Friday, April 12, 2013

Teaching About Ukraine

Chernobyl upper left, flag and Jud's sunflower, me in Ukraine;
Ukraine in gold on map. in Laura's class, gift of a t-shirt
 "I love WSU" in Russian. 
It’s easy to focus on Chernobyl when talking about Ukraine.  It was the worst nuclear disaster in history, a reactor #4 melting down and exploding on 26 April 1986, 26 years ago, sending radioactive particles and plumes of hazardous materials into the atmosphere and onto the land.  The deadly fallout blanketed areas of Northern Ukraine, Belarus (which got the worst of it), and Russia, as well as northern Europe and most likely beyond. The planned Soviet industrial town of Pripyat, near the Nuclear Power Plant, and towns around it, were evacuated, over 250,000 people directly exposed, dispersed, displaced, relocated.  The environment suffered catastrophic contamination, above and below ground, in forests and rivers, on farms, in towns and cities. The clean-up crews, involving thousands of workers, faced horrible contamination. Health hazards, many forms of illness and cancers, continue to grow; long-term effects are still being studied.    

At the time of the disaster, Ukraine was officially a part of the Soviet Union, which was responsible for the Nuclear Power Plant.

Five years later, the Soviet Union broke up, an event almost as explosive as Chernobyl.  In 1991, Ukraine, along with Belarus and fourteen other Soviet republics, became independent nations.  The fallout from Chernobyl continued, a legacy of Soviet secrecy and ineptitude in safeguarding its nuclear plant.  

Chernobyl is just one tragic chapter in the history of Ukraine, a history that encompasses one disaster after another: foreign occupations; Stalin's enforced collectivization of farms and brutal famine of the 1930s (the Holodomir); the horrors of war and especially World War II, its ripple effects felt to this day; efforts to obliterate the culture; economic, political and social catastrophes.  Chernobyl is the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

The divide between the Eastern and Western parts of the country reflects this conflicted history. East of the Dnieper River, which runs through the country like our Mississippi, people speak Russian; in the west, Ukrainian.  In the East, people retain strong ties to Russia; in the West to Europe.  Nationalism flourishes in the West, which long and violently at times opposed Soviet rule.  Divided loyalties characterize eastern Ukraine.  

Still, in the East and the West, there is a growing awareness of a Ukrainian national identity built on shared cultural traditions.  This is the basis for hope. 

The Ukraine I experienced from 2009-2011 was in the throes of the transition to becoming a self-governing and united nation. That’s how I learned about the resilience of the people, their struggles for survival, their dreams for their children and the future of their country. Injustice, inequality, lack of jobs and opportunities, economic hardship, and a huge gap between the wealthy oligarchs and the rest of the people dominate life.  Rampant government corruption and lack of transparency, at all levels, bring despair, as well as grassroots efforts at reform.  It's a daily grind, but change is happening.  Trust is hard to gain; gloom and pessimism are never far from the surface; painful memories mar the present.  Yet hope springs eternal. 

In this spirit I said yes when Laura Kline, a professor of Russian language and literature at Wayne State University in Detroit and long-time friend of my daughter Elissa since their high school days, asked me to give a talk to her class about the Peace Corps and my experience in Ukraine

“The focus will be on Chernobyl,” Laura told me, commemorating the upcoming 26th anniversary. “You’ll come at the end, to give us a more positive view of Ukraine beyond Chernobyl, and to cheer us up.”    

Laura in her usual fashion organized a wonderful class attended by over 50 students and some visitors. First we heard from a native Ukrainian and teacher of the Ukrainian language, Natalia, who talked about the origins and development of Ukraine.  She took us back to Kievan Rus in the 10th century and up through the horrors of World War II.

Next came Steven Andre, a young man who had been on two trips to Chernobyl, now a tourism destination.  Yes, that's right: a tourism attraction and much-needed economic generator (google it for more information and to plan a visit).  We saw a video of the site, "The Exclusion Zone," and the ghost town of Pripyat, a haunting still-life of a 1960s Soviet town, with lots of photos, sad, hard to take.  The aftermath, the hardship, the personal stories are heart-wrenching.  

Jim Tucker, a professor of Biological Science at Wayne State, talked about the causes and effects of the Chernobyl explosions, fact and fiction. Chernobyl was not an accident.”  It was caused by human error, by the “flawed design of the reactor” operated by inadequately trained staff, and by an "experiment" to cut costs and find cheaper ways to operate the plant.  An experiment gone wrong.  It led to nuclear disaster, the full effects of which are not yet fully known; monitoring and scientific studies continue. He reminded us that the Soviet government kept the disaster a secret for two days, a horrifying 48 hours, and then was forced to tell about it after experts in Sweden detected unnaturally high levels of radiation in the atmosphere.  

These were tough acts to follow.  My main message was that while the Chernobyl tragedy has become synonymous with Ukraine, it is not the whole story. It does not reflect the complex history and nature of this rich land, once "the breadbasket of Europe,"
the stories and struggles of its people, their hopes and dreams.  

I talked about the Peace Corps first, its history and purpose, and then shared my experience as a volunteer in Ukraine who came to understand the culture, experience its art, music and folklife, love its churches and architecture, its parks and playgrounds with their ubiquitous larger-than-life statues of Lenin or Stalin and colorful Ferris wheels marking the landscape. I liked the statues of Taras Schevchenko, a beloved Ukrainian poet, that were popular in the East.  I grew to love the people, their warmth, hard work, kitchen gardens and food preparation, their hospitality and, in private, with family and friends, a great gusto for life.  

I learned as I went, I explained, one day at a time, developing relationships and integrating into my village of Starobelsk in far-eastern Ukraine.  I talked about the role that NGOs, non-governmental organizations, are playing in bringing change from the bottom up, and the projects I worked on: the English Club, getting English language books and computers for the Library, working with kids at a summer camp, and the "Know Your Rights" campaign.  

I spoke about the good people who came to accept the optimistic “Amerikanka” in their midst and make this stranger from America a part of their lives.  I stopped just short of jumping on a desk and shouting "Viva Ukraine!"  

“Perfect!” Laura said afterwards, with a big smile on her face. “Just what I wanted, to end on a positive, upbeat note!” Laura was happy, and I was glad. Teaching about Ukraine is a challenge, and Laura understands that; I appreciate her knowledge and insight.  Now I hope her students do, too.  

Below is a blog I wrote about Ukraine in transition, "in the process of becoming."  Being on the ground in Ukraine, witnesses to this transformation, afforded a unique look at a historical phenomenon from the ground up.  It was sometimes frustrating, sometimes humorous, always fascinating. 



Photo of Salvadore Dali's melting watches, "Persistence of Memory," by Joelk75 (Flickr photo)

When some of my fellow PCVs get frustrated at what looks like resistance to planning and change, the slow pace of getting things done, the low regard for schedules and time discipline, the poor quality of service even at train and bus stations, stores and hotels, I try to explain the difficult transition that Ukraine is now undergoing. I say that Ukraine is" in the process of becoming," a transition to a new model of democracy, caught between two worlds, the old and the new, the pre-industrial and the post-industrial. It's a matter of time, but the process itself is fascinating. It's a historical phenomenon.

"Historical phenomenon?" Yes, that's what it is, I reply. The little group of young PCVs chuckles .

"That's great, Fran. I'll remember that the next time I try to buy a train ticket and disturb the cashier."

"Yeah, me, too, the next time I'm alone in the office waiting for a meeting that never takes place!"

Well, remember it when you get back to America, I respond. You are witnesses to this transformation; you have a unique perspective. And if you are thinking of graduate school, you have all the material you need for a dissertation, just by having lived in post-Soviet Ukraine for two plus years.

"I''ll keep that in mind, Fran, but right now I have to get ready for a big meeting tomorrow. My counterpart just told me about it, and asked me to give a talk, in Russian."

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