Over the past week I have been watching, as I’m sure all of you have, the events unfolding in Ukraine with a mixture of horror and sadness. It’s such a terrible thing to see a sovereign country be invaded by a foreign power, totally unprovoked, and to see so many civilian targets being hit, killing and injuring innocent men, women, and children. On the other hand, it has been uplifting to see the resilience, determination, and sheer bravery of the Ukrainian people, as well as to see so many nations standing in solidarity with them.
The events of this week have caused me to think back to one of the defining events of my own life, which was a trip I made to the former Soviet Union as a young girl. In fact, I celebrated my 14th birthday in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv (formerly Kiev) on April 9, 1985. The trip my mom and I went on was with a peace activist group called Earthstewards and there were some 40 of us on the trip—people of all ages and walks of life who believed in the possibility of peace on earth. Our mission was to create one-on-one connections with the Soviet people that could foster a sense of humanity and commonality between us. In those days, with the Cold War still in effect, Russians were called “commies” and I was actually teased in school for the trip I took. On our trip, we hoped to dispel some of the animosity between Americans and Soviets through the simple act of making friends. In the former Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Cherkassy, and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, we met with youth groups, friendship organizations, and civic bodies, using our form of “civilian diplomacy” to try to change hearts and minds. Once we got home, we held informational meetings in the community to share what we had learned—basically that the Soviets were people too and wanted peace as much as we did.
I can remember being a child and actually worrying about the possibility of a nuclear war. At a very young age, I attended nuclear freeze marches with my mom, learned what Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was, and even wrote an impassioned letter to Gorbachev, imploring him to seek peace between our nations. I can remember seeing and being haunted by the terrifying movie, The Day After, in 1983, which depicted a fictionalized nuclear war and the devastating fallout we learned was called a “nuclear winter.” I can remember lying awake at night and wondering if a nuclear war would occur while I was sleeping and wipe out the earth.
After the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe, and over 30 years of peace between our nations, it’s hard to believe we are practically back where we started. When I hear talk of nuclear missiles on the news, I am taken back to those years when I feared a nuclear war more than anything else in the world. Sometimes it feels like we human beings take one step forward and two steps back, doesn’t it?
I long for the idealism of my youth, that innocent but powerful passion and belief that I could help change the world by handing out peace buttons on the metro in Leningrad or by writing a letter to one of the most powerful men in the world. At 14 it all seemed so simple—we are all human beings! We don’t want to die or destroy our world, and neither does our “enemy”! Can’t we just live in peace with one another? Can’t we just all be friends?
I went searching for the journal I kept on that trip 37 years ago and, surprised at having found it on my bookshelf, I was rewarded with this passage from my entry for April 3, 1985, in my loopy teenage handwriting:
In the afternoon Ian and I were looking out the window when we saw some kids flying a kite. Just for the fun of it, we dropped some of our peace balloons out the window. The kids saw them and ran to catch them. After a big group of children had gathered around, we went down to meet them. We exchanged pins and addresses. When it was time to leave, I said, “Bye, my friend,” in Russian. We all shook hands. I felt really good.
The passage paints such a heartbreakingly pure picture of my idealistic young self. But I feel inspired anew by her. Perhaps you will too. May God bless the Ukrainians. May God bless the Russians. May God bless us all, everyone.