s how Soviet government called people related to religion.

K.S.: And all my grandmothers and grandfathers went through the war. 

J: So her grandmothers and grandfathers all are children of the war. 

N.M.: Were they born during the war? 

J: When the Germans occupied Kyiv, my grandfather went to school and one German lived in their apartment, he did not destroy anything and even gave food sometimes.

K.S.: Babushka… (K explains to J the family connections) 

J: And her grandmother on her mother’s side—it’s nice when you have a lot of relatives (laughs)— her father was the school principal and he lived in a lot of cities because of his work.

N.M.: Who exactly was a principal? 

J: Her grandmother’s dad. And they went to Lviv because of his job.

K.S.: My grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side [lived in Lviv]. (J laughs). You should make a drawing of all of this. 

J: Katya’s father was a historian. Was or is? Was. Her grandmother on her mother’s side spent her childhood in Lviv. She was 4 years old during Holodomor. She had two older brothers and she told her that when their mother left for work, she had to go and find something to eat. People were shooting pigeons in the street and eating them. She could remember the famine in her childhood. And the grandmother’s father was shot dead in Lviv.

N.M.: Was it the Soviets? 

J: One hypothesis is that it was the Bandera who killed him because he was from Russia. The great-grandmother, her grandmother’s mother, lived to be 103.

N.M.: So you’ve met her. 

K.S.: She died when I was 16. 

J: I told you, our great grandparent’s generation was very strong.

K.S.: Very interesting person, my grandmother. 

J: During the Second World War, she worked in a big kitchen, and they cooked bread clandestinely, underground. They cooked bread and other things for people to survive. History repeats itself. Katya’s parents met in University. Her father was seven years older than her mother. There is a very nice monastery in Kyiv, on the bank of the Dnieper river. It’s called the Vydubytsky Monastery and when her mother was in her first year of archeological practice, she saw her future husband there and she was very impressed. They got acquainted during an archeological expedition. Katya’s father was very important in the field, wrote scientific articles, and was a specialist in fortifications called zminaya valâi. These fortifications were very old and Katya’s father was the first to date them and explain how they were built and how they worked. He was also an amazing speaker, so Katya’s mother took the opportunity to ask him questions when they met. When Katya and her brother were born, they lived in a big city, in Kyiv, but they also had a dacea (a holiday home) which Katya preferred. She didn’t like living in a big city.

N.M.: And now you are in a smaller city.

Jane: No, no, the story is not about this.

N.M.: Yes, I know. Unfortunately. Can we talk about the 24th of February? How did the day start?

K.S.: One year before. 

N.M.: Ok, one year before. 

J: About three years ago, they found out Katya’s father had cancer. When Katya and her husband got married ten years ago, they didn’t rent an apartment because she had always dreamed of having her own house. They lived with her husband’s parents, then with her parents, then they moved in with her grandmother and spent five years at her place. These were good times because her grandmother helped with the children, looked after their second-born daughter, and thanks to her, they even learned how to dance the Argentinian tango. When they found out Katya’s father had cancer, her parents moved in with her grandmother, while Katya and her family spent the winter in the apartment where she was born. In the summertime, they went to the dacea. This was her grandparents’ house on her father’s side, who were by then too old to go there. In the first COVID year, Katya’s father took a turn for the worst, so he had to move back into his apartment, while Katya and her family had to go to the dacea. A dacea is a summer house, so it was not fit for living there during the winter. They made some renovations, but the living conditions were still bad. There was no water in the house and the bathroom was in the kitchen, for example. And they had to live these with four children. At that time, the youngest one, Daria, was only one year old.  

K.S.: It was very difficult and very cold, we lived in one room, sleeping on one big bed. (laughs) 

J: They heated the house with everything they could find: coal, a heater etc.

K.S.: Fireplace. (laughs)

J: And if one of those was switched off, the house would be cold in a few hours. 

K.S.: Yes. One day I remember going to my… (switches to Ukrainian, laughs)

J: So one day they went to her grandmother and by the time they came back the keyhole had frozen. (laughs). We had to go to neighbouring houses to look for someone who could help. It’s good that there were neighbours with gas and melted it.

Territorially, the village of Moschun, in which we lived, has been on the defence line of Kyiv since the 15th century. During the Second World War, there was also a line of defence here, which the Germans never took. That is why there are many DOTs. As evidence of this, once when my grandfather was digging in the garden, he found a shell here that did not explode during the Second World War and carried it out of the plot with his own hands. The impenetrability of this territory consisted in the fact that the Irpin River was difficult to access, as it overflowed and formed flooded fields. This time, in order to cut off the approach to Kyiv, our army broke the dam, it spilled and formed impassable swamps. But from the side of Gostomel, Moschun was shelled with hail, shells, and the forest was set on fire with phosphorus bombs, so the destruction was more than 90%.

Due to the proximity of the water, few people built basements, and our house was also built a meter above the ground, so that there was no moisture in the house, so there was nowhere to hide.

Since the village was only 7 km from Kyiv, it was a good idea to move there, to live in the forest next to the lakes and close to the city. That’s why they decided to start preparations for construction. In the summer of 2020, they put in an expensive septic tank for better drainage and did a lot of reconstruction work. Because the house was small, they decided to build another floor to better accommodate their big family. Katya’s husband found a team of builders and started work.

But in the autumn, Katya found out that she was pregnant, and decided that she wanted to give birth to her fourth child in her own home. So, in order to speed up the construction process, we decided to build what was possible by our own efforts. All autumn we were engaged in internal work – Katya sanded the walls, puttied them, applied plaster and painted them. During COVID.

Her father was getting worse, she was visiting him daily. Then she got COVID just before the New Year and she lost ten kilos while pregnant. She didn’t know how all this would affect the baby: the house reconstruction works, her father’s illness, COVID… She had this feeling a lot of us have had, it felt like in the past five years she was preparing for something, getting stronger. Dari was born at home. She had been dreaming of giving birth at home.

K.S.: My house, my home. Dreaming to give birth there all my life. 

J: So they dreamed about having a fourth kid, but a bit later and in their own home. When it happened, they did what they could to make ends meet. 

K.S.: Yes. 

J: She is here with her husband and her children. Her father died four days before the baby was born. People warned her not to go to the funeral, but she went anyway and four days later she gave birth. The workers who were rebuilding the house left, they understood that she was giving birth. Only when she gave birth did she realize: oh, I have a kid now. One more. I need something for… (laughs) She had forgotten to buy clothes for the kid. At the same time, she also had the other kids, whom she had to drive to school, which was 25 kilometers away, in the centre of Kyiv. There were traffic jams all the time. 

K.S.: Change dippers in the car, live in the car. (laughs) 

J: So it was good that the baby was born after Katya’s father had died and not some other time. Because the house wasn’t big, Katya had to draw a project for the stairs, which her husband then made using welding. And for the terrace, each step was a different size, it was very… 

K.S.: …difficult.

J: Sixty elements, each one a different size, a different form. They didn’t think they would find wood to make these steps, so they made them from previous steps, but they planned to change them. So when Mariya was born, Katya tried to relax for a couple of weeks, then they continued. She painted the second floor. Her husband had finished the second floor and installed electricity because they decided not to have gas heating, but make… 

N.M.: So the heating system is in the floor.

J: Yes, he made this himself. They bought very nice furniture. The husband made a very nice bed for the boys. Because they were finally living in their own house, she made these by hand. (K shows us her Instagram account where she has uploaded pictures of her house) When they built the second floor, she had 2 days to remove from the attic everything that had collected there in 60 years… This is the bedroom where she was born. About a week before the war started, she had the feeling that she needed to paint… (K shows N the church in Moshun). It still exists, but it has been bombed. I will show you what it looks like now. Not the church, but… It’s not her house. But hers is the same. Before the New Year, they sent all the kids to their grandmother’s house until four o’clock in the evening, while workers were putting in the doors. Katya is very specific. She creates ceramic products. She sells them online. Her children studied at a Waldorf school, and there was an exhibition. Katya was invited to one of these Waldorf exhibitions as a participant and felt very inspired and made a lot of those…

K.S.: Vases, china, teapots. 

J: In just one weekend. But she didn’t manage to burn them in the oven, and all those things stayed in the house. On the 24th of February, they didn’t hear the air raid sirens, but her mother called her and told her: “Katya, they bombed Kyiv”. They were thinking about what they should do and then they heard…not the bombing, but the fire, yes. Because it had reached Gostomel. It was very quick. She went to the shop to buy something, called a friend who told her there was shooting in Kyiv, then she was looking at the sky and she saw 33 helicopters that were flying … Gostomel airport was just six kilometres away, across the river. And when she saw the helicopters. she wondered whether she should film them. (K laughs) At the shop, everybody was buying things and she didn’t know what to buy. Yes, chocolate. It was chocolate. 

K.S.: Because well-being depends on chocolate. And then we couldn’t sleep, we were listening and listening.

J: So they were very stressed and they couldn’t sleep. On those first few nights, you know, none of us slept, we just listened and watched the fire. Her grandfather’s house had been destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War, and now he was seeing it happen again. He still remembered carrying luggage out of his burning house, he showed Katya where it had all happened. Imagine. Katya had images of what her grandfather had told her, and it was like visions from the past, from his time. After two days she told her husband they should leave. She actually wanted to leave in the first minutes [after she learned the war had started], but their neighbours who had tried leaving came back and told them there was a huge queue at the gas stations and there was shooting in the forest, so it was better to stay. For two days they brought the luggage to the car, then brought it back into the house. They didn’t know what to do. They thought maybe they would need to live somewhere in the forest, so they packed sleeping bags and tents and all the seeds that were in the house. They forgot all Marianna’s things. But they took daddy’s guitar (laughs), and a harp. (laughs)

N.M.: Really? You have a big car. 

J: They have a seven-seat car, and she held Maria in her arms so she could take the harfa

N.M.: Everybody told me they packed light. 

J: Light and the harp. (all laugh). 

And an electric saw. It was the only weapon they took with them. So they left and it took them eight hours to drive three hundred kilometres. No checkpoints. The Irpin bridge had already been blown up because bridges are the first things to be blown up. It was our army who did it so the Russians wouldn’t be able to cross. So Katya and her family spent the first night in Berdiciv and the next day they went to the Carpathian mountains. They spent four days there and on the 1st of March they crossed the border. The second day after they left, electricity was cut, and there is still no electricity to this day. A lot of people from Moshun didn’t want to leave, so all the buildings and houses… The Russians came and our army was very active…

N.M.: Fighting them?

J: Fighting them. Because of Irpen. The Irpen river is like the Bega, a canal. They opened the dam and Irpen turned into a big body of water and to the Russians couldn’t cross it. But it was a territory where there was active fighting. Our soldiers and the Russians were in the forest, and they were fighting each other. The forest was a mess, burned and bombed. Some people stayed, some left. 90% of the houses in Moshun are now destroyed. Absolutely destroyed. When the Russians left, our army filmed the area using drones, so Katya saw this video of their house… (asks her in Ukrainian, to clarify something). So they tried to see their house and then their neighbours confirmed, yes, everything was destroyed. Katya went there a month ago.

K.S.: A babusia… (speaks to J in Ukrainian)

J: Katya’s grandmother told her not to put the boiler on the second floor because the house would burn down. And it did. And she had four chicken pets, they even had names. And all those ceramics… Her brother, who is in the army, told her: “I will revenge your house”. 

When we left, we left all our relatives. My brother went to serve in the Armed Forces because he knew he could help. Mom was left to take care of dad’s parents, who died this year with a difference of 8 months. Grandma died in April from a stroke. She learned from the news that her country house, or rather our house, burned down and did not survive it. Grandfather died at the end of the year. My mother’s mother remained, she moved to live with my mother’s sister and her husband, they have a nice basement.

N.M.: Thank you, Katya.

Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska

Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov

Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu