03/12/2014 03:13 pm ET Updated May 12, 2014

Deja Vu in Ukraine

It wasn't like any other trip I've taken in my life. From the moment I arrived in Ukraine, I could feel the past under my feet, in front of me, behind me, in the air I breathed, in the food I ate.

I had come to track down what remained of the world my grandmother left behind when she emigrated to the United States as a young girl in 1910. Everyone told me that it was gone, forgotten, and that it had been replaced by concrete block apartment houses, modern cars, generic stores.

Everyone was wrong. As I traveled through the former Pale of Settlement -- where 5 million Jews were forced to live and outside of which they were forbidden to live -- it was all there, just below the surface. At a modern produce market, it was there in a woman wearing a green babushka who was selling milk from her cow in two glass bottles. There in the wattle and daub Czarist-era home of a woman in her 90s. There in my grandmother's village of Minkowitz, where one street snaked through town, past hand-cranked wells, past the building where my grandmother once dried tobacco leaves with older women.

I hadn't expected to experience the dark side of Ukraine, but it was everywhere, and unavoidable. The Holocaust wiped out a huge swath of the Jewish population with unspeakably inhuman acts. The remnants of homes and desecrated houses of worship and cemeteries are everywhere. After the Nazis, the Soviets took up the banner of oppression and repression when they came to power.

I knew about these waves of horror. But I didn't know about the Khmelnytsky Uprising that took place in the mid-17th century. Cossack thugs tortured, hacked at and murdered thousands of Jews; the estimated number ranges from 20,000 to hundreds of thousands. Nor did I know about the riots in Odessa in 1905. Brutal henchmen tore through the streets, destroying shops, beating and murdering hundreds of Jews. I could picture their faces, contorted in hatred and ignorance, massacring people who were different from them. I knew instinctually that this is why my ancestors left Ukraine, knowing that they were no longer safe in their homeland.

At the time, Ukraine was part of Russia. Just as it had been part of Poland. The dominators changed -- Russia, Poland, The Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- the rules of domination varied, but oppression was always in fashion. In l954, Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine. And then, in 1991, Ukraine once again achieved independence.

And it remained proudly independent until the last few weeks, when, in Kiev, after a brave uprising against the corrupt pro-Russian president Yanukovych, thugs were unleashed against the protesters, and once again innocent blood flowed in the streets of Ukraine. Yanukovych fled. Some of the more extreme elements of the new guard -- which includes neo-Nazis and fascists -- declared that Russian would no longer be an official language in Ukraine. The order was rescinded, but it inflamed Russia and the Russian speakers of Ukraine. The country became front-page news around the world, and suddenly the East and the West were engaged in a political tug-of-war over Ukraine. Putin pulled the rope with brutal force when Russian troops invaded Crimea under the lame and transparent pretext of protecting the pro-Russian inhabitants. And thanks to media coverage, we saw the twisted faces of thugs -- some of them identified as Cossacks -- who brandished sticks, and attacked pro-Ukrainians and dissenters. I know in my bones that these are the same faces they wore when they attacked my ancestors. The same mindless brutality, with different victims.

Recently, in Russia, I saw a performance of Cossack singers and dancers, who honored their culture and their customs. It was exuberant, life-affirming and joyous. All Cossacks are not thugs, any more than all Americans or Russians or Greeks or Turks or Venezuelans are. But the Cossack destroyers are a fringe element that gets their jollies and probably their money from attacking innocent victims in the street. And their Czar today is Putin, the bare-chested autocrat who rules Russia as the head of a cult of personality.

Although I left Ukraine many months before Russia's invasion of Crimea, and I don't pretend to understand the complexity of Ukraine's history with Russia, those Cossack faces from the past were always with me as I visited the lush land. I loved the people, the food, the country architecture, the castles, the markets, the museums, the history, the mystery, the village my grandmother came from. But I always felt that the brutalities of the past were not over.

And thanks to Russia, the dominator du jour, they certainly are not.

Deja Vu in Ukraine

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel writer who has contributed to 105 publications. Her new book, THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands, is about the mystery of her identity, and the world her ancestor left behind.

All photos are by Paul Ross.