In the fall of 2014, less than a year after the violent protests in Kiev, Ukraine, we went back- to Kiev and to Nikita’s hometown in the central part of the country.
Were we going to a warzone?
Nikita and his mom, a native Ukrainian who has been back multiple times since she moved in 1991, were very casual about going back. Though it wouldn’t be my first trip to Ukraine, I was more than just a little apprehensive about going. All the while we discussed and planned our trip that summer, widespread media coverage of the conflict loomed. Add that to the fact that a civilian plane was shot out of the sky and over 300 innocent people died.
I wasn’t crazy, I could see that going seemed crazy.
Were we going to a warzone?
Nikita and his mom didn’t seem to think so. And this is the important distinction between why we went instead of heeding the media’s story of the situation.
Family wouldn’t hide the situation from us, and they definitely wouldn’t let us come if it was dangerous.
We communicated with family in Ukraine on a regular basis. They told us about a few protests in the previous winter, but overall, things were quiet. Nikita’s Uncle continued to work on his business, his little cousin won some dance competitions, life goes on. Family wouldn’t hide the situation from us, and they definitely wouldn’t let us come if it was dangerous.
I didn’t like to bring up my upcoming trip because I was tired of having to explain my decision to go to people whose only knowledge of Ukraine and the situation there were what they saw and heard on the national media.
I encountered the same biased opinions when I was preparing to leave for China to study abroad. The People’s Republic of China struggles with an image problem in the United States, and most people seem to think that life there is still like it was in the era of Mao Zedong, which is closer to the regime in North Korea than the China of today. Since I’d already dealt with offensively ignorant notions of other “troubled” nations, I realized that Ukraine was not going to be any different.
How the Media Inflates Global Unrest
As soon as there is any conflict in area of the world, the media has to provide a name for ongoing coverage, and in this case it was Ukraine.
“Crisis in Ukraine”
This made the situation seem like it was a country-wide crisis.
This happens all the time. Protests in Bangkok in the same year were reported as unrest in Thailand. The recent Ebola outbreak has been described as the Ebola Epidemic in West Africa (an area the size of the continental United States), or even all of Africa, despite the fact that it’s been largely confined to specific areas of the three nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Especially in the United States, this specific type of sensationalist reporting works so well because the majority of our population has a very limited view of the rest of the world. If they know anything about Thailand, they probably have heard of the most popular place, Bangkok, and generalize based on that. Of course Thailand is a large, diverse country and is definitely not defined by its capital city. But when Bangkok experienced violent protests I know people who cancelled entire trips to Thailand.
The most annoying part of this whole thing for me was, as well traveled as I am compared to most average Americans I know, almost everyone thought they knew better than me in terms of where I was going and in how much danger I would be.
Military conflict in Ukraine was, and is, concentrated in the Eastern part of the country, in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, some 400 miles across the country from where we stayed.
If this Bloomberg article is to be believed, the entire country of Ukraine is “in chaos”, and brace yourself for the rest of this unbelievably biased claim, “after its people decided to win freedom from oppressive corruption and stifling Russian influence.”
The only chaos I saw was the busiest train station ever in Kiev, and the chaos of the winter protests memorialized in an outdoor photo exhibit where the real protests used to be. Ukrainians are vocal and opinionated, but you’re more likely to encounter expressive opinions over dinner than an angry mob.
They’re normal, everyday people with jobs, families, and rationales for their own opinions.
Let’s be clear, in no way are we condoning Russia’s actions in the conflict. Given that Russia decided to up and annex Crimea this past February, deflecting allegations of similar involvement in the situation on Ukraine’s eastern border is absurd. But even though I have my own opinions for being for or against anything, I try to withhold judgement because I haven’t lived there my whole life or experienced what’s causing the unrest firsthand.
While the majority of Ukrainians we met and talked with were emphatically pro-West and pro-Ukrainian, pro-Russian Ukrainians do exist, and they aren’t armed separatists. They’re normal, everyday people with jobs, families, and rationales for their own opinions.
A trainer at my gym immigrated to the US from then-Yugoslavia, a former Soviet satellite, and while he was definitely intrigued that I took a trip to Ukraine while all of this was happening, his opinions on the situation were not at all sensationalized, and he seemed mostly bored with mine. In fact, the first thing he had to say about it was the fact that Ukraine still owed Russia $4 billion for imported natural gas. But billions in debt, as well as increasing unlikeliness to be able to pay back that debt, doesn’t exactly justify armed conflict.
Still, investigating the “Ukraine Crisis” through the perspective of former USSR conflict, by looking at relationships between Post Soviet territories and Russia, and the experiences of people who’ve lived them, is something I haven’t seen in media coverage, and I’m fairly certain I never will.
How do You Know if You’ll be Safe?
I’m also an unwilling victim of media sensationalism. High-profile crimes against women in India had me ready to write off a country I desperately wanted to see. It took a lot of coaxing on Nikita’s part to get me to see that India is a country of 1 billion people. Sensationalism aside, statistics alone made it unlikely that I would experience any sexual assault whatsoever.
If you want to travel somewhere, and are concerned about your safety, do some research before making a decision. We consulted this world travel advisory map– by the Canadian government. Though just next door to us, we took a guess that the Canadians would be less paranoid more realistic about travel and global affairs than the United States.
And we were right:
While the advisory for Ukraine does say “Exercise high degree of caution,” it is just one step below a green light on the scale of travel advisory.
Point being, don’t ever let sensationalist media coverage dissuade you from traveling to some place you want to go. Especially if only one part of a country is experiencing problems, keep in mind that media coverage will label that conflict by the name of the whole country without ever reporting on life outside of the areas of conflict within that country.
Traveling safely is more about being well-informed and realistic than being paranoid. Otherwise you’d never leave the house.
Do you have any experience traveling to Ukraine or traveling to areas of “crisis?” Let us know what you think in the comments!