Ukraine war stirs powerful memories

By Ernestine Williams Krehbiel | March 31, 2022

Ernestine Williams Krehbiel

My first trip abroad took place in summer 1990 with a group of Wichita educators touring the Soviet Union. We were in Moscow first where I tried to pick up how to say please and thank you. Then we went to Kiev, Ukraine. 

Some powerful memories of Ukraine. As I said, I had learned the Russian word for thank you and when I used it with the housekeeper at out Kiev hotel, it was clear she was offended and upset that I thanked her is Russian. I tried to apologize. With sign language, I asked her how to say it in Ukrainian. She showed me forming her lips. She was very pleased.

In Kiev, we happened to be on a tour bus outside the Ukrainian Parliament building with a communist watchdog — our Intourist guide —aboard our bus on the very day that the Parliament made what she said was a “meaningless gesture” of passing a from the U.S.S.R. That this normally rubber-stamping body would be gutsy enough to defy Moscow was astounding to me.

Our Intourist watchdog asked why I was excited since it meant nothing. I replied I was watching history being made. This communist lackey did not know it but I was more prescient than she. This was July of 1990 and the U.S.S.R. collapsed a little more than one year later.

I just had to get off that bus to take a picture of an old shriveled WWII soldier dancing on the plaza in front of the Parliament. He was in a too-large men’s suit with his military hat. He had all his WWII military awards covering the lapels and breast of the jacket and he was so joyous about this “only symbolic” Declaration of Independence from the Soviet Union.

That Intourist guide/watchdog had me targeted from then on and when our group was flying out of the Soviet Union weeks later, I alone in our group was interrogated by guards and then KGB for several hours before I was finally allowed to board my plane with the group.

Of course, maybe it was also that I had slipped a paperback New Testament to the Ukrainian translator on our bus in Kiev when she secretly signaled she was a Christian and had never been able to have her own Bible. Gee, I wonder why the Soviet authorities thought I might be trouble?

And then there were the nesting dolls that ridiculed USSR leaders that I bought at the artists’ illegal capitalist market. But that’s a story for another day.