My mother's village in western Ukraine: Geese being herded by old babas, ox carts driven by farmers. In the fields, people tilling the soil until nightfall with shovels and hoes, no farm equipment in sight. No paved roads to be seen, let alone public transit, well-equipped schools, recreational facilities, jobs, futures.
No, not the 19th century. The 21st.
Contrast that with the imported peacocks, floating restaurant, ponds and parks of deposed Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych's secret compound, and you have a sense of the obscenity of this oligarch's Russia-propped rule. Not to mention his offshore billions, taken directly from Ukrainian state coffers. Him and a dozen others: the oligarchs that bankrupted Ukraine. Beginning last November, for some of the coldest months of the year, Ukrainians finally said enough.
The Euromaidan was no U.S.-funded performance as some on the left bizarrely claimed. I recall they said that about the Orange Revolution of 2004/05, too. I remember emailing my cousin who was living in a tent at the time, on the Maidan. If there was U.S. money flowing to the protesters he hadn't seen it. He was bewildered that people should think so little of what he and his comrades were doing.
2013/14: There were coalminers from eastern Ukraine, housewives from Lviv, students from across the country. LGBT activists manned the emergency phone lines. Feminist groups helped out at the clinic. Jews and Muslims were present at every moment, along with clergy from Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Working and singing and protesting and praying together, these common citizens brought down a corrupt government. (Imagine, if we could say we had occupied Parliament Hill, and brought down Harper!)
A few days ago, travelling between Rome and Paris, I picked up a copy of the International New York Times. I was horrified to see front-page photos of young men -- boys, really -- from Putin's Black Sea militia, barricading government buildings in Crimea.
The word Ukraine means "border." For century upon century, these borders have been invaded, diminished, altered and devastated. I don't remember much from Ukrainian school but I do remember having to memorize these ever-shrinking borders. The history of my people is a history of trauma, colonization and continuous displacement.
Growing up, I was never proud to be Ukrainian. In fact you could say, what with the word bohunk bandied about when I was a kid, what with diaspora's conservatism and the homophobia I grew up with, what with the history of what had been done to the Jews -- you could say I was ashamed. So I wrote about it, I wrote through it. I wrote myself, as a feminist writer, as a queer artist, into the literature. I never stopped being Ukrainian, even if Ukrainians didn't see me as one of their own.
But last month, I suddenly felt proud to be Ukrainian. Holy Maidan, Batman, we won! This was a largely peaceful revolution, conducted by a dignified, resilient, sophisticated people. This was an unbelievable victory.
And now, my heart breaks at the thought of this newly victorious nation being quashed yet again. Look at the eyes of those soldiers on the streets of Crimea. They're kids! Russian or Ukrainian, their already insecure futures are being wagered by the thugs (Vladimir Putin, I'm talking about you) in charge.
This is no human rights mission. Ethnic Russians in Crimea, Odessa, and Donetsk have held protest rallies denouncing Putin's macho move. This is Putin's desperate attempt to prevent a similar uprising in his own country. (If they could do it on the Maidan, why couldn't they do it on Red Square?)
And those people in the fields, or herding the geese? Most likely they will just continue as they have for centuries, through famine and war and crushing poverty, growing potatoes and strawberries, barely surviving. But surviving.
It's just that, for a brief glittering moment, we thought there would be something more. It's just that people thought the struggle was over. But the struggle, it seems, is never over. In the meantime, Ukraine has finally, belatedly, entered into postmodernity. Its grand narrative of a single unified nation is over. It is as fragmented as it has ever been. But I fully believe that that diversity will be its strength.
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