Life in Okhtyrka, Ukraine

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With tensions mounting in Ukraine, I spoke to Virginia Cartwright, a US Peace Corps volunteer who had been living in Okhtyrka, a small city in eastern Ukraine, where she was teaching English in a local school. The Peace Corps is a US government initiative, which aims to promote peace through helping to meet the needs of countries around the world for trained men and women to share their skills and to promote mutual cultural understanding between the USA and those countries. Volunteers work in a variety of sectors including education, health and the environment. Ukraine was the country with the largest number of Peace Corps Volunteers, until the decision was made to evacuate all volunteers back to the USA. I spoke with Virginia shortly after she arrived home in North Carolina, to ask her about readjusting to life in America, her experiences with Ukrainian culture and about the current political turmoil.
How did you find out that you were being evacuated and what was the process of evacuation like?
They have three different stages of alert. At first back in November they just told us to be aware of what was going on around us, not to be an obnoxious American and to try to keep a low profile. When the protests started getting larger they put us on the next stage which is called ‘Stand Fast’ this meant we were told to stay in our cities and we weren’t allowed to travel to the capital. Then there was that terrible Wednesday when 90-something people were killed. Not long after that we went to ‘Consolidation’. That meant all the Peace Corps Volunteers in one oblast (an equivalent of a county), had to go to one central location so that if we did have to evacuate we would all be together. We found out we were going to be evacuated by email. We were all crowded around the laptop and everyone was crying because we knew we weren’t going to get the chance to say goodbye to our Ukrainian friends and colleagues in person, but we also weren’t allowed to tell anyone we were leaving, because of security issues. After we arrived in DC we were allowed to call people so I have talked to a few people and its sad and they’ve been crying. They understand why we had to leave but it was just really sudden. Technically, I finished my service back in September but I decided to extend it to finish the project I had been working on, so I had been in Ukraine for two and a half years.
That sounds quite traumatic to be torn away from your life there so abruptly. What has it been like coming back to the States? When was the last time you were there?
The last time was when I left, back in September 2011. So its been really overwhelming. Especially the amount of choice. Its amazing all the options that are available to me. I went to the grocery store yesterday and nearly had a panic attack in the cereal aisle because there are 900 different types of cereal, its a little excessive to be totally honest. In our kitchen we have three refrigerators full of food; I’m used to this tiny Soviet refrigerator with maybe three eggs and some carrots and my family here have a two year supply of food at our fingertips. My family are having to teach me how to do things again, because I don’t know how to use the TV, I don’t remember how to drive a car, crazy stuff! I was supposed to come home in June, so this has pushed everything forward and I’ve just been thrown back into America. Mentally I feel like I wasn’t quite prepared for it but I’m getting there.
What was it like when you first arrived in Ukraine? As an American how were you received there?
When I first got to Ukraine I had a three month training period, where I had Ukrainian language lessons for 5 or 6 hours a day and cross cultural sessions about Ukrainian traditions and how to behave, and technical sessions about teaching English to Ukrainians. When I first arrived at my school all the teachers were gathered in the teacher’s room. Ukrainians have a tradition of giving a beautiful braided loaf of bread with a bowl of salt for guests. You’re supposed to rip off a piece of the bread and dip it in the salt and thats the first step of being integrated into the community. In general most people were just curious why this crazy American girl was in their school. The most frequently asked question was ‘Why would you leave America to come here?’ Because for most of them their dream is to leave Ukraine, even for a bordering country that would be life changing for them. For me to leave America, this dream land for them, to come live in Ukraine they just can’t fathom why anyone would want do that.
You were saying you had to learn about the culture and the traditions, what were the hardest things to adjust to?
The hardest thing for me to adjust to, culturally, was the emotion in Ukraine. They are very much ‘brick-faced’; you do not smile at strangers and if you do they look at you like you’re crazy. That was hard for me because I’m an outgoing, smiley person. Ukrainians have this proverb that to become friends with someone you have to eat 16 kilos of salt together, so it alludes to how long you have to spend with someone before they consider you part of their inner circle. It takes years for that to happen. For me, I was now just being integrated in this inner circle with my Ukrainian friends, whereas in America or in the UK, you could meet someone, the next day you could have lunch together and pretty soon you would consider yourselves friends. In Ukraine its very different.
Another thing is as much alcohol as Ukrainians do drink, they are never really drunk. So its a little bit different from both America and Scotland! I met a lot of Ukrainians who did not drink at all which shocked me. I think most people when they think of Russia and Ukraine they think vodka! Its true there is a lot of vodka and it is often cheaper than water, but women do not drink vodka. Its usually only men. Women drink wine or cognac. A lot of young people don’t drink because they think of themselves as athletes. So that was interesting to cross off one of the stereotypes.
What will you miss most about living in Ukraine?
There are a lot of things because I was there for two and a half years it became my home. So I will miss my daily routine, like I woke up at the same time everyday, I would get up and boil water for my shower and my coffee. It was hard but you get used to it and by the end it was completely normal. Now being home I can just turn on the faucet and hot water comes out, and I can drink water that comes out the tap and I don’t have to boil it first and wait for it to cool down, its crazy! I will miss the food, Ukrainian food is very good. My first winter there I gained a lot of weight because I didn’t want to go out in -30 temperatures and I just ate all this delicious food. I will miss my students and colleagues, they were the people I interacted with on a daily basis, who taught me about the culture and invited me into their homes. Also I really miss hearing the language. I realise now being back in America how much I really liked using my Ukrainian everyday and I have this fear now that I will forget it.
So how is your Ukrainian now? Because you didn’t speak any when you arrived, is that right?
Yeah, that’s right. Its pretty good, I can explain anything I need to, but it was a little bit difficult because I learned the Ukrainian language, which is usually spoken in the western regions and Russian is spoken in the east. But where I lived, which is the north east, they speak a mix of Russian and Ukrainian so I would only understand half of conversations. I had to be very specific with people and say ‘I speak Ukrainian, can you use as many Ukrainian words as possible and leave out the Russian?’ People who knew me were very good about it. Some people in the East don’t speak Ukrainian at all and I would try to speak to them and they would have no idea what I was saying. Honestly Russian probably would be more useful on a global scale but Ukrainian is beautiful.
Turning to the political situation, do you know anyone in Kiev? What can you tell me about what has been happening there?
Some of my students from the last two years have left school and gone to university in Kiev. They’ve been sending me photos and updates on whats going on, which has been amazing to hear about what is happening from the inside but I also worry about them because its dangerous. Of course, this all started back in November with Yanukovych’s decision not to strengthen ties with the EU. I think that’s when Ukrainians realised ‘we can do something about this, there are enough of us that feel strongly about this decision that maybe we can make a change.’ They had the Orange Revolution back in 2004 but this is the first time they have really fought for independence, their freedom. So they are out there protesting and building this small city within Kiev. They have stations set up to cook borscht, they have hospitals and post offices, they built walls with tyres and ice. The creativity of these people astounds me. Young people my age, 25 or 26, they’ve been saying ‘I’m not doing this for me, I might die because of these protests, but I’m doing this for the future of my country.’
At first the international press was focused only on the protests in Kiev; now attention is turning to the protests in Crimea, and the potential Russian invasion. What is the situation like in the Sumy region?
In Okhtyrka, my town, there weren’t any protests but it was a very hot topic and everyday that I would come into school in the teacher’s lounge everyone would hotly debating it. The largest town in our oblast was Sumy and there were some protests there, pro-Maidan and other groups, but it never got violent so we were lucky. There was nothing like on the scale of Kiev.
You said that people in the Sumy region speak a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, how does that impact on their sense of national identity and their politics? Are people there pro-EU or do they want to keep close ties with Russia like the majority of the Crimean people seem to want?
In my region, even though Russian was often spoken, many of the people wanted to be integrated with the EU, they did not want to be a part of Russia. Its a generational gap, the older people who had grown up under the Soviet Union saw that as a time of stability and so they would not mind so much being a part of Russia; not that they want that but if it happened they wouldn’t be out in the streets protesting. In general everyone was extremely upset about Yanukovych’s decision not to strengthen ties with the EU. People were very emotional about it, they were crying because they realise that if Ukraine doesn’t get its act together and it becomes a part of Russia again, they might not have another chance for democracy.
With the developments in the Crimea and Putin getting approval to send troops into the region, President Obama has said that there will be ‘consequences’ for any invasion. How do you feel about potential US involvement in the crisis?
That’s a really hard question. It does affect me directly because everyone I know there knows that I’m American and, of course, they are all glued to the news and I wouldn’t want there to be anti-American sentiment. It worries me a little bit but I also know that Ukraine does need help so if America was doing something positive that would be wonderful but I don’t really think it would be a good idea to send in troops.
What are your personal hopes for the future of Ukraine?
I hope that once the elections are held and maybe the government becomes a bit more stable then hopefully this east-west split can be mended. Right now, the government doesn’t even know if what its doing is constitutional, its a huge constitutional crisis. All these different groups are splitting off, so of course there’s going to be this tension between the east and the west because historically the people that western Ukraine admire are the people eastern Ukraine hate. There needs to be a solid leader who can unite both parts of the country. They need to find something to bring them together and hopefully that would eliminate any possibility of a civil war. I would like to see Ukraine remain one country. Its hard for me not to sit in front of my computer all day refreshing the news. But I have to remember that I’m not in Ukraine any more and I need to start adjusting back to life here.
Interview by Iona Peddie


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