Ukraine Makes the Headlines, Again – by Dr. Fiona Citkin

(originally published in 2019 – more relevant than ever!)

I periodically become a target of all-around questioning just because originally—more than 25 years ago—I came to the US from Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar. Of course, this gives me the leverage to deeper understand what’s going on there, and why. But I do not hold a magic ball that predicts what the future holds in a largely unpredictable country – and even more unpredictable America under the current government. So, let me just answer some of these questions and clarify my positioning.

Ukraine  When people get my book about immigrant women, “How They Made It in America,” many shrug shoulders on the explanation of the reasons for my emigration—and for leaving the high position in academia—rooted in snowballing corruption that I could not stand anymore. Yes, may be many countries have their own bureaucracy and corruption, but Ukraine is something special. And therefore, I am triple proud that in the recent elections 73% of voices went to the new President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian speaker from the Eastern region – and a Jew. This ran counter to the typical populist Ukrainian tendencies.

May be, this time around the social-economic situation was so bad that the people overwhelmingly voted for somebody who gave the most hope to uplift Ukraine from the hole the former management put it into. And President Zelensky, however young and inexperienced, makes big strides to fulfill his promises, and—most importantly—pull his country from a deadlock war with Russia. To reach this goal, he needs money, weapons and support of the United States. But will he do a “small favor” to the almighty American President who held this money, although approved by the Congress? I am no judge. Or, the better question is whether he has a choice.

Past Predicts Future

When thinking of Ukraine, consider the following:

  • For over twenty-five years of my life in the United States, whenever I answered “Ukraine” when asked where I came from, I’d hear, “Ah, Russia!” Home to 43 million people, Ukraine was little-known — until bloodshed in Kiev’s Maidan Square and continuing mayhem provoked by Putinesque instigators brought it into headlines. The media, however, often understated the situation, thus hurting American understanding of this strategically important European country.
  • Critically, Ukraine, the second-largest military state in Europe (after Russia), surrendered its nuclear warheads in 1994, after the U.S., UK, and Russia had guaranteed the integrity of its borders. Now, when Ukraine sees the army of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the gates and is torn apart by pro-Russian separatists, Ukrainians feel betrayed by the all former guarantors. And it looks like nobody cares.
  • The late U.S. Sen. John McCain, speaking on Late Night with Seth Meyers, dismissed Russia as a “gas station run by a mafia masquerading as a country.” I never agreed with that. Russia may be a mafia, but with many nuclear warheads! Their warheads can annihilate the world three times over. And by now, maybe four times.
  • And this mafia stops at nothing, as its track record in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea had proven. It’s not to be downplayed! Unfortunately, many politicians in America and Europe alike appear unaware of Putin’s goal, which was applauded in the Russian Duma: to reconstruct the U.S.S.R., in a smaller but stronger version — including Ukraine. That statement from the past predicts the future.

The Historical Roots of the Conflict

  • Despite their territories changing hands and enjoying only a short-lived independence, 77.8 percent of the population of Ukraine identifies as Ukrainian, whether or not their mother tongue is Ukrainian or Russian (which is often the case in Eastern Ukraine, where I have been born). Language issues notwithstanding, the growth of national consciousness began with the struggle of the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic from 1917 to 1921. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin drowned it in blood, adding the man-made Famine-Genocide of 1932-33, the deportations of the so-called kulaks (rich farmers who opposed collectivization, and one of my granddads fell victim to it), the physical annihilation of the nationally conscious intelligentsia, and general terror to subdue the nation.
  • The people of the Ukraine are fighting a vicious battle against organized crime, corruption and the forces of evil. While we shook the Soviet yoke in 1991, many of the corrupt, communist apparatchiks unfortunately managed to hold onto their positions. The crime and corruption continued but the Ukrainian people have finally had enough and are bravely making their stand.
  • The condescending and dictatorial “big brother” habitually ridiculed Ukrainian nationalism (equating it to narrow-mindedness) and even the traditional love of borsch; everything Ukrainian was regarded as second-tier, inferior to everything Russian. Facing repressions, Ukrainians kept a low profile.
  • But no low profile anymore: Multiple sources inside the country report a sharp rise in Ukrainian national consciousness, and even people who used to be indifferent to the issue favor Ukrainian unity over Russian recolonization. This chronicle makes Putin’s takeover of Ukraine — and the ensuing, never-ending chaos and civil war — problematic.

Ukrainian Americans Provide Insights on Ukrainian Culture

As a believer in culture’s power to condition and predict our success, I think that in order to grow U.S. influence in this strategic geopolitical region, we need to better understand the mindset of its people — because the culture prophecy is as steady as it gets in our ever-changing world. In 2016 there was a sizeable number of 347,759 Ukraine-born Americans. Among celebrities who contributed big time to the US well-being and culture, the first names that spring to mind are from Hollywood: Ukraine-born actresses Mila Kunis and Milla Jovovich – as well as Dustin Hoffman and Steven Spielberg who are proud of their Ukrainian heritage.

Let’s look at two other successful Ukrainian-Americans for insights into the Ukrainian character, culture, and contributions.

Oksana Baiul: Queen of the Ice

  • Oksana Baiul, a retired Ukrainian figure skater, emigrated from Ukraine to America after becoming the 1993 World Championship Gold Medalist and the 1994 Olympic Gold Medalist in Ladies Figure Skating. Orphaned early, Oksana lived in Odessa with the wife of her coach, demonstrating talent and true grit on her way to becoming the queen of the ice. Her relaunched career in America went well; for example, she collaborated with renowned ballet dancer Saule Rachmedova to bring together the Ice Theatre of New York and had many public appearances, including on MTV’s Total Request Live.
  • A passionate person, Oksana never forgot her roots: She supports the Tikva Children’s Home, which aids the Jewish children of Odessa.
  • Oksana has been living in the U.S. for years, but her national consciousness is strong and prompts her to voice her support for the good of her former compatriots. She feels their pain at the Maidan events and beyond.

Helen Schneider, Ph.D.: Happy Health Economist

  • Helen came to the U.S. to study economics, knowing that America had given the world most of its Nobel Prize-winning economists. She proved to be flexible, moving from Kent, Ohio, to Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, then to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, then to the University of California, Berkeley, for her post-doctorate, then to the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico, and finally to the University of Texas in Austin.
  • Helen embraced the diversity of America’s regional cultures, thus becoming an all-American girl. Her integration into each place was heartfelt: her family still remembers how her immersion in Southern culture expressed itself as “Yankees are no good! Well, some may be…” Today Helen is an all-inclusive Texan — because everything is bigger and better in Texas 😊. She’s passionate about teaching health economics and econometrics, the tough subjects, plus some of her articles made headlines in top professional journals and brought her awards. Her cultural sensitivity helps in teaching a diverse student population at UT, and she’s happy to do what she loves.
  • Helen stays in touch with her old friends in Ukraine and Russia and remains poised and graceful, never taking sides when Russia-vs.-Ukraine opinions become polarized or even hostile, but she believes Ukraine deserves to be independent, not subservient to Russia, because of the specific culture.

Democracy Is Difficult to Dose or Dispense from the Outside

The flexibility, survivability, talent, passion, and national consciousness of these and many other Ukrainian Americans reflect the history-and-culture prophecies of their country of origin. Today’s Ukraine, a struggling nation, made the headlines again, and not in a favorable context. But America should not jump the gun and withdraw support; Americans can extend support differently, while never underestimating Putin’s track record and Russia’s warheads.

Besides, in any country, democracy and a sense of fairness are difficult to judge, dose or dispense from the outside, especially when one knows as little of the country’s history and culture as our typical politicians seem to. Let’s make a better effort—and we’ll continue to have Ukraine as a strategic partner in a geopolitical European region!

First published at
Fiona Citkin

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