Reminder in a Ukrainian cemetery
Gabryela Zapolska was a feuilletonist. It’s okay, no one else knows what that is either. I only mention it because Gabryela’s name is in the Latin alphabet on her grave at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine. I wanted to give the story of an average person at that cemetery but most of the names are in Cyrillic, and all the ones I’ve googled are remarkable people. Like Gabryela, who was a novelist, playwright, journalist, theater critic, and stage actress. And a feuilletonist. I want to tell you all about her.
But then I wouldn’t have space to talk about Maria Konopnicka, yet another female novelist, poet, journalist, and critic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and who was also a noted activist for both Polish independence and women’s rights. (They named a crater on Venus after her, for crying out loud!) But these two noteworthy individuals just happened to be among the first discernible names in my photos from Lychakiv, and neither demonstrates what I want to relate.
Objectively speaking, it’s an impressive graveyard. Created in 1787 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire realized that dead bodies should probably be buried outside city limits, it began as the resting place for the area’s intelligentsia and elite, and my two crushes are minor attendants on the list of notables interred here. But Ukrainian history isn’t soft, and while some areas showed meticulous care and ongoing visitation, other zones were vine-shrouded piles of near rubble. Ornate statues and elaborate funerary architecture made monuments of some graves, but plenty of simple stone boxes or crumbled cement blocks provided punctuation to those life stories. The layout itself seemed contradictory, with broad boulevards of necropolis elegance that wrapped around clusters of chaotic dead ends. Oh, er, poor word choice? Culs de sac of corpses?
Despite this apparent coexistence of order and chaos, preservation and decay, all in a gorgeous space of tree-shaded coolness and mini meadows of golden northern light, the main feeling that grew in me was more than just calm. It was warmer than that. More human. I felt affection. (Or at least connection, though is there any meaningful difference between the two?)
Lychakiv might date back to 1787 but most of the dates I saw were 20th century. These people, whose faces often glowered, grinned, or glared out of old photos, were mostly Soviets. Military commanders looked formidable and unyielding in their uniforms, and I remembered that I had been raised to fear these people, obediently (and idiotically) hiding from nuclear devastation under my desk during drills because one never knew when The Enemy might unleash destruction.
But these people were not my enemies. They never were. These people were just people. Whether it was the husband and wife of fifty years, the feminist playwright, or the graves clustered around that of a boy who died after only six short years of life. People.
Graveyards normally spur a feisty adrenaline in me, a hedonistic urge to live loud in defiance of the death that’s waiting. This one did something else. Lychakiv made me want to sit and read a book in the late afternoon air, just hanging out with my fellow humans, my friends, and who cares if they might have said “comrade” instead?
It’s not a revolutionary insight. I’d say it’s more a base awareness we all have but sometimes manage to forget, but it was the lesson I re-learned that day. And I didn’t even know that one more lesson was planted, one that wouldn’t ripen until today, when I learned that a feuilletonist is someone who writes in the feuilleton, a newspaper supplement for all the non-political, non-news entertainment stuff. So Gabryela was not only a writer, journalist, and actress, she was also a gossip columnist. How utterly human.