At the Sochi Olympics, a personal window into Ukrainian strife

COLUMN | He graduated from a state university and became a sports journalist. He felt privileged to cover the Olympics. He had the same laminated, hard plastic credential with his solemn mug pictured. He also missed his family. He even had a 3-year-old son, who runs and runs forever .

I was him, and he was me.

But unlike me, Sergey Tsukilo is not two days away from returning to a home where he feels safe, where he has no worry about his own mortality.

He goes back to Kiev, where “it’s very scary,” he says. He goes back to Ukraine, where at least 77 civilians are dead in the capital, many by shotgun blasts from government police, who brandished shields Wednesday. They killed their own people because a weakened dictator camouflaged as a president told them to shoot.

“The classmate of my cousin died there,” says Evgeny Karanov, Sergey’s friend and colleague. “He was 22. He started at the architectural university. In two days, he was supposed to get his diploma of higher education.”

Sergey squints from the blinding sun reflecting off the snow outside the cross-country skiing venue here. The white-capped mountains are beautiful, pristine at 6,000-foot elevation.

He knows he is fortunate. He protested, too — in December, before people died.

“At that time they were just trying to push us away from the square,” Sergey said through an interpreter. “I was just standing there holding hands with people. So I did not see, in the eyes of the Berkut [crowd police], any desire to kill us.”

“We talked to them,” he adds. “They were human.”

Here at the XXII Winter Olympiad, where everyone is encouraged to omit the psychological and physical ruin on our way into these joyous venues, we’re constantly being asked to enjoy the Games, to look away.

Away from the starving, stray dogs. Away from the barren fields of dirt and concrete that laid waste to an ecological preserve. Away from the homophobic propaganda laws that violate basic human rights. Away from the whipping of an anti-Putin activist during a demonstration.

And now we’re told to look away from Ukraine, whose smoldering, bloody capital is a two-hour plane ride away, whose border is a day’s drive away, whose president started this spiral of violence.

But I can’t look away anymore. I can’t just put my head down, my blinders on and go cover another event after I met Sergey.

Because I saw myself.

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Sergey works at X Sport in Ukraine, the country’s largest sports network. His child, Lukian, is the same age as mine. Lukian has a map of the world and knows spaghetti comes from Italy and bananas from Ecuador.

“Lukian likes to go to stadium,” Sergey says to me and Natasha, my interpreter from our Moscow bureau. “He loves to run. He runs a lot. He runs 100-meter distance, back and forth. He knows Usain Bolt is fastest in world and lives in Jamaica. He knows the athletes and the names. He keeps asking my wife, ‘So are we supporting this one or no? Are we supporting that one or no?’ ”

Sergey also speaks to his wife every night after work.

“She’s not sad,” he says. “She’s mad because of what the authorities do. She’s very mad about killed people, so many victims.”

“Do you worry about your child’s future?” I ask.

“We want our children to live in a free, independent country,” he says, resolute. “We understand that if democracy wins, it won’t happen overnight, that our life will not be better immediately. Maybe within 10 years, it won’t be better. But for our children it will be better.”

This is far from over. The western part of Ukraine fights for a pure democracy, while the eastern province, where President Viktor Yanukovych is holed up after fleeing from the capital, clings to the hardline government embodied by Russia. Despite having his authority seized by parliament, Yanukovych won’t cede power, calling the opposition “hooligans.”

“We keep hearing on Russian national channels, ‘This is the revolt of radicals,’ ” says Sergey Artemenko, Tsukilo’s cameraman. “And we usually answer them, ‘If you see a radical with a helmet, this bulletproof vest and two sticks in his hand, you can be sure that this person has at least two high educations and is very intelligent. There are no radicals.’ ”

By the hour, life is changing in Ukraine. At 8 p.m. a moment of silence was held for the fallen who opposed the government. Earlier in the day the former prime minister was released from a penitentiary hospital after being falsely imprisoned. After the opposition began posting pictures of the palace on the Internet, many Ukrainians erupted in anger over the gaudy wealth of Yanukovych, including a fleet of cars and a personal zoo.

None of the men know what to expect when they return from this Olympic world, this protective bubble shielding them from the civil war at their door.

Sergey Tsukilo said the only time he feared for his life was while delivering tea to the front lines as a volunteer helping the opposition.

“I cut the lemons and worked in the kitchen,” he said. “I was too scared to be on the front line. But when I went there, it was very scary.”

I told him I felt fortunate to live where I do because my child doesn’t have to worry about these things.

He nodded.

“I just hope my child will have a decent life,” he says. “But I want the whole country, all the people, to have a decent life so we will not be in our own circle and not communicate with anybody else. The main thought when we go back is: How will we live?”

I was him and he was me. We lived parallel existences in so many ways, some 6,000 miles apart. Except, without saying, Sergey Tsukilo and I plainly understood:

If the randomness of a man’s nationality, circumstances, life — everything, really — came down to a simple karmic crapshoot, it’s clear who got the better roll of the dice.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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