August 19, 2021

Behind the Iron Curtain after the coup: an American recalls her time in Ukraine just days before independence


On August 19, 1991, as hardline Communists stormed the Russian capital in an attempted coup d’état, a group of American teenagers and young adults – members of Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization – found themselves in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, just 865 miles west of Moscow. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s renewed independence, one of the individuals on that trip, Adrianna Melnyk, shared her recollection of being in Ukraine during that historic and momentous period.

In many Eastern Rite churches – those that observe the Julian calendar – the Feast of the Transfiguration falls on August 19. Throughout Ukraine, scores of churches are named for Preobrazhennia, one of the 12 great feasts of the liturgical calendar. The feast is one that is centered around enlightenment, wonder and joy, and its expression finds itself in part through the blessing of fruit and the bounty of the August harvest following the day’s liturgy. It was a fitting time to be in Ukraine.

We had been traveling throughout the country for more than two weeks, accompanied by our fellow Ukraine-based members of Plast, all part of the first revitalized – and glasnost-enabled – cultural exchange known as “Stezhky Kultury.” Our time had been spent exploring historic sites. They sprang before us like pages coming to life from textbooks, those we had begrudgingly been forced to read in Ukrainian Saturday school. Golden-domed churches and cathedrals, blinding and dizzying, crisscrossed our itinerary and melded together with the smell of fresh pine. Pungent, just-harvested mushrooms grew throughout the Carpathians, with its streams of impeccably pure, clean water.

We visited small villages where farmers and craftspeople shared rickety stalls in colorful marketplaces (the kind now seeing a resurgence in artistic communities here in the United States, but here we call them makers’ markets). We strolled along fairytale cobblestone streets; we paid our respects at historic cemeteries. We visited tiny museums and cavernous cathedrals, we heard choirs whose crystalline and melodic chords reverberate even now (Vladyko Neba i Zemli still instantly conjures my memory of that time). We met relatives not seen by our stateside families for nearly half a century, and we met new generations unknown even to our parents and grandparents. I ate cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese – more than I had ever eaten in my life.

It was a time of discovering new friendships. We shared stories with our fellow travelers, who embodied characteristics that were simultaneously universal and familiar, and also confounding and foreign. Some of our new friends were evangelical about their newfound affinity for Plast and looked dismayingly upon us as we sampled the barely palatable, but (seemingly) readily available, Soviet-produced champagne (though Plast scouts don’t imbibe). But we shared a love of nature, and our bonds grew over our common history and ancestral roots. They taught us about energy healing, or Reiki, and things unknown to us at the time, before they became trendy at home; we later realized that these were among the only pain management options available under their corrupt and mismanaged system of medical care.

At one point during our trip, we witnessed a death (not anyone we knew), though the details have been lost over time. If memory could speak, it would remind me what had happened, but all that remains are the comparatively unsentimental reactions of those around us. We wondered if they simply valued life less than we did, or if somehow our American preoccupation with both sanitizing and exaggerating death was the exception.

Together we sang folk songs that survived decades of Communist rule and that safely crossed the ocean on the same large ships which brought our ancestors to the United States; we shared hopes and dreams for the future. Many of us were still students; none of us were yet married, and so we talked about how our lives might turn out years from then. We learned that, as different as our upbringings had been, we shared an acerbic Slavic wit, an appreciation of adventure, a love of camaraderie. And we came to see a common reverence for family, and, in the broader sense, for community.

And so it was that as we neared the end of our travels, we awoke on the morning of August 19, 1991, to rumblings that “tanks had rolled into Moscow.” We attended a liturgy and a blessing of fruit at one of the oldest and most beautiful cathedrals in Lviv, named for the Transfiguration. Afterwards, we saw scenes on the streets that astounded us all: old men gathering on benches, devising plans to fend off the coup should it cross into Ukraine. Everywhere people on the streets spoke in the loudest hushed tones I have ever heard. There was a feeling of electricity in the air. It was, in hindsight, a transfiguration of sorts as well, and the timing of the feast day seemed well-suited.

We didn’t know then that those responsible for our safe return to the United States three days later were planning escape strategies should a state of emergency be declared. We couldn’t have imagined that our parents and grandparents were sitting at home glued to television screens relying entirely on unreliable information with little detail about events in Ukraine – and that they were praying for our safe return. Until I wrote this, it had never occurred to me that, as images of Communist tanks flashed across American television screens, many of them were reliving past traumas. I most certainly didn’t truly understand the fear felt by our fellow Plast members, many of whom were of a fighting age and could have been in grave danger had there been a large-scale outbreak of violence.

Only later did it become clear to me that, even as we could rely on U.S. Embassy (or its equivalent) personnel to ensure our safe and speedy departure from Ukraine, our new friends who were part of our larger Plast family would be left behind in a country that had not yet become independent. There were moments when I understood how very fortunate I was to have been born in the United States. Those realizations have stayed with me the most. They reinforced how little I really understood about these new friends, whose lives and the lives of their families had been filled with secrecy and fear. Life as we had known it was not the same as theirs.

And so we spent the last heady days of our trip at farewell lunches and dinners, drowning in carbonated bottled water, and bottles of everything else imaginable. Over the coming weeks – which had come to feel like months – we reminisced about the moments we shared together even as outside of our restaurant, hotel doors and walls the city of Lviv, and the entire country, was busy inhaling, only to exhale a few days later, something we did not know at the time.

We promised to write letters; we made plans to visit again soon; we invited our friends to see us in New York, and in Chicago, and in Philadelphia, and in other cities that were nothing more than dots on a map to those for whom free travel was still a dream.

As abstract as those promises and dreams may have seemed at the time, they were in fact realized months and years later. First, we departed as planned and on time from the then-tiny Lviv airport. We left behind a city and a country that had come to embody a real-life storybook that had captured an unimaginably large and special place in our hearts. It was on August 24, 1991, when we – not yet recovered from jet lag and not yet having fully processed the real, and at times surreal, experience we had just lived through – received news that Ukraine had declared its renewed independence. “Forty-eight hours longer and we could have been there for this historic event,” we thought! But, in hindsight, somehow it seemed just and right that those for whom it mattered most were there, while we celebrated from a distance.

As the months and years (and now decades) went by, many of us returned to Ukraine for work, to teach, and to study. The trajectories of the lives of so many on the trip became inexorably and inextricably linked with the weeks of August 1991, in countless ways.

As promised, our new friends came to visit us, once travel was allowed and became accessible, and we shared new experiences in the United States. Together many forged a renewed future for Plast, and through work in American non-governmental organizations, corporations and government, some played key roles in Ukraine’s politics, infrastructure, economy, and in helping to build Ukraine’s newly independent state.

These past 30 years of independence for Ukraine have seen huge strides, some setbacks, an unrelenting war in the east, the illegal seizure of Crimea by Russia, and the building of institutions, universities and civil society organizations that give its citizens real hope for the future. And, like a 30-year-old human who is too old to claim they don’t know better but still too young to have answers to many of life’s most complex questions, the country has a lifetime ahead to continue building, improving, and hoping and dreaming of an even better life for itself and its people.

Happiest of birthdays to my ancestral homeland, and best wishes to all who were there and lived through the perevorot – the coup of 1991 – and, of course, who also had the privilege of experiencing the wonder and beauty of those unforgettable weeks leading up to it. Slava Ukraini!