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It's been more than 30 years since Marc Greenberg, a Kansas University professor of Slavic languages, last visited the Ukraine. Obviously, a lot has changed. The Soviet Union has folded. American chain restaurants have opened and European cars are on the streets.
In some ways, though, the country is still wrestling with its past and its complex relationship with Russia. The past three months of protests and political upheaval in Ukraine have been a tense reminder of that. The protests also shadowed Greenberg's visit to Kiev earlier this month.
Greenberg and two KU colleagues had planned the trip to a business management conference held by the Gabriel Al-Salem Foundation. Greenberg said that the conference organizers worried guests wouldn't attend because of unrest, which began in November after president Viktor Yanukovych, under pressure from Russia, pulled out of a trade deal with Europe.
With thousands protesting in the street, the Ukrainian government responded with a violent crackdown. For now, a sort of calm has settled, though protestors remain in Ukrainian cities.
Up close and personal with a revolution
Taylor Broadfoot, a KU senior in Russian and part of the team that went to Kiev, said, "I was a little nervous, obviously, because some of the news coming from that area … was really focused on how violent it all was."
Up until the day before they left, the team pondered whether the trip would be safe enough to take, Greenberg said. They even checked in with the U.S. State Department, which told them that protests and violence were localized and the country overall was safe.
Once in Kiev, the group went to see protest encampments up close during their sightseeing time. At a prominent square, protestors had barricaded themselves behind fencing and anything else they could find, even last year's Christmas trees, Broadfoot said.
Within the protest site, "people were perfectly safe," Greenberg said. A miniature, independent city had formed behind the barricade, with a diverse group of protestors working together to clean, provide food and gather firewood. The protestors offered the KU team sandwiches.
At the conference, the group had a chance to talk with Ukrainian businesspeople who were watching the political situation carefully. During a seminar, they heard from a Ukrainian businessman in the infrastructure sector who "spoke forthrightly and eloquently about how corruption had undermined much of the work that he and others had been trying to do," Greenberg said.
Surreal to watch
At the same time, Greenberg said the speaker and others seemed optimistic about the country's future. "Ukrainians see themselves as hardworking, industrious people." And yet the country has "an enormously powerful neighbor that could come in and squash everything."
Vitaly Chernetsky, a KU associate professor of Slavic languages and literature, grew up in Odessa, Ukraine, and said he has close friends among the activists and protestors. "It is surreal to watch this from the outside," Chernetsky said.
For Ukrainian protestors, "First and foremost it was about the desire to be seen as part of Europe and the European family," he said. That doesn't just mean the bureaucracy of the European Union but also the idea of Europe — its notions of personal rights and human dignity.
Many people have joined the movement against Yanukovych's administration because it is viewed by many as heavy-handed and corrupt in a way that resembles the crony-capitalism seen in Russia, Chernetsky said.
Even with those tensions, the country's protests and political uncertainty did nothing to scare off Broadfoot. "I would love to go back to Ukraine," she said. "I found it a wonderful, hospitable, beautiful country."