Last Update: 5/14/2014 8:22 AMBy Will Spargur
In April we interviewed returned volunteers who had served in the tumultuous eastern part of Ukraine. And while the east continues to draw headlines the picture is incomplete without understanding a little about the western parts of Ukraine. For our May newsletter we interviewed Kseniya Naturian Fenner and Elyse Greenblatt who recently returned from service in the western part of Ukraine.
Where did you live and what did you do in the Ukraine?
Kseniya Naturina Fenner: I served as a TEFL volunteer, teaching English at a secondary school in the city of Chernivtsi. A small city, and the capital of the smallest Ukrainian Oblast in the south west of Ukraine, bordering Romania and Moldova. Historically the state has been a part of Moldova, Romania and the USSR, and had a large Jewish population prior to WWII.
Elyse Greenblatt: I lived in a small town called Bratslav about an hour from Vinnytsia, the region capital. I was a TEFL volunteer at one of the local secondary schools.
How did the people of your area identify themselves as?
Young people were more likely to be interested in Western culture, idolizing American pop culture and dreaming of moving to London or Los Angeles, but they would also talk about how they were proud to be from Western Ukraine.
EG: There was a lot of Ukrainian pride in my area. Many people had families from all over the former Soviet Union and were different religions but most people were very proud to be from Ukraine. I definitely did hear and see a lot of nostalgia for soviet times. There were a few times I had conversations with people over 40 who insisted that life was better during Soviet times. Of course I would venture to say that those were the people whose families had more coveted positions during the Soviet era. I think it was clear to everyone that their government had a lot of flaws, however the younger people wanted a change that would allow them more freedoms while the older generations wanted changes that would give them more security.
Did people talk much about politics or their national identity?
KS: From my experience in Ukraine, most people steered clear of political conversations and felt that the situation was out of their control. Hearing news of corruption they would shrug as if to say "Well, what can I do about it?" and accept their fate. This is why I was very surprised by the Euromaidan movement which caused the president to flee the country.
The cultural and language divide of Eastern and Western Ukraine was a common topic of conversation when I was living in Chernivtsi. Since many of the people I knew in Chernivtsi had family living in Eastern Ukraine they expressed concern about the country splitting down the middle. I think most people would have been happier if there wasn't a rivalry between the two sides of their country. This is from my experience living in Chernivtsi, which is not considered as nationalistic a city as Lviv, for example.
EG: Many people would talk about what it was like during Soviet times. These stories were both positive and negative. People would discuss politics and the majority that I spoke with were unhappy with the government and how many of the institutions were run. Since I worked with teachers I heard a lot about how they viewed the education system.
Are you still in contact with the Ukrainian people you served with? Do they talk about what is going on?
KS: I'm still in touch with my closest friends in Ukraine. They say that day to day life hasn't changed much, except that people seem more on edge and worried about the future of their country. I do not think Western Ukraine is seeing nearly as much change as the East.
EG: I do talk to my friends in Ukraine about the current situation and what they think about it. They are upset about the violent turn it has taken and speak about tension and instability, but they have hope that it will end soon and have positive effects in the long run for Ukraine.
During your service did you see any warning signs of current events?
KS: Many Ukrainians I met during my service asked why I would spend two years of my life in their country when I could be living what they saw as a dream life in America. There was clear discontent with their financial and political situation, but I saw very little done about it. Their resignation was probably due to the failure of the Orange Revolution, and because they lacked leaders who they trusted would put the people's needs above personal gain.
EG: I definitely saw people’s dissatisfaction with the government and a want for things to change but I did not foresee anything like what started in November. I have to say I was very impressed with protesters and how organized they were/are.
What did you think of Peace Corps' decision to pull out?
KS: It is hard for me to imagine Ukraine without the Peace Corps because of the wonderful programs that were being implemented and the students that were so enthusiastic to participate in them. That being said, it was the correct decision due to safety issues. Peace Corps Volunteers are already easy targets and with the unstable situation, especially in the East, it would be impossible to ensure their safety.
EG: Volunteer safety is always their top priority and I am sure it was a hard decision to make but it was necessary as we can see now. I know it is very hard on not only the volunteers but also the staff and the community members. I believe Ukraine has been a very successful Peace Corps post and I hope as soon as things stabilize and prove to be safe that they will reinstate.
Would you go back?
KS: I will definitely be going back to Ukraine, but I have accepted it may not be to the same country I left a year ago.
EG: I would go back in a heartbeat. Ukraine is a beautiful country with some of the most generous people I have met. I would like to be able to show support for my community and for them to know that the world is watching and many people support them.