Daily life in Uman, Ukraine, appears to go on almost normally, but the people of Davis’ first sister city are tense and distracted by the news of the Russian takeover of Crimea.
“Can you imagine unfriendly actions from a proclaimed ‘brother?’ ” wrote Myroslava Geyko, 54, a senior teacher at Uman National University of Horticulture, who visited Davis in 1999 as part of a teacher exchange between the cities.
Geyko said she and her neighbors are shocked and concerned by the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They come on the heals of the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who recently fled to Russia when more than 80 people were killed in protests.
“There is so much pain and tears in our hearts these days,” Geyko wrote in an email Tuesday. “We do not want war. But we understand that common Russian people are not responsible for this; many of them are misinformed by Putin propaganda.”
A largely Ukrainian-speaking city of about 87,000 people, Uman sits in the center of the country, about 300 miles from Crimea, to which Uman is largely linked through family ties, Black Sea vacations and farm sales.
Uman became Davis’ sister city in 1988 — an apt fit for two cities home to universities known as centers of agricultural education.
Tatiana Sukhomeilo acted as translator for many of those first sister-city trips by delegations from the two cities. Now 63, she is retired after 38 years of teaching at Uman National University of Horticulture.
“Life goes on: schools for children, universities for students, industry and agriculture for business people, science for scholars, art for musicians and artists,” Sukhomeilo wrote in an email.
“But we remember about shootings and deaths on Maidan (Independence) Square, and we worry about our country-fellows in the Crimean.”
Sukhomeilo said Russia’s “outrageous steps” are “beyond understanding.” They have united Ukraine, she said, though pro-Russian demonstrations have been held in the eastern, Russian-speaking portion of the country.
“People worry and are concerned, but they are not scared,” she said.
She, too, draws a distinction between “two Russias: Russia of intelligent, smart, good-natured people and Russia of politicians and poorly informed ones. We are with the first group.”
Sukhomeilo now lives in Brovary, a suburb of the country’s capital, Kiev, but remains in close contact with family and friends in Uman. She also has exchanged emails with friends in Davis concerned for her safety.
Among those here who have been following the news closely are Davis’ former Mayor Maynard Skinner and former City Councilman and Board of Education member Stan Forbes. Between them, they’ve taken more than a dozen trips to Uman.
“Starting with the riots, we were particularly concerned that (Sukhomeilo) and her family were safe and sound,” Skinner said. “Our friends there are concerned about the economic situation because many are retired and living on meager pensions.”
Putin has questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine’s new government, calling it an “unconstitutional takeover” and justified military action by saying it was protecting Ukraine, “our closest neighbor and brother.”
President Barack Obama has said Putin “isn’t fooling anybody.”
Said Forbes, “I didn’t think (the Russians) would have the gall to do what they’ve done. Hitler said exactly the same thing: We have the right to invade Poland because there are ethnic Germans there. Just replace Hitler’s name with Putin’s.
“Ukraine is the size of France. If Germany today took over France, where there are a lot of ethnic Germans, how would that play? So I watch with great alarm and hope that the West will come up with an appropriate response.”
Forbes, who first traveled to Ukraine as a summer tour guide in the Soviet Union in 1968, remained closely involved with Davis’ sister city, helping to purchase an ultrasound machine for a hospital, pay for dental clinics in elementary schools and funding scholarships for 10 students yearly at the university, which awarded him an honorary doctorate.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “They’re very courteous and very friendly. It’s been difficult for them to modernize, but they’ve made some improvements. A statue of Lenin in the town square was torn down only last month.”
Uman is home to Sofiyivsky Park — a world-renowned botanical garden that boasts a research center and 2,000 species of plants —but the city also has had a long and sometimes bloody history.
The site of mass killings of thousands of Jewish people during a rebel uprising in the 18th century and again during the Nazi occupation, Uman attracts Hasidic pilgrims from around the world, who visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a major religious thinker who died there in 1810.
Geyko said that while some residents of Uman “are mentally still in the Soviet Union,” the city hopes for a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Russia.
Added Sukhomeilo, “I hope Ukraine will be wise and strong enough not to get provoked (to be) involved in military actions. I hope the world community will use its leverage to pour some cold water on the sick head of the Kremlin resident.”
From her friends in Davis, she asked for “prayers, thoughts, hopes, belief in the Ukrainian people.”
Geyko said that she, too, was grateful for the support from abroad during difficult time.
Asked if she had a message for Uman’s sister city, she replied, “We should never stop working for peace. We should appreciate and value human life and the world we live in. We wish you and your country happiness, prosperity, success and, first of all, peace.
“Thank you,” she added, “for being our friends.”