RPCV Spotlight: Steven Boyd Saum, Ukraine ’94—’96

RPCV Spotlight: Steven Boyd Saum, Ukraine ’94—’96. 

While every person who serves in the Peace Corps carries their experiences with them when they return to the U.S., some people carry them more visibly than others. Steven Saum, who served in Lutsk shortly after Ukraine’s independence, has found that experience has exerted a gravitational pull for years. After he finished his service, he remained in Ukraine and then Central Europe, served briefly as a board member of the Northern California Peace Corps Association, and has assisted in monitoring several elections with the OSCE. In January, Steven took over as the editor of WorldView, the National Peace Corps Association’s quarterly magazine, and since April he’s also served as director of strategic communications. Steven was kind enough to give us time for an interview about his service and how he sees things moving forward in a post-coronavirus world. 

 

What made you want to join the Peace Corps?

The short answer: It was the revolutions of ’89. What I saw happening in Central and Eastern Europe was, to me, the big story of the end of the 20th century. I’m a writer by calling. And I saw that there were stories that had been buried for decades that could now be told. One of the truths about narratives we shape and stories we tell is that if you don’t give voice to your own story — where you’ve come from and where you’re going, and why you’re trying to get there — there are plenty of people who are ready to shape the plot and its meaning for you. You may not like where that story goes.

The longer answer: I’d long been fascinated with the Soviet Union — in part because of how our nations were engaged in the long twilight struggle, as Kennedy put it. In the town where I grew up in Chicagoland, they had started teaching Russian language in the late ’60s — and kept that up, in junior high and high school, through the time I got there. I also had a high school history teacher who loaned me a copy of David Shipler’s book Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams. Shipler had been the Moscow bureau chief for TheWashington Post in the ’70s. That book sketched profiles of everyday people in the Soviet Union, and it was through Shipler’s writing that I first understood people in the USSR on a human level — not as pawns in a struggle between economic and political systems.

When I applied to Peace Corps, they hadn’t yet begun sending volunteers to the former Soviet Union. Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary — those were possibilities. But I wound up delaying going in by a year after I received a summer fellowship — which turned out to be a good thing, because that same summer my father died suddenly. In the months to come there was a lot my family had to deal with. By the time I reached out to Peace Corps again to set things in motion, the agency had begun sending volunteers to Ukraine, Russia, and beyond. Back then you could note your preference for region, but no guarantees. Ukraine was the first country they offered and I jumped at it. I was with the third group of volunteers to serve there. (Fun fact: As the folks in Ukraine Group 1 like to point out, they were in Ukraine before there were volunteers in Russia!)

 

What was your host organization? What were your experiences serving so soon after Ukrainian independence?

I taught at what was known then as Volyn State University named after Lesya Ukrainka, in Luts’k. Now it’s East European National University. I taught Country Study USA, as they called it — an American studies sequence they rearranged so that all the students in the faculty of foreign languages could have me over the course of two years. I also taught a course in contemporary American literature. Plus workshops for colleagues in contemporary methods for teaching English. With some students I started an English-language newspaper that we laid out on my little Apple PowerBook, and with one student I co-hosted a weekly radio show on Radio Luts’k, “V Hostyakh u Stiva."

As for arriving in Ukraine then: It was a fascinating time indeed. I remember vividly celebrating the third Independence Day on Independence Square in Kyiv — it was something to behold. And a year and a half later, independent Ukraine hosted the first state visit by a U.S. president. Bill Clinton gave a speech to 70,000 people in front of Kyiv State University. And the Rada ratified the nation’s new constitution in the summer of 1996, right as I finished.

No question, Ukrainians were trying to figure out the direction of the country in a way they hadn’t had the opportunity to do before — an exhilarating and frustrating undertaking. There were times it felt like a real renaissance had begun. Reestablishing Ukrainian language was a big part of that — which isn’t to say that didn’t come with some tension. Economically, things were a mess. Many people had recently lost their life savings in hyperinflation. I had friends who had saved up for two decades, from the day their daughter was born, setting aside a little something from every paycheck for her wedding. After the hyperinflation, what was supposed to pay for a wedding only bought half a watermelon. With some, there was a sense of optimism and hope — with young people at a university, that’s so important, right? At the same time, teachers would go months without being paid, and factories were shuttered. To prepare for the introduction of the hryvnia, the country went through the tough transition of closing all the “dollar stores” and cracking down on people in the bazaars who sold foreign goods for hard currency. I had one friend who got arrested for selling a leather jacket, and if it hadn’t been his first offense, he would have had to serve five years in prison. And, too, it hadn’t even been a decade since the disaster at Chernobyl, which so many people had lived through firsthand. So yes, a rich and intense time.

 

What made you want to stay in Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, after you finished your service?

I loved the time in Luts’k, and just after I finished I was offered the opportunity to open a new office in Kyiv, running academic exchanges for the U.S. embassy. In launching the office, we were trying to broaden the reach of the Fulbright program in particular, to send Americans to parts of Ukraine where they hadn’t taught before — and to encourage Ukrainian scholars from all across the country to take part in academic exchanges. Plus, Kyiv was already such a vibrant city — and it was great to be a part of the literary and cultural scene. And it was cool to see a young DJ and musician I’d known in Luts’k, Sashko Polozhynsky, launch his career with the band Tartak.

There’s also a story I’ll tell that illustrates the transformation that was taking place then, while I was working with the embassy. Tucked inside my desk drawer at home I keep a piece of ochre-colored paraffin. It’s from an army base near Khmelnytskyi. It was part of the seal atop a silo that had housed a nuclear missile. When I visited the base, the missile had been removed and dismantled, the warheads shipped to Russia. Two U.S. senators were en route to that army base, too — Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Dick Lugar — for a ceremony that included the final explosion destroying the silo. This was part of a program the senators had created as the Soviet Union fell apart: a way to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the former U.S.S.R. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan all agreed to give up their nukes. The program also funded environmental cleanup and housing for displaced officers.

I remember looking down into that silo and thinking, with gratitude: We have made the world a little safer. I keep that piece of paraffin as a reminder that we have done things that are good, in the spirit of cooperation and larger purpose. And I keep it as a talisman of hope.

Pretty shortly after I left Ukraine, I headed for the Czech Republic to work with a university and an educational foundation — connections that I’ve also kept over the years.

 

How do you think the Peace Corps has changed in the 25 years since you served? How about Peace Corps Ukraine specifically?

There are the simple and obvious ways, which maybe have not so much to do with Peace Corps as with the whole blessed world changing. Take connectivity. When I was in Luts’k, I was one of about 10 people in the city who used email, which I could connect to with a dialup modem through wheezing phone lines. (One time an operator called my apartment to ask what all those beeps and clicks were a few minutes ago.) When I took a trip to Germany and came back with a thee-day-old newspaper for the German teachers, that was like gold: current and authentic materials. Video profiles and interviews of writers that I got donated by the Lannan Foundation in the States were real treasures for the faculty teaching literature.

But that’s stuff. And I would say that the idea of imparting knowledge and technical skills plays less of a role now.

What hasn’t changed, I would say, is that Peace Corps was and is so much about building relationships between people — by all of us as volunteers being a part of the community. The human, personal dimension is still there at the core. Maybe it’s even more important.

As for Goal Three, in Peace Corps jargon: Well, it seems more important than ever to bring the story back home in an informed and human way. I never imagined Ukraine being at the center of American politics like it was last year. Helping Americans understand Ukraine — during these years of the war in the east, the seizure of Crimea, at this time when economic and judicial reforms really could happen in a way that has been thwarted for a quarter century — that’s become even more important. So I’d say thanks to all of you who continue to help tell Ukraine’s story in all the ways you can.

I also admire all the evacuated volunteers who have managed to stay connected with their sites and continue collaborating on projects half a world away. These are such wild and uncertain times for all of us.

Another thing that I suspect hasn’t changed so much: Like me, maybe you’ll find you’ve left a part of your heart in Ukraine. Since the Orange Revolution, I’ve continued to come back to Ukraine as an election observer with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. So in some respects I’ve seen how the country has changed in the past couple decades, spending time in Kyiv and Zhytomyr, Kherson and Kropovynitskyi — plus a return visit to Luts’k to give a talk and see old friends. Some of my former students, like Olena Halapchuk-Tarnovska, help with Peace Corps training now, which is really delightful. I see Olena Sergeeva, our former director of TEFL, in Kyiv — she helped me set up an interview for a magazine story some years ago, too.

 

How has WorldView been affected by COVID-19 and the resulting evacuation of all Peace Corps volunteers worldwide?

Great question! Ideally when you publish a quarterly magazine you’re planning a year or 18 months out on big themes and feature stories. If you looked at plans from last fall, longtime editor David Arnold had staked out summer 2020 as an edition focused on national service. (After all, there was a big report on Peace Corps and a whole range of national service opportunities that came out in March.) Fall 2020 was going to be focused on disease and public health — many months before COVD-19 was on the radar.

David handed the baton to me in January, and we worked together on the spring edition with features on climate change and the Pacific. There’s some great stuff in there; and when the pandemic has passed, we’ll still have climate change facing us. That hasn’t changed.

And yet: The evacuation of all volunteers worldwide changed everything. For summer, this is the one big story that we’re covering in lots of different ways, in digital and print, trying to bring together volunteers’ personal experiences, talking to country directors, counterparts, parents … But how could that not be the case? This is an existential moment for Peace Corps, and what these volunteers have gone through — and their communities have gone through — is unlike anything we’ve ever faced.

Which means we need to catalyze the Peace Corps community in a way that we never have. The magazine can play a valuable role in that, informing and sparking discussion in our community. In all the ways that we can, we’re trying to rally support for this whole audacious Peace Corps mission — even as we help shape it for what comes next.

 

How do you personally think the Peace Corps will look different when it returns from the current situation?

That’s the really big question! For me, the right answer is to ask another series of questions: What do we want it to look like? What do host countries want it to look like? How can we shape Peace Corps to be the best it can be as we roll into the third decade of the 21st century? How do we foster programs that ask volunteers to summon their reserves of resilience and grit — and to live out the best of American ideals, with intelligence and compassion and integrity?

There are some interesting proposals along virtual volunteering and collaboration with recruiting efforts that are part of the report on national service that came out in March. The last couple months, we’ve also heard from members of Congress and seen in the media support for having Peace Corps Volunteers to put their skills and abilities to work home during the pandemic. Louder calls for national service take inspiration from Peace Corps, too.

As for that big question: National Peace Corps Association will be convening a summit in July to tackle it. I hope folks who read this will be a part of it.