As the horrific invasion of Ukraine drags on, I would like to share with you a song that held great meaning for my grandparents, Peter and Helen (Sochansky) Stavrakis. “Dark Night” or “Dark is the Night” was a very popular and widely-known song in the countries of the former Soviet Union, although it is largely unknown in America. Made popular in the 1943 Soviet movie “Two Soldiers,” “Dark is the Night” is a soldier’s song of loneliness, fear, loss, and the strength his partner’s love provides him.
An English translation provided by the Slavic Department of the University of Pittsburgh:
Dark night, only bullets are whistling in the steppe,
Only the wind is wailing through the telephone wires, stars are faintly flickering…
In the dark night, my love, I know you are not sleeping,
And, near a child’s crib, you secretly wipe away a tear.
How I love the depths of your gentle eyes,
How I long to press my lips to them!
This dark night separates us, my love,
And the dark, troubled steppe has come to lie between us.
I have faith in you, in you, my sweetheart.
That faith has shielded me from bullets in this dark night…
I am glad, I am calm in deadly battle:
I know you will meet me with love, no matter what happens.
Death is not terrible, we’ve met with it more than once in the steppe…
And here it looms over me once again,
You await my return, sitting sleepless near a cradle,
And so I know that nothing will happen to me!
–University of Pittsburgh Department of Slavic Languages
Fifteen days ago, when the first images hit my phone—bombs lighting the Kyiv night in an eerie flash, people carrying their belongings as they hurried out of town—I immediately thought of my family’s own history in Kyiv and Ukraine. I saw my grandmother giving birth to my aunt in a Kyiv hospital as bombs exploded around them in 1943. I saw the three generations–from babushka to baby–fleeing from their beloved city amidst the violent chaos of World War II. They fled from war for 7 years, stateless in Europe, with my grandmother taking on laundry jobs and my grandfather being drafted into several armies, despite his abhorrence of war. As a doctor and a true devotee to the field of medicine, his reason for being was to uphold life–not destroy it.
They had another child along the way (who died in his 20s from rapidly-progressive multiple sclerosis, possibly linked to environmental exposures he experienced as an infant living near Greek military camps) before coming to the U.S. as refugees in 1950. My mother was born two years later, their first child born in America. They would return to their homeland only once, in 1995, during the very early years of Ukraine’s independence.
“Dark Night” struck a chord with my grandparents, and with millions of other young couples throughout Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Belarus, the Central Asian states, the Baltic states, and other former Soviet countries. It was originally written and performed in Russian, and that is the language I sing it in here (as best I can). The issue of the Ukrainian language has been political for decades, and especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the tensions surrounding use of Russian language versus Ukrainian language has grown even more heightened. Although my grandparents were both from Kyiv, they both spoke Russian (and my grandmother also spoke Ukrainian) because it was the primary language of the Soviet Union.
Beyond the language in which it’s sung, the song holds meaning at the most basic human level. At the time of its release, some Soviet officials lambasted it as backwards, simplistic, and overly-emotional. Nevertheless, it was popular with the people, and is still widely known today. When I traveled to Ukraine in 2013, young people I met there knew the song, which was, at that time, 70 years old. Its enduring popularity attests to people’s shared experience that war is senseless, and that love is our most powerful motivation.
On March 12, 2022, what would be my grandfather’s 105th birthday, I dedicate this song to him, and to the people of Ukraine.
If you are interested in learning more about the Ukrainian history through my family’s story, please visit this history site constructed by my aunt and mother. Some of the research contained here came from post-Soviet archives that Putin has once shuttered in his efforts to suppress knowledge and rewrite history. http://www.stavrakisfamilyjourney.com/