When it comes to the western Kyiv suburbs, atrocities are at the extreme in Bucha. Building damage is at the extreme in Irpin.
It wasn’t easy getting into Irpin. I had to go through two checkpoints and then walk a few kilometers to the center of town. The damage is everything we saw on the news. Devastated apartment buildings and destroyed homes everywhere; the focus of weeks of Russian artillery bombardments, much of it from occupied Bucha next door. In particular, the road from Bucha was the scene of an armored assault that left block after block completely flattened. It reminded me of scenes from Nepal after the 2015 earthquakes, though here it smells of smoke.
Had the Russians gotten through they would have had a straight shot into Kyiv, though in many ways the challenges would just have begun I suppose. This place is still a half-hour drive from downtown Kyiv. Before the bridge was blown and fortifications installed in the middle of the highway.
It was a beautiful town with lots of parks. One of which I took a break in the center of town. I had the park all to myself–with three wandering dogs. Fortunately, most of Irpin was evacuated before the worst happened as citizens saw the advancing columns. Some are beginning to return to see how their homes fared.
Certainly, things are coming back. Electricity is coming back online. Markets will reopen. The main bridge that was blown already has a new workaround bridge. Traffic jams have returned.
When I walked through Irpin on April 18th, it was nearly a ghost town. A ghost town with spring flowers beginning to blossom juxtaposed to the deserted, extensively bombed-out realities that will take a long time–and great amounts of resources–to bring back. I saw power crews and workers trying to get markets reopened, but it is a far cry from what we would expect here in the West in the aftermath of such devastation. No FEMA here. In fact, over the course of the 4 weeks I was in Ukraine I can only remember one vehicle with a red cross on it.
It appears these towns and their citizens are on their own.
By Steve Richards
Tragedy and hope. Like Jesus on the cross in a way.
I know, Easter was last Sunday. And like a good Protestant from the USA I celebrated. Unlike most though I celebrated in Bucha with a bowl of chicken soup cooked over an open fire rather than the traditional brunch normally reserved for the occasion. Where in fact it wasn't Easter at all it turns out.
What I've learned since coming to Ukraine in late March is that Ukrainians are predominantly of the Orthodox denomination. So Ukrainians were mostly celebrating Palm Sunday last Sunday (I suppose anyway as there were no palm fronds to be seen but rather some type of budding branches). Over here, today is Easter, the 24th of April. In fact, at midnight last night, as I awaited a sleeper train in a blacked out train station somewhere between Kyiv and Lviv, the host of the waiting room tuned in a live midnight mass of an Orthodox ceremony.
But still, my Easter was last Sunday. And it was the most unusual Easter I'm sure I'll likely ever spend. I celebrated at the church that we have all seen on the news where the mass graves were dug. Trenches dug largely to bury those killed by Russian soldiers.
It was a very chilly day spent largely outdoors that included rain, sleet, even a bit of snow in a field kitchen in the parking lot of an apartment building that I spent a lot of time in. Later that day they had power restored after almost two months, but that meal took nearly three hours and fed more than a dozen. I even helped peel the potatoes.
The sites and memories of the atrocities in Bucha are ever present to those that live there and are included in this video installment. They speak for themselves and many are from the day before when I got a tour of the horrors from someone that experienced it directly. My guide, insurance agent Igor Zaderholova was bound and blindfolded in his ransacked apartment for two days and shot in the leg by an armored personnel carrier before being evacuated five days later.
Our finished documentary will delve into all this in much more depth and appreciation for what happened. Today though it is a time for celebration and hope.
Happy Easter from Bucha.
The name itself conjures images of tragedy and horror. It is also a place of gladness, resilience, and hope.
Bucha. The name brings to mind pictures and news of atrocities and brutality at the hand of Russian soldiers. Putin’s invading force. The “crazy” Russians as folks around here are apt to say as opposed to the “normal” Russians, which differentiates the stories neighbors tell one another about their captors.
All who stayed here during the period when the Russian armor poured in have stories that share many attributes and timelines. Like two weeks of seeing missiles and rockets fly overhead and land near and far. Like two days of many loved ones being bound and gagged as their homes were ransacked looking for weapons. Like neighbors being shot by snipers and armored personnel carriers parked in front of their homes. Like living in their basements with parents, grandparents, and children. And just feeling lucky to survive and glad the invaders are gone.
The footage from our drive and walk around Bucha takes two forms. The first will bring a sense of déjà vu as they are the same sights carried by the international press, which is now largely gone. The second are glimpses of life rarely broadcast. Scenes of trashed apartments, neighbors cooking over open fires day in and day out simply to eat, stay warm, and share each other’s company. Exploring catacombs of basements where they took shelter for weeks on end and where children’s drawings still decorate the walls. An interview with an insurance agent that was bound and gagged, shot in the leg, and then evacuated 5 days later when a “green light” was given. An interview in a junkyard with a man rummaging through a shot-up vehicle whose mother was killed and father shot while driving–the first time the man had seen the wreckage of his family’s forever altered life in the form of a bullet-riddled van.
The images in the video speak for themselves. What also hopefully starts to emerge is the hope that comes from the spirit of those that remained–and those that are returning. Glad the Russians are gone but uncertain that they may be coming back, and not willing to celebrate as the nation remains at war and all Ukrainians’ minds are focused on Mariupol. Especially perhaps the survivors of Bucha.
A Note to Our Readers
You may notice that there is no video attached to today’s post. This is because Bucha’s infrastructure is still severely impacted and is still without internet access except via cell phone data which runs at 3G or LTE and is at best a bit spotty. Therefore, it is proving next to impossible to upload the daily footage feeds to Amit Nepali in Kathmandu who does the daily edits of the footage from the previous day(s). Therefore, the Way to Bucha post of me making my way to the Victoria Park Hotel in Bucha (where I am still) will be the last of these daily posts and videos. I am however still acquiring new footage including a trip to Irpin. Therefore, the next video you can expect to see from us is a preliminary version of the film’s trailer after I return to the United States on April 25th. And thanks very much for reading and following these posts. It is your support that keeps us going.
By Steve Richards
A contrast in worlds not even 10 miles away.
My day began in a suburb of Kyiv about seven or so miles west of the capital city’s center in a pretty deluxe two-bedroom (aside from no hot water) in a high-rise apartment I scored on Booking.com (as I have most of my accommodations so far). It was a lovely sunny spring day in far contrast to the cold, drizzly day I hiked in two days ago, so that was nice. After my fourth meal of pasta and red sauce I had bought in the market downstairs, I was ready to hit the trail on what promised to be a pretty grueling ten or so mile hike to Bucha. Grueling because my pack weighs in at almost 50 pounds fully packed (my new Osprey bag is awesome), and because I’ve never carried it such a distance. But, I felt up to the challenge. It was a warmish sunny day, and, besides, my travel options were limited, and the terrain flat.
The first part of the hike was pleasant enough, though the pack was already making its presence known and I had just started. I walked through a lovely little neighborhood led by Google Maps in walk mode as my guide. However, Google Maps makes no predictions about the kind of road/path/trench-line you might traverse. It is just a blue line on my iPhone.
The blue line takes me down a paved road to a concrete barrier eight feet high–the apparent end of the road. Which is why driving, even if you could get a car, is not practical unless a local. The Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine have been VERY busy setting up all kinds of nasty surprises for Russian tanks, armor, and associated vehicles which simply aren’t conducive to normal getting around. However, there is almost always a pathway around these obstacles for those on foot. So around I go.
The new path was something I hadn’t experienced before. Trenches deeply dug, interlaced, and abandoned, they fortunately had planks stretching from one side to the other. Google Maps gave me no guidance as to how to navigate these–just the blue line that beckoned like Horace Greely, “Go West, old man,” or something like that. I worked through the maze, came out the other side, and found the trusty path only to come upon a water hazard in the woods which I started walking along looking for a place to cross. It was just a brook, but I didn’t want to get my Doc Martens wet as the water looked deep enough to make the rest of my hike miserable with soaked socks.
Surprisingly, and I keep remembering the guardian angel Father Yaroslav called down for me in Boston, I happened upon a family enjoying a picnic in the woods! Not speaking Ukrainian, nor they English, I motioned I needed a place to cross, and the patriarch of the clan showed me a bridge of old tires, a plank, and some foam rubber, and gave me a sign to skip right across. I thanked him and he left me to my own devices to face the next hazard. Dogs. Which I met as soon as I skipped across to the other side, no problem.
You see, there were any number of loose, perhaps even feral dogs that are extremely territorial along the blue line. And while they don’t generally attack, they let you know the place is under watch. I told the dogs that I was leaving as soon as I could, with an eye behind me to be sure one wasn’t sneaking up to take a chunk out of me, which surely would have ruined my day even more than wet socks.
I keep hiking only to confront a dreaded checkpoint consisting of several well-armed militia-looking fellas that told me the forested path I was about to try and enter “wasn’t gonna happen.” My trusty blue line was closed, and an unspecified detour was in my immediate future. They said it was unsafe (wouldn’t/couldn’t tell me why) though drivers were being let through. The English-speaking guard told me to walk down to the main highway several miles away to catch the bus to Bucha, or better yet, back to Kyiv. Not in any position to argue, I headed away from the trusty blue line, toward the road and promised bus. At this point, I got a bit disoriented without the blue line I knew and loved, which was sending me back to the checkpoint and through the forbidden woods. On the other hand, having the possibility of ditching my heavier and heavier pack was also motivating. So down the road I went.
Soon thereafter I spot another, even more formidable checkpoint a few hundred yards ahead. This one really gave me pause as I felt I barely made it past the last one. I also saw a little place to change money right about then and knowing that cash was likely king where I was going, I exchanged a few hundred-dollar bills from my reserve for local currency (close to 10,000 hryvnias) while I noodled what to do next. Here also were about a dozen people waiting at an obvious bus stop, so it occurred to me that maybe I could catch the coming bus to the Bucha bus down the road. But after I saw how crowded the little bus was, I just couldn’t bring myself to try and get on with my big pack and Google Translate. I decided I’d brave the checkpoint.
I was asked by the soldiers for my passport and what I was up to. I have this down pretty well by now: I’m an American documentary filmmaker and I’m walking to Bucha. I then show them my American passport, which all seem to admire the craftsmanship thereof, and the Ukraine page on the TheoEco website complete with a picture of Father Yaroslav and me next to St. Vladimir–the patron saint of Ukraine, I think. And after some noodling on their own, they decide to let me walk along.
Along I go, and sure enough, the blue line came back when I happened upon a new road going west if I just make a left down what looked like an industrial access road. So, screw the bus, I’m back on the trusty blue line!
This was the longest stretch of the day and the closest to a real hike in nature I’ve had. It went through fields and forests, more fortifications, a factory, and more forests. It was downright pastoral on this spring/summery day with birds, meadows, trees, a dog (a little non-threatening one going home), everything! It would have been perfect if not for that constant little fear in the back of my mind that I might at any moment step on a landmine, as the Russians have apparently laid many, but I figured this was never occupied territory and I was still far from Bucha and Irpin so I thought less and less about it. Besides, it was the trusty blue line I was on.
On and on it seemed to go and yet I wasn’t half through. But Google Maps is very accurate, so I could see the kilometers tick down ‘til I reached the road where I might finally find that bus to Bucha. But just before I stepped off the path and onto the road shoulder, I took off that pack and had a little picnic of my own. In the woods with blue skies overhead, I pulled out my last apple and a bottle of iced tea. After a good thirty minutes–I was in no big hurry to put that backpack on again–I hit the road on what would be the second five miles of the day still to come.
No more dirt path now–I was walking like a vagabond on a major road with cars speeding past, though not too many. I walked and walked with the occasional billboard to break up the monotony, and the traffic snarlers which were former checkpoints in the middle of the road. These consist of an assembly of concrete barriers placed on the road in a design that forces drivers–in both directions–to perform their most skillful S-curve Grand Prix maneuvers at the greatest speed possible. It is obvious that drivers who navigate these obstacles frequently are quite adept at speeding through as there are no police or anything directing traffic. Every driver for themself out here.
The kilometers keep rolling by towards a few buildings I can see on the horizon. Bucha, I figure, finally. I trudge along, though my pack is beginning to talk to me via my back and legs, saying, “Put me down...you know you want to.” And I did, as this was already about as far as I’ve carried the thing since leaving Boston and I knew I still had miles to go.
Then came a blessing from the guardian angel Father Yaroslav called down for me in Jamaica Plain. A car pulled over and beckoned me to ride! Since I had seen no sign of a bus stop and my pack was now insisting that any ride was better than walking, I scampered between the traffic and loaded my gear into the welcoming car, and sped off in a backseat full of supplies bound for Irpin, complete with a bag full of adult beverages which can’t be purchased around here.
My back and legs happy and hoping for a lovely ride to my hotel, their dreams are dashed as soon as I see the first signs of destruction, my first since arriving in Ukraine more than two weeks ago.
I had to get out and start filming.
A burned-out building and cars were the first things I saw. The first of so many it would turn out. You see, this is where the battle for Kyiv took place. This place and many others around the capital. This is where the Russians were thwarted and sent scurrying back to the Belarussian border.
As I went, I saw more damage–much, much more–including burnt-out Russian-armored personnel carriers and other vehicles now just blocking traffic. I also saw rebuilding, especially at a bombed-out bridge that had been destroyed by the Ukrainians to deny it to the Russians. Locals were still using it to the extent possible, having to drive far to the side of what was now an asphalt bowl to keep from falling in the gaping chasm of a road. Amazing. No orange cones or flashing barricades here.
Before long, Google Maps brought me to a dirt road that led me through heavily damaged, deserted, modern apartment complexes, complete with another particularly aggressive dog who charged at me from behind–but I turned just in time, and he backed off, barking at me for a good 300 meters until I was sufficiently unthreatening.
Now I was on a path through a wooded area, which could also be mined, I’ve been told. After all, this was Russian occupied for many weeks and they left a few mines behind, apparently. So, no more dirt roads for me, I guess.
There are few authorities around; this place is largely self-governed. There is almost no government assistance. No FEMA or Red Cross. No supermarkets as they’ve all been bombed and emptied anyways. Few gas stations. Just a few places where bread is being distributed.
Instead, the remaining and returning citizens–estimates are that 90% of the 40,000+ citizens evacuated–work together to get by. Electrical crews are out, natural gas crews are working. Contractors are beginning to clean up former offices, and coffee shops are cleaning up the broken glass and trying to figure out what to do next. The internet is out, but cell phones are working. 3G is the going data speed, though a little unreliable. It is anything but anarchy, though, with Kyiv about an hour away by car. The McDonald's stands undamaged though still closed. It will be very popular upon reopening I’m told.
My hike is coming to an end on this first evening in Bucha when I get to my hotel. The entire day I have been dreaming of the Victoria Park Hotel. Its website showed a fabulous restaurant and lovely rooms complete with monogrammed robes–the works. And while I could hardly believe it was open, Booking.com confirmed my reservation, so off I went. Just one problem–the internet is down at the Victoria Park Hotel and they had no idea I was coming. In fact, they are closed...still. But the proprietor Victor let me in and gave me a great room, slippers and bathrobe included! The hotel has electricity and heat, and though the restaurant is closed I’ve been invited to some awesome meals with the “family.” I get espressos and pots of tea every morning and have met wonderful folks who double as guides to show me the places we all see on TV. More on all this to come.
For now, I can say that Father Yaroslav’s guardian angel is really delivering. Not to mention Booking.com.
Kyiv is a big city about the size of NYC. So, walking to Bucha is about the equivalent of hiking from the Empire State Building to the eastern edge of Queens. About 15 miles.
Hiking has always been the plan for me to get around Ukraine. Originally, the plan was to stay in the west and hike from Lviv to the nuclear plants in Rivne, then to Khmelnytskyi, then back to Lviv. All that changed when the Russians relinquished their plans on Kyiv and its environs, at least for now. It also meant that I was going by train to Kyiv. So aside from some walking around the capital city, this hike to Bucha is my first real bit of exercise since I’ve been in Ukraine, so says my Apple Watch which clocked me in at 6.3 miles yesterday. "Woohoo!" says my doctor.
It’s a bit surprising to me that I have yet to see any real signs of destruction in Ukraine, though I’m certain that is about to change as I head deeper into the western suburbs including Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, and Makariv. I plan to arrive for the weekend, spend Easter in Bucha, then wait out the expected rain until hitting the road again. We’ll see.
Also surprising to me is how Putin ever thought the Russians would just drive into Kyiv on what must have been the same highway I walked along. It is flanked by one big building after another for miles on end. Apartment buildings, office buildings, shopping malls, etc. Not to mention the endless residential sprawl that makes up all modern cities. Just imagine the Russians trying to take NYC by coming up I-95 while being targeted by a well-armed, superiorly led, determined army all of whom are living by the New Hampshire state motto: “Live Free or Die”. An army that is equipped with Javelin and Stinger missiles, entrenched in massive steel-reinforced concrete buildings, raining hell on you as your column strains to come in past one fortified crossroad after another. I imagine Bruce Willis in Die Hard with thousands of professional soldiers on his side in high rises all along the way, everywhere they went. Then add in a Kyiv populace of millions that hate the Russians–especially now–with Molotov cocktail-making grandmoms, and their sons and daughters ready to try every possible guerilla tactic ever developed while evolving new ones.
In hindsight, I suppose the Russians never stood a chance here.
I’ve got another long walk tomorrow to get to where the fighting for Kyiv took place in earnest. It’s also where Russia’s viciousness is on full display.
I’m sure I’ve never experienced anything like it before.
A little Italian restaurant in Kyiv puts out more than 1,500 meals a day with help from the international NGO.
World Central Kitchen is a not-for-profit non-governmental organization devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters. Founded in 2010 by celebrity chef José Andrés, the organization prepared food in Haiti following its devastating earthquake.
A few days ago, I ran into Alex and Maxim looking for an open restaurant on my first day in Kyiv. Restaurants are opening back up but are still few and far between in the aftermath of Russia’s recent retreat. Looking back, it was a little unusual to see perhaps ten or so young folks gathered on the stoop of the Match restaurant, especially with no one seeming to be in line trying to get in. They just all looked like they were having a good time, maybe on break? Anyways, I approached the gathering because the lights were on and they seemed open, and, given my hunger, I was not to be repelled by a group of youngsters if there was a promise of a meal. So, I approached and found English speakers a bit rare--aside from an extremely likable fellow that goes by the name Alex, who immediately asked what I was doing. I replied that I wanted something to eat thinking the place was open. He saw I needed edification and welcomed me in for a bite.
Upon entering one immediately sees this is no ordinary restaurant. There was no host or hostess, no tables or chairs. Just a production line of tables that I’m sure used to seat, and will seat again soon, patrons of what was a little Italian seafood restaurant. For now, it’s been repurposed into a meal production facility that on Monday set a new record of 1,770 meals cooked and delivered to those in need in Kyiv.
A group of perhaps 20 or so friends have been doing this work every day since shortly after Russia attacked on February 24th. The menu on Monday when they broke the record consisted of soup with chicken and vegetables, couscous, grilled chicken, and salad with white cabbage and beans. No junk food is served here. I was fortunate to be there on the occasion interviewing Alex and Match’s owner Maxim and can attest to the cuisine’s deliciousness.
This is a tremendous partnership that I am very pleased to have seen firsthand. World Central Kitchen, working with Match and presumably many other restaurants and food providers in Ukraine, provides funding and other resources to enable Match to make meals at a time when meals are scarce, no one is going out, and yet the landlord still wants to be paid. Their subsidies combined with the donations of various sources, and the efforts of so many cheerful volunteers day in and day out, make it all work.
All these people have lived through a tragedy that most of us can only imagine. Sounds of explosions and gunfire were commonplace until just recently. Lives have been upended, jobs lost, loved ones killed, and uncertainty still reigns though no one imagines anything but a winning conclusion to the war.
It was an inspiration to visit this place and to see the purpose–and yes, joy–these folks have in doing for their countrymen. I don’t think I’ve seen such camaraderie personally before, aside perhaps from the students at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. It seems clear that the young folks in this country see things very much the same way.
Maxim and Alex are hoping we will all plan a visit to their capital city in the not-too-distant future and that a visit to Match will be on the top of all our Kyiv restaurant lists once the war’s need for the place has passed.
I can’t wait.
For more visit World Central Kitchen at http://wck.org.
Alexander Timkov Instagram: @timkovbiatch
Maxim Kolodin Instagram: @mmm.kldn
Match’s Instagram: @match.bistro
As I sit here in Kyiv on a sunny Sunday morning, I can’t quite figure out what to do next. My plans when I left Boston two weeks ago never imagined this as a possibility. I thought I would be happy trekking through the western part of the country with Lviv being the only big city safe enough to visit, let alone stay in. And it was lovely even with the ever-present sirens.
Kyiv is much quieter, and not just because the shops and restaurants are largely closed. There are far fewer sirens. I haven’t visited a basement once in the four days I’ve been here. It’s pretty much closed down. But it gets busier each passing day and it was great to see Boris Johnson touring the place with President Zelensky on a Meet the Press taping on YouTube (thank God for YouTube as none of my premium channels will play over here). Even the Asian fusion restaurant around the corner has reopened, much to my taste buds’ celebration.
Yes, there are still the occasional barricades, plenty of sandbags, and parked armored vehicles here and there. And don’t even think about taking any videos or photos of a soldier or policeman lest you be chased down and forced to delete such. But everything else is cool. I got some great shots of Independence Square, some grand churches, shops, the river, and all kinds of touristy stuff.
It is a miracle that I am here at all. Of course, I am no military expert, but it would seem that The Battle of Kyiv will have to go down as one of the great military victories (and defeats) in European history, certainly of modern times. The combination of Ukrainian soldiers and leadership with American/Western weaponry and logistics seems to have created a new paradigm.
When the war began in late February almost everyone thought that Kyiv would fall within days. Everyone, that is, except the Ukrainians. Remember that endless column of armor? Gone. Poof! Like they were never here if you walk around Kyiv now. Still, there are plenty of soldiers out and about (never knew there were so many versions of AK-47s) but they were heavily outnumbered by regular citizens on Palm Sunday afternoon. Damage? Haven’t seen any yet, though I am near the city center. Which, of course, is great. But not quite what one expects given the news footage. And the atrocities in Bucha and other places are real, and I am heading to see them. This documentary needs to try to document these places and the horrific acts that have happened.
So, what to do next. That’s easy I suppose--I’m here to document, so I’ll head to where the worst did happen and see what there is to see. I’ll head to Irpin and Bucha. And then to the grand infamous prize of all given my interest in the nuclear sites, Chernobyl.
I’m still planning to walk much of this. Though I suppose it’s of less importance given the new opportunities and expanded territory that has opened. And my doctor still wants me to get that exercise I was planning, though that backpack is a lot heavier than I imagined.
Today I decided to head to Kyiv since the Russians appear to be on the run and it is safe to do so. I also figured it would be a much shorter trip to Chernobyl, and since getting close to the nuclear plants is a top goal of this trip, and Chernobyl a top prize, we decided to defer Rivne and the others for now.
I said goodbye to the Ukrainian Catholic Church and boarded a train at Lviv station for a long ride to Kyiv. The train ride was interesting, however, for its passengers who turned out to be a combination of young men of prime fighting age, housewives, and old husbands. One old couple I spoke to were heading home from Poland. The old man had been caught on a business trip when war broke out and was heading home. I also saw young children and their mothers who were also apparently heading home, which gives me great confidence that things in Kyiv have settled down.
The arrival at the Kyiv train station was anything but boring. We arrived in total blackout conditions and everyone funneled in the darkness at the stairway, past armed soldiers who were checking passports and baggage. Fortunately, I sailed through with my American passport and didn’t have to unpack for the soldier.
When I got out onto the street there were no taxis, and it was less than a half-hour away from curfew, which is at 10 o’clock. So, I started walking to my hotel using Google Maps. As I was walking, I went past an armed soldier who I believe advised me in Ukrainian that I needed to get inside because of the curfew. I told him that I was heading for my hotel and he let me pass--but when I was halfway down the block, he called me and offered me a ride. He called his associate who spoke much better English, gave him his gun, put me in his car, and drove me to my hotel. I'll never forget how nice that soldier was.
I was able to find a hotel, and like the other hotel I stayed at in Lviv it is small and was closed because I arrived so late. But I was able to find the doorbell and woke up the purveyor. I went up seven flights in a very small elevator and they checked me in. Now here I am at the WOW hotel in Kyiv looking forward to a self-guided tour of the capital city in the morning. Whew!
It’s a funny thing when one begins a journey without much of a plan. When one takes a leap of faith and simply trusts that things will turn out and that help will find you on your way. Such as TheoEco’s Ukraine Trek, which I am currently on.
Father Yaroslav Nalysnyk in Boston told me to come here. He’s the rector of Christ the King Ukrainian Catholic Church in Jamaica Plain; neither of which did I know anything about when the Ukraine trek idea came to me weeks before. But I found out about the denomination when I was buying a backpack and other gear at REI in Boston, and the sales clerk told me about the church and how they were helping folks here in Ukraine. The next thing I knew, I’m talking with Father Yaroslav and he said that I absolutely had to visit the university when I got to Lviv.
I’ve been here for close to a week, and I have a short documentary to show for it. Call it an homage to the place and people that have taught me just about all I need to know, I figure, about Ukrainians, their culture, their patriotism, their fearlessness, and the absurdity of Putin’s idea that he can ever reconstitute anything like the old and tired Soviet empire.
This place feels just like the campuses of just about any college that I’ve visited in the United States. From Boston to New Haven to Miami, the kids are cut from the same cloth, and, like their teachers, even more motivated given their circumstances. The food is as good, the Wi-Fi as fast, the facilities as modern. I’ve heard Aerosmith along with Ukrainian patriotic music and everything in between, in between air raid sirens.
See for yourself in the short documentary we’ve just finished. You’ll be inspired by the kids and their efforts to help supply their soldiers and the refugees. You’ll see the faculty dealing with existential threats to their school and their homeland, all on a campus that is just a mile or two from a missile strike that got international attention, and is likely a target itself if the Russians had more–and more reliable–cruise missiles, and if the Ukrainians weren’t so good at shooting them down.
I came on Friday, April 1st for an interview and was hoping to stay a night or two before I headed for Rivne on foot to see how close I could get to the nuclear power plant there. But the weather turned nasty with some late spring snow and freezing temperatures, then rain (a lot like New England).
My reality quickly became one of sirens and a basement/bomb shelter.
My most excellent host Andriy Hrynykha, a UCU educated historian with a love of American TV and interest in its politics (House of Cards is a favorite, at least the first five seasons he says), has given me several tours of Lviv looking for restaurants in between sirens. He has taught me what it means to be a young Ukrainian and how much they are like us–and unlike Russians, he says. There simply is no going back for any of the Ukrainians I’ve met. They understand their situation and it’s nothing new. They’ve been fighting for nearly ten years and they will continue for as long as it takes. There is no doubt in these students' or teachers’ minds–nor fear it seems. Same for Poland, the Baltics, and other former Eastern Bloc countries. The Iron Curtain is lifted forever as far as they are concerned. And why not with the performance of the Ukrainian army, which is no surprise to those that I have spoken with.
Lviv and Ukraine are quite religious it turns out, which is a big part of what I planned to investigate on this journey. No surprise there I guess, certainly not when one tours Lviv. It is full of grand old churches dating back many centuries and many empires. From medieval times to the Habsburgs, the architecture is tremendous and preserved.
This is remarkable I suppose when one considers the struggle Christianity–and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in particular–had to pitch against the Soviet’s atheism. You see leaders of this denomination were sent to the gulags, and priests like Father Yaroslav in Boston had to attend underground seminaries under penalty of death. It wasn’t until 1989 that the church came back into the light under the auspices of Gorbachev and John Paul II. Today it is a denomination that is juxtaposed to what we see from the Russian Orthodoxy corruption and alignment with Putin and is vital to the spiritual needs of Ukrainians everywhere–and central to the war effort. You see, Ukrainians need their churches. Christianity is deeply rooted in their culture and traditions, as one sees when talking with the UCU students and faculty.
As seen in the film, the UCU is in the middle of supply and relief efforts for front-line troops, refugees, and civilians in the fight. The impact of the war has forced the reimagining of classes with only 15% of the students present on campus. It is a lovely modern campus. Of course, as one might expect, my room is a bit on the Spartan side: two single beds and a picture of the Virgin and Christ child are all that adorn the walls. No TV has been spotted anywhere. There is, however, endless tea and coffee and some very nice desk staff. I also got to do my laundry. I’m in good company with refugees and children around and other NGO folks can be spotted from time to time.
The idea that we could get a 25-minute short documentary out in just a matter of days is a testament to how productive one can be sometimes. But the footage speaks for itself, so there isn’t a need for fancy graphics or other elements that can take so much in terms of time and resources typically. We can save that for the finished feature film in the summer, though I imagine most will make it into the final documentary largely intact. It’s been a memorable time I will always treasure.
Finally, it looks like my plans have changed and Rivne will have to wait. More on that later.