On the tall ship from Ukraine


WASHINGTON -- Through more than seven decades of Soviet oppression, freedom-loving Ukrainians never lost their will to achieve an independent Motherland.

They finally achieved that goal in 1991 -- months after the fall of the Berlin Wall -- when Russian troops departed for points east.

Now, nine years later, a Ukrainian tall ship appropriately named Bat'kivschchyna -- The Motherland, in English -- is about to leave its berth in the upper reaches of the Dneipper River.

As crowds lining the Dniepper's banks cheer it on, the Bat'kivschchyna will emerge into the Black Sea, sail through the Bosporus, negotiate the myriad islands of the Aegean Sea, race through the Mediterranean and slip through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic.

By the time it arrives at San Juan, Puerto Rico, to hook up with hundreds of other tall ships in OpSail 2000 in late May, it will have traveled 7,000 miles for a special rendezvous with freedom.

From San Juan, the Bat'kivshchyna, a schooner with a unique ferro-cement reinforced steel hull, will sail north to participate in summer maritime festivals in Miami; Norfolk, Va.; Wilmington, Del.; Baltimore; New London, Conn.; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Portland, Maine.

The highlight of the trip undoubtedly will occur on July 4th when the Bat'kivshchyna and tall ships from dozens of other nations sail into New York harbor and past the Statue of Liberty as part of the traditional "Parade of Sails" on Independence Day.

"Our mission," says Capt. Dimitri Birioukovitch, "is to acquaint Americans and Canadians with a people who love freedom as much as they do ... a nation they may not have heard of because it was under the Soviet yoke."

The one segment of the U.S. population that already has intensive knowledge of Ukraine is the Ukrainian-American community with 2 million members.

Many of them live in Northern cities like Philadelphia, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago.

Their letters and CARE packages provided solace and sustenance to Ukrainians in the darkest days of the Cold War.

"The generosity of Ukrainian-Americans gave us hope at a time when it seemed like there was no hope," Captain Birioukovitch said. "Now, we want to shake as many of their hands as we can, but we want to offer some of them even more -- a chance to sail on board Ukraine's entry in OPSail 2000.

"For those who wish to join us, we have room for 11 Ukrainian-American crew members during our sails across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and our cruise along the East Coast of North America," he said.

"And we can accommodate 60 'sailors-in-training' for the 'Parade of Sails' that takes place as we enter each port," Captain Biriouvitch added. "It's an opportunity not only for all of us to witness one of the most spectacular events of modern times, but to develop a camaraderie between long-lost relatives, as it were."

Ukrainian-Americans who wish to join the historic cruise may call the Ukraine Embassy in Washington at 202-333-0606.

The freedom voyage of Bat'kivshchnya would not have been possible only a few years ago when the world was still immersed in the Cold War.

Americans who view the white sails of this beautiful sailing ship as it enters various ports of call this summer should pause for a moment to reflect that things sometimes change for the better.

While the threat of terrorism by rogue states remains a possibility, the nearly 2,000 nuclear missiles that the Soviets once aimed at the United States and its NATO allies from Ukrainian silos have been de-activated and are in the process of being dismantled.

As the world enters the spring season of rebirth and renewal, that is a symbol of hope and a harbinger of things that can be.

Deborah Vondrak is an independent journalist who covers legal and international affairs from Washington.

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