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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Ukraine

Globe and Mail Update
Wednesday, Sep. 17, 2003

Kiev — The old woman looked like Yoda — shrunken, hairy and leaning heavily on a gnarled walking stick.

She said she was 82, but she looked 20 years older.

I was in the middle of Stepantsy, a typical Ukrainian farming village about an hour's drive southeast of Kiev and she'd hobbled up out from her gated yard to assess the foreigner who had curiously landed in the midst of her hometown.

"Where are you from?" she challenged with typical Slavic bluntness, her eyes squinting as she looked up at me.

People who grew up in the Soviet Union were taught to distrust of foreigners, a habit many have found hard to shake.

Upon hearing I was Canadian, however, the old woman's suspicion changed to rapture.

"Many Ukrainians went to Canada," she told me.

The exodus was something she saw with her own eyes, having lived through two major famines in her lifetime.

"How are they?" she asked earnestly, with a hint of worry, as though inquiring about a pair of long-lost friends instead of a diaspora of some 1.2 million people.

I wished I had a quick answer — a family snapshot to show her of a few hundred thousand smiling Ukrainian-Canadians — so she wouldn't have to stand on the mud road any longer.

As sturdy as she was, she looked like she needed to sit down.

"How was she?" was the question going through my mind.

I know precious few Ukrainian-Canadians, sadly.

Having grown up in Eastern Ontario, I wasn't surrounded by the Ukrainian culture that's omnipresent in the West.

My general impression is that they're doing alright for themselves.

"Normalno" is the term in this part of the world.

However well they're doing individually, they collectively have the political and economic clout to move mountains in their mother country.

Before I landed in Kiev, I asked my translator, Yuri, to inquire about getting an interview with Viktor Yushchenko, a leading opposition figure whom most polls say will cruise to the presidency in next year's elections.

Yuri, a journalist for a local business magazine, chuckled at the thought.

"I don't think so," he told me. "It took us six months of asking just to get a 20-minute interview."

I told him to press on, and to emphasize the word "Canadian" when talking to Yushchenko's people, and to hint at how many Ukrainian-Canadians might read the article. It worked like a charm.

I landed in Kiev Wednesday night.

A 45-minute interview was set for Friday morning.

I was far less surprised than Yuri.

A year before, I had traveled to Ukraine along with a correspondent from The Guardian, a renowned London daily.

After a meeting at the presidential offices in central Kiev (or Kyiv, as it's properly pronounced), we passed a a group of picketers and decided to check into what the fuss was about.

Nick introduced himself as being from The Guardian, an opening line that usually brings nods of approval, especially around a picket line, given that paper's famous left lean.

Telling someone you work for The Globe and Mail, conversely, often garners nods of sympathetic understanding, followed by a "Hmmm, yes, the global mail."

Whatever a person's background, they can relate to the plight of an international postal worker.

The crowd was much more impressed to hear I was Canadian.

"Canada! Canada!" one man shouted, pointing to a Maple Leaf pin on his lapel.

Another ripped open his jean jacket to reveal a T-shirt underneath emblazoned with the Canadian flag. Both men had relatives in the Prairies. They dreamed of joining them.

Introducing yourself as Canadian doesn't always work so well — many times while traveling I've had my native land mistaken for something squished between Omaha and Idaho and found myself being asked to defend some perceived American wrong — but here the ties are thick.

In Stepantsy, my passport instantly erased my status as a stranger and made me a visiting relative.

Down the road from where I met the old woman, I encountered three more babushkas gossiping in the late summer sun.

Their first question was the same as hers — those that left, the ones that went to Canada — how are they?

I'm sure that in Toronto and Edmonton, and in a hundred cities and small towns in between, the reverse question comes to mind more than just occasionally.

The answer, I'm happy to report, is that despite the poor crops this year, the neverending political chaos in Kiev and the grinding poverty in the countryside, people here are getting by, their spirits generally unbroken.

When I asked, the answer I always got was normalno.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.