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.
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