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I received an offer from FunkyUkrainian.com inviting me to try the site in exchange for a short post about them here on my blog.  I’m happy to take them up on my offer both because my Ukrainian is very limited and in need of improvement, and because there aren’t nearly enough options out there for those looking to learn Ukrainian.  (For example, Rosetta Stone doesn’t offer Ukrainian and has ignored emails by me and others I know asking why they don’t.)

I haven’t had much chance to try the site out yet, but I am looking forward to it.  It seems easy to navigate and appears to provide a good introduction to the language.

I will write another post after I’ve had a chance to spend some more time on the site.  Here is FunkyUkrainian.com’s explanation of what the site offers:

It is for anybody interested in getting some of the basics whether to make
a good impression and amuse his/her friends or get a bonus point in an
love relationship with an Ukrainian sweetheart. The FunkyUkrainian to
Impress language product is focused on some day-to-day expressions as well
as a particular type of phrases that linguists call fluency-markers. These
are phrases that if said properly (and there’s audio recordings to repeat
after) will make you appear to know more than you might actually know,
because no regular textbook teaches these colloquial expressions and
idioms to foreigners. As to the other subscription-based product -
FunkyUkrainian to Love – it contains lovely phrases such as “My heart beats
only for you”, “Honey”, “My darling”, “You make me happy”, and so on and
so forth.

In addition to the subscription-based products, there’s a free Ukrainian
Vocabulary section with hundreds of words divided into various categories
like “Describing people”, “Family members”, “Colors”, “At home vocabulary”
et cetera. All the words and expressions are recorded by native speakers
of both genders. Moreover, the recordings are of two types: natural speech
(which is fast) and learning mode (very slow so you can hear all the
sounds distinctly).

 

 

It’s been a tremendously long layoff from the blog for a variety of reasons. This has nothing to do with Ukraine or the other issues to which the blog has been devoted, but I thought I’d share it here.  I am considering broadening the scope of the blog while not abandoning its previous focus altogether.  Maybe this essay I wrote for CNN is a good point of transition.

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/03/28/my-faith-why-im-going-back-to-church-for-good-friday/

I had the opportunity recently to interview the Ukrainian novelist Vasyl Shklyar.  Shklyar has attracted a lot of attention in Ukraine this year both for his bestselling novel, Black Raven, as well for the statements he’s made against the erosion of freedoms that has taken place under President Viktor Yanukovych.  I found Shklyar to be remarkably introspective and frank.  I am very pleased that the interview has been published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a news source I’ve respected for years because of its commitment to promoting democracy and press freedoms in countries where liberty is restricted.

Please read the interview with Shklyar here:

http://www.rferl.org/content/interview_vasyl_shklyar_author_black_raven/24346019.html

Consciously or unconsciously, I have largely avoided the controversy concerning Ukrainian–particularly Ukrainian nationalist–participation in the Holocaust.  Two primary reasons for this are that there is still considerable debate about the issue even among historians, which makes me reluctant to speak definitively, and because much of the debate among non-historians, which is where I would fit in, is inane.  There is scant effort among non-academics (and sadly even among some academics) to determine the truth.  Rather, the WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist resistance is often branded, as it was by Soviet propaganda, a fascist, Nazi-collaborating band of barbarians.  There is no attempt to see the movement in its historical context, and any misdeed by a Ukrainian during the war is held as evidence of every Ukrainian’s attitude.  (To be fair, there are some defenders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army who deny any member of either group ever committed an atrocity, a statement that, if true, would make OUN-UPA the only armed group in history of which such a thing could be said.)

In short, I have been afraid to wade into the controversy, because it is fraught with bitterness and pain on both sides.  I have spent almost seven years now writing about Ukraine; I have my biases.  But I am not Ukrainian, nor am I Jewish.  I have been loathe to offend either group by proffering absolute pronouncements on their history.

I wrote about the issue recently, though, not here but in comments on two other blogs.  Even as I was commenting, I feared I was making a mistake.  The issue is delicate to begin with, and comments sections on the Internet tend to be where critical thinking and civility go to die.  To my surprise, the exchange that followed, while passionate, even heated at times, became a respectful, thoughtful conversation.

The conversation began when I read this post on Clarissa’s Blog.  I encourage you to read it in its entirety, but to sum up, the author was objecting to a piece on The Blog of Garnel Ironheart about the unhappiness among some Ukrainian-Canadians that the Holocaust is receiving greater attention than the Holodomor (Stalin’s genocidal famine of Ukrainians) in the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights.  Among Garnel Ironheart’s comments was the claim that “the Ukraine has an extensive history of Jew hatred.”  Clarissa condemned the post, commenting that she found it particularly objectionable as a Ukrainian Jew.

On both blogs, I shared a quote from “The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew” by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, in which Shtern describes the anti-Ukrainian sentiment that predominated in Israel.  Petrovsky-Shtern explains how Soviet efforts to stigmatize the Ukrainian nationalist movement led many Jews to equate Ukrainian nationalism with antisemitism.  Garnel Ironheart replied to my comment, and in the initial exchange we were both testy, as you can read in the comments section of the post to which I linked above.  But rather than follow whatever animosity was present, Garnel and I explained our points of view in somewhat greater detail.   I do not think it is necessary for me to summarize his views, because he can present them better than I, and they are available on his blog.  I expressed frustration that the Ukrainian nation is often judged by the worst actions of any Ukrainian during the war, and that efforts to explain–not condone–antisemitic attitudes in Eastern Europe during WWII (by noting the disproportionate Jewish membership in the Soviet NKVD secret police, for example) is often dismissed as antisemitic itself.

I am certain that Garnel and I have not reached significant agreements, but I am pleased that we conveyed strongly held views without resorting to the kinds of tactics that often pass for debate on the Internet.  The experience taught me that rather than leaving the most sensitive issues to ideologues, I might do better by saying my piece and by trying to understand how others arrive at their conclusions.

Seventy years ago today, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. For millions who lived in Eastern Europe, this marked the end of a brutal Soviet occupation that had begun in October 1939.  The successive occupations brought uncertainty, fear, and even hope that the new army would be better than the last. This brief excerpt is taken from my book in progress, SCATTER WITH THE WIND, which tells the story of two Ukrainian brothers and their experience during the Second World War. The excerpt describes how the events of June 22, 1941 unfolded in the area around the city of Stanislaw/Stanyslaviv, now Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine.

The circus came to Stanyslaviv in late June. The 1:00 p.m. performance on June 22, 1941 was packed with children and teenagers who had finished their school year the day before. The acrobats, clowns, and animal trainers were even more thrilling for those feeling the euphoria of an entire summer stretching before them. The audience cheered throughout the first hour, the first of three hours scheduled in the show.

Then everything stopped, and member of the circus stepped forward to address the audience. The performance was over, they were terribly sorry to say, but the show could not continue due to circumstances beyond their control. The crowd, disappointed and confused, filtered out into the city. A group of Polish boys walked toward the train station to travel back to Lackie Szlacheckie. At the station, they learned most of the trains had been cancelled. There was no explanation for that either.

The Polish boys had no way to get home other than to walk, and it was a warm day so they set off immediately. Their route took them past an airfield. The languid quiet of the afternoon gave way to an explosion. The boys turned to see where it had come from, and they saw planes roaring toward them so low that they glimpsed the pilots’ heads. The boys threw themselves on the ground and gazed up. The planes had black crosses painted on their fuselages.

“Germans!” the boys yelled.

After life under the Bolsheviks the boys were overjoyed to see the Germans, even though the German army had humiliated Poland less than two years before. Hitler had now sent his army to defeat the Soviets, and if Germany succeeded that could be forgiven.

A group of Poles back in Lackie Szlacheckie stood watching black smoke fill the southern sky. The oil refinery in Nadvirna was burning, they figured. The sight pleased them. The Poles’ optimism recalled Ukrainian anticipation of the Soviets in 1939.

“The Germans are intelligent people, cultured,” one of the Poles said. “They aren’t like this Bolshevik rabble. Let’s pray they come as quick as possible.”

The Soviet leadership was as surprised by the German invasion as the people of Lackie Szlacheckie. Stalin dismissed intelligence about the invasion, refusing to believe Hitler would renege on the treaty the two powers signed in 1939. The attack was as massive as it was unexpected. The German invasion, named Operation Barbarossa, comprised three million men. The front stretched more than nine hundred miles from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, about the distance from New York City to Florida. The campaign, which would last six months, remains the largest military operation in history. One million Germans overwhelmed Soviet forces in Ukraine on their way to Kyiv.

In the first few months of the invasion, Germany inflicted losses on the Soviet military that were greater than many of the chief combatants would sustain throughout the entire war. From the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to V-J Day on August 14, 1945, 362,561 members of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps were killed.[i] By the end of September 1941, 2,067,801 members of the Red Army were killed or missing,[ii] including 172,323 in Ukraine during the first two weeks of fighting.[iii] Another 616,304 Red Army personnel were killed or missing between July 7 and September 26, 1941 during the battle for Kyiv.[iv]


[i] Martin Gilbert, The Second World War: A Complete History, Revised Edition. (New York: Owl Books, 1989), 746.

[ii] David M. Glantz & Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hiter. (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 292.

[iii] Ibid, 293.

[iv] Ibid.

Ceremonies marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown across the former Soviet Union today.  But the disaster was not an event confined to April 26, 1986.  It merely began then.  People continue to become sick and die because of Chernobyl.  This piece in the Guardian explains some of the ongoing effects on agriculture and the environment.

Estimates of the Chernobyl death toll range from a few thousand to several hundred thousand.  In light of those deaths, perhaps it is insensitive to discuss the financial cost of the meltdown, but as Chernobyl’s death toll grows so does the bill.  The Chernobyl plant stood in what is now Ukraine, and the most severe environmental effects were suffered in what is now Belarus.  The expense hampers the economies of both countries.  According to the Guardian article linked above, each country has spent $12 billion to deal with the effects of Chernobyl.

Ukraine and Belarus did not create the problem, though.  Chernobyl was a Soviet facility, and the Russian Federation is the successor state to the Soviet Union.  Upon the collapse of the USSR, all Soviet embassies became Russian embassies.  Russia inherited the USSR’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  While Russia enjoys the spoils of being the USSR’s successor state, it suffers none of the consequences, including the cost of dealing with Chernobyl.

$1.1 billion is needed for a new cover, or sarcophagus, for the reactor.  What is Russia doing?  At a recent conference to address this cost, various nations pledged a total of $785 million.  According to the Associated Press, the United States pledged $123 million, Germany pledged $60.5 million, and Ukraine pledged $41 million.  Russia–the successor to the Soviet state that operated the plant–pledged $64 million.  What’s even more outrageous, the AP explains, “Russia’s pledge doubled the amount it has donated since it began contributing in 2005.”  In other words, assuming Russia makes good on this pledge, it will have contributed only slightly more than the U.S. is pledging now.

Russia’s refusal to pay for its Soviet sins are not limited to Chernobyl.  I’ve interviewed former GULAG prisoners in Kazakhstan who were rehabilitated during the Thaw.  They receive a meager supplement to their pension, a few dollars extra per month, as a sort of reparation for their political imprisonment.  These payments are covered by the Kazakh government, which had nothing to do with the GULAG system other than having had its land used as a prison camp and place of exile by Soviet Russia.  The Kazakhs were among the most mistreated of Communism’s victims, and now they pay to assist their fellow victims.  Why doesn’t Russia bear the cost of these payments?  When convenient, the Russia of Putin and Medvedev distances itself from the unpleasant Soviet past.

The German government of the Twenty-first Century had nothing to do with the Third Reich, but it justifiably pays reparations to Holocaust survivors and to former forced laborers from Ukraine and other nations.  The Federal Republic of Germany is fulfilling its ethical obligations as the successor state of Nazi Germany.  The Russian Federation is just two decades removed from the end of the Soviet Union.  Some Russian leaders served prominent positions in Soviet government.  But the Russian Federation is no more inclined to pay for Soviet sins than for those of the Tsars.

The continuation of Chernobyl’s effects is a scientific certainty.  Russia’s refusal to do the right thing seems as likely.

It is rare to hear news about Ukraine on the radio and rarer still hear a report that evinces an understanding of Ukraine’s history, so I was encouraged by this story on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” yesterday:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126630828.

The report explains why many Ukrainians do not have a positive view of World War II and Victory Day, the Soviet holiday marking the defeat of Nazi Germany that is still observed in many former Soviet states.  The day has historically included massive military parades through Moscow and Kyiv and was a centerpiece to Stalin’s myth-making about the “Great Patriotic War”: the idea that the Soviets alone saved the world from fascism, the efforts to erase from history the Soviets’ pre-war pact with Nazi Germany, the denial of Soviet crimes like the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn.

Public Radio International journalist Brigid McCarthy provides the Ukrainian context for the war.  Before the Nazis entered Ukrainian territory, millions of Ukrainians had died under Stalin’s rule.  The Stalinist propaganda, which persists to this day, that many Ukrainians were Nazi-sympathizers emerged from the fact that Ukrainians hoped Nazi Germany would deliver them from Soviet oppression.  This, of course, turned out not to be the case and the true nature of Hitler’s Germany was revealed.  But for too long Ukrainians and other Eastern European nations have had their actions during the war judged through the lens of post-war knowledge.  (I tried to make a similar distinction in this post.)

Give the NPR report a listen.  Much of it will be familiar to those who have studied Ukrainian history, but it is a more nuanced treatment of this history than one usually finds in the mainstream media.

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

I am attending the Association for the Study of Nationalities Convention (April 15-17) at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.  This is my first post about the convention.

My schedule allowed me to attend just one panel from the opening day of the ASN Convention, “Ukrainians and Jews: National Revivalism and National Narratives.”  As a writer working on a book about World War II in the region that is now Western Ukraine, I have a lot of interest in the subject of Ukrainian-Jewish relations.  The two groups have shared a contentious history, largely because their interests as minorities under different powers (Poland, Russia, the Soviet Union) often came into conflict.  There are still painful debates about the extent to which Jews contributed to Ukrainian suffering under the Soviets, and to what extent Ukrainians collaborated in the Nazi extermination of Jews.  (Since I am journalist by training and not a historian, I will leave the debate to academics at least for this post.)

The three panelists who spoke on this issue today presented a more complicated and hopeful take than one usually encounters.  While the discussion of Ukrainian-Jewish relations often emphasizes the ways one group has wronged the other, the scholars argued that Ukrainians and Jews have often coexisted to each other’s benefit.

  • Myroslav Shkandrij, a professor at the University of Manitoba, spoke about depictions of Jews in Ukrainian literature.  In the early and mid- 19th Century, these depictions were limited to stereotypical portrayals of Jews as the leaseholder who would do things like lock the Ukrainians’ church until they paid him.  Shkandrij noted that Ukrainian poet and nation hero Taras Shevchenko, who wrote around this time, had a more nuanced view of nationalities.  By the 1880s, Shkandrij said, the stereotypes began to break down.  Ukrainian writers presented Jews as a group, like Ukrainians, struggling to achieve national unity.  Ultimately, Ukrainian depictions of Jews became largely sympathetic, including characters who converted to Christianity for the love a Ukrainian character.  In contrast to this, Shkandrij said, Russian writers depicted Jewish characters who converted as untrustworthy.  The level of intimacy between Ukrainians and Jews in Ukrainian literature is not present in Russian literature, he said.
  • Yohanan Petrovskyj-Shtern, who teaches at Northwestern University, delivered a fascinating lecture on the ways Ukrainian and Jewish dissidents imprisoned in Gulag camps during the Brezhnev era shaped one another’s politics.  Petrovskyj-Shtern said the memoirs of Jewish dissidents published after the dissidents’ prison terms included a Jewish nationalist perspective that was not a part of their pre-Gulag activism.  The Jewish dissidents, he said, learned from their Ukrainian fellow prisoners to see themselves as people of a nation, not as Soviet citizens.  In turn, the Ukrainian dissidents took on a more democratic view of nationalism after their encounters with Jewish prisoners, and some of them abandoned anti-Semitic views, Petrovskyj-Shtern said.  Petrovskyj-Shtern closed by noting the irony that Ukrainian and Jewish dissidents had to be thrown together in the Gulag in order to exchange ideas.
  • Henry Abramson of Touro College South drew on his personal history to explore the ways Ukrainian and Jewish narratives have moved closer to becoming what he referred to as “normalized.”  Abrmanson, who is Jewish, is married to a Ukrainian woman.  He described in a very humorous way how his father-in-law to be was a bit skeptical of him at first.  Similarly, many Jews were puzzled when he told them he planned to study the history of Jews in Ukraine.  “The Ukrainians were the worst [during the Holocaust],” they said to him.  Abramson said he doesn’t hear that comment anymore except occasionally from elderly Jews.  He praised the work of Rutgers University Professor Taras Hunczak, who was the chair of the panel, as an early effort to begin a discourse between Ukrainian and Jewish historical narratives.  Hunczak published an influential essay refuting the long-held premise that post-WWI Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petliura was an anti-Semite who encouraged pogroms against Jews.  Abramson did add that certain issues, particularly the Holodomor and the Holocaust, will take more time and research for the discussion to move beyond their current acrimony.

It was an enlightening panel.  I am not certain that I share the panelists’, particularly Abramnson’s, optimism about the extent to which there is normalization of national narratives between Ukrainians and Jews.  While that may be the case among academics, I often see references in the media to Petliura’s antisemitism, for example, even though Hunczak’s research helped dispel the idea that Petliura encouraged pogroms.

Near the end of the session Hunczak said that historians and academics have to base their assertions on documented evidence.  To take the recent discussion of Stepan Bandera, the WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist leader, as one example, there was virtually zero citation of evidence by those who charged him with antisemitism and ethnic cleansing of Poles.  I hope that the thoughtfulness and methodology of these panelists is applied to controversial discussions like the one about Bandera’s legacy.

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

After five years of studying Ukraine’s history and observing its politics, I thought I could no longer be shocked by Russified Ukrainians, anti-Ukrainian Russians, and those who remain proud Communists with no shame over Communism’s crimes.  But yesterday I read that Communists in Ukraine are preparing to erect a monument to Josef Stalin in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia.  (I learned about the story on the great Ukrainiana blog, which is a must-read, along with the author’s @Ukroblogger Twitter feed.)

Proud Communist, Oleksandr Zubchevskyi, explains that the monument to Stalin is a tribute to the murderous totalitarian’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII.  At this point, it’s almost tedious to list the reasons why that view is imbecilic: Stalin’s pre-war alliance with Hitler emboldened Nazi Germany and helped the war happen; Stalin’s pre-war purges of his Army’s officers weakened the Soviet military and likely made the war a longer conflict than it would have been; Stalin’s victory over Hitler meant that much of Europe exchanged one murderous tyrant for another.

But even if Stalin had been a masterful tactician whose leadership was the main reason for Germany’s defeat, would that mitigate his crimes?  Would that make it appropriate for a monument to stand in the nation where millions were intentionally starved on his orders and millions of others deported to Siberia?

The monument is an outrage, and it is more evidence that the Communist Party should have been made illegal after the fall of the Soviet Union, just as the Nazi party was banned in Germany after the war.  Instead, there were no trials of Communist and KGB criminals, no acknowledgment of Soviet crimes.

The real outrage, though, is that this is another instance of anti-Ukrainian, pro-Communist bias that will likely be ignored by the same entities that were up in arms over then-President Viktor Yushchenko’s honor of WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.  The European Parliament condemned the honor, citing Bandera’s alliance early in the war with Nazi Germany.  Never mind that Bandera was later arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp, or that his two brothers died in Auschwitz.  (As I explained in this post, Bandera’s alliance with Nazi Germany, like the entire war, was a more complicated affair than most acknowledge.)  Those waiting for anyone in the West to condemn the monument to Stalin will likely wait a long time.

Stalin had the advantage of being on the winning side of the war, so he seldom elicits the rage that Hitler does.  The world learned about the crimes of Stalinism more gradually.  But by now, we know enough that those who would deny Stalin’s crimes by building a monument to him deserve the same derision as those who deny the Holocaust.  Even Zubchevskyi seems to know this, as he says the monument will be guarded around the clock to prevent attacks.  Here’s hoping the people of Ukraine make sure the guards work hard for their pay.

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

There was an interesting piece on NPR about a three-year push by the FBI to close cold-case murders from the civil rights era.  Three years ago, the FBI pledged to investigate cases that had gone unsolved for decades.  The effort is wrapping up now.

As FBI Agent Cynthia Deitle explains in the interview, a few of the deaths turned out to have nothing to do with the civil rights movements.  Some murder cases were solved, but will go unprosecuted because the perpetrators are deceased.  Despite this lack of action, I can’t imagine anyone questioning the value of the effort to close these cases.  The FBI will contact the descendants of the victims of the cases, Deitle explained, and provide them with all of the information the bureau found.

“I think the only thing that we can give them is the truth,” she said.

Deitle is right, and the truth is no small thing.  The FBI’s effort does more than provide answers.  It conveys to the victims’ descendants, and to the country, that the victims of these crimes mattered, that their deaths were unacceptable, and that the nation’s failure to address them sooner was shameful.

This story made me think of the ongoing debate in Russia and the former Soviet Union about historical record.  The Kremlin and its allies like to argue that discussion of Communist crimes is divisive and backward looking.  That’s an insulting and unacceptable view.  The recent dismissal of Ukrainian archivist Volodomyr Vyatrovych is an effort to prevent the Ukrainian nation from knowing the extent of Soviet crimes.

It took the United States four decades to address these civil rights murders and to provide whatever measure of justice possible.  That was too long.

But the Holodomor took place more than 75 years ago.  The Katyn Massacre took place 70 years ago.  The NKVD’s mass murder of thousands of Ukrainians in Western Ukrainian jails during the Nazis invasion took place nearly 69 years ago.  Where is the acknowledgment?  Where is the contrition?  Where is the truth?  Where is the justice?

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

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