Content Warning: Death, murder, violence, political corruption, indecent disposal of human remains.
A couple of days of catch up! Be forewarned, it’s a long one.
Currently writing this on the train to Lviv from Kyiv. It is far too early for my liking, but I have to catch up on this otherwise I will have fallen too far behind!
Our time in Kyiv was wonderful. Kyiv is a great city –very cosmopolitan. There are tons of very trendy restaurants, bars, and café’s in our neighborhood. Every meal we have had has been (accidentally) exquisite!
What is also fascinating is that there is a wealth of not only cultural history, but so much contemporary history speckled throughout the city. It has been enriching, informative, humbling, and fascinating to immerse myself in the city, and to begin to hear the stories and experiences of locals. The Revolution of Dignity, as I previously knew as Euromaidan, has seemed to have shaped the city immensely, and there is no going back.
Thursday was spent on a self-led walking tour in the centre. I intended on taking it easy for our first full day in Kyiv by acquainting myself and walking around our neighborhood. Just around the corner from our apartment, I found myself at Bohdan Khmelnytsky Square, and St. Sophia’s Cathedral. So I popped in for a little visit. Not only because it is a part of ancient Ukrainian history, or because I thought it would make Baba happy…. but also because, along with Mychailyvsky Monestary, it served as a sanctuary for protestors during the revolution.
Regardless, it really is an impressive Cathedral. But also, surprisingly, there is a contemporary art piece by Ukrainian artist Oksana Mas. I wasn’t expecting to see a contemporary art piece in this cathedral! Let alone something that was actually really cool. It is called “Looking into Eternity,” and it is a mosaic image of the Virgin Mary. Except the mosaic is made of over 15,000 hand painted pysanky (Easter Eggs). Saint Sophia is v. hip Cathedral, apparently.
Afterwards I hopped over the short distance to Mychailyvsky sobor AKA St. Michael’s “Golden domed” Monastery. As I mentioned before, the monastery served as a sanctuary, hospital, volunteer station, meeting place, kitchen, morgue, and much more during the Revolution of Dignity. It is famously known for warning protestors on Maidan before the Berkut stormed the square in an attempt to wipe out the protestors. The monastery had not rang it’s bells since the mongols attacked Kyiv in 800 years ago. Whereas Saint Sophia’s seems like a bit more of a tourist location, St. Michael’s definitely has an air of respect and sombre remembrance because of this modern history.
Leaving the monastery, I casually strolled through Volodymyrska Hirka aka Vladimir’s Hill – a public park housing a famous Kyivan statue of Volodymyr – the founder of Kyiv.
Leaving the park, I started walking back toward Mychailyvsky when I noticed that, on the wall next to where I had previously exited the monetary, there was a memorial dedicated to the soldiers who have died fighting in Eastern Ukraine. I must have just missed it as I was leaving. There is a picture with each soldier’s name, age, and where they died, spanning from April 2014 – December 2016. I can only assume they are waiting until the end of this year to add in the casualties from 2017. I couldn’t believe how long the pictures go on for. It is a truly powerful thing to witness. You could see local people stopping, observing, a man wiping away a tear.
And on my way home, on the square outside the monastery, I came upon another memorial. I have been finding as I walk around the city centre, there are several information boards commemorating what occurred during the Revolution of Dignity. It is interested to feel my relationship to these modern day memorials. I have seen a lot of war memorials in my time, or statues commemorating historical figures, and have always regarded them with respect. Maybe it is just because now I am a grown up (ha. ha.) and see things differently, but maybe also because there was this revolution that occurred in my lifetime, which I felt an emotional connection to, which is not too distantly in our collective memories – it is a powerful thing to come across. On a building within the view of the information board, there is a mural of Serhiy Nigoyan, the first protestor to be killed during the revolution, with a compelling gaze watching over the square.
In the evening, we had a dinner date with a local ex-pat named Paul Niland. Originally from Ireland, educated in Britain, Paul has lived in Kyiv for over 15 years. And, impressively, speaks fluent Russian.
I cannot say enough about how informative, productive, compelling, and beneficial our meeting was with Paul. Paul worked as a financial advisor, but has somehow found a career now post-revolution as a political commentator, as an author, journalist, and serial entrepreneur. He has over 150 articles published, including for the Kyiv Post and Atlantic Council, and is currently developing “the best” crowdfunding platform – very cryptic! He and his wife, Lana, have run a few Ukrainian patriotic enterprises including a popular English language blog, What’s On, as well as Postmark Ukraine.
We talked for over 3 hours so I won’t, and can’t, write about it all. However, I am so grateful for our conversation – particularly at the beginning of our trip. Following our meeting I have been looking into some of his articles. I would recommend you google him and go through some of them, as he has an intelligent and diplomatic perspective on the current political situation. This article, he says, is one of the favourite he has written:
This one I personally find very interesting:
Paul and his wife were on Maidan for 89/91 days during the revolution. Hearing him talk about the events was an honour, and listening to him was a deeply emotional experience. Paul also went through the Orange Revolution in 2006. When I asked him his thoughts on how the general sentiments of the revolutions differed, his reply was simple: the Orange Revolution was a party. By the first day of the Revolution of Dignity, he said everyone knew it would not end without violence. Because the president was Yanukovych.
One anecdote of his that stands out was the story of being in a human chain, passing bricks and other items for the protestors on the front line. At this time, the government had shut down the metro lines to prevent anyone else from coming to the square. And preventing anyone from leaving. There was a woman, 75 years old, who had been on maidan and had been a part of the same human chain he was in. He said the Berkut officers stormed their area, and she ran to the metro to try to escape. But they had locked the doors, and the officers found her and beat her to death.
Paul was extremely generous with sharing his stories and his perspectives on things. The conversation would flow naturally between the events of the revolution and the current conflict in the east – it is interesting to note just how intertwined they have become. When I asked him his thoughts on why there doesn’t seem to be a widespread international understanding of the full effects of the conflict in the east, there is a complicated answer. But also one that is more simple– an answer that has been echoed to be by others since my meeting with Paul. When 3 or 4 or 5 soldiers die a week, and when this happens every week for long enough, it becomes common. That also, the international community still sees Ukraine as enough of Russia, and the Soviet Union, and that they do things differently over there. And so we forget. It made me think of the Stalin quote: that one death is a tragedy, but millions are a statistic.
This is definitely not a sentiment unique to the Ukrainian conflict.
I asked Paul where his interest comes from. He doesn’t have any Ukrainian heritage – he was born in Dublin – why is it that he cares so deeply about Ukraine? Why would he risk his life on Maidan during the revolution, or dedicate countless hours to writing articles or writing a novel on the revolution?
And his answer makes sense – because it is right. When you see something wrong happening, it is a wrong toward humanity.
At some point in the interview he leaned over to my phone, where I was recording him, and said, “You hear that? F**k you, Putin.” Which was pretty awesome.
Then we went our separate ways, and it was time for bed!
The next day we took an Uber (ps. Uber in Kyiv is so good! Very helpful for us who aren’t the strongest with the language :p) to the Bykivnia graves. Bykivnia is a town north of Kyiv, and the forest outside of it is the site where the Soviet government under Stalin disposed of the bodies of Ukrainians and Polish people who were considered “enemies of the state,” between 1937 – 1941. They think it could be up to hundreds of thousands of bodies disposed of in these mass graves.
These events were apparently well known to the people of the town. But after WWII, the Soviet government’s official stance was that it was a Nazi dumping ground. It has now been confirmed it was the Stalin administration.
The descendants of people buried in Bykivnia have tied ribbons and mounted photos with the names of their loved ones on the trees. When I was in Ukraine in 2006, we saw workers excavating bones and piling them on the side of their ditches, along with buttons, shoes, and other personal items. They were doing research and preparing for a memorial that was going to be built.
It was very haunting to witness the men digging up these bones at the time. And visiting the site now was definitely haunted by this experience. As we walked through the forest, I was imagining if there were human remains somewhere beneath us in the soil. My tree knowledge isn’t super strong, so I can’t name exactly what they are, but the trees themselves in the forest are haunting. They are tall, thin, and dark. They are coniferous trees and for whatever reason, they have only needles at the top, leaving the trees looking barren and naked. They all stand very close together and while they are tall and straight, some of them bend near the top, looking fractured and broken.
The monument they were preparing to build in 2006 has now been erected in the middle of the forest, amongst the trees with the ribbons. It is very powerful. There is a wall that surrounds it that lists the names of all the people they believe to be buried in Bykivnia. The wall wraps around almost half of the large monument. When the names end, it is quite jarring. It made me consider who else is buried that they might not know about. Or what names could be listed there from a different place, or from a different time?
We caught an Uber back to Kyiv. Our Uber driver was Volodymyr and he was A+! He and I chatted quite a bit on our way back to our apartment. He asked if we had family buried in Bykivnia – which we don’t, and I explained we visited there because it is interesting for us and the project we are developing. He told us that his grandmother lived in the town, and remembers the black trucks coming filled with bodies, with blood dripping from the cars. He said that lots of children are also buried there. When I asked why children, he shrugged his shoulders and said “why do they do anything?” He said they would line them up and shoot them “here” – he said pointing to the back of his skull, where the spine meets the brain.
He asked about my family, and why I know Ukrainian (and said that I “duzhe harne hovory ukrainskamu.” :p which is helpful in boosting my confidence and flexing my mova muscles!) I said something about that there are lots of Ukrainians in Canada, and referred to them as “Nashi,” which means “ours.” He said that it was nice to hear that I consider Ukrainian Canadians “Nashi,” rather than “vashi,” which means “yours.”
Volodymyr is a pro-driver, and got us home just in time for our 18:00 plans – super grateful! We arrived home just as the family of my maternal grandmother knocked on our apartment door. I never really knew that my maternal grandmother still had family in Ukraine. I have met my paternal relatives a few times, and we all follow each other on social media. So when I inquired with my uncle and Baba about our remaining family, I was surprised to hear that there was an entire sect of my family I didn’t know existed.
Mykola, his cousin Valya, and her daughter Ira, came over. And almost instantly it felt familiar amongst us. While Valya and Ira live in Kyiv, Mykola is from a village outside of the city. It was amazing how much Valya looked like my grandmother – her aunt. They have the exact same gap in their teeth. And have a similar Ukrainian-warrior-woman-like energy.
We spent the evening FaceTiming Canadian relatives (because apparently we live in the future), calling my Baba (which was really wonderful to witness).
Eventually the conversation, as it seems with so many Ukrainian people, devolved to politics. It was very interesting to hear their perspectives on the Ukrainian government – how they believed so greatly in Poroshenko (the president), who has now let them down. And their perspective on Maidan. Apparently Valya was at Mychailyvsky, and had picked up bullets (or something I didn’t quite understand…..) I learned more about my family history, and what had happened to my grandmother and her siblings. It was hilarious that they all knew Baba as a woman not to mess with. Mykola said that if she had had the opportunity to go University, she would have probably been president.
Valya asked me why I am in Ukraine when I could go elsewhere in Europe like Spain, or France, or Germany. And when I explained that it is important for me to meet family, and when I explained the context of the project we are working on, she was really touched. She said a few days earlier she was crying that all the young people are leaving Ukraine, as there is no work for anyone. And it “filled her with joy” that I chose to come to Ukraine.
It was truly humbling to meet them. And I convinced Ira to get Facebook so hopefully we can stay more in touch! She works at the University’s botanical gardens so when we are back in Kyiv at the end of our trip, she is going to take us on a tour.
After our goodbye’s, Patrick and I had to go to Maidan Nezalezhnosti to gather some video footage for the production. We were approached by a young man selling these blue and yellow woven bracelets. At first I thought it was the typical tourist trap, but he explained that he is part of a volunteer organization which fundraises for soldiers in Eastern Ukraine. He showed us his credentials, and their Facebook page, and where their funds go – this particular organization raises funds for a hospital and for the soliders in Mariupol. We chatted for a bit and ended up recording an informal interview with Alexiy. You can check out their organization here – “Dopomogda hospital.”
He has finished his studies and is now volunteering as his way of contributing to the efforts – he said he is not a fighter and would probably die on the second day. It was interesting to get the perspective of a young Ukrainian. A few interesting points he brought up included that while international help us good, they only help by giving guns, medicine, etc to the current soldiers.
And while that is important, there is almost no support for the soldiers after they come home. There are huge issues with PTSD. It is very difficult for soldiers to find work after they return because either they are suffering from some level of PTSD, or there is suspicious that they might be. So they won’t be hired. The pension provided by the government is miniscule, and helps no one.
We finished our interview, but he came back to ask me if I thought it was good that there was a revolution. I said that I think it is important to make change for the good, but it is bad that it is still needing to happen in 2014. He explained that he recognizes his opinion is not popular or widespread, but that he thinks the revolution was bad. That maybe if they had waited for an election, then there would not be so much violence. Both on Maidan and now in the East. That not so many people would have died and would continue to die. He thinks that they were all ‘played,’ so to speak, and that Yanukovych played the revolutionaries with the violence, so that no matter what the next government would be unstable. And because of the violence, Putin had an excuse to invade Crimea, and get his fingers into the East.
It’s hard to know, since it is easy to say in hindsight. But what I am learning is that the emotional effect of the revolution is incomprehensibly significant for Ukrainians here. While I can hear about it, feel about it, watch it – I’ll never understand the full extent. They have lived it. And you can feel that when you speak to them.
This morning was an early wake up call to catch our 06:52 train to Lviv. Serhiy was our Uber driver this morning, who was hilarious and mocked us “touristy” for our giant bags he had to fit in his tiny Lada. For the short, 10 minute ride to the train station, he and I had a really great chat. (I can already feel that my Ukrainian is getting better – both understanding and speaking. W00tw00t). He was a riot, and said that I had to buy the boys in the back (Patrick and Matt) “vyshyvany” so they can be like “Ukrainian Kozaks!” And that he loves Canada and is going to learn English, but also French, Spanish, and German. He asked why we are here, and I explained to visit family and about our project. Everyone here seems to know that the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada is huge.
He asked me if I knew лосось — salmon. He said that the salmon always swim home. So, I am like the salmon.
Then we arrived, he once again mocked my heavy bag, and that was the end of that encounter. The train station is not very friendly to foreigners, so finding the train was a bit stressful at 06:40. But we made it! And now I am ready for a train nap after writing this behemoth blog post.
Stay tuned for our Lviv adventures!