With images and news footage of Ukraine broadcast at every turn I can’t help but reflect on my 2 ½ years serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine (1998-2000). Ukraine was listed as the first potential placement on my acceptance letter and I jumped at the chance to volunteer my time as a Business Development Volunteer in Eastern Europe, a place a never really knew much about other than it being the Breadbasket of the Soviet Union and of course Chernobyl.
Listed as Group 11, we started our service with 4 months of intensive language and cultural immersion in the town of Cherkassy, just over 100 miles south of Kiev along the Dnieper River. Right away our group divided into separate language classes, those whose site locations would be in the East or in Crimea would learn Russian, and everyone else would learn Ukrainian. We were told that the country is divided linguistically and even though (in 1998) the official language was Ukrainian it was best we learned the language most used in the regions we were going to. (in 2012 Yanukovych signed a new law that allows cities to pass legislation that would give any minority tongue the status of an official language if 10% or more of the population of that region speaks it as a native tongue.)
My first site was in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s 2nd largest city nearly 300 miles East of Kiev yet just 25 miles away from the Russian border. I loved exploring the city; beautiful architecture, great markets, gorgeous metro stations and occasionally stumbling into a McDonald’s or Baskin Robbins to fulfill my western food cravings. It was early on when I realized that no matter what I tried to do to blend in everyone always knew I was a Westerner. What surprised me was when people would stop me at the market or in the metro and ask me what time it was (they would ask me in Russian.) I would happily look at my watch and reply with the time (speaking Russian.) They would then ask me the most unusual question… Moskve vremya? (Moscow time?) Confused I would say no Kharkiv time. It was then that they would begin to tell me that they “feel themselves Russian” and how they are united with Moscow. It’s important to note they didn’t go by Moscow time in their daily lives (Moscow is 2 hours ahead of Ukraine). I quickly realized they used this as a way to tell me their political stance and historical ties with Russia.
Fast forward a year and a Belgium company purchased my site in Kharkiv. I needed a new site and the only one available mid-way through my service was a women’s non-profit group in Uzhgorod, meaning I would travel by train 48 hours nearly the full distance of Ukraine’s width over 800 miles to the West.
I got settled into life in Uzhgorod, a beautiful town of about 100K population at the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. I spent my free time learning my way around, enjoying the fresh mountain air and wondering who this Igen person was that everyone was talking about on the streets. It took me a few days to realize that Igen isn’t a person, but how one says “yes” in Hungarian. Yes, I now found myself in a town 500 miles South West of Kiev, and just 3 miles to the Slovakian border and 17 miles from the Hungarian border. I quickly understood that my Russian wasn’t going to be my best asset here. I struggled to quickly speak surzhyk a vocabulary mix of Russian & Ukrainian said to have originated at the end of the 18th century.
In just two weeks after moving to Uzhgorod a nice women tapped me on the arm and in Ukrainian asked me Yaky chas? What time is it? I mustered up my best Ukrainian and told her the time. So proud that she understood my new-found language, I was surprised that she next asked “Budapest chas?” Budapest time? Hungary is 1 hour behind Ukraine. And yet again I would be in a political discussion and history lesson on how this region belonged to Hungary and how they felt themselves part of Europe.
I wonder what time it is in Ukraine today?