Ukraine–dichotomies and questions

I’m thinking a lot about my ancestors in Ukraine. I’ve just finished reading Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. Although the book sometimes was heavy on minutiae, it was a revealing text on an area about which most people in the world are unfamiliar. The only reason people now are even vaguely aware of Ukraine is due to the Russian-backed insurgents creating problems to prevent Ukraine from pursuing a NATO membership.

This area has been awash in blood for centuries. Only recently have Ukrainians been afforded the opportunity for self-government. However, inherent corruption from the Soviet system is endemic in Ukraine, too. With so much instability, Ukraine teeters on the brink.

Having newly found family in Ukraine has given me intense interest in what happens in this nation. Knowing much more of the history causes me to root for Ukraine’s independence and success as a viable nation.

When I think of the difficult history of this area, I cannot help but wonder about my ancestors. I have names of ancestors going back seven generations now. It’s possible that I will find more, however, I’m not pushing it right now because what I have found is quite a bit to consider.

Yet with all the wars, famines, purges, ethnic tensions, how was my family impacted? What happened to my many ancestors? Ukraine was pulled like taffy between competing powers–Lithuanian, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Polish, Soviet–for centuries. How did my ancestors cope? How did anti-Semitism impact them? Nazism? Communism? Socialism? Collectivization? Stalinist purges?

I read that, in some cities, people were reduced to killing and eating their children during Stalin’s cruel attempts to destroy the population with his “collectivization” of farms. Sometimes people would entice someone’s child over to a home and the child would never return. Did this happen in my family’s hometown?

What about the war? I know my cousin and his brother were hidden from Communists searching for young men to “enlist”. I cannot fathom such a thing happening, yet I know that it did. I used to read with fascination about how the Soviets would treat their people. Now I’m aware that I had cousins living under this evil system who somehow survived and learned to thrive–during the same years that I was living in affluence and freedom in America.

Knowing this causes me to stop in my tracks and contemplate. Could I have ever survived such a system or an environment? Sometimes I think the answer is “no”. When I consider that I’ve had it relatively easy with my freedoms and my opportunities, the concept of suffering under a totalitarian regime is unthinkable. I can’t imagine how I would have survived.

Yet my cousins did. It was their reality. For them it was normal to wait in line for shoes or bread. It was normal to never see a banana or a strawberry. It was normal to be controlled. How did they do it?

How does anyone do it? How does one accommodate such monstrous behavior from an insecure governmental apparatus? Does one play along with a survivalist sleight-of-hand? Does one acquiesce? Or subvert?

Millions responded in various ways–rebellion, spying, murder, informing, smuggling, lying.  I can’t imagine the skills it would take to survive, let alone thrive. Where is the happiness or the joy when your system is designed to erase your identity and your sense of self-worth? How does one rise above?

What do you do when the government wants you to sell out your neighbors knowing their fate will be death and your own fate will similar if you don’t submit? How do you escape the clutches of such psyche-altering demands?

My family in Ukraine fascinates me. I look at them and I’m in awe. The have good lives. They are happy and prosperous. They are full of love. Their strong Christian faith has helped them survive and thrive. They’re normal.

And I fascinate them in return. I am an American. A stranger, yet a family member. How could I quit my job and move halfway across the world just to search for them, my cousin asks? In his mind, I am a great man. I just shrug. Yet, I look at them and think of what they’ve had to endure and my heart crumples just a bit. They are great in my mind.

I anticipate my next trip to Ukraine. I yearn to see my beloved cousin, Zenovyi, I pray he lives for a long time so I can know him more and show him that I will be a brother to his precious son. I want to learn more about life under the Soviet system and how they emerged as the people they are. I want to be blessed by his existence.

DAMN, this adoption thing has morphed into a genealogical thing and is now turning into an invaluable sociological/historical lesson. From Oregon to B.C. to Italy to Ukraine. From a rural town in Oregon to a major metropolitan area in B.C. to a tiny community in Italy to a backwater in Ukraine, my journey continues to fascinate and inspire. And confuse…


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