Sunset on Ukraine
September 2022 / Snoeck

Thierry Clech

My first memory of Ukraine is like those snow globes filled with translucent liquid. A simple shake of the hand is enough to spread thousands of tiny sequins into the atmosphere. The silver flakes then swarm slowly in the confined sky, then end by covering the entire landscape.

I was ten years old. Like all boys of that age swooning in front of the television set, I followed the Saint-Etienne story which, at the height of winter 1976, made its way through Ukraine. In Kyiv, according to my faltered memory. I realize today that it was in Simferopol, further south, in the lands of Crimea. The sky there was probably identically low and leaden, but there must have been a milder temperature, conducive to the holding of this quarter-final first leg after the snow which covered the ground had been driven away by the reaction blast of aircraft engines brought onto the lawn for the occasion: MiG or old Soviet Army Yak, red stars on their sides.

Two to zero for the Dynamo. A goal from Oleg Blokine, rocket in sapphire blue shorts.

Green jerseys and white jerseys were scattered on a lawn frozen by winter where a few clusters of flakes still persisted. Small clouds of mist were coming out of breathless mouths. When I think of these images, over forty years later, the players have become like ghosts in apnea at the bottom of a jar, lingering indefinitely among the sinuosities of my memory – as in the snow globe of my imagination.

 

Thierry Clech

Ukraine seemed to me to be made of coal and steel, smoke, mist and ice. Behind the Iron Curtain, it was not yet a country: a mere region of the former USSR ruled at the time with the hand of the same metal by an aging Leonid Brezhnev (Ukrainian by the way, born in Kamianske, on the banks of the Dnieper).

Ten years later, on April 26, 1986 in the middle of the night, at 1:23 AM, the number four reactor of the Chernobyl power plant released into the starry sky, after an explosion ripped open its dome, radioactive elements in phenomenal quantities (cesium, strontium, plutonium or xenon), first in the surrounding area, then, carried by high winds, all over Europe. It was no longer snowflakes that vibrated in their ball before gently covering the landscape, but invisible becquerels contaminating the sky, clumping together in the clouds then falling back to earth with the April showers, from Cornwall to the Caucasus, from Palermo to Oslo.

 

Thierry Clech

Thierry Clech

The announcement of the explosion was delayed for three days and contained more easily than the cesium-137 by the Soviet authorities and the State Committee for Nuclear Energy: nothing in Pravda, forgetful Tass, silent Gostelradio. So much so that in Pripyat, the hours after, and in Kyiv, the following days, the carefree populations wandered in the streets between the bars of Stalinist buildings under a soft spring sun, or on Khreschatyk on May 1 to celebrate the workers in front of the Party hierarchs whose ranks, oddly, were more sparse than usual (informed of the seriousness of the situation, some had already fled the region). On the trembling images of an amateur film found since, follow one another floral dresses, orange polo shirts, garnet under-sweaters, an infant dozing in his carriage (chromed metal, beige velvet cradle, thin white rubber tires), young girls in traditional outfits (red and black embroidery, scalloped patterns), and everywhere men in fitted suits (puff server collar shirts, flared trouser bottoms). These views of the parade, in the present of their recording, were already from another era, in a Soviet Union of an eternal essence of the seventies, so much the fashion there was identical.

 

Thierry Clech

Thierry Clech

What has become of all those passersby, embalmed in the celluloid of faded 8mm film? How many survived? Because all of them inhaled, without realizing it, clouds of radionuclides, so-called hot particles which penetrated the respiratory tract, triggering, a few weeks, months or years later, cascading tumor processes.

Why did I go to Ukraine if not to see, in a single territory, an Eastern bloc that never stops dying and a country that never stops being (re)born? No doubt, even more, to find another time there, which I sometimes see beyond the nebulous memory, towards the traces of my childhood.

 

Thierry Clech

Thierry Clech

Thierry Clech

The streets of Ukraine that I photographed, under the sun of August 2013, looked like a Dim or Eram advertising after the jingle of the French ad agency preceding Les Jeux de 20 Heures on France 3, or Aujourd’hui Madame on channel 2. Even the dogs were vintage: short-haired dachshunds, like in a Tati film, drawings by Kiraz or Sempé. Trains: Seventies-like. Compartment wagons, benches in burgundy moleskin, lacquered wood walls. Some, still in circulation on the Ukrainian railway network, had moreover been bought from the French national railways – they still bore the logo, on the seats, the windows or the exterior doors, however covered with strips of paint in the national colors. : blue like the sky, yellow like the wheat. These Wagons, in fact, resembled those in which I myself had traveled as a child when, on a night trip, six-berth compartment, we went on vacation to the other end of France (the mind disturbed by this trip back in time, I even came to imagine sitting in Ukraine on a bench that I had already occupied, forty years earlier, towards the Alps…).

 

Thierry Clech

Thierry Clech

I watched the countryside and the suburbs pass by, from Kyiv to Lviv, Vinnytsya, Odessa, Kherson, Simferopol, Sevastopol or Yalta: grain fields on the sun-scorched plains, rust everywhere, concrete tagged ad libitum, industrial ruins everything long, Volga or Lada without age waiting in front of the level crossings.

And the melancholic faces of the Ukrainians lost in their dreams or their regrets, prisoners of this time loop, this closed world, stifling in summer, stinging in winter, with, receding on the horizon, the mirages of Europe and modernity.

 

Thierry Clech

Thierry Clech

Of course, when I left Kyiv at the beginning of September 2013, under the gray sky and the first autumn rains, I could not have suspected that the summer that was ending would be the last for a Ukraine at peace in its territorial integrity. From the end of November, the barricades of Maidan rose; in February, the Russian army invaded Donetsk Oblast and the Dombass region, triggering bombardments that saw little respite in the following years; in March, Crimea was annexed; in May, Russian-speakers, pursued by ultra-nationalist hordes, were burned to death in the fire at the Trade Union House in Odessa; and, nearly nine years later, the war spread over almost the entire country…

The little spherical world of the Ukraine that I had imagined as a child, covered with the snows of the winter of 1976, has this time well and truly disappeared, not under the tiny silver flakes that move in a glass ball, but beneath the clouds of explosions rising directly above the gutted buildings, above the haggard populations, disoriented in the middle of the ruins, holed up in the depths of the cellars, taking refuge in the corridors of the metros.

Time that History passes and the dust settles…

Thierry Clech

Translated from the French by Matthew Hong

Sunset on Ukraine / Thierry Clech
Forthcoming / Snoeck, September 2022
128 pages, 19 x 21 cm / French, English, Dutch
Visit the publication page >

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