Russian hostility at the birth of Ukraine’s independence

DUMMERSTON — It was the fall of 1991 - only a few months after Ukraine became an independent nation. I was there with three other women contracted by the U.S. Peace Corps to train local language teachers to teach Ukrainian to the soon-to-arrive first group of Peace Corps volunteers.

The group to be trained consisted of Ukrainian and Russian teachers. Both Ukraine and Russia were going to start receiving Peace Corps volunteers the following year.

The training site was a former army sanitarium just outside Kiev, an impressive, monumental building surrounded by beautiful gardens. We were the only residents.

Hostility between the Russian and Ukrainian teachers was obvious from the beginning. Both groups kept to themselves throughout the training, which was a challenging situation for us.

The Ukrainians were quiet, humble, and grateful for the opportunity to learn new teaching techniques. The Russians, on the other hand, acted as though they were still in control of the country and manifested a negative attitude about the training being conducted in Ukraine and not in Russia.

During the training, we attempted to have the teachers work in pairs, and we arbitrarily paired people. However, some Russians refused to work with Ukrainians and, after several unsuccessful attempts, we gave up and let the Russians work with the Russians and Ukrainians with Ukrainians.

We also discovered that the Russian teachers thought it was not right to teach Ukrainian to the volunteers. They considered Russian the proper language to teach American volunteers - both those destined for Russia and Ukraine.

* * *

This was, perhaps, the first time Ukrainians and Russians were interacting with Americans. In fact, the first U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was Roman Popadiuk, a Ukrainian American and a good choice for this newly independent country. He greeted us and explained that after so many years of Soviet control, it had been difficult for Ukrainians to get used to their new freedom.

Hostility between both groups, however, continued throughout the training.

Outside of the training site, it appeared to us that the new society was working quite well. Yet, somehow, a sense of control was still present over the Ukrainian people. We wondered whether they had become so used to living under strict regulations that they were fearful of living with their newfound freedom.

We also experienced this subtle control when we attempted to buy a cake to celebrate the birthday of one of the trainers. We first were required to obtain permission to buy one, then we needed a written order that had to be signed by some officer. The process of a simple purchase took two days.

When we asked for an explanation about this complex procedure, we were simply told that people were still behaving in accordance with the old regulations.

* * *

When training had ended, we decided to remain in Kiev for a couple of days and visit the city. We were assigned to a specific hotel, and we were each given a room on four different floors.

A guide showed us around and pointed out the former headquarters of the KBG, expressing pride that it no longer existed. We visited St. Sophia Cathedral and were amazed to see how crowded it was on a weekday.

We also visited a street market, where people were selling used items like clothing, fur hats, and household items. Apparently, this was a common practice to earn some money.

Taking the subway was a frightening experience, given that the escalator went down four floors underground. I remember thinking that if anything were to happen, we would never get out.

* * *

A year later, I heard from one of the teachers we had trained. She had begun to teach Peace Corps volunteers who were older and retired professionals.

The Peace Corps had been promoting the recruitment of older, retired people - quite a change from the early years of the agency, when the majority were young people. The average age of the senior volunteers was 50.

* * *

Today, given what is happening in Ukraine, I think of the people and the price they had to pay for the precious freedom they gained when they became an independent country.

It is sad to think of the new attempts by Russia that may force them to return to the same controlled life they had before their independence.

Yet, as in the past, Ukrainians will hopefully persevere and preserve what is most valuable to them despite the current crisis: the love for their country; their rich culture; their folklore, art, food, family values; and, most of all, the valiant spirit that helped them in the past.

The world is praying for Ukraine. God willing they will remain independent.

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