In August 2001, I visited Donetsk, Ukraine, which at the time was a sister city of Pittsburgh, Pa.
My visit was sponsored by Sister Cities Pittsburgh. Our exchange group included a former Allegheny County commissioner, an attorney, an environmental studies professor from Duquesne University, representatives from Pittsburgh’s Ukrainian community, and a few folks from non-profits in Pittsburgh.
And me. I was the trip organizers’ second choice. The first choice to represent Pittsburgh journalists had canceled at the last minute.
Want to help Ukraine?
Back then, I was the managing editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s news websites. Someone remembered that I had spent some time with a group of Ukrainian journalists who visited the Trib printing facility.
My role on the trip was to meet with Ukrainian newspaper and television journalists.
Arrival in Donetsk
As we stepped off the plane at Donetsk Airport, the factory haze and smell of steelmaking closed around us. The air was hot. And the city was mourning.
A coal mine explosion that day — Aug. 19, 2001 — killed 47 men.
I remember that the accident disrupted meetings we were supposed to have with some city officials. Twenty years later, I’m not sure why I felt that the reaction to the miners’ deaths was somehow understated. I had a sense that in that part of the world, death was more accepted. Somehow it felt like human life was worth less there.
Ukraine, after all, is a country that experienced a Stalin-forced famine in which 3 million died of starvation in 1932-33 and the murder of 1.5 million Jewish citizens during World War II.
Missing ‘Soviet Times’
In 2001, Ukraine had been free of the Soviet Union for just 10 years. I talked with people who missed the “Soviet times,” when they received their pensions, had jobs and homes. Many preferred to speak Russian and resented new laws that established Ukrainian as the country’s official language.
Clearly, much has changed in Ukraine since then, but I’m not surprised that Donetsk became part of the disputed territory held by Russian-backed separatists.
While I was there, I stayed in an apartment with Anatoly, a disabled coal miner, and his wife Svetlana, a clerk with a nonprofit. They shared their couch and their food with me and made sure I got where I was supposed to go each day.
Coal Mine Tour Aftermath
Anatoly was with me when I got as drunk as I’ve ever been in my life. He joined me on a tour of a local coal mine. The ever-hospitable Ukrainians then took me to lunch, where they insisted I join them in a round of toasts. Tradition demanded that we drink a shot of vodka after each toast.
I think there were 12 of us.
I don’t remember how Anatoly got me back to the apartment, but I’m sure I delivered the best toast of the day. They probably still tell stories about that toast and the American who couldn’t hold his liquor.
The Salt Sanitorium
I toured some fascinating places. We visited a sanatorium that had been carved out of a salt mine to treat tuberculosis patients. There were private bedrooms and sitting rooms.
There was even an indoor soccer field. The field was salt, and balconies were built into the salt walls so people could watch the games.
We visited a winery that specialized in champagne. The winery stored the bottled sparkling wine on carefully constructed racks inside a former chalk mine, where the temperature was just right for aging the wine.
I learned that traditionally, women drank champagne. Men drank vodka.
On the Road to Mariupal
One day we drove at least two hours south to Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov. With a mean depth of 23 feet, Azov is the world’s shallowest sea.
We were crammed into a couple of small cars. It was still blazing hot, and the road was rough.
On either side of us, though, fields of blooming sunflowers stretched to the horizon. As we approached Mariupol, a giant statue of a steelworker loomed over the middle of the road. It was designed in what I would call Soviet-style, portraying the steelworker as a hero.
The Ukrainian people were kind and generous. At each place I visited, I received small gifts. I came home with a lump of Ukrainian coal and a bottle of Ukrainian champagne. And as a guest, I also passed out trinkets to demonstrate friendship.
Anatoly, my host gave me a wood candelabra that he had carved and finished himself years before.
My Translator / Guide
When it was time to leave Donetsk, I was definitely ready to go. I had come down with a virus that caused unpleasant stomach problems. I was desperate for relief and air conditioning.
The young Ukrainian man who served as a translator during the trip and I became friends. He had been a student at the University of Pittsburgh and lived in Kyiv.
On Valentine’s Day, I got a notice on LinkedIn that he was marking nine years with the World Bank, so I sent him congrats and a note recalling our time together. He responded that the escalation at the Ukrainian border wasn’t as worrisome as the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
I messaged him again on Sunday, Feb. 27, just to check on him. So far, no reply.
UPDATE: My Ukrainian friend responded on March 9:
“Hi Mark. Sorry for late reply. First 10 days of war were tough-we were on the move. We left Kyiv first day of bombardments. Changed few places moving westwards and now reached Vienna. Still can’t fully comprehend this is happening”
Mark Whittaker, a Pittsburgh-based online marketer, helps small businesses and start-ups find customers with search and social media advertising, content development and digital marketing strategy. Write to him at mark (at) markwhittaker.com and subscribe to his bi-weekly email.