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. In Moscow, people pretended they had no idea what I meant when I asked where the "Bolshoi" was. They just laughed when I named the hotel, although I later realized you could practically see it from where I was standing. In Kiev, even though they really didn't understand me, they tried.
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.
I can't say where I would be if my aunt is right and that's where her father, my grandfather, started out a hundred years ago. The town my daughter found, from her father's side, is not far from Chernobyl. "Kyiv" could have meant any of the little villages in the Pale where Jews once lived and many more died.
Are there women from those villages, distant cousins too far removed to remember, fighting for freedom? Or did they leave Kiev because Jews could not be educated there and end up in one of the other industrial cities, like the one where my daughter taught at the Jewish school?
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?
"What if I were to go there?" I, who had never been on an airplane, once asked. Why would you go there?
So I never went, until it was a business trip; never asked, until just last year; never knew, and still don't.
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.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.
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