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In 2011, children in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, laugh as they show off copies of a children's Bible produced by Eastern European Mission.
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Photo by Erik Tryggestad

Grace under fire: Remembering the godly, funny people of Ukraine


How is the U.S. the same as the USSR?

“In the U.S., you have the freedom to stand in front of the White House and shout, ‘Ronald Reagan is an idiot!’ In the Soviet Union, we have the freedom to stand in front of the Kremlin and shout, ‘Ronald Reagan is an idiot!’”

In 2011, children in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, laugh as they show off copies of a children's Bible produced by Eastern European Mission.

I took “product shots” for Eastern European Mission in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in 2011. These are students who use the ministry’s children’s Bibles as part of their curriculum. One came down with a severe case of the giggles. I suspect the kid on the right was the cause.

That’s my favorite Cold War joke. It replays itself in my brain in a Russian accent, spoken by a Ukrainian named Nick Plaksin.

This seems like the worst possible times for jokes. I shed tears as I watch a video of my minister friend Sasha Prokopchuk, standing in the ice-cold streets of Kyiv, pleading with Russian soldiers to lay down their guns and go home. I don’t know if I’ll see him again in this life.


Related: ‘Lay down your weapons, stop shooting’


But as I look through old photos of my reporting trips to Ukraine, I’m reminded continually of how very, very funny the Ukrainian people are.

Even their president is a former comedian — one who has earned respect around the world for the grace he and his people have displayed under fire.

There’s a photo of me at a Baskin-Robbins in a Kyiv shopping mall in 2003. One of the church members with us, “little Dima,” was excited because they had pear-flavored ice cream.

“You have to try this,” he said. “It’s pear!” I did. Yes, it was pear.

Showing off my spoon (for some reason) at a Baskin-Robbins in Kyiv, Ukraine, 2003.

Showing off my spoon (for some reason) at a Baskin-Robbins in Kyiv, Ukraine, 2003.

I also think about Helen Girshman. She was our no-nonsense interpreter when Richard Baggett and I visited Ukraine in 2011 as part of Eastern European Mission’s 50th anniversary. We went all over the country — including Crimea and Donetsk, which a few years later were flying the Russian flag.

At one point we were in the Kyiv airport waiting for our flight to the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk. The terminal had wifi — a real novelty for a foreign airport in 2011 — so Richard and I were glued to our phones and computer screens, scrolling through email and social media.

Helen Girshman, left, translates for Richard Baggett as a schoolteacher shows news clippings in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in 2011.

Helen Girshman, left, translates for Richard Baggett as a schoolteacher shows news clippings in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in 2011.

“Excuse me!” Helen said, suddenly resembling every teacher I had in elementary school. “If you boys are through playing with your toys, our flight is boarding now.”

And then there’s Nick. When I met him he was the song leader for a young congregation in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the Cup of Life Church of Christ. They loved to sing, especially “Our God is an Awesome God.”

Nick even did the cringe-worthy verses of the Rich Mullins classic that most of us skip. (“When he rolls up his sleeves he ain’t just puttin’ on the Ritz.” Shudder. And that, of course, reminds me of another joke that’s been going around for years about a certain Russian president riding on a popular snack cracker.)

“The Lord wasn’t jokin’ when he kicked ‘em out of denim!” Nick sang. At least that’s how it sounded to me. (Let me just stress here how much better his English was than my Russian, OK?)

Nick Plaksin (in Yankees cap) shares a laugh with Natasha Tsvyashchenko in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 2003.

Nick Plaksin (in Yankees cap) shares a laugh with Natasha Tsvyashchenko in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 2003.

I saw Nick again in 2011 in Donetsk. He was working for Eastern European Mission, managing the distribution of Bibles and faith-based literature to public schools. His wife, Natasha, had served as the ministry’s Ukrainian operations coordinator. A few months earlier she had suffered an aneurysm and died at age 37.

In the midst of grief, Nick kept serving the Lord.

And he kept me in stitches.


Related: Why Ukraine matters to Churches of Christ


He told jokes about the government — not the mean-spirited ones we tell in the U.S. nowadays. When Eastern Europeans who remember the Cold War criticize their governments, they do so in an almost celebratory way. A sister in Christ in Slovakia once told me how great it is to finally have the freedom to tell her leaders what she thinks of them.

Nick Plaksin, left, stands with fellow Ukrainian staffers for Eastern European Mission after a 2011 Christian conference in Crimea.

Nick Plaksin, left, stands with fellow Ukrainian staffers for Eastern European Mission after a 2011 Christian conference in Crimea.

As we rode through the streets of Donetsk, Nick pointed to a giant statue of a nobleman on a horse.

“I asked, ‘Who is this a statue of?’” Nick said. “They told me, ‘Don’t you recognize him?’” (It was the mayor or some rich bigwig in Donetsk. I forget. Someone well known.)

“Of course I recognize him!” Nick replied. “But who is riding him?”

I wonder what happened to that statue. Donetsk has been in the midst of turmoil since 2014, and now that conflict has spread across Ukraine.

Meanwhile, I’m told that Nick remarried and moved to Southeast Asia to teach scuba diving. Somehow, that just seems on-brand for him.

I know he’s grieving for his homeland just like so many of us who love our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. I pray for Sasha, for Dima and for all the Christians who are transporting relief supplies into harm’s way, who are ferrying women and children to the border, who are conducting Bible studies and baptizing in the war zone.

A statue of Lenin peers through an inflatable obstacle course during a Christian conference in Crimea in 2011.

A statue of Lenin peers through an inflatable obstacle course during a Christian conference in Crimea in 2011.

The other day I was rewatching “Band of Brothers,” the World War II drama. At the very end the real-life Maj. Dick Winters recalls being asked by his grandson, “Were you a hero in the war?”

“No,” Winters replies. “But I served in a company of heroes.”

ERIK TRYGGESTAD is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. Contact [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @eriktryggestad.

Filed under: Christianity in Ukraine Churches of Christ in Ukraine Conflict in Ukraine Insight Opinion Pray for Ukraine Top Stories Ukraine

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