Musings of an American Fulbrighter in Ukraine

Click here to watch Luke Drabyn’s full Stop Fake News segment.

As a Fulbright Student in Kiev, Ukraine for the 2015–16 academic year, I have been taken by the country’s wide-ranging beauty, intrigued by its culture and history, and humbled by the people and their unrivaled hospitality. During the six months my colleagues and I have been here, we have had the opportunity to conduct and publish research, give presentations and lead discussion groups at universities, serve as volunteer election monitors, and travel to pastoral villages and bustling, cosmopolitan cities. Each day brings something new and unexpected, with the exception of my Russian language skills, which continue to be reliably unremarkable.

But make no mistake about it—Ukraine remains at war, besieged on its eastern border by an expansionist Russia that refuses to operate outside its Soviet-era mindset. As international media outlets shift their attention to Russia’s maneuvering in the Middle East, the world has forgotten that people in Ukraine, a country with over 45 million citizens, continue to suffer. Nearly 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the east. Moreover, roughly 1.5 million internally displaced people have been forced to leave their homes and livelihoods. The government, already plagued by endemic corruption, has been forced to divert what little funds were allotted to various state programs to the ceaseless war effort instead. With the exception of neighboring Moldova, Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe, with real wages dropping 6.3 percent in 2014, and a staggering 19.3 percent in 2015. The year 2016 is slated to bring further decline.

My research project, “Western and Ukrainian Approaches to Combating Human Trafficking,” revolves heavily on documenting the intersection of human rights abuses and government policy. While the subject matter is depressing, Ukraine’s current situation only reaffirms the importance of this work being done and shared. That said, were I to pick one word to describe my Fulbright experience here so far, it would be this: sobering. It is one thing to study the history, politics, languages, and culture of the former Soviet states from a cushy university seminar room in mid-coast Maine. Witnessing it firsthand, surrounded by people who have had to live through so much uncertainty for so long, is not quite the same.

“It is one thing to study the history, politics, languages, and culture of the former Soviet states from a cushy university seminar room in mid-coast Maine. Witnessing it firsthand, surrounded by people who have had to live through so much uncertainty for so long, is not quite the same.”

As a recent university graduate, I have often found it surprising how willing Ukrainians have been to speak with me about such personal and complex issues. Through my contacts in Kiev and elsewhere, I have been able to hear some fascinating stories and acquire valuable information from inspiring people, including: a physician at the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Counter-Trafficking Rehabilitation Center; IOM counter-trafficking specialists; U.S. diplomats; a human rights lawyer; and several fourth-year students at Kiev’s National Linguistic University, among others. New and exciting project ideas have taken shape from these interactions. For example, arrangements are being made to interview a pimp-turned-human-rights advocate, and possibly create a documentary about the state of human trafficking in Ukraine and Eurasia generally.

We all have differing projects and responsibilities, but at the end of our stays here we just want to say we utilized our strengths as best we could to be helpful cultural ambassadors and make a bit of a difference. For me, this has meant taking these compiled stories, blending them with hard data in gripping ways, and pitching them to news organizations with wide readerships to show the world why Ukraine still matters. Unlike in a university setting, there are no office hours, textbooks, or syllabi telling you what to do, when, and how to do it.

On certain weeks there is simply nothing more I can do on the research front, which affords me time to work on side projects of my choosing, travel throughout the country with friends, or take advantage of other volunteer opportunities extended to our group. In fact, the blog you are reading at this very moment, Nations & States, was born out of this free time, with the hard work and dedication of millennials working around the world. Besides the blog project, there have been two other experiences I have taken part in that I am certain will be among the highlights of my time spent here: visiting my Ukrainian best friend’s village for the weekend of their annual celebration, and serving as a guest host for Stop Fake News, a crowdfunded non-governmental organization dispelling Russian propaganda about Ukraine.

In Глибочок (Glybochok, or “deep place” in Russian), a tiny village of 850 people near the Moldovan border, I had the most food I have ever been offered in my life. To be sure, on праздник (prazdnik, or “celebration”) the understood rule is that you moderate your food intake, since you might visit two or three relatives’ houses during the course of the night. Not having understood this common-sense rule, I ate my body weight in mouthwatering котлеты (kotleti, or meat cutlets), голубцы (holubtsi, or cabbage rolls), борщ (borsch), and холодец (kholodets, or jellied meat). We also imbibed local moonshine, which, surprisingly or not, resulted in my becoming considerably more fluent in Russian for the duration of the evening.

“We all have differing projects and responsibilities, but at the end of our stays here we just want to say we utilized our strengths as best we could to be helpful cultural ambassadors and make a bit of a difference. For me, this has meant taking these compiled stories, blending them with hard data in gripping ways, and pitching them to news organizations with wide readerships to show the world why Ukraine still matters.”

And finally, having watched many other Fulbrighters participate as guest hosts for Stop Fake News, I was able to get all dressed up on a Sunday morning and pretend to be the Late Show’s Stephen Colbert for five minutes. Operating from a snazzy basement studio in Kiev-Mohyla Academy’s Journalism School, the Stop Fake staff work diligently each week to debunk pervasive Russian propaganda about Ukraine. They provided me with a text of the newscast the night prior to review and practice. The morning of the show, I sat in a studio chair in front of a mirror while an assistant applied all kinds of makeup to me. I was then ushered to the news desk, placed in front of a wide green screen, and read the newscast from the teleprompter. Showtime! If you can, I encourage you to follow their work on their website and on social media.

For many Americans, Ukraine remains a mystery, acknowledged and understood only in the context of Russian aggression. Having lived here for just six months, and with only three more remaining, I find this reality disheartening. Ukrainian culture is vibrant and diverse. The country’s history actually precedes Russia’s. Its language, while similar to Russian, is distinct. The people are resilient, compassionate, and hardworking. I came to Ukraine with the responsibility of conducting research and sharing what U.S. culture is like. Yet I have realized the bigger challenge will take place upon my return home, where I will attempt to do the reverse and share with my American friends, family, and colleagues what Ukraine and Ukrainians are really like.

Image: Nations & States Co-Founder Luke A. Drabyn on set in Kiev at Stop Fake News. (Courtesy photographer Iurii Panin)

Video: Retrieved from Stopfake.org.


Luke A. Drabyn is a U.S. Fulbright Student based in Kiev, Ukraine, conducting research on transnational human trafficking policy. A former Blog Manager at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, he has worked at the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Department of State, and American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College, where he double majored in government and legal studies and Russian language. Opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of the Fulbright Commission. Follow him on Twitter.

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