It was a dizzying day, and one that I did not fully understand. That airport terminal was etched in my mind forever, polished to immortality with my tears - the tears of an eight year old child who was about to leave the life he knew to a new place he knew next to nothing about. I cried because my grandparents were not coming with us. I cried because I didn’t know what would happen next. I cried because that is what children who do not know how to deal with a situation do.
I didn’t know how to feel, but eventually, after we crossed past the security checkpoint, the sadness of what I was leaving behind faded and numbed, and the sense of adventure began to set in (in retrospect, that sense of adventure is something I have been chasing the rest of my life). My family was moving to the United States and we were leaving Ukraine, leaving that little neighbourhood of Kharkov called Piatykhatky that I called home.
The things I remember of that part of my childhood I have never forgotten, but due to their age they are harder to find - it’s like a box of old photographs and letters that sits on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be recovered. I remember on so many weekends, my grandparents would take me to their dacha or to my great grandmother’s house in Balakleya, where that rich Ukrainian soil was planted full of tomatoes, potatoes and carrots, and at certain times of year, the apples, pears or cherries would finally be ripe and edible. I recall how one year, my grandfather experimented with planting some watermelon, but the weather was not quite warm enough, and they never really ripened.
I can see like it was yesterday the old Soviet holiday parades, with their strange mix of marching military, rolling tanks and men dressed up like cartoon bears or other child-approved mascots. I remember a newspaper with a headline Perestroika, which I did not hesitate to yell out (as I was proud to be able to read it), and being warned to not to be so unguarded with that controversial word.
And now, as I sit here in my home and write, those last bulwarks of the boy I was are welcome threads to be followed. I often wonder what kind of a life I would have now had we stayed in Ukraine - but that, of course, is an impossibly long web of circumstances away from comprehension.
I visited my family there a few years ago, intersecting my past with my present. In Kharkov my childhood crept back to me as if it never left - wandering along Sumskaya, enjoying the atmosphere and maybe a few peroszhki from what may or may not have been the same street vendor I used to enthusiastically accost my mother to buy from when I was a child. On the highway from Kharkov to Kiev, stopping near Poltava for the incredible eateries with their fresh, authentic Ukrainian food. And in Kiev I greatly enjoyed the endless sea of green trees and parks weaving through the city, and the alleys and lanes running from Khreschatyk.
For years I struggled with my own identity because I never really fully felt American or Canadian as I lived in those places, and my visit back to Ukraine showed me that even my birthplace is not my home. But despite that, as I watched the recent events in the country unfold, it tugged at me like nothing ever had before. A raw wound opened in me as the violence, stupidity and nationalism hit its crescendo - I watched in absolute disgust as neighbours took up arms against one another.
Western media favours the Maidan-turned-government side, but to me, the criminals running the country now are not very different than the criminals they unseated. Ukraine’s parliament, Verkhovna Rada, is the most obvious and glaring example - it has always had a reputation for spectacles.
Only in Ukraine will a member of the Verkhovna Rada interrupt the Prime Minister’s speech to hand him a bouquet of flowers as he picks him up and tries to carry him off before others try to stop him. Only in Ukraine will a former Georgian president be given governorship over one of the most beautiful cities in the country and assigned a special project to end corruption - despite the fact that what he is doing in Ukraine is fleeing prosecution and extradition to his native Georgia for that very same crime.
Not much of a change in that regard - I still remember when the troglodytes in the Rada threw eggs at each other during one session a few years ago. The saddest thing is though that they did not hit each other as much as they hit the reputation of Ukraine, reducing the highest political processes to a bad episode of trash television.
I watch this, and while a part of me wants to howl with rage at what the place from my memories has become, there is truly nothing I can do about it. A cold war has developed along the ceasefire line in Donbass, except with both the Kiev-aligned volunteer battalions and separatist militias regularly violate it by shooting mortars and artillery at each other - frequently with civilian casualties. Heavily armed Right Sector thugs shoot it out with police in Mukacheve, allegedly for control over the cigarette smuggling trade. And, of course, an estimated 1.4 million people displaced, many of those fleeing to safety in Belarus, Poland and Russia.
There is really no other conclusion besides that Maidan has failed. Its rotting carcass, infected with the cancers of right-wing paramilitaries, oligarchy, corruption, lack of accountability and above all, the revisionism of history and ideological bias of current events, festers now in the hot sunlight of the international community’s curious eyes.
The “little green men” claimed what they wanted, and the Russian Black Sea fleet base is safely out of reach of any revocation of the Kharkov Pact. Meanwhile, the frozen conflict zone in Donbass, reminiscent of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, throbs like a wound that will not heal. There is no question of Russian involvement in Donbass, but the extent of it is hard to judge. The Russians provided money, supplies, arms and armour to the separatists, that much we can confirm through independent sources - the rest is pure conjecture. There is simply too many lies and half truths told by the Kiev government to believe them wholeheartedly any more than Kremlin denials, so we don’t truly know if Russia sent a few hundred Spetsnaz or whole battalions. Ukraine has Russian prisoners, but there’s just enough of an alibi through claims that they are “freelancing”, or in the case of a small unit of paratroopers, were unaware of their location when they were captured by Ukrainian troops. All these stories seem a little too convenient, but then on the other hand so is oligarch president Petro Poroschenko waving around the passports of alleged Russian soldier captives (the Russian Army does not deploy men with passports, so his displays are a farce).
The last century was one of learning in many disciplines of war - as the United States learned from their Marxist-Leninist adversaries the secrets of popular revolution and asymmetrical campaigns, so did the governments in the world study the methods of Joseph Goebbels and how to effectively fight with information. Some Russian and many Western media outlets clearly play this game, and there’s enough source material on both sides. Others regurgitate soundbytes from press secretaries of governments with interests in one side of the narrative or the other. Inflammatory visions of dead children, wounded combatants, leveled landmarks or the occasional report of homophobia, anti-semitism or religious zealotry is paraded in front of the audience, released in steady streams for maximum effect - images that somehow shock the consumers of it, as if war is anything but those things and as if the war is between good and evil instead of the two evils.
It is hard to see how everything will turn out. Ukraine has long resisted reforms to its unitary nature where a more federal system would help give some autonomy to the oblasts and take power away from the buffoons in the Verkhovna Rada. In turn, both sides need to cleanse the nationalist influences in their governments so that a more reasonable brand of genuine patriots can reunite the country. Donbass needs to get rid of its Russian thralls and Kiev needs to expel its oligarchs and associated elements. But before that the Minsk 2 protocols need to be respected, and the semi-daily shelling by both sides needs to stop.
For Donbass to exist as a client state of the Russian Federation like North Cyprus is with Turkey would be a sad fate. But the alternative, which is re-unification, is not going to happen until the people of Donbass feel it is safe to return - a feeling that no one can blame them for not having at this moment.
As for Crimea, it is likely not coming back to Ukraine. I still remember how my grandfather, who had a timeshare in a resort in Yalta, would take us to the beaches of the beautiful Black Sea where I would splash around in its shallows. I was innocent then, ignorant of the fact that decades earlier, it was in this very city that the victors of the Second World War met to decide the fate of Europe. To this day, a big part of the identity of the peninsula goes back to the gallant defenders of Sevastopol as they weathered and ultimately perished in their effort to resist the German war machine, and the ultimate success of the Red Army as it finally routed the German garrisons. The ties with Russia go deep here, and I do believe they truly wanted to return. Only a few decades separate today from when Nikita Khrushchev decided to transfer the territory to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic - a move designed to aid in administration of the peninsula as it was connected by land only to Kherson Oblast.
Perhaps it is not too late though. The USSR whimpered and died only a quarter century ago, and the hungry children it left behind have all grown up. The economy of that empire was communism in name only - in reality it was essentially oligarch-run state capitalism. It left the fifteen fledglings with a vacuum when it fell, and the sins of the past seemed like the familiar path to rebuild. Perhaps now that the failures of independent Ukraine as a state are obvious, a rebuilding can take place. Young people are the future, and the visionaries and patriots of a new Ukraine will have to emerge from that group. So far, their energy has been subverted by the criminals of the old era. But maybe, just maybe, they will rise and with their fresh ideas find a way to heal my birthplace. Not for me, but for them.