Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be using my blog to write about politics in the Ukraine, but what is happening there is very dear to my heart. My grandparents and parents came from there and I’ve been spending the last two years writing my baba’s story.
For those of you who haven’t been following the news, Putin, the president of Russia, and a Russian bully, has raised his power-hungry head now that his puppet, Victor Yanukovich, the corrupt and former prime minister of Ukraine, fled in the night, taking many valuables with him. Some estimate that he and his son have siphoned off as much as 70 billion dollars from the Ukrainian people. He left Kiev after he’d authorized soldiers to gun down peaceful protesters demonstrating against that corruption, leaving 82 people dead and countless injured.
It was then that Putin struck, right when the country of Ukraine was at its most vulnerable, grieving for the loss of innocent lives and struggling to put a new government in place. He struck hard and illegally, by invading Crimea, an autonomous republic of Ukraine. Since then, with the Russian propaganda machine in full swing, he’s also managed to seed violence in eastern Ukraine, where many Russian-speaking Ukrainians live.
Though I was born in Canada, I carry the Ukrainian culture in my soul. As a child, every Sunday, my baba and I would take two buses to go to St. Mary’s the Protectress Ukrainian
St. Mary’s The Protectress church in Winnipeg
Greek Orthodox cathedral. There, at the end of the two-hour mass, the congregation would stand and sing the Ukrainian national anthem—Ukraine Hasn’t Died Yet. To outsiders, singing that anthem in Canada might sound peculiar, but the church population was largely immigrant and what they had left behind was still very much a part of them. I had never been to the Ukraine but hearing the song sung with such passion, I couldn’t help but get shivers up my back. On occasion, it brought me to tears.
At the kitchen table, I heard stories of the hardships that my baba and her family had faced under Russian and Polish occupation. After too many wars and the prospect of more hunger after surviving the famine of 1921, she had emigrated with her children to Canada in 1929.
In my teens, I began to hear stories about those who had stayed behind. On our family bookshelf, that contained a Funk and Wagnall Encycleopedia, various health books, and copies of The Reader’s Digest, was the book The Black Deeds of the Kremlin. It gave details of the Great Famine of 1932-1933, now known as Holodymyr. This extermination by hunger had been brought about by Stalin’s punitive collective farm practices. This book contained horrific pictures of Ukrainians dying of starvation. Their half-alive bodies were thrown into pits full of those who’d died before them. Estimates of Ukrainians who had perished under Stalin’s ruthless command range from 3 ½ million to 7 million. Think 12 Years a Slave and Nazi Germany and you can begin to get the picture.
When you think that Ukraine today, the bread basket of Europe, is the third largest grain exporter in the world, it’s shocking to think that at one time the farmers were not allowed to eat what they produced, or allowed to eat enough to survive.
Man in the Orange Raincoat, taken in 1988 in Lutsk, Ukraine
When my mother took me, my husband, and our children to Ukraine in 1988 to see the village she came from, it was still under Soviet rule. Gorbachev was in charge. We were not free to go where we wanted. We had to have a Soviet guide, even when we visited the family graves. At one point, when we thought we were finally alone, walking about the streets of Lutsk, a city 16 km. (10 miles) from Kivertsi, a man in an orange raincoat showed up and started talking to us. After that, he followed us for a while. We were not sure who he was, but we had the sense that he was checking to make sure we weren’t instigating anything that would not meet with Soviet approval.
The relatives, who lived in the area and came to see us at our hotel in Lutsk, had to leave their passports at the front desk. When we sat down with them in our sparse hotel room, they would not talk of life there. They whispered and pointed to the ceiling and the small table between the twin beds, indicating a hidden microphone. Only later, on the street, away from Soviet ears, would they speak candidly about their hardships.
In a Lutsk jewelry shop, an elderly man overheard me talking to my mother in Ukrainian. It was obvious to him, because of my western dress, that I was not from Ukraine. He asked me where I had learned to speak Ukrainian. I told him I had learned the language from my baba. His eyes welled up in gratitude that his language was living on and being promoted elsewhere.
By this time, I had noticed that the Ukrainian language was slowly being obliterated from the public. All government documents were being translated into Russian.
Even the church mass we attended was in Russian. As I was an actress, I asked our Soviet guide if I could see a Ukrainian film. She arranged for me to see a film about the famous Ukrainian composer Lysenko. I was disappointed to hear the actors speak in Russian.
Then, later when I visited Lviv, a beautiful city with Austrian-influenced architecture, I met a medical student who told me that there was an underground movement of intelligentsia—academics and professionals—who were planning to demonstrate about the Russification of their language.
So, given Ukraine’s history, is it surprising that Ukrainians would rather join forces with the European Union than with Russia? Much of its ongoing economic struggle has to do with the power Russia has wielded over Ukraine. Its people only have to look across the border at Poland to see that residents there enjoy a much higher standard of living.
But now that Russia is on the march, can Ukraine, with the help of the Western World, stop this bully? Will diplomacy and sanctions work?
I’d love your thoughts. For now, I’m hoping and praying for peace.