The Only Way is Forward

The country of Ukraine, as we know it today, did not exist as an independent state until 1991.  Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared its independence and began the slow and steady progress towards a functioning democracy.  This progress has not come without considerable sacrifices that range from power hungry oligarchs suppressing political reforms, to outside entities attempting to influence and tamper elections. In the last 17 years alone the people of Ukraine have taken part in two revolutions to demand freedoms and a more democratic government. For such a young democracy the citizens of Ukraine have time and again proven their willingness to mobilize in support of more democratic freedoms. This push for self-determination is a relatively new concept for a land that has seen its fair share of hardships.

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 Prior to independence, Ukraine can be viewed historically as a kind of crucible between East and West.  This divide was most prominent during the decades surrounding the World Wars.  It can be argued that few countries over the last century have experienced as much hardship as Ukraine.  From 1932-1933 the peoples of Ukraine experienced an artificial famine in what is today known as the Holodomor.  This genocide was manufactured when Joseph Stalin seized control over thousands of acres of Ukrainian farms resulting in starvation, executions for possessing a single handful of grain, and the deaths of millions of Ukrainians.  The Holodomor was meant to quell and extinguish Ukrainians who were in opposition to Soviet control.  Millions also died fighting in World War II.  The country’s geographic location resulted in occupation by both Soviet and Nazi forces and citizens faced retaliations from both sides.  Following the war, like most peoples of the then Soviet Union, Ukrainians were not immune to Stalin’s wide sweeping purges.  The 1980’s brought with them the disaster in Chernobyl, wherein thousands died, where displaced, or developed chronic health problems as a result. 

 

All of these hardships have led Ukraine to where the country finds itself today. Again a catalyst between East and West.  In 2014, Ukrainians took the streets to protests their president’s pivot away from the European Union towards Russia.  It is important to note that not all of Ukraine was in favor of one over the other.  However, the need for continued progress towards openness and democracy is a central force propelling all of the country forward.  In the end these protests resulted in over 100 dead in clashes with police forces and diverging sides in the ideological battle.  The president at the time fled to Russia and the people elected an interim government to oversee the transition for what they hoped would finally be, after 23 years of independence, movement towards true democracy devoid of outside influence.  This transition too, has proven to be anything but simple. 

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In the days following the president’s flight to Russia, troops of the Russian Federation, wearing uniforms without national markings seized control over the coastal peninsula of Crimea.  In the following months, within the eastern borders of Ukraine fighting between pro-Russian forces and pro-Ukrainian forces began warring over an area collectively known as the Donbas.  This war has resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 Ukrainians in 3 years and the conflict is still taking place today.  The depth and complexity of all of the previously mentioned conflicts and atrocities could take years to explain in full detail.  The above text was only meant to provide a brief understanding of the bad hand dealt to the country and peoples of Ukraine.  These events have marred Ukraine’s view of the future, however, resiliency still runs deep within their DNA.

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As I write this, I am sitting at a café drinking coffee surrounded by indifferent families laughing and talking with their loved ones.  The establishment is not unlike many you would find in the West. Popular tracks play in the background and the walls are adorned with various types of hipster artwork.  The barista is a friendly man with a foot long beard, proudly wearing a Mumford and Sons t-shirt.  Modern cars line the streets outside and beautiful parks scatter across the cityscape, themselves littered with bright flowers and quaint atmospheres.  Life here is not that unlike the United States.  Yet, I sit less than a two hour drive from the Russian border.  The city I am in less than 300 miles from the ongoing conflict in the Donbas.  This conflict, and the ideological gulf that now separates Ukraine from Russia, a country many citizens believe to be their historical brother, looms over all life in Ukraine.  Its presence is felt overwhelming across the country. Yet the citizens continue to persevere.  The country continues to work towards a more democratic society and a more inclusive culture.  This progress is a battle many are willing to risk their very lives for every day.  It is this historical battle, the fight of ideologies, the climax of wills between the people of Ukraine and their aggressive neighbor that is paramount to democratic loving peoples across the globe.  Nothing illustrates the resilience of Ukraine quite like the country’s national anthem, poetically titled, “Ukraine has not yet died.”

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Small Governments and Big Changes

 

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Democracy can be considered to be the greatest social experiment mankind has ever undertaken.  For the greater part of human history ordinary citizens have had little, if any, say in how they were governed.  This is no longer the case.  In comparison with the scope of our history, democracy has been but a blip on the radar of time.  However, during this short time, humanity has lived through its most prosperous and free moments in its entire history.

The idea of democracy, at its roots, addresses one simple yet complex question.  From where is power derived?  The foundational belief within all democracies is that it is from the individual citizen that power resonates.  For the citizen to hold any true political power, the elected officials closest to the citizen must be the most democratic.  Town councils, mayors, and local municipalities the world over are required to be far more receptive to the criticisms of their constituents then those further up the power ladder.   Simply put, if a town has a huge problem with potholes and the mayor does nothing, that mayor will not hold office very long.  Therefore, if we are to address democracy at the most basic, fundamental level, we must build from bottom-up.

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This is a belief the Ukrainian government has attacked head on.  Following the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 the newly elected government in Ukraine enacted reforms that have become collectively known as decentralization.  Through decentralization, Ukraine has incentivized local governments to become more transparent, and accountable to their constituents.  If these local municipalities follow certain steps they gain more autonomy, sovereignty and most importantly, gain more control over their own budget. During my next two years, I will have the distinct pleasure of working with one of these town councils in Hlyboka, Chernivtsi Oblast.  I will work daily with the town council of Hlyboka and other organizations throughout the area to help find financiers both foreign and domestic as well as work with the government to engage and activate their citizenry to become more participatory.   I am overwhelmed with pride to take even the smallest of parts in this broad endeavor.

Like all former Soviet republics, Ukraine is relatively new to the democratic process.  During Soviet times all local governments did not have any control over their own territory.  Officials were simply put in place to maintain order for the greater national government.  If they ever encountered a problem or needed something fixed, they had to go up the chain of command and request money from the central government.  Years of having no control over their own destiny created indifference towards the system and of the federal government.  To truly build a strong, empowered democracy one must start by creating a strong, empowered people.  If the government on the local level becomes more responsive to their constituents, the hope is that the citizens will start to truly believe they can make a difference.  The Ukrainian government has taken these fundamental challenges in stride even while fighting a war within their own borders that has cost the lives of over 10,000 people, and having their territorial integrity compromised by one of their neighboring countries.

So why should the United States care?  Why am I here?  The simplest answer is in hopes of being a part of history. Ukraine right now is at the crucible between east and west.  Between democratic, Western norms and the possible return to reliance and subjugation by neighboring countries.   If we truly believe in these principles of self-determination and human rights, then it is our duty to try and help those who also strive towards these goals.  These changes will not take place in a day or even months, but over many years.  It is a battle to win hearts and minds.  To hopefully help even just a few people believe they can make a difference.  As Martin Luther King Jr. said of injustice, a threat to democracy anywhere, is a threat to democracy everywhere.

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Lost in Translation

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If you have ever had the unenviable task of using public transportation anywhere within the United States you have faced the potential challenges of arriving to your destination incredibly late, or incredibly early.  I dealt with this issue numerous times in my short stint in D.C., a city known for mass public transportation.  From the metro to bus lines, using these systems are less than ideal.  However, this is not to say that they are not much welcomed and necessary, only that if one had the option to use them or not, most people would choose the latter. So far, my experience with public transportation in Ukraine has demonstrated the same results.  With one small exception, no one here speaks English.

In Chernihiv, and throughout much of Ukraine, people use a system of buses to reach their destinations.  Much like in the United States, there are bus systems that are run by tax payers’ dollars and operate on a small passenger fee.  These buses look much like one would expect, large, can hold numerous people, and relatively official looking.  Unlike the United States, however, there is another group of buses that run through and between cities that are privately owned and ran.  These buses are collectively known as marshrutkas.  Marshrutkas, can vary in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and, despite their outward, are surprisingly efficient. Riding a marshrutka has proven to be an experience in and of itself.  Even though there is a convenient numbers system detailing each marshrutka’s route, the language barrier has shown to be quite cumbersome.  This past week I learned this lesson the hard way.

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The simple fact of marshrutkas, the 27 line in particular, is that unlike conventional buses they do not take a looping route.  Each marshrutka, I learned after my excursion, takes a specific route with an end destination depending on what side of the road it picks you up on.  Where my troubles began, even though I did indeed get on the right bus, was that I did so on the wrong side of the road.  The way marshrutka rides work is that you climb onto a crowded bus, possibly grab an open seat, or pack in tight next to strangers who you cannot even say excuse me to.  This particular time I was able to procure a seat in the back left next to a window.  I had 4 hryvnias (Ukrainian dollars) ready as the ticket taker came around taking up money.  The sun was setting to the west and I settled in for the long trek back to my apartment.

It did not take long however, for me to begin to realize something was amiss.  The scenery outside became increasingly rural as we began to move further away from the city and into the countryside.  I nervously checked google maps and knew that we were moving further away from the city center and my host family’s home. Even though I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with my possible journey back, I continued to reassured myself that even if the bus did go outside the city, their route would bring them back through the loop and I would eventually get back.  Much to my dismay, I would eventually find that this was not the case.  Dusk was setting in as we continued to move through the countryside. I became more and more anxious as the bus’s passenger numbers continued to dwindle.  As night closed in around us, I suddenly realized I was the only passenger left on the bus.  Not being able to read the passing signs or communicate with the driver and ticket taker I was oblivious to the situation and the eventual destination.   In a fleeting moment of hope, it appeared as though the driver was turning around in a cul-de-sac and going to begin the long commute back towards the city.  My hopes were dashed however, as the bus suddenly came to a halt.  The engine stopped and both driver and ticket taker, the only people besides myself left on the bus, turned to me and began speaking to me in Russian.  In this moment, Ukrainian hospitality revealed just how deep it runs, and how basic kindness transcends language barriers.

I shuffled nervously up towards the front of the bus, the two caretakers talking in Russian the entire time.  The three of us proceeded to say our piece and play charades calmly with one another, trying to get our message across.  I pulled out google maps and found a location near my apartment and began to say one of the few sentences I knew by heart, “красная площа” which means, “Red Square,” which is also the city center, near my apartment.  Following more charades I tried another phrase I knew.  Unfortunately, I did not remember the word for walk.  I did however remember the word for run.  So I began to tell them that I would, “run home.” At least I think that’s what I said.   Thankfully, these two individuals demonstrated true kindness. If not for them, I would have been stranded across an unknown city with minimal language skills trekking back to my host family’s home.

From what I found out later, these two were at the end of their shift, ready to head home for the night.  That is until a dumb American unknowingly got onto the bus going the wrong direction.  The ticket taker looked at me and pointed at a seat near the front, the marshrutka cranked back up and these two kind souls proceeded to take me all the way back to the bus stop by my apartment.  I have since used and will continue to use marshrutkas during my time here.  They can be a bit of a hassle, but if these two individuals represent the character of the people I will continue to feel safe. If not for these two, I would have been stranded across an unknown city with minimal language skills trekking back miles to my host family’s home.  The event itself was relatively miniscule regarding the overall interactions I will continue to be a part of throughout the next two years.  However, the kindness these two individuals showed to a foreigner in their land, who spoke none of their language, speaks far more than words ever could.

Communication is Key

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Language, at first glance, seems simple and straight forward.  One human makes certain sounds or writes certain symbols on a piece of paper and his fellow humans should know exactly what he is trying to say.  As I have learned so far in my short stint in Ukraine, simplicity couldn’t be further from the truth.  Whether it be street signs, people talking, or simple food menus I have so far been ignorant to the message.  As far as my basic communications skills are concerned, I might possess the ability to communicate with a toddler.

So how to alleviate this problem?  The good news is that the Peace Corps has a fine, tuned machine that is capable (I’ve been told) of helping even the hardest of heads learn to speak and understand Ukrainian.    For the moment I want you to picture a small child.  A child who is just beginning to form basic sentences.  By basic I mean, “I want that,” or “See dog run.”  This imaginary child possesses as much of an understanding of English as I do of Ukrainian.  So for the next two months I, and numerous other Americans spread across Chernihiv, will be spending 4 hours a day, 3-5 days a week learning everything we possibly can about the Ukrainian language.

The focus on studying Ukrainian begs another question that I have been asked by numerous people back in the States.  What do they speak over there? Russian or Ukrainian?  The short answer is both Russian and Ukrainian and it all depends on what part of the country you are in.  Where it becomes problematic is that, even though both languages share virtually the same alphabet, they are two separate and distinct languages.  All of us who are in training are being taught strictly Ukrainian.  Ukrainian is the official language of the country and all government and most televisions shows are in Ukrainian, so it is deemed more important for our work. After all, we are here to work with local governments and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) so if we cannot communicate with our counterparts what would be the point.  Unfortunately, learning a language and using it effectively are entirely different animals.

At first glance, the Cyrillic alphabet shares many similarities with English.  There are: A, B, C, K, M, T, H, i, O, Y, P, X, and b. Some of these (thank goodness) actually sound how you think they should. A, K, M, T, and O look how they sound.  Others, unfortunately, are what are called “false friends.”  They look like English letters but make an entirely different sound.  For example: “B” makes the “V” sound, “H” makes an “N” sound, “P” makes an “R” sound, and “X” kind of makes an “H” sound.  To make matters even more complicated, there are numerous other letters and some that sort of look like English letters as can be seen below.

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All of this, and the precarious situation of adapting to a new cultural and environment, make the training particularly challenging.  However, the other trainees and I have confronted these obstacles head on.  I am slowly beginning to pick up on certain words during conversations and am able to ask for simple food items and ask rudimentary questions.  For the time being, all successful communications are considered monumental wins. Whether it be ordering food, asking how someone’s day was, or knowing how to tell someone my name, they are all considered huge steps forward.  Hopefully, in time, I will be able to speak with ease in Ukrainian and/or Russian.  Until such time, I will continue to say yes, (TAK) Good (Добрий) and No (Hi) more then I probably should and continue to play charades while attempting to communicate.

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***PS: Hi (No) sounds like knee just to throw an extra wrench in the communication.

We Have Arrived

IMG_0644  On Wednesday, March 15 at 6:30 am United States time, we landed at Boryspil airport right outside of Kyiv.  As a group we were all considerably lethargic.  We had been up for 29 straight hours save for a few hours of sleep during flight.  We were greeted at the airport by Ukrainian nationals that helped guide us through the necessary checkpoints.  We followed them through the airport like ducklings behind their mother. From there we bussed two hours north to the city of Chernihiv where we will be spending the next three months in training.  As we drove through the countryside I couldn’t help but notice how flat the landscape was.  Wheat fields stretched as far as the eye could see.  It is no wonder that during the Cold War, Ukraine was known as the bread basket of the Soviet Union.  Winter still gripped the countryside, but I am told Spring and Summer are a sight to behold.  Ever present among the beautiful landscape were the dilapidated and deteriorating buildings and homes.  The exterior conditions were exactly what you would imagine from a movie.  Big houses held together by patchwork siding and roof jobs. Roads in desperate need of repair ridden on by small rustic cars.  There is a great duality in that the exterior conditions in no way determine the interior ones.  as I write this I am sitting in a 9 story apartment building. A remnant of the Soviet era.  As you can imagine it is dull, grey, and worn down on the outside.  The inside however, is a stark contrast.  Flat screen TVs, hardwood floors and all the commodities one would expect to find in the US.

After three days of introductions and basic linguistic training we were introduced to our training host families.  These are the people we will live with for the next three months in Chernihiv while we go through language and job training. When I first met my host father, he seemed cold and ill-tempered. He and his family have proven to be anything but.  I have found that like the outside of their homes, Ukrainians have a rough rigid exterior with a warm kind interior. My family has been nothing but accommodating and welcoming.  I am also one of the lucky few who is living with a family that understands and speaks basic English.

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The work we will do here is in hopes of continuing to battle tyranny at every turn.  Our impact will be minuscule and limited, but it is still a cause worth striving towards.  Whether it be from a humanitarian, economic, or foreign policy perspective we can still create change.  I believe myself to be a small piece of a greater foreign policy mission.  To spread a positive image of the United States and promote democracy abroad.  In all that we do here we are representing our country and its ideals.  To some of the people we will meet we may be the only American they ever see, thus our behavior is an immediate reflection on how the United States as a whole is perceived.  I hope to contribute in whatever way possible.  I hope to be able to offer a helping hand in protecting the greater sovereignty of Ukraine and battle corruption wherever it may arise and in so doing represent my country honorably.