The Sounding Board: What Ever Happened to Igor?

Pangyrus presents another essay in our political column, The Sounding Board. What’s The Sounding Board? It’s politics writ large—and writ well. The makeup of society, the ways we interact, how cities get built, wars started, families reunited, poverty worsened or alleviated. This column will always challenge, always engage—and always be open to new perspectives.  


I do not pretend to know Ukraine well, but I have been there. I visited Kyiv in the winter of 1985 when I tagged along with the Russian Department of Åbo Akademi University on their annual excursion to the Soviet Union. Åbo Akademi, a small Swedish-speaking university in western Finland, was always looking for additional people to accompany them to the Soviet Union. Most Finns didn’t want to go. They had a long history with their eastern neighbor, much of it anguished.

A particularly painful episode occurred in 1939 when the Finns, much like the Ukrainians today, found themselves fighting alone to keep the USSR out of their country. They managed to hold out for one-hundred-and-four days against an army that vastly outnumbered them. Their resistance was so fierce that after their surrender Finland was not occupied.

Fifteen months later, the Finns tried to get some of their lost territory back. The Continuation War, as it is called in Finland, lasted from 1941 until 1944. This effort also ended in defeat. Vast areas of Finland’s eastern border were lost forever. Finland had to absorb the resettlement of 11% of her population and she was saddled with onerous war reparations. Finally, she was left in the uneasy position of being able to have a democracy in her own country, but to have to watch her words and alliances when it came to anything outside of her borders. This uneasy state-of-affairs still prevailed when I lived in Finland in the nineteen-eighties. You had to be careful not to offend the Russians.

But that didn’t mean you had to like them.

The extra travelers who came with the Åbo Akademi Russian Department to the Soviet Union were not Finns. Some were Swedish colleagues of the Akademi professors. There were also two Americans, myself and a sixteen-year-old exchange student who was studying at a nearby Finnish high school, and a group of Stockholmers. One young man, Igor, had a Swedish mother and a Ukrainian father. Igor was on a mission. He hadn’t seen his father since his mother fled both her marriage and Kyiv, with Igor, when he was a child.

Most of my fellow travelers, Swedes or Finns, were academic types. They were bookish, learned, published. Igor was not. He had gone straight to work after high school, had a job in a store and spoke a brash, idiomatic South Stockholm Swedish which offended the tender ears of many of our professors.

I remember the bus ride in from Kyiv Airport through the snowy city streets. The driver was morose and silent, not understanding our Swedish chatter, until Igor stepped forward, sat in the front seat and addressed the man in Ukrainian. The driver came alive, grew voluble. It turned out he was a passionate supporter of Dynamo Kyiv and he and Igor smoked furiously and discussed soccer the rest of the way to the hotel.

We were staying at the Rus Hotel, so named for the ancient people from whom the modern Russians take their name. It sat high on a hill not far from the main street of Kyiv, Kreshatik.

Most of the students on the trip were elated to be visiting the Soviet Union for the first time, or, for those who had already completed a student exchange, to be returning. The reason was not political, but cultural, and even emotional. The Finns might be fierce fighters and patriots, but are not known for their laughter or their jokes. The Finnish students who were attracted to the Russian language and literature courses were also attracted to the celebratory nature of the Slavic culture, to its love of drama, both formal and personal, and to the passions the Slavs find it unnecessary to keep bottled up inside.

As soon as we could, we ran out into the city, made for Kreshatik and mingled with the crowds of people on the streets. We went into a bar and ordered beer and smoked fish. I was standing at a table with a girl who’d been on a student exchange to Leningrad the year before. She spoke outstanding Russian. We stood for only a few moments on our own, speaking quietly in Swedish, until a young man from another table approached to ask us respectfully where we came from. We said Finland. He asked us if we wanted to join their table. We picked up our beers and moved over.

And so it went. People were friendly when they realized they could communicate with us. They were curious. We went everywhere, drinking, talking, laughing.

The highlight of the trip, however, was Igor’s reconnection with his father. Igor had come to Kyiv with only a phone number written on a creased piece of yellow paper. He made the call from a battered telephone box on a cold street off Kreshatik. I don’t believe his father answered, but the person on the other end of the line knew who Igor was and confirmed that his father would come to the hotel the next day. Though this was encouraging, Igor still had the unenviable task of convincing the hotel to issue his father an entrance permit. The average Soviet citizen couldn’t just waltz into a hotel where foreigners were staying.

“Cry if you have to,” I remember saying to Igor as we waited to speak to the stern-looking woman with the magenta dye job who was in charge of issuing hotel entry permits for non-guests.

“I’m not going to cry.” Igor looked offended, though he did cry, as soon as he started to explain that he hadn’t seen his father since he was five.

The woman gave Igor the permission for his father to enter. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to.

“That wouldn’t have happened in Finland,” I remember someone commenting as we walked away. “Nobody would have broken the rules for you and if you’d started to cry, they just would’ve stared at you.”

But we were not in Finland. And the next day Igor walked down the approach hill to the hotel to meet his father for the first time in twenty years and to give him the green card that would allow Igor’s father to enter the Rus together with Igor, his Swedish son. Later, I remember watching them sitting together at a table in the hotel dining room, Igor very quiet and serious like a little boy on his first day of school.

It is Igor I think of today as they fight in the streets of Kyiv. Did he return to Kyiv six years later when Ukraine achieved her independence? Did he return to make a life there? He would have been the perfect westerner to succeed in the post-Soviet world. He spoke the language. He had contacts. He had business savvy. I wonder if he married a Ukrainian woman, put down roots, had children. Did he come home to Sweden when he grew older, leaving these children behind? I wonder where he is right now. Is he there or is he watching as I am watching, from the safety of a distant land, as the Ukrainians, like the Finns in 1939, are left to fight and fail on their own?

There is a saying in Russian that St. Petersburg is the head, Moscow the heart and Kyiv, the mother of Russian cities. Kyiv is where the culture began, where the Orthodox faith was assumed by Prince Vladimir in 988. Can the Russians attack their mother and get away with it? Can they survive the shame?

Twelve years after my trip to Ukraine, I moved to Russia for ten months to teach English. My best friends were a couple with whom I have remained in contact for twenty-four years. When Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border two weeks ago, my friends were shocked. They had not expected it to come to war, but they refused to believe that their government was lying to them. Our texts were careful, then tense, then they ceased altogether. It hurt me, but I hadn’t been able to tell them what they wanted to hear.

Have I lost my Russian friends to war as I lost Igor to life? Maybe, but these are losses I can and will survive. Will the Ukrainians be so lucky? I hope so.


Image: Kyiv by Christine Schindler, licensed under CC 2.0.

Linda Strange
Latest posts by Linda Strange (see all)


  1. Thank you for sharing your insight and experience as many of us struggle to understand a desperate chaotic situation so far away and, yet, so close to our hearts.

  2. I myself struggle to understand the situation. As the Russian Army reaches the outskirts of Kiev, I wonder what will happen to the streets I walked so happily and to the people I met there. Will the Russians also bomb St. Sophia’s Cathedral, that sacred symbol of Eastern Orthodoxy? I fear for this beautiful city and all the other cities and villages in Ukraine.

    The images of bombed apartment buildings look exactly like the one I lived in for ten months in Russia. If only ordinary Russians could see these grizzly images, they too would recognize streets and buildings that look just like theirs.

  3. This beautifully written post gives me an expanded perspective of the cultural strands involved in this situation. The author captures these entanglements well and reminds me that no situation is ever black-and-white, especially when it comes to the human cost.

  4. The cultural strands are indeed tangled. One of the terrible tragedies of this war will almost certainly be that whatever brotherly and sisterly feelings that there were between Ukrainians and Russians, and there were and still are, they will be forever poisoned by the death and destruction raining down on the Ukrainians at this moment and, I fear, for many weeks to come.

  5. To my chagrin, in the age of an “embarrassment of riches” in terms of things to read online, I often begin an essay or story but fail to finish it, maybe skimming it before being pulled away, distracted, to the next thing. This piece grabbed hold of me and did not let go; I savored it — so vivid, personal, and compelling — from start to finish.

  6. This piece provided additional context that CNN and other news organizations miss. I didn’t realize how important Kyiv is to the Russian culture. Watching the destruction and particularly the targeting of civilians is horrifying for me, it must be so much more so for those who have a connection to the country.
    Thank you for the perspective.

  7. Lovely, Linda. It’s amazing how many life experiences you’ve had which relate with what’s going on in the world. It really informs your insight. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Kyiv is central to Russian history and culture. I even heard Putin at a press conference the other day repeat the saying that Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities. It is no wonder he keeps the images of Ukrainian destruction from his people. They would be stunned and appalled.

  9. Thank you for the cultural and historical references, along with your poignant personal memories. I routinely weep at such heartless atrocities and insane megalomania.

  10. Your writing is second to none Linda. Thank you for sharing your personal perspective. Well done.
    I pray for Ukraine and it’s people.

  11. Linda, thank you for this beautifully written story. You enlightened me about the messy history between Finland and Russia. What is happening now between Russia and Ukraine really does feel like deja vu all over again.

    Igor now tugs at my heart too The images of the crumpled paper with his father’s phone number and his genuine tears after he rejected the crocodile kind, are haunting. What indeed became of him?

    As for Kyiv being the mother of Russia, Putin has already attacked a maternity hospital so it certainly seems he is capable of matricide. Yet we have all witnessed the strength and resolve of the Ukrainians which appear to be exactly like that of the Finns many decades ago.

    Addressing your final question, I believe the Ukrainian people will prevail, even if over time, and luck will have the least to do with it.

  12. Dennis,

    Yes, we all pray for Ukraine.


    Igor’s fate haunts me, too. I also think of the students I came to know in Finland. Where are they now? Did the ones who spoke Russian fashion some kind of life for themselves in post-Soviet Russia, did they stay in Finland and work for firms or organizations with ties to Russia? And what are they thinking now as they eye their eastern border, the longest border with Russia of any European country? Back in the early 80’s, I toured Northern Finland with my then Finnish host family. Though she had moved to the south as a young woman and lived just north of Helsinki, the mother was originally from Kuusamo, a town near the Arctic Circle, which saw bitter fighting during the Finnish Continuation War. “The woods are full of ghosts here,” she told me as we drove toward her home and on the lonely roads running parallel to the Russian border, you could feel these ghosts, all the souls, Finnish and Russian, who lost their lives in that conflict now eighty years ago. The Finns can’t help but be thinking about that now and wondering what the future holds for them.

  13. Linda,

    Thank you for sharing your story and it made me think of the Russian and Ukrainian classmates I had, many years ago, when I studied Swedish at one of the “Swedish for Foreigners” schools in Stockholm. We used to joke that you moved to Sweden because you were either a refugee of love or a refugee of war or persecution, and you can guess which camp the Russians and Ukrainians fell in. They were all fantastic and we kept in touch for quite some time, but then lost contact with one another. I wonder what happened to them, especially now. Are they still in Sweden? Did they return home? And are they safe?

  14. A point of contention

    This essay is a poignant reminder of the effects that systemic isolationism has on families and the polarization that it causes among different cultures. The story of Igor unfortunately is not an exception but rather the norm of that era. I grew up in Albania; a former communist regime, and a former satellite state of the Soviet Union. Reading this article brought back so many memories of what it felt like living in an authoritarian country surrounded by untrusting eyes. That cold, bleak feeling of unease is palatable. I can understand Igor’s plight but more importantly I understand the difficulty of his journey. He is a product of two people who loved each other who could no longer be together mostly due to the socio-political landscape that separated so many families.
    This mirrors the lives of so many Albanians who left their oppressive communist regime under the cover of dark moonless nights with nothing but a bag full of bread, butter and cheese traversing steep mountains just to cross that border undetected. They did this in search of a better life of course, but with the reminder that their loved ones would pay the ultimate price by being persecuted by the regime just because their family member had “deserted” the country. My wife’s grandfather left Albania in 1947; just 2 years after the end of WW2. He was only 15 years old. Soon after he defected his extended family was heavily persecuted and some of them were executed. The parallelism of today, mirrors the past; clearly.
    Ukraine is fighting for their right to live. Vladimir Putin is part of the same regime that is responsible for so many shattered lives and broken families; i.e. Igor’s. As it seems, the vernacular social-landscape may have changed but the sledgehammer Soviet ideology has remained in the indoctrinated bureaucrats that it nourished, and the ones who unfortunately are still in power today. Their idea of bringing back the great Soviet Union is a point of pride, loss and resurrection much like the phoenix rising from the ashes. However the Soviet Union did not collapse because of western sabotage. It collapsed because the people desired to live the way we were all meant to live; free.
    We can see the grim contrast between Ukraine’s desire to live free with the lives of people living in Albania and the entire Soviet aligned states of the cold war era, citizens who wanted to escape into the west paid the ultimate price; death. The same is happening today. Ukraine wants to look forward and escape into the west hoping to live free and prosper. The reality is that it must do so grievously. The price that is demanded must be paid in blood.

    “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
    – Martin Luther King, Jr.

    -Rudi Bardhollari

  15. What I know about Russia I learned mostly through Linda’s stories. She writes beautifully and with such clarity that you feel you are in those stories. They are flavored with the seasoning that is Russia, its people and landscape. She writes of the strength of its people, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, but always human.
    With this piece Linda tells another story, A different layer of Russia’s harshness. It’s unquenchable desire to take and control. She portrays such a lifestyle so foreign to me in my comfortable freedom. She tells it in a very human way.
    Thank you for this important lesson. Well done.

  16. Rudi,

    All the people who come from countries where they had to flee from repressive regimes feel for the Ukrainians. No one who didn’t grow up in this situation can truly understand no matter how sympathetic they may be.


    What a lovely comment.

  17. Linda,
    Great article. I love the way you weaved the personal, the cultural and the historical aspects and told the story. Well done.

  18. Liben,

    The personal, I have always found, is what makes the cultural and historical come alive and what makes us feel our profound connection to worlds and situations that on the surface feel far removed from our lives.

  19. Beautifully written story with an important historical and personal perspective. Thank you Linda for reminding us of the story of Finland and their loss during WWII. Humanity seems to constantly repeat itself and not learn. But I am also struck by the inevitability of profound and lasting loss. I wonder if we are heading there again. Finland lost part of itself forever. You have lost you friends, maybe not forever. Igor lost and then found his father! That is cause for hope. You remind us of the humanity often overlooked in these global tragedies. We need to see the people we need to have hope. Thank you for this unique glimpse of Ukraine.

  20. Linda,

    What a great article. You were able to put a personal touch on your past Ukraine visit.

    May God bring peace to Ukraine .

  21. Thank you for this very personal account of your experiences. It touches on subjects that we won’t see on the news outlets. Beautifully written!

  22. Joan,

    There is much loss to be seen on our television screens every day, but also, as you say, reasons to feel hopeful. I remember one of my students, a Spanish journalist, saying after the first bombing of the World Trade Center that one of the positive things about the experience was that he had always wondered how he would behave in a moment of crisis, if he would panic or have the courage to face the situation. He learned that he did have that courage and was grateful for this piece of self-knowledge. Ukrainians have learned that they too have the courage to face the worst that can happen to them and we who watch from far away have been reminded of what that courage looks like. Perhaps it can inspire us to face some of the challenges we have here.

    Lisa and Raven,

    Thank you for your kind comments.

  23. Linda, what a great article! Love how you have personalized it! It’s the personal touch which keeps us going strong! Where there is will, there will always be a way! We don’t see these personal stories on a daily basis….it’s nice to learn more about the hearty topics! Thank you!!

  24. This was beautifully written. I’m not surprised, you always capture such interesting and heartfelt stories. Thank you for sharing this piece during such a difficult time.


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