What the world does not understand about being Ukrainian

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From half way around the world I have been glued to my Twitter and Facebook, Kyiv Post and Ukrainian Pravda and make frequent calls to family in Ukraine to check up on them. I read everything I can about the Maidan and the current events. I read the stories of the people who are standing up for their future and national identity and wish I could be there by their side. They are professionals and farmers, PhD’s and factory workers, Orthodox, Christians and Jews. Despite all their differences, they have one thing in common; they are Ukrainians.

Photo from www.rferl.org

Photo from www.rferl.org

I was born and raised in Canada, the child of Ukrainian Diasporas. I listened to my father’s stories of how he was a “Freedom Fighter”. He didn’t use the names OUN or UPA because the Soviet propaganda machine had tainted those terms as negative and evil and anyway, whatever they were called, that’s what they were; Freedom Fighters. They were fighting for a free and independent Ukraine.

For over a thousand years the lands of Ukraine were fought over, taken over, sliced and diced, between a variety of Kingdoms and Empires; and the Ukrainian spirit survived. My father was born under Russian rule followed by a brief period of Ukrainian Independence. Then came the Bolsheviks and when Ukraine resisted Communism, Stalin’s famines; which killed millions of countrymen. My uncle was sentenced to jail and died in a gulag for the crime of stealing a single loaf of bread to feed the family. After millions of Ukrainians were killed off, the Soviets transplanted millions of Russians into the South and East to replace the dead Ukrainians that worked in the factories and fields. These transplantees had no love for Ukraine; they were Russians living in Ukraine. However for the ethnic Ukrainians, the spirit lived on.

Stalin continued his campaign of striping Ukraine of its national identity. Imprisoning or killing Ukraine’s intellectuals, writers, and artists; banning the Ukrainian language and traditions.  For decades, my father spat on the floor at the mention Stalin’s name. It is no wonder that the thought of statues honoring Stalin in city parks and squares is so distasteful to so many ethnic Ukrainians.

Then, the Soviets and Nazis trampled the Ukrainian soil, destroying anything that stood in their way. My mother, at 14 years old watched Nazi soldiers shoot her closest childhood friend in the back as she ran to hide, simply because she was a Jew. Later that year, she was torn away from the family and relocated to work in Germany; yet she always held Ukraine in her heart.

My father during this time volunteered to fight for his beloved Ukraine. He joined up with others who had the same common goal of a Ukrainian land self-determined by Ukrainians. Call it Nationalism if you choose to. They did not hate Poles or Germans or Soviets; they hated their governments’ desires to occupy and control the lands that belonged to Ukrainians.  They were fighting for the freedom and the future of their homeland. This is the spirit that I see in the Maidan today.

My parents met in Germany and were relocated as refuges in Canada where like Ukrainian Diaspora communities that popped up around the world, they kept the Ukrainian spirit alive. They built Ukrainian social halls, churches and schools for their children so that they would grow up with an identity as Ukrainians and know of their incredible heritage; the good and the bad. Elders in the community tell me that I speak beautiful Ukrainian because it is not tainted with Russian. That pleases me because from half a world away, I am proud to be Ukrainian.

That brings us to the struggles of today. The people of the Maidan and that of those from around the world, who support her, will not be put down easily. What the world needs to understand is that the Ukrainian spirit is strong. The desire to escape the heavy hand of Russia is deep. The yearning for Western freedoms is powerful. The majority of Ukrainians are tired of living under the control of a minority segment of the population which is corrupt ethnic Russians who would be very happy to reinstate the Soviet rule over Ukraine once again.

Personally, I think that this time, the Ukrainian spirit will not give up until they have achieved independence. Unfortunately, the cost of freedom is usually very high.

Glory to Ukraine!  Слава Україні!

Alex Stepchuk

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