Found in Mariupol

First posted on Sunday, 13 September 2015

I’ve got good news about my quest for early 20th century Romanian herdsmen who took their chances in Ukraine. After years of trying to make contact with one particular family, I finally succeeded. It was thanks to my new friends in Kyiv who kindly offered to pass on a message to an address in Mariupol that I was afraid was long out of date. But amazingly, it wasn’t, and here is an outline of the Predas’ story:

In 1912, Ioan Preda and one of his brothers led their flock of Turcana sheep from Tilisca in the southern Carpathian Mountains (then part of Austria-Hungary, now Romania) to eastern Ukraine. They settled in a village near Mariupol and for a few years did very well. Then events caught up with them. By the time Stalin came to power, in 1925 or 1926 (I’m writing this off the cuff), things were already chaotic: the First World War coincided with the 1917 Revolution which was followed by a civil war, and widespread famine.  Stalin orchestrated the liquidation of Ukraine’s farmers, and well-to-do shepherds were no exception. Ioan Preda lost all his sheep and was deported to Kazakhstan where he continued to work with sheep. One of his sons, (I think it was Pavel, but must check his name), was conscripted into the Red Army. Ioan’s wife and another son fled to Romania. In 1954, shortly after Stalin’s death, Ioan and Pavel returned to Mariupol (where they had owned a town house). Pavel married Nina. Ioan went back to Kazakhstan and resumed his shepherding career. I would dearly love to know where he went and what his life was like. In Bloodlands, Tim Snyder paints a grim picture of the Central Asian gulags, but a canny shepherd might possibly have carved out a tolerable existence.

Thanks to my Kyiv friends, I now know that Nina survived and – until at least two weeks ago – was still in Mariupol. My friends wrote to her in Russian (because Russian is the predominant language in eastern Ukraine), using an address I’d obtained from a letter Nina’s husband had written to the Tiliscan branch of his family  in 1989.

Since March 2014, Mariupol has been in the eye of the storm. Crimea’s annexation by Russia was followed almost immediately by the rise of ‘rebel’ groups of Russian nationalists in the nearby Donbass region. Mariupol is a port on the Sea of Azov, as well as being an important coal and steel town*. As such it’s a vitally strategic point for any group that wants to dominate eastern Ukraine. I went there with my friends in December last year, but there wasn’t time to look for the Preda family. It seems amazing that Nina is still there.

When my friends rang her she was naturally surprised. But what surprises me is the fear she exhibited at the mention of Stalin’s name. Nearly three-quarters of a century after he died, she was still afraid to talk about ‘that time’.  My friends and I have sent Nina some small gifts and are hoping to talk to her more. Meanwhile I am so thrilled to have found her – and more importantly, to have given her Romanian cousins the news. It makes this sometimes pointless-seeming research worthwhile.

*Incidentally, the man behind the 19th century exploitation of the Donbass coal mines was a Welsh entrepreneur, John Hughes. Donetsk was once named after him.
Posted by Caroline at 11:30 No comments:

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