Faces of Ukraine and Russia

I used to watch a sub-titled South Korean soap opera in the 80’s, that encompassed several generations of families, including Western influenced young adults.  And though the characters were fictional, I had experienced the lives of people half way around the world who, when North Korea started rattling their sabers, I could reference.  I may not have known specific South Koreans, but I knew some of their stories and how they lived and so they were not faceless unfortunates spotlighted for three minutes on the evening news.  They were people just like me, trying to live their lives in peace.

I’m having a similar, but much more authentic, experience now with Heygo.com.  I’ve mentioned Heygo, the virtual travel site, before.  I’ve taken tours with Olga Dudakova in Kyiv and Anna Levina in St. Petersburg and though they are not friends in the tradition sense, they are the people I immediately thought about as night after night of the evening news showed Russian troops gathering on the borders of Ukraine.

If it would be helpful for you to put faces to this human rights disaster, let me introduce you to these two women, mothers and tour guides in very different kinds of peril.

Olga Dudakova, like most of the Heygo guides, loves her city.  I have been to beautiful churches, interesting neighborhoods and a funicular ride down to the riverside with Olga, who always imparts a ton of facts and great stories.  I think she’s just old enough to remember the days of the Soviet occupation and on one tour, pointed out specific buildings, austere and foreboding, built during those dark times. 

Cave Monastery, Kyiv, the Vatican of Eastern Europe

She has fled with her three children to a small town west of Kyiv.  They are safe for now and she actually gave a tour of a mansion built by a previous president of the Ukraine.  If she is able to escape to another country, it will be a long, fearful journey.  Her husband will need to stay and fight.  There is very little food and no fuel, plus curfews and blackouts.  She is afraid of nuclear bombs and said, “Day four and it feels like it has been 1 year.” 

Anna Levina, licensed tour guide extraordinaire of St. Petersburg, Russia, is probably the most enthusiastic guide in the Heygo stable.  Her passion for her city and its history suffuses every tour she leads.  From Rasputin’s apartment, to amazing architecture, parks and river boats, she’s led tours at all hours and in all weather. She is a wife and mother of a six-year-old boy.

The Spilled Blood Cathedral, St. Petersburg

She is hoping to be able to continue to do her tours and has scheduled a Ukrainian literature tour for this Friday, March 4.  At this point, Russian internet is tenuous.  She has spoken out on her Instagram account, writing, “I am so ashamed of what my government has done and is doing.  Nobody asked ordinary Russian people if they wanted this war.  We didn’t…  I am not my government.”

These two women and their families have been in my thoughts and prayers for the last six days and will continue to be.  I fear for them—Olga in a war zone and Anna for speaking out in a country where dissent is not tolerated. 

These are the faces of Ukraine and Russia.

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