UMAN, Ukraine - When the Davis-Uman Sister City Project received a grant to bring eight women from Uman to Davis, Calif., to take part in an intensive grass-roots democracy program, I volunteered to go to Ukraine to help select the candidates.
Seventeen women applied for the Women's Political Campaign Management Institute, which will be held at International House in Davis Oct. 30 to Nov. 10, 2000, made possible by a competitive $16,000 State Department grant.
The Davis-Uman Sister City Project board of directors agreed that I, as a board member, should to fly to Uman. One of the women we hoped to include was Tatiana Suhomeilo, a translator and English teacher at the Uman Academy of Agriculture who frequently assists Davis visitors in Uman, but we also wanted to be sure that the group would represent a wide spectrum of attitudes and interests.
I left Sacramento on Aug. 24 and arrived in Kyiv the next afternoon. Tatiana was at the airport to meet me.
I visited England last year and recalled having a pleasant, albeit brief chat with the customs agent who looked at my passport and waved me along with best wishes for a good visit. The customs agent in Kyiv reminded me that Ukraine has been an independent nation for less than 10 years and the old Soviet style of greeting visitors still remains.
After checking my passport, the young man said curtly: "You may go" and I scurried away, grateful to avoid jail. Tatiana and I spent the weekend in Kyiv, a city of 3 million and the capital of Ukraine. The city reminds some people of San Francisco, but I think that's a stretch. Kyiv sits on the Dniper River and parts of it are hilly but you'd really have to use your imagination to bring to mind San Francisco.
Instead, Kyiv has its own sights to offer, like an amazing World War II museum, a tribute to those who lost their lives in the Great Patriotic War, including 8 million from Ukraine alone. The Ukrainian State Museum of the History of World War II was built by Soviets and is fashioned in that certain Soviet style of architecture that is designed to awe and inspire visitors with its size and bulk. This it does. Beyond that, however, displays describing the war with Germany 1941-1945 are skillfully and even beautifully represented. One drawback: the museum notes are all in Ukrainian or Russian. But you'll get the drift.
Children outside the museum play on decommissioned tanks that have been painted with flowers. This is a nation that does not want to endure another war. In fact, to say that Germany lost the war and the former Soviet Union won the war is a bitter joke. It doesn't look that way today with Germany enjoying a comfortable domestic standard of living and Ukraine struggling to make ends meet.
("That's what 40 years of communism did," a wealthy German businessman told me, assessing the difference between Germany and Ukraine. "I thank God every day that I live in Germany," he added. I met this man on the plane coming home. He told me Germans have no interest in visiting Eastern Europe. He and his wife and daughter were on their way to New Orleans.)
Tatiana and I left Kyiv on Monday and took a van to Uman, which is about two hours to the south. We drove through fields and past tiny villages. The famous black soil of Ukraine is saving its people from hunger. Nearly everyone who has access to a little piece of land grows something either to augment their own dinner table or sell or both.
I noticed several people along the side of the highway selling tires and what looked like 100-pound sacks of sugar.
"The tire factory doesn't pay its employees in cash, but in tires," Tatiana said. Same with sugar.
The city of Uman, Davis' sister city, has twice the population of Davis and a completely different set of social and municipal problems. Some people in Davis objected fiercely to the introduction of water meters. People in Uman would love to have water, period.
But for unknown reasons it was built on a stone plateau, so the city has running water for only four hours per day - two in the morning and two in the evening.
Svitlana Lipinsky, Uman's sister city liaison and adviser to the mayor, says even when the engineering infrastructure is complete and water can be moved to Uman more readily, the city will still have to pay for it. And that means the city probably won't use a lot more water than it does now. This also serves as an obvious barrier to tourism.
Lipinsky also said the most important part of the sister city relationship is the teacher exchange in which a teacher from Davis visits Uman, and vice versa. Although the exchange has not taken place for several years, she was hopeful it would continue and said an Uman teacher could be selected at a moment's notice. It's now up to the Davis Joint Unified School District, which for unknown reasons has decided not to support this crucial exchange. The district is only being asked to pick up a substitute teacher's salary for two weeks.
Over the next few days, Tatiana and I took in the local sights. Under communist rule, the Catholic cathedral next door to City Hall was turned into an art gallery and museum and remains that way today, with one difference. On Sundays, a group of perhaps a dozen Catholics comes to the church and arranges a makeshift altar for a prayer service while the art gallery employees look on. No priest attended the service I witnessed on Sept. 3, but I was told that an itinerant priest sometimes comes by to say Mass.
The great tourist attraction in Uman is Sofiyivka Park, a park designed and built by a Polish count in honor of his wife, Sofia. A busload of touring Americans visited the park and had lunch at the park restaurant but then left for their next destination without spending the night in Uman.
Another Uman site of tragic interest to Davis visitors memorializes a terrible event - a Jewish massacre.
Jennifer McGuinness, 24, from Marietta, Ohio, is a Peace Corps worker assigned to Uman. Here, she's looking at a marble sculpture in the Uman art gallery, which used to be a Catholic cathedral.
While the city had erected a memorial, the plaque on it refers to "Soviet citizens" who lost their lives. In 1991 the Jewish Federation of Davis commissioned a solid brass plaque to be placed at a memorial in Uman. The plaque, hand-carried to Uman in 1992 by former Davis Mayor Maynard Skinner, identified them specifically as "Jewish citizens."
The Jews were slaughtered over a three-day period and the bodies of men, women and children were left in a ravine, Sukhy Yar, just outside of town. I visited the memorial in the ravine and laid some roses at the base. Then I walked around the memorial looking for the plaque. Then again. But the brass plaque on the memorial was gone; it had been stolen. No one I talked to believed the theft to be anti-Semitic; rather the plaque was likely taken for the value of its brass. Thieves had industriously worked at removing the Russian language and Hebrew plaques on the monument, too, and although several screws had been removed, those two plaques remained in place for the time being.
The next day Svitlana and I, with Tatiana acting as the interpreter, began interviewing the women who applied to take part in the Davis institute, conducting half the interviews on one morning, half the next.
It's no exaggeration to say that each applicant had her own fascinating story to tell. These women are sincerely interested in improving life for people in Ukraine. Ukrainians are eager to experiment with democracy - perhaps too eager. There are 98 political parties in Ukraine today.
Finally the difficult selection was made: In addition to Tatiana, we invited a radio journalist who works for Radio Free Europe, the city public health director, a young student who recently graduated from the university, the head of the city's social services department, a woman who hosts monthly readings for poets and writers, the curator of a university museum, and the assistant editor of the Uman newspaper. Several of these women already hold positions in city or regional government, and others might be interested in running for office in the future or helping to manage someone else's campaign.
They will be in Davis at the end of October 2000 for what I hope will be an interesting and educational look at democracy in action.