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.

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