War in Ukraine: The world in a flat in Kiev | International

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“Do you know Sanlúcar de Barrameda?” asks the surprised Huelva reporter Valerian. He can barely get out of bed in the living room of his Kiev flat. The Cadiz town is the trigger for remembering the expedition that launched the circumnavigation of the Earth five centuries ago. “Seville is where Magellan and Elcano left to go around the world. Only 18 sailors came back on the ship Victory. They brought spices and the money they earned from them covered the expenses of the trip.” It is a brief summary, but it explains the passion of this man —and his wife— for books, art, travel, culture and history. On the bed of this ancient sailor, with hands like oars and shoes like boats, hundreds of books occupy the entire wall of the room. He does not move from his bed during the hour-long visit, in which the war that is ravaging Ukraine these days is barely touched tangentially. His talkativeness and memory collide with his dilapidated physique.

Valerian and Raisa Pavlenko, 86 and 85, open the doors of their house with absolute confidence after a casual question from the journalist to the woman in front of their portal in the center of the Ukrainian capital on Tuesday. The presence of a checkpoint with several armed men a dozen meters away warns that war is looming, although the fighting has not yet reached this far. Valerian puts down the book he is reading and immediately strikes up a conversation with the visitor with the help of the accompanying interpreter as if he had planned it for a long time. From their trip to Spain in the eighties they remember the Barcelona of Antonio Gaudí or “the city of El Greco”. "That, Toledo!", He affirms after not remembering it at first.

Pointing to the piece of furniture, he refers to one of the works on one end as his favourite. In a thick volume, It's Me O Lord, the autobiography of American painter and traveler Rockwell Kent (1882-1971). He talks about him and his work with passion, he expands on the stages of his life and his expeditions that he intertwines with those that, in the middle of the last century, he himself carried out all over the world on different ships when he worked as a sailor, for which who graduated in St. Petersburg. Argentina, Cuba, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea… “I fell in love with Copenhagen, with the statue of The little Mermaid in honor of the work of (Hans Christian) Andersen. We took a lot of photos." “I would continue traveling right now, but unfortunately I can't. Now I spend most of the time at home, ”he laments.

Raisa Pavlenko, on the stairs of the building where she lives in the center of Kiev.Luis de Vega

Raisa, who did not retire until last year after 65 years as a librarian, also intervenes, sitting next to him. All in the American Library in Kiev, she says. Between the two they draw a life that began together as children when they coincided in the same school in the city. They have lived since 1961 in a humble apartment on the sixth floor that is full of photos, paintings and memories of all kinds, such as a plastic cup with a doll dressed as a flamenco. Raisa insists that she is allowed to go outside, shop and cook, but when the alarms go off about a possible bombing, which is extremely frequent these days, they do not go down to the shelter of the basement. They do not rule out having to move to the house of one of her children if the war reaches the center of Kiev.

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The woman admits that it would be difficult for her to get away from these walls, which are a living memory of the trips and experiences of a lifetime. In the next room, next to a wedding photo in which they do not appear in wedding dresses, she shows off an oil painting. It is the one they are most proud of. The author is Iván Marchuk, a well-known contemporary painter born in 1936. "I was the first to hang his paintings in the library," says Raisa while showing several photos on the shelf in which her friend Marchuk appears, harassed in times by the Moscow secret services, which considered it contrary to the centralist interests of the USSR.

On the wall next to the oil painting and the rest of the paintings, a lonely figure appears on a bed. It is a painting that she herself made in cross stitch. It is her particular tribute to Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), a local poet and artist whom the couple considers a pillar of Ukrainian sentiment, language and culture. “He spent a lot of time in prisons, in deserts and cold places. He is our national poet, a fighter for independence”, defends Raisa while offering the visitor tea with cookies.

Both, however, do not want the conversation to end without denouncing that the current conflict they are suffering is due to the historical manipulation of Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, and the abandonment of the rest of the European countries. They do not squander the Soviet memory, but they disdain what they consider to be a step backwards after its birth as a country. “Ukraine must remain independent. Absolutely”, ditch she.

Cross-stitch image of the Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko at Raisa and Valerian Pavlenko's house in Kiev
Cross-stitch image of the Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko at Raisa and Valerian Pavlenko's house in KievLuis de Vega

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