The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Friday, July 24

Aphorisms, Trains, and The Vice President

What aphorism would you use? Better late than never. No pain – No gain. Every break through starts with a break down. My Peace Corps friend, Fran, says this is a silver lining story. You be the judge.

The Peace Corps calls, “Would you be available to come to Kiev and meet with Vice President Bidden? The Vice President wants to meet with Embassy staff and Peace Corps Volunteers during his visit.”

I jump at the chance, although in the back of my mind I know there are hurdles. Up until now, I traveled with the Peace Corps arranging details. All I had to do was show up on time. Now I am on my own.

Well, not exactly. I call Annya and ask if she can meet me at the Vakzal (train station). She helps me figure out the massive timetable that spreads floor to ceiling across the entire side wall. It would be intimidating in English. It's in Russian.

Next morning with ticket in hand, I arrive at the Vakzal about 40 minutes early. When I ask the information attendant what platform for my train, I am told it has not been assigned yet or at least I think I am being told this. I wait and ask again. Still no answer. Time is growing short and my anxiety is increasing.

Outside, I see a train across the way. Action seems better than waiting so I hike to end of the platform and around to the cross-over. “Is this the train to Kiev,” I ask a man? He does not know. A glance at my watch shows only 6 more minutes to departure time. I feel the churning of anxiety inside. What to do?

Just then the man yells in Russian, “Platform one. Platform one!!” I don't have time to celebrate understanding what he said. Across the way, a train has just pulled in. I am not so good at running with my artificial hip, but let's say I am walking very quickly all the way around to get back to track one. The heart is pumping real good. Yikes, I just make it. I did not know it then, but this incident was a sign of things to come.

I travel on an Electrechka instead of a regular train because it is much less expensive. Of course, the Electrechka is crowded with people sitting on benches three across that line each side of the car. It's the way ordinary people travel.

Arrival in Kiev was on a platform away from the Main Terminal. I memorized the location so that I could get there on my return. I'm thinking this is a very smart thing to do – right?

I walk up a long flight of stairs to the Kiev Vakzal area. It's a crazy mass of vendors, cars, trucks, buses, carts, and so many people scattering in all directions at once, like a disturbed ant hill. Is there really order in what seems to be chaos? The contrast to laid back tranquil Konotop gives me culture shock. I feel engulfed.

With the help of a few other Peace Corps Volunteers that I meet at headquarters, I get to my hotel. Strangely, I notice my overnight briefcase is partially unzipped. Either it spontaneously opened or I was pick-pocketed in the Metro. My shave kit is missing. Even when you are careful, it may not be enough.

The next day the Vice President comes on schedule. A room of about 200 Embassy staff and Peace Corps volunteers greet him. He takes a few questions. We are able to ask about health care reform in the US. He says that despite the rumblings in the Senate, he expects passage. He says that this time many forces are coming together knowing that change needs to be made. After speaking, he thanks us for our work on behalf of the USA and shakes many hands. I feel proud to be in Ukraine on behalf of my Country.

The rest of the day I spend with a group of younger volunteers. “Let' just hang out,” they say. None of us has eaten breakfast and it is nearly 12:30 pm so we set out to find an Indian restaurant. Ukrainian food is not spicy and we all are thinking cumin and curry!
Unfortunately we do not find it. Later we discover that if we had walked one block more, we would have stumbled right into it. Mmmmm – lesson learned?

Instead we discover a delightful Ukrainian outdoor cafe tucked away from the busy street. The food is fresh and the atmosphere is ever so pleasant. We “hang out” over lunch for a long time. All of us have stories to share and everyone seems happy with their site placement.
One fellow says that he was thinking of staying over another night, but now he wants to get back to his village. “Sounds silly,” he says. “But I miss the kids and people.” We all smile. We know how he feels.

I pick up a few things at the Peace Corps office and scurry up to the Kiev Vakzal. I have about 30 minutes before the Electrechka leaves for Konotop. Remembering where the remote tracks are, I climb down the stairs to the platform. “No people. Am I too early again?” I think.

I notice people far away on the opposite track. I am thinking, savvy traveler that I am, “I came up on this side and maybe I must go back on the other. So I trudge up the stairs in search of a way to the other platform. There is no obvious way. I ask several people in my best (though not very good) Russian. I get sent here and there, but still cannot find stairs down.

Panic churns inside again. Time is running out. I ask another man. He points down the way and fortunately mentions “Green” umbrellas. I understand the word green and see green patio umbrellas surrounding a building. Immediately I rush in that direction. I find the stairs. Hooray!

But as you may already suspect, while I found the platform, I missed my Electrechka. Suddenly I feel sad like a kid who is lost in a crowd. Now what?

I feel depleted. I call my Regional Manager and she coaches me in securing another ticket on a regular train – one that is going to Moscow, but through Konotop. Thank you!

As I rumble along, I am thinking, “Well I will always know where and how to get the Electrechka. I know where the Indian restaurant is located. And I have a greater confidence, that even when I don't know what to do next, I am resourceful enough to figure something out. Mistakes will be made, but then again lessons learned” Fran says, “That's the silver lining.” I have to agree, but why must there be a break down before there is a break through. No pain - No gain! Ugh!

Wednesday, July 15


Three young women accompanied me through a day of Cossack Culture and a lot of fun

World class folk dance and song

Here I am surrounded by Ukrainian culture...Beautiful.

The reconstructed Church within the Citadel

Here's a Russian word for you - Potom. Potom means - later, later, we'll look into it later. As the weekend approached, I was in a “potom” state with nothing planned. Then as often happens in Ukraine, a wonderful adventure unfolded. I found myself immersed in Cossack history, folk crafts, dance, song and the President.

“Would I be available for a field trip?” All week long, the Center hosted 25 children for a day camp. There is a mix of able and disabled children. Everyone is included and seem to get along well. Main streaming in Ukraine.

I ask for more details about the field trip. Immediately I am jolted put of my “potom” mood. I am told, “Tomorrow, we will go tomorrow!” I start thinking in another Russian phrase. “Why not, it will be fun.”

The trip starts with a very long walk to the bus station. At least for me it seems very long taking us about an hour or more. None of the children seem to mind and we climb on to a crowded bus for the trip to Baturyn. I'm a puddle of sweat.

Baturyn is a national historical site. Located on a bend in the Syne River, settlements have been here since prehistoric times. Starting in 1995, Ukraine invited a Canadian archaeological team to join in excavating the site. Now the Cossack Citadel and Church have been restored. A small museum tells the story.

Baturyn was one of the capitals of the Ukrainian Cossack state. In 1708, it became the center of an insurrection against Moscow's control. The Russian troops massacred Baturyn's military garrison and civilian population. Experts say about 11,000 to 14,000 people, but numbers can be exaggerated or diminished for political purposes. Prior to Ukrainian independence in 1991, any research into Baturyn's history was politically taboo.

Take a look at the pictures. The Citadel encloses an open space, the Garrison and Church. The huge crucifix commemorates those that died. So much work that has gone into the restoration. Imagine digging 3 story deep trenches by hand. To learn more, go to

While I was exploring Baturyn history, Konotop was getting ready for Ukrainian President Yushchenko.

A new Ukrainian Orthodox Church near my home was to be dedicated. I had been watching its construction and even managed to meet the night watchman on one of my nightly walks. He told me that the Church was being constructed with donations from America. He was gleeful to meet me – a real American! I was like a representative of the thousands who had made this Church possible. Later I learned that the Ukrainian community in Chicago raised the funds since many of their roots go back to this region.

President Yushchenko shows up on schedule...well he is a fashionable ½ hour late. The crowd is excited. I am escorted by three lovely young ladies. I met Anya at the Institute where she served as my translators. A few nights later I met her two friends over ice cream at a local cafe. Now the four of us are walking through the crowd seeking a better viewing spot.

Suddenly, we spot the Directors of the Institute and the Director of the Technical School along with several of their associates. Both had recently returned from visits to Ames Iowa. They were part of some kind of educator's exchange program. I had told them that my brother, Warren, had lived in Ames for many years and that his wife, Judy, had been on the school board.

Maybe because of my Ames Iowa connection, I am warmly embraced. “Kak della? (how are you?)” Smiles, handshakes and hugs from everyone. It feels like a family reunion even though I have just met everyone a week ago. Someone says in Russian, “He's got a Konotop family now.” I smile broadly.

The Ukrainian Orthodox clerics pray and pray. The President speaks and promises to furnish and altar piece in honor of St Nicholas from his own funds. I only get to see the president from afar. My fantasy of telling the President that I am a Peace Corps Volunteer fades. It's high noon and the sun is getting real hot. All of us are wilting.

“Let's go, “ say my three escorts. “We want to take you to the Battle of Konotop festival. You will see real Cossack culture.” I did not know we were going to a festival when I started my day, but then again – “Why not. It will be fun!”

The Battle of Konotop was a part of a larger struggle between Poland and Russia. It happened in an era when Cossack tribes within this region were vying with one another for a broader national identity. To say that it was a time of external and internal tumult, is probably an understatement. You can read more at

The Russians suffered a stunning defeat. And today some Ukrainians recall this battle in the current struggles for identity amidst Russian influence. Other Ukrainians just enjoy the festival.
Here is a short version of what I have learned about the Battle of Konotop. It has dead horses in it too. The Russian Calvary thought it would sweep through the area on its way to battling with the Poles. But unexpectedly they met stiff Cossack and Tarter resistance.

One day the Cossacks – Tarter alliance managed to take back a bridge that the Russian Calvary had used to cross the river. Stealthily they dismantled the bridge and used the lumber to forge a damn. Of course in this flat land, the result was wide spread flooding. Remember how Catherine The Great got stuck in Konotop?

The next day the Cossacks and Tartars staged an ambush. The Russian Calvary stumbled. The harder they tried the more enmeshed in the swampy landscape they became. Historians disagree but as many as 30,000 combatants may have been killed. And that's not counting the horses who also sucummed that day. Again Konotop means dead horses.

Politics and warfare aside, the Festival is stunning. A huge stage features Ukrainian song and dance. There is not a moment without a performance. So much pride is being exhibited in this cultural celebration. I am mesmerized. Click here and become mesmerized yourself.

We wander through the Festival. “Won't you try your hand at archery,” says Annya? Men in Cossack gear have set up a target and a crowd is taking turns. It must not be so easy since I do not see many hit the target. I hesitate but she says, “wait here.” A few moments later she beckons me over to the line where people are awaiting a turn.

Standing there is Daniel, a young fellow whom we met on the Marshrutka ride to the festival.

What a ride. I count 48 people on the Marshrutka where there are seats for 16. We are stuffed. I do not have to hold on since human bodies hold me in place. Daniel hears my English and informs everyone that there is an American on board. “I love American,” says one woman. A young man offers me a swig of beer. Annya says that my presence added levity to what could have been a hot nasty ride.

Daniel is delighted to see me again. He tells me that I can have his place in line. I decline thinking that he has been waiting a long time for his chance. But Daniel insists. “You are my American friend.” Others push me forward and before I know what is happening, I am next in line.

Well, I did not hit the target, but I was close...real close!!! I think - Potom! Potom! Just wait until next year.