MediaNext: Onward to Donetsk! But What Will We Find There, Exactly?June 20, 2009
I’m on the train to Donetsk. First, I can’t believe I am back on a train, in Ukraine. Second, I have no idea what is to come. I’ve never been in the eastern part of Ukraine. Two plus years in Ukraine were all spent in the west, with the occasional middle and south. But never the east.
I’ve heard some things about this Donetsk. Coal miners die there all the time, it seems. This is the land of big Ukrainian industry, factories, oligarchs, disparity, Russianness, grouchiness, longing for the days of the Soviet Union, not so friendly to Ukrainian speakers, grey, crumbling, depressing, bitter. I’m sure there are other things, nice things. But this is what you hear most about from the Peace Corps friends I know who lived there.
Now, factor in that I will be meeting journalists, teaching them something (hopefully). But will they be different? If so, how? I can soften people in the west with the simple fact that my preferred spoken Slavic language is Ukrainian. In fact, a number of people cited that as one of their favorite things about me on their feedback forms. Not that this surprised me—I fully expected it.
But, I am going to the land where people learn Ukrainian and refuse to speak it. Refuse. That is what I am told. They learn it, and many don’t understand it. Because they, when you really dig into it, refuse. What happens when I start slinging Ukrainian at them? Will I lose them? Will they admire me for at least trying? Will this help or hurt? Hard to say. Especially given that so much of what I know about this part of the world is secondhand. And there are so many stories of people from the east traveling to the west afraid for their lives, stories that are simply fabricated atop fantasy. Why should this be any different in the other direction?
I’ve also heard that people in the east don’t have the same taste for Americans that people have in the west. Let’s hope that these people, as journalists, are at least well-informed enough to know we Americans are not all cut from the exact same cloth.
Throw in a little scoop of what I’m really going there to teach. I’m teaching social media, Web 2.0, tools designed to make you as public a person as possible. In a part of the world known very much for its closed approach to information, self-expression, and so on. For a long time, there was tremendous disincentive for Ukrainians to share their views in public. Just blend in, don’t rock the boat, and you don’t get a visit from a black car or a sign posted in the middle of town casting aspersion on your family, or whatever else the Soviet Union concocted to keep your lips zipped. So I hear. Also, so I hear, is that things haven’t changed so much in the east, when it comes to public self-expression. How exactly are these people going to react when I say, “Seriously, blogging, and all this social media stuff, is really just about exposing your opinions and viewpoints in public, and publishing in AS MANY PLACES AS POSSIBLE”. This should be interesting. Will the stories I have been told hold water, or will I find that story and reality are sometimes quite different things?
The thing is, though, I am extremely excited about the fact that I am going to Donetsk. Some people hear things, and they leave it at that. I always want to investigate. As for Donetsk, I have built it up so much in my head, there is much room for disappointment. But hey, let it all be true. That would satisfy. And if it isn’t true, at least let something surprise me about this place I’ve heard so much about that I have a very detailed mental image of it. I can’t wait. After this trip, will I finally say that I have BEEN to Ukraine? Is this like when I tell my European friends at Columbia that if they want to really experience America, they need to check out Alabama?
That I am on a train headed to Donetsk raises the excitement temperature 27 degrees, no less. I have been longing for overnight trips in a kupe on a train in Ukraine for three years now. Something interesting always happens on a train. Like this morning, for instance, when I woke up on the train from Lviv to Kyiv, at 6:15am, to an angry female conductor yelling “We are EXITING! We are EXITING!” at me. Yeah, I managed to hear her at 5:20, when she woke everyone up so they could spend the next 55 minutes preparing for their EXITING. Then I went back to sleep, knowing full well that I would wake up with several minutes left in our trip to get ready, because that’s how it has always worked for me. Except this morning, when I opened my eyes and noticed that I actually recognized the station—Kyiv station. AHH!! I launched, flailed arms and legs and belongings in all directions until they were somehow in my bags, at which point the conductor started to really lay into me from down the hall, telling me how all the “polite people” had prepared when she woke them up. I’d had enough, of course, because that’s how I am when grouchy people from Ukraine wave their little baton of power at me. I stopped what I was doing, leaned out into the hall, and told her, “I am working in Ukraine to help people. I am sorry.” In as stern and focused a voice as I could give her at that hour. Had it been a little later, and I been a little less foggy, I would have gone onto say that I was in Ukraine to help journalists improve their skills so they could better inform people and help people by providing them better information. Not that that makes me so important. But at least I am still a good person, right? And doesn’t sacrificing for Ukraine, as I did for two years of Peace Corps, also make me a good person? This is how my mind thinks when you rip me out of my sleep and start yelling at me. Give me sour, you get sour. Give me sugar, you get sugar.
Maybe reading this, you don’t quite get the gravity or intensity. Unless you’ve been to this part of the world, in which case you definitely can relate, without hesitation. Picture your worst stereotype of a gruff and cold Russian woman in a uniform barking. That’s it, exactly.
Anyway, on the train, at night, there is also something so comforting about the light finally going off, me finally getting a chance to throw in my headphones, close my eyes, and rock to sleep as the train sways and bounces its way to yet another stop along the way.
I turn my face into the howling wind. It took me a long time to get back on the train.
Author’s Note: This is part of a series of posts on my experiences doing New Media trainings with Internews-Ukraine in June 2009, as part of their MediaNext initiative, in partnership with European Journalism Centre. These views are my own, and do not reflect those of Internews-Ukraine or European Journalism Centre. Just so we’re clear on that.
Photo: Actually, it’s a mine in Pennsylvania. But, I like how it captures both the train quality and also the daunting quality. Courtesy of wallyg.