Martin Hnizdil has a personal stake in the war that is hammering Ukraine. It’s not just that he owns a small home there; it’s where his heart is, too.
Hnizdil has paid close attention to daily reports of the war that Vladimir Putin has foisted on the Ukrainians. He’s been to most of the places that are named in the daily news reports: Kharkiv, Kyiv, Lviv, Kherson, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, Donetsk; chances are, Hnizdil has been there at some point in the past 30 years.
The Sterling man’s love affair with Ukraine began 30 years ago when he and several fellow volunteers traveled there to help the country recover as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Although not sanctioned by a specific aid organization, Hnizdil’s group was on a non-denominational mission to give whatever assistance they could. He ended up teaching English to college students in Lutsk in western Ukraine.
“They’d studied English in textbooks, but they had no knowledge of practical use of the language,” he said. “It’s like you and I had studied the basketball rulebook but we’d never had our hands on a basketball. We taught them conversational English so they could communicate in an English-speaking world. ”
Hnizdil was in Ukraine for three years the first time before coming home. A couple of years later he went back for several months, and he’s been going back for several months every two or three years since. He always teaches conversational English, sometimes at the college level, sometimes at the high school and middle school levels.
His latest sojourn to Ukraine ended in late February, just a week before the Russian invasion. He’s still in touch with some of the many friends he’s made over the years and he took out his smart phone and scrolled through images that he’s received. Here, a house wiped out by artillery, only a few yards from his friend’s home; then an apartment building with all the windows blown out from a bomb blast nearby. Hnizdil’s voice grew soft as he paged through the images.
“It was so beautiful,” he said softly. “Look what they’ve done.”
Hnizdil said he’s not surprised the Russians have had so little success in their invasion. He said the ineffectiveness of the mighty Russian war machine was well known in Ukraine when he was there.
“You know how we tell Polish and blonde jokes? Ukrainians tell Russian tank jokes, ”he said. ‘I never thought they were all that funny, but they would laugh hysterically.’
The Russians have badly underestimated the resistance the Ukrainians would put up, Hnizdil said. For centuries, Ukrainians have lived under the massive paw of the Russian bear and they’re fed up with it.
“They’ve never been totally free,” he said. “Russians have been in the east (Donbas region) for the past ten years. They’re sick of being pushed around. ”
Hnizdil said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s leadership has been crucial to the continuing resistance of the Ukrainian people. The unlikely hero is a former entertainer who made his name poking fun at Russia and its ruler, Vladimir Putin. But, as with the rest of the invasion, Hnizdil said Putin under-estimated Zelensky.
“He has a wonderful sense of humor, but a spine of steel,” he said. “He feels the pulse of the Ukrainians.”
Hnizdil said he’s keeping track of activity along Highway 40, the autobahn that connects Poland with Kyiv and is the lifeline of the Ukrainian capital.
A devout Christian, Hnizdil believes “the Lord is showing mercy” in that many more Ukrainians have not been killed in the Russian onslaught. And he hopes to return after the Russian debacle is over, to help rebuild.
“My body is all-American, but my heart is in Ukraine,” he said.
There will be an informational meeting at 5:30 pm Saturday April 2 for a presentation with Ukrainians sharing about the war. It will be at the Family Resource Center, 120 Main Street. For more information contact Martin Hnizdil at email@example.com or by phone at 970-580-1632.