Voices from Ukraine
David Healy Photo
Women sell asters on the street in L’viv in western Ukraine
The news is full of Ukraine these days. Russia has overtaken parts of Ukraine and sent hired masked soldiers into other parts of Ukraine to foment rebellion against the fledgling government in Kiev. News reporters describe what they see, and commentators point out what resources are at stake, what political options are presented, what threats are real, what statements are lies, what history is being evoked, and who speaks Russian, and who doesn’t.
Yet I know I am only hearing part of the story, even when I listen carefully. Part of what is missing, and part of what we wish we could understand, is how Ukrainians in the eastern and western parts of the country are feeling or thinking about the events wracking their homeland. I have gathered a few of these voices — which provide a perspective lost among the masked men and Kalashnikovs, the referendum and political struggles.
Ukraine means “borderland” — and its location on the Black Sea, as well as its long borders with Russia, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Belarus — guarantee that for the foreseeable future the word “Ukraine” will aptly describe both the country’s location and its predicament. Ukraine is also functioning like that keystone in a Roman arch — as long as it holds its place, the powerful forces from its neighbors will have a chance of staying in balance.
Europe is not self-sufficient, but neither is Russia. National news stories in the United States have relayed the information that Russia supplies Europe most of her natural gas and oil. Much of the oil and natural gas travels through Ukraine (and other countries) to get to Europe. In addition to this dependence on energy resources from Russia, businesses in Europe and the United Kingdom are tightly linked to Russia. They supply raw materials for each other and provide markets for each other.
In one of the most ironic twists in a situation ripe with gallows humor, parts for many of Russia’s military vehicles and machinery are made in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian military uses largely old, outdated Russian military tanks and weapons. Chernobyl, which was in the USSR when it exploded, is in Ukraine. “The Fiddler on the Roof,” set in 1905 “tsarist Russia” describes the traditional rural Jewish Ukrainian family.
Which Ukrainians speak Russian?
Virtually all residents of Ukraine speak fluent Russian. Some speak Ukrainian at home, some speak Russian at home. There are pockets of other languages, including Romanian and Tatar. Russian was the only legal language of instruction until 1991 and is still predominant in schools and universities in many parts of the country. The Russian information campaign has deliberately conflated “Russian-speaking” with “Russophile” Ukrainians. According to a Pew Research poll released this week, 77 percent of Ukrainian residents want Ukraine to remain intact as an independent country. Even Russophile Ukrainians do not want to become citizens of a country that jails musicians and protesters.
Putin’s stated goal of protecting Russian-speaking people in Ukraine is code for absorbing the entire country. He might as well target Russians in London and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, along with many other Russian-speaking enclaves around the world. His characterization of the recent protests in Kiev as “fascist” and “Nazi” are deliberate evocations of the agony that Ukraine endured in World War II.
As Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote in The New York Review of Books March 20, 2014: “What this campaign does is attempt to reduce the social tensions in a complex country to a battle of symbols about the past. Ukraine is not a theater for the historical propaganda of others or a puzzle from which pieces can be removed. It is a major European country whose citizens have important cultural and economic ties with both the European Union and Russia. To set its own course, Ukraine needs normal public debate, the restoration of parliamentary democracy, and workable relations with all of its neighbors. Ukraine is full of sophisticated and ambitious people. If people in the West become caught up in the question of whether they are largely Nazis or not, then they may miss the central issues in the present crisis.”
Instead of using the Russian language as a pretext for election tampering and military invasions, a secure, strong and courageous Russian president would be supporting Russian arts and literature around the world, opening cultural centers, and basking in the glow of a worldwide Russian diaspora.
If only wishing made it so. The latest violence in Odessa — a Black Sea port located in Southern (not Eastern) Ukraine — is particularly ominous, as a Russian foothold there would put Kiev in a Russian vise from the south, east and west.
But what do Ukrainians think?
I have been corresponding with Ukrainians I met while teaching in Ukraine in 2007-2008. Here are recent messages from university students and professors from both the east and west of Ukraine, who asked that I not use their names.
In mid-March, protester-strangers began appearing in Crimea, dressed in black, and masked.
March 13-14, 2014. From a former student in western Ukraine:
“The situation in [our city] is rather peaceful. We support our new power [in Kiev], but don’t trust them totally.
I will be happy to update you with our vision of the situation. We are now losing the information war in the media, despite the USA and Europe ... supporting Ukraine against Russian occupation [in] Crimea, so such peer-to-peer talks are very important ... Europe and U.S. are against Putin, but he doesn’t understand the word peace and is not willing to talk to Ukrainian officials.
Concerning sanctions — it is difficult to say, and here in Ukraine no one is sure that the West is really ready to implement them until real military actions take place. Probably economic sanctions [are] a more powerful tool, but it takes some time for Russian officials to feel them. While time is what we lack now.”
March 13. From a former student in western Ukraine:
“As to the situation in Ukraine — it’s complicated. Well, in fact it’s not complicated because we Ukrainians can manage our struggles by ourselves, but Russia doesn’t give us any possibility to do that. Nevertheless, we are doing our best to settle everything down. Many people in Ukraine and throughout the world are praying so we do hope there will be no war and no more deaths.”
In mid-April, stranger-provocateurs began appearing in eastern Ukraine, and mobilizing local Ukrainian Russophiles for action.
April 20, from a professor in eastern Ukraine:
“Putin — no one in the world believes him! But that does not bother him at all. He is obsessed with the idea of restoring the Soviet Union and [wants] to go down into history as the ruler who unified ‘the great country.’
The more I read about him, the more disgust I feel towards our nearest neighbors.
With ‘friends’ or ‘brothers’ like that who needs enemies?
“Donetsk region is the most unstable in the country at the moment. Slavyansk in Donetsk region (a famous monastery is there) has been announced the hottest for today: they demand separation (?!) from Ukraine, they are armed to the teeth with the most up-to-date weapons, they do not want to negotiate. ...
“Last week Horlovka was a hot spot: I called my friends who live there, they are afraid of going out of the houses, the students were allowed to leave for home towns, the bus [lines] between the towns have been stopped. They do not believe that in [our city] everything is quiet.
“It seems to me the world is tired of Ukraine.
“I had a chance to go along the Maidan [the square in Kiev where the revolutionary standoff took place this past winter] and see the tents, the famous New Year tree which is still there, the candles and flowers for the dead. The people living in the tents are not going to leave them until after the elections. They occupy the territory from the Central Department Store to European Square, occupying the Independence Square and the adjacent streets. It was quiet and peaceful there: A lot of souvenir shops were selling blue and yellow ribbons, wreaths with ribbons, all sorts of ‘revolutionary paraphernalia,’ magnets, etc.
“The Trade Union building opposite the Central Post Office is black with soot (the one with the digital clock, which is no longer there). The authorities have started the renovation of Khreshchatik [Street] doing the job piece by piece very slowly not to cause any trouble to the Maidan people.
“I was impressed by the organization of the Maidan life and order!”
April 26, from a professor in western Ukraine:
“The police [in eastern Ukraine] who are supposed to take care of security are being paid by local thugs who are all [members of Parliament] from the Yanukovych’s party — all of them extremely pro-Russian. A lot of locals still believe in Right Sector [a euphemism for Fascists or Neo-Nazis], [are] willing to attack them. People have been brainwashed — they all watch Russian TV. What can you expect from ‘inner’ Russian channel if editor-in-chief of RT — the international Russian channel — posted ‘Ukraine RIP’ in her Twitter account?
“My colleague’s parents live in Arizona, her father has a cousin in Russia — a guy from western Ukraine who stayed in Russia after military service when he was 20. That colleague of mine says her father is close to [having a] heart attack every time the Russian relative calls because of the nonsense he talks, the recent pearl being — America wants to take Ukraine to attack Russia from that territory, and the guy is absolutely sincere in his belief.”
May 1, from a professor in eastern Ukraine:
“I’m watching TV at present showing a huge demonstration in St. Petersburg [Russia]. People are marching with Ukrainian flags, anti-Putin slogans and singing Ukrainian anthem and songs! May Day in action!
“As you may know, Donbass (Donetsk and Lugansk regions) is not in [Ukrainian] control, to put it mildly. I called my friend (in Horlovka), they are despondent; the banks are being attacked, the ATMs are empty... they are afraid to go out ... Today on the Internet I read that some districts of the Donbass area want to join [our] region! And the issue is being discussed at the governor’s level.
“Touch wood, it’s quiet here: the governor has got ways with all sorts of people and a good team giving him full support.”
Ukraine has a long tradition of extraordinary poets and authors, the famous Sholem Aleichem, Lesya Ukrainka and Taras Shevchenko among them. In that tradition, and plumbing a deep well of historical resonance, a poet/professor friend wrote from western Ukraine on May 3:
“We see things and live through things that make my hair stand on end ... It feels like you want for yourself to wake up from the nightmare that you’re having for many months.
“Or, as if you end up inside [a] Russian doll matryoshka and you’re trying to knock out the cover, and you’re almost done with the task, but then there is another one, much bigger and grimmer.
“Many elderly people [have become] really sick [from] this. Their generation was officially designated as ‘Children of War’ [World War II] and now they live through the fear that they were destined not only to be born right before and in the midst of the war but also to die in the more sophisticated one.
“I feel like I’m living three lives in one right now, three complementary but contradictory lives. There’s a need to do routine [tasks] and maintain the house; to support each other; and to teach the students learning on the way through the hell of pain and fatigue. I’ve hardly had more than four hours sleep once since Dec. 1.”
Ukrainians are indeed living three lives right now — or rather, they inhabit three historical eras at once. In the present, on-the-ground reality, Ukrainians tentatively reached for Europe’s culture and rights. In their near past, they were tolerating a corrupt but still young independent government. However the more distant past of World War II is the most present and compelling past, because it inhabits their consciousness. Particularly for Ukrainians schooled by the Soviets, the present conflicts echo that era: Ukrainians are again seeing their world turned upside down due to 20th century tensions that Russia does not have the capacity to solve, and Europe does not have the will to solve.
Linda Gray is professor and chairwoman of global studies, history and culture at Union Institute and University in Brattleboro. She was a Fulbright Scholar teaching university students in Dnipropetrovs’k (eastern) and L’viv (western) Ukraine from January 2007 to June 2008 and returned to visit Ukraine in 2010. She lives in Calais.