Kiev did not seem familiar when I visited a few years ago for the first and only time. Old and a little tired, but friendly. Reasonable.
It wasn't scary and off-putting; it was bright and shiny. Red Square meets Beverly Hills, more mirrors than Las Vegas - like the little bright pocket I found myself in when I visited Moscow a few days later.
I prefer Ukraine, I told my daughter, who had traveled there the year before, taught English, visited the little village where her father's mother was born.
Last year, when we visited my dad's 90-year-old sister, the last person who might know on that side of the family, my daughter asked her where our family was from, and she said Kyiv.
Maybe that's why the pictures look so horrifying.
I was there. I remember that plaza. I was in downtown Kiev. I wasn't afraid. Now I look at the pictures, at what was the pleasant downtown, at the plaza and the government buildings, and it is all very scary.
It was my Aunt Ida who made her way to this country first, I think. My grandfather went to Argentina. I never knew the whole story. Somewhere in there, my grandfather got sick and lost all his hair. Did he have papers when he came here? I never asked. I never asked about the "old country" or, if I did, never got answers. Who would want to talk about that?
So I watch, in our connected world, as people in a place I might be from fight for freedoms I grew up taking for granted.
Who will win? I am not an expert in Ukrainian politics. I know which way the wind is blowing but not how long it will take, even for a strong wind. There is, I know, a part of Ukraine, not the part I visited, that is more Russian than European (although, to be honest, I have always thought of my relatives as Russian, not European), where the ties to Moscow are stronger and the suspicions of the West and the EU much greater. I know all too well that free elections don't always produce victories for democracy. Change is slow and hard, and yet only a generation separates my grandfather, born there, somewhere, and me.
The next time I go to Ukraine, I will look a little bit more closely, do some homework before I go, try to figure out whether there is anything left halfway around the world that would mark the fact that my grandfather and his sisters lived there before taking the risks that made my life possible, the same kinds of risks that men and women are taking today for their children and grandchildren.
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