Tangerines for Lenin

The juniper next to our apartment building, bushy, sprawling, with long and dense branches, was a perfect hiding place.

One winter day there was some activity behind its arboreal walls. A portrait was leaned against a branch, with a candle burning on either side. The portrait pictured a balding necktied man with a dandyish early 20th-century-style beard. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Was it some secret communist cult? There was no need to be secretive about one’s love for the founding father of Bolshevism, although the winds of change were blowing hard that winter.

The scene looked even weirder when one noticed a handful of tangerines scattered in front of the portrait and a bunch of five-year-olds huddled together in the hideaway.

Lenin’s portraits were among my earliest childhood memories. They used to be everywhere including nursery schools. Then, when the Red Leviathan began agonizing, old idols were falling from grace, literally.

My hometown was among the first in Ukraine to dismantle the monument to Lenin in the summer of 1990. His portraits were quickly disappearing, too, making room for the national poet Taras Shevchenko. People were often throwing them out of the window, and that was how we took hold of one such artefact. We brought it to our secret place to say hasta la vista to the mysterious face, the silent unshaven babysitter who used to watch our every move.

An unconscious drive, a sort of religious instinct, made us arrange the absurdist memorial service in the shade of our coniferous sanctuary. Unwittingly caricaturing the religious practice of our parents, whose faith had just started coming out from the underground—the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was banned in the Soviet Union,—we found no better offering than tangerines from the Caucasus, a traditional winter delicacy of the time.


I believe that detective agencies and lost and found offices should hire children to find stuff for candy and ice cream. Kids are the best spies and sleuths. They casually stroll around without attracting attention, explore every inch of their neighborhood, penetrate places that everyone ignores, and discover things no one notices.

At least we were like that in the early nineties. Coins, banknotes, jewelry, and trinkets of all kinds were our daily trophies. But there were also discoveries that stood out, stuck in one’s memory, and even influenced one’s life.


Not all such finds became memorable because of their theatrical absurdism like in the case of Lenin’s portrait. Some were literally, physically traumatizing.

Once we found a weightlifting disk with ‘20 kg’ written on it behind our apartment building. I imagined someone had thrown it out of the window like the Lenin portraits. We raised it on its edge and started rolling it along. Then someone did something wrong, and the thing landed on my toes.

It only lasted a split second. The guys quickly lifted it up and kept rolling as if nothing happened. And I… I played a little Hide the Pain Harold, because boys don’t cry, you know. My parents also never learned about the incident. I thought I did something forbidden, so I kept it to myself. It hurt for a few weeks, but otherwise I was fine.

Perhaps it wasn’t the first time I behaved like this, but it is the earliest I can still remember. And it illustrates the psychology of all my subsequent life—the very definition of introversion.


Another memorable find was a book.

We were eight or nine years old and were playing on the territory of our former nursery school when someone produced a thick, old-looking, yellow-paged volume. I don’t know if it was just lying around outside or was procured from the nursery school’s building, but my friends immediately started ripping out and burning the pages—someone always had a matchbox at hand.

For me a book has always been a treasure. I still have a few tomes with mice-eaten binding that I saved from my grandma’s house. While my classmates, under the influence of Hollywood movies, dreamed of robbing a bank, I fantasized about raiding a library or a bookstore.

However, that day I was only able to save several pages by secretly tucking them away in my pocket. As it turned out at home, that was a history book.

That was when I first learned the name of Giuseppe Garibaldi, but most of the pages were about France: the Revolution, Napoleon, and the Paris Commune. There were some maps of the French capital, which I studied carefully, memorizing the captivating place names: the Tuileries, the Louvre, the Bastille, the Luxembourg Garden.

Along with various adaptations of The Three Musketeers, this was what predetermined my love for France. Whenever I read a novel about Paris, I always remember those few yellow pages that initiated me into the geography of the City of Light.

And yet I still haven’t visited France. First obtaining a visa was a tedious bureaucratic process with a high chance of refusal. When the visa was no longer necessary, the flights were too expensive, so I decided to wait, traveling to countries that were more accessible. When finally a low-coast airline announced a new flight to Paris, I got the tickets, but the war broke out a month before my travel date. You can guess what is the first thing I dream of doing after the nightmare is over.


The last discovery I want to tell about was the creepiest.

We used to live at the very edge of the city. Across the street the city ended, and there were just fields stretching for several miles, up to the nearest village.

In the middle of those fields was a grove, which we called the Island. Although it was farther than our parents permitted us to go, we would play there, imagining ourselves as modern Robinson Crusoes.

On the Island stood a strange structure, which I called the Well, although I don’t really know what it was. It was round, or rather cylindrical, brick-built, with a doorless portal. Inside was a deep pit filled with water. There was a fifteen to thirty feet long metal ladder going down to the water surface.

One day we discovered a human skeleton floating in the Well. We hadn’t seen it before, so either it had been brought there—although someone carrying skeletal remains was an uncanny picture to imagine—or it had risen from the bottom. Or, if the Well was connected to the city’s sewer network, it might have been carried by the flow.

It was spooky, but those of us who were the bravest descended the ladder to touch the skeleton and observe it closer. And we swore to never tell the adults about our find. It floated there for months until one day it disappeared.

Need I tell you that skeletons have often figured in my nightmares since?


Roman Cherevko is a freelance writer, translator, and blogger from Ukraine. His articles appeared in Zbruč, Na Chasi (in Ukrainian), “Stories from Ukraine: The True Price of War” (printed and e-book), and in his blog on Medium.