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'I did it on milk, cheese and potatoes'

Published Feb 12, 2007


By Sergei Karazy

Stariy Yarychiv, Ukraine - Hryhory Nestor, at 115 presumed to be the oldest living man, says life was best when the Austro-Hungarian empire ran things in his village in western Ukraine.

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The times when things got worse, first under Poland then under the dreaded Russians, are all but forgotten. All he wants now is to go on living until his 116th birthday next month.

Nestor, diminutive and sporting a large, grey moustache, now needs a cane to move about the house and his tidy village. He grins as he cleans a large bucket of potatoes in the two-storey

home where he lives with his late sister's grand-daughter, Oksana Savchuk.

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He needs encouragement - in the form of questions

repeatedly shouted into his ear - to recount details of what village life was like in the early 20th century.

"Things were best under Austria. You could go wherever you wanted, live where you wanted. And there was work for everyone," says Nestor, dressed in a thick denim jacket.

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"When the Poles took over, there were Polish beggars everywhere. And then there was the front and soldiers would come and take everything away."

Western Ukraine was part of Austria-Hungary until the empire was dismantled in 1918 when it reverted to the newly re-established Polish state until the Kremlin seized it in 1939 as part of the Nazi-Soviet carve-up of eastern Europe.

Nestor has no trouble recalling the onset of Soviet rule in his village 30km east of Lviv, the heartland of Ukrainian national sentiment.

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"Those Russians promised us all sorts of things - tractors, combines, cars when they were setting up their kolkhoz (collective farm)," he said.

And with a wry laugh, he sums up the collectivisation in which millions of Ukrainians perished: "They told us the kolkhoz was not obligatory. But you had to do it."

With no prodding, he bursts into a song of the time honouring insurgents who died resisting the Bolsheviks in the confused aftermath of the 1917 revolution.

Nestor's passport, based on Austrian documents, says he was born on March 15, 1891 - nearly two years earlier than Yone Minagawa, the Japanese woman who celebrated her 114th birthday last month and was said to be the oldest living person.

He attributes his longevity to healthy living and jokes about the fact that he never married.

"I liked my freedom. I would spend my time with one girl and then another. And then I would go off somewhere with the guys," he said.

"I always stayed in the fresh air and went barefoot everywhere. I slept out of doors in the summer. And I would drink milk and eat cheese and potatoes."

But 15 years after the collapse of Soviet rule, rural areas of independent Ukraine remain in the grip of poverty. Many of Stariy Yarychiv's residents have solved their problems by

leaving for jobs in Poland or Italy.

Savchuk has capitalised on the situation to earn a good living. Her husband, a notary, provides vital documents for residents seeking foreign residence and work permits.

She displays photographs sent by her mother, Nestor's sister, from the United States, where she lived for a time only to "foolishly" return home before Soviet rule became entrenched.

Savchuk, 40, says Nestor's documents almost certainly reflects his true age as his Soviet-era passport was issued by the NKVD secret police "and they rarely made mistakes".

Nestor remained unmarried, she said, because of the twin disadvantages of being short and penniless.

The family in wartime ate cattle feed, raw cabbage and grass.

"No one wants a husband who lives in poverty. I think he lived so long because of the will of God," she said. "A man can have a big house and be awash with money but if he does not have

God in his heart he won't live long."

And he is now focused on his next birthday.

"He says may God help me live until my next birthday on March 15," Savchuk said. "But every day he says he really does not know what will happen before the evening."

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