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Post-Soviet era stories help in understanding today’s Ukraine

Katya Cengel is a freelance writer and author based in California. Her work has appeared in New York Times Magazine, Marie Claire, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post among other publications. She has reported from North and Central America, Europe, Asia and Africa and was based in the former Soviet Union for half a decade. She was a features and news writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal from 2003 to 2011.

She is the author of “From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union” (Potomac, 2019); “Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back” (Potomac, 2018) and “Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life” (Nebraska, 2012), which was a finalist for the 2013 Kentucky Literary Award.

She has been awarded grants from the International Reporting Project, the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International Center for Journalists. Her series on the families of the Lost Boys of Sudan received a second place feature writing Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Award and her 2017 article “My brother’s killer is now my friend” was named one of BBC’s “Best big reads of 2017”.

1. Your book "From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union" is going to be released soon. Could you share with us 2-3 key points you touch upon in your book?

For me, "From Chernobyl with Love" is really about individual stories, the stories of what life was like during Soviet times and in the decade or so afterwards. When it comes to Ukraine, even today, few people know about the artificial famine that Ukrainians endured under Stalin. Fewer still understand what was going on politically prior to the Orange Revolution or the details of daily life outside of Kyiv in the early years of this century. It is through the characters in the book, people like Sveta, a music teacher in Kaniv, who still had a teaching job, just never received any pay, that I think those outside Ukraine can better understand what the transition years were like.

2. Unlike other journalists, writers, or tourists who often chose to visit such places as Budapest or Prague in Eastern Europe, why did you decide to spend time in Kyiv, Ukraine?

When I moved to Ukraine, Americans still needed a visa to visit, and in villages outside of Kyiv, there were still those who had never seen an American before. I remember one elderly woman at a hotel in Eastern Ukraine who could not provide heat or hot water for me in the dead of winter, but who was eager to hug her first American visitor. Today I imagine exchanges like that no longer happen. As a journalist, I like being places that are a little more off the beaten track, places where you can still discover stories that have not been told.

I chose Ukraine because it was bigger than Latvia, where I had previously been based and smaller than Russia. Moscow seemed overwhelming and well covered by journalists. Kyiv was more unknown and less well covered, yet because of Ukraine's size, its proximity to Russia, and the legacy of Chernobyl, it held interest to the West. I knew I could find stories in Ukraine that a western audience would be interested in reading.

3. What was your initial impression of Kyiv and its inhabitants? What differences did you notice between Ukrainians and Americans?

At the time, I remember that Ukrainians did not smile much in public, which was a little unnerving for me coming from California, where everyone smiles. Having lived in Latvia, though, I was somewhat used to it. Once I got to know Ukrainians, I found them very warm and friendly. When I was feeling homesick, a young woman at the paper where I worked whom I barely knew at the time invited me to travel home with her. One of the things I think that differed greatly between Ukrainians and Americans were the fear and distrust. So many people I tried to interview, especially the elderly, were afraid of talking to me. There was a general distrust of the government and organizations and institutions but the great trust of individuals. In the U.S. I think people tend to blindly trust that the government and institutions will take care of them, Ukrainians knew from experience that the only one you can trust is yourself and maybe your family and friends.

4. What challenges did you encounter in Ukraine, and how hard it was for you to adjust to Ukraine's realities?

Initially, I struggled to make friends and find a place for myself. In Latvia, I had begun work at an English language newspaper at the same time as a number of other new hires; we easily formed a close-knit group of friends. In Kyiv, my colleagues were more established, so it was harder for me to make friends. The language was another barrier. At the time in Kyiv, most people spoke Russian. I studied Russian while there, but my attempts were rudimentary. When I got sick, I had trouble understanding how the free medical system worked. It became clear that money was needed to obtain the best treatment, but I was never sure how one went about paying a doctor who officially was treating you for free. It was these little everyday interactions that locals performed without thought that would trip me up.

5. What did you feel when you visited Chernobyl for the first time? What made you come back there several times?

I was both scared and intrigued when I made my first trip to Chernobyl. When I learned that there were elderly people who had gone back to live in the exclusion zone surrounding the former nuclear power plant, I knew that was a story I wanted to tell. Chernobyl symbolizes so much, but to those residents, it was simply home. I wanted to understand how they manage to live in a ghost town where there are no shops, no mail, no government utilities, and no official way to enter or exit if residing there illegally as they were. Each time I returned was for part of the story I felt I hadn't completely told. I wanted to write about the people whose lives had been and were still being impacted by the nuclear power plant.

6. What do you think of Ukraine's development since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014? Would you like to revisit Ukraine?

While I follow what has happened in Ukraine, my vision is from afar. I see signs of hope in the way the younger generation views their country. I like that today, even with an ongoing war with Russia, many Ukrainians still consider those who are loyal to Ukraine to be Ukrainians, whether their native tongue is Russian or Ukrainian. I remember that acceptance from my time in Ukraine. I had many friends whose first language was Russian but identified as Ukrainian. The only region where I remember this being more of an issue was in western Ukraine, where the speaking of Russian was more frowned upon. That Crimea is no longer a part of Ukraine and that the east has become a battleground are hard for me to imagine. I would love to return for a visit, although I know the country in my memory is not the same one that exists today. Of course, that is true of any place one is absent from for a long period of time.

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