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Ilja Rákoš, the priest

We publish the story of Ilja, the writer, who became the hero of the Humans in October 2016.

"I had served as a priest for 19 years before the corruption in the system completely got to me. It’s all about property and money. And pride. You cannot begin to imagine how deep it goes. When I received my vocation, it was so simple. Maybe I was naive, but the only thing of real value to me was the soul. That’s what all my training - and it is intensive, very contemporary, not as primitive as people might assume - was about: paying attention to the soul. If I see you’re hurt, it was my job to help you. If you’re hungry - to feed you. If you fall, to help you up. It took all those years, but I understood that there was a market here that plays entirely by its own rules. I got out of the game. I mainly worked in western Ukraine, and it was just chance that I met the girl I would marry the first day I arrived here. That was in 1996. Anna and I have been friends for years. During the Orange Revolution, I decided I liked being with her more than getting to stand behind the iconostasis. So I quit.

Right now, I’m writing about cultural issues in eastern Europe. It’s important to me that the cultural strength of this country be seen in the broader world. I get fed up with Ukraine being overlooked and underestimated. So I’ve had a series of articles published in the US in The Millions and referenced in the New Yorker. There are some pieces set to go in major publications quite soon. Everything just takes time.

I’m a legal resident here. Registered. I pay my taxes. Live off this economy. I am a writer. I do a lot of translation work.

I am a writer. I do a lot of translation work. I’ve translated Zhadan, Deresh, Andrukhovych - about anybody you’ve heard of - into English.

Last year, I adapted plays by Chekhov, Turgenev, & Lesia Ukrainka for the Lesia Ukrainka Theater. They had a two-week tour in London, and I did the English voiceovers. I am so proud of those guys. These beautiful Ukrainians are pouring out their souls in London. So, so great.

I like my life, and I want to live it here. My friends try to convince me otherwise. They insist I can’t live here long-term, being a foreigner. But it’s been 20 years now.

I love Podil. I’ll bring up my boys here. My eldest son, Vsevolod, is three years old. Jaromír is just one. I want them to know their Slavonic roots, be proud of them. My grandparents emigrated from Prešov a long time ago. So I’m a third-generation American. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, my grandmother said, "this is the end,” and forbade everyone in the family from speaking Slovak. It's very hard to argue with Slovak grandmothers. Well, you know what I mean.

Have I learned anything? I’m 54 now. Maybe one thing: everything takes time. It takes time to really understand something, to evaluate the result. You cannot rush love. Or work. And definitely not art. Evolution is a long, nearly immeasurable process. Right now, we’re trying to put Maidan into some context. But any assessment about change, whether it was all for good or evil, is premature. Maidan? You work, you adjust. You do what you have to. But not enough time has passed yet to say what will come of it. But it will. All in good time. Like the Old Book says: a time for every season under heaven."

April 2021

“I’m experiencing what the doctors in the US call “long Covid.” I got sick in October. I went into the hospital. The treatment was third-world. Just terrible. I got no help and finally checked out and went home. God is good, and I got better. I recovered, my breathing cleared up, and I got past pneumonia, but still, I’ve got the lingering problems. Heart, brain, lungs. I had three teeth fall out! The fatigue is still strong. Bit by bit, I feel stronger. The fear, when you believe you have 20 years left on earth but when you can’t breathe, you’re thankful for 20 more minutes. Then 20 more and 20 more, after that. My older boy was ready to fight the paramedics when they came to take me away to the hospital. Dressed up in their spacesuits. He was fierce: ‘don’t touch my papa!’ No matter how bad the situation, I knew I had to fight in the hospital. I had to make it home to Anya, to my boys.

We love Kyiv. It’s our home. I rarely get to “the glamorous center,” Kreschatyk, and all that. Those parts of the city are all about commerce careerism—they’re just not interesting. For me, for my art, I need to be where people live. Not as a tourist, but as part of the place—its economy, its flow. I have nothing against the Russian language—it’s a great thing, Anya and the boys speak it.

I do love how Podil has transitioned into Ukrainian. You hear it more and more, my boys get it in school, and I get this massive feeling of pride when they switch into speaking it. My boys know where they’re from. Kyiv, not Moscow.

Ukraine is an easy target, open for criticism. There’s just so much that’s broken here. But it’s impossible to live here and not love Ukrainians — (ok, MOST of them) — because of that ability to endure. The ability to distinguish the things you can’t control from the things you can. I don’t have some false, romantic notion of Ukrainian nobility—we’re all just Slavs—but there is strength here. And once the millennial generation’s infatuation with superficial western trends passes—and it will pass—I believe the 20-somethings and 30-somethings in Ukraine will accomplish something great. You can see it in people already.

For the older generation, I just want them to get some relief. They have worked all their lives and been cheated all their lives. The new government is no different: pensioners don’t matter to them at all. It needs to be fixed. The country will pay the price for the neglect of its seniors.

My wife, Anya, is still leading the British Council Arts team, and I’m writing when I can. It’s difficult with the current situation and trying to manage the family, but we live simply and make it work.

I have three pieces scheduled for later this spring in major publications—I can’t talk about them publicly, but it’s an exciting time. I’m still writing for The Millions. The writers and editors there are so good; it’s humbling to be counted among them.

The faith includes so many things for me. My wife. My boys. I believe that patience is rewarded.

I believe there are no shortcuts—things that endure needing time to develop. That the arc of the universe bends toward justice, whatever is false will fail.

I believe that God made us in his image and made a world for us, and it's our job to take care of it. I believe in the sacred things—things that can’t be measured, rated, bought, or sold. I tolerate the profane aspect of life—politics, economics, hype—after all, we all need to buy our bread. But I’ve lived too long to believe that anything worthy will ever come from the profane aspects of society. I believe in wonder. In intelligence shaped by experience. Look at this world, breathe it in, learn everything you can of it. Not at seminars and business forums. Definitely not from the internet. If you want to find God, to find meaning, just drag your gaze up from your phone. Look around you. Look at the beauty. At the ugliness, too. God is in every atom of it.”

Ilja Rákoš, the priest


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