The Broader Context: Relentless Russian Oppression. – Slovyansk, Kyiv, Canada – October 20-24

CW: PTSD, Suicide, Sexual Harassment, Violence, Death, Displacement

One last blog post.

This one regarding the last leg of our trip as an appropriate and important denouement to our journey.

Following our visit to Avdiika, we had two full days in Slovyansk. Patrick fell ill after a Diablo Pizza (topped with about a dozen full Jalapeno peppers) and literally stayed in bed for 48 hours. Matt and I also slept for a good portion of day one, and the second day did some writing. There isn’t anything exciting to report from our time there. Without a translator, we couldn’t do anything productive since most of the population is Russian speaking. And the level of dialogue we were engaging in is beyond my Ukrainian Language abilities. So, we rested and recouped from the physically and emotionally exhausting week in Eastern Ukraine, and then caught a night train back to Kyiv.

In Kyiv I met with another cousin who I didn’t know existed, a second-cousin once removed, Misha (Mykhailo). My paternal great-uncle is his great-grandfather. He is 22-years-old and  studying to become a lawyer. And, like so much of the other family I connected with, he is an excellent and hospitable tour guide.

He also shared his intelligent and thoughtful insights on Ukraine’s situation (which were echoed by some of the veterans we met with later in the day). In his opinion, which he reiterated several times, Ukraine is a modern day colonial state. He made the analogy that Ukraine is a “very pretty girl,” and that historically there have been many boys who have fought over her. And right now, there are two boys that want her – Russia and the EU/USA. (It’s generally my preference to not use gendered analogy’s, but he put it well).

If Ukraine becomes closer to Russia, Ukraine loses because it will be absorbed into its oppressive power sphere. But, if Ukraine becomes closer to the EU and the Western World, it also loses. So much of Ukraine’s economy and industry in currently tied in with Russia simply because of geography. He made the analogy that if Canada cut off all ties with the US, but wanted to continue relations with Mexico, it would be problematic. And to become dependent on the EU/US would only mean more economic dependency.

He feels that Ukraine needs to become economically and politically independent, and not trade in its dependence on one superpower (Russia) for another (EU/USA).

As we toured Kyiv, it was obvious how much Mischa loves the city and his country. He, too, was on Maidan during the Revolution of Dignity. He loves history, and would share insights about the history of Ukraine and Kyiv as we walked around. We walked down Andriyivski Uzviz (St. Andrew’s Descent), the oldest cobblestone road in Kyiv, and he told me about a famous Ukrainian movie filmed here, After Two Hares. We walked down to the famous Dnipro River, and went up the funicular, where there were stunning autumn views as we ascended toward Kyiv’s old city.

As we walked back to my apartment, we passed through Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s Independent Square. He pointed out an image screened onto a large canvas covering scaffolding over a building on the square’s west end. It says “Freedom is Our Religion,” with the image of a broken chain. The scaffolding is covering the damage of a building that was burnt out during the Revolution. He described, as other Kyiv residents have criticized, that it is Ukrainian propaganda. People feel that the city is masking the turmoil the city went through, as well as more deep-seated problems such as continuing corruption within the Ukrainian government, in an attempt to appear more “western,” particularly for the Eurovision 2017 competition which took place in Kyiv.


The image screened on canvas covering the scaffolding on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

In the evening, we reconnected with one of the veterans we met with last time we were in Kyiv, Dimitro aka Dima1 (everyone is apparently Dima). We met at a pub in a converted warehouse. He generously shared with us some of the footage he took with his GoPro when he was at war in Eastern Ukraine. He also invited more members of his squad to the bar: Dima (yes, another Dima. He will be Dima 3. Because we met Dima 2 the first time we met with Dima1), and Vasyl. Another veteran also joined us, but wasn’t a part of their squad. The first time we met with Dima1, I asked him about the role of women in the war. And he promised that if we met again, he would set us up with a female soldier. And so Alina also joined us for drinks.

The night was more of an informal get together than the first meeting we had with the veterans (a few more drinks, if you know what I mean). And in this way, I feel like we connect with their stories differently. Not better or worse, just different. Once again, you’d never expect people this age to be veterans. They could all be our peers, friends, and colleagues in Canada.

I was especially grateful to gain the female perspective on the war. About 10% of Ukrainian soldiers are women. However, women can’t join the Ukrainian army. The only way women can serve their country is by volunteering with the Right Sector, Ukraine’s independent, volunteer army. Women cannot serve as snipers or foot soldiers, so they often take on other more supportive roles. Alina, 22, was extremely open and generous with her insights. She is a steadfast Ukrainian patriot. She chastised the waiter for speaking Russian, asking him “Why do Canadians speak Ukrainian, and Ukrainians speak Russian?” He retreated with his tail between his legs.

In the war, Alina worked as a medic and took part in the battle at the Donetsk Airport. At the time, she was 19-years-old. I asked her if she experienced sexism during her service. Unsurprisingly, she did. She described that to be respected by your colleagues you had to make a choice – to be either “a man or a woman.” At first she would receive many comments saying that she should be at home in the kitchen, and other stereotypical things like that. But when she took on more “masculine” characteristics, she gained respect from her colleagues. While she herself didn’t experience any sexual harassment, she knows of a lot of other women who did and continue to.

Our conversation with the veterans lasted well past the technical “last call” at the bar, so I can’t begin to reiterate everything we talked about. But Dima 3 and Vasyl also shared their own stories of how they became involved, and their experience of war. It seems common that people met on Maidan during the Revolution and became very close. And when Russia annexed Crimea, they called up their friends and became their own “squad.”

Vasyl asked me what people in Canada thought of the Revolution – if they believed that the driving force was because Ukraine wanted to become closer to the EU. I said yes, that is what most people in Canada believed, and they all kind of rolled their eyes. For them, they said, it wasn’t about the EU. It was about an independent Ukraine and about basic human, individual rights which were being stripped from them by their own government. They, too, believe that Ukraine is a sort of colonial state. They don’t want Ukraine to join the EU or be a part of Russia. And talked about an idea they dreamt up about a sort of “Baltic-Black Sea Union,” including the countries bordering Russia, including Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, and potentially some parts of Russia that would break apart from the rest of the country.

It was fascinating to hear what each of the veterans are doing since their time fighting in Eastern Ukraine. They have all been shaped by their experience as Ukrainian soldiers. The two Dimas (Dima1 & Dima3) have gone into business with a variety of projects, including one to do with DNA and genetic research. As Dima1 told us more about this project, and went on to describe so many more he is involved in, he expressed how he wants to be a part of building the small-to-medium business sector in Ukraine. He believes it is important to strengthen the country’s economy. He also has a project idea to sell Ukrainian wool products within Canada, but wants to team up with a Canadian designer to do so. (So, if anyone has any ideas, let me know and I will hook you up)!


(left to right) Patrick, Dima1, Alina, Lianna, Vasyl, Dima3.

Vasyl in now in University studying in psychology, and Alina has become involved with numerous NGO organizations serving veterans. She was very open about her experience coming back from war, describing how one minute she would be fine and the next she would want to commit suicide. She is seeing a psychologist and has thrown herself into services that serve veterans, and hopes to continue finding ways of bringing psychological help to the young people returning from war. They all see their post-war life as a way of continuing to serve their country without being a “soldier.”

We later learned some of the stats of returning soldiers. Suicide rates are incredibly high. Of the soldiers who have returned home, over 500 suicides have been reported. But this report does not include deaths which may appear as “accidents,” or soldiers who have died by suicide during their deployment. It is believed the number of suicides is closer to 1000.

Dima3 made a point, that amidst the chaos they are living within and after all that they went through, that it is important to remain positive. And to continue striving toward positive,  constructive ventures. Because otherwise, they have nothing.

The bar continued to shut off more and more lights around us, and we got the hint that it was time to go. I thanked them once again for meeting with us and sharing their stories, and that it was my hope that our production could raise more awareness in Canada of what is happening in Ukraine. Vasyl thanked us for doing what we were doing. But then said, sarcastically, that it is good that more people in Canada will know there is a war in Ukraine, than Ukrainians in Ukraine. And they all sort of chuckled…

On our last day in Ukraine, Matt and I visited the History Museum in Kyiv, where there is currently an interesting exhibit about the current war, and an installation that has been created in part with support by veterans. There are pianos in the museum where sometimes veterans play music. There is a photo exhibit of photos from Eastern Ukraine, and a photo exhibit comparing photos from Ukraine in WWII to the current war. There’s also an installation of war weapons and munitions suspended in the stairwell.

In the evening, we met once again with Paul Niland, the self-proclaimed “accidental” political commentator we met with at the beginning of our trip. He was interested to hear about our trip, and we were eager to gain some of his insights on our experiences.

Once again, he was a wealth of knowledge. He spoke very positively about Ukraine’s future. In response to the idea that Ukraine is a modern day colonial state, he said that Ukraine is already an independent country with an independent government and an independent economy. He said that following the Revolution, there was an initial drop in the economy and employment, but currently, if you look at the numbers, that Ukraine is on the rise. Although it is not substantial, Ukraine’s GDP is positive. He also said that Ukraine is gaining more jobs, and that labour is Ukraine is cheaper than it is currently in China. Not that that is a good thing but it could bring more work to the country.

The most valuable thing Paul reminded me about was to consider our experiences within the broader context. I told Paul about some of our experiences speaking with IDPs and individuals affected in Eastern Ukraine. And while we spoke with a good number of people, I was reminded that there are currently 1.7 million displaced people in the country. Each with their unique and individual stories.

I was reminded about the deep and pervasive web of Russian propaganda and the far-reaching effect of the Putin agenda. I spoke in a previous blog post about Olya, the mother of 4 who fled during the attack in Slovyansk, and her comments about how even though she is a Ukrainian, she thinks it would be better to be a part of Russia because there are more jobs. Paul put her comments in this context for me: that if she speaks only Russian, that she likely gets most of her news from Russian sources, and is therefore victim to Russian propaganda. He said that Russia is not the strong economic utopia full of jobs that the Russian media purport it to be. Russia’s economy has tanked and there are currently more jobs in Ukraine. In fact, if you examine the numbers, it would be better in the long term for anyone seeking employment to remain in Ukraine.

As we spoke more with Paul about the convoluted web woven by the Putin administration, it became apparent just how exhausting it would be to live amongst this. And Paul confirmed that it is exhausting, but this is the web that so many people in Eastern Europe have lived within their entire lives. That it is all they know.

And it is very real. Russian propaganda is not a conspiracy theory. He referenced a conversation he had with someone he knows that lives in Canada. She said it could not be possible for Russia to have rigged the Crimea referendum, which was held after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. It was reported that a whopping 87% of the population voted.

This woman didn’t believe it was possible for the government to rig an election. She simply couldn’t understand how a government could manufacture something of that scale. But the Russian government operates very differently than the Western world understands. Paul returned to the numbers. He described that maybe it’s possible that the older ethnic Russian generation would be pro-Russian, but the historically oppressed Crimean Tartar population which makes up about 15% of the population unanimously boycotted the referendum. It would be very unlikely that 100% of the younger, Ukrainian-born generation would all have voted, let alone all in favour of Russia. The numbers just simply don’t add up. To put it in perspective, there was a 31.5% voter turnout in the recent Edmonton civic election…


Pro-Ukrainian graffiti archived from the Revolution of Dignity.

While in my previous blog post, I allowed myself to thoughtfully explore and attempt to empathize with why someone may be sympathetic toward Russia. I chose to explore the micro perspective on how this war affects individuals. However, let me be clear that I have not forgotten the broader political picture. And that I recognize the importance of considering the micro perspective within the broader context.

A conflict did not exist within Eastern Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea. Perhaps there were Russian leaning sentiments, particularly since that part of the country was economically and industrially tied to Russia during the Soviet Union. However, this conflict has unequivocally been manufactured and executed at the hands of the Russian government. And this conflict is only the most recent iteration of a long history of oppressive travesties against Ukraine constructed and realized by the Russian government.

To understand this conflict fully, you must consider the complexity of Russian-Ukrainian relations. It is important to understand that the seeds are deeply rooted in the threat of Ukrainian sovereignty from Russia, and it is important to consider the historical context. I invite you to read this article, which will explain things much more eloquently than I could:

The Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014 in Ukraine was a threat to Putin’s power. As Paul put it, Russia is currently a corrupt and dysfunctional “sh** hole.” It is in Putin’s best interest to discredit democracy. If civilians begin to recognize the corruption within their country, recognize the lavish lifestyle lead by the oligarchs and the government and compare it to their current health system, for example, that they too will consider revolting.

It is in the Russian government’s best interest for Ukraine to be in turmoil, and to create a façade of “look what happens when your country revolts.” Even in the last week, there was a “protest” that appeared to be mounting outside the Ukrainian parliament. And Russian propaganda took hold of the situation and conflated it to their own gain, showing how Ukraine is “always in turmoil.” You can read more about the dud  “protest” in an article written by Paul Niland, published the day after we met with him:

Russian aggression in Ukraine, with the use of propaganda and military backing, continues to undeniably fuel this conflict. It has senselessly murdered, wounded, displaced, uprooted, and devastated the lives of millions of people in Ukraine.

The majority of the country is peaceful. Ukraine is not a dangerous place. Ukraine is a gorgeous country, rich and diverse in culture, beauty and hospitality. But the fatigue of the war is rampant throughout the country. And while it is most apparent in the displaced people we spoke to, it appears more subtly in the rest of the population. There is less media about it now. It is common for a few soldiers to be killed every week, so the war doesn’t make headlines anymore. Both in Ukraine, and internationally

It’s understandable that people in the more peaceful parts of the country want to, and frankly need to, continue living their lives. There may be an “out of sight out of mind” mentality that our veteran friends hinted at amongst Ukrainians, which in its own way may be a form of fatigue. Regardless, Ukraine’s complex history of centuries of oppression has affectively traumatized and stagnated this beautiful and rich country.

We have now arrived safely and soundly in Canada. And honestly, I fear the “out of sight out of mind” mentality in myself.

When I visited my maternal grandmother’s village, Veliky Lazuchin, and met my cousin, Tonya, she showed me the things that my grandmother mailed them when Ukraine was still living under the Soviet Union. Tonya kept Baba’s letters. She pulled from a cupboard two scarves my Baba sent her family in the 1970s — they had written her telling her how poor they were. Life was hard for my Baba in Canada, but at least here she could build a life for herself. She no longer lived in a country which systematically kept her poor. And she did what she could for the people who were at the mercy of these higher powers.

Personally, I can’t do much. It is a frustrating feeling. But when we asked people in Ukraine how they felt international assistance could best help them, many people said that what we were doing was important. They thanked us for not “forgotting them.” Dima1 had said that we are “soldiers fighting” in our own way.

This is my last blog post. And for the next several months, together with a group of incredibly dedicated and talented artists, I will be pouring my heart and soul into creating a piece of theatre that will honour the people we met in Ukraine, honour my heritage, honour my grandparents and their strength, and draw awareness to the events occurring in Eastern Ukraine.

This is my way of doing what I can for the country where my roots are planted. The land where I can dig through an overgrown graveyard and find the tombstones of my great-great grandparents.

Blood of Our Soil [now titled Barvinok – august 2022] will be performed in Edmonton, AB from March 1 – 9 at the Westbury Theatre, in partnership with St. John’s Institute.

There are many ways to stay updated on our production:

Social Media:




Subscribe to our newsletter:

Our website it currently under construction, but will also be an excellent way to learn more about our company and stay apprised of our work:

How to further support :

Our project has received support from several organizations, including the Shevchenko Foundation and the Edmonton Community Foundation. However, even though our workshop production was mentioned in Parliament by Linda Duncan, and that we received overwhelming support from Edmonton’s Ukrainian Canadian community, we were disappointed to not receive local support from the Edmonton Arts Council. One of their reasons indicated that they did not understand why travelling to Ukraine was important in the development of this production.

Thank you for following our adventures and misadventures in Ukraine. The experience has been simultaneously enlightening, fulfilling, infuriating, and profound. I am so grateful for the candidness, sincerity and generosity of the people in both Canada and Ukraine who helped make our research trip a possibility.

Слава Українi.




We did arrive safely and soundly in Canada…. for the most part… but we ended up going straight from the airport to the emergency room because Patrick had been sick and having severe abdominal pain for the last 5 days….. but he is going to be OK!


This shell was gifted to us by the National Movement of Yarosh, who we met with in Kramatorsk. They gave it to Patrick and said, in a thick Ukrainian accent, “a gift from Russia.” I was looking forward to bringing it home, but as they scanned our bags, the pulled Patrick aside, searched his bag, and pulled this out. ~*~*Apparently*~*~ bringing munitions on an airplane, even if they’ve already been used, is not allowed. Oh well!

Powerlessness and Pervasiveness of War – Kramatorsk, Bakhmut, Avdiivka – October 18 – 19

CW: violence, war, threats against children, sexual abuse and rape

Also be forewarned: this is my longest blog post yet!

Our time in Eastern Ukraine has illuminated how the conflict has pervaded the lives of Eastern Ukrainians in ways I had never imagined. The last two days have been emotionally exhausting but enlightening.

Antoshka Baby Orphanage

On day 3 of our time with the fixer, we visited the Antoshka Baby Orphanage in Kramatorsk, a neighbouring city only 15km from Slovyansk. We met with Dr. Ludmilla, the deputy to the head doctor at the orphanage. The orphanage is home to over 150 orphans under 4 years old, with a special “sick kids’” unit, including children living with HIV/AIDs and children with various physical and developmental disabilities.

She told us the story of what occurred during the early days of the war, when Kramatorsk was taken by the separatist insurgents. The orphanage lay in the middle of the crossfire of mortars aiming toward the Kramatorsk airport. Bullets and shells would consistently fly over the orphanage.

They created hand painted signs which they hung all around the orphanage walls reading read “SOS. Do not shoot the children,” in hopes it would prevent the insurgents from taking the orphanage as a base. The caretakers wanted to evacuate the children to Kharkiv, a city 3 hours away, but the process was complicated since there are so many children, and dozens living with special needs. Negotiations began with the insurgents. Initially they refused because to them, Kharkiv is Ukraine, and they wanted to move the children to Donetsk within occupied territory. Negotiations continued and eventually both sides agreed to create a corridor for the children to be evacuated to Kharkiv.


“SOS Do not shoot the children.”

Dr. Ludmilla said it was a terrifying experience for both the caretakers and the children. The sounds of shells and explosions would trigger the children and there were many sleepless nights. Although most of the children are quite young, there are a few who are still be set off by the sound of fireworks. But Kramatorsk has now banned fireworks so that is no longer a problem.

They took us on a tour of the orphanage which had some great facilities – not what I was expecting from an orphanage in Eastern Ukraine. However, it was still an affecting experience. I’ve never visited an orphanage, let alone one near a war zone, let alone one with so many sick children. I’ve never seen a child with such substantial deformities. We asked if any of the children were orphaned by the war, and they said it was hard to say as they don’t know the history of a lot of the children. They were able to say that one of their newest baby’s mother had just died, and her father is in prison.

The orphanage also has a program where Internally Displaced People can leave their children in their facility for up to 6 months while they get settled and on their feet. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult that would be for the parents, particularly under such stressful and uncertain circumstances.

I had never considered how the fighting would affect something like an orphanage. To me, it shows the pervasiveness and disruption at all levels of society, which are at the whim of greater powers. Especially something as harmless and vulnerable as an orphanage.

ATO Office

Our fixer, “Pablo,” had tried to set us up with ATO Press Cards before our arrival. But since we are not technically journalists or whatever………….. he wasn’t able to. It was unprecedented! I guess they haven’t had a lot of artists coming to Eastern Ukraine to research. He said he was sent to the Minister of this and the Minister of that until he finally got sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv …. Who had no idea what to do. But it’s all good! It was a precautionary thing anyway and not having them only meant we couldn’t take photos of military objects or personnel.

We had originally hired Pablo for only 3 days, but on day 2 I had inquired about the possibility of going to Avdiivka for a 4th day. The process would be a bit more complicated, as Avdiivka is only 8 km from Donetsk and is considered the Ukrainian front line. There are 5 check points on the way to Avdiivka and at any one, they could turn us away if they wanted to. But he suggested we go to the military ATO Office to tell them our plans. He was unable to get a hold of them for awhile but after our visit to the orphanage, he got a phone call to say that we could come inquire.

The woman who we’d be speaking to spoke English, so he prepped me on what to say at the office. Nothing of which was a lie, but it was just a bit of an odd scenario since we weren’t press. And they might not understand why we would want to go to Avdiivka. The ATO woman came out in her military fatigues and I explained our project, and that we just wanted to go to talk to some locals and see some of the destruction as research for our project. She said that technically we can go, but it all depended on the soldiers at each of the check points.

However, Pablo thought it was good to check in just in case at a check point they called the ATO office. It would look suspicious if we hadn’t told them we were going, and he thought it would be safer to be totally transparent. But there was still a 50/50 chance we would not even get to the city.

On this note, I just want to sing the praises of Pablo. He was super professional but also a fun guy to hang out with! And he provided a lot of insightful things to say about the war and on people we would speak to. He organized a comprehensive and wide range of interviews and experiences that provided us with a varied perspective on things.

We all trusted Pablo. I initially had reservations about seeking out any place where active fighting was occurring. But as we explored further and deeper, I began to feel like it was important to visit an area with more recent conflict. So when I inquired with Pablo about the possibility of going to Avdiivka, I trusted his judgement. He said that he wasn’t going to lie and said that every day after 3pm you could hear the booms and the whistles, but that we would be safe. Avdiivka is not even considered a “gray” zone because it is still under Ukrainian control. So we agreed to visit there on our last day. But we could not take any noticeable pictures or video because we did not have press cards, and did not want to raise any suspicion with the military personnel. BUT more on this later.

IDP’s in Bakhmut

Following the visit at the ATO office, we made our way to Bakhmut, a town 45km outside of Slovyansk. Here is a hostel that houses more Internally Displaced People. This centre is different from the one we visited previously. The sanatorium was more isolated and nestled in a pine tree forest. The hostel in Bakhmut is in an urban area. Everyone here appears to live in much closer quarters.


The hostel in Bakhmut.

To access the apartments, you go up a flight of stairs. There is door on both the right and left side. Inside the door is a small foyer with a communal kitchen, and 8 doors leading to individual apartments. The apartments are a single room approximately 8×12 feet shared by one family unit. In the basement there is a shared washroom with communal showers.

The hostel houses both IDPs who stop by for a few nights on their way elsewhere, and those who have been there for over 3 years. We spoke to a number of people here. One of the things that I have noticed is that most IDPs at both the sanatorium and the hostel are women. And of the women, most of them are pensioners. Not all, but most. I feel that is the case because it is easier for men to get work, and either the men are out working during the day when we visit the centres, or men have an easier time becoming self-sufficient by getting a job and affording an apartment. So ultimately, I wonder if it is women (mostly older women) who are left in the more vulnerable positions as refugees in this conflict.

When I brought this up with Pablo, he agreed with me. He said that if he stayed in Donetsk, he could get a job no problem. But he left, and even then it was not difficult for him to find work under his circumstances. But he didn’t think it would be as easy for women to do the same.

The first woman we spoke to was a 57-year-old grandmother. Her account was very emotional, and she had to hold back tears several times. She described how in their village, they heard on the news that it was safe in their area. So she went with her then 5-year-old granddaughter to the store. But when the shelling started. Her account was  translated literally. But the literal translation was very disturbing. I believe that her granddaughter had a panic attack on the ground during the shelling. But the literal translation described her falling on the grass and rolling around back and forth. To me, this was a visceral description of a 5-year-old’s experience of a fight or flight impulse. The impulse of death.


The Babushka with her granddaughter, Sascha. Sascha thought it was important that the stuffed animals be in the picture as well.

Her granddaughter, Sascha, is a dark haired, dark eyed 8-year-old who kept popping her head in and out of the communal kitchen where we conducted the interview. She was excited by the camera and these strange guests who were here in the hostel. At one point, she popped in with a stuffed elephant for her grandmother.

The way the woman described her granddaughter’s behaviour at the school she attends seems like she is suffering from PTSD. She has conflicts with a lot of children at school, and can’t seem to fit in. She is changing schools soon.

Her grandmother described the hostel as a better place to live than where they were in occupied territory, but it is not safe. There are people that are not mentally stable, there are drug dealers and drug users, and the other day there were people apparently running around with knives. (But to be honest, I wasn’t sure she was the most reliable narrator as there were other people who said it was fine. But perhaps that was compared to their former situation).

As part of the interview, she also described an event that occured while they were still living in occupied territory. She found a young woman who had been raped by Ukrainian soldiers, and dumped on the side of the road. She used the woman’s cell phone to call her family.

This is the first of a few accounts people have shared with me that do not paint either side as the liberators or the saviours. The more I hear, the more it becomes evident that war attracts ugliness and the worst in individuals. I was disgusted to hear this, and disgusted to hear later about Ukrainian soldiers looting homes and apartments. I am certain that these actions have been repeated on both side. However, I believe that situations such as this are complex and convoluted. And evil and good exists in the individuals on both sides of war, and should not reflect the overall ideology.

Following our interview, the woman insisted on taking us to other apartments to help us find other people to talk to. She took us across to hall to the other foyer with the other 8 apartments and subsequently knocked on all 8 doors. For our next interview, the woman stayed and listened the entire time, holding the stuffed elephant.

The next woman we spoke to, Yelena, at first seemed hostile. She did not want to speak on camera, but kept saying things to our translator despite her resistance. She eventually agreed to chat with me not on camera. And her interview ended up being one of the most comprehensive and heartbreaking. She was only 37 years old, and reflected the same fatigue that so many others at the sanatorium had. She was sick of reporters coming to them, looking at them like “animals in a zoo,” and then leaving, only to remember their interactions as “a bad dream.”


These stuffed animals hung in the foyer outside of Yelen’as apartment. She did not feel comfortable being photographed.

I was getting the sense that she was angry with us, and resentful of our presence. I was sensitive to that, and tried not to push her and was ready to end it at any time. But she kept talking and talking, and eventually I couldn’t end it. Yelena told us about some of the horrific things that occurred in her village. She described headless bodies on the side of the street and the dogs that picked at them. She said she was sick and tired of remembering, and just wanted to forget. She described the help that they receive from countries like Italy and France and Canada, and that they send food and clothes. But what she really needs is an apartment. All she wants in her own home. Instead she must live with the cockroaches. She worries for her 15-year-old daughter and how she will find a husband; how can she date when she is living in this place?

When she finally concluded, she pulled me aside and quietly thanked me, and wished me health, and peace and told me never to fight with my people. She also wished that “my lover would come and lift me into his arms.” To which Patrick approached and lifted me with his arms (but dropped the camera…… it’s OK! The camera did not break and it was a welcome moment of comedy and break in tension). We hugged, and she held me so closely.

The 57-year-old grandmother then took me to the next floor to a congregation of women hanging out in another foyer. I spoke to a woman from the Luhansk region who lived with no heat, electricity, or access to food and water for 8 months. The DPR soldiers provided them with food and water to keep them alive, and they cooked over a fire. Regardless, she felt that the Luhansk area is rightfully Ukrainian territory. Another woman invited me into her home, where her 9-year-old son greeted me with a “Hello, my name is Tymor!” in a thick Russian accent. He watched TV as she told me about how they lived in the cellar for over a week during the heavy shelling. She couldn’t go into detail about how that was for her and her children because it was too painful for her. She now lives in a single room with her husband, her 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. She has transformed the small space into a relatively pleasant and functional area, although the close quarters can often cause fights with her two pre-teens. They moved there from a 3-bedroom detached home.


Some of the kids outside who were surrounding Patrick!

I went outside to find Patrick covered in children who are residents in the hostel. I think there was a lot of excitement about us being there. We have been giving children a Canadian coin as a small gift, which seems to be an exciting thing for people – adults have asked us for a coin as a souvenir of our visit! The children were very excited, and just before we drove away, other children ran up to our car, tapping on our windows, and asking if they could have a coin too. We (thankfully) had just enough for everyone.

National Movement of Yarosh

That evening we had a meeting with an independent Ukrainian group called the National Movement of Yarosh. They are considered a part of the “right-sector,” which is a group of Ukrainian nationalists. As they explained it, their ideology is to expel Russian oppression from Ukraine.


One of the members, Volodymyr, displaying one of their signs.

Entering their office felt like entering a town hall meeting. We have mostly been meeting with one or two people at a time. But there were at least 10 of them in the room, and they were all super folksy people, not the “intense soldiers” I was expecting. They spoke Ukrainian rather than Russian, so I was able to understand and communicate with them a little — at least to explain our project and about my Ukrainian roots.

There is criticism of their group as “extremists,” which they addressed and said that Russian propaganda has skewed peoples’ perspective of what their group does. They explained that for them, they do not want to fight. It is not their choice. All they want is an independent Ukraine, and for them they must protect their country from Russian aggression. I personally don’t have a lot of perspective on their organization within the context of the rest of the country, so I am interested to hear what other people have to say about their group. But it was an interesting experience hearing what they had to say.


Another one of their signs.

Hilariously, when Patrick showed them his “ПТН ХЛО” aka “Putin D**khead” phone case, they literally gave him a standing ovation and, like, 4 men went over to shake his hand.

They told me about members of their group who have been taken hostage and are being tortured. And they explained that members of their group receive extra brutal torture because of their Ukrainian patriotism. They asked if I could appeal to the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada to help their soldiers… I said I would do what I can, but I think they lauded me as a greater liaison to the Canadian diaspora than I am. But if anyone has any ideas let me know!


Our final day with our fixer was spent going to Avdiivka. Avdiivka is considered the Ukrainian front line. It is a suburb of Donetsk, only 8 km out of the city. So, to put it into perspective, it is like the Sherwood Park of Edmonton.


On the road to Avdiivka. As we drew closer to Donetsk, we started hearing “DPR” radio called “Radio Sputnik”

In early 2017, Avdiivka was making international headlines as the deadliest fighting broke out in Eastern Ukraine in some time. The fighting left several civilians killed and wounded, destroyed homes, and left those remaining in the town without food, water, heat or electricity in frigid -22 degree temperatures.

The fighting has now quieted, but remains an active combat zone as Donetsk is perceived as the rebel base and stronghold.

As I previously mentioned, there are 5 check points en route to Avdiivka that could turn us away at any point. We came armed with our friendly Canadian passports and harmless good intentions, hoping this was not all for naught! Amazingly, at every check point, they just waved us through. Pablo would tell them we were Canadians just wanting to check it out. I think when they looked in the car and saw who they were dealing with (me in the front seat, Patrick & Matt in the back), they weren’t too threatened. Only once did someone ask to open the trunk but even then, it seemed he was doing it with every vehicle.


A bad, but stealthy, photo of a checkpoint.

However, it was interesting to go through each check point. There are about 5 or 6 pretty serious looking Ukrainian soldiers at each one, each prominently carrying a gun on their chest. Once I saw them thoroughly searching a Lada they had stopped. Pablo explained that they are controlling who is coming in and out of the regions, and making sure that people are not transferring guns or weapons of any kind. Nope! Not for us. We were just carrying bags of chocolate gifted to me by my Ukrainian family!

As we drew closer to Avdiivka and saw signs for Donetsk, the active conflict was becoming more and more real. We drove by a few trenches that had been dug, and what appeared to be an outpost for Ukrainian soldiers in the middle of an open field (I couldn’t take a picture because Pablo had concerns that it was a military object).

The sign welcoming you to the town says Авдіівка: Це Україна – Avdiivka: This is Ukraine, with a giant Ukrainian flag waving at the final checkpoint. Once again, I unfortunately couldn’t snap any pictures.

Evidence of active conflict becomes immediately evident as you drive into the town, even on the outskirts. Damage on buildings, bullet holes, broken windows. And yet, as you drive to the town centre of new Avdiivka, it is bustling at lunch time with people going to the market, stores, buying flowers. However, the military presence in Avdiivka is very prominent. There are many soldiers and military vehicles in and amongst the daily crowds.


Pro-Ukrainian graffiti outside of Avdiika, translates to a popular nationalist saying meaning “Glory to Ukraine.”

Pablo took us to the closest he felt comfortable to the front. The next closest would be taking us to Old Avdiivka just a little bit further. However, to go here we would almost certainly need ATO press cards, and he didn’t want us to get hassled. As well, he says that he only likes to go there with a bullet proof vest and a helmet. Which we didn’t have. And I didn’t think I wanted to go somewhere where those items are recommended… so we just stuck to new Avdiivka.

We went to a cluster of apartment buildings which overlook a field. And just a few kilometers beyond that field is Donetsk. These apartments have experienced a good amount of destruction since they are located close to the front line. The destruction was obvious. Entire sections of some buildings were blown out. Windows were missing, building facades were destroyed. And yet, people are living in and amongst these buildings.


We spoke to some residents in the area. Two older women, Ludmilla and Anna, live in one of the apartment buildings. While they left during the heavy fighting, they have now chosen to come back and live in their apartments. When they’re gone, they still have to pay for utilities in Avdiivka, in addition to rent at the sanatorium they had gone to. As well, the sanatorium has no heat or hot water, and at least their apartment in Avdiika has that. They described that people don’t really reside on the 3, 4, or 5th floors anymore as those were the ones that were hit the hardest during the fighting. The fifth floor roof is blown out, and you can see the sky through it. Relief agencies have helped Ludmilla replace some of her windows, but there are still more that need repairing.


Ludmilla and Anna in front of the exterior of Ludmilla’s apartment. One of her windows has been repaired with the help of foreign aid. She is waiting to repair the second.

She described that she has children in Donetsk, and before the war she could take a free bus to see them because she is a pensioner. Now, she has to pay upwards of $1000 hryvnias (about $40CDN) if she wanted to go to Donetsk. I asked when she thought the war would be over. Her response: that she is now 77 years old, and she doesn’t think she will live to see the end.


Nikolai planting garlic. The sheds in the background have been riddled with bullet holes.

We later saw an older man working on a small plot of land, preparing a garden. We later learned he would be planting garlic. The sheds behind his garden are ridden with bullet holes. His name is Nikolai, and as we began our conversation with him when his wife, Valentina, came back from the store. She had been purchasing medicine for him because in 2014 during heavy shelling, Nikolai had a heart attack. They both became very emotional remembering this.

Valentina and Nikolai have been married for 57 years. They described hiding in the basement of their apartment building during heavy fighting. They pointed to the field across from their apartment, which they described used to be filled with sunflowers and wheat. Now, it is filled with over 1000 landmines. They said they have a larger garden on the other side of the field, but they can’t go to it now because it is far too dangerous.


Ludmilla and Valentina. Together for a short 57 years.

They told the story of one of their neighbours who also had a garden across the field, and who loved dogs. There was a group of wild dogs that he used to feed over there. There was one day where he was worried about the dogs, and he wanted to go feed them. They begged him not to go but he went anyway. He didn’t come back and in two days, his wife went looking for him. She saw a jaw bone on the ground and went to pick it up, which set off a landmine. She was seriously injured, but not fatally, and survived. They believe that jaw bone belonged to her husband.


At the end of this sidewalk is the field filled with landmines.

Many people have described the “boom” as a familiar sound. And as we spoke with Nikolai and Ludmilla, a mortar went off in the distance. I’ve never heard something like that in real life. For them, it is now just a part of regular life. Neither Nikolai of Valentina really flinched at it.

There were a couple of dogs hanging around them. I asked if they were theirs. Turns out they are the dogs people who abandoned them when they fled Avdiivka. They now take care of them, and Valentina pulled out some bones she had purchased in town for them and the dogs feasted. She said that the “booms” frighten the dogs, and they will either hide in their sheds, or in the school behind the sheds. One of the dogs was very friendly, but had some mange on his face. The other was quite fearful and would only come to Valentina.

I am not sure why, but apparently, it’s an unwritten rule that the fighting will really only start after 3. I wonder if it because that is when OSCE officers leave (the international organization which moderates the “ceasefire,”) or if it is because those are sort of “working hours” for the soldiers. We grabbed some lunch around 2pm, and there were a couple of soldiers. They finished up around 2:45, and when we went outside, it seemed like more soldiers were on the streets.


An abandoned Lada.

The last woman we spoke to was very interesting. She was very soft spoken and gentle, and she described how she misses the culture that Donetsk provided. Donetsk is a major urban centre, and has the opera house, theatre, art galleries, and university. She has friends in Donetsk, and while they are still in touch it is not easy to get together.

As we spoke more with her, her anti-Ukrainian sentiments became more apparent. She mentioned that the fighting in Avdiivka is not like what they show on Ukrainian news. Pablo confirmed this, that locals know that when the news cameras arrive to get out of the streets. It seems like both sides put on a bit of a show for the cameras.

But she spoke more about how she thinks the international community has abandoned them. How the world believes that it is only Russia’s provocation causing all of this, but that she thinks Ukraine has more to do with it than anyone knows. She thinks that this war is not going to end anytime soon because someone somewhere is making a lot of money from it. She didn’t want to elaborate on this, as she didn’t want to incriminate herself. But she went on to accuse Ukrainian soldiers of looting houses, and maintained that they can’t be trusted.

After our interview, I asked Pablo his thoughts on the conversation. And he said that yes, it has been an issue with soldiers looting homes. He has a friend who works as a nurse, and there were some Ukrainian soldiers that came in for treatment. She saw that their vehicle was filled with exercise equipment like new treadmills, stationary bikes, etc. She told them that what they were doing wasn’t good, and they chucked and said it was their “military compensation.”

He also said that while the woman’s Pro-Russian opinion may be shared by others in the area, it is only an opinion. And that Avdiivka is basically Donetsk, since it is only 8km away. They receive the “DPR” news, radio, television, newspapers in Avdiika. They have friends in the “DPR” that they keep in contact with. So it is almost inevitable there will be a certain amount of influence as a result of the propaganda.

I thought of the different things people have told us about how insidious the propaganda is. It is not like the propaganda of the Soviet Union which was overt and ideological. This propaganda is pervasive and embedded in society. One of the soldiers, Dima, who we met with described it as “the twist.” It is a subtle “twisting” of information to create an enemy where there might not be one. Paul Niland, who we met with in Kyiv at the beginning of our trip, described a contemporary of his, an intelligent businessperson, who has fallen victim to what he believes to be Russian propaganda.

And the more I read into, learn about, and experience the conflict, the more complex it becomes. I understand how someone could identify as Ukrainian. But if it is your house that is hit and destroyed by a Ukrainian shell in the crossfire, that it might be understandable that the politics hovering over the situation become less important. Or if it is your village that has been absorbed into occupied territory, and your Ukrainian government cuts off your pension, and the “DPR” officers bringing you food and water, how your allegiances might be swayed.

Most of the people affected by this war are just regular people. Not presidents or prime ministers or governors.

It is the civilians who are the ones who suffer at the hands of the higher powers. And from the people I have spoken to, the feelings of helplessness, fatigue, disempowerment prevail. The desperate desire to just go back to normal. Some might not care if it is Ukrainian or Russian or “DPR” who are victorious, as long as they can have their lives back.

We have asked everyone we spoke to how they think this is going to end. Some people prefer not to mention. Some have felt like it is never going to end, referencing places like Israel and Pakistan. But no one believes this is going to end for the better. Which leaves a sense of doom over those whose lives are rooted here in Eastern Ukraine. Who have no choice in the matters which affect their lives. And have no choice but to stay where they are because there is nowhere else for them to go.

Before our trip, I was looking for ways to connect with locals. The woman who set us up with our fixer was Lana Niland (partner of Paul Niland who we met with in Kyiv, as I mentioned). She is one of the editors of Kyiv’s What’s On – an English language lifestyle and entertainment magazine.

She said to me, “May your project open the eyes of those who prefer to keep them closed.”

Many people we spoke to expressed gratitude that we haven’t forgotten about them. They wanted to share their stories so that people in Canada will hear them and know what is happening here in Eastern Ukraine. And while I can’t possibly share every story in a Facebook post, or blog post, or even in our production, I now feel compelled to act, to mobilize, to do something, to “open the eyes of those who prefer to keep them closed.” I can’t imagine how we can possibly do the people who bravely shared their stories justice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.

Despite this mammoth post, I am able to share just the tip of the iceberg of what we have experienced. And we have experienced only the tip of the iceberg of everything that has occurred, is occurring, and will occur here in Ukraine.

As we parted ways, Valentina also told me to never fight with my people. She wished me and my people health, luck and peace. She repeated it over and over.

And I wished her the same.

The trip now winds down as we head back to Kyiv. The last two days we have had in Slovyansk have been spent recuperating from the last week (which has been exhausting). We go back to Kyiv tonight on the night train and have two days tying up loose ends before coming back to Canada. And then this journey will have come to an end… and a new journey begins.

Until next time, my friends.




A plaything outside the orphanage.

Through the Eyes of War — Kyiv, Sloviansk — October 15-17

Well, the last couple days of our trip has taken a considerable shift in gears.

Our first half of the trip was an opportunity to reflect on my ancestral roots in Ukraine. We landed in Kyiv and headed toward the peaceful Western part of the country. We touched on the land where my grandparents were born, and made connections with warm and loving family members. However, no matter where we went, you could see how the war in the East has touched the country. Whether in physical monuments, memorials, or in conversation with locals.

Now, we have moved onto the second phase of our trip, where our research is delving deeper into the current war occurring in Eastern Ukraine. And honestly, I am not sure how to begin synthesizing the experiences we have had these last couple of days. I am feeling overwhelmed. I have heard so many stories, positions, and have had so many experiences. There is no way I can possibly go into detail about every account that I have had with the people we have interviewed. This post isn’t going to be the most comprehensive nor the most proofread because we have had so many experiences since my last post. But I am going to try my best!

Our next phase began with a meeting with 3 veterans of the war the evening before our train to Sloviansk.

Dimitri met us outside of our hotel in Kyiv. When I first met him I was really taken aback. This is not what I was expecting from a veteran of war. For the first several minutes after meeting him, I wasn’t sure if he was just an advocate for veterans or if he had actually gone to war. I guess I was expecting someone who looked more… rough. And Dimitri honestly just looks like a friend we would have in Canada. He is young, he is well spoken, he was wearing a plaid, collared shirt under a Lacoste sweater.

As we walked to the restaurant where we would meet the rest of the “squad,” he told me about a project he is working on – a collection of contemporary Ukrainian soldiers stories from the east. So far they have them available online but only in Ukrainian. He is working on publishing it and hopefully one day translating it. You can find the website here, (and translate it poorly on the internet, but you’d get the idea!) which includes information about the organization Voice of War, and has the text online:

He also shared with me a project he found interesting. It is a video of soldiers of the US Army reciting Ajax’s Theatre of War, which he found quite compelling:

At the restaurant, we met with Mykhailo aka Mischa, and (another!) Dmytro. Mischa is a big ol’ dude that actually did fit my expectation of a soldier, whereas Dmytro was physically more like Mischa. Both Dmitri and Dmytro were open, laughing, and seemed like just regular guys. Mischa had more of a shield up, and is a man of fewer words. He couldn’t stay for very long so we didn’t have a chance to chat with him very much, but the two Dima’s (the short name for Dmitri) assured us that Mischa has a lot to say. And what he has to say is extremely compelling. He is a soldier through and through, and understands how war functions. They said he is very smart, and they both had a lot of respect for him.

Dmitri and Dmytro were both 29 years old, and Mischa is 27. But they are all now considered war veterans of Ukraine. That was one of the most shocking things to me. These guys are literally our age and are veterans. But, at the same time, I suppose when my grandparents’ and so many others were thrust into war during WWII they were all pretty much that age, if not younger.


Dmytro (left) and Dmitri (right) doing their squad’s symbol. Yes, it is from Star Trek.

We talked to these guys for a long time, and I can’t possibly begin to write everything we chatted about. I will share a few of the things that have stuck out most for me.

Of the 3, only Mischa had previous military experience. Both Dimas were on Maidan during the Revolution of Dignity, and when they found out about the war they all volunteered themselves. When I asked why, they said it was  a no brainer for them. Because it was their duty. And I couldn’t help but imagine some of my friends (including Patrick) back in Canada and what they would do in this situation. It terrifies me, but I bet Patrick would go fight. And there are others that I can think of as well. Meeting with these guys made it very real for me.

I asked them about their first day as a soldier and what they were feeling. Personality wise, of the two Dmitri was sensitive, romantic, considerate. And Dmytro was a bit more laid back, funny, and definitely a bit of a ladies man. So their answers to my question somewhat surprised me. Dmitri said that for him, it was an adventure. That he got their and he was jacked up and itching to fight, but had to spend the first 3 weeks digging trenches. Dmytro, on the other hand, said that he was “f**ing terrified.” He arrived right in the thick of things and landed in one of the first big confrontations. He was given a gun and told to go.

Dmitri was wounded in battle. He was hit by shelling and if medical aid hadn’t taken him by helicopter, he would have died. He described to us his experience. It’s fascinating listening to people recall these types of events. How someone can recall a horrific experience in such a factual way. He described how time slowed down, and remembers looking in his officer’s eyes. He could see the concern in them – his officer believed that he was going to die. He remembers trying to move his fingers. And he described the feeling of not being able to maintain consciousness, and that every time he fell out of consciousness, he thought he might not wake up again. He showed us the scars from the shelling on his neck, which also run down his shoulder and chest.

And then the medics arrived and drugged him up, and apparently then it was awesome and he was totally stoned and filmed himself on his GoPro and was asking for his Rocket Launcher which he had named after his current girlfriend, but accidentally said the name of his ex-girlfriend, and then the girlfriend watched the video and was pissed off. Which was a pretty hilarious story amidst this life threatening situation.

Later, I asked them if they had any loved ones who cared about them going to war, like a girlfriend or – and I couldn’t even list anyone else because they both burst into an exasperated groan. And they both exclaimed that that would be the hardest question of the night! They joked that they were going to write a book called “Він, Вона, Війна – ” Which translates to Him, her, and War. Which loses the hilarious alliteration in translation. They both expressed their various love stories during war. Dmitri’s story  included a marriage and subsequent break up. Dmytro’s included various “dirty, dirty messages” from girls’ that saw him in media interviews, which apparently his on-again-off-again girlfriend wasn’t too fond of.

Somehow hearing these stories just illuminated their age. These are guys in their 20s trying to defend their country and have a romantic life.

It was an honour to spend time with these soldiers. I have a profound respect for them. There is so much more to be said, but I just don’t have the time to write it about these soldiers. Dmitri is starting several projects to raise awareness for veterans and soldiers in Ukraine, and I am hoping to be able to stay in touch with him to find a way to connect his book to Canada and potentially our play. These men, and so many other young soldiers (men and women), who are our age are in a way moving onto their next stage of life after their time in the war — while I feel like I’m just trying to get it together for my first stage of life!

The next day we took the train to Sloviansk. It was interesting because as we got further East in Ukraine, more soldiers in army fatigues would come on board.


The sign for Sloviansk is ridden with bullet holes, which people have painted now as poppies. Poppies are a symbol for peace.

We were met at the train station by our “fixer.” I am not going to share his name because he asked us to not share his photo or get him on video, as it could potentially get him into some trouble. So I’m just going to call him Pablo! He has substantial insight into the conflict. He has worked as a fixer for several journalists from around the world, and has gone into conflict zones and occupied territory more than once. He himself is an internally displaced person. A couple years before war broke out, he bought himself an apartment in Donetsk and finished the renovations in January 2014. Just a few months before fighting broke out. He still owns the apartment but lives in Kramatorsk, a city near Sloviansk. He doesn’t want to sell it his aparment because it is now only worth a fraction of what he bought it for.

Regardless, our fixer is this jolly, friendly guy who laughs at what might seem like the most inappropriate moment. He played us the radio recording for one journal he escorted into occupied territory. At one point, you hear an explosion and the journalist says, “OK I wanna get out of here.” And our fixer is laughing and thinks it is so funny!

We really lucked out finding him as he has been great insight into the conflict here. Not only is he able to share personal anecdotes, but he has been instrumental in providing us a window into what has occurred in and around this area. After dropping our things off at the hotel, we went to the sight of a major battle that was part of the siege of Sloviansk. A former hospital now completely destroyed.


The now destroyed hospital in Sloviansk.

The separatists had control of the hospital and its outbuildings, a strategic advantage on top of a hill, and the Ukrainians were at the bottom of the hill.

Walking around this area felt oddly familiar, I think because we have seen so much of that in film. The surreal part was knowing that this was not a film, and that this destruction wasn’t a vestige of WWII. It was caused only 3 years ago. Pablo continued to point out ways in which the damage was caused, either by tank blows, or air strikes, or bullet holes.

Afterward, we had an interview with a mother of 4 in their house just down the hill from this hospital. She had left with her children through a “corridor” – a temporary ceasefire between both sides to prevent civilian casualties. But her husband remained behind to take care of their chickens and rabbits (something I’ve noted is a reason a lot of people chose to stay behind). During the fighting he lived in the basement, and came out once and was speaking on the phone with his mother. Apparently, the insurgents can track mobile phones and his mother told him to get off the phone. He went to the basement and just moments later, a shell hit their home right where he was standing.

Olya, the mother of 4, was very open with her story. And her children were hilarious – they kept poking their heads in the room and the four year old girl brought in everyone of her stuffed animals and put them on Patrick, Pablo, and Matt.

At one point, one of her sons grabbed their hamster and showed me. Which was adorable! But then the next thing he pulled out was a giant bullet, probably from a machine gun. I guess the boys were outside playing and found it. Their mom took it away but they found it again (he proudly told me), then she took it away again and they found it again.

Olya told me that the police came by asking if they had found any weapons or items of war lately. They were scouring the area because they had found a box buried in the ground filled with 30 live grenades. They still had the shell, but the police told them that wasn’t what they were looking for and that they could keep it to use as an “ashtray.” Olya mentioned how distressing it is knowing that her children play in the streets, knowing that these things are around.

Olya mentioned that her children learn in Ukrainian at school, as opposed to Russian — which has been the case for the last years or so. This is difficult for her since she only speaks Russian, so she can’t help them with their school work. This made me think of a lecture I went to in Edmonton about “The Ukrainian Diasporas after Euromaidan.” One of the things the lecturer said was that he thought it would be a big mistake to eliminate Russian as an official language since so much of the population still speaks it. And it could be a very divisive thing for the country. A few people at the lecture protested since it is the language of the oppressor. But hearing this woman saying this made so much sense. She does identify as Ukrainian, but she only ever had the opportunity to learn Russian. If we were in Alberta and all of a sudden people told us we had to only speak French, I also don’t think we would be very happy.

Following our meeting with Olya and her kids, we drove around and tried to start conversations with some people in the area as well. Two old men stopped and talked with us. One had been around while the other went to his brother’s village not that far away. They both had lived through the second world war ; they were both born in the village ; and they have been life long friends. The one who stayed around during the fighting told us a story about a man who came out of his basement to check on his dog. And while he was out, he was hit by a shell and died. He pointed to the corner half a block away where it happened. Now his wife lives alone with their young child.


Matt with his two fashion buds! Also, the two old men who have been friends for life.

We asked the men how this war compared to their experience in the second world war. And I was surprised to hear them say that this war was worse. In WWII the fighting came for one day, maybe two and then they moved on (at least in their experience, I am sure it was different for others). But this war has lasted for years. And has no end in sight.

The next morning we visited the site where an military airplane was shot down by separatist forces. It is significant because this was very early in the conflict, and it would have been impossible for the separatists to have shot down the plane unless they received the technology from Russia. The monument that remains includes the rear wheels of the shot down aircraft.

We spent a significant portion of the day at a sanatorium in a picturesque village about 30 minutes outside of Slovyansk. It is nestled in a pretty pine tree forest. The sanatorium feels like a retreat – apparently Ukrainian boy scouts used to go there for retreats. However, as we spent more time there, the foreboding, eerie sense of purgatory and isolation settled in. There are no buses that come to the sanatorium, so residents need to get a bike to get to the nearest town. But there are no jobs in the town, only Sloviansk which is about 30 minutes away by car. There is no heat in the sanatorium, and many people expressed concern about the upcoming winter since the last one was so difficult. People need to buy personal heaters, but they break easily since they are not meant to be used as a central heating system. As well, they do not have hot water, and need to heat water and then clean themselves with a bucket.

We ended up talking to 5 or 6 people. But there were lots of people who didn’t want to do an interview. Their reasons would be because they had been there for 3 years already and had spoken to so many journalists. The cumulative sense of fatigue amongst  residents grew as we spent more time there.

One woman, the mother of a disabled 13 year old who we met outside, said the only people who remain at the sanatorium are people who can’t get a job and therefore have nowhere else to go. No one wants to be there. She said that they are like “people sitting on their suitcases waiting for the train.”

Another woman provided us with a very comprehensive interview. She described that while they were still in their home, her mother-in-law was lying down. Her mother-in-law was blind. When a shell hit nearby it blew their windows in. Glass covered her and she had no idea what was happening – she thought the entire house had fallen on her.

Anna was a woman who came from a middle class, educated, socioeconomic background. She had a nicely groomed dog on a leash (rare in Ukraine!), but she had apparently taken 3 stray dogs who live on the sanatorium grounds to be sterilized because the year before there were 24 puppies. Adorable, but not good for the dogs. She had very intelligent things to say about the political situation, and had told me how much she wants to come to Canada, and was asking us about the system, which we couldn’t really give a lot of concrete answers to.

An older Babushka invited me into her home, a tiny, cement room. She was taking care of another resident’s developmentally disabled son while they went to go get him medicine. She spent so much of the interview describing her grandchildren, showing me their drawings on her cement walls. She herself was also physically disabled, and walked with a beautiful wooden cane with custom engravings that the people of the village had given her. She told me she didn’t want to leave her home because her father, who only had one hand, had built the house and left it to her. But she had already had two heart attacks. One day, when the shelling was bad, her son came and found her on the ground and he was terrified she as having another heart attack. They made her leave because they told her that she had already survived two heart attacks. They wouldn’t let her die from the war.


Valentina – an internally displaced woman in Ukraine.

It seemed like, overwhelmingly, most of the people we spoke to just wanted to live their lives. But feel powerless within this political situation. Some people lean more toward to believing that the occupied territory belongs to the Ukrainians. Some lean more toward knowing that Russia have more jobs and could provide them with more opportunities. But not a single person wants this war. Everyone just wants it to be over so they can just live. They feel like their governments have forgotten them amidst the political turmoil. That the entire system is corrupt and that anyone in power is either after more money or more power.

And as I spent time here, I remembered how my own grandparents spent years in displaced peoples’ camps before their eventual emigration to Canada. At least for them, they knew that the war was over. For these people, the fighting continues. And the future remains incomprehensibly uncertain.

Following this we had a meeting with a woman named Tetyana. She is originally from Mariupol (a city on the front line), and used to work as a journalist. Now she works for the region’s governor as the spokesperson for civil army and military defence. She provided us with fascinating and comprehensive information about what the government is doing and the ways in which the region has been affected by the conflict.


The government has amended the school program to accommodate the influx of children fleeing occupied territory, and has also created an online schooling system for students in occupied territory. They can study online with an anonymous number, and do testing so that after they graduate, their education will be recognized and they can qualify to go to a Ukrainian University.

She told us about a grant program for business where the government awards start-up funds for IDPs (internally displaced people) so they can create a new business and diversity their region’s industry. It is a new program so not a lot of people have used it so far, but they are hoping to get the word out and more people will use it the next time around.


Newspaper’s from the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” reporting anti-Ukrainian propaganda.

She told us some statistics about the internally displaced people, which is a very difficult number to calculate. Many people who remained in occupied territory come to Ukraine for a day trip, and register here as an IDP in order to still receive their pensions. Then they drive back to occupied territory. But some others have fled and have gone to live with families and never registered. So these numbers are not necessarily accurate, but it was the best approximations she could give us: There are 520,471 IDPs registered in the Donetsk region. 116,562 are able to work & 316,749 are pensioners.

Tetyana said that there are other countries who provide money and materials. But she said that the thing that they need most in their region was moral support. She passionately thanked us for coming and for not forgetting about them. That it was good for people in their region to see that people like us are coming and visiting so that they can feel normal.

Speaking with Tetyana was very touching. I was expecting to receive some sort of bureaucratic press line about the war in Eastern Ukraine. Instead, we received her personal passionate, heartfelt opinion on the war, with an official insight into how the government is working within the current circumstances.


The lovely, and passionately patriotic Tetyana.

Again, I am really only touching on the surface of what we have seen so far. Not a single person’s story is the same — sometimes they differ drastically. But there are through lines that seem to run through their experiences. Most significantly, that no one has asked for this war. Not a single person we have spoken to expressed that they wanted their circumstances to change drastically before the war. Everyone just wants to continue their lives in peace. And instead, they are victims of a larger power which they have no control over.

Matt, Patrick and I are all emotionally exhausted and keep falling asleep in our fixer’s car in between meetings.  But I am grateful for this experience to visit my homeland, listen to these peoples’ stories. It is my hope to create something that can do these brave people justice.

Thank you for reading. Apologies for anything that didn’t make sense/spelling mistakes. My brain is fried! Our days are so full and I need to get some sleep tonight, so I can’t do a comprehensive clean up of this bad boy. Please forgive me! And see you next time.




Near the sanatorium. The other lavra (monestary built into a cave!) in Ukraine. The other one is in Kyiv.


Glorious Karpaty ; Hospitable Chernivtsi ; and A Shift in Gears


Once again I am behind in my blog posting. And once again I am bloggin’ it up at 6:30am on the train! (gotta love the morning. Especially since there were some dudes in our hostel that were getting home just before we were waking up, obviously aka loudly getting home from a night on the town.) Regardless, gotta love the mornings!

Last we I left you, I was in the car on the winding, pot-hole ridden roads on the way to the Carpathian mountains. Apparently, we did not take the best road but it was a beautiful one! Unfortunately we arrived at night so we didn’t get to behold the mountains upon arrival.

Our Carpathian mountain accommodation was booked by our trip’s Travel Research sponsor, Cobblestone Freeway. When chatting with Vincent Rees, our lovely coordinator, about what we were looking for in the mountains, I said that we were looking for something unique where we could rest and recharge. And he said he had just the thing.

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The view from our cabin in Bukovets.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was an incredible experience! We were given GPS coordinates to get to our location, Bukovets (NOT Bukovel, which everyone kept saying I was going to, which is a popular tourist destination) which led us to this large school where we were met by our host, Yaroslav Liutvin. He then led us to where we would be staying – up the a steep, winding, rocky hill to his warm, welcoming cabin on a mountainside. I was a bit surprised at first– I think in the chaos of getting ready for the trip, I missed the memo that we would be having a homestay experience. But it was an absolutely unique experience! We were warmly greeted by Yaroslav’s lovely wife, Svitlana, who had a feast prepared for us upon arrival! Yaroslav also pulled out his Samahon aka home brew. It is a horilka (vodka) that he makes with this really interesting kick to it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Turns out to be ginger, AND the “golden root,” which I can’t remember the Ukrainian name for but it apparently only grows in the Carpathian mountains. Yarslav freely pours this Samahon throughout dinner – and one shot is drank over 3 toasts. The first toast is to friendship. The second is to love. And the third is to the women. And then you do it all over again. And again. And again. And again…. You get the idea.

Yaroslav pulled out his guitar and his fiddle, and he and Svitlana sang some Ukrainian folk songs while we visited around the table.

The Carpathian mountains are a mountainous region that span from the Czech Republic to Romania. They run through the southwestern part of Ukraine. They are not quite the Rocky mountains we are familiar with in Alberta, but rather more of a rolling hill situation.  We were staying in Hutsul territory. Which I personally like to equate to the Shire and the hobbits of Lord of the Rings. Matt said he felt very at home in Hutsul territory. However, there are a few other Ukrainian identifying regions which run through the Carpathians. The transcarpathian people, for example. And also, the Lemko people.

My grandfather, Mykola Maryn, was born in a small village in the Lemkivschyna region. The Lemko people are an ethic sub-group of the Ukrainian population that inhabit a small stretch of the Carpathian mountains.

My Dido Mykola’s village is now located in Poland. And while I would have loved to, we didn’t have the opportunity to visit the village. I wasn’t able to locate it while planning for our trip. As well, it was impossible for us to take our rental vehicle outside of Ukraine. So unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be this time around.

My grandfather (currently 95 years old) was very artistic. While he currently has Alzheimer’s and barely has a short-term memory, his long-term memory remains intact. Dido used hide from Baba and paint landscapes of the Carpathian Mountains of varying sizes, ranging from portrait size to huge murals on the side of the shed. I imagine these were meditations of his village, and of viewpoints he used to visit when he was young.

When we woke up the next morning, I saw the stunning beauty that are the Karpaty that Dido was painting. The cabin we were staying in is on the side of a mountain. With sheep, cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits, etc. You leave the cabin and having a stunning view of the valley in the foreground, and the rolling mountains in the background.  We all fell deeply in love with the Karpaty. The mountains were the perfect place to rest and rejuvenate our spirits, as things had been pretty jam packed in the first part of our trip. I could have spent much longer here, but unfortunately, we just didn’t have the time.

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Yet another spectacular view from the cabin.

We spent the first part of the day just taking in the property and the views. I did a bit of writing, went for a bit of a walk. We then decided we wanted to go on a bit of a hike. Yaroslav had gone to work, so Svitlana told us which way we could drive up the mountain. However, we wanted to grab some coffees first so stopped by the store. Bukovets is a very small village so consequently, Yaroslav just happened to be at the store! One thing led to another and somehow, we had bought beers and were doing shots of ChaCha with the store clerk (who is also Yaroslav’s friend and the godfather of his son, Sviatoslav). And then the mayor came in (who happens to be the godfather of his daughter, Anhelica), and more chacha was had.

ChaCha is a Georgian wine. But don’t let that fool you – it is a potent substance with 40% alcohol content….We learned this the hard way later. Some of us more than others **ahem**Patrick**ahem**

Yaroslav insisted that he take us to the mountain side. And so we went in his SUV and headed off into the mountains. He drove us to the first viewpoint which was spectacular. You had a great view of Bukovets and the surrounding villages nestled in the valley amongst the mountains. This is where we had originally planned to go, but Yaroslav had other plans. He subsequently took us further and further into the mountains. And every viewpoint we stopped at was miraculously more stunning than the last. It was amazing to see that people could live so remotely in the mountains! There was no way that our rental car could have made it as far as we did on the mountains so it was a good thing Yaroslav took us. He said people get to their houses by horse in the more remote areas. He then took us to the very top of the mountain (about a 15 minute steep walk uphill… steep), where there was a Cliffside with a spectacular view of all the rolling Carpathian mountains as far as the eye can see. He showed us engravings which were apparently carved by the Vikings on the cliffs. And then took us into the forest where we had a fire, cooked sausages, had some beers and… more Chacha.

We asked Slava if he would talk to us a bit about his thoughts on the war. Which he said was hard, but that he could for our project. He said how lots of people think the whole country is at war, and foreigners won’t visit the country. But, referring to the land around us, maintained that Ukraine is a peaceful place. He said he has former students that have gone to fight. Or students in his school have parents that are fighting. So many people without my prompting have talked about how there is no work in Ukraine and it is very hard to live in the country. And Yaroslav was no different.

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Cooking sausages…

At this point, Yaroslav feared repercussions from his wife who was preparing dinner for us, and didn’t want to leave when it was too dark so we hit the road back through the mountains to the village. As we were driving down, in the headlights appeared a soldier in full uniform walking up this dark gravel road. Yaroslav pulled the car over to talk to him, came back and said that he was the father of one if his students that had come back from the East for a holiday that was on the weekend. And he thanked God he was still alive.

Before heading back home, Yaroslav stopped by another store for another beer, which somehow led to more ChaCha accompanied by beer and salo (Ukrainian delicacy, essentially cured pig fat!) and then we finally made it home where there was more beer and food and samahon. Some of us hit is harder than others **ahem**Patrick**ahem** but the night was a blast!



Our hosts were not related to me whatsoever, but they treated us generously and welcomingly that they felt like family. I can’t thank them enough for their hospitality in the beautiful Karpaty!  There is definitely some hobbit-like magic in those mountains…. And we got the rejuvenation we were looking for. Despite Patrick’s pounding headache as we left the mountains on the winding roads.


And here we made our way to beautiful Chernivtsi! To meet with my profoundly welcoming and hospitable cousin, Ivanna Makuch, her brilliant daughter, Sofiya Fedorovka, and her generous father, Ruslan Fedorovka. We were greeted by (yet another) bountiful feast before we were whisked off for the full day Ivanna had planned for us.


Ivanna, me, Sofiya!

She set us up with a meeting with the Artistic Director of the Chernivtsi theatre. He told us about the history of the theatre, what they do currently, and took us on a tour. It is an absolutely spectacular theatre.

She then took us to the Central Chernivtsi graveyard, to see the graves of soldiers from the city that have died in the war out east. This weekend was a holiday in Ukraine that celebrates family, so there were lots of people in the graveyard. It was striking to see people at the gravesites of their loved ones. Many of the soliders from Chernivtsi died in 2014 in the Donbass battalion. The city pays for the gravestones of those who have died, so they are all unified. They are large and have almost a life size picture of the solider in uniform engraved on the tombstone, as well as their medals. They erect a Ukrainian flag next to each grave. So you can look out onto the graveyard and see where a soldier in buried. Ruslan, Ivanna’s husband, worked with one of the men whose grave we came upon.

We then went on a walking tour around the city. Chernivtsi has a very eclectic history as it was under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but also close to the border of Romania and Moldova. And you see this eclectic influence everywhere. We walked down the main cobblestone boulevard, and eventually made our way to Shevchenko Square. There was another memorial set up for the soldiers who have died in and around the Chernivtsi region. There were 97 of them to date. Young people in their twenties, one as young as just 20 years old, and a handful of those over 40. It seems like these same kinds of memorials exist in every Ukrainian community – a line-up of photos of the fallen soldiers with their name, age, where they were born and where they died.

We ended our night with way too much food at this restaurant which specializes in the eclectic cuisine of Chernivtsi’s eclectic history. The next morning, Ivanna and Sofia picked us up and we went for a tour of Chernivtsi’s gorgeous University. It is like something out of Harry Potter! I wish that the University of Alberta looked like this university.


Goofin’ around with family!

We then went to the Chernivtsi bazaar to do a little bit of shopping. Matt was very proud because he did his first exchange in Ukraine without me! Congrats Matt! It is a huge chaotic bazaar, as bazaars tend to be. Patrick wanted to buy a belt, and Ivanna took him to a booth of someone she knows to sell him a very good belt. She told me as we walked away that his son had fought in the East, and that she was going to call him to inquire if he would do an interview with us. She said that his father said he might not want to – as it is very frightening in the east, and he said you can’t believe what they say on the news.

We headed home for yet another feast before we had to catch our plane back to Kyiv. While the soldier Ivanna inquired with couldn’t come over, he said that he could do a phone interview. So after lunch, Ivanna called him and did an interview with him. Ivanna is a professor of Political Science at the Chernivtsi University – she is extremely well spoken and very intelligent. Unfortunately, their level of dialogue was way out of my realm of the Ukrainian language so I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. After she got off the phone with him, Ivanna shared her thoughts on the current situation in Ukraine, which we recorded. Once again, most of what she said went over my head. But she herself speaks so passionately and articulately, that she could be talking about anything and she would be compelling. Yet alone a subject I imagine is profoundly close to home.


Like mother like daughter.

After Ivanna spoke, I asked if Sofiya would be willing to say a few things. Sofiya is 16 years old. When I first met her in Ukraine in 2006, she was just 5. And she was this tiny, adorable, bright eyed little girl. I remember she was quiet and shy, and stuck very close to her mother. But you could tell she was absorbing everything going on around her. Sofiya is still the same way – she keeps her cards close to her chest. She also is a teenager and knows how to work the camera for Instagram! Despite being on the quiet side, Sofiya is still taking everything in around her, and if prompted, has a lot to say.


Sofiya posing with all the other accomplished people which graduated from her school in Chernivtsi.

Sofiya shared her thoughts with us in English (cause she’s amazing), and just like her mother, she spoke intelligently and thoughtfully. She shared that she feels like people her age are not patriotic. That there is a sense of apathy about the war out East. She feels like people her age, herself included, want to leave Ukraine and study abroad so that they can have better opportunities and get better jobs. Because that isn’t possible in Ukraine. Her school has done fundraising events for the soldiers out East. She has students in her school who have parents that have either gone to the East, or are out East, and her school has done fundraising events for the East. But this seems to only exasperate the desire to leave so that they don’t get caught up in it.

Sofiya says that while she wants to leave as well, it is not because she doesn’t care about her country. She wants to study abroad so she can get a better job and can help her country better in the future. I was very impressed because not only is she just 16 years old, but she was also sharing these complicated thoughts well beyond her years in English. And her insight was a very different perspective than what I was expecting.

It was then time for us to head to the airport. Ivanna and Sofiya came. And yet again, even though I’ve really only met them three times, it was sad to say goodbye. It is a very special thing to feel that kind of love for family so far away. This was my last meeting with family in Ukraine (except for a cousin or two who have come out of the woodwork who want to meet when I am back in Kyiv for 24 hours! I need at least 2 more weeks in Ukraine to fit this all in!!).

But now, our trip is moving onto the next stage.

The next week will be based in Sloviansk, which was one of the first places sieged by Russian separatists, and subsequently liberated by the Ukrainians. So while it is a safe place to go, it has been touched by war. We will be meeting with veterans, internally displaced people, municipal officials, and see the destruction caused by this conflict. So far, so much of our trip has been about the beauty that Ukraine has to offer – its beautiful landscapes, its generous people, connection with family and exploring my roots. And in and amongst this are reminders of something more happening. A memorial. A soldier. Tipping a shopkeeper, and he puts it in his donation jar for the soldiers out east. As I sit here on the train, there is man in army clothes having a nap.

It is our hope that we can hear many peoples’ stories, thoughts, hopes and reflections, bring these back to Canada and humanize the situation in Ukraine. And share these stories from the country where my heart lives within the country where I was born.

Will try to keep up with the blogging as I expect the next few days to be quite full!





Sviatoslav selling all the mushrooms!


Our hotel in Chernivtsi…….. Ivanna told us that her taxi driver told her that i used to be a Bordello…. it suddenly makes sense.


Babas: The Keepers of All things Far & Wide — Velikiy Lazuchyn – October 12

Today we visited the rolling hills of my maternal grandmother, Anna (Kutsa) Maryn’s, birth village of Velikiy Lazuchin.

I spent summers growing up at my Baba’s cottage, so I feel very close to my Baba. But she is a woman who is as hard as nails. Her region of Ukraine lived through Holodomor, Stalin’s man made famine that was designed to break the back bone of Ukrainians and quell the notion of an independent Ukraine, and consequently killed over 4 million people. She was abducted by Nazis from her village when she was 18, and survived the war as a forced labourer in Germany. She moved to Canada with only a single trunk of belongings, completely alone, and built a life for herself. My Baba is a God Damn superwoman — as they all seem to be!

Before I left for Ukraine, Baba told me that there was nothing left in the village. And that I shouldn’t go, that there is more to see in the cities. But I told her that for me, it is interesting. I want to see where she was born. And she said OK whatever you want. So here we are!

The drive to and from this tiny village in the Khmerlynsky Oblast is absolutely picturesque. It seemed as we drove closer and closer to her village the landscape became more and more beautiful. I know it sounds exaggerated and cheesy, but it really is true.


The road to Baba’s village.

The dirt road leading to her village becomes nestled in within rolling hills and massive corn fields on both sides.

Your first glance of the village, however, makes it look like a ghost town. You drive into a valley and looking up to the village you see only broken down old buildings. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But then, the first thing you see coming up the hill into the village is a beautiful, shiny (literally!) church. To the left of us, a field, one resting cow, and a woman working in the distance.

I went to ask her about the Kutsa family, and if she knew where the house once was. She didn’t know anything about it, but she called someone, said someone was here from Canada, and told me to go down to the end of the road, and the man would be waiting there for me.

So we went, and a man probably in his 40s came out of a municipal building. I explained my situation, and his colleague came out. I told them I wasn’t looking for family, as the family I met in Kyiv said no one was here. We went inside and she suggested to him that maybe it was in archives. But he said the archives only begin in 1946 — anything before then was destroyed by the war.

We stepped back outside and they racked their brains (they were pretty invested and excited that we had come from Canada to their village!) and I saw these two old Babas sitting by this memorial. I suggested they might know, since in my experience the old Baba’s seem to be the keepers of all knowledge in the village.


The amazing Baba’s.

These two Baba’s are the quintessential village Babas. Like something you’d find in a fairy tale. I asked if they remembered the Kutsa family and amazingly, they did. By they I mean one Baba did, Olya, as the other Baba didn’t seem to remember very much at all. And she described where their house was and what it looked like, and who lived there and all of that. Pretty amazing since this was almost 80 years ago.


The Baba’s, me, and the municipal workers.

She also mentioned that there was a woman in the village who once had the Kutsa name. Lina went to go see if she was home, but I was skeptical there was a relation since my family that I met in Kyiv said no one lived there still.

But sure enough, around the corner we heard (before we saw) Tonya. This warm, portly woman came bellowing toward me exuberantly, exclaiming that we were third cousins, listing off everyone’s name in my family that she knew — Hanna, Luba, Sonia! She was so excited, she didn’t ask my name until part way through our meeting.


My Baba’s father, Pavlo, was her grandfather’s brother. Which makes her my third cousin. Despite this distant relation, we were warmly greeted! She brought us back to her house — this adorable cottage decoratively painted with flowers on the exterior. She came inside and wanted to show me the pictures she had of our Canadian family — the only one she was able to find was of my Baba, Aunt and mom from the 70s. Although I was mostly interested in the old black and white photos she had of our Ukrainian family. She still had a card sent from my Baba in Canada in 1988, as well as scarves that my Baba sent to her from Canada.

Tonya then took us to the place where Baba’s house once stood. Just as the two village Babas described, Tonya painted me a picture of the House. There were two houses, both long. She said how when Baba was there, there would have been two more roads running behind where her house once stood, and the village stretched beyond this white house in the distance.

The land is so beautiful. It sits quaintly on top of a small hill framed by a beautiful rolling hill on the horizon. Two cottages still remain beside, with the sounds of chickens and cows in the background.

Olya wanted to invite us for coffee but I have seen what coffee means for Ukrainian women in villages (aka a giant feast and horilka— vodka) so unfortunately I had to decline as we were on our way to the Carpathian Mountains today and had a long road ahead of us.


She and I walked back to my car. I asked her a little bit about why the family stayed in Ukraine, and she talked a bit about that. But she started talking about the war in the east. And got quite emotional about it — she feared that her sons (who are 28 and 25) would get wrapped up in it. She said it is terrible. And that no one wants to go fight in the war — no one. Even if they think they do, they don’t. She reiterated just how much she feared for her sons. And how you hear of so many boys from other villages that go, and get killed, and they’re mothers’ are heartbroken. And if anything happened to her sons, she wouldn’t know what to do.

When she spoke about this, she was no longer yelling. Her voice dropped, and she said it almost like a whisper. I could feel her fear. And I told her that I am here to bring the news so people understand what is happening in Ukraine in Canada. And that we are praying for her and Ukraine.

At this point we said one more goodbye, and we hit the road toward the Carpathians. I am writing this while on the pothole filled roads bumping around, trying not to get car sick. And so far so good! The drive has been stunning.

Although we can’t visit my maternal grandfather, Nicholas Maryn’s village as it is somewhere in Polish territory now, he is from the Carpathian region. So it is appropriate to round off our “family” part of our research in the Mountains. Plus, the last few days have been jam packed, so I can could really use some R&R in the mountain air.

Over and out!



Family, Fairy Land, & Domashniy Horilka – Oct 9-11 – Piddubtsi, Truskavets, Solyanuvatka, Dobromyl, Berezhany

Content warning: indecent disposal of human remains, human atrocities

Family family family!

It’s hard to believe just how much family I have here in Ukraine. It makes for an interesting way to see the country! This is three days of familial experiences so once again… this is going to be a longer catch-up post!

So everything went super smoothly renting a car thanks to our Travel Research Sponsor, Cobblestone Freeway! I was kind of hoping for an old timey Lada but…. The new VW Passat is driving very well for us.

I was a wee bit nervous driving in Ukraine since so many people have warned us of the crazy drivers and the bad roads. But I have driven in some crazy road conditions and my dad did it 11 years ago so… Why couldn’t I?


Only a small fraction of the road we were driving on to Piddubtsi.

Following the car pick up, we hit the road to Piddubtsi, the birth village of my grandfather, Rev. Ivan Makuch. I was expecting the roads to be terrible, and was pleasantly surprised when we were on the highway to see that they weren’t! I thought maybe people were exaggerating, or that everyone who warned us of it had outdated information.

That was, until we turned onto the secondary highway.

It happened just when I had become comfortable with my driving. We turned off the main highway and there was a small hill. So I maintained my speed and just over the crest of the hill, the good road stopped and the terrible road began. I didn’t have enough time so slow down, so we were really introduced to true Ukrainian roads with a bang!

The journey took down this highway probably took twice as long as it would on a regular road. It is insane! It’s like navigating a minefield. If you could only see other cars driving and weren’t aware of the road conditions you’d like everyone was drunk! Pot holes 3 feet wide by 9 inches deep – sometimes two like this side-by-side. Matt said he never saw anything like that when travelling to Ghana – and they had been at war for 20 years. So if Edmontonians want to complain about their potholes…. They ain’t seen nothing yet!

The drive deep into rural Ukraine is incredibly beautiful. Matt kept saying that we were entering fairy country… and he’s not wrong. Having spent the last three days seeing a good cross section of rural Ukraine, you can understand where all the folklore and legends come from.

In Ukrainian, “Dub,” means “Oak,” and “Pid,” means, “Under.” So the name of my grandfather’s village means “Under the Oak Tree.” There is a gorgeous line up of 5 or 6 giant oak trees lining the dirt road to the tiny village. Surrounding the village are huge, flat plots of land filled with root vegetables as far as the eye can see – literally! There were 4 or 5 giant mountains of harvested turnips by the entrance to the village.

Entering Piddubtsi feels a bit like going back in time – or going to the Ukrainian village. Only even older. Only 45 people now live in the village. And it is only two roads. I seemed to remember that my grandfather’s house was the first on the right when you entered the village, but there was no longer anything there. We drove for a bit, and you got the sense that we were outsiders. Everyone was staring us down, and knew that we weren’t from there. We parked the car so I could try and remember where his house was, and this old Baba peeked her head around one side of the house, checking us out. She then came around the other side, “Dobrey denj!” I said. She waved and disappeared. She then popped her head around the corner once again then started coming out to the road, so I started chatting with her. I told her that I am from Canada, and my grandfather was born in this village, Ivan Makuch. And that I came here to see his village. Teresa ( immediately knew who the Makuch’s were. She knew that there were 3 brothers (who were Stephan, Ivan, and Iakiv), although she doesn’t really remember them since she was so young at the time. She told me that the one house was torn down, but that the name “Makuch” was written in Polish on her well. So we went to go look. I didn’t see it but…. Maybe she knows something I don’t?! Or maybe she is just confused. We chatted for awhile and then I went back to the road.

A man biked by and I stopped him to ask if he knew anything about the Makuchs. Which he did, and said that they have moved away to the next village. I was a bit confused (as I know where my family lives in Ukraine.) Turns out that there were actually a few Makuch family names in Piddubtsi – not all relations. Which is still really interesting to me. Teresa came out to talk to me and the man on the bike (Zenyk), and they talked about the Makuch family for a bit. And then she said that her house was one of the Makuch houses. Later I learned that it might have been (as far as I understand), rented out to them at one point by the village Hospodor … landlord, or something! She invited us inside, which was a very unique experience.

We went back onto the road eventually, and a woman was marching down the street. She said that one baba called another baba who called her and said that there was a Makuch in town and that we wanted to see the church. Which we did, but hadn’t mentioned it to anyone! Lida is her name, and she is QUITE the character. Matt thinks maybe she had started her day with a little horilka (vodka), because she spoke very loudly and liked to talk – a lot! She let us into the church which was very cool since no one in our Canadian family has gone into the Church since my grandfather left! She told us how the church used to be at the centre of the village. But the war destroyed a lot of it, and after the war the borders were established. And the Polish border now runs through what used to be the centre of the village.

I got the sense that the village never fully recovered from that. It feels quite poor. Everyone we spoke to said everyone is leaving. But the people who are there have what they need.

Lida then invited us back to her home for some coffee. However, that was a lie. Because as soon as we came in somehow more and more and more and more food appeared on the table. Everything she made herself – including the Domashniy Horilka aka Home brew. A banquet of meats, cheeses, fish, vegetables. Everything incredibly delicious, and pretty much as free range/organic as it gets. As you walk outside and see her garden and her animals. She and I shot the sh*t for awhile. She is a riot. And she echoed what so many people in Ukraine keep telling me – how many young people are leaving Ukraine to other places in Europe for work. She described how difficult life is in the village. The road is terrible, people forget about them. Everyone keeps leaving. However, she had everything she needed on her small plot of land. Food. Water. Shelter. And Horilka.

Following our visit with Lida, we went to the graveyard. Half of it is maintained, but the older half has completely grown over. Lida told us that if we went in that we would never find our way in. But we ventured through thick, overgrown brush to find the graves of my ancestors. Which after a few minutes and a few sticks in the eye, we did! Which was pretty exhilarating. The first we found had fallen over (which Patrick tried to re-erect, but later got stuck underneath it!). But the rest were still standing. The graves of my great grandparents, great-great grandparents. It was a very cool experience – and a great adventure through the brush.

Speaking to some of my family later, I learned that when my grandfather came back to Ukraine in the 1990s, that he didn’t want to return to visit his village. He said it would be too difficult for him.

The next day we were headed to my paternal grandmother’s ancestral village, Solyanuvatka! Kateryna (Hnat) Makuch’s journal chronicling her emigration from Ukraine during WWII is the account that inspired Blood of Our Soil. So I was very excited to have the opportunity to return to her village under this context.

My father’s cousin from Canada suggested we get in touch with one of our relations nearby, Olesia. I got her information and only had a chance to contact her the day before, but she insisted we come over for lunch. She lives in the cute town of Truskavets. Olesia is my age, 28, and feels a bit like my Ukrainian counterpart. My baba left Solyanuvatka with her two sisters and brother. Olesia’s grandmother was my grandmother’s first cousin, and they lived two doors down from one another. However her Baba, Olya, decided not to leave. So it was a very interesting experience connecting with her!


Olesya, Yaroslav, Violetta and I!

She studied as a therapist, but currently isn’t working as she has an adorable 2.5-year-old daughter, Violetta. An energetically precocious cutie patootie! Her husband, Yaroslav, is also lovely (and could speak a bit of English as well, which Patrick appreciated!) Following another banquet of a lunch, Olesia hopped in the car with us and took us to Solyanuvtka. Olesia grew up in Dobromyl, the next village over from Solyanuvatka. Her Baba remained in Solyanuvatka, and Olesia would ride her bike to visit with her Baba.

I had the chance to chat with Olesia a little bit on our 1.5 hour drive, and asked about her thoughts on Maidan. It feels like whenever you bring up the subject of maidan and the revolution, everyone says the same thing. That it was a terrifying time. Even if you weren’t in Ukraine. Olesia studied in Lviv, so she had heard of students she had known going to Kyiv to protest.

Solyanuvatka is definitely fairy country. While the land around Piddubtsi was majestic in it’s long stretches of flat fields, Solyanuvatka sits quietly, tucked away in a valley surrounded by rolling foothills. The sun was descending toward the hills as we arrived. The air feels nurturing.  Baba’s house is this adorable, pink cottage tucked away behind a large, rectangular yard peppered with orchard-like trees. It sits quaintly behind a wooden fence, and lined with what is now  an eclectic, overgrown garden. Apparently the woman who lives in the house is known throughout the village as…. A little odd. Olesia told me that she “drinks too much.” So the home hasn’t been very well maintained, but you absolutely get the sense of that it once may have been.

We looked a bit around the house, then went to the garden in the back – which, too, is completely overgrown. Behind the place where the garden once stood is a small cluster of trees, and beyond that is a small hill which descends to a small wheatfield, which leads you to a magical pond. The pond is absolutely adorable, and sits in this private cluster of giant trees. I couldn’t help but imagine a small Baba running around, playing in the yard with her sisters. Olesia playfully chirped in that it would be a great place for a (imagine thick Ukrainian accent) “Romantic date” for our “baba and dido.” To boot, there was even a rainbow. YES. A real rainbow – which is the sign of true magic!

Olesia used to ride her bike from Dobromyl to Solyanuvatka to visit her Baba. So much of Blood of Our Soil reflects on my experiences of summers growing up with my Baba and their cottage. And this place had such a cottage-like feel… And it is so cool that across the world, Olesia was having a similar like experience of magical times at her Baba’s cottage. She says she would bike over, and they’d go run in the fields and chase the cows, and spend hours and hours picking mushrooms. I always felt like my cottage was a magical place, and I truly got the same feeling here in Solyanuvatka.

Olesia used the word “spokinu” to describe it. And I recognized the word but couldn’t quite put my finger on the English translation. I tried “tycho,” which means “quiet,” and Olesia said it was a little different, and pointed to her heart. And then I understood what she meant, and truly felt it in my heart. Peaceful. And Solyanuvatka is very “spokinu.”

However, just outside the village, there is a salt mine which employed a lot of the village back in the day, and where my great-grandfather apparently worked. It is also the site of yet another Soviet atrocity. Just before 1941, Soviets would kill Ukrainian and Polish nationalists they believed to be a part of “UPA,” The Ukrainian Insurgent Army which was both anti-Bolshevik and later, anti-Nazi. They then took the bodies in trucks to through the town. Olesia described that the villagers would complain about a smell, but didn’t know what it was. Turns out that the Soviets were hiding the bodies of the people that they killed in the salt mine.

The old kitchen area still remains, but it is completely run-down. There is a memorial (interestingly designed by Olesia’s father!). And further up the hill – almost so far that we thought we were on a wild goose chase, is the old entrance to the salt mine in the ground. It has now been turned into a memorial to commemorate the 3500+ people who’s bodies were inhumanely disposed of here.

It is interesting starting our trip here in the west, knowing that we will be heading to the east soon to delve deeper into the effect of and sentiments toward the conflict. I can’t help but image if the country was reversed, and there was conflict in the west. It would be affecting my family. Olesia’s husband might be compelled to leave for war, leaving her and Violetta. Rebels might destroy the monuments and the red & black UPA flags that show up throughout the towns. So many elderly people are unable to leave their villages because they have no money, they’re not healthy, or they have nowhere to go. What if that was Teresa? And she had no access to water, electricity, medicine, or her pension?

Just some food for thought….

Today we left Lviv and had yet another family day – this time in Berezhany. A town in the Ternopilska Oblast (province). It is a town of about 60,000 people. Despite this, the address of my family was the only location my Google Maps has not been able to find! I had to find the house the old fashioned way – by asking people on the street! Technology has failed me. What is this, 2006!?

Well, we did end up finding it despite the failings of google. Today we met with my father’s first cousin, Ivan Makuch, his wife, Halyna Makuch, and their daughter, Olya Makuch. And had a really wonderful time. Although I don’t think that we are going to be able to eat again for another three days. Immediately, we were greeted with another feast of home grown food. Literally, the majority of it was grown right on their property (except the bananas because Ukraine is not a tropical climate!) It is cool, so many homes in Ukraine don’t have yards, but rather they are all gardens. They’re in a town, not a village, but even so they have chickens, ducks, and a few rabbits…. Which they’re not keeping as pets if you know what I mean…


Halyna, Ivan, Olya, Me, Patrick and a “light” lunch.

Following lunch, Olya took us on a tour of Berezhany. Although it is relatively small, it has an extensive and interesting history! It was established in 1395. And there is a Ukrainian church from 905 AD! However, she first took us to the graveyard to show us another UPA memorial – this one dedicated to the UPA members from Berezhany who died. And ironically, right beside it, is the grave of a 19 year-old-boy from Berezhany who died in 2014 in Eastern Ukraine. Apparently, it was devastating for the town, and his mother is essentially inconsolable. Even these 3 years later. He was her only child. They have also erected a monument at the school for him. Olya told me that in Chernivtsi, where we are going in a few days, you see these memorials everywhere.

Olya taught us about the extensive Polish influence in Berezhany, which, as she pointed out, you see everywhere in the architecture. It was really interested to learn about these occupiers of Ukraine as well. You can also find a lot of Polish graves in the graveyard. And students come from Poland to maintain the graves, write down the names, and go back to archive the information. Poland controlled a Halachyna (Galicia, the region that covers a lot of Western Ukraine). There were landowners who came and would build mansions in the towns, which still remain. She took us to the village of Rai (only 3 km away), at the top of this hill. There was this Hospodor (landlord) who built a huge mansion surrounded by an incredible park. The villagers were his labourers. It is now a hospital for sick children, and the park itself is open to the public. It is absolutely beautiful, and has a bit of a fairy-country feel as well.

Olya took us as well to the municipal building. In the centre, it looks like just a bunch of rubble – which is weird to see in a municipal building. But, apparently this is actually a memorial. When the Soviets took over, they apparently demolished and used gravestones from the cemetary to build the roads. So the roads in the centre are made from the former gravestones of the townspeople. Yet another example of disregard for human life demonstrated by the Soviets.


We then headed back for dinner **fyi we were definitely not hungry once again. Matt and Patrick were genuinely concerned about being forced to eat too much.** And they were right to be afraid, since cousin Ivan told me that Patrick couldn’t leave until he finished all the food on the table – which he put a pretty good dent into. After dinner, we Facetimed my dad (because we live in the future), and then chatted a bit.


We live in the future!

The conversation eventually led to the current Ukrainian climate. Olya is very well spoken, so it is an honour to hear her thoughts on it all. Halyna and Ivan offer a unique perspective as well. They had a lot to say, but it was particularly interesting to hear that there was someone in Berezhany who had to flee Donetsk, and came to live with his parents in the town. And Ivan & Halyna drew the parallels between the situation in the East and what their parents (my grandparents) went through. People have to grab what they can and flee sometimes in the middle of the night.

All they know is what people who have fled the conflict zones tell them, since press is extremely limited. And officials don’t say anything. Or if they do, it is not true. Halyna has a sister in Crimea. But they can’t talk to her – they can’t telephone or get her on the internet because everything is so heavily monitored.

They said that they feel like Ukraine relies on its diaspora to help them. Because their own government can’t provide what they need. I asked them when it ends? And they said no one knows. That it never will.

We gave our loving goodbyes and headed for Ternopil. Only one night here, then we are going to visit the birth place of my maternal grandmother in Velikiy Lazuchin. Then we head for the Carpathian mountains for a little bit of R&R!!

Thanks for reading, pals. And stay tuned!!!



Ps. Didn’t proofread this so…. sorry!!!! :p


One of many stork nests in Ukraine!


Family Tour Guides & Крут! — Lviv — October 7-8


I had a very uncomfortable sleep on the train and we made it to Lviv! However I don’t think I can complain… occasionally our train would pass older, obsolete train carts which I can only assume are from the Soviet era. Before we left, my mom described her visit to Ukraine in the 1970s. And when she took the train, there were no “first class” options, only bleak wooden seats…..

So I was grateful for the fall of the Soviet Union in this regard so at least I could be somewhat comfortable 😜

IMG_3758 3

The view from our window.

We arrived at our Lviv apartment which is great, except the elevator door feels like it is always trying to eat you. It shuts as soon as you press the button, and I have slammed it on Patrick about a dozen times already…

It feels like there is even fewer English speakers here than there are in Kyiv. The woman who set us up at our apartment was sent from Her name is Irina and she speaks no English whatsoever. However I didn’t find it as difficult to communicate with her as I did with some people in Kyiv. Perhaps because people here speak more of the Ukrainian that I am used to. Patrick and Matt are terrified to lose me… they would be so screwed. Patrick would walk around saying “Христос Раждаєцья,” (Ukrainian for Christ is born!) and Matt would only say “Borscht?” Which might not be the worst thing…. Regardless, I imagine it would be difficult to travel in Ukraine without knowing the language. Even in Asia, I felt it was much easier for an English speaker than it is here!

We are growing accustomed to the Eastern European apartment life. In our building there is this bizarre “key” thing which is meant to open this bizarre metal “door/gate” thing that divides our apartment and a few other apartments from the rest of the stairwell. You have to stab it into this key hole and turn it to the right. But it is pretty much impossible to stab it into the hole. It is truly a terrible system.

We could not for the life of us figure it out when we first arrived, and the metal door was clanging like crazy and this old Baba came out and was yelling at Patrick and tried to show him how to use it and Patrick had no idea what she was saying and then she stormed away.

It was a pretty great moment. But it is not a great door.

The differences between Lviv and Kyiv are immediately apparent in the architecture. Kyiv experienced a lot more physical destruction during WWII than Lviv, so it needed to be rebuilt.  Consequently a lot more of the buildings’ architectures reflect the utilitarian, severe Soviet quality. Whereas Lviv has maintained more of its central European aesthetics.


Patrick posing with Adonis — a very European like statue in a very European like square on some very European like cobblestone.

Lviv is an absolutely stunning city with an old world charm. Ukraine’s borders have shifted several time in its existence. For example, my maternal grandfather identifies as Ukrainian, but he is from the Lemko region which is now geographically in Poland. Lviv was once a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Which is why the architecture is more “European.” Walking around feels like you could be in Prague or Vienna.

My second cousin, Halyna Makuch, and her daughter, Sofia Luchak Makuch, came to Lviv from the town of Kalush for the weekend to meet with me! And it was truly wonderful to reconnect with them.

The last time I saw them was when we were in Ukraine in 2006. I was 17 at the time and Sofia was only 4. I remember she was this tiny, intensely bright eyed, precocious child! Now she is almost the age I was when I first met her. Now, she is a smart, sweet, articulate, and all around beautiful young lady… but still has that same intense brightness in her eyes.


Sofia and I today in Lviv.

Halyna and Sofia took me for a drink at a bar under the beautiful Lviv Opera House. Lviv is filled with very cool, trendy bars and restaurants! This one was converted from the canals that were built under the opera house. The foundation has began to sink, and so the restaurant was designed around that and is a bit tilted.

We caught up and once again, there was a sort of familiarity amongst family. It was very special to see how important it is for my family to meet with me — I mean, they travelled to Lviv to come and see me. In Canada, getting together with relatives has always been very important to our entire family. My dad has always maintained that at the end of the day, family will always be there for you. Family is all you have.

I imagine that is particularly the case with our family because of our grandparents immigration from Ukraine. When they arrived as displaced people, they didn’t know the language or the culture. They had no money. They literally just had each other. My paternal Baba immigrated with her two sisters and brother, lived in a 1 bedroom home with all of them, their husbands, and their subsequent children. So it makes sense why family would be very important.


Baba Kateryna (pictures on the bottom). Her two sisters Anastasia (left) and Anna (right). And Anastasia’s daughter, Marusia (my God-mother). At the Regensburg Displaced Person’s Camp in Germany.

My maternal grandmother arrived in essentially the same circumstances, except without family. She was alone, and had only the community of other Ukrainian immigrants as a support network. She would have lived knowing she would likely never return to her homeland and see her family ever again.

So perhaps these are the experiences that  have shaped our culture, and probably all cultures, that hold family and their communities so closely.

As for our Ukraine family, I imagine it was the same for them when their brothers and sisters were taken from them. My family that I met the other day in Kyiv described how my Baba and her brother were stolen from their village and taken on trains to Germany to work essentially as slaves. They were separated, and when the war ended, there would be no way for them to find each other. It was easier for her brother to return to Ukraine, but my Baba had made the choice to move to Canada.

None of them truly chose to leave their families. What would it be like: the fear of not knowing where your family has gone, if they were alive. How would you even go about finding them again?

So I imagine that my Ukrainian family has also been shaped by these experiences. But rather than experiencing the pains of leaving your home land, it was the pains of losing those closest to you who were forced to leave their homes, and their families.

With Halyna and Sofiya, we chatted for a couple of hours, catching up on life — which we were hilariously up to date on because of Facebook! But I did learn that Sofia is interested in becoming a director, particularly a film director! It seems the artistic streak spans across the ocean in our family. 🙂

Today, we met with Halyna and Sofia once again (along with Matt and Patrick who didn’t join us the day before, since they were both not feeling well). Halyna and Sofia were incredibly generous hosts, and took us on an amazing whirlwind tour of Lviv! We haven’t really had a chance to play “tourist” yet on this trip since we have come here with an agenda. However, today proved to be super fun and rejuvenating… and a bit of a break from the emotionally heavy experiences we have been seeking out.

Halyna is a grade school history teacher in Kalush, and she made for an excellent tour guide…. and teacher! She had an agenda and we shot through the old Lviv centre with great efficiency. I learned a lot on our tour! It was a really nice way to catch up and immerse ourselves in the wealth of culture and history this city has to offer.

We started our day with some delicious strudel. We then checked out a plethora of churches, including the Dominion Church which, under the soviets, was a museum of atheism. But has since been reinstated as a Catholic Church. We also saw the beautiful Armenian Church. She took us to a couple of stores where we could buy both modern and traditional vyshyvany — Ukrainian embroidered blouses, as well as to the market at Rybok Square.

There are sooooo many chocolate shops in Lviv — we went to an actual chocolate factory which smelled DELICIOUS, and made some important purchases. We also climbed the bell tower at city hall which had spectacular views of the city!! Totally worth the hundreds…. and hundreds…. of stairs !

We ended our day at a very cool ( or should I say… «крут,» the Ukrainian word for cool which Sofia taught me. Which just might be my new favorite Ukrainian word!) restaurant called Криївка — Kryivka. Kryyivkas (underground bunkers) were used by soldiers enlisted in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) of the mid-20th century. And this restaurant has recreated a Kryivka in its design.

There is a long line to get in. When you enter, the host that greets you is in a military uniform and takes you into a side room. You have to say the password which is Слава Українi. Героям слава. Which means “Glory to Ukraine. Glory to its heroes.”

You then get a shot and are sent down a wooden staircase to the bunker like rooms which are the dining areas. They’re decorated with antique UPA items. The menu is designed like an antique newspaper, and periodically throughout dinner, singers come and sing Ukrainian folk songs at your request, or a small skit happens. The courtyard out back has a few antique machinery items like an anti air gun (I think!), and a motorcycle.

After dinner, Halya and Sofia had to leave to get their bus back to Kalush. We said our goodbyes, which were filled with so much love that I may or may not teared up… Which feels so crazy for someone you have really only met twice. But I don’t know… there is that familial connection that is so familiar.  Today was a very special day and I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend with family two continents apart.


Our crew for the day.

Tomorrow! We are renting a car and driving to my paternal grandfather’s village near the polish border. Hopefully the roads aren’t as bad as everyone says…….. wish us luck!

На Зустріч!




The Ukrainian flag.

Modern History; F**K you, Putin; And being like a Salmon – October 5,6 — Kyiv

Content Warning: Death, murder, violence, political corruption, indecent disposal of human remains.

A couple of days of catch up! Be forewarned, it’s a long one.

Currently writing this on the train to Lviv from Kyiv. It is far too early for my liking, but I have to catch up on this otherwise I will have fallen too far behind!

Our time in Kyiv was wonderful. Kyiv is a great city –very cosmopolitan. There are tons of very trendy restaurants, bars, and café’s in our neighborhood. Every meal we have had has been (accidentally) exquisite!

What is also fascinating is that there is a wealth of not only cultural history, but so much contemporary history speckled throughout the city. It has been enriching, informative, humbling, and fascinating to immerse myself in the city, and to begin to hear the stories and experiences of locals. The Revolution of Dignity, as I previously knew as Euromaidan, has seemed to have shaped the city immensely, and there is no going back.

Thursday was spent on a self-led walking tour in the centre. I intended on taking it easy for our first full day in Kyiv by acquainting myself and walking around our neighborhood. Just around the corner from our apartment, I found myself at Bohdan Khmelnytsky Square, and St. Sophia’s Cathedral. So I popped in for a little visit. Not only because it is a part of ancient Ukrainian history, or because I thought it would make Baba happy…. but also because, along with Mychailyvsky Monestary, it served as a sanctuary for protestors during the revolution.

Regardless, it really is an impressive Cathedral. But also, surprisingly, there is a contemporary art piece by Ukrainian artist Oksana Mas. I wasn’t expecting to see a contemporary art piece in this cathedral! Let alone something that was actually really cool. It is called “Looking into Eternity,” and it is a mosaic image of the Virgin Mary. Except the mosaic is made of over 15,000 hand painted pysanky (Easter Eggs). Saint Sophia is v. hip Cathedral, apparently.

Afterwards I hopped over the short distance to Mychailyvsky sobor AKA St. Michael’s “Golden domed” Monastery. As I mentioned before, the monastery served as a sanctuary, hospital, volunteer station, meeting place, kitchen, morgue, and much more during the Revolution of Dignity. It is famously known for warning protestors on Maidan before the Berkut stormed the square in an attempt to wipe out the protestors. The monastery had not rang it’s bells since the mongols attacked Kyiv in 800 years ago. Whereas Saint Sophia’s seems like a bit more of a tourist location, St. Michael’s definitely has an air of respect and sombre remembrance because of this modern history.


Mychailyvsky Sabor — the monastery which acted as a sanctuary to protesters during the Revolution of Dignity.

Leaving the monastery, I casually strolled through Volodymyrska Hirka aka Vladimir’s Hill – a public park housing a famous Kyivan statue of Volodymyr – the founder of Kyiv.

Leaving the park, I started walking back toward Mychailyvsky when I noticed that, on the wall next to where I had previously exited the monetary, there was a memorial dedicated to the soldiers who have died fighting in Eastern Ukraine. I must have just missed it as I was leaving. There is a picture with each soldier’s name, age, and where they died, spanning from April 2014 – December 2016. I can only assume they are waiting until the end of this year to add in the casualties from 2017. I couldn’t believe how long the pictures go on for. It is a truly powerful thing to witness. You could see local people stopping, observing, a man wiping away a tear.

And on my way home, on the square outside the monastery, I came upon another memorial. I have been finding as I walk around the city centre, there are several information boards commemorating what occurred during the Revolution of Dignity. It is interested to feel my relationship to these modern day memorials. I have seen a lot of war memorials in my time, or statues commemorating historical figures, and have always regarded them with respect. Maybe it is just because now I am a grown up (ha. ha.) and see things differently, but maybe also because there was this revolution that occurred in my lifetime, which I felt an emotional connection to, which is not too distantly in our collective memories – it is a powerful thing to come across. On a building within the view of the information board, there is a mural of Serhiy Nigoyan, the first protestor to be killed during the revolution, with a compelling gaze watching over the square.


One of the information boards providing context and information regarding the Revolution of Dignity.


A mural of Serhiy Nigoyan, one of the first people to be shot and killed in the revolution.

In the evening, we had a dinner date with a local ex-pat named Paul Niland. Originally from Ireland, educated in Britain, Paul has lived in Kyiv for over 15 years. And, impressively, speaks fluent Russian.

I cannot say enough about how informative, productive, compelling, and beneficial our meeting was with Paul. Paul worked as a financial advisor, but has somehow found a career now post-revolution as a political commentator, as an author, journalist, and serial entrepreneur. He has over 150 articles published, including for the Kyiv Post and Atlantic Council, and is currently developing “the best” crowdfunding platform – very cryptic! He and his wife, Lana, have run a few Ukrainian patriotic enterprises including a popular English language blog, What’s On, as well as Postmark Ukraine.

We talked for over 3 hours so I won’t, and can’t, write about it all. However, I am so grateful for our conversation – particularly at the beginning of our trip. Following our meeting I have been looking into some of his articles. I would recommend you google him and go through some of them, as he has an intelligent and diplomatic perspective on the current political situation. This article, he says, is one of the favourite he has written:

This one I personally find very interesting:

Paul and his wife were on Maidan for 89/91 days during the revolution. Hearing him talk about the events was an honour, and listening to him was a deeply emotional experience. Paul also went through the Orange Revolution in 2006. When I asked him his thoughts on how the general sentiments of the revolutions differed, his reply was simple: the Orange Revolution was a party. By the first day of the Revolution of Dignity, he said everyone knew it would not end without violence. Because the president was Yanukovych.


Paul Niland. Irish expat living in Kyiv. Accidental political commentator, journalist, and “serial entrepreneur.”

One anecdote of his that stands out was the story of being in a human chain, passing bricks and other items for the protestors on the front line. At this time, the government had shut down the metro lines to prevent anyone else from coming to the square. And preventing anyone from leaving.  There was a woman, 75 years old, who had been on maidan and had been a part of the same human chain he was in. He said the Berkut officers stormed their area, and she ran to the metro to try to escape. But they had locked the doors, and the officers found her and beat her to death.

Paul was extremely generous with sharing his stories and his perspectives on things. The conversation would flow naturally between the events of the revolution and the current conflict in the east – it is interesting to note just how intertwined they have become. When I asked him his thoughts on why there doesn’t seem to be a widespread international understanding of the full effects of the conflict in the east, there is a complicated answer. But also one that is more simple– an answer that has been echoed to be by others since my meeting with Paul. When 3 or 4 or 5 soldiers die a week, and when this happens every week for long enough, it becomes common. That also, the international community still sees Ukraine as enough of Russia, and the Soviet Union, and that they do things differently over there. And so we forget. It made me think of the Stalin quote: that one death is a tragedy, but millions are a statistic.

This is definitely not a sentiment unique to the Ukrainian conflict.

I asked Paul where his interest comes from. He doesn’t have any Ukrainian heritage – he was born in Dublin – why is it that he cares so deeply about Ukraine? Why would he risk his life on Maidan during the revolution, or dedicate countless hours to writing articles or writing a novel on the revolution?

And his answer makes sense – because it is right. When you see something wrong happening, it is a wrong toward humanity.

At some point in the interview he leaned over to my phone, where I was recording him, and said, “You hear that? F**k you, Putin.” Which was pretty awesome.

Then we went our separate ways, and it was time for bed!


The next day we took an Uber (ps. Uber in Kyiv is so good! Very helpful for us who aren’t the strongest with the language :p) to the Bykivnia graves. Bykivnia is a town north of Kyiv, and the forest outside of it is the site where the Soviet government under Stalin disposed of the bodies of Ukrainians and Polish people who were considered “enemies of the state,” between 1937 – 1941. They think it could be up to hundreds of thousands of bodies disposed of in these mass graves.

These events were apparently well known to the people of the town. But after WWII, the Soviet government’s official stance was that it was a Nazi dumping ground. It has now been confirmed it was the Stalin administration.

The descendants of people buried in Bykivnia have tied ribbons and mounted photos with the names of their loved ones on the trees. When I was in Ukraine in 2006, we saw workers excavating bones and piling them on the side of their ditches, along with buttons, shoes, and other personal items. They were doing research and preparing for a memorial that was going to be built.

It was very haunting to witness the men digging up these bones at the time. And visiting the site now was definitely haunted by this experience. As we walked through the forest, I was imagining if there were human remains somewhere beneath us in the soil. My tree knowledge isn’t super strong, so I can’t name exactly what they are, but the trees themselves in the forest are haunting. They are tall, thin, and dark. They are coniferous trees and for whatever reason, they have only needles at the top, leaving the trees looking barren and naked. They all stand very close together and while they are tall and straight, some of them bend near the top, looking fractured and broken.

The monument they were preparing to build in 2006 has now been erected in the middle of the forest, amongst the trees with the ribbons. It is very powerful. There is a wall that surrounds it that lists the names of all the people they believe to be buried in Bykivnia. The wall wraps around almost half of the large monument. When the names end, it is quite jarring. It made me consider who else is buried that they might not know about. Or what names could be listed there from a different place, or from a different time?


At the recently erected memorial in the middle of the Bykivnia graves.


One of the walls with thousands of names of those buried in the forest.

We caught an Uber back to Kyiv. Our Uber driver was Volodymyr and he was A+! He and I chatted quite a bit on our way back to our apartment. He asked if we had family buried in Bykivnia – which we don’t, and I explained we visited there because it is interesting for us and the project we are developing. He told us that his grandmother lived in the town, and remembers the black trucks coming filled with bodies, with blood dripping from the cars. He said that lots of children are also buried there. When I asked why children, he shrugged his shoulders and said “why do they do anything?” He said they would line them up and shoot them “here” – he said pointing to the back of his skull, where the spine meets the brain.

He asked about my family, and why I know Ukrainian (and said that I “duzhe harne hovory ukrainskamu.” :p which is helpful in boosting my confidence and flexing my mova muscles!) I said something about that there are lots of Ukrainians in Canada, and referred to them as “Nashi,” which means “ours.” He said that it was nice to hear that I consider Ukrainian Canadians “Nashi,” rather than “vashi,” which means “yours.”

Volodymyr is a pro-driver, and got us home just in time for our 18:00 plans – super grateful! We arrived home just as the family of my maternal grandmother knocked on our apartment door. I never really knew that my maternal grandmother still had family in Ukraine. I have met my paternal relatives a few times, and we all follow each other on social media. So when I inquired with my uncle and Baba about our remaining family, I was surprised to hear that there was an entire sect of my family I didn’t know existed.

Mykola, his cousin Valya, and her daughter Ira, came over. And almost instantly it felt familiar amongst us. While Valya and Ira live in Kyiv, Mykola is from a village outside of the city. It was amazing how much Valya looked like my grandmother – her aunt. They have the exact same gap in their teeth. And have a similar Ukrainian-warrior-woman-like energy.

We spent the evening FaceTiming Canadian relatives (because apparently we live in the future), calling my Baba (which was really wonderful to witness).

Eventually the conversation, as it seems with so many Ukrainian people, devolved to politics. It was very interesting to hear their perspectives on the Ukrainian government – how they believed so greatly in Poroshenko (the president), who has now let them down. And their perspective on Maidan. Apparently Valya was at Mychailyvsky, and had picked up bullets (or something I didn’t quite understand…..) I learned more about my family history, and what had happened to my grandmother and her siblings. It was hilarious that they all knew Baba as a woman not to mess with. Mykola said that if she had had the opportunity to go University, she would have probably been president.


дуже серйозна! left to right: Me! Valya, Mykola, Ira

Valya asked me why I am in Ukraine when I could go elsewhere in Europe like Spain, or France, or Germany. And when I explained that it is important for me to meet family, and when I explained the context of the project we are working on, she was really touched. She said a few days earlier she was crying that all the young people are leaving Ukraine, as there is no work for anyone. And it “filled her with joy” that I chose to come to Ukraine.

It was truly humbling to meet them. And I convinced Ira to get Facebook so hopefully we can stay more in touch! She works at the University’s botanical gardens so when we are back in Kyiv at the end of our trip, she is going to take us on a tour.


After our goodbye’s, Patrick and I had to go to Maidan Nezalezhnosti to gather some video footage for the production. We were approached by a young man selling these blue and yellow woven bracelets. At first I thought it was the typical tourist trap, but he explained that he is part of a volunteer organization which fundraises for soldiers in Eastern Ukraine. He showed us his credentials, and their Facebook page, and where their funds go – this particular organization raises funds for a hospital and for the soliders in Mariupol. We chatted for a bit and ended up recording an informal interview with Alexiy. You can check out their organization here – “Dopomogda hospital.

He has finished his studies and is now volunteering as his way of contributing to the efforts – he said he is not a fighter and would probably die on the second day. It was interesting to get the perspective of a young Ukrainian. A few interesting points he brought up included that while international help us good, they only help by giving guns, medicine, etc to the current soldiers.

And while that is important, there is almost no support for the soldiers after they come home. There are huge issues with PTSD. It is very difficult for soldiers to find work after they return because either they are suffering from some level of PTSD, or there is suspicious that they might be. So they won’t be hired. The pension provided by the government is miniscule, and helps no one.


Yet another memorial dedicated to those who died on Maidan during the revolution.


The Canadian flag is displayed at the memorial next to Maidan.

We finished our interview, but he came back to ask me if I thought it was good that there was a revolution. I said that I think it is important to make change for the good, but it is bad that it is still needing to happen in 2014. He explained that he recognizes his opinion is not popular or widespread, but that he thinks the revolution was bad. That maybe if they had waited for an election, then there would not be so much violence. Both on Maidan and now in the East. That not so many people would have died and would continue to die. He thinks that they were all ‘played,’ so to speak, and that Yanukovych played the revolutionaries with the violence, so that no matter what the next government would be unstable. And because of the violence, Putin had an excuse to invade Crimea, and get his fingers into the East.

It’s hard to know, since it is easy to say in hindsight. But what I am learning is that the emotional effect of the revolution is incomprehensibly significant for Ukrainians here. While I can hear about it, feel about it, watch it – I’ll never understand the full extent. They have lived it. And you can feel that when you speak to them.


This morning was an early wake up call to catch our 06:52 train to Lviv. Serhiy was our Uber driver this morning, who was hilarious and mocked us “touristy” for our giant bags he had to fit in his tiny Lada. For the short, 10 minute ride to the train station, he and I had a really great chat. (I can already feel that my Ukrainian is getting better – both understanding and speaking. W00tw00t). He was a riot, and said that I had to buy the boys in the back (Patrick and Matt) “vyshyvany” so they can be like “Ukrainian Kozaks!” And that he loves Canada and is going to learn English, but also French, Spanish, and German. He asked why we are here, and I explained to visit family and about our project. Everyone here seems to know that the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada is huge.

He asked me if I knew лосось — salmon. He said that the salmon always swim home. So, I am like the salmon.


Then we arrived, he once again mocked my heavy bag, and that was the end of that encounter. The train station is not very friendly to foreigners, so finding the train was a bit stressful at 06:40. But we made it! And now I am ready for a train nap after writing this behemoth blog post.

Stay tuned for our Lviv adventures!

Ліанна ❤


Home-Style Horilka — October 4 — Kyiv


7 hours to Amsterdam and 2.5 hours to Kyiv, and we have arrived!

We were greeted by a driver, Yuri, who was sent to bring us to our apartment downtown. He was a very good introduction to Kyiv as he spoke no English, and primarily Russian. But was a very nice man — and an even more impressive driver — navigating between cars in the busy city centre within inches… or turning off the engine to coast down a hill when we were stopped in traffic. Very tricky.

The Ukrainian I speak is the Ukrainian that our grandparents brought over to Canada following WWII. Which is, as I understand it, almost it’s own odd dialect in comparison to Ukrainian today. Even more so, in Kyiv, most people’s default language is Russian. Some people will speak Ukrainian, and it will be more common in the West, but in Kyiv I definitely stick out a bit. People are interested to know how I learned Ukrainian, and seem to appreciate my communication efforts. I tell them I learned from my grandparent’s, and then proceed to ask where in Ukraine they are from, when they moved to Canada, etc. But a lot of people will switch over to English when they hear me struggling. Which I think people are OK with because they get to practice their English. And I get to practice my Ukrainian. So win-win!

Regardless, it was nice talking to Yuri as I could really flex my “mova,” (language) muscles. Patrick and Matt speak absolutely no Ukrainian, so right now I am translator, guide, and overall liaison to the Eastern European ways for these two Canadian boys. Matt has travelled all over Europe, but this is actually Patrick’s first time on the continent. So he has a very unique perspective! The friendly Canadian mannerisms definitely stand out here, which friendly Patrick is beginning to notice.

After a power nap, followed by a quick clean up, we headed out for dinner at one of TripAdvisor’s most highly rated Kyiv restaurants — which happens to be down the street from our apartment, Spotykach. It is a modern, quirky approach to traditional Ukrainian aesthetic and comfort food. While I think on the upper end of typical restaurant prices, it was definitely still very reasonable — after 3 courses, wine, beer, and 9 flavoured vodka shots (we will get to this later….), we walked away with a combined 1700UAH bill, about $80CDN for the 3 of us. Not that we intend to indulge this way everynight BUT we were celebrating our first day on this grand adventure!

Version 2

Pop art Hetman painting in Spotykach.

The waiter suggested we get the bread, which was served with three pate-like butter spreads — one salmon, one egg, and one herring. With lots of garlic, of course. Matt and I had the borscht (top-notch), Patrick got the blue and yellow varenyky, coloured for the Ukrainian flag. The blue varenyky were sweet cheese (so good), and the yellow were potato (also so good). By this time we were full, but Matt had garlic sausage coming, I had regular perogies, and Patrick had an entire trout. Needless to say, we were very full by the end of it all. And I am not exaggerating when I say that I still have the taste of garlic in my mouth.

Matt felt it was wrong not to do a shot of horilka (vodka) on our first outing in Ukraine, but the waiter suggested we try their “home style vodka,” which was infused with various syrups made in-house including currant & mint, strawberry, melon, and my favourite — beet bitters.


Home-style Horilka!

Patrick does this hilarious and very endearing thing, which I first noticed when we went to Asia last year. When he is trying to communicate in another language that he doesn’t speak, he uses this weird, generalized, non-accent. Which only becomes more regular after more alcohol is consumed… especially when he orders one of each flavour for the table.

Pre-homestyle horilka, we were all feeling a little sleepy. Post-homestyle horilka, we were ready to go on a short walk to Maidan Nezalezhnosti — Independence Square — which housed the 2013-14 Euromaidan riots in Kyiv, when the people took to the streets in what began as a peaceful protest, demanding closer ties to the EU. The riots ended in violence, and the remnants of the conflict occurring currently in Eastern Ukraine.

It was a surprisingly powerful experience returning to to the square after Euromaidan. To see it rebuilt, knowing the violence and destruction that had occurred there. Small diy memorials have been set up — which seem appropriate given the diy nature of the riots. A particularly powerful memorial was just a simple picture of Serihiy Kemsky — who was shot dead by two sniper bullets during the riots, and has become a sort of martyr like figure for democracy in Ukraine. Beside the image is a helmet, some bricks, and what I assume was the shield he used — a makeshift piece of plywood with some brackets fasted to it.


A memorial set up to honour Serhiy Kemsky.

Across the street is the infamous Independence Monument, the angel which hovers above Maidan. Which now feels like a sort of mausoleum for those who have died for Ukrainian democracy. Images of soldiers have been taped to the walls. But there was one man who seemed to dominate a good portion of one side of the wall. There was a young woman taking in the photos, and who brought one of her own to put up. I chatted with her a bit — her name is Slavka. She was surprised I didn’t know who the man was, and explained to me that he was Andrij Kuzmenko, a well-known Ukrainian rock star who was critical of the corrupt Ukrainian government and supportive of the people of Euromaidan. He died in a car crash in 2015, but has remained a symbol of what occurred on Maidan.


Photos of fallen soliders.


Photos of fallen soliders.


“Freedom is our religion”


Andriy Kuzmenko


Taking in the memorials inside the monument.


Lyrics by Andriy Kuzmenko.



We ended our night going to a bar which did not list their drink in the English alphabet, so I helped translate for the boys. Somehow, we kept accidentally ordering Жек Денєлз (Djek Denielz… if you know what I mean) and Геннес (Hennes…. which turned out to be Guiness!). Luckily I don’t drink whiskey so the effects were spared on me. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the boys currently whimpering in their beds this morning…


We came to Ukraine to glean the perspectives and experiences of individuals stories and experiences as a result of the conflict occurring in Eastern Ukraine. I know it has only been a day, but it has been very interesting to land in Ukraine’s biggest city and see people going about their regular lives. Life is continuing, but every now and again you see something small that will remind you that something more is going on — like a poster of a civilian gone missing or someone walking down the street in military uniform. We haven’t yet talked to anyone directly about their thoughts or experiences. So if we didn’t know any better, you could almost get away with not realizing there is conflict occurring half a country away.

I came to Ukraine for the first time in 2006 on a family trip. It is no surprise that after more than a decade, Ukraine is a very different country. And I am looking forward to seeing the country as an adult, and under the context in which we are here travelling.  Before I left I picked three angel cards (because I am like that).

I received Education, Courage, and Gratitude. Which feels like the right values to bring on this trip.

OK I have to go get these boys out of bed now! Stay tuned!




Grumpy cat…. cause why not?!



‘Twas the night before the adventure…

Hello reader!

Tomorrow at 16:15 Eastern time, Pyretic Productions aka Lianna Makuch (me!), Patrick Lundeen, and Matthew MacKenzie are headed out on our Ukraine adventure.

I am starting this blog to chronicle our trip, and to inform anyone who is interested on what we come across!

I am a Ukrainian Canadian theatre artist from Edmonton and an artistic associate with a Canadian independent theatre company, Pyretic Productions. In March 2018, our company is premiering a new work, written by myself, called Blood of Our Soil [note: the play is now titled Barvinok – aug 2022]. It is a multi-disciplinary performance depicting the struggles of the Ukrainian people against the atrocities of Stalin to the horrors of Hitler, while drawing disturbing parallels to the current Putin regime. We will be travelling to Ukraine October 3 – 24 to conduct research for the production.

Generally speaking, we are looking to make connections and meet individuals who have been directly affected by the war — either veterans, displaced people, or their families. We are interested in focusing on individuals and their stories/experiences, and hopefully give a voice to them in order to humanize the conflict to a Canadian audience.

We will be travelling to Kyiv, Sloviansk, Lviv, Chernivtsi, and doing day trips in and round those locations — with the assistance with our very generous Travel & Research Sponsor, Cobblestone Freeway Tours (!!

I will be making daily updates (pending too much “home brew” consumption…) So stay tuned! Our website is currently under construction, but in the future check out for more information on the premiere. Or our Facebbok (Pyretic Productions) and Instagram ( to keep up to date.


Слава Україні!


Ліанна Макух