Vira – not her real name – accompanied The Augusta Chronicle’s Todd Bennett and I when we visited a newspaper in Nikolaev, in the south of Ukraine, for 11 days last May as part of a journalism exchange program.
AT FIRST, SHE WAS simply our guide and lifeline. Neither Todd nor I spoke a word of Ukrainian or Russian (now we speak like five words) and we couldn’t glean much from the signs or descriptions written in Cyrillic. Without her, we would have been lost.
Vira was professional, patient and kind, showing us around, answering our endless questions, taking us to stores in my quest for Diet Coke and shopping for necessities when our luggage was lost for two days.
On the third day, we all just clicked. It probably took her that long to figure what to make of our senses of humor. After a long day of training at the newspaper, speaking to journalism students at a local college and being grilled on live television for an hour, Todd and I invited Vira for drinks at the hotel bar. We sat there for hours, recapping the day, sharing stories and laughing until our faces and sides hurt.
That’s when we became friends.
On the final day of our trip, Vira took us sightseeing in Kiev. We passed the Olympic stadium and took a subway that’s about 300 feet underground and, for someone like me with a fear of heights, has the steepest, fastest and scariest escalators ever.
On our way to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, we walked by thousands of people, many carrying Ukrainian flags, attending a government opposition rally in the city center.
They feel the current government is corrupt and the politicians are only out for themselves and the rich. They believe that for the country and its people to thrive, Ukraine must become a member of the European Union.
In the south of Ukraine, where Nikolaev lies, many people support ties with Russia. They speak Russian instead of Ukrainian, and the Nikolaev Oblast (or region) recently made Russian its official language.
But many others were pretty upset when the Ukrainian government turned down the EU deal and instead took the Russian bailout. They see it as a step backward and feel Russia has too much influence on Ukrainian politics. They maintain that investments and businesses of the ruling class are too intertwined with Russia.
WHEN THE Independence Square protests started in November, we noticed how proud Ukrainians were of the protesters and how much in love they are with their country and people.
Ukrainians have been deeply distraught by the anti-protest laws handed down recently by the government, calling them the acts of an authoritarian regime of criminals who are making it legal to prosecute any opposition views. Thankfully, those laws were repealed Tuesday. But many still feel uncertain and hopeless about everything that’s going on, and fears are growing of a full-on civil war, with the common man in the middle.
I’m scared for those whom we met, and for the future of Ukraine.
Communications and the itinerary we received during the preparation for our trip to Nikolaev seemed very formal, so we expected the people to be formal and maybe a little rigid. We could not have been more wrong. Our hosts, and all whom we met while we were there, were wonderfully warm, gracious and more than generous. They pulled out all the stops to make us feel welcomed. They made it easy to fall in love with Ukraine and its people.
Anatoliy is chief editor and owner of the Nikolaevskie Novosti newspaper we visited. His is one of many independent newspapers in the region, competing also against several state-funded newspapers. He’s a passionate journalist, and it’s easy to see he loves his work.
Anatoliy will be in Sochi, Russia, this month to cover the Winter Olympics. His wife, Olga, is the secretary and second in command at the newspaper, and they have two beautiful children.
ANATOLIY IS PROUD of his city, especially the sporting achievements of its residents. The first thing he would say about anyone he told us about was what sports they were involved in and any accolades they had received. Anatoliy was once a gymnast, and the newspaper competes against other media outlets in bowling, tennis and a host of other sports.
The star of the bowling and tennis team is Anna. She also is the paper’s advertising director. Anna is smart, energetic and a blast to be around. Her beautiful 11-year-old daughter, Sasha, is a bright, precious, sweet and funny ball of energy. She attends private school, where she is learning English, and for most of the week we were in Nikolaev the only person we were able to communicate with directly without the help of Vira and our translators, Margaryta and Liliana.
Sasha has basically grown up at the newspaper. She has a desk in Anatoliy’s office and goes there every day after school. She loves hip-hop dancing, even giving us a demonstration, and has taken up fencing. Our bond with Anna and Sasha was pretty instant.
Anna also was part of the first delegation from Nikolaev to visit us in Augusta. There’s something that really stands out for me now from that visit, especially with all the current turmoil in Ukraine.
We had left a downtown restaurant after dinner and were walking up Broad Street, and I asked one of the translators to ask Anna what her impression was of Augusta so far. She said, “I feel so free here.”
My hope for Anna, Sasha and all the people of Ukraine is that they be able to feel that free in their own country.
(The writer is digital product development director for The Augusta Chronicle.)