Why I spend my free time telling Ukraine’s story (and you should too)

Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv. Source: SRF

Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv. Source: SRF 

2015/03/07 • Analysis & Opinion, Op-ed

Article by: Andrew Kinder

The exceptional affection many non-Ukrainians feel for Ukraine was on full display at the September 2014 Yalta European Strategy meetings, held that year in Kyiv, where several US diplomats had returned for panel discussions to share their thoughts on the country’s situation. Each of these men, who had no serious connection to Ukraine before serving there, tried to express how they are always drawn back to the country, despite its seemingly never-ending cycle of problems, crises, and disappointments.

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Ploshcha Rynok, Lviv, June 2009.

Listening to these Americans attempt to find the right words to explain why they cared about Ukraine struck a chord, and I asked myself, “why do I care about what happens to Ukraine?” Like many of Ukraine’s non-Ukrainian supporters, I have a personal connection; for several years I dated a woman whose family had emigrated from Lviv in 1990s. With her I experienced many of the things that can endear Ukraine to a foreigner – hospitality, adventure, hearty food, and relaxed summer days in Lviv. Also apparent were some of the less appealing sides – bribes at the border, bribes at city hall, the pitiful social safety net, horse-drawn carts in the western Ukrainian countryside and Bentleys in front of parliament in Kyiv. After our relationship ended, I still felt a strong urge to go back to Ukraine and returned to Lviv for the Euro 2012 soccer championships (I even brought my parents along). The city was a charming host, and despite the obvious problems in the country, experiencing Ukraine at that moment almost forced a bit of optimism.

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The Ukrainian elite suffers during the financial crisis, Kyiv, May 2009.

As for anyone with a connection to Ukraine, Maidan was a captivating experience, and the post-Maidan emergence of civil society and political engagement has offered a beautiful contrast to my home countries: the US, where many can’t be bothered to take a couple of hours, once a year, to vote in free and fair elections, and Germany, where high-minded complaining is a national sport, despite a highly-functioning political system (and even more highly-functioning economy). Across from this stand the Ukrainians, who camped out in the freezing cold with EU flags, charged forward against sharpshooters, and later have gone to serve on the front lines, all because they wish to live in a “normal” country, a privilege many in the West don’t even recognize that they enjoy. As if Ukraine’s challenges were not great enough on their own, the country has been subjected to unprecedented, cynical wars instigated by Russia, for which Western institutions and media have been completely unprepared.

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US Deputy Asst. Secretary of State Thomas Melia speaks at YES, September 2014.

Even if you don’t have a personal relationship of some kind to Ukraine, it is nearly impossible to read one of the many stories coming of out the country – volunteers who have more or less prevented the collapse of the army and the social safety net, Nadiya Savchenko’s unbreakable will in the face of gross injustice, young journalists holding their new government accountable, civilians who volunteered or were drafted into the army holding the line against a blatant Russian invasion – and not feel compelled to do something about the situation, even if that something is only editing an article or translating a leaflet. These stories are real, and they reflect exactly why those US diplomats sat in Kyiv and – almost in disbelief at themselves – said that they couldn’t turn their backs on Ukraine, even if at times good sense might have suggested doing just that. Most of us are not ambassadors, decision makers, or front-line soldiers, but we also have a role in not turning our collective backs on Ukraine. What does this mean? Simple: It means that we have an obligation to tell Ukraine’s story, even if it’s only a personal anecdote or a small fact (How many Americans or western Europeans know that Ukrainian is its own language? How many mistakenly think fascists have taken over Kyiv? How many know that Lviv looks – and acts somewhat – like a smaller Vienna?). This is a task too important to leave to Kremlin propagandists, plodding Western governments, or news organizations that are unable or unwilling to accurately inform the world about Ukraine.

  • Dirk Smith

    As one of the above, any student of history should support Ukraine in their quest for a free society detached from Moscow.

    • Charles J. Kollman

      Free people must support Ukraine. America is dragging it’s feet in sending weapons to Ukraine. Americans must write Obama their Senators and Congress people urging them to give Ukraine full support. Maybe Putin next will annex Little Odessa in Brighten Beach Brooklyn, New York to protect the ethnic Russians living there.

      • nojegr

        Important to recognize & support the rights of minorities.
        Co-operation is better than confrontation.

        • Charles J. Kollman

          Yes support rights of minorities. If it is a Democracy you want majorities rule. Because you live in a Democracy does not mean you have rights. The only Country i know of that has written rights in their Constitution the law of the land is The US. and The US. is not a Democracy. If you live in a Democracy that the citizens don’t take part in then a minority could make laws and what they make could be the end of what rights you had.

  • James Godber

    this story is right , Ukraine story does need to be told , there are 45 million Ukrainians
    and out of them there ,is probably , 100,000 corrupt politician, police . and the judicially . is all so corrupt . it all needs fixing , and yesterday , but the 95% of Ukrainians , or not corrupt, they have been let down , by there own rulers , over a very long time , and now the 95% of the population , that need the U.S A HELP ARE BEING LET DOWN BY a PRESEDENT THAT WAS PART OF TAKING AWAY , THERE ability to defend them selves , I will keep posting Ukraine’s story on my time line , so people can help the population , the 40 plus million that deserve our help .
    and the world needs to know about the RUSSIAN DICTATOR THAT threatens the world , with his lies and his invasion, of Ukraine

    • Anne Ward Sokol

      I think the story of Ukraine as a people struggling for freedom from corruption is compelling, but it is only half the truth sadly. I live in Ukraine and my husband is Ukrainian. And sadly, the average Ukrainian is very corrupt. They will lie, cheat, steal, etc. in small ways. Partly allowed, even encouraged by the terrible government salaries, partly it’s just how they grow up being taught to think. So, it’s not such a black and white struggle. If you removed all the politicians and put in regular people, the corruption would basically stay the same. Finding principled people of integrity to be leaders from the top down, now that would be a great start for a new future in Ukraine.

      • James Godber

        anna . I think were Ukraine need to start , is to separate the judiciary. from political interference , and all so the police ,
        and then if the average Ukrainian. can see that there is a just
        leagle system . then . they wont have to steal , to survive,
        looking from the out side in I cant see how the average Ukrainian
        can survive on 300 dollars a month , there is huge problems to fix it is a mammoth task , and from what I see of your currant prime minister , he does seem to have I good sense, of were Ukraine needs to go , but your president , should , sell his business, interest , and lead by example , in that regard , other wise , he seem to be doing . reasonable . under extreme, circumstance, and if putin would just get out of Ukraine , it would make the task a million precent easer

      • Lydia Singura

        You are correct. The system has taught people those ugly traits because they needed to survive. Understand that Ukraine has really not had a Ukrainian nationalist government!!! The history has been twisted and many Ukrainians don’t know their own history because of this! I am not trying to excuse the issue, just explain.

    • nojegr

      Remember that Crimea has a story to be told too. Why are they fleeing to Russia?
      More than 1 million Ukrainians displaced by conflict – UNHCR | Reuters

      http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/02/uk-ukraine-security-displaced-idUKKBN0GX0Y420140902

      • James Godber

        Crimea is Ukraine you cant separate. the two .

  • puttypants

    Thank you for loving Ukraine. I too have been trying to correct the disinformation and lies on the internet being spread by paid Putin propagandist. The lies are so awful that it makes me sick. So I fight. My parents were born outside of Kharkiv. All that Ukrainian blood in deep in Ukrainian soil fighting to free Ukraine. My parents left and never spoke out when they were accused first of being communists than later as being nazi collaborators. Now I will fight for them.

  • nojegr

    If Russia is the enemy why are so many in Crimea fleeing there?
    More than 1 million Ukrainians displaced by conflict – UNHCR | Reuters

    http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/02/uk-ukraine-security-displaced-idUKKBN0GX0Y420140902

    • James Godber

      how many Ukrainians were fleeing Ukraine, before ” Hitler ” invaded Ukraine and that includes, Crimea Ukrainians , none , sorry I got his name wrong , ” PUTIN ” SIMPLE MISSTAKE CANT TELL THEM APART .both criminals,

  • Lydia Singura

    Thank you for the article!!! Ukraine has many problems, without a doubt, and corruption is the biggest one. Russia has always had it’s nose in Ukraine and even the vote in the United Nations under communism. Show me countries in the world that don’t have corruption, but that being said, Ukrainians are fighting for their own identify and Russia has long tried to prevent that with distortion of even history. Russia is it’s own land and needs to worry about the Russian people and clean out it’s own corruption. The trolls won’t like this as I see some of the comments below!!!

  • Paul Niland

    Well said. One small comment, suggest an edit as “and not feel compelled to do something about the situation,” should probably be “and noW feel compelled to do something about the situation,”