The Borderland

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Borderlands are dangerous places.

No matter what their topography or economic value, they are desirable, for one reason or another, to both sides in any conflict.

Borderlands tend to be small, which means they don’t often have a significant population. And whatever population there is tends to be insignificant to the larger conflict.

Sometimes borderlands are a much bigger deal.

I went to work in The Borderland during the summer of 2004. It was my second trip to Ukraine, and it was far more auspicious than the first.

In 1990, Ukraine was transitioning from a Soviet state to a free country. We had to trade vodka and soccer balls for access to household goods like toilet paper. We waited in long lines for food and to use bathrooms and for things we didn’t even know if we needed or not.

The first thing that struck me when I landed in Kyiv in the summer of 2004 was the money. The glass cases in the airport were full of crystal decorated vodka bottles with matching glasses.

Everything was clean, and there were more BMWs and Mercedes than Ladas on roads that were immaculate in comparison to the ones I traveled more than a decade before.

Borderlands are porous by nature, and Russia bleeds into Ukraine like an aorta from the heart.

When I say auspicious, I mean my first ever assignment as a working journalist was in a country on the verge of revolution. A peaceful, even colorful, revolution, but a revolution nonetheless.

I covered a riot at the U.S. Embassy and chased oligarchs through the streets of Kyiv in a taxi with one of the most daring reporters I’ve ever worked with. I embedded myself in the Palestinian community and learned more in a summer than I learned in my first three years of college.

There was a gentlemen at a bar who introduced himself to me one night. We became fast friends, and traveled around the country together. He introduced me to poet laureates and members of parliament.

He showed me Ukrainian vodka, and when he’d go out to dance with his girlfriend, I’d put water in my glass with ice and lemon. My Ukrainian friends thought I had an iron intolerance to booze.

When we visited his hometown of Lviv together, I learned that his family name is legendary in Ukraine. Synonymous with revolution, freedom, politics and controversy.

His name was Bandera.

In Ukraine, heroes are not just heroes, they are not clean and dandy like heroes in the west. Heroes often come with another side altogether that is a shade of the complexity that is a land where more than 10 million people died from hunger. A population replaced by exiles from the north. A land where the bounty is fertilized with the blood and bones of generations of martyrs.

Ukraine’s leaders are extreme.

Extremely corrupt, passionately nationalistic, inept, bold, angry, psychotic, patriotic, confused, strong, there are dozens of descriptions for the men and women who rule the Borderland.

Strong armed by Putin, coveted by Europe, the more then 40 million residents of Ukraine are pawns in a massive game of Risk, where a breadbasket is the ultimate prize.

The fervor that would feed the Orange Revolution was coming to a boil when I worked at the Kyiv Post. My man-on-the-street interviews were characterized by some passionate folks with a brand-new concept of freedom of speech.

The women I worked with complained that the men of Ukraine had slipped into an alcoholic stupor over low wages and few opportunities, and the men I worked with complained that the city dwellers were materialistic and would accept tyranny in return for Prada.

A few journalists left the state-sponsored media outlets and began to blog on their own, creating a new window of information about upcoming elections. Every web site that was shutdown meant a new website would pop up somewhere else in a few hours, and the writers would send out massive text alerts telling people where to find them.

I visited Chernobyl to see the ghost villages and the inhabitants starting to creep back from melt-down exile.

And I traveled by train, truck and foot to Transnistria, a break-away state, a borderland on the edge of a borderland.

I have followed the story of Ukraine in my heart and in the news since I worked there, watching every step forward and lamenting the many steps backward the country has taken in the last decade.

When the country was in the midst of the Orange Revolution and my friends were camping out in Maidan, we wrote notes back and forth every day. I tried to give encouragement, and they asked questions about how much the rest of the world knew about their plight.

Ukraine is in the news again, but it is not peaceful this time. Far from it, in fact.

For those of us who have hurried through her streets in taxis trying to get to parliament to cover a fist fight or spent evenings at Bar Baraban cavorting with Dutch diplomats and listening in on the gossip of a nation trying to find its identity outside of mother Russia, this death toll is unacceptable.

But we’ll be the last to tell you not to fight, not to go forward.

Because we know all too well how much rides on a Ukraine with its own identify.

A borderland caught between two strong personalities will either be objectified and controlled or find itself and turn the tables and become the regulator between the two other powers.

Ukraine is not a wasteland, it is too highly prized.

Ukrainians know their net worth. They understand the price of a soul. The cost of a culture.

And so they spend night after night in Maidan protesting until Yanukovych flees and elections are held and hopefully someone steps up and puts the country first.

It’s better to be a strong buffer between super powers than a weak border with no sense of purpose.

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