The first thing I will do when I return to Chernihiv is to put order in my yard. It must have gotten dirty there, — says Ivan Ivanovych. He is 85. The childish smile almost never leaves his face. He speaks slowly and quietly. He often pauses. Blue jeans, T-shirt, cap. Grey beard and light eyes.
On the move
Ivan Dementov was born in 1944 in the city of Konotop, Sumy region. He is Roma by origin. He belongs to the ethnic group – Servitka Roma and Russian Roma. Ivan Ivanovych calls himself a Ukrainian Roma, because he says that on his mother’s side his ancestors were natives of Ukraine, and therefore later formed an ethnic group – Servitka Roma, which today preserves its belonging to the Ukrainian identity. Mr. Ivan grew up on the road, because almost his entire childhood was spent in a nomadic lifestyle. At that time, Roma families and communities set up their tents and set off on their journey. They travelled all over Ukraine. They drove from one end to the other. They usually stopped near ponds, rivers and lakes. It was especially important for the Roma to find a spring with drinking water so that they could prepare food, wash linen and clothes while travelling further. Ivan Ivanovych recalls how, wandering with his elders, he liked to look at the landscapes around him: golden wheat fields, green and dense forests, hilly and spacious valleys. All this was shaped by children’s ideas about the world, nature, and animals at that time. For Mr. Ivan, even then, the inseparable connection between man and nature was clearly crystallized in the images and forms that he studied on the move as a child, travelling in colourful Roma wagons along the road. During the nomadic period, the Dementov family had a rule: with the beginning of the first of September, the camp stopped where there were schools, so that the children could go to their first lesson together with everyone else and master literacy.
The camp is no longer wandering
Already in 1956, all Roma were forbidden to nomad. They were forced into a sedentary lifestyle. Then, in autumn, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR adopted the decree “On the employment of Gypsies engaged in vagrancy”, which changed the way of life of many nomadic Roma. Promising employment and housing, the authorities pushed them to settle and often threatened them with eviction to remote areas of the country. Ivan Dementov’s family was forced to settle where the Soviet authorities stopped them.
“Where they stopped us, we had to settle there. There were such things,” Ivan Ivanovych recalls the difficult times of settlement of the Roma population during the Soviet occupation. Mr. Ivan’s family stayed in Chernihiv, which later became home to Ivan Ivanovych. There he continued his studies in the class of a local school. He was 12 at the time. “I studied well. Even excellent,” he emphasizes. After that, he decided to enter the veterinary school, but he realized that his true vocation is the road, so, without finishing his studies, he began to learn about the traffic rules in order to become a driver.
After horses, I wanted more freedom.” So he became a driver. At first, Ivan Dementov worked on a drilling machine, building a power line for the local population. Later he was a tram driver. Mr. Ivan’s father was breeding domestic animals at that time. He was engaged in cattle breeding.
The time of the Second World War was difficult for Ivan Dementov’s family, as it was for most Roma during the German occupation. Only three out of nine children of the large Roma family managed to survive. Mr. Ivan’s father, together with other Roma, formed partisan units, created battalions and tried to fight the German Nazis underground. Ivan Ivanovych says that the path of the Roma partisans ran all the way to the western part of Ukraine. Here they were helped by the Ukrainians, who also fought against the violent occupation actions of Germany. Ivan Ivanovych does not say much about the infamous time of the Second World War. He is often silent. Or he starts to immediately recall his house in Chernihiv.
House on the Desna
With the beginning of a full-scale Russian invasion, Ivan Dementov had no intention of leaving. Even when the sounds of Russian aircraft buzzed over the roofs of the houses of civilians in Chernihiv, Mr. Ivan stayed at home. And when the streets quieted down, he went out into the yard, watched his horses, which he could not take with him later, evacuating to another city. He went to the banks of the Desna River to look once more at how the sun was slowly setting over the river. Without thinking for a long time, the grandchildren decided that Ivan Ivanovych and his wife Oleksandra should leave the city. It was getting more dangerous here every day. They hastily packed a suitcase, putting everything they needed, and evacuated to the western part of Ukraine. Already at that time, the Russian invaders blew up a bridge in Chernihiv, so it was extremely difficult to get out of the surrounded city. Today, two grandsons of Ivan Dementov continue to volunteer, staying in Chernihiv.
Dream of the return
“You have seas and rivers, and lakes, and forests, and mountains, and valleys. And fertile land that feeds half the world. Oh my god, I did not take the glasses. I can’t see now,” Ivan Ivanovych pulls out a white sheet of paper from his pocket, on which a small poem is written with a ballpoint pen. When Ivan Ivanovych stayed in his Chernihiv house at the beginning of the war, not planning to leave anywhere, he thought a lot about today’s events. “I keep thinking why Ukraine is being attacked,” and without waiting for an answer, he answers to himself, “Because it is so beautiful here!” again he looks at a checkered sheet of white paper. Now his voice is calmer, and his words are less audible.
Now seventy-five-year-old Ivan Dementov and his wife Oleksandra live in one of the sanatoriums in Truskavets. The days go by here one after the other. In monotony and obscurity. Ivan Ivanovych has a concern that he will not survive until winter, because what he would like most now is to return home to Chernihiv. Open the yard gate. Clean up the house. Talk to the neighbours. Say hello to the horses. And to see his native Desna again.
“I don’t want to go abroad or anywhere else. I don’t want to go anywhere. Only home. His voice is quiet again. And the eyes, which are hidden in the wrinkled face, are full of sadness.