Ukraine and the Russian Bully



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.

Taken in 1988 in Lutsk, Ukraine

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.


14 thoughts on “Ukraine and the Russian Bully

  1. Karen Dodd

    Thank you for this, Diana. As you said, you do not usually use your blog to write about politics but I found your explanation the best so far for someone like myself (grossly uneducated about the situation and history) to understand. I have forwarded this to my husband, as recently we discussed this, both coming at the topic somewhat ignorant, and disagreeing with each other. Thank you for enlightening us!
    Karen Dodd recently posted…DEADLY SWITCH is featured today on the Fussy Librarian!My Profile

    1. Diana Stevan Post author

      You’re welcome, Karen. It’s so complicated, but the bottom line is a legal one. There was no threat to the Russian speaking population in Crimea. There was no reason for Putin to send his forces in, except to take control. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.

    1. Diana Stevan Post author

      Thanks, Shari. All the provocations, the threats. It’s only a matter of time before something goes haywire. It’s happened before. You can only push people so far and then there’s no turning back for a while. I hate to be pessimistic, as I’m an optimist by nature, but I think Putin is counting on this, to give him an excuse for a bigger land grab and more power.

    1. Diana Stevan Post author

      Yeah, villains. Watched a great documentary, called VLAST. How Putin put his adversaries in prison on trumped-up charges. He’s pushing everyone’s buttons, and basically saying, “Try to stop me.”

    1. Diana Stevan Post author

      Alicia, thank you for your comment. My parents came when they were young. My mother came to Canada in 1929, my dad in 1912. They have both passed away. I live in Canada, so I’m far from the turmoil there. But, as you probably know, our roots are our roots, and as such they inform our hearts and minds.

  2. marylin warner

    The ultimate bullies.
    I was so protective of our grandson when two bullies zeroed in on him, Diana, and I was also angry enough to go after them on my own if I needed to. Fortunately for everyone concerned, the teachers and parents stepped in immediately and handled things efficiently and effectively. And they followed up afterwards, too.
    But who can step in immediately to handle things efficiently and effectively in the Ukraine? So many–and so much–are on the line! I’m so sorry for you and those you care about. You may be away from the turmoil, but your heart is not.
    marylin warner recently posted…HOSPITAL BLUESMy Profile

    1. Diana Stevan Post author

      Marylin, sorry about the incident with your grandson, and glad he got the support he needed. We need to stand up to bullies. In your case, standing up to the bully and getting all that support worked.

      In the case of Ukraine, there was no way that it could’ve overcome the mighty Russian army on its own, especially at a time when its ground was still shaking. Not without loss of life. Also, any military response would’ve given Putin license to move further into Ukraine and threaten a takeover of an even greater area. He would’ve felt justified for his illegal act in the first place. I can also understand why other nations didn’t leap into the fray. Nobody wants another war, and yet, if Putin continues to act above the law with further incursions, we may very well see one.

  3. Vida Jaugelis

    Thank-you, Diana for your post.

    I have a Lithuanian heritage, and my own family’s history shares much in common with your own. I am dismayed by Putin’s western apologists who blame the West rather than the Kremlin for destabilizing Ukraine!
    I share your pessimism for what the future may hold…imperialism under the guise of protecting Russian interests plays well for Putin domestically, and he will push it as far as he can if it does not cost him too much.

    Offering prayers in solidarity.

    1. Diana Stevan Post author

      Thank you for visiting, Vida. I appreciate your comments and support. I am also sorry that the Lithuanian people have suffered in a similar fashion. We are living at a time when hopefully mankind can embrace one another’s differences, celebrate them, rather than try to squash hope and change through bullying tactics. Praying along side of you.

  4. Irena Welhasch Baerg

    Thank you for telling your story. I grew up on Burrows Ave., just a couple of blocks from St. Mary’s. My parents came from Ukraine, post-WWII. Your story is too familiar to me. I, too, like all my First Generation friends from the North End of Winnipeg, carry our parents’ patriotism to Ukraine, in our hearts and, even, carry on with activism, to make sure that the truth about Ukraine’s tragic history and current situation be known to everyone. I look forward to reading your book or seeing your play, in the future! Kudos on your project! I would be happy to follow along and comment where appropriate. Best, Irka

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