Volodymyr Kovalchuk of Lutsk, Ukraine, and my friend of 20 years, died on May 1, 2017.
He died of stomach cancer. “Volodymyr thought you were a very noble person,” my friend wrote me. “I saw him about 6 months ago. We stood outside my apartment and reminisced about those years when the Fitzmahan’s lived in our town. We talked about how much we looked forward to working together to help with your next book.”
Many of my friends from Ukraine are suffering. Jobs have dried up. Pensions are not sufficient to pay for retirement. Many have left and moved to other parts of Europe.
Those who can not leave, stay behind dreading the Russian invasion and fear for their survival.
In October 2006, I traveled to rural Romania, to volunteer at a nonprofit orphanage in Romania.
One evening, I took this photo of Roma mothers and their children. The women had been raped, abandoned, and left with babies. The orphanage built a home on their property, giving these women basic housing and food. The families lived together in one small house – a modest existence, but they were safe from the poverty and horrors of the city.
Hours after I took this photo, in the deep night, this house burned to the ground. All the families got out. But, homeless again. Just before the harsh winter.
Just a little girl. Barefoot. Wearing a torn white shift. An enigma – poor and lost. Is she cold? Where did she come from? Where is her mother?
These are questions that could be applied to all Roma people. Where do they come from? Where do they live? Who cares for them?
I took this photo during a visit to a sleepy little town in Portugal. Very quiet. No tourists.
Roma music plays an important role in many European countries. The Gypsy Kings, a popular group of salsa singers from Arles and Montpellier (in the south of France), were mostly gitanos, Berber-Moroccan and Spanish gypsies who fled Catalonia during the 1930s Spanish Civil War.
Roma are also associated with a romanticized idea of their mystical powers and passionate temper. Fortune telling grows out of folklore associated with Renaissance magic, closely associated with the Roma.
The Roma generally are reticent to assimilate with local cultures. Refusing to educate their children in national schools, suspicious of local and national laws, and following their own singular customs, have made these people a pariah in many countries. Associated with chronic poverty and criminal behavior, the Roma people often suffer persecution, prosecution, and mistreatment.
In the 1940s, the Nazis tried to exterminate the Roma people in a process known in Romani as the Porajmos. 1,500,000 men, women, and children were killed. Later, the Soviets conducted a universal sterilization of Roma women. Today, post Soviet Eastern Europe is rife with discrimination and persecution of the Roma people.
The Italians don’t know what to do with the 150, 000 Roma people that crowd their streets begging from visiting tourists. “With the addition of Eastern European states such as Romania into the European Union, Italy has seen an influx of Roma people in the past decade. The attitude towards the Roma people is for the most part hostile, accusing them of opting for crime over a legitimate job and isolating themselves from Italian society (and taxes) by living in illegal camps. One survey in 2008 found that 68 percent of people in Italy wanted all Roma expelled from the country. ” (The Roma People and the Italians: A Strained Relationship)
This photo was taken inside a large abandoned movie theater in Old Town, Tallinn, Estonia.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the movie theaters closed down. The Communist Party used movies as an effective tool to educate, entertain, and to inculcate Party values in its youth. Soviet movies were the best entertainment in town.
The communist occupiers were thrown out of Estonia in 1991. Democracy and capitalism were adopted, and the aging old movie houses were replaced by ungainly concrete movie complexes. Going to the movies in Tallinn today is like stepping into an AMC movie complex in Walnut Creek, California. Popcorn, Coke, M & Ms, jelly beans, and Brad Pitt.
In 2008, when I was teaching photography in Tallinn, Saskia, one of my students, cajoled her father to allow me to take photos of the abandoned movie theater he owned in Old Town. Saskia’s father was one of the deeply wealthy nouveau riche in Tallinn.
How Saskia’s father, a Russian-Estonian, moved up from being a common worker of the communist Soviet Union, to a multimillionaire is part of a murky tale of acquisition of wealth in the early years of independence.
The Russians of Estonia, unlike Putin’s oligarch friends, did not walk away with political power in Estonia, the smallest of the Soviet republics. But, great wealth during privatization of property was grabbed by a few.
10 years ago, I taught at a small international school in Estonia. A handful of the American teachers were invited to a reception for the President.
Out of ethical opposition to the standing president, my friends refused to go. Being the most liberal of the bunch and a supporter of Al Gore and John Kerry, everyone turned to me to lead the protest, to refuse to attend the reception.
No way! I jumped at the chance to meet President Bush. What an awesome photo opportunity!
Nora puts herself in her art. Pointing to her sketch of a pregnant woman sitting on a turtle, she said, “See here. It’s my nose. I can’t paint without putting it in.” I bought this sketch, The Spanish Lady, from Nora in 1998. For a $100. I smuggled the piece out of Ukraine, rolled up in my guitar case.
“A man came to the KGB office. He looked frightened. ‘My talking parrot has disappeared.’ The agent was confused. ‘That’s not the kind of case we handle here. Why don’t you go to the police?’ The man frowned, ‘I know that, but I am here to tell you officially that I disagree with the parrot.’” Viktor, dean of the law school, was a man who liked a joke. I once read that every nation likes political jokes, but to the people of the Soviet Union, jokes were a national sport.
On my first day at the university, Viktor took my hand and smiled, “I am happy you are here to help us get a new perspective. A class in comparative law is just what we need. I must warn you, though, we have no textbooks, no printer, and no computers. Sometimes we don’t even have lights,” he laughed. Continue reading ““Hide your papers,” he advised, “under the potatoes.””→
“Hey, Volodya, take care of this American lady,” Borys hollered down the hall. A gangly young man peered around the corner. Grunting to Borys in a “Ja, ja,” but smiling at me like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, ayoung man took my hand and guided me down and around into a long narrow room soaked with the smell of chemicals. “Is OK. I speak English. Not very well, but we will be fine. We will be friends. We will talk photography.” Pointing to the enlargers, he said, “These are old Russian machines. Not bad. Nothing like you have in America, I bet.”