by the DA Ukrainisti
When boarding our train to Ukraine, the group morale was uncertain of the chemistry that would develop between us. We had been following the unfolding events in Ukraine keenly since the beginning of the year. There were numerous occasions where we contemplated canceling the trip due to the prospects of violence or physical danger to our trip. Thankfully, our nerves and patience paid off to give us a glimpse of the beauty that is Ukraine. Below are a collection of our experiences and thoughts on the events that impacted us the most.
We couldn’t drive up to the hotel. Stacks of tires and rubbish blocked the road: the barricades of Maidan, Independence Square. And so we disembarked. We were prepared for a tense atmosphere, but not for what we stepped into. It was the last day of the 40 days of mourning for those who had died in February’s shootings, gunned down by snipers on that very road. Music played — a folk song, the words unintelligible but clearly the melancholic tones of grieving. Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags rose out of the barricades bedecked in flowers, and small candles in brightly colored jars illuminated the faces in the photos of the Heavenly Hundred; a somber but fitting beginning to a trip that would be both a sobering reflection on Eastern European politics as well as an amazing insight into a fascinating country.
Political Turmoil: Jan
Walking across Maidan, we could observe characteristic revolutionary developments: different political movements had sprung up like mushrooms after the rain. Next to the omnipresent ring of 12 golden stars on azure background, red and black versions of the Ukrainian flag could be seen across the square. This flag – used by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during their resistance against the Soviet Union – has become the symbol for nationalist groups and parties, most notably the Right Sector. Uniformed men wearing Right Sector insignia could be seen on Maidan in numbers comparable to those of the “official” self-defense forces. Tensions were on the rise, and a shootout between different uniformed activists had occurred only a couple of hours before we visited a bar next to the scene. We realized that revolutions are never homogenous, but that they are often comprised of different groups seeking conflicting results.
Every time you go to another country you should make a point of meeting the local people, and there was plenty of opportunity for doing so on our trip to Ukraine. Before even entering the country, at the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, we fraternized with the railroad workers changing the wheels of the train (although they were rather inebriated and communication was restricted to the exchange of cigarettes). Later on, we made friends with the dining car waiter who provided us with vodka after our own supplies had been exhausted. We were most inspired, however, by the open-minded and revolutionary spirit of the young Ukrainian students we got to know in an underground bar in L’viv. Slava Ukraina!
Aspirations of the Younger Generation: Erik
We had the opportunity to meet two groups of students. One was from the Diplomatic Academy of Kyiv, the other from the semi-private Mohyla Academy. Despite their differing personalities, these students had one thing in common: they were fed up with politicians stealing the wealth of the country to the detriment of its people, and they could not see a new leader coming that would change it. While their future prospects did not look bright, I was struck by their friendliness and optimism. At this point I realized how blessed I was to live in a prosperous democratic country, with the world and so many opportunities open to me.
Peace and Reflection: Zach
At the time of our arrival in L’viv, we were all overwhelmed by the raw experiences we had in Kyiv. Between the open enthusiasm of the Molhyla students and the frank interactions we had had with Ukrainian government officials, we were fatigued both mentally and physically. Our arrival in L’viv could not have been better timed. However, the city seemed to exist in its own little bubble, an oasis in the turbulent sea surrounding it. The atmosphere was not tense. In fact, the weather and friendliness of the city’s inhabitants were glorious. With the revelations and aspirations we had been exposed to, L’viv was the perfect place to sit back in a beer garden and enjoy a couple cold pints. Those last few moments were perfect not only to reflect on the experiences of the trip, but also to realize the potential of this beautiful country.
Recent events may have left their marks, but amidst the heaps of rubble we could still see the rich culture of beautiful Ukraine: the golden domes of various colorful Orthodox churches alongside brilliant examples of Soviet architecture. We wandered through the candlelit tunnels of Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, a cave monastery, to see mummified saints and glittering icons; we visited monuments commemorating the atrocities of history; we even spent two splendid evenings at the opera. At the National Opera in Kyiv we saw a classical ballet, while the Viennese style theater of L’viv staged a rather extraordinary merger of various Italian operas and contemporary dance. The cultural sights were certainly unforgettable and will long be remembered through the numerous postcards that now decorate our homes.
Maidan is obviously not a souvenir shop. You can still smell the smoke and feel the tension in the air as you walk slowly through the barricades. Nevertheless, a sort of open air “market” has been set up: smiling sellers stand behind their stalls offering you blue and yellow ribbons, Ukrainian flags, magnets of Maidan, books and pamphlets. The most interesting products are the miniature golden bread loaves representing the infamous richness of the ousted President: Mr. Yanukovych. Is it historic memorabilia or revolutionary merchandise? Is it a way to keep the Maidan spirit alive or a pragmatic attempt to make money from tourists of political unrest? Could someone have come up with the idea of selling miniature brioches in front of the stormed Bastille? The revolution has set in place a variety of narratives that are as murky and uncertain as the future of Ukraine is for its citizens.
Crossing Borders: Elisabeth
There are many ways to travel. You can go by car or take a plane, or you can do what we did on our way to Ukraine: embark upon a 30 hour train ride to cover a distance which could be made with a three hour flight. If you want to discover a new country, you have to get closer slowly to feel the different atmosphere, to notice the changes of landscape, to feel the crossing of borders. Ukraine is part of Europe. It is next door, and still leftovers of history let you feel the spirit of the Iron Curtain, while crossing over no man’s land and seeing the old watch towers. You learn to appreciate what we take for granted – freedom and peace. At the end of our trip, we realized that we had not only crossed geographic borders, but also those within our hearts that brought us much closer to Ukraine than before.