I’m sitting in Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome. My flight from Ukraine was late and I’m now waiting for seven hours until I can take the bus back to my apartment in Alba Adriatica.
Ukraine is in my rear view mirror and I guess it’s time to ruminate over my impressions. It will be a while before I get to return.
I can honestly say that Ukraine fascinated me beyond my expectations. Granted, I was a man on a mission to study my genealogy and get answers about my birth mother’s family. I was unprepared to actually find any relatives still living. Yet I did—a small, vibrant family that opened its arms and heart to me.
However, there is obviously more to Ukraine than my family and I had the wonderful opportunity to meet a number of different people besides my family and get fascinating insight into a people who have never been free, never been able to self-govern. I was able to see (on a small scale) how they are coping.
Understand that I am not a statesman or a reporter or a sociologist (despite my degree in Sociology). I’m just a man who drank in the atmosphere, along with a lot of ambrosial coffee and observed and asked questions.
I met Ukrainians. I met Russians. I met Ukrainian-born Russians. I met Ukrainian-born Ukrainians. I met Soviet Union-born Ukrainians. I met Soviet Union-born Russians. And I feel like I have somewhat of a grasp of this land that evokes such emotions on both sides.
Ukrainians appear to me to be relieved to have their own country and their own identity. Indeed, they sought to maintain their own identity even during Soviet occupation when various Russian despots worked to destroy them and their individuality.
However, there are still vast vestiges of the former Soviet Union that are intricately intertwined into the Ukrainian mindset and society. Having been held down for so long within a system that stifled freedoms and independent thought, many Ukrainians are still unsure of how to enter into a new world full of exciting possibilities—and frightening unknowns.
With so many options, which choices should be made? Virtually all Ukrainians I met want to have closer ties to the West because they view America and Europe as the future. Yet many people do not know how to handle the freedoms and the opportunities we take for granted. They are unsure of how to set goals, pursue success—or even dream. Prior to independence, the State told them what to think, how to believe and what to believe. The State told them what the future held for them. The State had them convinced that there were no other options than what the government allowed.
Many are caught in a mindset that things will never change and the only option is to immigrate. They do not see how this loss of Ukraine’s youth and vitality will negatively impact the nation as a whole—and how it would play into the hands of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Putin is a man who encourages the immigration of Russia’s own intelligentsia so he can continue to manipulate and control the lesser minds remaining in his country.
In Ukraine, there is still an uneasy “truce” with former Soviet ways. The government is corrupt, just like Russia, populated by oligarchs and apparatchiks, dupes who see the government as their own personal bank of opportunity. Virtually everyone I spoke with agreed that the government needs a complete political enema to eliminate those who want to maintain the status quo of Russia under the guise of “freedom” or the imprimatur of “Ukraine”.
Those who believe in the future want to stay and help the nation progress. And, in speaking with them, I’ve been able to see how Ukraine has progressed. From its initial independence, Ukraine has gone from a totalitarian state and a Russian puppet, independent in name only, to a nation that is gradually, yet with increasing confidence and vigor, embracing an identity separate from Russia.
From government-sponsored killings of ethnic Ukrainians exposing official corruption, to the Orange Revolution where millions demanded the nation pursue a more independent route from Russia, to Maidan Square where scores were killed in the effort to topple Kremlin-approved kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych to the current fight against the Russian-led insurgency, Ukraine is lurching inch by inch towards the West.
As I spoke with people, I began to realize how the nation is on a path from which it will not willingly depart. Its future depends on the continued exposure of official corruption and the flushing out of deadbeats from the Soviet era, replacing them with modern-thinking progressives who are willing to thrust the country forward.
The Russians, on the other hand (including those who live in Ukraine), do not see Ukraine as an independent nation. They scoff at the mere idea, instead viewing Ukraine as a rebellious child, refusing to obey a parent. The reasons go back centuries.
The original Russian people, Kievan Rus, emerged from present-day Ukraine. Migrating eastward, they founded Moscow from which modern Russia was created. As such, Ukrainian soil is understandably considered to be sacred Russian ground. The fact that many Russian notables are from Ukraine (late 20th Century figures Leonid Brezhnev, Konstantin Chernenko, Nikita Krushchev, among others) only serves to strengthen the Russian belief that Ukraine is not now, and never will be an independent nation. Too much Russian identity is at stake.
Yet, Ukraine was actually an independent nation for a blip on earth’s timeline, right after WWI and at WWII. Austria-Hungary’s defeat created the nation of Poland and Ukraine briefly existed as a nation, only to be devoured by Russia. However, prior to Russia’s annexation, Ukraine had also been part of the Polish, Swedish, Ottoman and Lithuanian empires in addition to Austria-Hungary.
Living under the thumb of so many dynasties, it’s understandable that Ukrainians might have a hard time embracing the new ideologies that are moving the rest of the world into the future. Ingrained into their psyches has been an experience of nothing but occupation, with the occupiers always controlling every aspect of Ukrainian identity.
Yet the people are trying—and they bristle at Russia’s tactics to prevent Ukrainians from making their own decisions. These attempts are part and parcel of the old Soviet system where the government tried to brainwash everyone into believing that there was one way—the Soviet way—and everything else was useless.
I even had people apologize to me for Russia’s attempts to portray America as the instigator of Ukraine’s problems. It was evident to me that Ukrainians see the truth and do not buy into Russia’s propaganda—the word they used.
But, interestingly, Russians I met do buy into the Russian propaganda even with access to Western media in Ukraine. There are lots of Russians in Ukraine—many Ukrainian-born. Many were born since independence and even they are against Ukrainian sovereignty. They refuse to believe that Ukraine is independent, almost looking at it like a growing pain a teenager might have, yet will grow out of.
Ukrainians respond derisively to Russian comments such as these by stating that Russians are not capable of believing anything except Russian propaganda. Some truly believe that there is possibly a genetic disorder that predetermines ethnic Russians to follow the Kremlin official line.
Despite love for Ukraine, there are those who seem to have a belief that Ukraine cannot handle progress, that the country is too backward to know how to move forward. In Lviv there are people who believe Lviv is too good for Ukrainians, that Ukrainians do not deserve such a wondrous city.
Lviv, glorious in its splendor, majestic in its architecture, sophisticated in its intellectualism, was mostly created by previous empires—Polish and Austro-Hungarian, specifically. It is not the result of Ukrainian efforts. Ukraine inherited the hard work of these former dynasties by happenstance when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Lviv, located in the extreme northeastern section of the country near Poland, landed in Ukraine.
Populated mostly by Ukrainians, it was inevitable that Lviv would be part of Ukraine. However, Lviv, blessed with the potential to be the Paris of Eastern Europe, is beset by a malaise exhibited by large numbers of people who don’t realize what they have. Lviv could flourish as an intellectual and cultural center, attracting brilliant minds, artists and creative-types or it could settle into melancholy, spinning its wheels, trying to find an identity while its obvious attributes disintegrate like the fading beauty of an aging, once-lovely princess.
The mere belief by some Ukrainians that Ukrainians do not deserve an undiscovered gem like Lviv is disconcerting because it indicates that the population actually has a sense of insecurity about its very existence and its abilities. If the people can’t see the obvious potential of something like Lviv, how can they take advantage of its potential? Or of Ukraine’s potential?
I tried, in my own minute way, to encourage people during our discussions, especially the youth. I told young people Lviv was an unpolished jewel that, once cleaned up and presented to the world, would rival some of the grandest cities on earth. I pointed out the attributes of Ukraine—a healthy IT culture, a high literacy rate, an educated population, and fertile land. I tried to tell people that it’s all there. All they have to do is learn how to make the most of what they have.
And there are young people who want to stay. My cousin Viktor’s son, Victor Jr. wants to travel, but says he will always come back to Lviv. He wants to be part of the transformation and success of his home, which he adores. The tour guide I interviewed was a dynamic young lady, successful in her career, with a smart apartment in the city center—one of the most expensive areas of the city. She was brimming with business ideas and excited over the options available to her.
Indeed, there runs quite strongly an affection for Ukraine, even among some of those who see no future. They might not believe Ukraine will progress, but they would rather spin their wheels than go back to Russia.
So the potential is there. The fuse has been lit. Despite the attitudes of some people, some young, some old, who don’t hold out hope for Ukraine, there are others who are thrusting forward, frustrated by corruption and abuse, yet confident that the politicians who hold Ukraine back will ultimately be replaced.
They see beyond the haze of waste and fraud. Once its people start to see that there is hope from for Ukraine, others will most likely believe, too.
And then stand back and be amazed.