Specht, Greif recall lasting friendships with Ukrainians

In 1991, the Greif and Specht families hosted Ukrainian farmers. In 1992, both couples traveled to Ukraine themselves. The Greifs have returned several more times, most recently in 2019, to visit their friend Yuri Yablonski and his wife, as seen here. (Photo submitted)

In 2014, Russian forces entered Ukraine, causing damage to historic buildings, not to the extent of the devastation now, though. When the Greifs returned to visit Ukraine, Jim captured this billboard hiding the repairs that were being done to the buildings. (Photo submitted)

In 1996, Larisa Kucher, the daughter of Nikolai Kucher of Ukraine, spent several months with the Specht family of rural Monticello. Here, Paul Specht and Larisa are seen at that summer’s GJCF. Over the years, Paul has kept in touch with the Kucher family. (Express file photo)
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     It's been over 30 years since Paul and the late Kathy Specht and Jim and Sharon Greif each hosted young men from Ukraine as part of the Iowa Corn Growers Association Farmer-to-Farmer exchange program.

   In the early fall of 1991, both farm families hosted agricultural workers from Ukraine: The Spechts welcomed Nikolai Kucher from the Kyiv (Kiev) area; the Greifs hosted Yuri Yablonski from the eastern region of Ukraine.

   Those young men were in Iowa for about four weeks.

   Paul said a host farm family in northwest Iowa happened to back out just before Nikolai's arrival. Sharon Greif reached out and asked if he and Kathy would be a host.

   It was tough to communicate with Yuri and Nikolai because they didn't speak much English at all. Jim said it wasn’t like today where you can ask Google to translate for you.

   They both relied on locals as interpreters who happened to speak Czech, which is close to the Ukrainian language. (Even though most people spoke Ukrainian at home, Russian was taught at school and had to be used in all official business under the Soviet Union.)

   "Prarieburg was a Czech town," said Jim.

   As part of that exchange program, in 1992, both couples traveled to Ukraine themselves to see their farmer friends in their home country.

   An article in the Oct. 7, 1992 Express highlighted their trip…

   In August 1991, Ukraine became an independent nation with the fall of the Soviet Union.

   "Things opened up in 1991," recalled Jim Greif of Ukraine's independence.

   A year later, when these couples visited the country, much of the nation seemed to be quite behind the times. The Spechts recalled in the Express article that "80 percent of the homes didn't have running water, former state department stores were empty, and remnants of the old political system remained in place."

   Paul recalled seeing homes with grass-thatched roofs and community wells that served seven or eight homes.

   "Nikolai's family had an indoor toilet; some didn't even have that," Paul said of their '92 visit.

   Throughout their tour of Ukraine, they would see women in long dresses and bonnets, similarly dressed like the Amish, working in hayfields and loading hay into wagons with pitchforks.

   The couples spent about two weeks in Ukraine. The Greifs' stop in Ukraine was part of a 16-day trip that also included St. Petersburg, Russia.

   "We like to travel and see other parts of the world," shared Jim.

   He said back then, both nations only knew of each other through censored media.

   For instance, in August 2014, Russian forces entered Ukraine, building up for the full-fledged war in 2022. Both Jim and Paul said that invasion was never heard on the news in the U.S.

   "Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine," said Jim.

   When he and Sharon were there in 2017, you could see the government repairing buildings that were destroyed then by war.

   Jim said pictures and statues of Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, former Russian leaders, were taken down throughout Ukraine, much like statues were taken down in the South here in the U.S.

   "There was nothing left of them," he recalled. "They weren't nice guys."

   Following Soviet Union control, Paul said the Greek Orthodox Christian churches and Catholic churches started re-opening, many having been shut down since 1917 during the Russian Revolution. In fact, while in Ukraine, the Spechts attended a baptism in one of the churches, the first baptism to take place in that church since 1917.

   "Religion was one of the first thing to come back after the Soviet Union dissolved," he said.

   Then, in 1996, the Spechts hosted Larisa Kucher from Ukraine, the teenage daughter of Nikolai. Larisa was in Monticello for five months as she worked to improve her English. (This was not an official foreign exchange program.) Larisa did attend Monticello High School, alongside the Spechts' own children.

   An Aug. 21, 1996 article in the Express shared Larisa's story, noting that English in Ukraine was known then as the "Queen's English," not conversational English as spoken in the U.S. Larisa's grasp of the English language came from watching "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

   "Larisa has been back to the U.S. several times," said Paul. "She still lives in Ukraine."

   Jim, who has also kept up on the Kucher family, shared that Larisa and her mother, Natasha, are involved in humanitarian work in Ukraine, making and delivering food to the troops on the frontlines.

   Since the '90s, the Spechts have returned to Ukraine once in 2000. The Griefs have returned five additional times, the most recent in 2019.

   "They were personal visits about ag and goodwill," Jim said of their trips back.

   Over the years, both men have also met up with their Ukrainian friends at various ag and Farm Progress shows in the Midwest.

   Jim and Paul shared that farming in Ukraine is much different than farming in Iowa. In Ukraine, there are collectives that the farmers farm, yet they don't live on their farms like farm families do in Iowa. They live in nearby villages.

   The biggest crops in Ukraine are corn and wheat.

   "Agriculture over there has changed a lot," explained Paul.

   Jim said under Soviet control, people farmed for employment. Since they gained their independence, people went back to farming for themselves, producing food and making a living for their families, rather than the government.

   Thirty years after their visit to Ukraine, the country is almost unrecognizable anymore (not considering the year-long devastation caused by the recent war with Russia).

   "The modernization is like night and day," Paul said compared to 30 years ago.

   The Ukrainians worked so hard the last 30 years to improve and modernize their country.

   "That's the reason they're all so willing to fight to the death," he commented of the ongoing war and the Ukrainians' allegiance to their nation.

   Paul said he has not heard from Nikolai since the war there broke out, not wanting to put him or his family's lives in jeopardy.

   "I don't want to put them in danger," he said.

   Today, Nikolai is still involved in ag, but also works for the government, much like a state legislator from Iowa.

   "It's a total waste, what Russia is doing," commented Jim. "In eastern Ukraine, there's almost nothing left. It's scorched-earth politics, destroying as you go.

   "The Ukrainians have seen freedom and they don't want to go back to the old Russian ways," he continued. "We need to keep helping them because Ukraine has so much going for it.

   Paul said of the U.S. aid being sent to Ukraine, "We're helping the good guys; it's not a civil war over there."


Subscriber Login