To Ukraine with Love

Shortly after Vladimir Putin started his war in Ukraine, I burst into tears in the middle of a supermarket parking lot. No one around me seemed too surprised. They understood. We’ve all been going through so much lately.

I’ve been to Ukraine. I love it there—the beautiful people, the rich culture, the warm hospitality. I’ve also been to Russia, twice. I love it there, too—the beautiful people, the rich culture, the warm hospitality. I don’t blame the people of Russia for the war at all. I just can’t believe this happened. Didn’t their leaders (one in particular) grow beyond this? It’s so strange how a charismatic madman can pull such sway with those around him…and not just there.

Such horror is happening there, as well as in other places, and the world is allowing it, even as it mostly gathers together to disallow it. How could this be?

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

One Christmas vacation, I did what millions of college students all around the world do: I went to visit a bud. This friend’s home, interestingly enough, happened to be in an embassy in Moscow, USSR, where his dad was an ambassador. It took quite a few double shifts at the movie bar I worked in during college to pull this off, but it was worth it.

USSR? Yes, this was quite a while ago, but not too long before the breakup of the Soviet Union. I was picked up in a limo (embassies are like that), and I remember the long drive from the airport to Moscow was completely black. There was nothing out there, not even one light burning in the darkness.

I returned to Moscow in 1999, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and that whole ride from the airport to Moscow was completely lit up, as it was suddenly chockablock with houses, businesses, McDonald’s, you name it.

But back to that first trip for a bit. I was taking a semester off from college to travel, and Moscow seemed like a good place to start, LOL. Mind you, this was Christmas vacation. As in, uh, early January. As in, uh, COLD! It was the coldest winter they’d had in 50 years.

It was quite a fascinating experience staying in an embassy. At my first glance at the sweeping staircase, I half expected “Tara’s Theme” to play. My friends and I stayed inside, mostly, due to the weather, but we did venture out to Red Square and many other tourist destinations. Just for the record, June is a much better month to be doing all this.

One such destination was the Lenin Museum. Lenin was…everywhere. Lenin in beads. Lenin in feathers. Lenin in…you name it, Lenin was in it. I didn’t go see him lying in his state. The only one I’ve seen in that state is Ho Chi Minh. More about Viet Nam in a couple minutes.

Another important destination was the American Embassy, specifically to the marine bar. I was sitting there minding my own business when a very tipsy friend (not my host) started going on and on about Ayn Rand and how great her philosophy was. The marine bar was known to be the only radioactive bar in the world—totally bugged, so every word was heard by Russians listening in from across the street. Hopefully and most probably they just thought it was another drunk, crazy American out sowing his wild oats and ideologies.

Then came Leningrad—yes Leningrad, before it was turned back to St. Petersburg. Right before the train left Moscow, I called out to my friend, “Don’t leave!” I was only half kidding. I was on my own for this part and the rest of my journey, although this was one of the few times I didn’t have an out-of-the-blue assembled pack of kids my age with me.

It was still dark when the train arrived at 10:00 AM. I had a piece of paper that was supposed to tell a taxi driver where to take me. The first driver took me to the Hotel Baltiskaya. Nyet. I handed the piece of paper to another taxi driver, who took me to the Baltiskaya train station. Nyet. I repeated the piece-of-paper-and-cab-driver thing, and he took me to Hotel Prebaltiskaya, my ultimate destination, which was five minutes down the street from the train station I’d arrived at a couple of hours before. At least I got a great tour of the city without having to walk in the icy air.

So. Icy. The images that stay with me all these years later are miles and miles of greyish white on greyish white on greyish white. Greyish white snow, greyish white sky, greyish white river, greyish white buildings. So. Greyish white.

One of many things the USSR prided itself on was no unemployment. I thought of that at the Hotel Baltiskaya as I watched four women chop at the same patch of ice. I don’t think that patch needed even one woman chopping, just a touch of salt. But they were amazingly merry about the whole thing, especially considering the temperature.

After I got settled in to my hotel, I headed off to the Hermitage, the world’s largest museum. Once again, I was minding my own business when a young man about my age approached me and said, “Can I buy your jeans?”

So those wild rumors were true. “I’m wearing them!” was my answer. We laughed and then chatted for a bit, but my jeans stayed with me

Russian soldiers in Red Square

One of the wildest moments of the trip was when my train from Leningrad to Helskinki stopped at the border of Finland. A gang of guards with a gang of dogs came through the train. A guard locked one of the doors to my bathroom (which was shared with the next cabin), then came around and locked the other door. Then he went back to unlock the first door, then the same with the second door…so no one could be sneaking to Finland in the bathroom. Outside, more dogs were sniffing under the train.

Note to a country: if you need guards and attack dogs to keep people in the country, that should tell you something’s wrong with your country. The US certainly didn’t (and doesn’t) have a perfect system, but at least we’ve always been allowed to talk about how imperfect it is…and being able to leave has never been in question.

In Viet Nam, filming the vets building a reception area at a medical center for amputees. This touching movie won a very prestigious award.

During an earlier iteration of my life, I was a documentary filmmaker. One movie was about veterans going back to Viet Nam to do humanitarian work and return to their areas of operation. The next entailed traveling around the world asking people how we can make peace. My then-husband and I talked to street kids, royalty, the folks of the world. So that’s what brought me to Russia again. During this second trip, I was so happy—not at the sights of capitalism per se, but at the new freedoms afforded the people.

Coincidentally, I was also in Vietnam just before and just after the embargo was lifted. In the first visit, Saigon was practically a ghost town. I remember watching Good Morning Vietnam back in Bangkok and seeing all the flower vendors and market stalls and people everywhere. “Oh, that’s what it’s supposed to look like!” I said to myself. Communism doesn’t do a country well.

When I left that first time, our tour guide said to me, “Would you please talk to your government about lifting the embargo?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” was my answer. She knew I was kidding, but thankfully it did happen soon.

Both times—visiting these communist countries before and after the USSR breakup or the lifting of the embargo—I felt like I’d stepped into a time capsule. It took almost no time for the enterprisers to get to work. The sense of freedom and relief was palpable in those second visits.

On my trip to Ukraine, in conjunction with a dear friend who’d established a teaching center in Cherkasy, we led a group of volunteers to refurbish a greenhouse at school for children with spinal difficulties. This was a month after 9/11. Plus, the Ukrainian military had just accidentally shot down in Israeli jet.

      My former husband asked me, “How can you go now?”

      “What better time?” I asked him.

Not exactly the best view of me, but here’s a shot of working on the greenhouse.

My mind replays scenes from Ukraine over and over. Lovely Cherkasy. Stately, magnificent Kyiv. The rolling countryside. Laughter at a picnic on a hillside.

My heart aches for my friends there and all the people of Ukraine. They’re showing true courage as Russia slips backward. I do want to convey how warm and wonderful the people of both countries are. What a crazy fiasco. The Russian people are not at fault for what’s unfolding, because most of them would never do anything like this and have been hoodwinked by their government. We might know a little something about being hoodwinked by government officials (or them trying to hoodwink us, at any rate).

A very dear friend of mine lived through the Blitz in London. She told me about how she and her family would go down to the basement and play pinochle during the air raids. I remember thinking, “Oh, thank goodness we won’t have to go through something like that again.”

Yet, here we are.

What can we do? What can one person do? Be a bright light in your own circle of people. Send money. Let your voice be heard. Be the change you want to see in the world…not as a quippy meme, but really, be the person you’d want to hang out with, be a beneficial presence, be kindness and a generous spirit, live as the change.

Love, light, goodness, truth, decency ultimate prevail. They always have and they always will, eventually. People get misguided, but overall, the longer we continue this being-a-human-on-this-planet thing, the more we improve.

As crazy as the world seems right now, things do get better. They’re better than they’ve been, and they will be better than they are. We can look at the world and see the awful things that we are creating. But we’re also creating organs through 3D printers. The younger generation is coming up with ideas to clean the ocean. The Webb Telescope is showing us the birth of stars. The list could go on for days. Really, if we can do these things, we can do anything.

People are people, and we want many of the same things: To be recognized. To be heard and seen. To raise our families in safety. For our children to have a better life than we had. Full bellies and full hearts. Enough.

There’s plenty of enough to go around. We know that. We just have to help remind a few fallen angels who’ve forgotten.

War Memorial in Cherkasy, Ukraine

Credit for the featured/opening image: “20090711-DSC_0243” by Bo&Ko is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.