In 2000 the Ukrainian government decided to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and asked the U.S. government for help in meeting the requirements for membership. I had just finished assisting the government of Moldova in its successful bid to become a WTO member, and was now asked to do the same in Ukraine. I arrived in Kyiv in 2000, and lived and worked there for the following seven years.
WTO is one of the pillars of the international economic order. It requires that a member’s laws and regulations governing international trade conform fully to its rules, which are designed to ensure fair trading practices among countries with market economies. Ukraine’s laws and regulations dated from the Soviet period, did not meet these requirements, and needed to be completely redone. This was a mammoth task that involved numerous governmental entities. Everyone concerned worked hard to make the necessary reforms: the wish to see Ukraine become part of the family of Western, liberal, market-oriented nations, was, as far as I could see, universal. The Ukrainian staff who supported me in my work—Irina, Yuri, Dima—and the officials I met within the government were professional, hardworking, invariably pleasant, and confident that they had a bright future in front of them.
I lived in a furnished apartment in a building right next to the Saint Sophia Cathedral, an eleventh-century church founded by Vladimir the Great, who converted to Christianity in the tenth century and brought the rest of his subjects along with him. At dawn, and then again at sunset, its golden domes radiated briefly a brilliant light that filled my apartment. Downtown Kyiv was just a few minutes’ walk away. My favorite destination was the Bessarabia Market, where vendors were reluctant to sell you anything you hadn’t tasted first. I especially enjoyed buying smetana (sour cream) from the elderly ladies who sat in a row, each with a pot of home-made smetana in front of them. You held out your hand, palm down, and made a fist. The lady in front of you would put a dab of her sour cream on the back of your hand and you would lick it off. She wiped the back of your hand with a towel and you moved on to the next lady, where the tasting was repeated. Then you had to choose. On the way there and back there were parks, book stores, restaurants, street performers—everything that you would expect to find in a modern European city. A performance at the opera cost about $6, and I spent many evenings there. My walk home took me past the Great Gate to the medieval walled city, the gate that is the subject of the final movement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. On weekends I sometimes took the subway out to the northern district of Obolon, where there was a large outdoor market. I had found a bookseller there with an unusually large section of editions of Russian literature, and bought illustrated volumes of works by Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Gogol.
I was able to travel outside of Kyiv. To the north, I visited Chernihiv, a very old city on the ancient trade route between the Baltic and the Black Sea, its former fortifications now a pleasant park, its monasteries and churches beckoning. To the east, I spent several days in Kharkiv, a bustling, thoroughly modern city with a remarkable museum—arguably the best in Ukraine. I remember in particular a painting by Illia Repin entitled Zaporozhian Cossacks Writing a Letter to the Sultan, depicting a scene in the 17th century in which the Cossack leaders outdo each other in composing vulgar, scatological, insults directed toward the Turkish Sultan, who had sent them an ultimatum demanding their surrender. I had seen reproductions hanging in some of the government offices I visited. No one who understands the place this painting occupies in the Ukrainian psyche could be surprised to see Ukrainians vigorously defending their independence. I spent time in the south, in Odessa sitting for hours on the steps that lead down to the port, steps made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s celebrated film The Battleship Potemkin, and attending a performance of Tchaikovsky’s one-act opera Iolanta in the Odessa opera house, a close copy of the Palais Garnier, the Paris opera. In the east I visited Lviv, before the end of the Second World War a Polish City, with its small gem of an opera house and Greek Catholic churches—churches that follow the Orthodox liturgy, but recognize the authority of the Catholic Pope.
It is now 10 a.m. on March 17, 2022, and I am sitting in front of my computer as horrifying, gruesome scenes unfold before me. In a few short weeks much of the Ukraine that I knew has been destroyed or heavily damaged and its population thoroughly traumatized. Chernihiv, with its pleasant park and numerous old churches, is now surrounded by Russian troops and is periodically shelled. Here, as elsewhere, apartment buildings have been deliberately targeted. Much of Kharkiv has been reduced to rubble. I am unable to discover the fate of their museum. The southern port city of Mariupol, which I never visited, has been utterly devastated with great loss of life; other cities in the south—Kherson, Mykolaiv—have seen heavy fighting and loss of life: schools, theaters and hospitals have been attacked. Whole cities lack heat or water. Odessa has been untouched, so far, but it bristles with Czech hedgehogs, razor wire, sandbags and other defensive materiel. Lviv is awash with women and children making their way to the near-by border with Poland (the men will stay and fight), and with media personalities who need to be close to events without being dangerously close. Russian forces creep towards Kyiv despite the Ukrainians’ fierce and effective resistance: the district of Obolon has been shelled, but I don’t know the fate of its open-air market. My attempts to contact my former Ukrainian colleagues have all failed.
The message Russia is sending to Ukrainians is clear: submit, or be destroyed. But the Ukrainians will not submit. The worst is yet to come.