On June 17, 1951, natives of the Ukrainian village Liskuvate began parting ways with everything they’d ever known. Earlier that year, the Soviet Union put a plan in motion to acquire Polish land that held valuable coal deposits. In exchange, Poland received a sliver of Soviet Ukrainian territory that included Liskuvate. Stalin was a big fan of deportations, using them not only to populate areas in need of workers but also for cultural dilution, to consolidate Soviet control over the population. That day in June saw the first departures of Liskuvate residents from their homes, headed for the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east, where they would be forcibly resettled by the Soviets in three villages north of the city of Bakhmut.
Established in 1544, Liskuvate was for centuries a bucolic outpost in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Its church, a “bent, hidden-in-the-trees old woman,” as one scholar described it, was its pride. To an outsider, Liskuvate wouldn’t look much different from other Ukrainian villages, but for its residents, it was their whole world.
My grandfather, a Liskuvate native, wasn’t there to see its dismantling. Like hundreds of thousands of other western Ukrainians, the Soviets had already deported him—in his case, to Siberia. His sisters still lived in the village, though, and were among the 1,400 of its residents sent east.
When the time came to board the trains, some of Liskuvate’s deportees wailed. Some kissed the ground, some kneeled and prayed. Some grabbed a handful of earth to take with them.
My grandfather would have to wait for the collapse of the Soviet Union to be able to return to his birthplace. By then, the area’s highlands were bare of the houses he remembered. The Soviets had repurposed the beloved church as a warehouse for fertilizer and then abandoned it. My grandfather went in search of the graves of his parents. The cemetery had been cleared of headstones. But he knew his parents’ bones were there—unmarked, unreachable, but still a kind of claim.
In February 2022, Liskuvate’s erasure, which had long been lost to history, became relevant again. With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the villages of the former Liskuvate residents became dangerous quickly. Scores of villagers returned to the corner of western Ukraine their forbears had been banished from, a reversal of the Stalin-era exile that was even more cruel than its original.
In October, I meet some descendants of my grandfather’s half-sister Katya at one of the modest houses where they have found refuge. They are, to my surprise, Ukrainian-speaking, despite hailing from a part of the country consistently described as Russophone. “All of our schooling was in Ukrainian, our work in Ukrainian,” Luda, a special-needs teacher, tells me.
Most of the family had arrived from their village, Verkhnokamyanske, in April. Their journey was arduous, at times terrifying. The train they boarded in Lyman had come under shelling farther east, killing the conductor; the carriage they rode in had no electricity.
Volodymyr, Luda’s seventy-year-old father, was struck by shrapnel while searching his garden for something to eat. He recovered, though months later he still looks frail and barely speaks while his family buzzes around him.
In the relative peace of western Ukraine, the main damage the family braces for is psychological. Luda shows me a video of her destroyed apartment complex on her phone. “Everything is blown up. The people, the buildings, the animals,” she says, as the video pans across a nightmarish landscape of crumbled walls and piles of rubble. She coughs a little, a tic she attributes to stress.
Luda says she now has a better perspective on her grandparents’ experience. “My grandmother and grandfather would cry for Liskuvate. My grandmother would sit and say, ‘That’s our home.’ They felt that way until their deaths.” Even though life in the Donbas had been forced on Luda’s family, over time they had made it their own.
“Everything’s nice here, I would never say differently,” Luda says. “But, if it were safe to return, there’s no question I would want to go back.”
In the kitchen, I share tea and cookies with Polina, Luda’s nine-year-old niece. She still attends school with her Verkhnokamyanske classmates, albeit virtually. Her teacher is staying nearby, sheltering with extended family. Polina shows me a class photo taken last year, kids posing obediently in traditional Ukrainian dress. She ticks off the places throughout Ukraine where her classmates are now scattered. I feel a surge of sadness for her, but then realize that at least these children are alive. When I say a few words in English, which Polina is studying, she becomes self-conscious and bursts into a high-pitched giggle.
Polina is one of four children, all under eighteen. Under martial law, this gives her father, Sasha, the rare ability to leave Ukraine for work. He now has a gig at an automobile factory in Poland, the kind of job that used to be common among Ukrainian men looking to enhance their incomes.
Unplanned workarounds like Sasha’s are how the displaced are getting by. Luda is working on a reduced schedule remotely, and her daughter Tetyana is supporting herself and her young son on her husband’s generous salary while he serves in the Ukrainian army. But with the country’s unemployment rate at 35 percent, charity is essential. The house we are speaking in has been offered at no cost by its owners, who are employed in Germany. Such generosity is a grace for which the family is thankful, but it cannot resolve the ache for the world that Russia tore from them, nor alter the daunting likelihood that, like their forebears, they will never get it back.
These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.