Life and fate

Russia’s war in Ukraine has a bitter personal resonance for Clerkenwell fashion designer Antoni Burakowski, of design duo Antoni & Alison

A family stand in a 1967 living room, visible is a tv set and patterned wallpaper. Kneeling or sitting are two young women with dark hair, one with glasses. Standing behind are a man in a dark suit and tie, a small boy in a patterned pullover and a woman in a dark dress with a chic hairstyle
Antoni Burakowksi Senior in 1967 with the family

Oliver Bennett

Many will know Antoni & Alison, the fashion designers in Rosebery Avenue, Clerkenwell. After meeting in 1987 at London’s Saint Martins School of Art – Antoni Burakowski studying fashion textiles and Alison Roberts’ fine art – they set up the shop on August 1997 and since have built up a loyal clientele from across the world, showing collections twice a year. Their archive is in the Victoria and Albert Museum and in 2008 they gained a dual MBE for services to fashion and photography. 

But Burakowski has another thing on his mind at present – Russia’s war on Ukraine. From Anglo-Polish heritage, he has relatives in Ukraine, both near to and in Lviv, and is intensely concerned about the war. “It’s very personal for me,” he says. 

Burakowski’s extraordinary background is like a living history of the 20th century. 

“My grandmother was Ukrainian and my grandfather Polish,” he says. “My father Antoni was born in what was Poland but is now Ukraine – the borders changed after WWII – in a small village called Berezdivzi close to Lviv. 

“When dad was 19 he was arrested for singing anti-Stalin songs and sent to a gulag in Siberia. He never saw his parents or home again’’ “

He was there for approximately a year,” adds Antoni. “In June 1941 Germany invaded Russia, and Stalin needed help to fight this new enemy. A Polish-Soviet treaty was agreed allowing the release of Poles held in labour camps to help form of a new Polish army. Dad was released and walked back from Siberia to Poland along the railway tracks to join that army.” 

Antoni Snr then fought in the 3rd Carpathian rifle division – including at Monte Cassino in 1944 – before being ‘demobbed’ in London. He met Antoni’s mother Ivy who was originally from Poplar: she was 16 and worked in the local sweet shop in Ilford; he was 28 an ex-Polish soldier. They became a cleaner and a builder respectively and moved from London to Harlow new town in Essex where Antoni and his three sisters were brought up. 

During his life, Antoni Snr was a snappy dresser and was supportive of Antoni’s career. “At catwalk shows, he would be there at the front.” He and Ivy were very proud of the MBE, although Antoni remembers him, ever the builder, wanting to fix up Buckingham Palace a bit. But Antoni Snr, who died five years ago aged 96, never went back to Ukraine. 

Despite this, during his childhood, Antoni had strong links with Poland where he spent summer holidays with his two aunts – his closest relatives to have survived WWII – working on their cooperative farms. “The first time I ever went out to a restaurant was to a Communist restaurant,” he says. “We never went to restaurants in Harlow, but in Poland everything was so inexpensive for us.” During these times cousins and other family members would make their way from Ukraine or Russia to come to see us. “It really was a joyful time.” 

As he grew up, he stopped going every summer but the links with Poland and Ukraine continued. “My cousin Volodymyr had been one of the soldiers that went in at the beginning of the explosion at Chernobyl,” says Antoni. “Afterwards he was given leave to go from Ukraine and move elsewhere.” He came to London first, on Antoni Sr’s bidding. Antoni Jr, then a fervent club-goer, looked after his nuclear-veteran cousin in London for a while, taking him to legendary clubs Kinky Gerlinky and Taboo. Despite the culture clash, he says “it all went really well and he loved it. He lives in Canada now and I’m glad to say is in good health.” 

His father didn’t want to go back to Ukraine because “he was worried”, says Antoni. “He never saw his mum or his dad again and his older sister and brother all died in or after the war.” 

He did find two of his younger sisters in 1967 with the help of The Red Cross. Helen had been dispersed from what is now Ukraine to Opole in southern Poland, and Aniela to Kamien Pomorski in northern Poland. 

But his father remained concerned that if he went back to Ukraine, he would be taken away again. “It instilled a real fear in him and a distrust for the Russians and for Churchill, who dad said had given Poland-Ukraine to the Communists.” It became such a big thing for Antoni Snr that Antoni says that fear came out as strong memories in later life after he was diagnosed with dementia. “Sadly, he relived those days in the gulag again.” 

When his dad died Antoni and his mother took the initiative and went back to the village where he was born. “It was important for us to see where he came from, and to find what remained of his family, so off we went on this emotional journey,” says Antoni. 

In Ukraine, they went to the village where Antoni and his mother found cousins and old family friends. With this re-found extended family they had an epiphany, enabling them to piece together their family history. 

“We met everybody from the village, some of them our relatives,” says Antoni. “It was a magical time with lots of crying and vodka toasts, and we had made a brass plaque for dad to be put up on his birthplace, which we found. We had a party and many stories were remembered. Although he was really young when he was taken away he definitely hadn’t been forgotten.” 

“What was so incredible is that I felt entirely at home and it was amazing to meet all these other Burakowski’s. And the best thing was that I found my nan and granddad’s grave, which my dad never knew existed.” Antoni put his father’s St Christopher locket in their grave: “As if a bit of dad being back with his parents again”. 

Which brings us to the current Russian war on Ukraine, which has conjured for Antoni all the hardship and pain his father went through, as well as shining the spotlight on the spirit and bravery of the Ukrainian people. 

“I think Ukrainians are tough but also very emotional,” he says. “The way they’ve dealt with this whole situation has been old-fashioned in a way, and terribly gallant. They have an incredible sense of history.” Borders shift and always will, but for Antoni seeing Poland opening up to Ukrainian refugees has bought a flood of family memories. 

Now, it is a case of watching the war develop, and hoping for the best. “What is going on today is horrific,” he says. “I’ve looked at so much footage, and it reminds you of what the Ukrainians have been through.” It brings up, for example, the Holodomor famine of the 1930s – thought to have killed between 7–10m Ukrainians and a failure caused by Soviet policy. Antoni Jr is now going to host three Ukrainian relatives in his house. 

“Putin now has some odd nostalgic desire to return to something that people don’t want to be returned to,” says Antoni. “And however the Russian war on Ukraine develops, it will already have ruptured the lives of this generation of Ukrainians.” And that is one of the many disastrous aspects of war – that it lives for generations, as it did for Antoni’s father Antoni Snr.

If you want to help Ukrainian refugees, a list of charities can be found here: london.gov.uk/what-we-do/communities/migrants-andrefugees/how-you-can-help-ukraine