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The whole titanic struggle, which some are so apt to dismiss as “the Russian glory,” was first of all a Ukrainian war.

— Edgar Snow, American war correspondent, Saturday Evening Post, 1945

The consequences of multiple traumas [in Ukraine], related to the Second World War, German occupation, and Soviet repression, resulted in a total of 13.8 million losses, including a net out-migration of 2.3 million, a deficit in births of 4.1 million, and a loss of 7.4 million due to exceptional mortality… In terms of mortality, no other European country experienced such crises in so short a time in the twentieth century.

–Population Studies: A Journal of Demography, 2002

Ще не вмерла Україна, ні слава, ні воля (Ukraine has not perished, neither her glory, nor her freedom)

— Ukrainian national anthem

I have interviewed about twenty former members of the Ukrainian resistance movement, some of whom were prisoners in Soviet GULAG camps. Each of those men and women joined the resistance at a young age, usually their late teens or early twenties.  They shared with me stories of sacrifice and of suffering–torture at the hands of the Soviet NKVD, family members murdered or exiled, lives of poverty after their imprisonment.  As varied as their stories were, almost all the interviews ended in a similar way.  The subject would ask my interpreter and friend, Petro, about me, “Is his family Ukrainian?” Petro would explain that my heritage is Italian, Irish, and Slovak, not Ukrainian.  Then, the subject would look at me puzzled.  “Then why do you care about all of this?”

I never got used to that question.  It made me angry, to be honest.  Not angry at those who asked, of course, but angry at the injustice of a world that made these people feel that their suffering was of no interest to anyone who didn’t share their nationality.

At the same time, it’s a question that evades a simple answer.  The question I ask myself–and that family and friends have asked me–is not why do I care about Ukrainian history, but why has this history captivated me more than any other subject?  One of my writing teachers once told me that asking why a writer chooses a subject is like asking why one person falls in love with another.  It’s ineffable.  I’m inclined to agree.  But there are aspects of Ukrainian history and the Ukrainian nation that call to me and that keep me laboring with this subject when I am at my most frustrated.

As the quotes at the top of this post demonstrate, Ukrainians have been at the center of the most destructive conflicts of the Twentieth Century, often unwillingly and as victims.  Despite this, Ukrainians have persisted.  They retained their language and culture in the face decades of Soviet Russification and repression.  The national anthem, sometimes translated as “Ukraine Still Lives” or “Ukraine is Not Dead,” speaks to what I’ve found to be a most defiant and resilient national spirit.  The more I’ve learned about Ukraine, particularly the plight of Ukrainians during WWII, the more I’ve wondered how I never encountered any of this history in school or in the media.  The deeper I dig, the more I’m compelled to continue learning.  Ukraine and its history have been my passion for five years now, and I feel I’ve only started.

My interest in Ukrainian history and my friendships with members of the Ukrainian-American diaspora have made me interested in contemporary Ukrainian politics.  There has been a lot of news out of Ukraine in the four weeks since I started this blog, because of the recently concluded presidential election.  The blog reflected that.  But now that the election is over (assuming Yulia Tymoshenko concedes one of these days) I plan to turn my focus to the history about which I am writing.  I will feature profiles and photographs of the men and women I have interviewed in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and I will post excerpts of my manuscript in progress.

My hope is that readers will come to understand why this subject is important.  I hope the work itself answers the question, “Why do you care about all of this?”

I was in Kazakhstan in September 2007 with a Ukrainian-American named Ivan.  The Soviets had exiled Ivan’s entire family from Western Ukraine to Kazakhstan just after WWII.  He first visited Kazakhstan in 1997, when he reunited with his older brother, whom he hadn’t seen since 1943.  By the time of their reunion, their sister, father, and stepmother had died.  Ivan had been back several times since then, but I learned the visits never became easier.  By 2006 his brother was dead, so Ivan visited his nieces and nephews, as well as other Ukrainians who had been prisoners in the GULAG camp system.  Ivan brought aid to his family and strangers alike.

One afternoon, Ivan and I traveled to the small dilapidated house where his sister had lived.  She was much older than he and acted as a mother to him after their mother died when Ivan was three.  His sister’s home had fallen into disrepair.  The roof had caved in, and the earthen walls were crumbling.  Ivan’s sister died in the house, blinded and wheezing from the labor she was forced to do in a Soviet factory.  I watched Ivan as he looked around.  He blinked and moved his mouth as though he wanted to speak, but no words came.  Ivan is in his eighties, but he’s more active than most people a third his age.  Among the ruins of his sister’s home, he looked old to me for the first time.

Later that afternoon, we were in Ivan’s niece’s apartment.  Ivan talked about the house’s condition and, in his anger, he implied that the rest of the family didn’t do all they could to look after his sister.  The argument that followed between Ivan and his niece was painful to watch, and I was glad that I could only understand what another friend quietly translated for me.  Ivan’s niece was hurt, and she said that the whole family had suffered in Kazakhstan.  What was unsaid, but implied, was that Ivan had been spared.  He had escaped the Soviets and made it to America.  He had returned to help them, his niece seemed to suggest, but that didn’t give him the ability to know or judge what happened.

I know from friends in the Ukrainian diaspora who have reconnected with family in Ukraine that this tension is common.  Another Ukrainian-American friend told me that when he travels to Ukraine and gives friends and family advice on starting businesses or becoming organized politically, some brush him off.  It’s easy for him to prescribe solutions, they say.  He didn’t grow up in Soviet Ukraine, and he doesn’t know what it was like.

I thought of these tensions when I read a recent letter from a Ukrainian-American to the Kyiv Post.  The writer, Boris Danik, argued that the Ukrainian-American diaspora is out of touch with political reality in Ukraine.  The diaspora refuses to deal with Russia, the writer said, whereas Ukrainians have no choice but to.  Then I read an obituary of Roman Kupchinsky,

a courageous Ukrainian journalist and devout anti-communist who grew up in the U.S but moved to Ukraine where he had an influential career.  I think the obituary offered the perfect response to Danik’s letter.  The obituary said of Kupchinsky and others like him, “Their great asset was binocular vision. Having lived in the west, they understood far better than most of their compatriots at home how life in the rich, free world, for good or for ill, really works. But they also enjoyed a deep knowledge of their own countries’ history and traditions—more so, in some cases, than those who lived under Soviet rule.”

There are, of course, things Kupchinsky and Ivan can never know about what life was like for their countrymen who never left.  Those who return to the former Soviet Union cannot presume to dictate or condescend to those who lived through Soviet rule.  But I think former Soviet states would be worse off without any influence from those who emigrated.  I imagine this tension exists in several countries.  Cuba comes to mind, and there are points of tension between Israelis and the Jewish diaspora, which has a stake in Israel’s future.  The relationship between a nation and its diaspora is challenging, but it’s an essential relationship.

As I stood next to Ivan in his sister’s home, and later as he and his niece argued, I thought that the effects of Soviet oppression persist in manifold ways.  They complicate the reunions of families, just as they plague the efforts of former Soviet states to democratize.  Progress depends on the knowledge of the nation and the diaspora, as well as the efforts of each to understand the other.

President Viktor Yushchenko’s recognition of nationalist resistance leader Stepan Bandera as a Hero of Ukraine has generated controversy and condemnations, including criticism from Simon Wiesenthal Center, which cited charges that Bandera was a Nazi collaborator.  More recently, the head rabbi of Ukraine vowed to return an award he’d received from Yuschenko to protest the recognition of Bandera.

So did Bandera collaborate with the Nazis?  Strictly speaking, yes.  But he was also a prisoner in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  The tag of “Nazi-collaborator” in Bandera’s case is divorced from the historical context in which he and the Ukrainian nationalists struggled.  His “collaboration” consisted of accepting German support and training for Ukrainian nationalist troops prior to the German invasion of the territory that is now Ukraine.  (For an analysis of Bandera’s dealings with Nazi Germany, I recommend Ukrainian Nationalism by John A. Armstrong.  That is the source from which I’ve drawn most of this information.)

Why would Bandera and his fellow Ukrainian nationalists seek the support of a regime like Nazi Germany?  This is where context is key.  After Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the region that is now Western Ukraine fell into Soviet hands in accordance with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin.  For the next year and a half, the Soviets murdered and exiled tens of thousands of Ukrainians.  When the Germans invaded what had become Soviet territory in June 1941, the Soviets realized the could not evacuate their thousands of prisoners in Western Ukraine.  A few years ago, I interviewed a woman, Stefania Protschack Kostuik, who had visited the prison in Ivano-Frankivsk (then Stanyslaviv) days after the Soviet retreat.  The floor was covered with black jelly–congealed blood–and brain matter had dried on the wall in fragments resembling papier-mâché, she said.  The Soviets murdered more than ten thousand Ukrainian prisoners in a matter of days.

Now, none of this, nor any other facts about the brutality of the the Soviet NKVD secret police or the Red Army, excuses or justifies the crimes of the Nazis or those who helped the Nazis achieve their horrific goals.  But I think this context is important to illustrate why Bandera and other Ukrainians decided that early in the war the Nazis were the lesser of two evils.  We look back from 2010 knowing about the Nazis, about the Holocaust, about the extermination campss, about all of it.  In 1941, Bandera knew that the Soviets had killed thousands and thousands of Ukrainians and that the Nazis had killed none.  Yet.  Judging Bandera’s actions through the lens of information he couldn’t have had is foolish.

I want to note here that to explain is not to excuse.  I am not a historian.  I am a journalist.  I lack the expertise to have researched the primary sources to convict Bandera or to exonerate him.  But I’ve read enough–and interviewed enough veterans of Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists–to know that to label the man and the movement a Nazi is a distortion at the very least.

I urge anyone interested in the Second World War and the tragedy it wrought to read The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, which details the author’s search for information about members of his family who were killed in the Holocaust.  At the end of his powerful, beautiful book Mendelsohn ruminates on the complicated circumstances that both Ukrainians and Jews faced.  He writes on page 456, “The tragedy of certain areas of Eastern Europe between, say, 1939 and 1944, was… a true tragedy, since… the Jews of eastern Poland [Western Ukraine today], who knew they would suffer unimaginably if they came under Nazi rule, viewed the Soviets as liberators in 1939… whereas the Ukrainians of eastern Poland, who had suffered unimaginably under Soviet oppression during the 1920s and 1930s, viewed the cession of eastern Poland to the Soviet Union in 1939 as a national disaster, and saw the Nazis as liberators in 1941, when the Germans invaded and took control.”   Mendelsohn notes that this doesn’t explain the worst violence among neighbors, but he observes, rightly, that this formulation acknowledges the awful complexity of life in that place at that time.

Mendelsohn’s perspective helps explain why many Ukrainians regard Bandera as a hero.  I would argue that it also renders any dismissal of Bandera as a Nazi-collaborator as narrow and inadequate.