The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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I Will Die in a Foreign Land
I Will Die in a Foreign Land
by Kalani Pickhart

Paperback (10 May 2022), 320 pages.
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
ISBN-13: 9781953387301

Set in Ukraine in 2013, I Will Die in a Foreign Land is an especially moving story of quiet beauty and love in a time of terror; an ambitious, intimate, and haunting portrait of human perseverance and empathy.

In 1913, a Russian ballet incited a riot in Paris at the new Théâtre de Champs-Elysées. "Only a Russian could do that," says Aleksandr Ivanovich. "Only a Russian could make the whole world go mad."

A century later, in November 2013, thousands of Ukrainian citizens gathered at Independence Square in Kyiv to protest then-President Yanukovych's failure to sign a referendum with the European Union, opting instead to forge a closer alliance with President Vladimir Putin and Russia. The peaceful protests turned violent when military police shot live ammunition into the crowd, killing over a hundred civilians.

I Will Die in a Foreign Land follows four individuals over the course of a volatile Ukrainian winter, as their lives are forever changed by the Euromaidan protests. Katya is an Ukrainian-American doctor stationed at a makeshift medical clinic in St. Michael's Monastery; Misha is an engineer originally from Pripyat, who has lived in Kyiv since his wife's death from radiation sickness; Slava is a fiery young activist whose past hardships steel her determination in the face of persecution; and Aleksandr Ivanovich, a former KGB agent, who climbs atop a burned-out police bus at Independence Square and plays the piano.

As Katya, Misha, Slava, and Aleksandr's lives become intertwined, they each seek their own solace during an especially tumultuous and violent period. The story is also told by a chorus of voices that incorporates folklore and narrates a turbulent Slavic history.

While unfolding an especially moving story of quiet beauty and love in a time of terror, I Will Die in a Foreign Land is an ambitious, intimate, and haunting portrait of human perseverance and empathy.

The snow in Boston, Katya thinks, must be thick like cake. She flicks her cigarette. A black cloud of burning tires near the Maidan less than a mile away forces a cough. The air is frigid. The injured have not rested. The light outside is disappearing.

St. Michael's appears to be inside an apocalyptic snow globe: golden spirals, eye-blue walls, ember and ash ethereal. The bell tower stands like a soldier. Indeed, it is.

We're all under water here, Katya thinks. Shaken loose like silt. An undertow. A baptism. A drowning. Last spring, Boston had a bombing. Now, she was in Kyiv.

Kyiv had been burning for months. The tactical police force—the Berkut—had started attacking thousands of peaceful protestors at the Maidan in November. St. Michael's opened its doors, bells ringing and priests singing, and the people came from Maidan to the church. Hundreds had been injured; some were dead. Distrust of the government caused hospitals to turn up in the streets. In shoe stores, in the Hotel Ukraine. In St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery.

Here, Katya is far from home.

The holy men of the church—men of all faiths—start to pray, to hold a vigil. They took the bodies to a makeshift morgue in the back of the church and the people prayed.

God is still here, they said. They said: Pray.

Vigilance. Vigilance. Stay awake.

Katya's son, Isaac, would have been six years old and still cherub-faced. Ezra had sent her an email that she hadn't yet read. Katya looks at her phone, the message from her husband.

A priest calls out to her—

лікар, будь ласка—

Doctor, please—

Katya kills the cigarette under her boot and goes.

All empires fall. First the Mongols destroyed parts of the church. Then the Soviets. Then it was rebuilt. Gold and blue, the church is grotesquely beautiful. It looks like Byzantium. Byzantium: the word so full of promise. The new Rome. She has seen pictures of the Sistine Chapel and it must be something like this. Here, there are paintings on the walls, the ceiling, the columns. Bright sashes and wings on cherubs, gowns and crowns decorating saints. All looking, seeing. Vigilance. She felt they could see every part of her. All that raw ache.

From "I Will Die In a Foreign Land" by Kalani Pickhart. Copyright © 2022 by Kalani Pickhart. Excerpted by permission of Two Dollar Radio. All rights reserved.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. This is a novel of historical fiction that largely focuses on the 2013–2014 Ukrainian revolution, but it also dives deeply into the history of the people, country, and region. What are some things that you learned about Ukraine and its history that you did not previously know?
  2. The author chose to title the novel I Will Die in a Foreign Land: why do you think this is fitting? Which characters literally leave their homeland? What deeper meanings can you draw, considering the ancient and modern Slavic history that is sprinkled throughout the book?
  3. The novel is comprised of multiple main narratives, spanning different periods of time, that are braided together along with frequent asides featuring folklore, history, and news related to Ukraine: what effect did this structure have on your reading experience? How do the asides add value to the main narratives and plot?
  4. The four main characters of the novel are Aleksandr, Katya, Misha, and Slava: what are each of their backstories? In what ways do their lives intersect?
  5. "The father begets the daughter—the lion begets the lion." (p. 198) How is this line, from Salva's reunion with her father, fitting for larger themes of the story? What do you make of the recurring references to lions, cats, and kittens?
  6. What role do cassette tapes play in this story? Which characters recorded them and which listened to them? How do the tapes connect the different characters of this braided novel?
  7. Upon arriving to the chaos in Kyiv, Katya thinks: "We're all under water here... Shaken loose like silt. An undertow. A baptism. A drowning." (p. 13) Throughout the novel, Katya's descriptions and analogies continue to involve themes of water: what do you make of this?
  8. Throughout this novel, the author chose to prominently feature Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring: Pictures from Pagan Russia in Two Parts, whose music and choreography so challenged its audience that a riot broke out during its 1913 premiere in Paris. The ballet's plot revolves around ancient Slavic pagans performing a ritual to ensure the coming of a new spring. Stravinsky is also quoted as saying: "My earliest memory is of the sound of the ice breaking on the River Neva in St. Petersburg near where I was born. It was the sound that marked the beginning of a new year, a new spring." (p. 118) How do you interpret the importance of that is given to the theme of a new spring in this novel?
  9. Of the ballet, Aleksandr says: "The pagans in The Rite of Spring sacrifice a woman, the Chosen One, so they might survive as a tribe. I wonder about this often—the individual loss for the collective gain." (p. 192) How does this idea relate to the novel's themes? Can you think of various examples of who or what is "sacrificed" in this book in a way that benefits others?
  10. While describing who the Kobzari are to young Aleksandr circa the 1950s, the old piano man says to him: "Music, Aleksandr. It is a powerful, dangerous thing... We must do all we can to protect it." (p. 47) Who are the Kobzari? Why did the older Russian man think music was dangerous? What effect did the old piano man's teachings have on Aleksandr? What importance does music have to specific characters, and to the novel in general?
  11. The old piano man also teaches young Aleksandr that "In Soviet times, it was dangerous to believe in God" (p. 49), referring to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's often violent suppression of religious beliefs, in favor of atheism. How are ideas of religious freedom explored in this novel?
  12. Misha's mother tells Katya: "We come from Kozak blood, my dear. Misha's ancestors were all Kozak, both sides. He's been waiting for war his whole life without knowing." (p. 184) Who are the Kozaks (AKA Cossacks)? How does this statement relate to the larger themes in the novel of war and conflict in this region? What is Misha's fate?
  13. Through the character of Dascha Bandura—a journalist who has been living in eastern Ukraine's Luhansk, near the border with Russia in the disputed Donbass region—we are able to see both sides of the recent and ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia: what are Dascha's views on the conflict?
  14. How are the roles of, and risks to, journalists who are covering the Ukrainian Revolution illustrated through the character of Dascha Bandura? What is her fate? How else are journalists and others who are documenting the conflict in Ukraine depicted?
  15. Dascha, a self-described lesbian filmmaker, says to her lover Slava, who was involved in FEMEN—the radical protest group for women's rights before they moved from Ukraine to France: "Today, we fight against Putin. Tomorrow, we fight against hate." (p. 116) What do you think about this conclusion of Dascha's, that for a country experiencing civil unrest and war, the goal of working toward equal rights must wait? What are some of the ways in which this novel explores issues of human rights, homophobia, and the abuse of girls and women?
  16. How is the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster and its consequences explored through the characters of Misha and Vera, and Misha's mom, who is a samosely?
  17. In what ways does the author include information about the Holodomor—the intentional famine orchestrated by Joseph Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians by starvation in 1932–1933?
  18. In Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, where Misha works as an engineer in the coal mines, he is persistently offered a special job by his manager, Oleg. Why is Misha conflicted over this offer, and what does he ultimately decide to do? Why do you think it was important to the author to include illegal coal mines, or kopanky, in the book?
  19. Aleksandr's audio cassette recording sections begin with him as a young Soviet soldier arriving in Czechoslovakia to suppress the liberalization reforms known as the Prague Spring. What did Aleksandr think of his role? What echoes are there between the Prague Spring and the Euromaidan protests?
  20. Aleksandr returns to Czechoslovakia again, this time as a KGB spy named Stepan. What is his mission and how does he feel about it? What has changed for him since the last time he was in Prague?
  21. Arrange this list of character names on a white board or large background paper with arrows and words explaining the various connections and relationships:

    Aleksandr Arkadyevich Ivanovich (AKA Sasha, Stepan)
    Anna Arkadyevna Ivanova
    Dascha Bandura
    Jara (Jarmila) Kučerova
    Katya (Ekaterina)
    Misha (Mikhail) Tkachenko
    Nedezdha (Nadia) Stepaneva Vasilieva
    Slava (Yaroslava) Orlyk


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Two Dollar Radio. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A powerful look at the persistence of love despite the heavy human cost of political and social unrest in Ukraine.

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Though I Will Die in a Foreign Land follows multiple perspectives across a span of several years, the majority of the novel is centered around the Euromaidan protests of 2013-2014 in Ukraine. Tension was sparked by the government's decision to abandon a proposed agreement with the European Union, choosing instead to form closer ties with Russia and the Putin administration. Kyiv's Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) became the epicenter of the demonstrations, with thousands of Ukrainians gathering to call for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. Legislation was quickly introduced to try and strip the public of their right to protest, with pro-Russian activists and riot police descending on the square. Violence soon erupted, resulting in well over 100 deaths.

Kalani Pickhart chronicles all of this political intrigue, but chooses to place the focus firmly on her characters, ensuring the book never reads like a history lesson. Though they are embroiled in the turmoil caused by the riots, we also see the enduring nature of the characters' more personal hardships. Each of them is struggling with grief in some way: Misha is an engineer mourning the loss of his wife; Katya is a doctor treating the wounded while contemplating her own son's death; Aleksandr, a former KGB agent, is searching for his long-lost daughter; and Slava is a young activist estranged from her parents after a difficult childhood, now forced to hide her blossoming relationship with another woman due to rampant homophobia. While violence rages around them, each is simply fighting for the chance to be with those they love.

By exploring their complex backstories in this way, we gain valuable insight into the myriad obstacles the people of Ukraine have had to overcome throughout the country's turbulent history — from the Chernobyl disaster to Russian oppression, and from poverty to Nazi invasion. Having already suffered so much loss, their dogged determination to preserve their land and culture makes all the more sense. Beyond this, focusing primarily on the intimate costs rather than the wider furor emphasizes the humanity of those caught up in the crisis, refusing to let them become mere statistics by showcasing how flawed and multi-faceted people can be.

For some, the narrative structure may prove alienating at first. Told in a non-linear fashion and incorporating multimedia formats such as newspaper articles, flight manifestos and audio transcripts, it can be tricky to keep track of the timeline and the various connections between each thread. That said, these somewhat removed, fact-based sections create a tonal contrast that accentuates the passion and emotion of the individual characters' stories, while providing further context for the carnage unfolding around them.

In many ways, the book feels like an ode to the everyman of Ukraine. With a deft hand, it celebrates those who strive to heal when the world around them feels broken, and the bravery required to love against the odds. Never shying away from the brutal reality of living through troubled times, its message of resilience has proven more prescient than anyone could have predicted, given the book's publication mere months before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, forcing Ukrainians to defend their autonomy once again. I Will Die in a Foreign Land is at once a detailed snapshot of a very specific time and place, and an enduring, universal rallying call for hope in the face of tyranny.

Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

New York Journal of Books
I Will Die in a Foreign Land is simply breathtaking in its scope. Pickhart's storytelling is flawless with nothing gratuitous or superfluous. She has taken a large, complex subject and rendered it both tragic and tender by reminding the reader that in the end, the individual life touched by conflict is what really matters.

The Washington Post
I tore through I Will Die in a Foreign Land. It's terrific. I've been following the alarming news about Putin's machinations along the Ukrainian border, but nothing has given me such a profound impression of what Ukrainians have endured as this intensely moving novel.

Chicago Review of Books
The sort of ambitious debut novel that makes you sit up and take notice, Kalani Pickhart's sprawling and rambunctious portrait of the 2013 Ukrainian protests that led to the killing of over a hundred civilians announces an exciting new voice in fiction. Unfolding with the assurance and daring of a much more seasoned writer, I Will Die in a Foreign Land will appeal to readers of history and tragedy alike.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Innovative, emotionally resonant, and deeply affecting, this is a more-than-promising debut from a very talented writer. An excellent debut from an author who's bursting with talent.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
In Pickhart's ardent, sprawling debut, a set of memorable characters attempt to lay bare the truths of recent conflicts in the Ukraine...This bighearted novel generously portrays the unforgettable set of characters through their determination to face oppression. It's a stunner.

In this sweeping debut novel, readers are transported inside the 2013–14 Ukrainian battle to maintain independence under pro-Russian President Viktor unforgettable reading experience and a critical lesson in ongoing global history.

Author Blurb Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of The Trojan War Museum
I Will Die in a Foreign Land beautifully illustrates the palimpsest of history, both on the global scale, as old wars give way to new, and the personal, as old loves give way to new. This novel perfectly captures the tragedy and romance of those willing to die for their beliefs.

Author Blurb Caitlin Horrocks, author of Life Among the Terranauts, This Is Not Your City, and The Vexations
I Will Die in a Foreign Land is an antidote to safe or insular fiction. Kalani Pickhart casts her gaze both outward and inward, to decades of fractious history and the ways loss marks the human heart. How does a person, or a nation, endure and transform? The novel asks big questions and offers up answers written with an unerring sense of character and astonishingly beautiful language.

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Ukraine's Babushkas: The Women Who Refused to Leave Chernobyl

Gated entrance of Chernobyl exclusion zoneSome of the main characters in Kalani Pickhart's I Will Die in a Foreign Land grew up in Chernobyl in the north of Ukraine, an area that had been home to tens of thousands of families for generations, until the explosion in reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 26th, 1986 sparked the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen. Toxic fires raged for 10 days, generating levels of radiation thought to be 500 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

In the hours following the accident, the inhabitants of 81 settlements throughout the surrounding area (totaling more than 115,000 people) were given orders to evacuate. Initial reports suggested this would be a temporary measure lasting no more than three days. As the true extent of the fallout came to light, however, a 1000-square-mile area around the Power Plant was declared an "exclusion zone," meaning it is considered too dangerous to inhabit.

In the weeks that followed, around 1,200 people — almost all of them women — illegally returned to their homes in Chernobyl. Around 200 people, still mostly women and most in their 70s and 80s, continue to inhabit the ghost towns of the exclusion zone against all the odds, having established a largely self-sufficient community.

Known as Samosely ("self-settlers"), they are often referred to affectionately as Babushkas or Babas, the respective Russian and Ukrainian words for "grandmothers." As they steadfastly refused to leave, the government eventually allowed the women to remain within the exclusion zone "semi-illegally," as long as they were beyond child-bearing age (due to the known link between radiation poisoning and severe fetal complications).

The Babushkas survive by living closely off the land — defying the widely held belief that the area is a barren wasteland. Aside from a weekly delivery of groceries from outside the exclusion zone, the women eat by keeping pigs, cattle and hens; producing honey; foraging for berries and mushrooms; and growing their own fresh produce, despite the fact that the soil is contaminated. The natural ecosystem has actually thrived in some respects since the disaster. With so few humans nearby, animals are safe from the threat of hunting and habitat loss, with the local wolf, moose, deer, owl, bear, lynx and beaver populations all thought to have grown as a result.

While the long-term impact of living among such high levels of radiation remains unclear for both the animals and the Babushkas, in the area of Belarus near the Ukrainian border, the contaminated soil has contributed to widespread illness among children, from heart and kidney problems to cataracts. Death has also stalked those who moved away. In I Will Die in a Foreign Land, Misha explains that, "It didn't just kill the people I loved, it festered inside of them. It grew, I wasn't even sure what it meant, still, when I was a kid and found out my dog was sick, my dad was sick. I thought, 'When you get sick, you get better.' But my dog didn't get better, and neither did my dad. And then years later, Vera became sick."

Despite these grim reports and the suggestion that deaths linked directly to radiation poisoning from Chernobyl will eventually total more than 4,000, the women remain unfazed. As part of a generation who have lived through oppression, famine and war under the rule of Stalin and Hitler, they consider freedom and a connection to their homeland as hard-won rights, refusing to bow to a so-called "invisible enemy" such as radiation.

"Shoot us and dig the grave, otherwise we're staying," said one of the Babushkas. Others remarked, "Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness," and, "Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave."

These words, and their speakers' continued determination to live on their own terms, is a powerful and timely reminder of the importance we place on home.

Entrance to Chernobyl exclusion zone, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

By Callum McLaughlin

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