THE KERCH STRAIT
By the end of my first month in Mukachevo, I finally felt like I had actually started the whole Peace Corps thing. After a grueling training process, in which I wasn’t helping anyone other than myself, I felt a newfound pride in actually going to work every day and contributing to society. While things in the classroom had been far from smooth, I was at least leaving school every day feeling like I had accomplished something and being thankful that I was not only loving the beautiful town I was placed in, but also the work that came along with it.
This is why the events of November 25, 2018, were all the more distressing.
That night, I was laying in bed in my new home after having dinner with my host family. As I scrolled through stories on the Instagram I had created a few weeks earlier (which is obligatory if you want to make friends in Ukraine), I came across a post saying something along the lines of, “Russian Navy Attacks Ukrainian Vessels at the Kerch Strait.” That… was concerning. What was more concerning was the email I got the next morning from our safety and security director:
Security Message to ALL PCVs – ALERT status declared!
Tension between Russia and Ukraine escalated yesterday and last night due to Russia’s aggressive actions towards 4 Ukrainian Navy ships that took place near the Kerch Strait in the Azov Sea.
As of now, we do not anticipate a threat to PCVs. The issue was brought to the attention of the international community by Ukraine and the Government of Ukraine is working on actions in response. One possible scenario is the introduction of Martial Law, which would limit ability for mass gatherings, require additional checkpoints on roads, limit movement in the conflict area, etc…
Tension between Russia and Ukraine? Alert Status? Martial Law?
Uh oh, I thought while getting ready to sing songs with some ten-year-olds. This could only mean one thing: We’re going to be evacuated, just one month after I had made it past training.
To give some context, I should explain some of the details of the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia. In 2014, Ukrainian citizens overthrew their government. Protests began on November 21, 2013, when the sitting president, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign an economic pact with the European Union, and instead chose to pursue a similar agreement with Russia. This was all after Yanukovych promised in 2011 to do the opposite. This sudden change of course did not sit well with the majority of the country, who saw the move as a major step away from the democratic and western trajectory of Ukraine to the oppressive times of Soviet rule.
That night, protests erupted in the central square in Kyiv, as thousands of Ukrainians started to make their voices heard. About a week later on November 30th, tensions flared as the “Berkut,” an oppressive semi-autonomous militia that was commonly known for attacking and torturing protesters, ruthlessly beat a group of student protesters and non-protesting civilians with batons. This further inflamed protests, and by December over one million people were gathering at the central square every day.
Soon, what started out as pro-European protests quickly turned into a full-scale revolution, which is now known famously as “Euromaidan,” “The Maidan Revolution,” and the “Revolution of Dignity.” After months of tension, lethal violence erupted in February, when the Berkut began shooting live rounds at protesters between February 18th-20th, which resulted in over one hundred casualties. The capital city of Ukraine turned into a war zone, as protesters used DIY shields and literal fire to protect themselves (I highly recommend the documentary “Winter on Fire” on Netflix. It does more justice telling the story of the revolution than I ever could).
On February 22nd, as protests continued and intensified, the sitting president fled to Russia in the middle of the night, confirming his true allegiance that most Ukrainians knew all along. Soon afterward snap elections were held, a new government was formed, the European Association Agreement was signed, and the Ukrainian people successfully protected their independence from Russian influence and intervention. The Ukrainian people had won, for the moment.
The revolution that ousted Putin’s man and completely changed Ukraine’s ideological course from being a Russian pseudo-state to a Western ally came with swift retaliation from the east. Not less than a month later, Russian-backed forces started an armed conflict in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which began a war between the two parties that has killed over 14,000 Ukrainians. This has led to hundreds of thousands of IDPs (internally displaced people) fleeing their homes in the east, civilian deaths, immeasurable trauma, and hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure damage. And now, in February 2022, Russia has massively escalated the invasion and started shelling cities all throughout Ukraine.
At the same time conflict began escalating in the east, unmarked Russian forces invaded and subsequently annexed the profitable tourist port region of Crimea in the southeast, which on the international stage has been condemned as illegal and has drawn worldwide criticism and sanctions against Russia. The Berkut, having been dissolved by the Ukrainian government after the revolution, defected to Russia and now has a sizable presence maintaining “order” in Crimea.
Here enters the Kerch Strait. The Kerch Strait, a sort of passageway that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, is directly in between Crimea and Western Russia. Basically, this slim body of water is the only thing separating Crimea and greater Russia. This strait leads to the Azov Sea, which directly borders Crimea in the east, the active war zone of Donetsk in the north, and Western Russia. The sea is a strategic region for both Ukraine and Russia, and in 2003 they signed a treaty stating that both countries could peacefully operate and co-exist there. However, a lot has happened since 2003, and to say that this is a hotly contested and sensitive region is like saying fish enjoy water.
On that November evening in 2018, this potential hotbed is where the Russian Navy attacked Ukrainian vessels, captured them, and took the Ukrainian crew as hostages. Although I tend to be on the more neurotic and paranoid side, it wasn’t a far jump to think that an attack and capture of Ukrainian vessels by Russian forces in an incredibly sensitive region could have been a tipping point to a full-scale escalation of war.
With all of this impressed into my mind, an email from the safety and security manager that morning talking about Russian aggression and the implementation of martial law set off an atomic bomb of nerves at seven in the morning.
“What is wrong, Robert?” My host brother Zhenya asked me at breakfast, as I aimlessly stared into my soup.
“Oh nothing, just a lot of work today,” I replied while going through worst-case scenarios in my head.
I looked up at my host family, who were acting completely normal.
I guess they haven’t heard the news, I thought while slurping down the remains of breakfast. I left the table as soon as I could, not knowing how well I’d be able to continue to hide my “end of the world” type disposition.
Reading the “Alert” part of the email left me the most distraught. During our various safety and security meetings during training, we learned that the Alert Stage is the first of three stages that occur when there is a heightened security risk in the country. The third stage is the evacuation of all volunteers, and merely one month into our service we were one-third of the way towards evacuating.
This wouldn’t be a new experience for PC Ukraine, which successfully evacuated volunteers in February of 2014 due to the Maidan Revolution, so evacuation was not far out of the realm of possibilities.
The stars of me being traumatized were beautifully aligning, and all I could do was scream internally as I ironed a white button-down. Our prospects of continuing service weren’t looking good, especially for the paranoid type like myself, and if the Peace Corps could evacuate volunteers for geopolitical problems with Russia before, they could do it again.
However, just like the rest of the country, I still had to go to work that day and fulfill my societal duties. I don’t know how I or any of my colleagues could be asked to do that, because it’s hard to put on a happy face and sing songs about farm animals when we could be in a full-scale war in less than a week. How could I shove this news to the back of my mind? How could I look my optimistic eleventh graders in the eye, wondering if half of them could be drafted by graduation?
I entered the school, and much like the cloudy and grey atmosphere that accompanied my bus ride, the entire school was dim. In fact, I noticed that there were no lights on at all. I wondered if it was a holiday or something, but I heard teachers working in various classrooms.
Maybe the power’s out, I thought. Fitting on a day like this.
I sulked up to the teachers’ room, not knowing if it would be appropriate to bring up the situation, but luckily I didn’t face that choice because no one was there. It felt a little odd, being in a dark and deserted teachers’ room, but I had arrived about twenty minutes into the second period of the day, so I assumed everyone was teaching.
I took a seat at the wooden oval table in the center and sprawled my things. While waiting for the third period to start, I began writing the pros and cons of getting evacuated.
“Ok, pro,” I said quietly enough so no one could hear I was talking myself, “I’ve made six hundred and fifty bucks during my stay in Ukraine. After coming home I will get a nice chunk of change in my bank account. Not bad.” All right, not bad. One pro for evacuation.
“Con: My dreams will be destroyed.” Ok, one con for evacuation.
I tried to make as many pros as I could, but they were mostly reaches. The other pros of getting to say I lived in Eastern Europe for four months and that I had lost some weight after being slightly underfed during training were all I had to justify why getting evacuated wasn’t going to be the worst thing to ever happen to me. My anxiety was far from subsiding, and checking group chats where other volunteers were texting in all caps didn’t make things better. The enraged caffeine frenzy wasn’t helping either, but even then I debated grabbing a third espresso in a desperate attempt to feel something different than existential terror.
Before I could make such an unwise decision, my counterpart Myroslava came into the teacher’s room with a solemn look on her face. We greeted each other, and I could tell that something was wrong.
“Robert, do you mind if we speak in my room?” she asked.
“Of course, is everything ok?”
“Yes, but we need to talk in my room.”
Not a good sign. We walked through the dark hallway and down two flights of stairs without saying a word. When we finally made it to room six, Myra sat me down and began trying to find the right words to say.
“Robert,” Myra said with a pause, “I want to be upfront with you.”
“Ok,” I said, awaiting the worst.
“I’m telling you this because I know you’re new here and this isn’t your culture. If I were in your shoes I’d want to know as well…”
“So,” she continued, “Here you go: Whenever you see one of the teachers, you have to say hi to them. They won’t say hi to you, but you need to say hi to them. It’s a cultural thing – I don’t blame you because you didn’t know, but it’s seen as rude if you don’t greet them first.”
I didn’t know what was more shocking: The fact that we weren’t discussing the potential oncoming annihilation of Ukraine, or that I had been offending the majority of my colleagues without saying a word.
“Oh, um, ok. I’m sorry, I had no idea.”
“It’s fine,” she replied, “And I think they understand too. Don’t worry too much about it. Also, another thing: On Sundays, when you communicate with your other co-teachers about lesson plans, you need to text them in the evening instead of in the morning. In the morning we go to church, and don’t start planning until the afternoon.”
After the second comment, Myra took a sigh of relief and began to gauge my reaction. Both were very helpful pieces of advice, which I took to heart and made sure not to forget for the rest of my time in Mukachevo, but I still couldn’t get the Kerch Strait conflict out of my mind.
“Thank you, Myra, that’s all very helpful.”
“I hope you won’t get too sad about this!” She said while standing up with a smile, “Everything is fine, and you’re doing a great job teaching.”
“Thank you,” I said while racking my brain. “Please feel free to let me know about these things as time goes on. But,” I said with a pause.
I decided to go for it and breach the Kerch Strait subject. I didn’t want to make anyone upset, but as my Peace Corps assigned counterpart, Myroslava and I had a relationship that made us closer than just colleagues.
“Did you see what happened in the Azov Sea?” I blurted out. She looked confused, which wasn’t a reaction that I prepared for. “You know, the Russian navy attacked a Ukrainian ship and took the sailors as hostages. Did you hear?”
“Oh, that,” Myra replied nonchalantly, “Yes, I did.” She paused, “It’s very unfortunate, but these things happen. It’s Ukraine. I wouldn’t think about it too much if I were you.”
It felt like quite an odd response, seeing as she was a lot more relaxed about the existential state of her homeland than I was. However, I took the hint that the conversation was unnecessary and wouldn’t do anything to subside my worries, and I decided not to press forward.
The bell rang (almost on cue), so I thanked her for her suggestions and for letting me talk to her about the incident.
“No problem, Robert. Feel free to come to me about anything. I’m happy we can communicate about things like this.”
Seconds after the bell went off, students and teachers dispersed into the hallway. What I saw once again surprised me: It wasn’t a wave of depression and solemn stares like I had envisioned walking into school that day. In fact, everyone was acting the exact same, even without a single light on in the school. The lower schoolers were running around and playing in the hallway, their teachers were trying their best to make sure they didn’t run into each other, men were shaking each others’ hands and the teenagers were being…teenagery. Even with the darkened hallways, everyone was acting like everything was going according to plan.
The only real change was that I started saying hi to the other teachers, who finally smiled at me and shot a friendly greeting back. At that point, I laughed. If there was an oncoming war, it definitely didn’t show in School 16. Nevertheless, my theories for the lack of community-wide panicking soon began.
I initially thought that people here were disconnected from the problems in the east, seeing as we were in the most Western part of the country. But anecdotally I had already had a few discussions with some patriots who were both proud of their heritage and despised the Russian regime. Sasha, one of the custodians at school, and I would talk regularly about the “unfortunate situation” in the east, and he always wanted to hear my opinions about U.S. and Russian relations. Indifference couldn’t be the reason for everyone.
I then thought that perhaps because the situation was so new and had only happened the night before, most people didn’t know about it and were living in happy ignorance until they checked the news later that day. But that didn’t make much sense either. It’s not like Ukraine is in the dark ages: Almost everyone I knew had a smartphone, and my host family watched the news every morning. Additionally, Myra knew about it, and sure enough during lunchtime Sasha wanted my take on the situation. He, unlike the rest of the school, was feeling down.
“What do you think will happen?” I asked as he plopped buckwheat on my plate.
“No one knows. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t even know if we’ll be at work tomorrow. It’s a scary situation.”
I was a little relieved to hear someone who was on the same page as me, but he was just about the only example.
A more fitting conclusion came from Myra’s “this stuff happens all the time” attitude, because compared to Ukraine’s brutal contemporary history, this may have felt like a minor incident.
The rest of Chapter 6 can be read in Slipping on the Ice, available now on Amazon!