“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
The author at a fitness seminar in Kiev 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. “