The first thing I noticed was the smell. I'd arrived in Kiev the night before, and at the break of day I took the subway downtown, like I'd done so frequently in years past. This time, things were different. The main exit from the station was blocked; barbed wire had been strung across it in threatening curls.
At a third exit, I found a way to the surface, to Maidan, but then I noticed the smell. It was hard to place at first. Something had burned, to be sure, but just what - rubber, wood, maybe even bodies - was unclear. It filled what should have been fresh air as I exited the station into a paradise lost. Maidan, the most beautiful square in Kiev, a national symbol of pride, was in ruins: Debris littered the streets, tent camps filled the formerly pristine square, and the burnt-out shells of buildings loomed over the whole destroyed scene.
I was back in Ukraine, back home, but it suddenly didn't feel like the land of my birth, the land I'd left behind.
I was born in the town of Novohrad-Volynskyi, in the Western Ukraine, where I grew up on my parent's farm. My father was Russian and my mother was ethnic Ukrainian. To understand the state of Ukraine today, you must first understand this - once, we were all one. I was born into the Soviet Union. There was no Ukraine and no Russia.
When I was a teenager, my mother sent me away to study in Luhansk, in the far east of Ukraine. She wanted more for me than a farm girl's life. Even though the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991, the Russian influence was still strong in the East. In Luhansk, I learned to speak Russian, not Ukrainian, and I studied in Russian schools. I earned degrees in computer science and management, and I fell in love with fitness. I began training in my friend Violetta's gym. It was a hole in a wall, with equip
ment that her husband had literally carved out of wood. But it was there that my life changed.
Fitness became my focus, and since Ukraine wasn't exactly a fitness-obsessed nation, I made my way in 2005 to Los Angeles, the city of Gold's Gym, of Muscle Beach, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I began competing in figure competitions, working my way up through the ranks, and eventually became a professional in the International Federation of Bodybuilding. It was like a dream come true. I modeled in fitness magazines, I was sponsored by supplement companies, and I even became an American citizen.
I visited home once, in 2009, and the visit left a bad taste in my mouth. Beyond inconveniences like terrible WiFi, old, crumbling hotel rooms, and rundown transportation, I also had to deal with comments about my appearance. I am a very toned woman, I lift weights six days a week, and in Ukraine, I was called everything from "unfeminine," and "manly" to "ugly." It made me want to never return, and so for five years I didn't. Los Angeles became home.
I never forgot where I came from, though. So when I received an offer to return to Ukraine this year as a special guest presenter at a huge Bodybuilding show in Kiev called the World Ladies Cup, I jumped at the chance.
Then came the riots: the President overthrown, militias rampaging through the cities, Crimea seized. My cousins in Kiev told me about the "titushkis," armed gangs that would descend upon neighborhoods, attacking anyone stupid enough to get caught on the street. I was scared. How could I go back under such circumstances? I contacted the promoter of the show and told him I'd have to cancel. He begged me to reconsider. "Please," he said, "the show must go on."
And that's how I ended up back in Maidan, strolling through the ruins of my nation's pride. It was like arriving in Washington, D.C., to find the White House lawn strewn with trash and bullet casings, its windows smashed, white walls covered with graffiti. I couldn't stand to walk around for more than ten minutes, and I left crying. And that was my first day back home.
I left the next morning for Luhansk. I'd promised to teach a seminar for my friend Violetta, who still called the city home. Even though the U.S. Embassy had warned Americans against traveling to Luhansk or Donetsk, I felt secure - this was the city I'd called home for several years. The train ride was as long as it had ever been, but when I arrived I found a city much changed. For one, Violetta's makeshift gym had grown into a huge, beautiful, state-of-the-art facility, and when a crowd showed up to attend my seminar, I was touched. I wasn't a freak any longer. My countrymen actually admired me.
I asked people whether they were scared. But they seemed unafraid. My niece, who works as a reporter in the city, told me that except for a few small places downtown, it was business as usual.
But while things seemed normal, the next day Russian separatists took control of the offices of the Ukrainian equivalent of the FBI, and the whole city was put on lock-down. I managed to get out just before they stopped the trains.
I returned to Kiev for the big fitness show, the reason I'd come in the first place. I was curious to see how it would go because many of the athletes competing would be flying in from places like Germany, Moldova, and most ominously, Russia. I wondered how people would react to the Russian athletes. Would they boo if the Russians won? Would the fighting start once people had a few drinks at the after-party? Just a few weeks earlier, I'd been cursed at by Russians at a fitness expo in Columbus, Ohio. They told me Crimea belonged to Russia and that Ukraine had no right to it, and I'd held my tongue. I wondered if I could stomach that again.
Before the show, I asked some of the competitors whether they'd been afraid to come. They told me that of course they'd been worried. But two of the Russian girls who'd come to compete were defiant. "We're going to take tons of pictures," they told me, "so that the girls who stayed behind will see what they missed." Their attitude made me feel like there was hope.
The show was beautiful, in every aspect. The setup was first rate, the stage was gorgeously decorated, and the competition was judged fairly, something that doesn't always happen, even in America. And when a Russian won her division and the Russian flag was raised at the trophy presentation, there was no booing, only applause.
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A Ukrainian competitor turned to me and sighed. "Being here," he said, "it's like an escape. For just a few hours, I can forget the world outside."
I too forgot in that moment. I forgot Maidan. I forgot the constant stream of political rhetoric on Ukrainian television. I forgot the lost Crimea, and the patriotic fervor of my hometown where young men were volunteering for the army reserves at that very moment. In that moment at the show, the Russian flag flying overhead wasn't a provocation, it was part of a sport, part of the show, and nobody was fighting anymore. We'd found a way to coexist.
I left Ukraine with hope, much to my surprise. If bodybuilders could find a way to come together, couldn't the rest of society? There's an old Russian saying, that "beauty will save the world." For once, I hope that pageantry will prove it right.
- as told to Jonathan Maseng