Fears for friends in Ukraine

JAY BOREHAM
Last updated 05:00 07/03/2014
ukraine
SOBERING THOUGHTS: Former-Ukranian school principal David Walters tells of his time in the Ukraine and his thoughts on the current Russian occupation there.

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THE high level conflict in Ukraine has brought back memories for retired Red Beach school teacher David Walters.

The 74-year-old was the principal of British International School in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev from 1999 to 2004.

He remembers a nation of friendly people, full of culture with a love of music and dancing.

But there were always tensions, he says.

Historical tensions go back to the 1930s when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin engineered a famine in the country which killed millions of Ukrainians, he says.

"Ukraine had been the bread basket of the Soviet Union and Stalin decreed that something like 95 per cent of their produce would be exported to the Soviet Union or overseas.

"Ukrainians died off in their thousands and Stalin replaced them with Russians loyal to him."

By the time David arrived in the country it was made up of a mix of around 50 per cent Russian Ukrainians and 50 per cent native Ukrainians, he says.

One side looks to Russia but native Ukrainians look to the west and have a culture that predates Russia.

David found native Ukrainians to be suspect of people they didn't know, but Russian Ukrainians very friendly.

"That, I am sure, is a historical outcome from what they'd been used to."

The habits of an elderly Ukrainian friend showed fear of a return to such times when she explained to David why she always kept a heavy coat by the front door.

"She had been trained as a child to do so after her uncle had answered a knock at the door and was arrested by Stalin's police in his pyjamas.

"He was taken and it was the middle of the Ukrainian winter."

Roman Pinchuk, the grandson of then Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, attended David's school.

"Kuchma was a little bit fearful his grandson would be kidnapped so he came to school in a limousine and was dropped off with his armed bodyguard who stood outside whatever room Roman was in."

Staff at the school were advised to stay out of politics but David often unintentionally voiced his support for Russia by wearing his favourite bright orange tie. David only realised after leaving the country, when events during the 2005 Ukrainian presidential election led to it being called the Orange Revolution.

David is now anxious for his friends and colleagues in the country as Russia tries to take over. He believes the passions of ethnic Ukrainians will see them fight, and fears he may have lost friends when police shot at protesters in Kiev's Independence Square last month.

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Ukraine has a large army and a lot of hardware.

"An air force, tanks, rockets, the lot. And if it comes to a war where people are firing things at each other, as I am sure it will be, there is going to be a lot of bloodshed," David says.

- North Harbour News

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