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Life Like an Accordion

A portrait of life in Kyiv.

Words: Jon Letman
Pictures: Alexander Ugolkov

The worst of the fighting has left the capital for now, but the city remains tense. Giant steel anti-tank barriers called “hedgehogs” stand in rows scattered every 500 meters like menacing games of jacks, positioned to block Russian invaders. Damaged and destroyed buildings dot the city, and suburbs like Irpin and Bucha have become known worldwide as grim settings for brutal carnage.

In Kyiv, life continues as residents walk their dogs on warm spring days and some restaurants and cafés have reopened but things are far from normal, and nothing is certain. A short stroll from the presidential palace, seated at a wooden corner desk in his home, Vladimir Dmitrievich Parkhomenko, taps his laptop and sips green tea with apricot jam.

Vladimir Dmitrievich has lived on the seventh floor of this flat with his wife Nelli since 1984. In response to a reporter’s questions, he replies, “You propose to walk through my life like the keys of an accordion. I haven’t done this for a long time.”

Part scientist, part poet, part philosopher, Vladimir Dmitrievich continues, “You are returning me to my history, making me think of the amazing laws of life.”

Husband, father, grandfather, Vladimir Dmitrievich has led an active and productive life working as a chemical engineer, professor, administrator, technology and education minister, and diplomat. During Soviet times he was a member of the VAK (Higher Attestation Commission), an administrative agency that awards advanced academic degrees. At 88 years old, he continues to serve as an advisor to the director of the Ukrainian Institute of Scientific and Technical Expertise and Information and edits the journal Science, Technology, Innovation.

Vova, as his wife calls him, reflects on the past saying, “the meaning of my life is not just a list of random events.” Filled with the winds of creativity, he says, I am co-author of this life. Part scientist, part poet, part philosopher, Vladimir Dmitrievich continues, “You are returning me to my history, making me think of the amazing laws of life.”

In 1933, during the Holodomor, a genocide that killed millions of Ukrainians through famine blamed on the forced collectivization of land under Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Dmitrievich’s life was saved before he was even born. His maternal uncle, a soldier fighting against the Basmachi resistance, called his sister (Vladimir’s mother) to move to a village near the Turkmen capital Ashgabat where Vladimir Dmitrievich was born.

He still vividly remembers the village where he grew up. He says there were no books save for a bible. Vladimir Dmitrievich was raised by strict grandparents, but with a soul and heart filled with diligence, openness, and moral clarity. They instilled in him an understanding of responsibility and strong work ethic.

Throughout his life, he has loved to study and teach. As a researcher, he took great joy in solving hidden riddles. “I have always loved science,” he says. He also loved the challenge of mastering skills, adopting new ideas, and constantly learning scientific and pedagogical concepts.

In the spring of 1986, he was serving as an education minister, living with his wife in Kyiv. But then disaster struck just north of the capital. A nuclear meltdown. Vladimir Dmitrievich urged his daughter Natalia to seek safe refuge abroad. He suggested she travel to Japan with her newborn son Bogdan to get away from the radiation.

In Japan, she raised her first son and later gave birth to a second. Life wasn’t easy for his daughter, Vladimir Dmitrievich says. Living in Kobe, she and her first son survived a massive earthquake in 1995. They had to move but remained in Japan where they adopted the new culture and mastered the language. In the process, Vladimir Dmitrievich says his daughter opened Japan to him and his wife. Today, they consider it their second home.

Vladimir Dmitrievich sees Japan as a land of kinship and respect, a country of technological wonder with a people that offered his family hope and opportunity. He has visited Japan half a dozen times, first as a Soviet government delegate, and later for scientific conferences.

When the first Russian artillery rounds struck Kyiv oblast on Feb. 24, Vladimir Dmitrievich was staying at his dacha outside of Kyiv without phone or internet.

Although separated by 8,000 km, he recognizes that Ukraine and Japan are united through their experience with radiation — first the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then Chernobyl, and in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster. These shared traumas, Vladimir Dmitrievich says, have brought Japanese and Ukrainians closer, a bond that has strengthened after Russia’s February invasion. As the war grinds on, Vladimir Dmitrievich’s grandsons, both fluent in Japanese, have offered analysis and commentary, frequently appearing in Japanese media.

Just as unlikely relations between Ukrainians and Japanese have flourished, though, ties with neighboring Russia are in ruins. Ukraine now sits at the center of a struggle between good and evil, chaos and order, Vladimir Dmitrievich says.

When the first Russian artillery rounds struck Kyiv oblast on Feb. 24, Vladimir Dmitrievich was staying at his dacha outside of Kyiv without phone or internet. There he remained for the first week of the war.

Before the invasion, he didn’t believe there would be an all-out war, but says he was convinced that if it did happen, “Russia would no longer be Russia,” but “would instead face degradation and disintegration into separate parts.” “A closed system,” he added, “is gradually and always moving toward self-liquidation, just as happened with the USSR. Now this is clear to everyone.”

Owing to his long career in science and research, Vladimir Dmitrievich was able to travel extensively throughout the Soviet Union. While he didn’t analyze the depth of the Russian-Ukrainian relations at the time, he says that growing up he saw no difference between Russians and Ukrainians. He still has family in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

He believes Russians and Ukrainians saw each other as equals. In his words, “Both I and them, and they to us.”

“I had many friends and colleagues in Russia,” he says, “but that was before.”

Vladimir Dmitrievich (left) with another man in Red Square, Moscow.
Vladimir Dmitrievich (left) with another man in Red Square, Moscow. Photo provided by Vladmir Dmitrievich Parkhomenko.

After the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, he says relations quickly worsened as linguistic, social, economic, and political problems grew in number and severity. Those Ukrainians who worked secretly on Russia’s behalf, he believes, are one reason why current Russian leadership expected it could quickly achieve its new military goals just as it did in 2014.

Vladimir Dmitrievich sees what he calls a “good, big, rich country” spending its strength and capabilities on fighting Ukraine. He feels sorry for Russians, even if he says pity is not necessary. “They voted for their present and future and they obviously believe in it.”

Russians have no choice but to obey the laws of nature and live in harmony with these laws, says Vladimir Dmitrievich. Many progressive-minded people will be ashamed of Russia and the fact that Ukrainians are dying, losing everything they had, being forced to leave their homes, and children orphaned. “The border between our countries before and after February 24 became very wide.”

Recalling his own grandfather’s deep, bass voice, Vladimir Dmitrievich recites his words. “Vova, look at the sky. Admire it. Watch the day fade, almost like a flower, drooping petals fatigued. From the sky, the burning sun. Nature needs a rest. The sky leans toward earth, the sun’s halo falls to the horizon. This beauty is extraordinary, nature calms down to rest.”

Ultimately, Vladimir Dmitrievich believes his grandchildren and great grandchildren will live in a beautiful country of which they can be proud. He is certain Ukraine’s future will be bright and prosperous, the country’s struggle for freedom and independence will be a symbol for the world. “Ukraine will be a highly developed and civilized country which enjoys high international prestige,” but, he says, “it comes at the highest price.

This story was written with translation assistance from Bogdan Parkhomenko in Kyiv.

All photos were provided by Vladmir Dmitrievich Parkhomenko.

Jon Letman

Jon Letman is a Hawaii-based independent journalist covering people, politics, and the environment in the Asia-Pacific region.


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