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Field Notes
Sunbathers Odesa
Photograph by Anthony Suau
Andrew Meier

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

Nothing in Ukraine stirs the imagination like the night train from Kyiv to Odessa. The trip—309 miles (497 kilometers) due south to the Black Sea—almost splits the country exactly in two. You pass through the central regions, the ones little known in the West but that comprise the middle ground, the hope for the Orange Revolution's longevity.

I awoke before dawn, in time to catch the last blur of the steppes before the train crawled into Odessa. At the station, a warm rain fell, a blanket muting the jolt of arrival. On the wet platform, the crowd of Ukrainian travelers surrounded me. Every arm in sight carried something: tires from Kyiv, giant bags of Chinese bras, half-asleep grandchildren. These people were, like so many of their compatriots, men and women with no luxuries but time. Walking in their midst, I came to a realization: Although the country's famous divide is real, it's not insurmountable. There are the differences in religion, language, and traditions. But although there are a rich few in both east and west, the great majority of Ukrainians earn about the same—not much at all. Maybe it was the blender effect of the train or the great ethnic mix of the city itself, but in Odessa you can't help but realize that, above all, Ukrainians today are united by a singular pursuit: the struggle for identity.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

It wasn't, in the end, really a bad experience, but it sure could have been. Photographer Tony Suau and I had been crawling along the dirt and rock roads of western Ukraine for days. We wanted to find the smallest villages—sometimes no more than two or three half-fallen wooden shacks—to see how people in these rural regions so close to the West were making out. We were about 500 yards (460 meters) from Poland when we met Viktor.

He was six feet four (one meter, 93 centimeters), stern-faced, and all muscle. He was also wearing the uniform of the Ukrainian Border Guards. At his side stood several of his comrades. They had caught us in a nearby village, wandering its only dirt road and talking to its handful of residents. They "invited" us into their old Soviet military jeep, and we drove off to their base nearby.

Major Viktor—he refused to give his surname—was not exactly friendly. He pointed out that we'd entered a border zone and wasn't impressed by our press credentials. But soon enough we ended up having a good chat. Best of all was his retort when I asked about NATO. "We don't need your NATO!" he snorted. "We can defend our homeland on our own just fine."

The sense of pride was understandable but rarely spoken. The talk in Kyiv's halls of officialdom was of the urgent need to join NATO, to link up with the West for prestige, security, and an accelerated push to modernity. But in this far-off corner, Viktor told a different story.

Of course, I would never have been able to talk to a frontline border guard commander if I'd put in an official request in Kyiv. What had begun with stern faces ended in smiles all around.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

I got word that President Yushchenko would address his class' 30th reunion at his alma mater, an economics institute in the town of Ternopil, 300 miles (480 kilometers) west of Kyiv. His press office only conceded that the event was scheduled when Ukrainian journalists in the presidential pool told us it was happening. Each day, however, they stalled on deciding whether to include us on the trip. The excuse changed daily: The plane was too small, only their own journalists could go, we had applied too late. All this before they flat-out refused us. So we decided to ambush the president.

We flew from Kyiv to Lviv, capital of the western provinces, and then hired an old Soviet Volga to drive us east again, three hours across the wheat and potato fields to Ternopil. We arrived at night on the eve of the president's visit.

Even Yushchenko's fans never fail to mention his disdain for punctuality. He was four hours late. The day was hot, 95°F (35°C) with cloudless sunshine. The Soviet-era hall was packed with a crowd of adoring classmates. (In the western regions, Yushchenko is greeted like a rock star.) At last, the president pulled up—at the wheel of his armored Mercedes sedan. (Apparently, the man who survived poisoning trusts no chauffeur these days.) He spoke, without notes, for hours.

The crowd loved it. He told jokes from his college days, reminisced about how his mama packed him off "with a briefcase of sausage" for fear he'd starve during the days of Soviet deficits. It was a classic performance. Afterward I approached his top aides, eager to get a behind-the-scenes look at their boss in office. As I stood beside Yushchenko, he saw me and nodded. (I had interviewed him in years past.) He knew, I sensed, that a team had come from the West to see how his Orange Revolution was faring. We did manage to see him several more times. But that first time in Ternopil, the hero on his home court and with his guard down, remained the most memorable—and revelatory.