Monday, May 21, 2012

Life and Times of Mr. Tspulich of Uzhgorod, Ukraine

From left: Natalia (daughter), Ivan and Ludmilla Tspulich;
From right: Oxana (daughter) and Danielka (grandson)
On Friday, April 20th, friends and family of Ivan Mikhailovich Tspulich celebrated his 80th birthday. He started receiving calls of congratulations early in the morning, and they continued throughout the day. In the early afternoon, his wife, two daughters (Natalia and Oxana), one of his grandsons (Danielka), plus other relatives and friends attended a lavish birthday lunch in his honor at a restaurant near his apartment on Grushevskoyo Street in Uzhgorod, Ukraine

Mr. Tspulich was born in the Zakarpatska (Transcarpathia) region in 1932. Without leaving the region, he changed citizenship several times. Initially, he was a Czechoslovakian (the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I, then was shifted to Czechoslovakia by the Versailles Treaty). In 1939, when he was 7, he was briefly a citizen of a short-lived independent Transcarpathian Republic, but then became a Hungarian when it annexed the region. After WWII ended, the area was incorporated into the Soviet Union, and Mr. Tspulich became a citizen of that empire. Some 45 years later, when the Soviet Union dissolved, he became a citizen of the independent country of Ukraine.

Ivan Tspulich Makes Final Toast of the Meal
Being born in 1932, he was too young to be a soldier in World War II, but as a resident in the “Borderlands,” he  experienced the German invasion and the unimaginable horrors of the German occupation. He does not talk much about those years.

The woman he married, Ludmila Belous, was living in the Vinnitskaya region during the war, and she won official designation as a war hero for her bravery. When the Germans invaded the area, they occupied the house in which her family lived, and the family was required to cook meals for them with provided supplies. Putting themselves at great risk, they smuggled some of those supplies to Ukrainian partisans who lived in the nearby forest. To get the supplies to the partisans, Ludmilla (not yet a teenager) had -- avoiding the watchful eyes of the German guards -- squeezed herself through a kid-sized window in the kitchen to hide the foodstuff outside.

Young Ivan Tsuplich had an academic bent, with some mathematical talent. He also had a great desire to stay out of the Soviet army. After graduation from high school in the end of 1940s, he first earned a technical degree, then a college degree that qualified him to teach mathematics in public schools. He was sent to a rural outpost in the mountains to teach, but after a while there, a local officer in the Soviet Army -- seeing his talent -- took an interest in him and wanted him to be a soldier. After resisting the officer's entreaties to sign on, he was chilled to hear a direct threat: either enlist locally or the officer would make sure that he was drafted and sent to serve in depths of Siberia.  

Ukrainian Cutlet at the Birthday Dinner
Scared, he abruptly departed the village where he was teaching and moved to L'viv to obtain a draft deferral by studying for another degree. However, he arrived on the last day to apply for admittance to a college for the coming academic year, and it was uncertain whether he could gain admittance in the time available. After a couple of rejections, he was able at the very last minute to get on the list of students applying for admittance to the L'viv Agricultural University. In his application and subsequent discussions, he hid the fact that he already had earned a higher education degree, though his stellar performance on the oral entrance exams made some of faculty members suspicious of his background. He seemed to them too well prepared for his studies.

At the agriculture university, student Tsuplich was in his element. He claims that he figured out how to pass oral course examinations without preparing for them, so he rarely studied. To earn a few extra kopecks, he had, for a while, a side business of taking the oral college entrance examinations for less bright applicants. After a short record of success, that enterprise came to an abrupt halt after one day he (bearing the name of another person) came for an entrance examination and found the examiners included teachers whose classes he had taken when enrolled for his (secret) first degree. Barely escaping before he was exposed, he decided to give up that sideline.

He successfully completed his studies at the agricultural university, earning his second degree. By that time, the Soviet army had lost interest in him. He was assigned to an job in the Uzhgorod office of the Transcarpathia Region Ministry of 
Danielka (grandson) and Nazarchik (nephew) eat blinchike
Agriculture, where he worked until his retirement a few years ago. As he started his career, he joined the Communist Party. Settling down, he married Ludmila (a nurse who later became a physician) and fathered two girls, the first in 1961, the second in 1964.

Bureaucrat Tsuplich enjoyed his work for the agricultural office, managing the deployment and maintenance of large equipment used by the collective farms. As part of his job, he traveled often on the dirt roads in the rural areas of the region, for a while riding a motorcycle with a sidecar.  An amiable man, he made good friends with both his colleagues and with many of the farmers he met. These friends were valuable a few years later when he got into some trouble with his boss.

His position had its benefits, as did being a physician. In these positions, Ivan and Ludmila had access to food supplies that might not be available to others, and they sometimes received "gifts" of gratitude that helped feed the family. Another benefit of his position, the Tsuplich family lived for several years in a nice Uzhgorod cottage with a large lot on which they grew such things as strawberries and potatoes. The lot also had a small orchard from which they harvested fruit each year. In the front of the cottage, the family had lavish flower beds.

Comrade Tspulich tells a couple of stories that show the vagaries of belonging to the Communist party. According to him, one of the scariest experiences in his career was losing his Communist Party card. Apparently such a thing was a major transgression that could lead to severe punishment, including prison. Fortunately, after extensive searching and worrying for over a year, his wife Ludmila found the card in a hidden compartment of her purse.

Another story showed the dangers of offending a boss in the Communist Party. His career had a traumatic setback when one day at a staff meeting Mr. Tspulich got very angry at his boss and did something impulsive: he grabbed an ink blotter from the conference table and threw it in the direction of his boss. The punishment for this transgression was a fall from mini-paradise, including the loss of his job and the cottage. The family moved to a high rise apartment, and as his daughter Natalia recalls, had little to eat for a while except eggs, plenty of eggs. Their diet consisted of whatever could be made out of them. Sometimes Mr. Tspulich tried to fool his kids, who were begging for something to eat other than eggs: he would scramble eggs then put the scrambled eggs on a plate and tell them that they were mushrooms.

Natalia Tspulich (Gajdamaschko), High School Graduation, 1979
For a while he was unemployed, which was a precarious situation in the Soviet Union. However,  with the help of a friend, he was hired back at the Agriculture Ministry in another department.
Despite this setback in family circumstances, the Tsupulich family members lived comfortable lives in Uzhgorod, a Transcarpathian city located on the border with Slovakia and just a few kilometers away from Hungary. The Tspulich kids recall happy childhoods attending pioneer camps in the summer and annual family vacations, often going to the Black Sea.

The oldest daughter, Natalia, was a star in the local schools, something she attributes in part to her big eyes and a manner that pleased her teachers. She won all kinds of school awards, medals, and competitions. Her success paid off:  When she finished high school, she was rewarded with the ultimate prize available to students in the USSR, admittance to Moscow State University, the top university in the vast empire. Word of her admittance came near the end of summer as the family was on vacation in Sochi. She had only a few days to get to Moscow for the start of classes. With the help of her father, she made it to Moscow in time to enroll.

Ivan Tsuplich was reluctant to retire, but finally gave up his job when he was in his seventies. He has continued to enjoy life in retirement. He consumes with pleasure the daily grams of vodka that have warmed his throat for more than six decades. He puts on a tie and meets regularly with friends and former colleagues for drinks and conversation at a local cafe or restaurant. He and Ludmila have a dacha on the outskirts of Uzhgorod where they grow potatoes and vegetables and pick fruit from a variety of trees and bushes on the dacha grounds. He often walks the Carpathian mountains in ardent pursuit of prized mushrooms. He enjoys fishing. Though he has given up driving his old automobile, a spiffy, but aging Moskvich, he gets around easily with public transportation and rides from friends.

In the past 22 years, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he and Ludmila have done some things that were beyond their wildest imagination when they were Soviet citizens. They have traveled several times to the United States and to Canada, seeing parts of the world that were not accessible to normal folks living in the Soviet Union. They have one daughter and grandson living in Canada and another daughter and grandson living near Moscow, and they have regularly visit both. They are proud of their daughters’ accomplishments and greatly enjoy their grandsons.

I sure that Ivan and Ludmila Tspulich would have been happy to keep most aspects of the good old days of the Soviet Union. The transition from the Soviet Union was turbulent and left many people disillusioned and in poverty. Unfortunately, the political situation in independent Ukraine has not normalized, and the present thuggish regime is unappealing to most folks in Western Ukraine. Nevertheless, Ivan and Ludmila have been luckier than most with their lives after the end of the Soviet Union. Their daily living is now more convenient with appliances, such as a washer, and products from the West. They get better television programs to watch on their improved tv sets. They have traveled the world. Now, if they could just get water every day for more than a few hours, they could enjoy even more being citizens of the world.

1 comment:

  1. Ukrainian food is one of reasons to visit this country. Meals in Ukraine are both tasty and beautiful.There are numerous restaurants and bars where you can try local meals. Most of them are not very complicated so you will be able to try to cook them at home. Welcome to Ukraine and enjoy delicious local food!