I dreaded visiting Ukraine last fall. The country sounded like a scary, war-torn neighborhood. An iffy destination for an upper-middle-class Jewish woman from a Southern California beach town like me. But I was determined to see the nation my late grandfather fled as a 15-year-old in 1927. My fearless globe-trotter sister and good-natured husband came along for the ride.
As the infamous quid pro quo President Trump demanded to release military aid to the embattled nation dominates the news cycle, I’ve been mentally revisiting Ukraine. The people and places left indelible memories of a struggling but tenacious country divided between Western enlightenment and Russian repression.
When a burly, affable Pole drove us from eastern Poland to Ukraine’s western border, he warned we’d be stuck there for a while. As night fell, the toxic fumes of burning trash permeated our van. We hoped for better air ahead.
The 40-mile ride to L’viv on Ukraine’s rutted roads rattled our middle-aged bones. Once we arrived at our charming old-world hotel we perked up. L’viv’s Baroque architecture and middle European elegance enchanted us. The next morning, we crossed the street and stumbled into heaven – L’viv’s annual Coffee Festival, a series of tents set up in the central park offering gourmet coffee, teas and chocolate truffles. The city exuded an upbeat, hipster, tourist-friendly vibe. Why had I worried so about Ukraine?
Our tall, erudite guide Alex educated us in rapid-fire delivery about L’viv’s turbulent history as a bulwark between middle Europe and Russia. “Sure, we have a lot of corruption. But our mayor is efficient. We have clean water and are modernizing faster than most places,” he said.
When we passed by a small park inhabited by teen boys swilling beer midday, Alex told us a generation of young people roamed unsupervised – left by parents working in European Union countries for higher wages. He worried about their future. With a five-year long, Russian-funded trench war still simmering on Ukraine’s eastern border, these boys could soon be drafted into battle. “Many won’t come back. The war is a slow bleed with two to three casualties a day. It won’t end until Putin leaves because the rest of the world is quietly complicit,” he said.
Alex’s words reverberated the next day when our taxi driver Yuri pulled out his smart phone on the way to the airport. He showed us a picture of his best friend – a handsome young man wearing a flak vest and military fatigues. “He died four years ago fighting Russia. Now I’m like a father to his two boys. I hate Putin,” he said in halting English.
I steeled myself for the scariest part of the trip – flying solo from L’viv to Odessa, the Pearl of the Black Sea, located 200 miles across the bay from Russian-occupied Crimea. My husband (determined to get a photo of himself in front of imprisoned political operative Paul Manafort’s former office) and sister wanted to see Kiev. I skipped Ukraine’s capitol city to spend an extra day in Odessa, my grandfather’s birthplace.
Vasiliy, a tight-lipped Odessan driver, met me at the airport. On our way into the city center, I saw the high-culture Ukrainian pearl was losing its luster. Plaster crumbled and paint peeled from elegant Art Deco and Neo-Classical style building façades; cordoned-off potholes big enough to swallow a motorcycle punctuated side streets. People walked briskly with minimal eye contact.
Natalia, my Odessan tour guide, cheerfully showed me the city’s wide boulevards, lush green belts and cultural icons, including its gold-gilded Opera and Ballet House. When we walked down the famed Potemkin Stairs to the Black Sea, a harder truth emerged. “See the harbor there. We used to have three to five cruise ships at a time. Now we have none – they were all cancelled because of the war,” she said.
Odessans lived in feared Russia might reach beyond Crimea and annex their port. The fading pearl and its inhabitants carried on – suspended between their proud past and threatening future.
Visiting a Jewish community center funded by foreign donors, resurrected hope for brighter days ahead in Odessa. The modern facility offers everything from support for impoverished elderly and children with special needs, to sports, yoga, ceramics classes and orchestral performances. After meeting with teen leaders there, I saw the potential Western investment brings to Ukraine.
A contemporary sculpture representing Jacob’s ladder hangs in the center’s sunlit atrium. According to the Old Testament, Jacob’s ladder leads to the heavens. In light of current events, the symbolism of Jacob’s ladder calls out. Will Ukraine be elevated by aligning with the West or knocked down by Putin’s lethal aspirations to recreate the Soviet Empire?
President Trump has said he doesn’t care about Ukraine. Reflecting on my Ukrainian travels, I believe we all must. Ukraine embodies the conflict between Western enlightenment and Eastern darkness; liberalism and totalitarianism; freedom and suppression.
Ukrainians appreciate irony. Perhaps that’s why President Volodymyr Zelensky, a famous comedian, won a landslide electoral victory in April. Ukraine’s current narrative is a tale of two ironies. First, Trump’s attempt to bribe Zelensky for political campaign dirt emulates Putin’s brand of bullying, shakedown corruption – the type that Trump claims to find distasteful. Second, a happier irony – the impeachment hearings focused the media spotlight on Ukraine’s pivotal geopolitical stature. We must help Ukraine climb Jacob’s ladder toward the light instead of following our President’s inclination to consign the nation to darkness.