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Ukraine revisited

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By John Barnhart

I finally got back to my home in Roanoke a little before midnight, on April 27, after 36 hours of travel. This included an overnight train ride from Nikolaev to Kiev and 13 hours of air travel, punctuated by layovers in London and Detroit. That was a Sunday and after taking Monday off as a sleep-deprivation recovery and laundry day, I returned to the Bulletin’s office on Tuesday to find that they actually missed me while I was gone. At least Tom Wilmoth, my boss missed me as my absence meant a very busy week for him.

Travel fatigue can put a person in a strange frame of mind, especially if he already has a sarcastic sense of humor. At one point, a security person asked if I had a computer in my luggage.

“No, just dirty underwear,” I replied.

This was my second trip to Ukraine and Nikolaev, a shipbuilding city on the Bug River, about 40 miles from the Black Sea. The first one was in 1999, also under the auspices of my church. That’s when I first met Yuriy Korshun, pastor of Nikolaev’s Messianic Congregation, and his wife, Inna.

I met Yura and Inna again on this trip. Arriving at their apartment, I spoke to them in Russian, exhausting my Russian vocabulary after not much more than a minute. The effort pleased them and Inna commented, in English, that she never expected to see me back in Ukraine speaking Russian.

The city has changed. Back in 1999, Nikolaev was grim and gray. There was no downtown business to speak of. Many downtown streets had no street lights at night and the apartment complexes had no outside lighting. Now, downtown Nikolaev is bright and bustling. Sovietskaya Street is full of private shops and people use ATM’s on Lenin Prospect. There are billboards everywhere, an advertising feature that didn’t exist in 1999.

When I first visited, traffic was sparse. Now, the streets are full of cars - American, Czech, German, Russian - and most were new. The streets, however, remain in dreadful condition, requiring alertness and agility on the part of drivers to avoid suspension-destroying pot holes.

Another new feature is supermarkets. Yura told me that these only appeared in the last few years. They are basically like a Food Lion or Kroger here. They are bright, spacious and well stocked with a wide variety of food and health and beauty products. The cashiers scan your purchase at electronic cash registers.

There are differences, of course. The markets have a large tank of live fish. This isn’t for looks. It allows shoppers to guarantee that the fish on the dinner table is fresh because it was still swimming that afternoon. Cultural taste means that there was far more refrigerated case space dedicated to fish, cheese and sausage than you would find here. The amount of space dedicated to tea is probably 10 times what you would find here, but it’s impossible to find good coffee.

You can also buy packets of dried fish. Yura purchased one of these and dared us to sample it. I took him up on the dare. It tastes something like jerky, but it’s tougher and, of course, tastes like fish.

It was good to see things changing for the better, although the country has a long way to go to dig out of the pit that communism dug. Yura told me that there are a lot of people behind the economic progress I saw. Others spoke of corrupt government officials who are more concerned about lining their own pockets than serving the people.

Rural villages have yet to enter the 20th century. They have no electricity or running water. People go to a well to get water. The well is surrounded by a waist-high wall. There is a little roof over it that covers a windlass which is used to lower a bucket into the well.

Nevertheless, things have improved and they enjoy a level of freedom that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. I wish them all the best as people like Yura and Inna make Ukraine more than a place on the map for me.