Sunday, May 31, 2015

A "New Deal" for a New Ukraine: Uses of the Past

Every nation has to deal with its past. In the USA, we have to deal with slavery, the Civil War and its ugly Reconstruction era in the form of Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, lynching, oppression. We have to deal with the extermination of the native peoples of this land; the triumph of an often-heartless capitalism and the rise of poverty; with the inequality and injustice that contradict our ideals as well as the reform movements that seek to address them.

These realities may be open to interpretation and revision in changing contexts over time, but they can't be erased. Some people still fly the Confederate flag. Others say it's a symbol of  racism.  In truth, it is all a part of the story of America, the good, the bad and the ugly.

So it is in Ukraine. Today, the government in Kyiv wants to eliminate all vestiges of its Communist past.  Change street names, topple statues of Lenin, forbid signs of the Stalinist era. Yes, Ukraine can destroy the symbols, but it cannot so easily destroy the memories or the history.

The History Museum in Starobelsk, the University, Lenin Park. It's all changing, and it's all  part of Ukraine's history.  
Ukraine must deal with its struggles and its achievements. It must deal with Stalin's "Holodomor," the Gulags, the support of Nazis and the overzealous outrages on the part of some Ukrainians against Jews and Poles. It must deal with discrimination against Roma and others, Babi Yar, the Crimean Tatar.

Ukraine Cultural Traditions. The
Starobelsk calendar.
I understand the impulse to deny, and also the need to redefine.

I remember thinking when I served with Peace Corps that Ukraine needed a national identity. I was surprised, for example, that English Club members didn't know their national anthem. Inspite of this, a strong sense of Ukrainian cultural traditions flourished.

As an historian, I'm wondering about Kyiv's current focus on symbols, as well as the wisdom of spending money to build a wall between Ukraine and Russia.  Such priorities will not fundamentally change anything that matters the most to most Ukrainians.

I'm thinking that instead of focusing on symbols and walls, Ukraine needs to focus on how to help its people. Basically, like the theme of Bill Clinton's first presidential run, Ukraine's motto should be "It's the economy, stupid."  It's not easy to implement, especially in wartime.

Still, even during this Reign of Terror, the economy remains a basic need for the country as a whole.   I wish President Poroshenko would make this a top priority, along with rooting out the corruption that acts as brakes on progress.

How about a "New Deal" for Ukraine?  Make jobs, create opportunities, put people to work on infrastructure, building and repairing roads and transportation systems; encourage entrepreneurship and small business development with tax incentives; support the work of NGOs and the economic development efforts, such as tourism, of small towns and cities. Organize a Works Progress Administration (WPA) and put artists to work. Create new murals, new parks, new symbols, new hope.

Maybe this kind of  "New Deal" would help Ukraine become the united nation it was meant to be, with a bountiful economy and strong national identity that embraces differences and uses its past to create a strong future.  This might well be the best defense against Russian aggression in the long run as well.

"If Ukraine manages to pull out of the deepest crisis in its history and re-emerge as a functioning democratic country with a liberal economic model,  it will do more to undermine Russians' passive support for Putin than any Western pressure ever could." Bloomberg, 4 June 2015, on Yahoo.  

Some information:
http;:// On the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that put artists to work during the 1930s Depression. 
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