The faces of three people I left behind in Ukraine haunt me. I think of her and little else.
I met her when my wife and I lived in Kyiv from late 2016 to October 2018. My wife was a foreign service officer stationed at the US Embassy. I was an EFM or qualifying family member, as known on duty. I was proud to be part of the missionary family.
One person was a chef. She didn’t often cook for us, only when we hosted dinners for friends who worked at the embassy. I told her a week in advance what we would like to serve and she delivered a feast each time, usually starting with the most delicious bruschetta I have ever tasted. A few days before we left Ukraine, she emailed us how grateful she was for the work:
“Thank you for trusting me. Good luck in your homeland. I’m so sorry to lose you. I am happy to have met you both in Kyiv.”
Another was our hairdresser. She spoke Russian with my wife, but that wasn’t possible with me. Her English wasn’t great, but it was good enough that we were able to communicate. Our running joke was if I would let her take the gray out of my hair. Next time, I kept telling her, next time. She laughed. We also.
On the day of our last appointment, she cried. We also.
The third person worked at the embassy. Accustomed to newly arrived Americans, he gave us tips on navigating the city and patiently explained how to pay for internet and cell phone access. I really would have been lost without him.
These three Ukrainians were not our close friends. When my wife’s tour ended, I never expected to see her again. Now I wish I could see her again. Knowing they are safe. Knowing that when this madness ends, they will still have a country.
I also think of all the Ukrainians I never met, who I saw around the Maidan, the square in Kyiv where peaceful protests in late 2013 and early 2014 became known as the Revolution of Dignity.
On my walks to the Maidan, I often stopped to look at photos of the “Heavenly Hundred,” those who gave their lives after Viktor Yanukovych, then President of Ukraine, incited the police against his own people. All they wanted was closer ties between their nation and Europe. Due to their enormous courage, Yanukovych had to flee. Watch the 2015 documentary “Winter on Fire” (now free on YouTube) and you will better understand why Ukrainians fight so hard for their freedom.
I feel guilty when I tell friends how much the war has affected me. I live in the United States of America. A few weeks ago I played golf at one of my favorite courses and had lunch near Santa Barbara. My house is not shot at. So what ordeal might I experience exactly?
Still, I’m devastated and angry. Angry at anyone who isn’t as obsessed with the Russian invasion as I am. That includes the media. The moment a network has the audacity to switch to a different news story, I change channels. There is no other story. Not now.
Living in Kyiv for almost two years is not the only reason I feel so strong.
I have a deep personal connection. My grandparents grew up in Skvyra, a city in central Ukraine, although it was part of Russia at the time. My mother was born in Kyiv in 1922. I never knew much about her life there. They didn’t talk about the “old country”. They were Americans now.
I gathered what I know from about 20 pages that my mother typed when she was 15. I saw her once years ago, but she didn’t really realize what her family must have been through. Until now. I knew the document was in the garage somewhere. I was lucky enough to find it. The date on the last page: April 10, 1938. She referred to the document as her “autobiography”:
“After the Russian Revolution, when the nationalist spirit emerged, my grandfather lost his property. … We left Russia (hurriedly) when I was seven months old. Democracy was what my father wanted and democracy was exactly what was missing in Russia. From Russia we went to Romania, where we stayed until 1923. In 1923 we left the country that is a haven for immigrants, political refugees and the unjustly oppressed – America. … We docked in New York City on September 1.”
No wonder those days came up infrequently.
I don’t watch the news like I did in the first days of the attack. I get too angry – at what Russia is doing and what the United States, the most powerful country in the world, is not doing.
One day, I hope, I’ll be in touch again with the three people I can’t get out of my head.
And next time I’ll really let my barber take out the gray.
Growing up in Albany, NY, I never felt the slightest bit Ukrainian. Even back then, when I was still living there, I hadn’t felt a deep emotional bond with my old homeland.
I feel Ukrainian now.
Michael Arkush is a former Times contributor.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-03-18/ukraine-people-history-family-history-russia Op-Ed: I can’t stop thinking about the Ukrainians I once knew