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?”

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