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Back to Ukraine: “We Must Defend Our Land”

I keep thinking, please, please stop. Please don’t buy me that coffee. Please don’t buy me lunch. Really, you don’t have to. When I first came to Ukraine in 2007 the currency was 1 USD to 8 Ukrainian hryvnia. This summer it was 1 to 14. And now it’s 1 to 25. At one point last month it went to over 30. I’ve been in Ukraine now for several days and the hospitality and generosity of people going through a truly difficult time, an economic crisis and a war, continues to amaze me. People have their pride and really care about how they treat guests. At the same time it makes me really sad to see this country going through another economic crisis as well as the war that began a year ago. I spent the first few days of my trip in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv where I reported on the volunteer war effort. I keep hearing the same phrase over and over that roughly translates as “we must defend our land.”

Rinok

People are doing what they can here. Circumstances aren’t great: the army still doesn’t have the weapons it needs, reforms aren’t moving fast enough, and too many people are unnecessarily suffering. It has been nine months since my last trip here and things haven’t gotten better. Yet for many people in western Ukraine, there’s a sense that they will overcome, because freedom and territorial integrity come above everything else.

Shadows

I’ve said it before here, Lviv is one of my favorite cities in the whole world. The history, the old buildings, the people, the food, I love this city. I’m lucky to have spent several days there reporting and walking.

Cobblestone

Side Street

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Ukraine Eats

Before I embark on a weekend of eating grilled things to celebrate the birth of America, I thought I would show you what I ate for a month while in Ukraine. These days Kyiv (and to a lesser extent Lviv) have many options. Sushi has really taken off in Ukraine. In Kyiv I lived by a place called Yellow Ocean (slightly racist), I never did have sushi over the month I was there, but it looked good whenever I walked by. I tend to live by the “when in Rome,” so “when in Ukraine, eat Ukrainian food.” I love Ukrainian food, now maybe it’s the Proust-like link to my childhood and my grandmother’s warm kitchen in upstate New York where she always let me help her chop and peel and instilled a love of food in me at an early age. So call me biased. Two very traditional dishes (you will also find variations in Russia, Poland, and other parts of Eastern Europe) are borsch, a beet soup, and varenyky, dumplings (called pierogies by Poles in English). On one of my first days in Lviv I sat on the main square in downtown and treated myself to both plus extra sour cream — you only live once.

Lviv lunch

Sour cream is one of those items Ukrainians have in their fridges at all times. Add it into soup, mix it in with salads, sweeten it with sugar and vanilla — it’s one of those ingredients that is adaptable to whatever you may be cooking or eating.

Borsch

I like to think that borsch is in many ways a beautiful metaphor for Ukraine and it’s regional variations. No one borsch is the same — some people add beans or more tomatoes, sometimes the beets are cut very thin, other times you get beet chunks. Borsch is one of those dishes that everyone will say their mother or grandmother makes best — better than your mother or grandmother.

Military Bowl

And then there’s green borsch which is totally different from red borsch. Made with sorrel and often served cold, it’s meant as a summer soup.

Green Borscht

One thing I didn’t grow up with in the diaspora with was salo. Salo is essentially pork fat. People will slice off slabs and snack on it while drinking vodka. I actually like it when it’s mashed up with garlic and spread on brown bread. It’s one of those things you just have to try.

Bread and Dip

Some potato piroshki:

Doughy

One of the cheapest places to get a Ukrainian meal in Ukraine is Puzata Hata. The chain has locations across Ukraine and for a few bucks you can get a plate of delicious varenyky, meat stuff ones pictured below.

Meat Varenyky

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Keeping Close Watch in Ukraine

My last week in Ukraine was spent interviewing activists. The activists in front of Ukraine’s Parliament, pictured below, held blue and yellow signs reading “new power, new reporting” and showed off the letters they had written to ministers demanding to know what actions they had taken after 100 days in office. While Ukraine is dealing with a real war in its east, another battle is being waged in the capital — the fight over reforming a system that has been systematically robbed and corrupted for more than 20 years. You can read my piece about activists who are fighting against corruption here. Many people described to me the apathy and fear that settled in over the Yanukovych years — the Maidan shattered all of that. Now, activists aren’t afraid to get up close and personal with ministers and demand to know what they are doing.

Parliament Protesters

Pictured below is Hanna Hopko, who I interviewed in the piece I linked to above. Hopko represents the new, young face of active Ukrainians. In her early 30s, with one daughter, Hopko told me she constantly thinks of her child in everything she does. What makes the situation even more dramatic is that her daughter and husband aren’t in Kyiv with her, they live in Lviv. When the revolution began to look dangerous, Hopko sent her daughter to her parents and now she goes to see her when she can. The majority of people I interviewed in Ukraine I spoke Ukrainian with unless they felt comfortable in English (so much faster to transcribe). This often led, at least I like to think so, to deeper conversations and an interview at the end of my interview. People were naturally curious about me and my Ukrainian that is accented and makes me sound like I am from Poland (the diaspora accent). Hopko was running around in front of Parliament talking to me, other journalists, and then to me again before I was the only one left. I watched her switch seamlessly between Ukrainian, Russian, and English (she translated for Joe Biden when he was in town).

Hopko

Towards the end of our conversation she told me something interesting. At one point she had left Ukraine during the protests to attend an event elsewhere in Europe. As she was flying back to Ukraine, she told the friend sitting next to her on the plane the story of a Ukrainian writer who fled Ukraine in 1946 and recollected how he would never return, even with a Soviet invitation, because there was nothing to return to and because he wouldn’t allow himself to be used as a tool of the regime. She recited some of his famous lines to me and then said that she knew she had to go back. Ukraine has had a large migration rate with many people going to work in countries like Italy and then sending money home. Ironically this money allows people to pay exorbitant bribes to get their kids into the best schools in Ukraine. Hopko, like many activists, told me now was the time to fight for Ukraine and that they weren’t planning on moving to any other country.

Clear Petition

For me personally, it was an interesting remark because my grandparents on both sides made the same choice as the writer and because of that I have been afforded so many opportunities. When I told my relatives in Ukraine all of the places I have lived and traveled to since I last saw them I noticed their eyes widen. I then had another interesting conversation when I was writing another piece about Crimean Tatar activists in Kyiv. Crimean Tatars are the indigenous inhabitants of Crimea. They boycotted the vote that gave Russia a pretext to annex Crimea in March. At the end of my interview with the head of the Crimean Tatar community in Kyiv, he asked me about my family background. When I told him, he said to me, “then you understand what we are going through.” While I can’t directly understand the pain and difficulty of the decision my grandparents made, I to some extent can feel what they gave up when their country was invaded from both sides in the 1940s and then how proud and active they always were in the United States, never afraid to speak Ukrainian or say they were from Ukraine during the Cold War years. My dad once told me the only time he got into a fight as a young kid was when a kid at school called him a “Commie” for speaking Ukrainian with his parents. To him and my grandparents that was a high insult.

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Ukraine Voted

Yesterday Ukraine voted. It was a hot day in Kyiv and I headed out to the end of one metro line to the Obolon (yes, there’s a beer with the same name) neighborhood. A professor and friend from Columbia lives in that neighborhood so she took me to her polling station located in a school. There was no A/C but Ukrainians calmly waited in line (dabbing themselves with handkerchiefs) and voted. In Kyiv they voted for both president and mayor. Voting moved at a normal pace and families came dressed up in traditional embroidered shirts. I was in a residential neighborhood surrounded by Soviet style block apartments. OSCE observers looked on at the polling station I visited. Some kids went in with their parents, others played outside in the school yard on an old Soviet tank that has since been turned into a statue. A neighborhood dog wandered in and out of the school. I stood for about two hours outside of the station and interviewed voters (I’ll post an analysis piece soon). My informal poll had Petro Poroshenko winning.

Poroshenko 2

That evening, thanks to a fellow journo, I went to the press center for Poroshenko. The world’s media was there waiting to hear if a second round of voting would be necessary.

Media Hub

Poroshenko and Vitali Klitschko (former heavyweight boxing champ) took the stage together. Poroshenko, in a rather muted manner, announced that early exit polls had him with over 50% of the vote. Yulia Tymoshenko trailed a far second. After the typical remarks on free and fair voting and what he plans to do next, journalists immediately began asking about the situation in Ukraine’s east. Everyone is wondering what Mr. Putin is going to do next.

Power Duo

Klitschko was elected the mayor of Kyiv and he promised it to turn it into a European capital.

Klitschko

After enjoying some Roshen chocolates (Poroshenko is known as the Chocolate King for owning the company), we headed back out onto the streets of Kyiv. Out of nowhere the Imperial March from Star Wars started playing and Kyiv mayoral candidate (I kid you not this was a real thing) Darth Vader drove by. Just as soon as he appeared, Darth had already past by heading somewhere else on the nighttime roads of Kyiv.

Darth Vader

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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.

Family