Slava Ukraini!

Slava Ukraini! translates to Glory to Ukraine! It is a familiar salute in the country, and a wish being sent by millions across the globe today.

The proud, exultant phrase stands in stark contrast to the alarming scenes broadcast from Ukraine: Plumes of black smoke. Bombed-out buildings. Air raid sirens and Russian tanks. Lines of traffic as citizens evacuate cities under fire.

Slava Ukraini!

I recall the words and raising a vodka toast some 30 years ago when the engineering company I was working for hosted visitors from Ukraine. We were developing an independent spent fuel storage installation at the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine, not far from the Black Sea. Our scope of work included design, fabrication, project management, technical support and training, quality assurance, and my group’s specialty — public outreach services.

Our company had deep expertise in nuclear operations, safety and spent fuel solutions. We were passionate about the project and welcomed plant personnel from Zaporozhye as well as interested citizens from the town of Energodar to visit us in the States to tour comparable facilities and share best practices.

My role involved conducting tours of one of our parent company’s nuclear plants for a contingent of local Ukrainian citizens: Mayors, business owners and thought leaders (this was well before the era of ‘influencers’). I was also tasked with accompanying and entertaining guests during their stay.

Now, as mentioned, this was decades and a few career lifetimes ago, but here is some of what I recall of my brief time with our Ukrainian friends:

Halting introductions and welcomes as we all began to navigate the back, forth and awkward pauses of working with interpreters — and valiant attempts on both sides to understand and communicate.

Shepherding the group through security, then leading them through the plant, praying all the while I wouldn’t get lost — or lose someone along the way. I wasn’t the best of tour guides.

The attentiveness and curiosity of the group. They wanted to know all they could about the project. They were emissaries, after all, sent on behalf of neighbors, friends and family to make sure the best interests of all would be protected. They were determined to learn all they could and return home informed and enabled to help build a bright future.

They shone with patriotic pride and with hope for their new independence, following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Severing ties with Russia meant creating new lifelines and infrastructure of their own, such as the means to safely dispose of spent fuel previously handled by Russia. We may have been in the business of power, but they taught all of us so much about the irrepressible power of human energy.

I remember driving a van that felt as big as all of Europe to ferry our guests from office to plant to dinner, hotel, and after-hours outings — and having a bit of run-in that resulted in a shattered side mirror and an accident report to corporate. I’m not the best of drivers, either.

Arranging all sorts of ‘welcome to America’ excursions — a baseball game, museum visits and musical performances, only to be told the group would prefer to go to Walmart. They stocked up on off-brand blue jeans, underwear, toys for children at home, health and hygiene products. And then, after hours of retail bliss during which I helped my charges decode size labels and price tags, they asked to be chauffeured through a fast-food drive-through for buckets of fried chicken to take back to their rooms.

When I told one of our project leads about the Walmart excursion, he was not happy. “I would never have done that,” he said, explaining that the aisles of abundance could have been overwhelming. “Someone could have fainted, for God’s sake.”

No one fainted, thankfully. But their wide-eyed wonder at the easy, well-within-reach plenty we enjoyed was evident. Looking back now, I understand the ‘for God’s sake’ reproach. Culture shock is real. So is commodity shock, and the realization that access, choice, affordability and comforts denied in one’s home country are easily procured and taken for granted here. Seeing that disparity, under the harsh fluorescent glare of a U.S. superstore, must have been difficult to take in and come to terms with.

My friend and former boss Mary took the group to Chicago to visit a comparable nuclear facility, followed by dinner at Michael Jordan’s Steak House. The restaurant featured a gift shop full of MJ jerseys and memorabilia. Legends of sport cross all borders, evidently, and one of the gentlemen in the entourage asked to forego dinner and use the saved money to buy a basketball. He enjoyed both, of course.

Unlike me, Mary made the long trek to Ukraine, a lengthy flight followed by a 10-hour van ride from Kyiv to Energodar. The ride offered little scenic diversion. She recalls a gray and mostly barren landscape, and a Ukrainian driver who transported them with skill and grace. There were no proper restroom breaks, just side-of-the-road stops and rolls of toilet paper.

Our project managers, engineers and scientists working on the Zaporozhye project spent months that turned into years traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Ukraine. They became regulars on the van, stayed in a sparsely equipped apartment, forged friendships, and have far more stories than I do.

They did meaningful work, under challenging conditions. But the greater challenge fell to those we served, the Ukrainian people. Thirty years ago, life was harder there than it was here.

It doesn’t appear to have gotten any easier.

Since 1991, the country has endured insurgency and Russian occupation, economic collapse, political scandal, takeovers, transgressions — and now, another war.

Tens of thousands of lives have been lost already. Villages, still in ruins from previous mortar attacks and shelling, face further decimation. ‘How much harder?’ one must wonder. ‘How much more can they take?’

There’s a second part to the Slava Ukraini greeting: Heroiam Slava!

Glory to the heroes.

May the heroes of Ukraine be protected: Those fighting today, in trenches and streets. And those who have long fought for freedom, peace and quality of life, including those I drove to the airport all those years ago.

The heroes who unloaded suitcases taped shut and a backpack bulging roundly with a Chicago Bulls’ basketball. Who hugged and thanked me and gave me a set of wooden nesting dolls ‘to remember us.’ Who waved goodbye as they prepared to board and take off for the hard place they call home — determined to make it a little less hard.

Be safe, Ukraine, and Heroiam Slava!

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