My trip to a post-revolutionary Ukraine
On the first week of February, I was laid off. A week later, I booked a ticket to Kyiv. A week after that, all hell broke loose: Nearly a hundred protesters were killed in Kyiv, triggering a sequence of events that led to President Yanukovych being removed from office and fleeing the country. The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for not only Kyiv, but all of Ukraine. And at the end of the month, hours before my flight left, Russia invaded and occupied the Crimea, Ukraine's southernmost peninsula.
So it was quite a month leading up to my departure. At the start of the month, with protests intensifying, I did ask Mila, whom I would visit in Kyiv, to think about having a plan in case it wasn't safe in the capital and leaving the country was difficult, especially in the week following the Olympics, the last week of the month. Russia would have a lot less to lose in cracking down on its neighbor after their Olympics had finished. That worst-case scenario didn't happen, but it certainly did get a lot worse than I'd expected. When the old government attempted to end the protests, she informed me that the subway was shut down and that the Kyiv-Lviv train was not running due to "corrosion" on the line. This was not something I wanted to hear, having initially planned on visiting Lviv as well. (The "corrosion" was most likely the influx of Westernized Lviv residents coming to Kyiv to protest.)
In any event, never have I followed the news so intently in my adult life, or so seriously rethought a trip. And it's not like I haven't had other opportunities to rethink. Between booking and leaving on a trip to Israel, the Second Intifada broke out. My two East Asia trips corresponded to two outbreaks (SARS and swine flu). And I passed Gezi Park in Istanbul about an hour before protests there, though I think that no one was seriously hurt that particular day.
But Mila said it was safe, everything seemed safe, and Crimea was 500 miles south of Kyiv. So I packed my bags and — initially with more dread and less excitement than I would have desired — went to Kyiv.
(A word about that spelling: When the city was controlled by Russia, the romanization of the Russian-language name was the more well-known "Kiev." "Kyiv," today's officially preferred spelling, is from the Ukrainian. In Ukrainian, the second letter of the word has a different pronunciation, and the third letter doesn't even exist in Russian. Other transliterations yield other spellings — like "Kijev" or "Kyyiv" — but it's best to use the official one for these purposes. Anyway, spelling lesson over; let the trip begin.)
If you like this, check out a dispatch from a completely different part of Ukraine, an excerpt from Where the West Ends by Michael Totten, available at bookstores such as Amazon.com (and pretty darned cheap on the Kindle).