Friday, July 18, 2014

Putin's War: Out of Control in Eastern Ukraine

Donetsk destruction. Yahoo image.
Heavy weapons, shoulder-fired missiles, AK-15s, tanks, surface-to-air defense missiles (called Buks, incredible giant machines of war), increasing Russian military personnel and special ops on the ground. This is eastern Ukraine, occupied by a band of extralegal foreign terrorists, armed and encouraged by Russia.

Last weekend, Russian/separatists shot down a Ukrainian military cargo plane at 21,000 feet, a height that only sophisticated missiles could reach. No one paid attention.  Pro-Russian terrorists have been hunting Ukrainian planes for the past few weeks, and bragging about taking them down, maybe up to a dozen of them so far. Who cared?  Ukrainian planes, some carrying food, water and medicine to Ukrainian troops, have been blown out of the sky. Just Ukrainian deaths. Heavy weapons in the hands of lawless thugs with the capability to take down planes flying at over 20,000 feet?  That's life in eastern Ukraine.

Buk missile air defense system.
But these actions, this use of advanced missile systems, have international consequences, and now we clearly see the results.

Yesterday, the Russian/terrorists shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur, flying at 32,000 feet. They thought it was another Ukrainian army cargo plane.

"We warned you not to fly over our skies," tweeted a Russian/separatist, proudly, as the plane went down.  Yes, as the plane went down. Cel phone messages about the plane among the separatists, intercepted by the Ukrainian government, are chilling.   No Ukrainian identification on this plane. Bodies. Foreign passports. Malaysian wording on the plane. "Why the hell was that plane flying over this territory?" a pro-Russian militant asks the men on the ground. "Any weapons?"

No, no weapons. This wasn't a Ukrainian plane, guys.  You won't find any weapons.  Just a lot of dead bodies. It was a commercial flight, on a routine flight path. There were 298 international travelers and airline personnel aboard. We will learn more about these people in the next few days, people whose lives ended tragically.  We have learned that one passenger was a highly regarded reporter planning a fantastic trip to Kuala Lampur for his 50th birthday.  "A wonderful person doing great work in the world," a friend said.

You shot this plane down thinking it was a Ukrainian transport plane. You were wrong. Very wrong. Maybe you stole the Buk from the Ukrainians, or maybe it's one of the many heavy weapons of war you have gotten from Russia.

Whatever the source, you used these advanced weapons of war glibly against a Malaysian airliner. The plane and the people in it are now scattered all over the killing fields of east Ukraine that you occupy and have violated.  You hit the wrong guys. You massacred innocent people.

International investigators and humanitarian aid will be coming to Donetsk soon, this region you are destroying, and you best get out of the way. This land belongs to Ukraine.  You are not a legal entity, not a country, that can give orders to international governments, officials and rescue teams. You will now be inundated with people who will work with the Ukrainian government.   They have to secure the crime scene that you are corrupting.  The black box in Moscow? Another tragedy in the making.

You got the world's attention with this one. 295 lives lost.  You'll pay for it one day.  This is Putin's War against Ukraine. It has international consequences. And it's out of control.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Eleanor Roosevelt visits Sylvania Historical Society

"I think somehow we learn who we really are and then live with that decision."

"I could not at any age be content to sit by the fireside and simply look on."  

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
                                                                                 quotes by Eleanor Roosevelt

Gail Conrad as Eleanor Roosevelt at a Women in History program
sponsored by the Sylvania Area Historical Society.
Eleanor Roosevelt came to the Sylvania Area Historical Society on Wednesday night and shared her story.  She talked about growing up a lonely child;  going to boarding school in England and finding her own voice; marrying Franklin D. Roosevelt and serving as "his eyes, and his legs" through depression and war; and moving on to become an activist for social justice and human rights.

Eleanor came to life through the voice of Gail Conrad, a member of the American Association of University Wormen (AAUW) and a participant in the AAUW's women in history series.  The AAUW series features "living history presentations to introduce children and adults to notable women and the important contributions they have made to society."   The dramatic soliloquys bring the experiences and views of women to life.

Gail Conrad, in a lovely red hat and pearls right out of the 1930s, channeled the interesting life of Eleanor Roosevelt to an appreciative audience.  Eleanor rose from being a lonely child of privilege who thought of herself as "an ugly duckling," to become a wife and mother, partner to a president, and then a social activist and humanitarian, a women of the world, brilliant, confident and compassionate.

The next programs in the Sylvania Area Historial Society's women in history series will feature Annie Oakley and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, America's first woman doctor.  Look for more information in our newsletter, the Sylvania Advantage, or on our website at


Monday, July 14, 2014

Transportation Palaces of Ukraine: The trains (вокзалы) are still running

Starobelsk Train Station, at top; stations in Kyiv (with iconic clocktower),
Khargiv, Lviv in collage; Odessa station, above. 

The trains (вокзалы) are still running in Ukraine. The stations are open for business, and so are most airports (there are far fewer) if you can get to them. While Lugansk and Donetsk are sitting ducks for more death, destruction and brutality, I am remembering the trains and getting around Ukraine.

Chernigov train station, so elegant inside and out, 
one of my first train experiences. 

I like the train stations in the eastern cities of Lugansk, Donetsk, and Khargiv, because these were closest to home in Starobelsk.  Lugansk especially. The station in Kyiv was almost a second home, centrally located, near Peace Corps headquarters (a nice walk), incredibly gorgeous inside.  Then there are the fabulous stations in Chernigov in the north (one of the most beautiful), Odessa in the south, and Lviv way out west. They are beautiful and accomodating; clean, efficient and pretty friendly (well, there was the occasional brisk clerk who wouldn't help a non-native speaker).

Most stations are architectural feasts, built as public gathering places for people from all walks of life, palaces of transportation, like the famous Carnegie libraries in the U.S. that are so rich and ornate.  Ukrainian train stations are filled with vendors and small businesses, inside and outside, selling everything imaginable, from flowers to flags, to trinkets and food.  Trains are the main ways to get around in Ukraine, reliable and relatively inexpensive.

The tickets were complicated for me at first, the language confusing--what kind of train, what class, what car, what time--but after a while, and with lots of help, I could read the schedules, decipher the tickets, and get just about anywhere. Overnight trains were the most popular. You had to take a train to get to an airport (аэропортов), especially to Kyiv's Borispil, the main international airport, and also to Donetsk if you were going South, say to Crimea or Turkey.   I can't remember how I got to Egypt.

Lugansk station: not the most beautiful but functional.
I spent many hours there, my main station.  
Oh yes, I remember.  I had taken the overnight train from Lugansk to Kyiv to get a flight to Egypt. A passenger in my compartment (I believe it was a nice young man, a student, who generously shared his food and liked to converse) had stolen my passport and money (the only time that happened).  I was frantic to get the passport.  I went first to a police station and then to Peace Corps headquarters (which has a very good security team) with my woeful tale. It was a bad day.  By the end of it, the Peace Corps had found my passport (God knows how), and the next day I flew to Cairo. I was grateful that the robber had thrown my passport in a place where it could be found by the police. It was a miracle.

The armed pro-Russian terrorists have made it hard to get to trains in the east, but it's possible.  My friends in Starobelsk were supposed to mail some applications for an exchange project that might bring them to America, but no mail is going in or out because the roads are blocked, barricaded, dangerous.  The trains are still running, though, and my friends made it somehow to Lugansk, then on to Kyiv, to deliver the applications in person. Brave souls, these women who are keeping families and communities together in eastern Ukraine.

Trains are the best way to see the country.  Once you get past the industrial smokestacks and the old Soviet factories and buildings, and the ugly parts, which of course do exist, then you are rewarded with beautiful landscapes that rise up to take your breath away. Glorious and colorful church domes and cultural centers; fields of sunflowers and wheat; sun rises, sunsets, and moon rises over small towns and villages; steppes and forests, farms and gardens in all seasons. Winter is especially beautiful.

Travel by train is a good way to meet people, too. Most travelers do not speak any English, but they soon caught on that an Amerikanka was in their midst, and most were curious. We did our best. Lots of dictionairies and pantomime. Some cel phone calls to someone who might know some English and could help translate.  Lots of frustration, lots of smiles.

The worst train ride I had was after breaking my arm (I fell off my bike) and having to get to Kyiv with only a few tylenol to ease the excruciating pain.  I moaned and groaned all the way. I felt sorry for the other passengers in my car. I said, more than once "сломанная рука, извините." I couldn't talk after that. I couldn't sleep, couldn't move, couldn't do a thing. A train ride has never been so bumpy: speeding up, grinding to a halt, hitting bumps at high speeds, slamming on brakes. It was miserable.  I had to be lifted off the train, into the waiting SUV, and into Peace Corps headquarters.   I wasn't voted the toughest PC volunteer in my group for nothing!

Old Doneesk station, since updated.
I learned a lot about the Ukrainian people during the long train rides.
No matter what the circumstances of their lives, people always shared their hospitality and their food. At first I didn't know about stocking up on food and drink for the journey, but fellow passengers taught me, and offered me theirs. After that I'd always bring extra cookies to share.

The trains of Ukraine.  The beautiful train stations.  The kindness of strangers.  Maybe a united Ukraine will run as efficiently at its trains some day, connecting east and west, serving the needs of the people, taking advantage of their incredible assets, shining a light on their strengths, offering public gathering places that serve as centers for civic discourse and the sharing of ideas and dreams.

For more on Ukraine trains, here's a good blog (took some photos from it):


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Lugansk Lament

Statue of poet Taras Shevchenko
on Lugansk university campus.
So I asked my friend Vovo, who lives and works in Lugansk, where he was, and why his facebook page was down.  It took a while to get a reply.  "I had to take it down because I am on the separatists' list of fascist supporters of Kyiv."

Vovo is the director of an important NGO in Lugansk. His only crime is fighting for local government transparency and citizen participation in accordance with Ukrainian law. A loyal Ukrainian professional, educated, informed and compassionate, Vovo is considered a "fascist."

"It is not safe.  It's the way it is now."  He is matter of fact.  He covers any fear with a touch of stoicism, so like a Ukrainian in the face of danger.  He shows no anger, only understanding of the situation he is in, that his country is in.   "It's the way it is now."

Vovo cannot do his work, cannot live openly, cannot meet with friends, can't be with his family and loved ones, because a bunch of pro-Russian terrorists, armed and violent, have taken over his city and designated him an enemy.  Many of his friends and colleagues have been hurt and jailed. Hundreds of people have disappeared, some of whom Vovo knew.

This is one of the more outrageous aspects of the terrorist takeover of Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts.  It's another reason I am glad to see the Ukrainian army on the offensive, fighting for their country's territorial integrity, and the terrorist thugs retreating.  I hope peace and stability return soon, without more death and destruction.

I want Vovo to be able to go home again.  I want ordinary people of  eastern Ukraine to be safe. I want my friends who are feeding and caring for the young Ukrainian soldiers to stop worrying about gunfire, tanks and death. "I weep for these young men, most only 19 years old.  They are still children, and they are under fire, looking death in the eye," wrote my friend Olga.

Once some stability returns, then I hope that good people are chosen to lead local transition governments that were occupied by the separatists, and I pray that president Petro Poroshenko will support them.

Ancient fertility goddesses from an archeological dig, in
a sculpture garden on the campus, a hidden treasure trove
I remember how Vovo helped me when I was a novice volunteer; he made me feel welcome, introduced me to people, helped me become part of the Starobelsk community and connect to the larger Lugansk region.  I remember going with my counterpart to workshops and training seminars for NGO leaders that Vovo and his colleagues organized.  I remember how he took time to take me on tours of Lugansk, shared his vast knowledge of the history of Ukraine and his hometown.  I remember the walks we took through the Taras Shevchenko National University, the lovely parks, the public library. And I remember and cherish the great times we shared over a beer at outdoor cafes with friends.  Those were the times our differences melted away, we found common ground, and we built bridges of understanding.

Happier times. Taking a seminar
break to enjoy spring on campus,
That's why I care about what's happening in Ukraine.  I was privileged to see its soul.  I came to feel its struggles and absorb its hope.  Vovo embodies what is good about his country, embodies the dreams of the many.  He's a fighter for social justice and civil society.  He won't give up, and I'll always cheer him on.   He might be in hiding now, but he'll be back in Lugansk one day, helping to build a strong self-determined country that rewards and reflects the spirit of its people.

The Starobelsk branch of the Lugansk Taras Shevshenko
National University. My friend Natalia teaches English there.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Warren Robbins Remembered: A Life of Purpose

Warren Robbins in front of the NMAA.
A man with a dream, who lived a purposeful life.
photo by Arnold Newman.
The National Museum of African Art (NMAA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and paying what I consider long-overdue homage to its founder, Warren Robbins. When I lived in Washington I became close friends with Warren. It was a friendship that brought many memorable moments to that chapter in my life.

Warren was a brilliant and fascinating man, and we enjoyed each other's company. We both attended lots of Washington parties and gatherings, mostly work-related.  In those days, everything was connected to work.

I met Warren at the exhibit opening of the Jacob Lawrence migration series at the Phillips Gallery in 1986.  It was an historic event, a fantastic exhibit, and Lawrence was present.  I remember that special time so vividly to this day. Warren and I bumped into each other regularly at cultural events after that. I also enjoyed meals at his art-filled home on Capitol Hill, where he hosted lots of meetings and programs as director of the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communications, his educational nonprofit.  I think the DC humanities council funded a few of Warren's educational programs, always popular. He opened his home to a humanities council event notable for the synergy of fascinating people with a shared interest in the arts and humanities. Warren was always a charming host.  

Warren started collecting African Art when he was a cultural attache in Germany after World War II.  It started, he said, with a wood carving of a man and woman representing the Yoruba people of Nigeria that he bought in Hamburg. He was strolling the streets with his friend S.I. Hayakawa, who later became a US senator from Hawaii. "It caught my eye, and seemed to touch my soul."    I wish I knew more about this period in Warren's life, but it was the beginning of his lifelong passion.  Warren had found his path.

Warren with author Alex Haley.
SI photo.
Warren went on to amass hundreds, then thousands of pieces, and this at a time when few if any Westerners were interested in the art of the African continent. As one African country after another rose up against colonial rule, Warren kept in touch with Africans who were creating new identities and restoring indigenous cultures. He loved to tell the story of a trip to Cameroon in 1973 when he returned a once-lost object. He was treated as a hero and made an honorary king. He had some great stories, photos and artifacts from that trip.

His deep interest became the foundation for his dedicated efforts to collect and preserve African art, and through the collection to promote cross-cultural and interracial understanding.  This was his life's purpose until his death in December 2008, at the age of 85.  How that news shocked and saddened me.

Warren first housed his collection at a home he bought on Capitol Hill in the 1960s, the historic home of the freedom fighter Frederick Douglass.  It seemed fitting, and attracted hundreds of people and future supporters of a National Museum of African Art that arose on the Mall in the nation's capital some 20 years later.  The Warren M. Robbins Library, named in his honor, opened at the new museum at the same time.  It has since become one of the major centers in the US for the research and study of the arts of Africa.

Warren also had hundreds of art pieces and artifacts in his own Capitol Hill homes, two adjoining townhouses.  The first thing one noticed when entering his home was the floor to ceiling art that covered its walls, all manner of African art along with contemporary and European art inspired by African art.

Warren was fascinated with the links he saw between African art and 20th century Western art.  He noted the art of Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian, for example, and many others.  I believe Warren was among the first to explore this connection, which became embedded in subsequent art criticism and art history.  I learned from Warren.  This remained one of  his favorite topics, and he wrote and gave many lectures, over a thousand, on the African influence on western art.  It was pioneering work.

SI photo. 
Ever the advocate, promoter and fundraiser, Warren was the engine for getting Congressional approval for the Smithsonian Institution's NMAA.  His relentless advocacy was documented in photos, of Warren and several Presidents; Warren and the Mondales and with Hubert Humphrey, a close friend; Warren and Hayakawa and other Congress people; with Alex Haley, Jacob Lawrence, Joseph Campbell, Maya Angelou, great authors, artists, photographers; with movers and shakers. Each photo told a great story.

Warren invited me to be his guest at various cultural functions at international embassies, local theaters and art galleries, and at the exclusive Cosmos club, a private Washington, DC club once closed to women.  Through Warren I met many interesting people, including Frances Humphrey Howard, sister of Hubert Humphrey, with whom Warren was a close friend; Joan Mondale, who loved all kinds of art; Congressional representatives and elected officials who supported Warren's vision.

I'll always remember a gathering at the Cosmos club, when I was seated next to Maya Angelou, another friend of Warren's.  He had made the arrangements because he knew how much I admired this poet.  She talked about poetry and philosophy, and she and Warren laughed at stories I knew nothing about but found fascinating.  I listened and basked in the glory  Two of my favorite people, now gone.

The last time I communicated with Warren I was living in Florida, and had decided to join the Peace Corps.  When I told him I'd be going to Ukraine, he wished me well "in the land of my ancestors."  "What do you mean," I asked him.

"My parents were from Ukraine," he said, "Ukrainian Jews who fled to America, and ended up in Connecticut, where I was born."

"I never knew that. How I wish I could talk with you about them, and talk to them."
"Me too,"  he replied. Warren died a few months before I left for Ukraine. The serendipity of it touched me, such a confluence of emotions. Here I was leaving for Ukraine as Warren was leaving this earth.

I like to think I took my memories of Warren with me, re-connected him with his Ukrainian roots, and fostered a conversation about cross-cultural connections, interracial understanding, and the joys of a self-defined  purposeful life.

Warren taught me the greatest lesson of my life, which he had learned from Joseph Campbell: "to give up the life you planned in order to have the life awaiting you."   And, indeed, a new life awaited me in Washington, where I began to find and make my own path.  I never dreamed it would be like that.  The path is full of many twists and turns, but I feel blessed that I found Warren on it.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bergdahl, Free but not Released

Bowe Bergdahl
 Alain Jocaird/AFP photo
Bergdahl looked so fragile, so confused and lost. He looked hollow, fractured.   I understand there are lots of questions and concerns, but I don't understand how any American can have anything but compassion for a soldier who lived under such incredible duress for 5 years of his life.  President Obama did the right thing, the morally right thing, to free this American. "No American left behind."

We will learn more, beyond the loathsome hysteria of partisan politics and the media moment,  but it's hard to imagine being the victim of a terrorist Taliban group in Afghanistan for so long, deprived of freedom, free will, any control over your own life, at the whim and mercy of your captors. For five years.

All human beings suffer from high stress that lasts a long time. I can't imagine living through the level of stress Bergdahl endured, so intense and unpredictable, and surviving with a sense of self intact.  Any of us, I think, might lose ourselves.

We would be focused solely on survival, solely on making it through another day, day after day, year after year after year  Can any of us know how we would respond under such circumstances?

I've thought about it. Like I've thought about what I might have done had I been a slave. I think I would try to please my captors, my owners, so as not to be hurt. I don't think I would be a rebel. I don't think I would resist. I would give up my innate responses, and become submissive, fueled by fear and confusion, perhaps silenced by lashes of the whip or being locked in a small dark space for days on end, as Bergdahl may have been.  It's embarrassing admitting to such weakness, let alone having actually to live through such terror.

Psychological deprivation, along with inevitable physical decline, would be the ultimate torture, a wounded spirit, and it would take the ultimate toll, one's sense of self.

Who would we be at the end of such captivity? How would we recover an identity? Where would our soul reside? How would we deal with a sudden burst of freedom from such enslavement? What shame and guilt would we carry for the rest of our lives, no matter the circumstances of our captivity?  Free, but not released.

The outrageous rants of Republicans, media "pundits," and other politicians and polemicists are galling. Why? Why not give it time to play out, to get the facts, to strive for some perspective? Why the beating up on every move Obama makes? Why the rush to judgement?  

Bergdahl and his family were victims of the Taliban and now they are victims of our disgraceful partisan politics. Victimized again.

Bergdahl needs time and compassion.  I pray to the goddess of healing grace and forgiveness that Bergdahl in time recovers his sense of self and returns to some sense of wholeness.

I'm not sure what it will take, on the other hand, to save America's poisoned political system and toxic partisanship.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Major Change in Ukraine: A President who Loves his Country

I have a good feeling about Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko. He's only 48 years old, was born in Odessa oblast and grew up in Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, went to the University of Kiev, became a business man, politician and billionaire in Ukraine.  I feel confident he loves his country, has a sense of  healthy patriotism, and will put its interests and well-being first. This alone is an enormous change.

This is kind of how I felt after the new pope was selected.  When I learned about his Italian heritage and his experiences as a priest in Argentina, I was excited to think of the compassion and humanity he would bring to the position. A down-to-earth guy. When he chose the name Francis I felt even better, because his namesake was a peace-loving man.  And his evolution as Pope, his deepest concerns, his openness and kindness, has affirmed my initial impression.  I have faith in Pope Francis, and his tremendous influence for good all over the globe.

I feel this way about Poroshenko.  Positive.  Reading about his background and experiences makes him highly qualified.  After seeing him in Poland standing next to a man who is fomenting unrest in his country, creating turmoil, arming special ops, viligantes and pro-Russian militants, I was almost in awe, that Poroshenko could restrain himself from punching Putin out, because one could see Poroshenkos anger and skepticism on his face. After his inauguration I was more convinced that this is the right man for the job at this difficult time.  He gave a great speech, humanitarian but firm.

He cares about Ukraine.  He loves Ukraine.  He's not in the pockets of the Russians, or anyone.   He's not an apparachik; he is moderate, and yes, he seems honest.  Poroshenko embodies the aspirations of the Ukrainian people.

He wants a strong united Ukraine,  east and west, north and south. He said he will defend his country's territorial integrity, all of it, including Crimea.  "Crimea is, was and will be Ukrainian soil." He knows Ukraine must strengthen itself and defend itself, because no one else can do it.  He understands that Ukraine is responsible for its own destiny.  Poroshenko's loyalty to Ukraine seems strong, unshakeable.

This was not so with his disgraced predecessor.  It is such a different feeling than when Yanukovich was elected, in 2010.  I went to the polls with friends.  They questioned, as did many people in the east, Yanukovich's loyalty to Ukraine.  They wondered how much he would focus on uniting the country, not dividing it.  And they were right.  But they gave him a chance, and he blew it. Just like happened in Egypt with Morsi and the Brotherhood.   Yanukovich was a Soviet-style thinker who put the interest of Ukraine as a nation last, who stole shamelessly from the people, as did his son and his cronies.  The corruption was rampant and out of hand, to the point he was willing to sell Ukraine itself down the river, hand it over to another country.  It is shameful and unbelievable his willingness to destroy the self-determination of his own country, to violate it's territorial integrity.  I view him as a traitor.  I view those officials in the East that he paid, in Lugansk and Donetsk, whose disloyalty to Urkaine he encouraged and condoned, as traitors to Ukraine.

I am glad that Poroshenko shares the outrage of the majority.  How dare another country march into his county, occupy it and take it over, piece by piece, with such advanced military weapons that the "thugs and killers" can down helicopters and launch missiles. How dare armed foreigners and vigilantes just march in without regard for territorial boundaries and take over buildings, block roads, barricade major highways in and out of cities, halt the mail, take over an airport, take over a hospital and murder, yes, murder, Ukrainian soldiers and civilians at will.

Poroshenko will not allow this, not for long.  Ukraine will belong to Ukraine under his leadership.  I believe his devotion to Ukraine will put the country on the right path, at last.   Pride in Ukraine, a healthy does of positive Ukrainian nationalism, is what Ukraine needs now.   Poroshenko will provide it.

"We're not naive...but we are all very hopeful," John Kerry said.  "We want the people of Ukraine to choose their own future, not Russia, not the United States." Viva Ukraine.