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Ukraine: It's next to Russia

Virginia Pasley Ukraine

I was home for a visit from Peace Corps during the weekend of my high school class’s five-year reunion, but I didn't go: in part because I had other plans with friends, and in part because I didn’t want to spend the evening saying “Ukraine… it’s next to Russia” over and over when being asked about my service.

“I learned Ukrainian… yes it’s a language… well, they speak both, one side of the country speaks more Ukrainian and one side speaks more Russian… yes, they’re really similar…”

“I teach English… 5th through 11th grades…”

“Two years and three months…”

I still answer these questions – now in past tense – pretty frequently, whenever I allow myself to broach the subject with new people when I've thought of a funny story and I just can’t keep my mouth shut any longer, even though I know I’ll have to go through the same routine again. My friends who already know the basics suffer more – I have much less hesitation bringing up Peace Corps to them, and do so constantly.

There was a viral video in the U.K. in which a comic put on a posh accent and incessantly referenced his “gap yah” – gap year – traveling around the world to have “spiritual, cultural, political” experiences: “Yeah – I can’t believe you said that, because that really reminds me of this time on my gap yah …”

I try not to be too much like Gap Yah Guy, but it’s difficult. Like most things, places and people I love, everything reminds me of Ukraine and my Ukrainians. I quite literally can’t go a day without thinking about them.

I’m thankful I went back to visit my town in central Ukraine a year ago, during a time of relative calm. My big concern back then was the rumors that my school was about to be shut down – because my town of just a few thousand people was no longer big enough to support multiple schools (my school was built more than 100 years ago). The authorities did eventually shut the school down; in typical fashion, they waited until the second day of the school year, leaving students and their parents scrambling, and teachers suddenly unemployed.

That was in September. In February, Peace Corps pulled out of Ukraine. I can barely get my head around the idea that there are no students in my old classroom, let alone that there are no Peace Corps Volunteers in my oblast (province) anymore.

Politics was not at the forefront of our minds when I lived there – just on the periphery. I bought souvenirs in Independence Square in Kyiv – Maidan Nezaleshnosti before it became EuroMaidan. I visited a workshop in Crimea funded by a Peace Corps Small Project Assistance grant, where Tatar artisans sold beautiful tiles and fabrics. I boarded a bus in Sloviansk with three girls from my town – after a day of traveling across the country by train – to take us to a summer camp focused on raising awareness about HIV and human trafficking. I visited Odessa with my uncle and aunt.

This is all to say: I was more shocked about the recent developments than I should have been, and do not know what will happen next. Living in a place does not make you an expert. Some things we figured out; others remained mysterious or totally unknown.

Now when the subject of Ukraine comes up, I get a different reaction. People ask me what I think of “the situation” and look at me expectantly, seemingly hoping for something unique – a perspective only shared by people truly in the know and not found in the mainstream media. Maybe they think I’ll say “Oh, it’s not as bad as it looks, don’t believe what you see on TV.” Maybe they think I’ll say, with a serious, knowing look, “Things are about to get worse – just wait.” I can’t just blithely go on to tell the story about doing Mad Libs with my 5th graders – I’m expected to say something more.

Unfortunately, all I have to offer is that I am scared, and sad, and have no idea what to think. And I miss the days when I was just sick of explaining where Ukraine was on a map.