Ukraine: Why What’s Happening Now Is Personal
My mother was stopped on occasion while out grocery shopping with me when I was small child. People asked her if I was an adopted orphan from Romania. My bright red hair and the foreign language we spoke confused other shoppers. My mother would have to explain that, no, I was not adopted and no, we weren’t speaking Romanian. We were speaking Ukrainian.
Since November I have been glued to my news feeds and religiously following Twitter updates from journalists on the ground in Ukraine. I’ve rarely used this blog as a place to write about myself, it’s been about places. But for me, events in Ukraine have been personal and I thought some personal context might make some difference because I am so sick of all the bad historical comparisons being made, “experts” who learned where Ukraine was last week and really don’t know the history, and the bad jokes and bad reporting that some publications are putting out. “Crimea a river” jokes got old really fast. This is a serious geopolitical situation; we haven’t seen a country invade another without provocation in Europe since the Second World War.
My first language was Ukrainian. Both sets of my grandparents fled a war-torn Ukraine in 1945. A land that historian Timothy Snyder dubbed the “Bloodlands” in his excellent book. My grandparents were the educated, land-owning kulaks that Stalin would have been more than happy to kill or send to the gulag. My grandparents were lucky – they ended up in the American sector of the displaced persons zone in Germany. They would live and wait there for some time until they made the journey to America. They started out with nothing and built lives – the American dream. They sacrificed so my parents and I could live better lives. Today when I think about how hard it must have been to leave everything they knew behind, I really can’t fathom it. They died before I was old enough to ask them many questions I now want to ask.
I’ve been thinking about my grandparents a lot lately. Occasionally I pass the apartment one set lived in when they first arrived in New York. Their story is one similar to that of many Ukrainian-Americans in the East Coast diaspora. I was raised in a unique Ukrainian diaspora community. In California, where I grew up, I was surrounded by “the fourth wave” – the wave of immigrants who came to America after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Every Saturday from first grade to eighth grade I studied Ukrainian literature, history, and writing for four hours. I was the only American-born and I felt like a bit of an outsider. While I vocally complained about missing Saturday morning cartoons all my life, it’s one of the best gifts my parents ever gave me.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about my family and friends who live in Ukraine. My aunt Jackie forwarded me an email from a friend in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, last week and I broke down while reading it. The woman who wrote the email was incredibly sweet and kind to me and my family when we visited Lviv. We traveled to Ukraine in 2007 because the National Museum was doing an exhibition 120 years after the birth of Theodore Wacyk, my grandmother’s uncle. The woman was one of the curators who worked on the exhibit and put together an excellent final product and display of his paintings. She has a daughter a few years younger than I. In her email she wrote about the sad and painful history Ukraine has endured and about the people who died on the Maidan in Kyiv. But what stuck with me was her questioning: Why now? Why again? Why does my daughter’s generation have to go through this? I never thought I would see the Russians invading Ukraine like my grandparents did.
As I began watching events in Ukraine unfold in November, I never thought they would reach this point. My 2007 trip to Ukraine was one of the most eye-opening of my life. When we visited my father’s side of the family, one relative pulled us aside and asked if we wouldn’t mind sending her some medicine my grandmother used to send. She told us how it helped her hands and how it was too expensive for her to afford. I was expecting her to show us a bottle of prescription pills. Instead she held up a bottle of Advil. That was when my mental calculus kicked in: my shoes cost $60, my jeans $60, my top $35. As I kept adding, it reached well over the average monthly salary in Ukraine. The corruption in Ukraine has been extraordinary, as recently revealed by the former president’s outrageous mansion and the amount of wealth he accumulated over his rule.
Now suddenly, the world has turned its gaze on Ukraine. As someone who spent a better part of four years at university studying and reading Russian and Eastern European history (I even wrote a 100-plus page thesis on the rewriting of Russian history after the fall of the USSR), I was immediately able to spot the names of authors that had never before written about Ukraine. That’s the media for you – as the winds shift, suddenly everyone feels the need to voice an opinion, even it’s an incredibly poorly informed one or one that is detrimental.
As someone who has worked as a journalist and wants to return to media in some way, shape, or form after my graduate studies, this time it has been personal. I believe in journalism and how important it is for democratic societies. And I know what working on deadlines is like. But if you aren’t sure of something, you pick up the phone and ask an expert, you go to the library and get every book on a subject you can and you begin educating yourself. You read, and read, and read some more. I have found myself cringing on daily basis as I read pieces that make Cold War comparisons and get basic historical facts wrong. Many Americans treat the former Soviet Union as a joke. The Soviet Russia jokes are a dime a dozen. I remember being incredibly offended in college when the Russian House threw a communist party – dress up like Stalin or Mao the poster said. Maybe I’m not lighthearted enough, but dressing up as two of the greatest mass murderers of the last century left a bad taste in my mouth. But that’s the thing — so many Americans are unfamiliar with the history of the Soviet Union, especially the younger generation of journalists publishing stupid pieces that try and boil a complex situation into 10 facts you need to know (I’m looking at you BuzzFeed, among many others).
Many journalists also don’t understand why Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans take accuracy in reporting on Ukraine so seriously. In the 1930s, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow was a man named Walter Duranty. Duranty lied about the great famine that Stalin engineered in Ukraine in the 1930s (other journalists like Gareth Jones reported the truth and Duranty went after them). Millions starved to death. It remains one of the saddest moments in Ukrainian history. It was the reason my grandmother kept her fridge stocked with food all of her life. Duranty was sympathetic to the Communist cause and enjoyed a glamorous life in Moscow with exclusive interviews. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work. A campaign decades later asked for the prize to be revoked. A Columbia University historian looked into the matter and recommended that the prize be revoked. The committee ultimately decided that it would set a bad precedent to revoke a prize (especially when the writer is dead!), and even though the articles weren’t up to par, they weren’t directly related to the famine, so they reasoned he should keep his trophy. You can read the reasoning here. I think it’s total BS. When I toured The New York Times a few years back and saw the long wall of Pulitzer Prize winners’ portraits and descriptions, I noticed that Duranty had one of the longest descriptions to reflect the controversy his worked had caused. I cringed.
So that’s some of the basic context. I’ve had many friends and fellow students email and ask me who they should be reading while events in Ukraine continue to unfold. So instead of putting together a long list of mistakes and calling out individual journalists, here’s my list of journalists and commentators I am following, because there is good work being done (as for the others I will continue tweeting corrections at them). I am also listing some important facts to keep in mind that the average reader may not be aware of.
1. If you know me, you know it’s one of my biggest pet peeves in life: it’s Ukraine, not the Ukraine. Stalin loved treating Ukraine as Russia’s little brother – that Ukraine, our Ukraine, the Ukraine. The historical roots of the “the” are offensive to many Ukrainian-Americans, not to mention that it’s grammatically inaccurate — you don’t say The Spain or The Germany. Here are two articles that do an excellent job explaining why everyone needs to drop the “the” and why we need to stop using Russian spellings of city names. It’s Kyiv not Kiev – Ukrainian and Russian aren’t the same language and it’s reflected in spellings and pronunciation of names (it’s amazing how many organizations are using a combination of both Russian and Ukrainian name spellings in lists, clearly they just don’t know the difference).
2. Timothy Snyder is a historian at Yale. His book “Bloodlands” is an excellent work and sets up a deeper history that is needed to understand what is happening. He has written columns for the New York Review of Books that I highly recommend.
3. Anne Applebaum is a Pulitzer-prize winning (take the Pulitzer as you will) journalist whose book “Gulag” was groundbreaking. She lives part time in Eastern Europe and writes an opinion column for The Washington Post.
4. The Kyiv Post is a local newspaper in Ukraine. The whole team at the paper has been doing an outstanding job and I recommend reading them.
5. The New York Times and Associated Press both have many people on the ground and are providing solid fact-based reporting. Vice has also been doing a good job with it’s video reporting as has the Global Post.
6. Andrey Slivka is a Ukrainian writer. He wrote a few pieces for the New Yorker back in December that I think do a good job capturing sentiment at that moment.
I’m happy to recommend others if anyone is curious.
I’ve been writing most of this blog post while flying over part of Russia on my way to Japan for spring break – trust me the irony isn’t lost on me. To close this post I wanted to go back to Ukraine. When my parents and I traveled to Ukraine in 2007 no one in our family had been back since my grandparents left in 1945. Connections were missed and oceans separated families for decades. When we landed in Lviv over 20 people were waiting for us at the airport and handed us bouquets of roses. They told us later that they may not have much, but Ukrainians always bring flowers. That evening we ate dinner all together, something that hadn’t been possible for nearly 50 years. It was a heavy and sad night in some ways, but also full of laughter. Decades of the Soviet experiment caused great suffering, but it didn’t kill the human spirit. And what’s happening in Ukraine now won’t either. But for God’s sake, if you’re going to write about it, get it right because for me it’s personal.