Kyiv 2014

My trip to a post-revolutionary Ukraine

March 1 (Saturday in the air)

I want to say from the outset that my views are those of someone who speaks very little Russian and no Ukrainian, one who is naturally introverted and really only spoke at length to two people in Kyiv, both American. It is easy to misread things when flying into a place for a week or two and talking to only a few people. Some so-called journalists seem to make careers of doing so. So take what you read here as just my views, not a complete truth.

I am not the first person in my family to visit Kyiv. At the height of the Cold War, my parents visited Kyiv as part of a trip across the Soviet Union. Upon telling this to an American officer, my dad got the reply, "You picked a hell of a place to go for vacation!"

By late February 2014, folks were saying similar things to me. Some were alarmed by the prospect of my planned travels, while others didn't think of it as such a big deal. In either case, it's not often that a person finds himself landing at the precise place and time in which history itself is being made.

Not that I knew to expect that ahead of time. My reasons for traveling to Ukraine in March were more prosaic than that of watching history unfold first-hand. Mila and another Kyivan friend were planning to travel within Ukraine during the second week of March, and I planned to join them both during their travels and in Kyiv; that sounded far better than traveling alone. This plan ultimately got canceled due to circumstances beyond our control — mostly unrelated to the protests — and I only saw Kyiv (and only saw Mila). I had wanted to visit the former Soviet Union and had been taking a bit of Russian in preparation. The Russian Federation, however, seemed dicey for a last-minute trip, as American tourists have to get invitations to the country in order to get a visa. Plus, Kyiv is, as pro-Russian Ukrainians like to point out, the birthplace of Eastern Slavic culture, that which covers Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Moscow and St. Petersburg may be larger and more geared towards tourists, but Kyiv is where it all began.

The long flight from San Francisco to my connection in Amsterdam gave me the opportunity to practice the tiniest bit of Russian and Ukrainian, as well as to watch a few movies, one of which was 20 Feet from Stardom. This documentary about back-up singers would go on to win the full-length documentary Academy Award mere hours later, though of course that isn't why I mention it here. The reason it is pertinent to this trip is that I had seen it once before, during Mila's final days in the States. Back then, after the film was over, Mila told me that she was surprised to find that she actually knew one of the back-up singers profiled in the film. Claudia Lennear sang and danced with Tina Turner as an Ikette and became close friends with Mick Jagger and David Bowie after more singing gigs. However, she eventually switched careers, going back to school so that she could teach foreign languages, specifically French and Spanish. Mila, who always had an interest in foreign languages, met her there, and they actually talked quite a bit, in spite of their different backgrounds. Before the movie, though, Mila had had no idea about her past. And, back when she knew Claudia, Mila had no idea that she too would leave a promising career to teach a foreign language — in this case, English to Ukrainians. This would be my first time seeing her since she'd left.

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