Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Natalia on Kyrova

My going away (PAKA) party at Natalia's on Kyrova.
 I'm next to Tonya, then Luba, Natalia above her,
then Vera and Lydia. What fantastic women.
For my last 6 months in Ukraine, I lived with lovely Natalia on Kyrova, between Lenina and Kommorov, right in downtown Starobelsk directly behind the Public Library.  It was a great convenience and I could walk everywhere. Natalia had a wonderful home that filled one-half of a late 19th-century mansion. I had my own bedroom off the living room, heated by the original old chimney stove that one of Natalia's friends, Volodymyr, kept going.  His wife Lydia took care of the place when Natalia was away. They were a lovely couple, and always made sure I could get in and out with ease.

Natalia lived above her women's clothing shop, which she attended to every day, except Sunday. Lots of women knew the store and browsed and Natalia had many regular customers. I'm not sure it was a booming business, but she kept at it.  I went down often to buy this or that, and got some great shirts and winter pants.

Natalia is by nature a cheerful person with a positive attitude about life.  She took me in and didn't make anything of our language problems.  She would just laugh and say "je ne sais pas" and I would say Я не знаю.  That's "I don't know" in Russian, a phrase I used often, along with Я не понимаю (I don't understand).  Natalia and I communicated through pantomime and drama, and also through her daughter Anya, who studied in Kyiv and spoke some English.  Natalia also had three sons living and working in Kyiv. That's why she went so often.  I wasn't surprised to learn she moved there to be closer to them and her grandchildren.  Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, has been a tinderbox recently, but somehow I feel it is safer than Starobelsk and anywhere in the east.

Natalia was known around town as having the most beautiful rose garden in Starobelsk. Every variety and size and color, I was told.  I caught a glimpse of it before I left in April, and saw photos, but never saw it in full summer bloom.  The PCV who followed me, Amy, stayed with Natalia and sent glowing posts about Natalia's rose garden.

Natalia's daughter Anya was just like her mom.  Anya was finishing up her last year in college.  I loved watching them together, laughing, talking on and on, trying on clothes.  It made me miss my daughters. Lucky for me Anya saw me off from the Kyiv train station to my final Peace Corps meeting (Close of Service) in Slavsky, out west.  A drunk had latched onto me and I didn't understand a word  he said.  Anya arrived and rescued me, and made sure I got on the right train.  She laughed, and scolded.  "You could get in trouble!"   Вы можете попасть в беду.  But I never feared for my safety.

I was always in such loving hands when I lived in Ukraine.  I received so much more than I could ever give. I pray for Ukraine. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Natalia D: English Teacher, Translator, Guardian Angel

Natalia and husband Vasyl seeing me off to America at the Lugansk train station.
Natalia gave me a gift of beautiful earrings, a family heirloom. It was hard to say goodbye.
Natalia Dohadailo is the revered English teacher at the Starobelsk branch of the Taras Shevchenko National University in Lugansk. I call her Natalia D, because I met so many Natalias it was hard to keep track. Natalia D saved my life. She was my interpreter and my translator, my guardian angel.

Natalia was born in Poltava, but spent most of her adult life in Starobelsk and environs.  Her native
language is Ukrainian but she is fluent in Russian. It's not uncommon. In fact, it's pretty much the norm. Natalia studied English in Gorlivka, famous for its language institute, a center for English-language learning. Gorlivka's main buildings are now occupied by armed Russian special ops and militia.

When I arrived in Starobelsk and knew nothing, not the town, not the geography, and not the language well-enough either, I had a difficult time connecting with  my counterpart Vera at Victoria NGO, who spoke not one word of English. I'd sit in her office in Lenin Park in silence, Russian dictionary at the ready, but it seemed impossible in the beginning. I wrote questions: What do you want me to do?  How can I help? Maybe I can help with a project? Что вам от меня хочешь? Каковы ваши цели? Как я могу помочь? Может быть, я могу помочь вам с проектом?   She'd rattle off in Russian.  I grasped a few words, went home, tried to translate.  I spent hours doing this.  I wrote in my journal: Vera helps people whose rights have been violated and they do not know their rights. She gave several examples (an invalid in a car, a mother whose son was murdered, planted drugs, others?)."People need knowledge; we need an education campaign." 

It was a start. I'd return with written responses. I'd practice saying it in Russian, but she didn't understand my poor attempts at the language. I tried Google Translate for the first time, but it took patience and Vera didn't have time. The language barrier was a mountain.  I did hear "Yes, I want to do that."  Да, я хочу это сделать.  I wrote it up in the form of a Peace Corps Community Project Grant called "Know Your Rights" and hoped she would take the draft and run with it.  That didn't happen right away. 

In fact, it didn't happen until Natalia D came into the picture.  I approached her first about being my Russian tutor.  I was so relieved to find a person I could converse with in English, however, I didn't focus on the lessons.  I never knew how  isolating it was not being able to communicate. That's how Natalia D saved my life. I was so hungry for conversation, it's all I wanted to do. She saw that, and became my confidante.  

At some point, probably because I was fretting, Natalia agreed to come to a meeting with Vera.  It was a breakthrough, because now Natalia and Vera could share the drafts for Vera to develop, putting in all the things she needed.  She liked the title "Know Your Rights." The narrative shaped up. The budget took time. There were lots of ups and downs, we missed the first deadline (bummer), but the proposal got done, the grant was funded. Oh thank god. О, слава богу. It would not have happened without Natalia.  

Vera was happy when she saw the results, and the possibilities.  She was able to get a new computer and printer, a projector for education programs, supplies, support for a lawyer, money for a Know Your Rights brochure.  It was a good turn of events, and that's when Vera saw that this earnest but deficient-in-language Amerikana could be of help.  My role in the project was to talk about "The Rule of Law" on the education circuit in seven rural towns around Starobelsk. I translated the talk into Russian and passed the sheet out as I spoke. It was an amazing experience, going to these small towns and meeting the people. Some meetings were canceled at the last moment by city officials and had to be rescheduled .  One meeting was held in a hallway, another under a beer tent.  After this grant came another, and another. Vera was on a roll.  Ntalia made it happen.

Natalia helped me in the same way with writing grants for the Starobelsk Public Library, interpreting between me and Iryna, the director.  In this way the Library got support for an infrastructure upgrade, new equipment, help with the English Club, books for an English-language book collection and community outreach projects, all leading up to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the Bibliomist Project) to get wired, with computers and internet access.  A huge project for Starobelsk.

Natalia and I had more meetings at the library than anywhere else. Natalia was also on the book-buying committee for the Library, which included an incredible trip to Lugansk, about an hour away, during a summer heat wave.

Lugansk is a wonderful town with a great university named after poet Taras Shevchenko, beautiful grounds and a prehistoric women's sculpture garden (Vovo introduced me to it);  parks and public spaces, lots of internet cafes and restaurants, some great bookstores. It's where I met Vovo and Yulia of the Eastern Ukraine Center for Civic Initiatives, at various training workshops that Vera attended. I met Wyoming and Caroline and other Peace Corps Volunteers there, too.  It was a great meeting location for PCVs serving in the east.  The Russians are around there now, striking fear into the hearts of good people.

The car the library donated to the cause, unfortunately, had to have the heater on in order to go forward. The driver said nothing. Just turned up the heat and drove on.  We almost burned to death, but we made it both ways, in stoic silence, moving about this way and that, stopping a few times to open the hood and let out steam, stopping once for water.  I guess all that sustained us was the knowledge that we were doing important work for the Public library!

On the other hand, Ukrainians are some of the most stoic people I know, suffering in silence for a long time, then going on as if everything is normal. That's probably what's happening now in eastern Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion.

Natalia and I got together as often as possible; she fit me in between her classes and busy schedule. We walked and talked, shared tea and precious time.  I was happy she invited me to give some literature seminars for her advanced students.  Many of them, like Maria, Sveta, Artom and Tonya the drummer, were in the English Club. We read short stories together: Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Jack London, Kate Chopin. It was challenging, and fun.

She took me up on a suggestion that she think about a grant, too.  What would you like to do?  I asked her one day.  She thought about it.  Maybe work with teachers of English in Starobelsk schools, and also have a summer tutoring program for English students in rural areas who are having trouble passing the National English Test, which you have to pass to go onto college.  "Those with the least resources, like money for tutors, have the greatest need."  Okay, let's do it. I worked with Natalia on drafts; she finished them up and submitted them.   Natalia wanted to level the playing field, and she did, almost singlehandedly, with amazing dedication to helping young people learn English so that they could expand their opportunities in life.

Natalia, her sister and brother gathered
 in Lymon for a family picnic.
Natalia lives in a lovely two-story house in Lymon, about 15 minutes outside of Starobelsk.  She has a huge garden.  She finds pure enjoyment in working in it, like Luba.  I learned how close Ukrainians are to the land, and to "natural" farming." Natalia has the help of husband Vasyl, a wonderful man who drives a taxi by day (he knows Starobelsk roads and helped me out a lot), and her two sons, when they aren't studying. Natalia insisted education came first for her sons, and she made sure they were prepared for college, continued their studies, found opportunities abroad and good jobs for their future.

I also remember a special visit from her siblings at her home, which borders a lot of land on the winding Aydar river. A great place for playing soccer and family games. Natalia's brother and sister-in-law, who live just over the border in Russia, cooked a special Russian fish soup in which, with great ceremony, he dipped a burnt stick. Wow! It turned out to be a delicious Russian specialty. Friend Laura, who teaches Russian at Wayne State, thinks it's called Ukha.
A burnt stick goes
into the soup.

Preparing a picnic feast.
While the soup simmered and fresh meat cooked on a makeshift grill (shashlick), we all walked to the river.  It was a hot summer day, and everyone plunged into the water.  I hadn't brought a swimming suit, but no problem.  I stripped down to my underwear and went in, to applause and laughter. Americans aren't so bad afterall!

As the sun set, we sat in wonder at the beauty of this special place. We were grateful for good food, family and friendships.  We toasted to health, life, nature. I saw the magic of eastern Ukraine and its people.  I could never thank Natalia enough for making my Peace Corps service a positive experience.  I hope one day she can come to America, her dream. Natalia D, the adored English teacher of Starobelsk, who quietly but firmly continues to make an enormous contribution to the people of eastern Ukraine.  
Celebrating the opening of the English-language book collection
at the Starobelsk Biblioteca.  English Club members translated the
authors and titles into Russian so the librarians, none of whom spoke
 any English, had a bilingual list.
Natalia D, upper left; Iryna, library director, upper right; Alosha on guitar, below
Iryna; librarians presenting the program. . The had put up all the
English Club posters we had made since the beginning.

                          "Testament," by Taras Shevchenko 
When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper's plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
the mighty river roar.
Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains,
And water with the tyrants' blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.

One of my favorite Ukrainian poets, jailed for writing these kinds of "nationalist" poems and in the Ukrainian language, during a period of Russification" in the 19th century. Same thing happened to poets and artists in the 20th century under the Soviets, sent to the gulags for the same reason: creating and preserving Ukrainian culture. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

When I pray for Ukraine, I am praying for Olga and Tonya

Tonya and Olga, at Tonya's Farm
Lunch with friends at Olga's, after I broke my arm. 

Whenever I saw Olga and Tonya, best friends, riding their bikes up the road, around Lenin Park, through the University, I fairly jumped for joy.  I knew we would have good conversations, updates on what's happening, happy times. We shared news and ideas, made project plans, visited friends at the Cultural Center, the craft fairs, the market.

These kids were fantastic.  Really, kids are the same everywhere.  
Olga and Tonya were French teachers. Olga was doing private tutoring, after several years teaching in France and in Starobelsk, her hometown. She's a community activist and I met her through her work with the human rights NGO Victoria. Tonya, born outside of Kyiv, taught at Korychevka school, on the outskirts of Starobelsk. She also farms and sells her produce in town. One day, she invited me to school to meet her kids; Olga got me a ride there. We were greeted at the door with Ukrainian welcome bread (Korovai, I think it's transliterated), and the kids, some in native dress, performed traditional songs.
Dr. Tonya, who played piano; Elena the voice teacher;
Alosha , her student who was also learning guitar. Incredible talent.
Olga and Tonya introduced me to lots of people, took me to lots of places, taught me about Ukrainian
culture, holidays and traditions. I accompanied Olga to a Krishenia dunk in the icy Aydar river in the dead of winter.  She introduced me to Marfa, a master embroiderer.  We had wonderful meals with many friends like Elena, voice teacher, and Dr. Natalia and her gifted son Alosha (who brought his guitar and sang at English club meetings). Olga helped connect me to Camp Sosnovy, where the kids' curiosity came through.  Olga and Tonya were big supporters of the English Club,  along with Natalia Dohadailo's English students at the university.

Olga was my tour guide on many walks through Starobelsk neighborhoods, able to tell me about the architecture and history of buildings, hidden treasures and hidden terrors, community schools and churches, stories about the Holodomor and WWII.

The idea of a Starobelsk calendar featuring the best of Starobelsk's built and natural environment was born on one of these walks.  I made sure it happened, with the help of Nikolay Molozhon, graphic designer, and others, because I wanted to leave behind a momento of the "sense of place" I had developed in Starobelsk, a booster for the town that everyone who lived there took for granted. Often they saw only the ugliness, but I also saw the beauty.

A highlight of our time together was a train trip to the Carpathian mountains and western Ukraine.  We went to places like Slavsky, Skole, Sokal, and Mookacheva, and since we were nearby, toured Lviv and environs. Glorious! We were quite the quartet: Olga and Tonya, me and Olga's niece Julia, a young woman from Russia who lived with her husband in a small town in the Ural mountains. I was the first American Julia had met.

Our common humanity bound us together as if we had known each other forever.  It transcended every barrier. The four of us became absorbed in a beautiful part of Ukraine, touring pretty towns and meeting the most amazing people, all through Olga's incredible connections across Ukraine--cultural ambassadors, a survivor of the gulags, the head of a modern dairy and seed farm, the mayor of Sokol, the directors of a cultural center, artists. musicians, and a famous sculptor, Ivan Brondi, who we just happened to bump into in the lovely town of Mookacheva.

Stefa and Olga with Ukrainian wreath
In Lviv we stayed with Olga's friends Stefa and Bogdan, who shared fantastic meals and regaled us with Ukrainian songs. They belonged to a chorus and knew them all.  Stefa was a member of Women of Ukraine, as was Olga, and I joined them at a special meeting to which they had invited a well-known bandura player. After that we went on a walking tour of Lviv, a fabulous city, ending the day at the Opera House. My heart swelled with gratitude. Stefa still lives in Vinnetsia, a Lviv suburb, but dear Bogdan has died. I think of them all the time.

Olga was also my tour guide on a trip to Prague and surrounding
towns.  It was a long trip by train and bus from Starobelsk, including a six-hour wait at the border. But stunning Prague was worth every effort. Olga was an expert, connected us to a small tour with a terrific guide, and  took me all around the town, up and down the hills, over the bridge, into the city center. She knew how to travel on a budget, and I did the same.  I think the only thing I bought was a little magnet!

Closer to home, I remember a bike trip to Tonya's farm.  I think it was about 5 miles from town, and I told Olga I wasn't sure I could bike it. You can do it; short trip! Ах, да, вы можете сделать это. Это в нескольких минутах езды велосипед. It was certainly the best way to see the countryside, which made the bike ride seem shorter.  At Tonya's, we walked about the farm, enjoyed a delicious lunch, got to know her chickens and pigs. Yes, those cute little pigs, who became our dinner a few months later. When Tonya and her husband came into town with the fresh meat, the neighbors of Natalia on Kyrova, where I was then staying, lined up, apparently an annual tradition. Natalia is a beautiful, generous and kind person who made me feel at home on Kyrova, right in the center of town. She now lives in Kyiv, closer to her 4 grown kids and her grandkids.

Olga and Tonya made me feel special in sharing their love of country on so many different levels.   They made Ukraine come alive.  They infused the journey with purpose and meaning. They embody everything that is wonderful and good about Ukraine. I will always remember.  Я всегда буду помнить.

A poem for Olga and Tonya, and for Stefa and Bogdan  
Bogdan died not long after I left Ukraine. Such a fabulous, talented man, whose spirit Stefa shared, and keeps alive. Stefa has a daughter and grandkids in NYC but can't get a visa to visit them.  They were among the many people I met, from the east to the west, who embody the essence of Ukrainian history, culture and traditions.   

Може, і пісня з вітром ходитиме, 
дійде до серця, серце палатиме;
може й бандуру ще хто учує,
й серце заниє і затоскує...
І бандуру і мене 
козаченько спом'яне...


Perhaps my song will dance with the wind,
and touch someone's heart, and set it afire;
perhaps someone will still hear the bandura,
and his heart will ache, and yearn...
And a young cossack will remember
both me and my bandura...

Ambrosij Metlynskiy (1814-1870)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

When I pray for Ukraine, I am praying for Luba

Luba's house and garden in spring.
One of the most wonderful things about being assigned to Starobelsk, in far-eastern Ukraine, was living with Luba on Panfelova road.  Luba had a pretty house and a fabulous garden, both meticulously and lovingly maintained.  She worked long hours as an accountant at a gas station company, then came home and worked in her garden until dark.  She'd stop every now and then to check whatever she was cooking on the stove for dinner or for the next day or for the preservation of the food that she stored for winter in her basement (a never-ending process).  She'd pop in and out of the house with fresh herbs, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, or bunches of strawberries and raspberries. She absolutely loved working in her garden best of all.  Я люблю его.

She was the best cook in Starobelsk! Fresh food, fresh produce, a variety of wonderful salads.  Egg salad, beet salad, carrot salad, potato salad.  She had chickens, so we had fresh eggs.  She made all kinds of what I called "salsas" (she laughed), mixtures of finely chopped and slow-cooked vegetables with tomatoes, onions, eggplant, carrots, and whatever else she picked from her garden. She blended them all together to create the best tasting condiments and relishes in the world.  Her soups were amazing, too, especially her Borscht.  I loved her vereneky.

She made Ukrainian Paska bread for Easter, nасха хлеб, and colored hard-boiled eggs dark red. She'd put them all into a nice basket, with a small bottle of vodka, and we walked to the church to have them blessed by the priest with willows and water. We had a great meal afterwards, I can tell you that.

Her table always looked lovely, with nice linen and china and fresh flowers. Luba was an extrovert, funny and.gregarious; she laughed easily.  She loved cooking for family and friends. She'd often get me out of bed at 9:00 or 10:00 pm and force me to join her friends for a late dinner and lots of toasts.

Oh no Luba, I can't do it.  Yes, you can,and you will.  Come on.  О нет, Люба. Я читаю. Я иду спать. Да вы можете и вы. Пойдем со мной сейчас.  It was always interesting, even if I couldn't join in the animated conversations.  Usually her dear friend Iryna was there, and Luda, Tonya, and neighbors and friends I met at the market or in town.  We tried to talk, with limited success and to her frustration, and mine. I always made the tea and brought out the cookies. чай и печенье  I was often uncomfortable,because of the language barrier, but these remain memorable moments.

One spring day I heard a scream from her garden.  Luba had gotten a phone call that changed her life forever, a tragedy involving a son.  I never got all the details, but I understood a mother's broken heart.  I heard her crying at night. A mother's grief.  I poured over the Russian-English dictionary to learn a few phrases of comfort.  It will be okay, Luba.  God is with you.  He will stay with you. He will give you strength. We all pray for you. Все будет хорошо, Люба. Бог с вами. Он останется с вами. Он даст вам силы. Мы все молимся за вас  I went to church with her.  She found solace in working in her garden, but even that took some time. Friends came and stayed with her.  A strong woman, Luba survived day by day, doing what she had to do.  She found some reason to keep going in her grandchildren, her friends, her cooking, the meals she loved to share.  She made me put on my winter clothes one cold day and prodded Iryna, her grandson and me outside to go sledding. She grabbed a colorful duster and the sled, and made it fun.  A part of her was always the exuberant Luba who loved life; a part of her was never the same.

I will always remember how she opened her home and her heart to a stranger. How she welcomed this Amerikanka on a journey into the unknown.  How she showed me around the town and helped me get from here to there.  How she shared her house, her food, her life, and made me part of her family and community. How she invited me on a joyous holiday with friends in Berdyansk on the beaches of the Azov sea.  How I wore my first bikini, which she insisted I must have.  How she helped me buy a bike and got me going (she was a whiz on hers).  How she made sure I looked okay when I walked out the door, covered my head in winter and wore skirts to meetings in the summer. How she fed me and regaled me with stories, whether I understood them or not.

It was hard to say goodbye. I will always remember. Прощай, дорогой друг. Я всегда буду помнить.
For me, Luba is eastern Ukraine.  When I pray for Ukraine, I am praying for Luba, and for all the wonderful people I met on my Peace Corps journey.
This is eastern Ukraine, the Starobelsk I remember: Luba's house and Panfelova road, upper and lower right; scenes from downtown, the library, the university,, the House of Culture (Christmas tree going up in front of it)  Lenin park and a little church nearby; interior of St. Nicolas cathedral. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Relic of the Past: Revanchism and Putin in Ukraine

AP story, April 13, 2014 (Yahoo). 
Yahoo images
The news coming out of eastern Ukraine gets worse and worse.  I asked my friend Yuliya, who is from Starobelsk, what she thought.  She worked with an outstanding Lugansk NGO when I was in Ukraine and is now studying in Boston, a lucky thing. “Looks like the Crimea scenario,” she said.  Russia will occupy, invade, and hold referendums to annex. There are armed men and thugs in government buildings, on rooftops, hoisting the Russian flag. Now there is violence and murder, and it will increase.    

I feel more and more hopeless, which is driving me to become more and more stoic, just like Ukrainians in the face of disaster.  What can you do?  The unrest is too deep.  The failures of the national government since independence in 1991 to serve the needs of the people too mired in corruption.  The intrusions, provocations and violence sponsored by Russia too damaging, insistent, and becoming entrenched. Russia has mastered the art of covert disruption and intervention and Putin’s 12-step program is working.  The Crimea Scenario.

The War has begun, and there’s nothing anyone, any nation, can do about it.   Who wants another war? How can the EU impose the kinds of economic sanctions needed against Russia when they go against Europe’s own self-interest? How will US saber-rattling, such as re-positioning the navy, change anything? So western nations at the UN line up to condemn Putin's actions. So what? They finally see what's really going on, and can do nothing.   Putin knows this, delights in it, and will keep on implementing his 12-step program for the greater good of the Motherland. 

Russia will take over Ukraine bit by bit, town by town, oblast (county) by oblast.  My closest Ukrainian friends will be my new Russian friends.

That’s  how it looks now. The only positive thing to which I cling is that I don’t think the younger generations will stand for it forever.  But "forever" is a long time.

The Russian-induced and orchestrated crisis in Ukraine will play out, maybe past my time.  One day, some day, the dreams of a United Ukraine might emerge from the ashes of Russian imperialist intervention and the dustbin of Russian history.    

And it is the dustbin of Russian history that Putin is stirring up.  It’s odd. Putin’s language, posturing and behavior, his way of thinking, is from another time, another era. My sister Andy pointed this out.  Maybe a 19th century “law of the jungle” attitude, as German chancellor Angela Merkel put it.  Or a Post-World War II and 1950s Cold War mentality. All hail to Russia's "Sphere of Influence."  No matter that "spheres of influence" have changed and continue to change drastically in a super-interconnected, wired world dominated by economic inter-relationships. 

Even George W. Bush wondered about a man who made fun of his little dog and insisted his  dog was bigger, better and stronger, a stance, Bush said, that motivated his very fine portrait of Putin. "Mine is bigger than yours." 

Putin is just not “with it," not open or tolerant; not contemporary in his thinking and not wise in the ways of a changing world;  not fully cognizant of the role of technology in opening up and uniting the planet; unable to reform the economic system he created and that is failing;  incapable of seizing opportunities for economic growth, civil society, and modernization.    

Putin’s vision is dated, like that of the old apparatchiks  that now surround him and want to try Gorbachev for treason.  Putin’s vision stands on military might, not economic might for the 21st century, a concept that China grasps instinctively and that is powering its economic growth. 

Putin has an old and clouded vision, shrouded in ancient and past illusions, in perceived slights and historic offenses.  He wants some form of retaliation, revenge, redress for past wrongs.  Revanchism, as Robin Niblett called it in a special report to CNN (April 12, 2014). 

Putin is not a man of his times.  He’s a man from another time. Someone who has not grown in the largest meaning of the word.  A Luddite and naysayer.   A relic of the past.

No wonder a much younger president Obama, a man of the 21st century, doesn’t understand him.  

Meanwhile, the tragedy unfolds. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ukraine On Edge

"What we see from Russia is an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary," Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee . . . . Kerry called the demonstrations in eastern Ukraine a "contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea."

Jud's sunflower weeping
The mess in Ukraine today, with Crimea annexed and Russian troops on the eastern border, reflects in part the failure of Ukrainian governments, since 1991, to meet the needs of the people. 

The Yanokovich regime is the tip of the iceberg of corruption, injustice, lack of transparency, and lack of progress on the economic and social fronts.  Yanokovich ran off with billions of dollars he stole from the Ukrainian people; so did his son, and his justice minister, and his secretary of state, and most of his cronies. Billions. Money for roads, transportation, social services, jobs.   The will of the people and the Common Good be damned.

The Ukrainian people, across oblasts, west and east of the Dnieper, have had it.  They are sick of injustice.  They are sick of a bribery system of economic development, where, among other things, high taxes are imposed on small businesses, unless they can pay a bribe.  My friends Luba and Iryna in Starobelsk are victims of this system.  They are sick of top-down policies in which citizens have no say, and the Parliament is a joke.  Humor helps, but it drips with sarcasm. They are sick of the lack of jobs and opportunity. They are sick of human rights abuses.  They are sick of all these things, and the day-to-day struggle for survival, and especially in the face of rampant corruption whereby elected officials enrich themselves shamelessly at their expense.     It's been a long and painful transition since 1991, and it has gotten worse instead of better. 

This is why the Yanokovich government in Kyiv was toppled. 

Not because Nazis, fascists and super-right patriots caused trouble, but because the Ukrainian people themselves, ordinary people of all backgrounds and ages, acted on their pent-up rage and anger in the face of such obscene corruption.  

New York Times
The failure of Ukrainian social and economic policies (if they ever existed for the good of the many) created the unrest that led to protests in Kyiv’s Independence (Mayden) Square.   The EU issue was secondary, and became more so as protests grew. 

The Ukrainians are a patient people pushed over the top.   

Putin seized the opportunity.  He inserted himself onto the Ukrainian scene like some superman and made the situation worse.  In Kyiv, Russian-paid provocateurs, armed “special forces” and thugs deliberately provoked violence and whipped up the crowds.  It resulted in the deaths of over 20 protesters and many more injured.  At the same time, Putin moved into Crimea, implementing a stealth propaganda campaign, sending in unidentified armed forces and “security” people, ramping up nationalistic slogans and the emotions of Russian-speaking people, then invading and annexing through a trumped-up referendum.  It worked.  Many of us, with friends in Crimea, having experienced its beauty and special flavor, watched in horror.   

Putin is using the same strategies out of the same playbook in the rest of Ukraine, taking a bite out of the country bit by bit, as John Kerry and the Obama administration now realize.  

Sure there are some people born when Ukraine was a Soviet Socialist Republic, who might prefer the old days and the old ways. Babushkas. Grandparents and great-grandparents.  There is a generational divide, but it's not consistent. Mayden was full of older Ukrainians, people of all ages. But those with a nostalgic inclination toward returning to Russia are not the majority. Many of them remember the Holodomor, an enforced starvation, and the Stalin purges. Many have relatives or know of people sent to the gulags--writers, artists and intellectuals.  

Ukraine is a large and diverse country. It is beautiful, it’s plains and farmland, its fields and mountains.  Its industrial cities are a mix of ugly Soviet-style buildings and factories and historic architecture and parks.  It is full of art galleries and museums, theaters and opera houses. The smaller white homes with green or blue shutters that dot the Ukrainian landscape have beautiful and bountiful gardens.  Even among the Soviet apartment buildings, people plant lilac bushes and flowers. Newer shops, book stores, cafes, and gathering places add sparkle and an upbeat modern feeling. The Ukrainians I knew actually loved MacDonald's; it was a favorite meeting place. Of course there are plenty of indigenous restaurants and businesses, too, along with colorful markets where people sell fresh produce and crafts and everyday items.  I especially loved the markets, in every town I visited.

Ukraine is not a backwater, although it would certainly benefit by putting thousands of people to work building roads and strengthening infrastructure.  The money for these projects went into the pockets of the few, like Yanokovitch. Stolen. 

Most of the country is wired.  Everyone has cell phones.  More and more people have access to the internet, access to knowledge, access to what’s happening in the world. Even in small towns and villages. They google and research, read international news and newspapers.  The people are educated, talented, thoughtful, contemporary in their outlook.  They are not stupid puppets; they know about censorship; they are aware of media accessibility issues; they communicate online and are good at using social media.                 

The majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians understand that they are citizens of an evolving independent country with great potential.  They are aware of its problems, and gripe about it, but they are also aware of the possibilities. The people born in Ukraine since 1991, and 10-20 years before that, are emerging leaders in local communities across the country, and so are many of their parents. They lead NGOS, a new sector in post-Soviet societies.  The NGOs are serving the public interests and addressing many urgent social needs: poverty, HIV/Aids education and prevention, human rights abuses, elders and orphans, transparency in local government.  These are the NGOs that Putin has attacked as being "the shock troops" of fascist protests in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine. Many friends in Lugansk and in eastern Ukraine are in danger because of this.   I worry about stunning Odessa and the southern regions nearer Crimea, too.
The Amerikanka with friends on the street, in Starobelsk.

Maybe if the world saw Ukraine through a different lens, not defined by Putin or those he thrusts before cameras, but by the people themselves, there would be more interest in its well-being.   I lived in Ukraine for two years, in the east, near Lugansk, not far from Donetsk and Khargiv.  I know something of its greatness, its indigenous culture (always under attack), its complexity, its kind and generous people most of all.  That’s why I’ve been ranting about what’s happening in Ukraine since Mayden.  If only my brother Loren were here now, he would urge me on, rant with me. 

It’s a helpless feeling knowing that the country I came to love, and many friends, are in danger.   

It was heartbreaking to watch the Russian takeover of Crimea. 

It is heartbreaking to learn what is happening there now, thousands of people leaving everything behind and moving North. My friend Serdar left to finish medical school in Lviv. Crimean Tatars are leaving in fear, remembering their expulsion by Stalin, their shattered dream of returning to their homeland. Others are leaving because they want "to live as Ukrainians, in peace." This in itself is becoming a huge problem, a refugee problem, and it is slowly making the news, making the headlines. 

It's frustrating, because it takes a while for the media to catch up with the realities on the ground, realities which friends share everyday on facebook and emails, social media and skype. We know, some of us, and can do nothing.  

So I will continue to rant because it's all I can do. 

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