Past Predicts Future
For over 20 years of my life in the United States, whenever I answered "Ukraine" when asked where I came from, I'd hear, "Ah, Russia!" Home to 45.4 million people, Ukraine was little-known -- until bloodshed in Kiev's Maidan Square and continuing mayhem provoked by Putinesque instigators brought it into headlines. The media, however, often understate the situation, thus hurting American understanding of -- and standing in -- this strategically important European country.
Critically, Ukraine, the second-largest military state in Europe (after Russia), surrendered its nuclear warheads in 1994, after the U.S., the UK, and Russia had guaranteed the safety of its borders. Now, when Ukraine sees Russian President Vladimir Putin at the gates and is torn apart by pro-Russian separatists, Ukrainians feel betrayed by the former guarantors.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, speaking on Late Night with Seth Meyers, dismissed Russia as a "gas station run by a mafia masquerading as a country." Take a closer look, Senator: This is a mafia, but with nuclear warheads! Their warheads can annihilate the world three times over.
And this mafia stops at nothing, as its track record in Chechnya and Georgia has proven. This is not to be downplayed! Unfortunately, our politicians appear unaware of Putin's goal, which was applauded in the Russian Duma two years ago: to reconstruct the U.S.S.R., in a smaller but stronger version -- including Ukraine. That statement from the past predicts the future.
The Historical Roots of the Conflict
Despite their territories changing hands and enjoying only short-lived independence, 77.8 percent of the population of Ukraine identifies as Ukrainian, whether or not their mother tongue is Ukrainian or Russian (which is often the case in Eastern Ukraine). Language issues notwithstanding, the growth of national consciousness began with the struggle of the independent Ukrainian People's Republic from 1917 to 1921. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin drowned it in blood, adding the man-made Famine-Genocide of 1932-33, the deportations of the so-called kulaks (rich farmers who opposed collectivization), the physical annihilation of the nationally conscious intelligentsia, and general terror to subdue the nation. These condescending and dictatorial "big brothers" habitually ridiculed Ukrainian nationalism (equating it to narrow-mindedness) and even the traditional love of borsch; everything Ukrainian was regarded as second-tier, inferior to everything Russian. Facing repression, Ukrainians kept a low profile.
But not anymore: Multiple sources inside the country report a sharp rise in Ukrainian national consciousness, and even people who used to be indifferent to the issue favor Ukrainian unity over Russian recolonization. This chronicle makes Putin's takeover of Ukraine -- and the ensuing, neverending chaos and civil war -- problematic.
Ukrainian Americans Shed Light on Ukrainian Culture
As a believer in culture's power to condition and predict our success, I think that in order to grow U.S. influence in this strategic geopolitical region, we need to better understand the mindset of its people -- because the culture prophecy is as steady as it gets in our ever-changing world. Let's look at two successful Ukrainian Americans for insights into the Ukrainian character, culture, and contributions.
Oksana Baiul: Queen of the Ice
Oksana Baiul, a retired Ukrainian figure skater, emigrated from Ukraine to America after becoming the 1993 World Championship Gold Medalist and the 1994 Olympic Gold Medalist in Ladies Figure Skating. Orphaned early, Oksana lived in Odessa with the wife of her coach, demonstrating talent and true grit on her way to becoming the queen of the ice. Her relaunched career in America went well; for example, she collaborated with renowned ballet dancer Saule Rachmedova to bring together the Ice Theatre of New York and had many public appearances, including on MTV's Total Request Live.
A passionate person, Oksana never forgot her roots: She supports the Tikva Children's Home, which aids the Jewish children of Odessa. It was natural for her to issue a statement of support for protesters in Maidan Square, writing:
The people of the Ukraine are fighting a vicious battle against organized crime, corruption and the forces of evil. While we shook the Soviet yoke in 1991, many of the corrupt, communist apparatchiks unfortunately managed to hold onto their positions. The crime and corruption continued but the Ukrainian people have finally had enough and are bravely making their stand.
Oksana has been living in the U.S. for years, but her national consciousness is strong and prompts her to voice her support for the good of her former compatriots. She feels their pain.
Helen Schneider, Ph.D.: Happy Health Economist
Helen came to the U.S. to study economics, knowing that America had given the world most of its Nobel Prize-winning economists. She proved to be flexible, moving from Kent, Ohio, to Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, then to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, then to the University of California, Berkeley, for her post-doctorate, then to the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico, and finally to the University of Texas in Austin. And she embraced the diversity of America's regional cultures, thus becoming an all-American girl. Helen's integration into each place was heartfelt: Her family still remembers how her immersion in Southern culture expressed itself as "Yankees are no good!" Today Helen is an all-inclusive Texan -- because everything is bigger and better there. She's a passionate health economist, and some of her articles have made headlines in top professional journals and brought her awards. Her cultural sensitivity helps in teaching diverse student population at UT, and she's happy to do what she loves.
Helen stays in touch with her old friends in Ukraine and Russia and remains poised and graceful, never taking sides when Russia-vs.-Ukraine opinions become polarized or even hostile, but she believes Ukraine deserves to be independent, not subservient to Russia, because of the specific culture.
Democracy Is Difficult to Dose
The flexibility, survivability, talent, passion, and national consciousness of these and many other Ukrainian Americans reflect the history-and-culture prophecies of their country of origin. Today Ukraine is a struggling nation, but America should not jump the gun; we can extend support differently, while never underestimating Putin's track record and Russia's warheads. Besides, in any country, democracy and fairness are difficult to judge, dose or dispense from the outside, especially when one knows as little of the country's history and culture as our typical politicians seem to.