The View from Tsetsyno

An excerpt from the novel A Story Worth a Whole Apple Orchard

by Maxym Dupeshko

Translated from the Ukrainian by Zenia Tompkins

I don’t know what lures me here. I come to this mountain a few times a year as to a place of spiritual pilgrimage, foraging here for air suffused with oxygen atoms and the scent of conifers. Though that’s most likely only part of it. It’s not just the taste of the air, not just the sweet headiness of the beech and fir trees, not just the pleasant height with its distant Bukovynian skyline, but also… But also something impalpable that unfurls through this space and pulsates all around. 

Back then this city was altogether different. Or maybe not altogether. Or maybe this city didn’t exist at all, and all these images that we now see—maybe they were purposely created by some storytelling romancers. And only the old classical or constructivist buildings bring us back now and then to that age replete with cherries and woolen fur. 

Yet the more growth rings form on the trunk of my life, the nearer I seem to draw to that city and that time. Maybe it all boils down to simple math: When you’re ten, “fifty years ago” feels like an eternity. When you turn twenty, “sixty years ago” strikes you as something markedly closer, never mind your forty and “eighty years ago.” Were the mirror of my life to get flipped around, I would find myself in interwar Chernivtsi, which hardly anyone called Chernivtsi back then, most referring to it as Cernăuți, while some—primarily the local Jews—as Czernowitz. 

It would have been 1935: The doves on Piata Unirii, today’s Central Square, were reflecting on the potential advantages of constructing their nests beneath the towering advertisement letters on the roofs of the surrounding buildings. An almost meter-tall NIVEA flashed on one side of the square. The refined residents of Chernivtsi particularly liked this brand’s powder and the barbers its shaving cream; even its suntan cream had come into vogue as of late. A PHILIPS sign, its light bulbs shining into nearly every Chernivtsi residence, festooned the opposite side of the square. 

At that moment the fifteen-year-old Pavel Bachinsky was standing beneath the Unirii Monument, erected in honor of Bukovyna’s unification with Romania. He was pondering two things, the first of which was when he would finally grow enough facial hair to leave himself a pencil-thin black mustache on his upper lip. In the darkness of the Skala Movie Theater, Pavel had noticed how girls’ eyes twinkled like diamonds when the unequaled Clark Gable appeared on the screen with his slicked back hair and aristocratic smile. The youngster didn’t doubt that it was precisely this pencil-thin moustache that lent the American actor an aura of seeming perfection. 

The second thing that the cheeky young man was thinking about was actually the Unirii Monument—more exactly, if his father could forge something better than the Romanian foot soldier liberating the Bukovynian peasant girl. Pavel was confident that he could because who, after all, was the finest blacksmith in Bukovyna if not his dad Leszek Bachinsky, originally from around Horodenka but these days from around Piata Garii next to the train station?

Not coming up with a precise answer for either of his questions, Pavel looked over at the Austrian eagle being trampled by a Romanian buffalo at the foot of the monument: the double-headed eagle who in fact had no intention of dying, for even though sixteen years had passed since the arrival of the Romanians, the townsfolk were still stubbornly speaking German.

At that time not only Pavel Bachinsky, but millions of other Europeans as well, didn’t sense that a different buffalo was closing in on them—the fiery buffalo of war. But all that would come in due time. It’s we who now know what would happen next. And from a century beyond hurl reproach at that generation: Couldn’t they have halted all of this, foreseen it, strangled one tyrant in a Munich tavern and drowned the other in a mountain stream in the Caucasus?

Mr. Pavlo, who was once Pavel, remembers that day clearly. He was returning from a Bukovyna Championship soccer match in which the local Jewish team Maccabi had scored a goal against his favorite Polonia in the final seconds, and now Polonia, the team of Chernivtsi’s Polish community, would let itself be overtaken in the tournament standings by the Ukrainian Dovbush, the German Jan and even the yokels from Berehomet over on the Siret River. 

But, as we know, the mood of teenagers is apt to change swiftly, so he was walking past the city hall a completely happy young man already. The cherry trees in the orchard were ripe, the grammar and high schools were on summer break, more and more trucks and wagons with fresh Chernivtsi beer were crawling upward past the train station, and a tramcar had run off its tracks on the corner of Bratianu and Morariu Streets. The group of students that had exited the tram were sooner amused than startled by the escapade, and they were discussing among themselves what to do next: whether to continue on afoot or watch as the heavy heap of unruly metal is placed back on the tracks. From all appearances, the young people were headed to the river Prut.

A middle-aged Jewish woman—whose hair was black at the crown and gray, almost white, at the temples—walked out onto her balcony. In her hands the woman held a glass of lemonade that was keeping dehydration at bay on that sweltering June day. 

The motorman of the tram approached the students, imploring them to corroborate that he had been driving slowly and the tram had run off the track through no fault of his. But the boys were making fun of the terrified man, saying that he had been driving so fast that their fedoras had gone flying off their heads. “Why, you’ve got no damn hats!” the driver cried. “That’s precisely why,” the boys were laughing. “Because all our hats flew off our heads back on Ștefan the Great Street.”

Yet a minute later the chaps did settle down and reassured the driver that they would confirm to the inspectors that the tram really had been creeping down the steep incline like a slowpoke-donkey. “Say it just like that”, said the driver and, having calmed down, sat down on the curb.

“I remember that day well,” Mr. Pavlo would tell me. “I even remember that little Romanian song that the students were singing. It clicks on in my brain like a broken radio that works when it wants to and doesn’t when it’s not in the mood. It’s walked through my whole life alongside me like that. One time this song switched on in my head right in a dentist’s chair, and it made it all seem not that scary. I sometimes think about the fact that those boys likely forgot it long ago already. And where are they anyway, those boys? Does even one of them still live in Chernivtsi? Or maybe they were taken into the Romanian army back then, over fifty years ago, and not a single one of them remains among the living? But I envied them in those days. They were university students. The future elite. Not like these days: Wherever you turn your head, there are students. Back then these were the chosen.

“What prospects did I have then? A boy from the Ukrainian preparatory school, a Pole by nationality whose parents, alongside Polish and Ukrainian—those were the languages we spoke at home—made him study German first and foremost, and not Romanian. 

“My father, Leszek Bachinsky, believed that Mother Austria would return one day. He remembered well all sorts of stories about the illustrious Habsburgs and told them at the dinner table on many an occasion. ‘You’ll get arrested for this someday, Leszek,’ Mom would say. ‘Forget the Habsburgs. The last of them was killed in Sarajevo, and you know that full well.’ My father didn’t agree. He even wanted to form a secret organization that could fight for the emancipation of Bukovyna from the Romanian occupiers and its return into the warm embrace of Mother Austria. ‘For this venture I need colleagues,’ dad would say, ‘who would become members of the organization, who would raise the masses against the occupier. For now I have one such man—you. Are you ready to fight for the liberty of the Bykovnian people and their return beneath the mighty wing of the righteous Habsburg dynasty?’ Sometimes I would reply that I was ready. But that was a disingenuous response. Because I no longer knew who that Mother Austria was. I was born in 1920, two years after that mother dearest was mercilessly crushed by the armies of the Triple Entente. Let’s say that you have a son who is born sometime now, in 1993—like me, two years after the death of an empire. Only then it was the Austro-Hungarian one and now it’s the Soviet one. And imagine, my dear friend, that in fifteen years you invite your son to fight for the great Soviet Union. What would your son say to that, if he hasn’t lived a single day in that empire? This is, of course, assuming that Ukraine survives as a state and all goes well. Don’t get offended. I meant nothing by it when I said that you would recruit your son to support the Soviets. I know you’re not one of those. It’s just an example.”

I, of course, didn’t take offense. I even took a little pride in the fact that Mr. Pavlo had picked me to tell all of this to. At first I had a suspicion that I was one of many, that this old man just liked to babble, but later his wife reassured me that that was far from being the case. “I don’t know what it is he’s telling you over there, but he doesn’t talk that much with anybody else.” Then she, as it often happens with women, said what was hanging on her tongue and only later rethought whether it had been worth saying: “You’re not a con artist by chance, are you?” I didn’t take offense at this either. Because my friendship with Mr. Pavlo truly was quite odd, considering the fact that I was the same age as his grandchildren.

Anyway, on that day when this whole story began, Pavel Bachinsky was fifteen years old. Naturally, the story could have been started from another day—for example, from the day Leszek Bachinsky’s family, after protracted wanderings during WWI, found themselves carried into Chernivtsi like a little seed by the wind. “I wasn’t the one to pick this city. It picked me on its own. And what right do I now have to leave it?” Leszek would say. This story could have also been started from another scorching day and even from another city, Sarajevo. Though some say that Gavrilo Princip’s role in European history has been exaggerated because it was too simple; he played the role of a match that would have inevitably burst into flame sooner or later.

Yet, perhaps, we’ll find ourselves returning to the corner of Bratianu and Morariu Streets, where a crowd of people had gathered to have a look as the recalcitrant tram is placed back on its tracks. The fifteen-year-old Pavel Bachinsky was getting ready to head off already when he glanced once more at the balcony. Behind the older Jewish woman with the lemonade, a younger, visibly adolescent girl, in a long white dress with a brown sash that cinched her narrow waist, had appeared. The girl’s coal-black hair curled softly around the pale skin of her face, making it even paler. The young lady noticed that a grubby, sun-flushed chap was goggling in the direction of their balcony in the most brazen way imaginable and quickly ducked back into the room. She felt a surge of shame: before her own herself, or before her mother, or before the young man. But Pavel was gripped by a different feeling—of wonder. How could he have not seen this girl in town before? How was it possible to roam these hilly streets and not notice her? After about the twenty-fifth rhetorical “how,” Pavel once more raised his eyes to the balcony, where this time only the older woman—the mother of that previously unseen beauty, so concluded the young man—was sitting on a red cushioned footstool. The boy sensed that the young girl would return again.

On this mountain there once stood a fortress. They say that even in the sixties of the last century there were still ruins here that got dismantled, and a TV tower was built on the foundation. Now the grounds of the television center are cordoned off by a fence, inside which dogs bark. It had been my dream to clamber up to the very top of the tower. This dream, actually, is still very real. Tsetsyno, as this mountain is called, is 512 meters tall, and if you add the forty meters of the TV tower, this comes out to a whole 560 meters in height from which you can see not just half of Bukovyna but the entire southern stretch of Western Ukraine. On the southwestern side lies a ribbon of Carpathian ridges, including the tall Chornohora. To the west you can see the top of the Sniatyn Town Hall tower forty kilometers from Chernivtsi, and maybe even the town of Horodenka, or even Kolomiya. To the north, beyond the thin ribbon of the Prut River, as if cupped in a palm, lies Kitsman, birthplace of the singer Volodymyr Ivasyuk. And between the fields drifts a green combine-ship of the Nepolokivtsi Bread-Baking Complex, not far from which the Cheremosh feeds into the Prut. The green hills of Khotyn, beginning with Sadhora, stretch to the northeast all the way to the Dniester River. Looking out to the east from the Tsetsyno TV tower, you will see Chernivtsi itself, its streets and buildings speckling the hills like sheep. To the south there will once more be mountains. Only this time Romanian ones.

“That city had a completely different scent. You can’t smell it anymore these days. And this is true not only of Chernivtsi. All of the western cities lost it. Picture the streets being much more crowded with people and in every square a market with all kinds of domestic animals, onions and garlic, fish and sausage. And village people too, who smelled of hay and manure, soil and grass. And homespun clothing made from sheep fleece, cowhide or pigskin. Just don’t be thinking that the city folks smelled any better. Far from it. Townspeople smelled of the dampness of their dwellings, and functionaries carried the scent of paper, dust and the money tallied in their account books. Even though there were a lot of automobiles already, there was still a fair number of horses in the city, and some of the Romanian villagers would even come to town by oxen. And not everyone could afford to use shampoo back then. Yet when the men would head out onto Iancu Flondor Street, they smelled of polish—that’s how nicely their shoes were shined. 

“The only spot in the city where the smell hasn’t changed is on the bank of the river Prut. Till this day it smells of stone, moss, conifer and fish, and a little of mud due to the constant change in water level. We even used to drink the river water back then. Though it likely wasn’t much cleaner than now. Girls and women were going sunbathing already. Those were the first ripples of feminism in Chernivtsi. What am I saying, first… the works of Olha Kobylianska with her strong and independent women had long since been written. Olha never did marry because of this free-willed spirit of hers. She, like me, had Polish roots and knew Romanian and German perfectly, but decided to write in Ukrainian. As if she sensed that in some hundred years there would be a free nation-state and her place would be in that state.”

Sometimes Mr. Pavlo would get so enthralled by his own story that it would be hard to stop him. It seemed as though he wanted to share everything he had. Very excited by the inrush of memories, he would flush and seem to fall into a trance, and no longer paid attention to whether or not I was listening to him. Sometimes he would tell stories about things that I knew, that every school boy from sixth grade on knows. But it was understandable: So much had gone undiscussed from 1935 all the way till 1993. It seemed like he simply didn’t have anyone to tell about all of this. He was forever fearful that he knew too much, that he’d be accused of espionage, of challenging the Soviet order. Though he knew nothing secret. He simply remembered that city where the October Movie Theater was a synagogue, where the Romanian nannies sang Ukrainian lullabies to German children and the women were giving themselves permission for the first time to go bathing publicly in the Prut.

“It turns out that for many years I lived in the same city as Kobylianska. True, in opposite quarters of it. I lived next to the train station, while she lived in the Noviy Svit Street area. I still don’t know if I ever saw her. I should have seen her; we should have crossed paths somewhere. When I look at her portrait, at her photographs, I get the feeling that I did actually see her somewhere. Next to the Square of the Turkish Well, or on Noviy Svit Street, or next to the offices of the Siguranța—the Romanian secret police. At the tail end of my studies in the prep school I heard her name, but she was very old by then already. 

“In 1940, when the Soviets arrived, they renamed Iancu Flondor Street in her honor. For many residents of Chernivtsi, who didn’t know literature, this only debased her name because no one liked Soviet rule back then. But the commies hoped to win over the local Ukrainians with those kinds of shenanigans.

“And so I too at first thought that Kobylianska was a communist, and this disappointed me greatly. You understand, in school we only got exposed to the classics. At that time, only historically recognized names existed for us—Goethe, Schiller, Eminescu, Shakespeare, Dante. That’s probably how it is now too: Students study the literary classics, while in the meantime somewhere right next to them, on a city bench beneath some chestnut trees a block away, a living future classic is sitting and feeding pigeons. I’m telling you all of this, my friend, so that you appreciate how much of everything moves right past us. We let so many beautiful people slip by us in life without pausing our roving gaze, without gracing them with a smile. And how many melodies, and how many words, sounds and smells, how many books and films will we never hear, never feel, never read and never see? I lived through the greater part of the twentieth century, and what did I take away from it? It’s pathetic. I haven’t even held a rifle in my hands. In a century that witnessed the most killings in all of history, there is a man who hasn’t held a weapon in his hands. What can this man tell you about? I have only one pair of eyes and one pair of ears among six billion other pairs of eyes and ears. If you’re coming to me for history, then you should understand that what sits before you is only a small piece of molding that chipped off the balcony of an old Chernivtsi building built by some shoe or Chinese silk merchant for his family.” 

“You say that you haven’t carried a weapon, but if you had, in which army would it have been?” I asked Bachinsky.

“Good question. I’ve never asked myself that. I promised my father to fight for Mother Austria. The two of us were the only members of the underground organization Der Schwarze Adler, which he named after The Order of the Black Eagle in honor of Emperor Franz Joseph. Our organization’s activities consisted of us sitting for long stretches in the kitchen, with me listening to my father reminisce about the Austrian period of his life. Then Mom would come in and say to us, ‘Oh, they’ll lock you up in jail, boys. They’ll lock you up.’ Indignantly, my dad would send her off back to the kitchen in a mix of four languages: ‘Ne zhvyndy, woman. Mergem nach der Küche. Go to the kitchen.’ That Yiddish-Ukrainian ne zhvyndy—'don’t bullshit’—Dad had picked up from a fish merchant from the predominantly Jewish town of Zastavna. And there was nothing unusual about this. In the Chernivtsi of that time, words migrated from one language into another and from one dialect into another very fluidly. Dad really loved mirror carp; he would scale it himself, cook it and almost eat the bones along with it. He always got his fish from that bearded fellow from Zastavna. And when people at the bazaar would comment that the fish had been cheaper the day before, that merchant would say back, also in a mix of four languages, ‘Ne zhvyndy mo, Hora Solomonovich knows the preţ for his die Fische.’

“But you were asking about the army that I would’ve wanted to fight in.

“At the time I didn’t think about that either. But had I taken up arms, I would have fought for either the Polish underground or for the pro-Ukrainian Banderites. Don’t you think that I’m just waxing lyrical here because I do, after all, have a Ukrainian passport and we are in an independent Ukraine right now. I know what I’m saying. Poles, Ukrainians and Jews all had a common war. And we all lost it back then. And we all won it then too.”

Even before a truck had arrived with cables to pull the out-of-control tram off the Chernivtsi cobblestones—shaped like the scales of carp from the Zastavna ponds—back onto the track, Pavel saw the young lady in white for a second time. This time the girl looked down from the balcony at the young man a little longer. She was no longer ashamed now and was simply marveling at how someone could goggle at a stranger so unabashedly. But Pavel could no longer keep staring and averted his eyes, and when he raised his head once more the girl was gone. 

The boy ran, almost flew, down the hill to the train station, not far from which was stood house. His father was in the smithy, and, in an effort to abate his excitement at the fact that the most beautiful and most gracious girl in the world had appeared in Chernivtsi, Pavel burst into the premises, inflamed by the summer sun and the infernal furnace, and immediately asked if his father could forge a better memorial to the unification than the one standing on Central Square.

“Son, have you gone mad? First of all, I’m a blacksmith and not a sculptor, and those are completely different professions. And second of all, even if I were the best sculptor in Europe, I would never make a monument like that because I’m a loyal subject of the Habsburgs. How can you ask something like that of the head of the underground Der Schwarze Alder?” responded the incensed Leszek Bachinsky, pulling a cooled strip of iron lattice out of water. 

In reality, Pavel’s father was far from the only supporter of a return to Austria. There were many such underground organizations in Chernivtsi, but with considerably more serious aims and greater membership. The Siguranța followed them, even imprisoned some of their members, but were also comforted by the fact that there were no shared borders between Austria and Bukovyna because now they were separated by Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which in turn would greatly thwart the separatist plans of the Austrian monarchy sympathizers.

For many years now I’ve had the habit of coming up to Tsetsyno, grabbing along a satchel with a cool drink or a thermos of tea and a few croissants or apples. I find an empty clearing with a view of Chernivtsi and watch as time stops, as the city in the valley grows still, with only the restive birds serving as a reminder that this stillness isn’t complete, isn’t definitive, that in reality, even though not visible from up above, the flow of people and cars in its arteries doesn’t come to a stop. When the Tsetsyno dogs stop baying, you can hear the city talking. All its sounds meld into a single hum, as if someone pressed a piano key and is holding down the pedal. It’s as if Chernivtsi are reverberating with the note Re. In the middle register. Not too high, but not too low either. More southern cities likely emanate higher notes. 

It’s here, on Tsetsyno, that Pavel Bachinsky and I met. I treated him to an apple; he treated me to a story that’s worth a whole bushel of apples. Why, no—the story is worth a whole apple orchard.