Many years ago, on separate occasions, I visited Russia and Ukraine as a journalist. That does not make me an expert on these countries. But recent events have reawakened memories of the people and cultures during that historic period.
And it made me wonder how we got to the dismal place we are today.
The only documentation I have of these trips are stamps in long-expired passports and five photographic slides. Somewhere there is a column I wrote on the Russia trip for the newspaper in Maine where I was an editor at the time. Somewhere else there is a report I made to the US Agency for International Development, which sponsored my Ukraine trip. But I don’t have them.
According to my passport, I visited Russia in November of 1992. This trip included a delegation of New England Journalists on an exchange with Russian counterparts. A year later, we hosted the Russian journalists in our homes.
My trip to Ukraine was in October 1997 when I traveled mostly with a translator and sometimes with another journalist. Our job was to to introduce western-style journalism concepts to Ukrainian journalists.
Russia’s brutal invasion of and gloves-off war with Ukraine – keep in mind that if I were to write those words in Russia today I could be jailed for 15 years under restrictions on journalists imposed March 4 – show just how cruel and circular history can be, and how we seem to fail to learn from it.
The Soviet Union was dissolved on Dec. 26, 1991. Russia, by default, became the successor state of the USSR. Boris Yeltsin had become president of Russia in June 1991. At this time, Ukraine gained its independence.
Now, despite fierce resistance, that independence is in peril. Three decades later that is the cruel circle of history closing, choking the life out of a free and vibrant democracy.
When I visited Russia in 1992, the concept of independent journalism free from state censorship was nascent. News organizations, formerly under state control, had no idea how to earn the money they needed to do their work.
As David Shipler wrote that year in the Baltimore Sun after a similar trip, “American discussion of journalists’ rights and practices found little resonance” among the Russian journalists.
Rather, he wrote, “They continue, as under the Soviet regime, to lace their reporting with their own or their papers’ political opinions.” Their lack of balance cost them their credibility.
In Moscow and St. Petersburg, we met with journalists who were stuck in the old ways and not ready to embrace their independence. But out in the country, we met with artists and small businesspeople bristling with excitement about their new independence. The press needed to catch up.
It was a confusing and chaotic time in the new regime. In one dark city, grim workers trudged to state factories in the early morning gloaming. But in another town, at a business that could not have existed before, women in an independently owned shop proudly sewed clothing for the open market.
In Moscow, we had tea with some dull, mid-level leftover Soviet government bureaucrat in the Kremlin who droned on endlessly about basically nothing as we asked questions and he avoided them.
Five years later, Ukraine had grown into its independence and shed the dour Soviet mantle. Cultural life had blossomed. Creativity was everywhere. And journalists, while often still drawn to ideology, were eager to learn how to thrive economically while gaining credibility, respect, and independence through balanced reporting.
When I arrived in what was then Kiev – but is now known as Kyiv to distance it from its Soviet history – I stayed in a huge old hotel that looked out on Independence Square, the city’s central square.
Tired from travel, I went to bed early but was soon awakened by explosions and crashes just outside my window. I pulled the curtain on the most remarkable fireworks celebration I have ever seen. It went on and on as crowds cheered.
I don’t know the occasion, but it may have been an early version of Defender of Ukraine Day. Although that wasn’t officially declared until 2014, Oct. 14 is also the anniversary of the founding of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1942.
Today, darkness has settled on that square and on all of Ukraine. A maniacal tyrant has decided that the world would be better off without this vibrant country and its 43 million people. Journalists are being silenced.
The cycle of history closes. The noose tightens. History teaches us a lesson: Given the least opportunity, evil always resurfaces. And not just in Ukraine.
Soon, I hope, it will be fireworks, rather than missiles, that flare over Independence Square. But today that seems unlikely.
Perhaps we could have done more. Now, all we can do is pray for those poor souls, and remember: They are us.
Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.