Posted: Feb 24, 2014 9:06 AM

I have been to Ukraine twice in the past four years - in January 2010 and in October 2012.

None of what has gone on there over the past few months, is my fault. I was on my best behavior - for me - and I left the country more-or-less as I had found it in each instance.

Ukraine - and that is its preferred name, not The Ukraine - is basically divided into two parts: The west, that as you might expect is European-facing, and the east, that feels closer in distance and culture to Russia.

As an example, most people in the west speak Ukrainian. Most in the eastern sector speak Russian as their first language. In the center of the county (that includes Kiev), a huge majority are bi-lingual and it is not unusual for one person to speak Russian while the other speaks Ukraine - in the same conversation.

Think Canada: Montreal = French. Calgary = English. Canadian Constitution = Official Bilingualism.

To my untrained ear, Russian and Ukrainian sound the same but that is also the case with Chinese and Japanese, and other closely paired languages that are not named "English."

I was an Official International Election Observer during both of those two trips. The earlier one was to help observe (as opposed to "oversee") the election that propelled Viktor Yanukovych to the Presidency.

In that election, I was sent to the second largest city in Ukraine, Kharkiv; a gray, industrial city that screams "Stalin" and, in fact, had the largest existing statue of Lenin still in its city square.

Along with my team members we decided to drive from Central Kharkiv to the Russian border then work our way back, stopping in at village polling stations, then suburban stations, along the way and ending up back in Kharkiv to watch the counting at a major poll in a mid-town school.

There is a mini-travelogue about that visit to the Russian border that is worthwhile reading on the Secret Decoder Ring page today.

This is Ukraine. There was no heat in that school and by 9 PM it was getting very cold. All of the volunteers and officials were bundled up in heavy coats and scarves, but they couldn't, for obvious reasons, wear gloves.

I had brought a couple of dozen chemical hand warmers and I asked our translator to ask the woman in charge of the polling place if I could donate them to the people in the room.

The woman said "Da" and our translator carried the hand warmers to the wide square of volunteers seated around the pushed-together tables.

The concept was explained to them and they each took one - and carefully put it in a purse or a pocket.

"Why aren't they using them," I asked our translator?

"They're treating them like a present from an American. They'll take them home and show them off to their neighbors tomorrow."

The next time I went to Ukraine I was assigned to the central region for the Parliamentary elections.

In one of the cities we visited, our local contact had made arrangements for us to meet with the Mayor. This is in my wheelhouse.

When we got there she was pleasant, but distant. Meeting Americans suspicious of the polling operations in her city did not exactly make her day.

We chatted amicably and I finally asked what her biggest problems were.

Unemployment and alcoholism topped the list, but those aren't issues that the Mayor of a small city can solve.

I told her I had been a City Councilman in the United States (Marietta, Ohio 45750 as you well know) and there was always one problem, that was our responsibility, that we dealt with at every meeting. In our case it was almost always the city budget.

Her face brightened; here was someone who understood what she was facing as a city leader.

"Water," she said. "The city is growing faster than we can afford to increase the water supply."

We chatted about the issues that we city officials faced every day without the recognition that provincial and national leaders believed came with their titles.

This will be a difficult time politically in Ukraine and winter is a difficult time of the year.

The people were kind and giving to me, and I wish them well.