Trip to Kharkiv : From The Rooster House

The news of another Russian attack shook me, because it touched Kharkiv and claimed more than 50 lives. I couldn’t read the news without breaking down in tears. Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city, located in the northeast of the country. It’s about an hour by train by Poltava, and in my family’s geography, Kharkiv has a special place. That’s where my grandmother Valentina studied at the university, met her future husband Boris and had my mother. I wanted to give you our personal sense of this luminous city by sharing an excerpt from my book, The Rooster House. The scene describes our return to Kharkiv for Valentina to discover it after many years away and for me to discover yet another mystery.

Kharkiv was waking up to the rustle of the street cleaners’ brooms, the melodic whine of trams speeding down narrow alleys and the glare of the morning sun. Valentina and I took a bus from the train station, crossed a bridge over a muddy river and drove past old buildings draped in advertisements for manicures, beer on tap and legal help. The imposing blocks of the Soviet novostroiki, literally ‘new buildings’ that were no longer new, sidled up next to modern churches that aimed to look old.

Despite the changes the city had undergone since Valentina was a student, I could easily imagine what she must have felt on her first visit. Kharkiv had neither the splendour of Kyiv nor the bucolic charm of Poltava, but it had grandeur. The buildings were massive; the streets were wide; the monuments outsized. Kharkiv was also a town of memorial plaques. On every corner, a hero had died and a poet had penned a verse. I also noticed many blank spots where plaques had been removed. Some heroes were heroes no longer.

‘Do you want to have breakfast first?’ I asked Valentina when we reached the city centre. Our train to Kharkiv was too early in the morning for breakfast and my grandmother was so preoccupied with the trip that she had eaten very little the day before. We selected a cafe on Sumska Street in Kharkiv’s centre and sat down near a window overlooking the wide avenue. Valentina glanced around, pointing out the new buildings and lamenting the state of the old ones.

‘But at least the food is much better than in the days of my youth,’ she said, tasting the apple pancakes we ordered for breakfast. They were layered with fluffy mounds of soured cream and dusted with confectioner’s sugar. ‘When I was a student, this place used to be a diner, and you could get a sugar bun and a glass of kefir for a few kopeks.’

The pancakes were fragrant with cinnamon and vanilla, and ravenous after our train journey, we ate them greedily.
‘I met Nikolai, Nikodim’s son, here,’ Valentina said. ‘That’s how I learned of his father’s existence.’

My fork fell on the floor, splattering the tablecloth with soured cream. ‘I was still a high school student when I went to Moscow to visit my friend Aniuta. There I met her brother Vania. He was my first love.’ Valentina either didn’t notice my agitation or pretended to ignore it. I had not mentioned Nikodim’s name since our explosive conversation a year ago, and Valentina’s unexpected revelation blindsided me. I also didn’t understand what Valentina’s paramour had to do with Nikodim, and since I grew up hearing so much about my grandparents’ love for each other, the idea of Valentina being infatuated with someone else made me forget the original topic. ‘You had a first love! What
about Grandpa Boris?’

Valentina laughed and waved to the waitress to bring me another fork.

‘It was different. Vania and I exchanged letters, and when I was already a university student, he came to visit me in Kharkiv. Because he couldn’t afford a hotel and I couldn’t invite him to my room, he slept on a bench in the zoo. What’s more, I went to visit Vania in Leningrad, where he was studying at the Nakhimov Naval School. I sold a few cuts of silk that Asya had given me and bought a train ticket.’ Valentina giggled and savoured her own mischievousness. ‘And Asya never learned about it!’

Then the letters from Vania stopped. Valentina assumed that the young man became bored with their long- distance relationship and had found someone else, but she was too proud to write to him and ask for an explanation. ‘But something could have happened to him, or the letters could have been lost,’ I suggested.

Valentina and Boris, Kharkiv, 1957

Except fromVictoria Belim, The Rooster House, Virago, 2022. All rights reserved.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin



  • Anna: I ordered your book already and I look forward to reading it. Thank you sharing these beautiful photos. October 6, 2023 at 10:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Anna! October 11, 2023 at 9:56am Reply

  • Hamamelis: The attack shook me too. The 56 lives that were lost, and the cruelty that it involves.
    I am always happy to read your accounts of Ukraine and its beauty. At least it remains in this way. All strength to you. October 6, 2023 at 11:24am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, this means a lot to me. October 11, 2023 at 9:56am Reply

  • Melanie: I wanted to write the same thing as Hamamelis. Reading about your Ukraine helps me balance out what I read about in the news. It makes the place closer to me and more real. Thank you. I stand with Ukraine! October 6, 2023 at 11:26am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad that it helps. Thank you for reading. October 11, 2023 at 9:58am Reply

  • Claire M: My heart goes out to you and other Ukrainians. Big hugs, Victoria. October 6, 2023 at 11:35am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. October 11, 2023 at 9:59am Reply

  • Amalia: Such brutality, which lasts so long. I was hoping it would stop soon. Is there any hope; Big hugs from Greece October 6, 2023 at 3:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: Much love to you too. October 11, 2023 at 9:59am Reply

  • Becky R Orsini: Hugs prayers and kisses from us in Dallas, TX in the untied states! I stand with Ukraine also! I pray for your beautiful country that you will know peace and democracy! I want each of you to own your own land and plant your trees and vegetables and fruits! Tears are streaming now for your country has fought so long now for Europe and the rest of the world! I pray freedoms comes soon! Your book did bring so much of Ukraine alive for me too! October 6, 2023 at 9:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Becky. I’m so glad to know that my book revealed more of Ukraine to you. That was my main aim. October 11, 2023 at 10:00am Reply

  • Fazal Cheema: Gawdddddd, your grandmother Valentina was so gorgeous as a student. I swear if it was me who had met her then, I would have immediately fallen for her 🙂

    I am so sorry to hear about the attack on Kharkiv. I met a Ukrainian mom last week who was shopping for her son (she bought briefs and socks and wanted to make sure the socks are of either wool or cotton). She described how her village had been attacked and there was lot of destruction and she got very emotional while describing it. I just could not help but feel sorry for humanity that few power-hungry people wage wars and bring unnecessary suffering to so many people. October 6, 2023 at 11:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: Wasn’t she! Beautiful and smart. October 11, 2023 at 10:00am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: I’m so sorry, Victoria. Thank you for sharing your family memories. October 7, 2023 at 6:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for reading. October 11, 2023 at 10:00am Reply

  • Aurora: You made your grandmother so vivid in your book, it is astonishing what our older relatives reveal casually abour their youth. October 8, 2023 at 8:12am Reply

    • Victoria: It was such a shock to me! October 11, 2023 at 10:01am Reply

  • Madina perfumes: The Rooster House is a vivid and delightful travelogue. It beautifully captures the charm and essence of this Ukrainian city. Thanks for sharing your experiences!” October 21, 2023 at 8:38am Reply

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