How a 105-Year-Old Ukrainian Called Life’s Bluff
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sometimes the best-laid plans of mice and men often don’t fall asunder.
My great-grandfather Artem Maximovich Chibalo was born in the Golovkivka village in Cherkashchyna, Ukraine. It’s hard to imagine how hard things were back then, but things were hard. In 1867, which may or may not have been the year he was born but is close, record-keeping was neither good nor complete. The Tsar controlled things, but for all his control, not much or many of the benefits accrued to the country’s rural people. Comforts taken for granted today, like running water, indoor toilets and supermarkets were absent and, even more serious, was what this implied in terms of exposure to sickness, accidents and just life in general.
On top of naturally caused misery there was also political instability. I mean there’s a reason there were two Russian Revolutions, and my great-grandfather fought in both of them. For the Tsar. A choice that might seem strange given the political weirdness going on in the Ukraine now. But back then it was part of the Russian Empire, and Chibalo was a survivor — before he was 30 he and his wife had had eight kids, two of whom died during the hunger times. So it was the smart move for a smart guy. The Tsar promised stability or at least a paycheck, so he served in the army for 15 years.
But after the revolutions, the one in 1905 and then the two in March and November of 1917, plus World War I, which didn’t end until 1918, things got worse. However, it was during the post-revolution times of misery that he had a vision. I don’t know if it’s correct to call it a “vision,” but whether it was in a dream or not, Chibalo had a visitation where it was revealed to him how he was going to die.
In any case it quickly sunk in that the “Germans” they were meeting were Nazis …
And it was not going to be on a battlefield. It would be in the woods, under the trees, after having had his “charka,” or a 100-gram volume glass of vodka, he said. No one in the family — his siblings, his children or anyone else who would listen — took him very seriously when he’d say, “… A long time from now — a very, very long time from now …” Besides this was still before World War II which, when it finally came in 1941 when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, made a far-off death seem much less than likely.
At first, many Ukrainians thought the “Germans” were going to liberate them from the food-stealing Soviets. Remember that before they invaded the Soviet Union, Ukrainians had already suffered through the Great Famine between 1932 and 1933, partly because of Stalin’s failed effort to collectivize farms. Anyway, my great-grandfather talked about the roads being littered with the dead, probably about four million of them in the first half of the last year of the Famine, 10 million in all. So all of his talk about being immune to death? Well, the family all had more pressing issues at hand.
In any case, it quickly sunk in that the “Germans” they were meeting were Nazis and while some Ukrainians were anti-Soviet, anti-Nazi and Ukrainian nationalist, and some were pro-Nazi, some were partisans, and this was Chibalo. His feelings about the Soviet Union didn’t change that they had been invaded, and he responded to the invaders. And more importantly, he didn’t die. This despite the famine, being bombed and shot at, and against the odds since we lost about nine million people during that war. So 10 million to the Famine and not even 10 years later, almost 10 million more.
Chibalo, however, did not die.
Sure physical strength played a part in it. After the war, he had a sick calf but no way to transport it to where the vet was on the other side of the village. So he did something that was not that unusual for him but still pretty unusual. He squatted down, stuck his head under the calf and carried it to the vet. The vet was not close, and the calf was not so sick that it didn’t struggle, but he got it there. Maybe it was a small calf, though. Maybe.
Things had changed by then in the Ukraine though, and Chibalo had to make money, which he did by making stone fences, digging wells and doing anything and everything else necessary to get water out of the ground. If you haven’t done it, this is back-breaking work and would have been hard for even the average man of 50.
At 105 years old, Chibalo had far exceeded the average, but his work gave his life meaning and so he worked. Until one day, after walking home from work, he had his charka of vodka, just like he had done every day since the end of the War, and sat down to rest under a tree in his yard. He fell asleep and never woke up. It was February 23, 1969. And he had died like he always knew he would. At peace.