Seven Days in Ukraine

Peter Straton Bejger, a first-generation American with deep roots in Ukraine, was invited to monitor the presidential elections in May. An insider’s look at a country in the crucible

Graffiti on a building in the city center reads “Liberty or Death.”.

Graffiti on a building in the city center reads “Liberty or Death.”

Peter Straton Bejger (BA ’75).

Peter Straton Bejger (BA ’75)

Story by Peter Straton Bejger (BA ’75) & Photographs by Peter Straton Bejger & Marijana Grandits

WHEN I LOOK BACK on my childhood, one of the things I feel most thankful for is the privilege of sitting in a chilly schoolroom in Buffalo’s Broadway- Fillmore District on Saturday mornings and mastering the Cyrillic alphabet. Learning Ukrainian seemed a quixotic endeavor at the time—the USSR was mighty and Ukraine “did not exist” as an independent actor—but studying the language enabled a lifelong engagement with the land of my ancestors.

As an adult, one of my continuing links with Ukraine has been observing elections through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Committed to democracy and human rights, the OSCE allocates considerable international resources sending monitors to assess elections in member states.

This year the OSCE faced a particularly challenging crisis. On Feb. 21, the pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country following mass protests and the massacre of demonstrators on Kyiv’s (Kiev’s) Independence Square, popularly known as the Maidan. The following day, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove him from office.

Soon afterward, a revanchist Russia went on the march, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of change in Ukraine, seizing Crimea and arming groups in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk who proclaimed “independent republics.” The Ukrainian government launched antiterrorist operations against the separatists, resulting in protracted clashes. The situation was volatile and alarming. It seemed the post-Cold War order in Europe was being overturned.

An early presidential election was called for May 25, with confectionery tycoon Petro Poroshenko and Orange Revolution firebrand Yulia Tymoshenko as the two leading candidates. The international community considered this election an essential step toward stability. The OSCE rallied to send its largest-ever team of more than 1,000 election observers to bear witness to a crucial turning point in Ukraine’s history. I was one of those election observers. Below are some personal notes from the field.

Day One: Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kyiv is at its most alluring in May. The chestnut trees are in bloom, the cafés and restaurants are packed, and the streets are jammed with traffic. At its very heart, however, is a lacerated cityscape.

“The worst day was when we heard the shooting,” remarks my former employer and good friend Michael. An American with a Ukrainian wife and children who built a business and a family life in Kyiv, Michael lives in a glorious, high-ceilinged prerevolutionary flat a couple of blocks up the hill from the Maidan. “They let loose thugs to smash car windows, and then the guns … .”

My pilgrimage to a suddenly rain-soaked Maidan is unsettling. The personal accounts, the memorials to the martyred “Heavenly Hundred,” the charred husk of the Trade Unions building, the explosive graffiti, as well as the square filled with detritus from those who may have stayed at the revolution a bit too long, all challenge my rosy nostalgia for the city. I feel like an awkward visitor to an old friend whom you discover has been badly mutilated.

Dinner with a group of Kyiv friends offers another perspective. Young, urbane and accomplished, Anatoly, Andriy, Sarah and Roma want to leave the drama of the Maidan behind and see a fresh start. They seem willing to give the chocolate king Poroshenko, who is heavily favored, a chance. They dismiss, and resent, the Eastern unrest as a Machiavellian ploy by oligarchs from the former regime to restore political influence and regain national subsidies for their rustbelt industries.

Day two: Thursday, May 22, 2014

At the OSCE briefing for observers, João Soares of Portugal, special coordinator for the mission, defines the moment. “We are facing a very special situation … Portuguese sailors used to call the southern tip of Africa the ‘cape of torments.’ It became the Cape of Good Hope. We will transform torments into good hope.” We scatter to the provinces.

My train arrives in the late evening in Ternopil, a provincial center in the West. Heavily damaged during World War II, the bleakly rebuilt Soviet-era Ternopil I encountered on a visit during the height of the Cold War in 1984 was particularly memorable. Our Intourist minders herded our group of American sightseers into a lighting factory. Two grim-faced middle-aged women in beehive hairdos came into the ill-lit conference room, locked the doors, and proceeded to harangue us about Reagan and American foreign policy.

Day three: Friday, May 23, 2014

Ternopil reveals a much kinder and friendlier face this hot and sunny morning. Bustling terrace cafés and restaurants lining a lakefront promenade, as well as the pedestrian zone around the restored baroque cathedral in the center, soften the Soviet architectural legacy.

A Swedish observer joins me at breakfast. She lives in Bosnia and tells me her friends there watch developments in eastern Ukraine with dread, recognizing the precursors to the disaster they experienced. A young Polish colleague sits down and offers a slightly more encouraging assessment. Ukraine faces a stark choice: radical reform or Balkan abyss.

“Our driver casually mentions that a car has been following us ever since we drove out of Ternopil. ”

Day four: Saturday, May 24, 2014

Our driver casually mentions that a car has been following us ever since we drove out of Ternopil. Even though OSCE personnel have gone missing in the East, and Donetsk and Luhansk have now been ruled off-limits to observers, this is not necessarily sinister; the rest of the country is calm. That said, the wary authorities are determined to prevent any provocations.

We spend the day visiting precincts preparing for the election in the towns of Pidvolochynsk and Zbarazh and neighboring villages. The gender imbalance of the election workers is striking. They are nearly all “women of a certain age,” often schoolteachers, who work long grueling hours for low pay. And yes, some beehives are still to be found. They are all delighted to see foreign observers.

Day five: Sunday, May 25, 2014

We return to Pidvolochynsk at the crack of dawn to observe preparations for the opening of one of the precincts. Observation is a delicate dance. You try not to be intrusive but you can bring irregularities to the attention of officials. Our mandate is to observe, not to instruct.

I hover behind the group of female officials to allow them to enter the polling place. They hesitate and insist I enter before them, for it is considered good luck when a man crosses the threshold first. Patriarchy rules. The ladies, dressed in their Sunday best, recite a prayer and sing the national anthem before the official opening of the poll.

Day six: Monday, May 26, 2014

We have been up for more than 24 hours—first touring impeccably organized local precincts, and then ending up at the district electoral commission in Zbarazh watching local returns, laboriously handwritten on paper protocols, being delivered throughout the night. We learn that Poroshenko is a decisive winner nationwide with nearly 55 percent of the vote compared to Tymoshenko’s approximate 13 percent. The OSCE issues a preliminary report calling the election “genuine” and “largely in line with international commitments.” We collapse for a couple hours of sleep.

I had one more stop to make later that day. Misha, a vet and former sniper, talks about the alarmingly heavy weaponry the Russians and their allies are using in the East. He is driving me through postcard scenery outside Ternopil: a landscape of churches perched dramatically on hills overlooking forests and carefully tended valleys. The countryside is dotted with newly constructed houses and businesses—often financed by remittances from migrant workers in the European Union—that would not look out of place in central Europe.

We arrive at a shuttered manor house. Once a grand residence of a local aristocrat and his Italian wife, the building is battered but proud. The bones are good, as elegant as any of the châteaux in a more fortunate Europe. Country house living ended here in 1939 with the arrival of Soviet troops working in conjunction with Nazi Germany to carve up yet one more borderland. My father’s life in Ukraine also ended here. And another life in exile began. He was a cabinet-maker, responsible for the estate’s furniture collection. His services were no longer required. He would never return.

On the drive back Misha points out the remnants of roadblocks set up by citizen self-defense units to check cars for pro-Russian saboteurs. “There will be a mass uprising here if they ever come,” he notes defiantly. On a bleaker note, he mentions conscription has been reintroduced and he may be called up to serve in the East, where the news is horrifying.

Day seven: Tuesday, May 27, 2014

At our final debriefing two observers are overcome by emotion and start crying when relaying their encounters with the stalwart election precinct ladies of Ukraine. The women’s tenacious dignity in the face of a national crisis has impressed our multinational contingent. The unspoken question: What happens next in this country?

While awaiting a final copy of the official election protocols from the district commission, we visit a restored 17th-century castle above Zbarazh. An exhibit of instruments of torture, including a spiked chair for witches, is fascinating. The most startling encounter, however, is with a memorial to two heartbreakingly young men from the area—Ustym Holodniuk, aged 19, and Nazar Voytovych, 17—who were killed on the Maidan. A large boisterous tour group of very young schoolchildren enters the hall. They suddenly fall silent and gather around the memorial.

Peter Straton Bejger (BA ’75) is a San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker and writer who lived in Kyiv for nearly ten years and visits Ukraine regularly. He graduated from UB in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in history.

A country on the precipice of change