Keeping Close Watch in Ukraine
My last week in Ukraine was spent interviewing activists. The activists in front of Ukraine’s Parliament, pictured below, held blue and yellow signs reading “new power, new reporting” and showed off the letters they had written to ministers demanding to know what actions they had taken after 100 days in office. While Ukraine is dealing with a real war in its east, another battle is being waged in the capital — the fight over reforming a system that has been systematically robbed and corrupted for more than 20 years. You can read my piece about activists who are fighting against corruption here. Many people described to me the apathy and fear that settled in over the Yanukovych years — the Maidan shattered all of that. Now, activists aren’t afraid to get up close and personal with ministers and demand to know what they are doing.
Pictured below is Hanna Hopko, who I interviewed in the piece I linked to above. Hopko represents the new, young face of active Ukrainians. In her early 30s, with one daughter, Hopko told me she constantly thinks of her child in everything she does. What makes the situation even more dramatic is that her daughter and husband aren’t in Kyiv with her, they live in Lviv. When the revolution began to look dangerous, Hopko sent her daughter to her parents and now she goes to see her when she can. The majority of people I interviewed in Ukraine I spoke Ukrainian with unless they felt comfortable in English (so much faster to transcribe). This often led, at least I like to think so, to deeper conversations and an interview at the end of my interview. People were naturally curious about me and my Ukrainian that is accented and makes me sound like I am from Poland (the diaspora accent). Hopko was running around in front of Parliament talking to me, other journalists, and then to me again before I was the only one left. I watched her switch seamlessly between Ukrainian, Russian, and English (she translated for Joe Biden when he was in town).
Towards the end of our conversation she told me something interesting. At one point she had left Ukraine during the protests to attend an event elsewhere in Europe. As she was flying back to Ukraine, she told the friend sitting next to her on the plane the story of a Ukrainian writer who fled Ukraine in 1946 and recollected how he would never return, even with a Soviet invitation, because there was nothing to return to and because he wouldn’t allow himself to be used as a tool of the regime. She recited some of his famous lines to me and then said that she knew she had to go back. Ukraine has had a large migration rate with many people going to work in countries like Italy and then sending money home. Ironically this money allows people to pay exorbitant bribes to get their kids into the best schools in Ukraine. Hopko, like many activists, told me now was the time to fight for Ukraine and that they weren’t planning on moving to any other country.
For me personally, it was an interesting remark because my grandparents on both sides made the same choice as the writer and because of that I have been afforded so many opportunities. When I told my relatives in Ukraine all of the places I have lived and traveled to since I last saw them I noticed their eyes widen. I then had another interesting conversation when I was writing another piece about Crimean Tatar activists in Kyiv. Crimean Tatars are the indigenous inhabitants of Crimea. They boycotted the vote that gave Russia a pretext to annex Crimea in March. At the end of my interview with the head of the Crimean Tatar community in Kyiv, he asked me about my family background. When I told him, he said to me, “then you understand what we are going through.” While I can’t directly understand the pain and difficulty of the decision my grandparents made, I to some extent can feel what they gave up when their country was invaded from both sides in the 1940s and then how proud and active they always were in the United States, never afraid to speak Ukrainian or say they were from Ukraine during the Cold War years. My dad once told me the only time he got into a fight as a young kid was when a kid at school called him a “Commie” for speaking Ukrainian with his parents. To him and my grandparents that was a high insult.
So while the activists keep watch, Ukraine’s new president Petro Poroshenko is in an unenviable position. I went out on inauguration day as world leaders descended on central Kyiv. After making a very strong speech in Parliament — “Russia occupied Crimea, which was, is, and will be Ukrainian soil. Yesterday, in the course of the meeting in Normandy, I told this to President Putin – Crimea is Ukrainian soil. Period! There can be no compromise in the issues on Crimea, European choice and state structure.” — Poroshenko went to St. Sophia’s to get blessed. I watched all the delegations pass. Boy, when American shows up somewhere do we show up. Rows of Cadillacs:
A few days earlier I had gone on a guided tour of St. Sophia’s because seven years earlier when I tried to, a Boston University alumni group was taking a private tour preventing me from seeing my heritage — damn Americans! :)
View of St. Michael’s from St. Sophia:
Pysanka, painted eggs, sculptures in the gardens at St. Sophia’s:
A stroll in the hills in Kyiv:
I’m back in the States now working in Boston for the summer and constantly reading about Ukraine. Expect a few more blogs on my trip (still have to show you what I ate!)