As news of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia gets more and more troubling, it’s led to quite a few folks I know asking me questions about the summer we spent there having our sons. The fact is that this has been going on for years now, beginning in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Since then, skirmishes and open fighting have been taking place in eastern portion of the country, generally in the Donbass region. It’s strange to see something like this called a war by some, a disagreement by others and to have it totally ignored by otherwise trusted sources.
I should start by saying that while we were there, we really didn’t have any idea what was going on. It was clear that there was no love lost between these countries, as we saw a lot of propaganda posters around Kyiv. We couldn’t read them, but they’d have photos of Vladimir Putin with horns on his head, a circle-slash sign through the Russian flag or other clear signs that things were not calm and peaceful between these two combatants. We even saw this confusing “monument” that we had to look up and read about to understand:
Kyiv is situated in the middle of Ukraine, and the actual fighting was taking place at least a couple of hundred miles from where we were. In terms of the answer to folks’ questions, our answer was usually along the lines of, “Well, we didn’t see any fighting and we didn’t feel any actual threat of military combat, but the military presence was ubiquitous.” That’s about the best encapsulation of what it was like.
The military vibe was vastly different than what we experience in the United States, and we live in San Diego, which has its own heavy military presence. Still, you’d never see marches down the street in our little community and you’d never see tanks and the like rolling down the road. That shocked us to no end, but what stunned us even more was that the locals didn’t appear to be phased by any of this whatsoever. A tank would roll by and they wouldn’t even give it a second look.
The apartment where we stayed had a balcony that overlooked the main drag in town, known as Khreschatyk Street. One night after the boys were born, I came back to the apartment to do laundry for my wife and to organize a few things. I heard this almost rhythmic, “BANG! BANG! BANG!” as though there was some sort of enormous marching band approaching.
As it turns out, that was part of what ultimately walked by:
Now, as it turns out, these particular marches took place because Ukraine was celebrating its independence around that time, and the military were practicing for a major parade. While that explained that specific situation, it didn’t explain how you’d walk down the street and see a lot of soldiers, walking around fully armed and ready to roll, it seemed. One night, when I was particularly exhausted, I decided to go mingle for a minute.
It wasn’t necessarily the best idea to walk up to soldiers and ask for photos, I was told by a soldier who surprisingly spoke a small amount of broken English, but at that point I really didn’t care anymore. I was tired beyond belief, confused beyond belief and, to the point of all of this, so used to the military being ever-present at that point that it didn’t even phase me anymore to walk up to them and take photos.
This is just another basic tenet of life in Ukraine that’s wildly different than anything we’d ever consider “customary” in the United States. I guess when you’re at “war” or “involved in a conflict” or whatever it is that’s happening, the military is going to be visible. There were also a couple of different experiences with the military there that were much more intense. I’ll get into those soon.