Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ukraine United: A Mosaic of Many Voices

Maria, Nik, and Anton the poet celebrating the Starobelsk calendar.
A host of friends, like a chorus of many different voices, guided me through the highways and byways and twists and turns of my Ukrainian journey.

Valya and me, last day in Chernigov. 
It started in Chernigov, just north of Kiev, with almost 3 months of language and cultural training. My hosts Valya and Nickolai provided a lovely room, great food, help with my Russian lessons, and tours of the town, which is really beautiful.  In fact, my language group focused on a tourism project for Chernigov, so convinced were we that it could be a wonderful tourist destination with many great historic sites, glorious Orthodox churches with gold, bright blue and colorful domes, bustling markets, tree-filled parks with gardens and fountains, great cafes, clubs and restaurants.  The city's Biblioteca is also terrific and not far from the Chernigov Red Square (Красная площадь), which featured fabulous concerts and performances and was surrounded by cultural institutions, a movie house, and cafes.

I wanted to stay there! But when I was assigned to a Russian language group, I knew that meant I was going to be sent to eastern Ukraine.  Almost 3 months later, I learned I was going to Starobelsk, in Lugansk oblast.  It was a little dot on a big map.

Okay, I knew I was going east, but THAT far east? Almost on the Russian border? Fellow volunteers wondered about the assignment, about sending the oldest member of Group 36 so far east, so far from the medical resources of Kiev. and so did I.  I knew it would be a challenge, and it was. It didn't help when I fell off my bike and broke my arm, and then had to take a 20-plus hour train ride to Peace Corps headquarters in Kiev, with only a few tylenol for the excruciating pain.  PC staffers had to carry me off the train. I guess that's why I was voted the "toughest" volunteer of our group!

But my arm healed, and my spirit soared as I become part of the Starobelsk community and made many friends.  Everyone knew the Amerikanka, wearing that blue coat in winter, and they were kind about my limited language ability.  The shopkeepers and vendors at the market learned what I wanted and needed, and would gather things for me with a knowing smile.  Besides the gifts of vodka and cognac I bought for family and friends, and the Roshen chocolates,  because you never went anywhere without bringing a gift, the shopkeepers knew I loved Russian cookies, fresh bread, cheese, tea and fruit.  The market vendors greeted me with smiles and helpful suggestions, and I bought most everything I needed from them, including my first bikini.  These are the people of eastern Ukraine.

There were many more.  Among them, first and foremost, was my "counterpart" in Starobelsk, my main supervisor, Vera Flyat.  
Vera at various "Know Your Rights"( Знайте свои права) community meetings,
with the project lawyer and the informative brochure., made possible through a USAID PC grant..  
Vera is the founder and director of NGO Victoria, my main job site.  Victoria (ВИКТОРИЯ) is a human rights, women's rights and social justice non-governmental organization fighting for change from the bottom up.  Vera is a warrior and a lightening rod. She is a reformer with little tolerance for the officials who run the town, the oblast, and especially the justice system. Where most people threw up their hands at the corruption, Vera entered the fray. She's a fighter, like Olga, Tonya, Natalia D, and the women who support Victoria's various programs.  Victoria's "Know Your Rights" project grew out of these activities. No matter the challenges faced in implementing the project, Vera overcame them, with flying colors.

Vera attended many professtional development and democracy building workshops all over the east and especially in Lugansk, at Vovo Shcherbechenko's Eastern Lugansk Center for Change.  It's how I got to know Lugansk.  I met lots of other change agents through Vera, who dragged me to various meetings and to these seminars even knowing, to her everlasting frustration, that my Russian sucked.

Vera's daughter Elena is a fantastic artist who paints in an ancient Ukrainian decorative arts tradition and makes beautiful jewelry.  Elena was also devoted to projects that preserved Ukrainian artistic traditions, important in a country seeking identity and unity.  She has two lovely daughters.  Vera's son Kwestia is a computer whiz and IT specialist. upon whom we relied for help at crucial times during proposal writing.
Some of Elena's art, in the tradition of the ancient decorative
paintings of the Starobelsk region, which she worked hard to preserve.

Then there was Sergei, the manager at the computer store, who helped me with my computer, printer, and supplies.  He lived on Panfelova, across from Luba's, so I bugged him a lot.  He had converted to Christianity, which comforted him in times of stress. It was unusual because most Ukrainians are Orthodox, if they are anything at all.  Several of my friends were Jewish but never talked about it; Baba Yar and pograms couldn't have been far from their minds.

Sergei teaching Healthy Living class
as University 
Sergei also taught seminars on healthy living, drug abuse and prevention at the university. At some point I was hoping to help him with a project but time ran out.  His business depended on the global economy and at times he struggled.  "You're a great businessman, Sergei; your store will be a great success," I told him in all sincerity. "God willing," he replied with a grin.

Anton the poet spoke some English.  I loved sharing tea and spending time with him.  His mother Valentina was a librarian at the Biblioteca so she knew the director Iryna, who would call on Anton from time to time to help translate for us.  Anton helped start up the English Club. "The love of his life," as he called her, was a doctor from Starobelsk who lived in Israel. Anton was working on a book of poems when I met him. When the book was published several months later, I joined his friends, teachers, colleagues, and local cultural leaders for a wonderful book-signing event at the Library. Actually, someone came over one afternoon and got me, took me by the hand, made sure I had a hat, and walked me to the Library, jabbering all the way. I had no idea what it was about until I got there.  Anton saw me and smiled.  

Asya with bike and Sasha (hidden in a tree) at the apple orchard;  me and Asya at Aydar river;
the far out and hidden memorial to Ukrainians killed by Nazis (bottom center);
meeting on street (lower left): Asya & Sasha, Olga & Tonya, Dr. Tonia and Luda. Luda was a creative soul; her
mom made my beautiful 70th birthday cake, shared by the English Club. Dr. Tonya loved
poetry, Wordsworth being one of her favorites.
Asya, whose family is from Siberia, taught English at Starobelsk public schools for many years before retiring; she tutored English language students when I served there. Her husband Sasha, born and raised in Starobelsk, is a renowned doctor, retired, a brilliant man.  Sasha knew the land and the history of Starobelsk intimately, and enjoyed telling stories.  Asya translated. He had a great sense of humor.  I was a willing and eager student.  Asya and Sasha live a short bike ride from Luba's.

Besides vegetarian meals together, Asya, Sasha and I took many bike rides into the countryside, along the river, and through the town.  On one bike ride, Sasha, a great outdoors man, made a grill and heated up water for tea.  On another, we went swimming in the river.  On another, we biked a long way past town, over railroad tracks, and past a memorial to Ukrainians who had been rounded up and killed by the Nazis ("a burial ground, full of unmarked graves," Sasha said).  Another Baba Yar I thought to myself. This memorial was off the beaten track, so I was grateful that Sasha  took me there, the stopped for a moment so we could say a silent prayer for the victims.  These kinds of experiences happened over and over again.

We ended up at an apple orchard that had once been a collective farm.  People came from all around with large sacks and filled them to the brim with different varieties of apples, good for preserving and storing for the winter. Asya and Sasha believe in the teachings of an Indian guru who preaches enlightenment and everlasting life. They helped me immensely after my brother Loren died, when I needed assurance that Loren was near, his soul free.  I can't imagine what they are thinking now, with Russian troops on the border near their home.
Helena with some of her students, including Alosha, in Ukrainian dress for a concert.  
Helena between Alosha and his mom, Dr.
Natalia, at Olga's.

Helena was the beloved voice teacher at the Children's House of Culture.  She was Alosha's voice teacher.  Alosha's mom, Dr. Natalia, played the piano.  She told me she was from a family of musicians and doctors. I loved her beautiful smile. She and her son regaled me with music at a wonderful lunch hosted by Olga; Alosha often brought his guitar to the English Club.  Helena still teaches at the Children's center, and with Olga organizes international programs between Polish and Ukrainian kids and adults, a way of learning about each other.

Maria and Sveta were students of Natalia D's at the University. They were faithful members of the English Club, and I am forever grateful for that. Artom, Tonya the drummer, and other students joined us as well from time to time, a great group of talented young adults. Maria and Sveta graduated in June 2010.  Maria got a teaching job and Sveta I think an office job.  They were vibrant young women who were growing up fully Ukrainian, emerging leaders and thinkers. Maria and Sveta along with Natalia D introduced me to the Pokrova festival at the University, an annual feast of traditional Ukrainian music, dance, food, and harvest traditions. Maria introduced me to Nik Molozhon, the graphic designer who helped put together the Starobelsk calendar, and Nik introduced me to the English Club at the technical college where he taught physics.  

I also met some of the most wonderful people on the long overnight train trips to Kiev, Chernigov, and all over Ukraine.  I don't remember their names, but they embraced this stranger.  Passengers would soon know I was American and wanted so much to communicate. We all did the best we could. Some passengers would make phone calls (everyone has cell phones), then suddenly put the phone up to my ear.  They called anyone they knew who spoke some English! They had lots of questions, and so we'd communicate this way. For most, I was the first real Amerikanka they had ever met. No horns! Those train trips were amazing journeys in themselves.  Ukrainian travelers shared their food and travel tips with me. We'd look out the window at passing villages, fields, and industrial sites, and people would have stories.  I remember those special nights when a full moon shone through our windows as we were going to sleep for the night.  I met ordinary people, doctors, a psychologist, farmers, teachers, students, men traveling for business, women going to see children and grandchildren, families with small kids (so well behaved), babushkas who were happy to feed me.  I learned to bring food, so I could share, too.

All of these people and more make up the mosaic of different voices that is Ukraine.  Wherever I went, up and down the eastern oblasts, north to Kiev, south to Crimea and Odessa, out west to the Carpathians and Lviv, the people embodied the talent, beauty and hope of the country that is still evolving, in search of unity, and now in search of peace.  Viva Ukraine.   Да здравствует единую Украину.
Elena Flyat's art, in Slobodovoya (Staraobesk/eastern Lugansk) tradition.

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