Article and pictures by M. Maxine George
Watching the TV news in late November and December 2004, showing the Ukrainian people flowing through the streets of Kyiv peacefully protesting their fraudulent election results, reminds me of my visit to Ukraine and especially the city of Kyiv during the days of Gorbachev's Glasnost. In those days politics was not a subject that was openly discussed in Ukraine. However, as Canadians, we did have opportunities to hear the views of the general population of the country.
I was traveling in Ukraine in a group of 13 Canadians with one Russian guide. Only three of us did not have family ties to the then Soviet Union. Fortunately the other ten people understood or spoke Ukrainian. This gave us a degree of autonomy not always shared by people traveling there at the time. We were able to converse with the local people without being dependent on our ever-present guide. Canada’s Ukrainian communities have preserved their language and many of their cultural traditions by passing them on to their descendants. For this reason the reservoir of Ukrainian Canadians was tapped to provide international election monitors for the 2004 Ukrainian elections, especially for the December 26th election.
We soon learned, through relatives of our travel-mates, that the Ukrainian people were still being kept under the strict domination of Russia. Conversations in buildings had to be kept very generic. Any time our questions to people were in any way political their hand would instantly rise to tug at their ear, indicating to us that they could not answer those questions for fear our conversation was being monitored. Once out in the street, people would open up and discuss their political observations and views. All commerce had to be conducted in the Russian language, which the Ukrainian people resented. They have a very strong national spirit and identity and were hoping that Glasnost would eventually bring them independence from the domination of Russia.
My memories of my visit to Kyiv are of a warm and friendly people who welcomed us, as Canadians, with open arms. In one music store a clerk was thrilled to discover that her customers were a group from Canada - (the three most western provinces.) Her grandfather lived in Toronto. Did we know him? Later that evening we were having dinner in our hotel ballroom. Three other social events were taking place in that same ballroom, two weddings and another special event. The lady from the music store happened to be attending one of those events. Much to our surprise she suddenly appeared at our table, husband in tow, with flowers and champagne for the lot of us. Word spread, and by the time we left the ballroom that night we each had our arms full of flowers and more champagne.
On our last night in Kyiv, we had dinner in a unique restaurant in a park. There were three long tables of guests in that restaurant. Our group of 14 was at one table, at another sat a group of average American tourists and the third had American tourists who were also descendants of Ukrainian immigrants. We were wined, dined and entertained in wonderful style that evening. The traditional music and dance was especially meaningful to those whose ancestors brought the music and dances to North America. Those who knew the songs frequently sang with the entertainers. As the evening wore on all the tourists would continue singing when the musicians took rest breaks. Sometimes even popular North American sing-along songs like On Top of Old Smokey were interspersed with the traditional Ukrainian songs.
Partway through the evening an American lady came over to our table to chat. She told us that she lived close to the Canada-USA border. Her husband was a member of Kiwanis so they frequently attended joint cross-border events. Much to our astonishment she asked, "When will you be singing O Canada?@ Our response was a very non-committal, "Maybe later. " "Well, when you do, I want to sing it with you," she informed us. We soon forgot her request. However, sometime later the lady again appeared at our table and asked if we could please sing Oh Canada right away as their group would soon be leaving. One of our men was in the washroom across the restaurant at the moment. But not wanting to let the American lady down, we twelve Canadians stood and with the one American lady began to sing O Canada. No sooner had we begun to sing than our absent companion returned to the room and began to cross the vacant dance floor. When he realized what was happening, he stopped in the middle of the floor, placed his hand over his heart and wholeheartedly joined us. I doubt if any of us ever sang our national anthem more fervently or with more pride than we did in that restaurant in Kyiv that night, thanks to that American lady.
I applaud the Ukrainian people and add my voice to the chorus of people throughout the world who have been cheering for them in their attempt to achieve a truly democratic election. We now congratulate them on having achieved their goal and hope their future brings them justice, democracy and freedom.
Article and pictures by M. Maxine George
Myrna Arychuk receives Ukrainian welcoming ceremony
Kyiv street scene during Glasnost
Dormition Cathedral amidst WWII ruins
Heritage home of Taras Shevchenko with Maxine George and Jeanette Swanson
Mariinsky Palace, the former Czar Palace in Kyiv
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Last Updated on January 31, 2006 by M. Maxine George editor. © 2005 Magic Carpet Journals. All rights reserved