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First Foreigner to Witness Ukraine’s War Room

By: Tichakorn Hill

Date Posted: 2000-05-05

Gaylene Levesque, a teacher at the University of Ryukyus, is an ordinary English teacher with an extraordinary teaching experience. When she first set foot in the teaching field decades ago, she had never thought that her job would lead her to a brief but challenging task in a former communist republic that just declared independence from the Soviet Union, when the communist empire collapsed in December 1991.

It all happened in the summer of 1992. Mrs. Levesque was working as a researcher for a charitable organization that was associated with the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada. In Ukraine, the Ukrainian Catholic Church had been outlawed since the time of Stalin. All of the priests and nuns were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. After the Soviet Union fell apart and Ukraine declared independence, the organization learned that the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ukraine had not been destroyed but had just gone underground. With a background in teaching English, Mrs. Levesque was sent over to Ukraine to teach English to priests and nuns in July 1992.

Prior to her departure, she was approached by a Ukrainian man in Toronto who belonged to an organization of people who had the hobby of building model airplanes and model missiles. He knew a man who was a major general in the Soviet Air Force. When the Soviet Union fell apart and he found out that Mrs. Levesque was going to Ukraine, he asked if she would also go to the Ukrainian Air Force headquarters and help to train the Ukrainian pilots.

“Up to that point, it sounded ridiculous to us. But before that point, they didn’t allow the pilots in the Air Force to learn English because English is the international language of flight. To fly in international airspace, you have to learn English. They were afraid if their pilots learned English, they (pilots) might defect. So what they did was, every time a pilot had to fly in international airspace, they would put a KGB agent in the cockpit, and the English speaking KGB agent would do all of the talking,” she explained.

However, after declaring independence, the Ukrainian Air Force wanted its pilots to learn English because some of the pilots had been invited to Canada and the United States to perform in an air show. Mrs. Levesque agreed to take on this interesting task. After she finished teaching the priests, the major general sent a military helicopter to Lviv to pick her up. She was taken to Vinnytsia, which is in the middle of Ukraine. There, she was picked up by a limousine that brought her to a secret place where all the Russian cosmonauts and astronauts working under Russian Space program stayed when they came back to earth.

“This place was on the outskirts of town, and it was heavily guarded. There were lots of soldiers with guns and attack dogs guarding the grounds all the time. You had to pass through several gates before you could get in. It was a very lovely place with woods and a nice river for swimming.

It was a sanatorium. The building I stayed in had all the high-ranking officers staying there as well. There were also people visiting for health reasons,” she recalled the very first day she was brought to the Sanatorium of the Ministry of Defense.

When she first got there, everybody was watching her all the time because no foreigner had ever been in this compound before. Mrs. Levesque thought everybody knew she was coming. What she later found out, however, was that there were two major generals who were fighting for control of the Air Force at that time. One of them had invited her and had not told the other one.

“After dinner I went for a walk, and when I started coming towards the building, I saw several men in uniform. They looked as if they were looking for someone. The maids at the hotel were pointing towards me. A crowd started to gather, and these men in uniform stood looking very serious. Other people started looking at me. I started looking around, wondering what they were looking for. And suddenly a captain came up to me, and he started asking me lots of questions in English -- Who are you? Why are you here? Where did you come from? Who sent you here? Why did they send for you?,” she explained.

Mrs. Levesque answered the questions, but the man kept asking the same questions over and over again. He kept yelling at her. She was almost in tears as she was so frightened. Finally, a woman (whose husband was an Air Force officer and who later became Mrs. Levesque’s close friend) came to her rescue, telling the captain to leave her alone. The captain, however, told Mrs. Levesque that she would be brought to the headquarters for questioning the following morning.

The captain did come to get her the next morning and brought her to the headquarters, where she had to pass through four guards. The captain said neither woman nor foreigner had ever been in here before. The major general who had sent for her was there to greet her. He was so angry when she told him what had happened.

Mrs. Levesque began teaching her first English class to about 30 pilots right after that. She found out that their level was much lower than she had anticipated. She had to do very basic things with them, such as “Hello, my name is…” The captain who was interrogating her the night before served as her interpreter. However, this was the first and last time that she saw this group of pilots because they were being sent away to crisis-hit Crimea that afternoon. The next day she had a different group of 25 pilots.

One day the room in which the class was usually held was occupied, so they had to find a different classroom.

“We went through a long hallway. There wasn’t a door there, but the man went up there, and there was a little hole for a lock, and he unlocked it. I didn’t know it was a door, and it just flipped back. And there was a doorway suddenly. It was very interesting. We went in two maybe three feet, and there was another door. He opened that door. We went in another two feet, and there was another door made of solid steel. I’d never seen anything like this before in my life. It was very strange. Then he opened that door, and we went in. It was a big room like a conference room. And at the end of the room, there was a lifted area with a kind of control panel.

On one whole wall was map of Europe. There were little pictures of missiles in Russia and the Soviet countries. And then they had drawn on them arches showing where in Europe they would hit. And then on the other wall, there was a big sign like a list. And I could see that the list was saying that if so and so wasn’t there, then the next person would take charge. It seemed to be the list of people who would take control,” she described the secret room.

“I went on teaching the class. Half way through the class, an officer came in and he started yelling at me in Russian. The captain got up and yelled at him. They started yelling at each other. I could pick up a few things. The captain started to say that the major general said it was okay for us to be in here, but the officer said it was forbidden for me to see this room. I asked the captain why he (the officer) was so angry. He said this is the war room. And then another one of the men said, “Do you have a camera with you?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” And he said, “Oh, that’s too bad. If you had a camera you could take pictures, and you could sell these pictures to the New York Times or to the CIA, and you’d make a lot of money.” And I said, “Oh, I’m not interested in that.” And he laughed and said, “That’s good because if you had a camera, we would have to shoot you.

You’d better not read the wall.” I said I didn’t understand anything in Russian anyway.”

Mrs. Levesque said it was very intimidating, and she was frightened all the time when she was there. However, she enjoyed the peaceful and beautiful scenery. She had plenty of time after class, which lasted for only two hours in the morning.

She also had a chance to witness the air show that was always held in Vinnytsia. A high-ranking officer was laughing when the Russian TV kept showing the same picture over and over. He told her that he was laughing because Russia had only one MiG while Ukraine had thirty two. However, the parts plant was in Russia. She jokingly told the major general that he should fly over to Canada to visit her sometime. He looked very serious and sadly commented that Ukraine didn’t have enough gas to even fly out of the country.

Asked about the state of the Soviet armed forces there, she said she was impressed in a negative way. Soldiers were sleeping in tents everywhere because they did not have enough housing for all personnel. As a result, their families were not allowed to live with them on base. The wives and kids had to live back in their hometowns and couldn’t join their husbands.

These military members received very modest paychecks. The officers received about 400 roubles (roughly $100) a month while the soldiers received about 3 roubles 50 kopecks a month. Things got worse after the collapse of the Soviet Union; they had to go six or seven months at a time without pay.

“It was so sad. A lot of them had to depend on their families for food. If the Americans had really known what shape the military was in at the Soviet Union, maybe they wouldn’t have been so frightened of them,” she added.

After the Soviet Union let go of Ukraine, military personnel were shocked. They were unaware of the coming downfall of the communist empire.

They felt betrayed because they had devoted their lives to communist ideology. They could not believe that the Soviet Union could simply collapse so suddenly. They thought it was a trick. Col. Budko, chief of Ideological and Political Work, told her that he was very bitter and angry about the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was working on a Ph.D., and he had to defense his thesis, the topic of which was Marxism, Leninism, and success of the Soviet system. He had been working on the thesis for ten years, and when he delivered the speech, they laughed at him.

In the United States, the Pentagon has had battles with its own people when it does not seem to want to acknowledge that it has a problem such as with the Agent Orange or the Gulf War syndrome that has reportedly harmed its military members. The same thing was going on in Ukraine. The Afghani veterans were having demonstrations and making speeches. The people were against the war in Afghanistan. Thousands of young men were killed while many of them came home wounded but didn’t receive any support from the government.

Mrs. Levesque left Ukraine after spending six weeks there. She later received a message from the man in Canada who was in charge of sending her.

He had gotten a message from a major general who had gotten a message from another person. And he said, “Tell her never to come back here again because we know that she’s a spy.”

“I wasn’t a spy. I went there out of the goodness of my heart to teach English to their pilots,” she insisted.

Asked what she observed of the independent Ukrainian military at that time, Mrs. Levesque replied, "frustration, confusion, and anger."

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