As Vladimir Putin’s invading Russian military forces attack the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, I’d like to share some memories of my 2009 visit to this elegant Eastern European gem.
The chill of the foggy winter morning stung my face as I trudged up the steep hill on the right bank of the Dnieper River on my way to Kyiv’s historic city center.
My lungs were straining to warm the frigid air as I finally arrived at the crest of the hill where the vast wooded parkland met the ornate facades and spires of the city’s well-preserved architecture.
I wiped the frosty moisture from my eyebrows and beard as I met Paul — a colleague with whom I’d worked in Oman the previous year — in the city center’s bustling main public space known as Independence Square.
Paul had encouraged me to come visit this city of almost 3 million inhabitants which he described as “culturally rich and economically dynamic.”
He was so confident in the city’s future prosperity that he’d found a Ukrainian wife and invested his savings into opening an English language school in central Kyiv.
According to Paul, this region of Ukraine was developing rapidly and embracing democratic principles, although when I visited in 2009 the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych signaled that the country was still closer to being a Russian vassal state than a full-fledged democracy.
Paul shrugged off the murmurs of political unrest emanating from Ukraine’s youth who were impatient to catch up with the technological advancements and job opportunities of their peers in the neighboring countries of Poland and Hungary.
Indeed, these countries had also struggled to find their footing once they’d thrown off the shackles of the former Soviet Union.
At the time, I wondered if Ukraine — a country sharing a 2,295 kilometer (1,426 miles) land and sea border with Russia and with closer cultural and linguistic ties — would be allowed to follow in their footsteps.
My History Lesson
Paul was eager to fill me in on Kyiv’s rich history as the capital of Kievan Rus (862-1242 CE), a loose federation of East Slavic, Baltic and Finnic peoples, which stretched from the White Sea in the north to the maritime trade routes of the Black Sea.
Kyiv’s strategic location made it a prosperous trading center along the main route between Scandinavia and Byzantine Constantinople.
Kievan Rus was conquered– and the ancient city of Kyiv destroyed — by the invading Mongols in the 1240s.
For the next six centuries Kyiv served as a marginally important administrative center until fate once again favored its location and access to natural resources during the Russian Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Drawing on its historic Byzantine connections, Kyiv lays claim to some of the region’s oldest and most important Orthodox religious sites which are now protected by UNESCO.
I must admit I often wrestle with a personal internal conflict when I visit grand religious structures.
The artist and historian in me appreciates the fine craftsmanship, attention to detail and design genius while the human rights activist and egalitarian questions having spent such large sums on brick, mortar, gold leaf and paint while the poor may have been left homeless and hungry.
I usually settle this inner conflict by focusing on the artists and artisans who created the beauty of such cultural treasures, while at the same time, working to end inequality in all its forms.
Such grand monuments to Christianity draw throngs of the faithful from all over Ukraine and beyond.
On multiple occasions over a 2-day period I watched groups of hundreds of religious pilgrims disembark chartered buses and parade through the streets of Kyiv’s city center as they made their way to the city’s many well-known religious shrines.
Exploring Contemporary Kyiv
The historic city center neighborhoods are dotted with elegantly designed and ornately decorated buildings that date from this 19th century period of rapid industrialization and rising wealth.
As I covered the city on foot over the next few days, I would often remark that Kyiv’s fanciful architecture reminded me of far more famous and touristed Prague.
Kyiv’s massive stone government buildings and patriotic war memorials were softened by the sheer beauty of the city’s ornately decorated apartment buildings and vast park system.
As I walked in the gloom and cold of winter, I tried to imagine just how bright and green the forested cityscapes would be in other seasons.
When I returned to work in Oman, I sang the praises of Kyiv’s cultural treasures to anyone who would listen.
Little did I know that there would be such traumatic days ahead for the country and its people.
As the capital city of a former Soviet state, protests –demanding a more democratic society, labor reforms and an end to wide-spread corruption — have been a common sight on the streets of Kyiv’s city center ever since the demise of the Soviet Union.
Kyiv, along with the rest of Ukraine, made international headlines in 2014 when massive demonstrations demanding a more democratic system and free and fair elections — known as the Revolution of Dignity — led to the resignation of President Yanukovych.
Russia’s military, led by authoritarian president Vladimir Putin, retaliated by invading part of eastern Ukraine and gaining control of the previously Ukrainian-controlled Crimean Peninsula.
Tensions eventually settled in much of Ukraine as the US and its European allies arrived at a tenuous stand-off with Putin and his Russian generals, even as the West showered the country (especially Kyiv) with monetary aid and military training.
As most of you will be all too aware, that fragile peace was obliterated this past week as Putin directed a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We’ve all seen the photos of the devastation wrought by Russian artillery on civilian apartment buildings in cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city.
As I’m writing this, international news sources are saying that the Russian military has surrounded Kyiv and the city may fall over the next few days.
Many of the city’s inhabitants are fleeing — or trying to — while others have taken shelter in the city’s already crowded subway stations and the basements of large buildings.
Still others are taking up arms and forming (untrained) neighborhood militias in a desperate attempt to protect their homes and country, or at least die trying.
It seems that all the US, EU, UK and other allies around the world can do at the moment is to reinforce the borders of NATO nations that border Ukraine to the west.
While an already struggling Russian economy will be hard hit by the sanctions being put into place by the West, I fear the suffering of the citizens of Kyiv and other regions of Ukraine are only in the early stages.
Unfortunately for my friend Paul, the marriage didn’t last and he eventually left Ukraine, richer in wisdom but poorer financially.
At the moment, my heart goes out to all Ukrainians who are now witnessing the demise of their sovereignty, the destruction of their cities and the deaths of their sons and daughters at the hands of Russia’s ruthless dictator.
War is a very specific kind of hell and the people of Ukraine will likely join a long line of tortured conflict survivors in places ranging from Syria to Yemen to Colombia.
Will humanity ever evolve past our most primal instincts?
My hope seems to be fading.
Prayers for peace~henry