Between RODINA, HEIMAT and KUT – Losing and Finding HOME in Exile

Olga Bubich

October 10, 2023

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Olga Bubich is a Belarusian writer, photographer, lecturer and curator, author of three photo books and more than 300 essays, reviews and interviews published in Belarusian, Ukrainian, Russian, Georgian, German, Austrian, Swedish, British and American media.
Since 2014, she was a member of "The Month of Photography in Minsk'' team, theonly independent photography festival in the country. Since 2021, she has been researching memory – the topic she dedicated her latest photobook "The Art of (Not) Forgetting" and a series of exhibitions and essays. Now Olga is based and works in Berlin.

How do you know who you are,
If you don’t understand where you come from?
from “Heimat” by Nora Krug

If moving apartments is believed to be one of the strongest causes of stress, then how much on the anxiety scale would undesired exile score? Leaving behind families, friends, and routine lifestyle, facing the need to learn a new language and adapt to new norms of social and cultural behavior – often in the situation of the choice without choices – we inevitably start questioning our identity. How much of us would remain in this other reality? How much would be changed? Who would we eventually end up being? What would be left of our home and memories about it?

One of the gifts I got for my third birthday in emigration was a graphic novel “Heimat” by German-American Nora Krug, a deep emotional research into the writer’s family history – in a way typical for Germans of her generation. The book – on the background of the events unfolding in Ukraine as a result of Russia’s aggression – has invited me to reflect on this term and its approximate analogues in different languages and cultures. What is now home for me and other hundreds of thousands of emigrants and refugees trying to build new lives in exile? What can the words we use to refer to the places we were born in tell about our identities? Can they really tell something?

Parents’ lands – rodina that leaves no choices

The first word that comes to the mind of any person born in a post-Soviet country when one is asked to define their birthplace is rodina (Russian: родина). It stems from rod (kin) and generously protrudes to an array of other cognates: roditeli (parents), rodstvenniki (relatives), rodoslovnaya (ancestry), etc. With the emphasis on biological determination, rodina thus implies that one’s identity is destiny, it cannot be changed. “We do not choose our parents,” a popular Russian proverb says: you belong to where you are born, to your kin and genesis. Or “где родился, там и пригодился” – something that can roughly be as “you are of help only where you were born”. Hm? Dry bread at home is better than roast meat abroad? Your roditely, whatever bread you share with them, are forever your rodina. Chew it and then swallow.

In the USSR, the idea of one’s "parent’s land" the Soviets were supposed to only be proud of was frequently used in propaganda and immortalized in a number of impressive monuments, two of them ironically erected in Russia (Mamayev Kurgan, Volgograd) and Ukraine (Kyiv). Despite the word not being directly connected to any gender, those rodinas were embodied in the figures of armed women and formally illustrated the victory in World War 2. Volgograd 1967-year’s version bears the name “The Motherland Calls!” (Russian: “Родина-мать зовет!”), while the Kyiv one, built 20 years later, is “Mother Motherland” (Ukranian: “Батьківщина-Мати”).

One more curious semantic aspect: in Russian rodina is introduced as a synonym to mother, whereas the Ukrainian monument’s name was initially coded with the word Батьківщина, literally translated as fatherland. However, on 29 July 2023, amidst the removal of the Soviet heraldry – a trend initiated in the country in 2015 by the Ukrainian parliament, a future renaming to “Mother Ukraine” was announced by the director of the memorial complex Yuri Savchuk – obviously to get rid of the Soviet fleur associated with former “ruling-fathers”.

Nevertheless, regardless of the linguistic gender of one’s rodina, parents-based naming logic appears to be firmly present in European languages. Other examples are easily traced in Italian, French, Spanish: patrie, patria, patria, accordingly – all derived from Latin pater meaning father. Male focus is also preserved in German and Swedish where rodina is translated as das Vaterland and fosterland (literally, the land that belongs to father), thus again emphasizing the hereditary nature and pointing at the absence of choices.

More single-rooted words to illustrate this line are otechestvo (отечество in Russian and Bulgarian), otčina (in Czech) – also coming from the word отец (father). These, however, can be encountered mostly in formal solemn contexts. For example, in the Russian-speaking tradition the very name World War 2 does not exist, being instead replaced by Great Patriotic War (“Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voina”, that is “a great war for your father’s land”). Another typical context for father-centered birthplace names is religion: padre in Latin-based languages is also a way to address priests, while the most popular prayer in the old Slavonic is “Oche nash” (literally, “Our Father”).

Looking at this cluster of words, I involuntarily experience inner resistance. Several generations were born and grew up in the Soviet reality densely populated with rodina rhetoric and symbols. From early childhood, we were taught and constantly reminded of the obligation to love and cherish our motherland and be ready to fight for fatherland. Just like one was never allowed to choose parents, we were never encouraged to pick what to consider as our home. “My address is not a house or a street. My address is the Soviet Union,” a popular patriotic song said back then. And it is this very implied doom, choicelessness, and firmly postulated moral duty, that Russian propaganda now heavily abuses to indoctrinate the necessity of war with Ukraine and its “holy” mission of liberation and imaginary protection of the kin.

When one says that they love their rodina, or mother/fatherland, what do they really mean? What is their love directed at? I wonder if one can still love parents who order to kill – those who make their children murderers.

In search of Heimat

Heimat is a German word that is believed not to have analogues in other languages. In her eponymous book, Nora Krug quotes the comprehensive German Brockhaus encyclopedia, presenting the following definition: “That term which defines the concept of an imaginary, developed, or actual landscape or location, with which a person… associates an immediate sense of familiarity […] In common usage, Heimat also refers to the place (also understood as a landscape) that a person is born into, where they experience early socialization that largely shapes identity, character, mentality, and worldviews…”

The word thus seems to take a step away from the strictly “parental” paradigm and offer another, more emotional and fluid dimension in the reflections on the ways of speaking about home.

Apart from elasticity – if not to say rootlessness – of such a view, the German’s sentimental Heimat is also about the trinity of community, space, and tradition, because it is only through them, as the researcher Ina-Maria Greverus states, human desires for identity, safety and an active designing of life can be pleased, with the very process of search leading to individual’s self-awareness.

A fragment of the painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

All three (community, space, and tradition) look rather rational and more adequate to our times. Instead of being chained to the obsolete agricultural idea of “father’s lands” and explaining one’s home in terms of duty to love and obligation to fight for, Heimat focuses on human deeper needs: a need to naturally behave in a predictable and thus safe environment. A need to trust oneself and others. In the era of truthiness, fake news, and constant exposure to various sorts of propaganda, isn’t it all we look for – regardless of the necessity to move homes?

Shifting the retrospective focus from rodina ideology, I come to realize that my own Heimat could have been my grandparents’ village back in those endless summer holidays spent in Palesse tucked between crunchy homemade bread with a layer of grainy salt, yellow pages of boring books borrowed from a local library, and long hours of sleep into the distant adulthood. The place I felt most safe, calm and balanced – carrying duties to no-one but myself. Just like other German Exilliteratur intellectuals forced into emigration because of prosecution in the Third Reich, I refer to this home as something that now exists in my memories only: utopian, lost but at the same time, due to its immaterial nature, simply not being able to get lost.

Such Heimat, as Andrey Tarkovsky, another forced emigrant, perfectly showed us, could be accessed through the special psychological state of nostalgia – in the dreamy memory space of in-betweenness where all objects and people would forever rest intact. “Your motherland is where your soul travels at night”, the Belarusian poet, essayist and translator Ryhor Baradulin wrote. Or did he actually speak about Heimat?

A film still from Andrey Tarkovsky’s “Nostalgia” – a movie released in 1983 and shot in Italy, during the filmmaker’s forced exile from the Soviet Union.

The sacred kut

It is interesting but such nostalgic Heimat train of reflections brings me back to the native language – the language of my memories, my village grandparents, and my real, genuine Belarus, for decades repressed by the Soviet ideology that was introduced through the domination of the Russian language and culture. The analogue of rodina was also present in Belarusian – as radzima, rather as an attempt to adopt a similarly sounding synonym. But digging deeper into the language treasure box I discover one more lexical entity, a word often lovingly used in poems and prose by Belarusian-speaking authors. It is kut.

For any Belarusian kut is the word that belongs to perhaps the most famous poetic passage in the history of Belarusian literature – the verse “Moi Rodny Kut” (roughly translated as “My Native Land”) written in 1906 by Yakub Kolas.

Мой родны кут, як ты мне мілы!..
Забыць цябе не маю сілы!
Не раз, утомлены дарогай,
Жыццём вясны мае убогай,
К табе я ў думках залятаю
І там душою спачываю.

My native land, how sweet you are!..
Never shall I forget you!
At times, tired of travelling,
Of my miserable life of spring,
In thoughts I fly back to you
and this is where my soul rests.

* literal translation from Belarusian

It looks that, just like with the idyllic utopian Heimat, the Belarusian kut is a place one can freely travel to any time – a memory space that promises mental comfort and rest, a space one doesn’t have to be forced to love. Genderless, deprived of patriarchal connotations, the literal translation of kut should be “corner”, which again triggers the associations of safety and trust. Reclused in the corner with two walls behind, one does feel protected. At the same time, such a corner-centric position allows to calmly observe what unfolds in front. Observe – in order to carefully register and memorize.

However, for the East Slavs, kut was much more than a corner to hide and look around. Traditionally, in peasants’ houses, it was also a sacred place with a table, sometimes a shelf with candles, prayer books, Easter eggs, and an icon (or icons) put above, often decorated with flowers and fabric. Ritualistically, it was the most significant part of the entire home that required certain types of behaviors both from the house owner and guests. Kut was the first place one headed to when stepping in the room, a place to ask a blessing before starting a long journey or facing an important challenge. In short, a spiritual point of reference – an indispensable element in the chain of lives and energies. Despite the metonymic shift in the meaning of the word, we can see that the safeguarding function kut manifested was still there: one could be protected both by physical walls and the spirits, or ancestors’ souls, populating it – the very essence of home for the Belarusians.

In 2021 my social network feeds got filled with the images of suitcases, lost-looking pets and tired toddlers sleeping on car backseats stuck at the border controls. Hundreds of thousands of us were forced into nomadism, having had to leave our physical kuts behind. We did – still hoping that temporarily – abandon the idea of enjoying safety in the corners of our ancestors’ houses, but a more metaphysical dimension of home is something that no regime can take away.

While writing these lines, I raise my eyes from the screen and look at one of the rare family photos I took along – that of my grandmother Pelageya who, just like me today, had to leave her native village after the Bolsheviks’ regime suppressed one of the strongest rebellions against unlawful appropriation of private property in the early 1920s in Tambov Governorate. Back then, around 15,000 were estimated to be killed by the Soviets. Reflecting on the hardships every generation of every family seems to face and overcome in their own way, I reassemble my kut and do what I feel my duty is. Because in the immigrants’ suitcases the Belarusian artist Nadya Sayapina drew in her postcards from “Temporality” project we carry not only our possessions, but also our ancestors’ stories. Our home is what we remember and can tell about them.

The material was created within the media-educational project "Support in Arts" which is a series of interviews, publications, essays, educational courses and events from representatives of the Belarusian art community and art educators who work in various fields of art (illustration, design, modern dance, visual art, fashion, modern poetry and prose, photography, music, cinema) and interpret the modern context in their practices.

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