[At a friend's 60th birthday party last weekend, I met his sister Virginia Lee who had been in the Peace Corps in Ukraine 5 years ago. I asked her about the unfolding situation there, and her answer so enlightened me that I suggested she write it down. She asked me to post it because she didn't have a blog. I was happy to because this is the kind of first-person truth about cultures around the globe that we should be helping each other discover. =Drummond]
People have been fighting over Ukraine for centuries. As a prime piece of real estate, it is strategically located between the Carpathian Mountains (and Europe) to the west, with the Black Sea (and access to the Mediterranean) to the south—and Russia on its northern & eastern borders. Not to mention that Ukraine has some of the most fertile soil in the world where sunflowers grow six feet high and heirloom tomatoes are the size of grapefruits.
Literally, “Ukraine” means “borderland,” which has been the perennially shifting border between east and west, Russia and Europe, however you want to draw the line. The Dnipro (or Dnieper) River flows right down the middle of Ukraine—through the heart of Kyiv actually—essentially separating east and west. To the credit of most Ukrainians, they embrace both cultures and both languages, as if their mother is European and their father is Russian. How can you choose between two parents? In any given Ukrainian city, you will find a Catholic church on one side of the street and an Orthodox church on the other side, with a Jewish synagogue either boarded up or hidden somewhere down the block.
So this tug of war between east and west is nothing new. What is new is that the Ukrainians finally have a chance to run their own country without the Lithuanians, Mongolians, Ottoman Turks, Poles or Russians telling them what to do, as has been the case for the past 1000 years. And this is the essence of the recent revolution in Maidan in Kyiv. In Ukrainian, it’s called “Maidan Nezolejnosti” and in English it’s “Independence Square,” which is where everyday Ukrainians have risked their lives to stand for freedom—the kind that we Americans take for granted.
I have learned most of this from my Ukrainian friends who I met during my recent Peace Corps service in Ukraine from 2007-09. I am in touch with them regularly, and what frustrates them most about the current situation is how their fight for freedom and independence has been co-opted by the media. To them, the real story is getting rid of Yanukovich, a Mafioso president steeped in corruption who bankrupted their country and ruined their economy. And then the focus shifted to the issue of Russians & Crimeans—a showdown between east and west and a rerun of the same old story, whose most recent version in history was the Cold War.
You can’t really blame Putin for seizing this golden opportunity to gain world attention, prove himself as a strong leader to his Russian following—and grab a prime piece of real estate in the process. Having visited Crimea several times during my Peace Corps service, I came away with the distinct impression that Crimea is both beautiful and dangerous, like a Russian hooker, who will not hesitate to betray (and exploit) you if you are not Russian. Regrettably, Ukraine has had to let Crimea go back to her lover.
I pray that the rest of the world will be there to help Ukraine heal her broken heart and rebuild her life. And not relive the horrors of Stalin and the Soviet era as well as the WW2 occupation of Hitler—and all the geo-political struggles that have been played out on the battleground of her sacred territory—all in the name of defining that elusive boundary between east and west. Perhaps it is Ukraine’s fate to be that borderland, so please let’s allow her the peace she deserves.