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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.

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:

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.

I just learned that Volodomyr Vyatrovych, a historian who was serving as director of the archives for Ukraine’s SBU, was fired from that post.  The SBU is the successor to the KGB, and Vyatrovych made great progress in opening the archives from the Soviet era, archives that document the innumerable crimes of the Soviet Union against the Ukrainian people.  Vyatrovych is a casualty of the recent presidential election, which saw Viktor Yanykovych become president.  Yanukovych is often characterized in the Western press as “pro-Russian” or “pro-Kremlin.”  I often think the “West versus Russian” frame for discussions about Ukraine is too simple, but the dismissal of Vyatrovych reeks of Russian and Kremlin appeasement.  Vyatrovych was certainly unpopular with Russia, because he disclosed information about the Holodomor, the 1932-33 genocidal famine of Soviet Ukraine, and because his view of the WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist resistance didn’t coincide with the Soviet/Russian propaganda.

Vyatrovych’s dismissal is an outrage; the appointment of the new SBU head is cause for shame.  President Yanukovych appopinted Valery Khoroshkovsky to the post.  Khoroshkovsky is a billionaire of questionable reputation with zero apparent qualifications for the position.  For a much more informed take on the appointment than I can provide, read Steve Bandera’s post here.

I am angry about this news for a couple of reasons.  First, and perhaps self-interestedly, I am conducting research into Ukraine’s nationalist resistance during WWII, and it’s likely that I won’t have access to archives that are essential to understanding this history.  More importantly, I am angry on Vyatrovych’s behalf.  I met him a few times, both here in the U.S. and in Ukraine.  Though we were separated by a language barrier, we were united by a love of history and a desire to see truth emerge from the shadow of totalitarianism.  I interviewed him for several hours in Lviv in 2007, and his passion for his work was inspiring.  I realize this sounds like a eulogy of Vyatrovych, which is wrong.  He’s too determined and intelligent to let this incident impede him.

I will move forward with my research, too, and I will do so inspired by Vyatrovych’s example and his words: “No one, regardless of titles or rank, has the right to decide which truths, or how many, should be made public.”

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.

Stefania Protschack Kostuik joined the Ukrainian resistance when she was fourteen. She and her fellow members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists found themselves trapped between—and resisting—the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin. Millions of Ukrainians were deported and killed as the Nazis and the Soviets traded control of the territory throughout World War II.  Part one of Stefania’s story appeared in the previous post.

On the 30th of June, 1941, Khmil, our tenant, came to my mother and me with a large bouquet of flowers.  My mother asked what they were for, and Khmil replied, “This is in celebration of a holiday.”  My mother asked what holiday?  Khmil said that over the radio they announced that Ukraine had declared its independence.  We began to cry.

In a few days Osyp Bilobram [a leader of the youth members/units of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] came to visit me.  This is when he revealed to me that this little group we had was part of the resistance and that we would remain members of OUN.

They set up a communication center in my apartment for contact between the OUN central command communications (recruitment) center in Lviv and with our province.  There was a girl that came there and had her typewriter there.  All kinds of machinery and equipment were housed there.  I was very involved.

But in the beginning of 1942 the Germans began arresting everyone in the Frankivsk oblast.   At the end of 1941 the Germans had arrested the commanders of the OUN, Stepan Bandera and others.  And they started arresting us.  In 42, the command allowed me to go study in Lviv.  We cleaned out my apartment of all the evidence.  The communications equipment was moved somewhere else.  And our home was vacated of all traces of the communications center.  And I went to Lviv.

I went with another girl to Lviv.  We turned over our documents.  This was the month of July and they told us to come back in September when school would begin.  The OUN had created a youth camp in the village of Yamnytsia that would be utilized for recruits as a political ideological camp and a weaponry/military training camp.  Yamnytsia was a very educated and nationalistically aware village.  It was from this camp that the first youth units went into the Soviet occupied areas in the eastern provinces.

When we were returning, our boys were waiting for me in the village of Yamnytsia.  They informed me that while I was gone the Gestapo had been in my home and had searched it and left a message for me to report to them.  The OUN command ordered me not to return home because of the Gestapo issued an order for my arrest.

And so the other girl returned to Stanyslaviv [today called Ivano-Frankivsk],  and I remained in Yamnytsia underground awaiting further orders from the command.  I had already crossed over into an illegal (outlaw) status.

Then I received an order from the command to go work as an “undergrounder” into Tlumach, neighboring rayon [district].  There was a Ukrainian committee there and they sent me there with the assignment from the OUN that I was to work in this Ukrainian Committee, with the understanding that I am to head the woman’s division.  I worked there one year.  It turned out that the Germans had discovered my whereabouts and I had to flee from there.  Then they sent me to the Kalush District there was a training camp that had started training for information gathering and self defense for the UPA.

After Tlumach in 1943, I went to this training camp.  I was to be a courier.  Aside from this I was to help the Commander, Sokil, to gather information and analyze courier information for our Oblast and I was a liaison with the various units.

There was a web created like a network in each village that was constantly communicated.  Each village had one person assigned.  If the UPA was near they had to tell certain people of the OUN with a certain time frame.  If the Russians were there and how many.  This needed to be passed along to the UPA.

The network was all over the surrounding areas.  So the UPA had all the information as to where the enemy was moving, who were the agents were.  The UPA and the OUN had day-to-day knowledge as to movement available because they had covered the surrounding area extensively.  These people worked individually but had complete ties with the entire network.  This networking was so well branched out, the area was very well covered.

This information allowed the OUN and the UPA to know, for example, when a big unit of Bolsheviks was coming.  They knew this meant that they had to retreat.  If dignitaries were coming, or a patrol unit, we knew whether or not we could ambush them.  If someone is to come, people need to retreat to other territories.  So it was information about the enemy’s size and movement to determine if battle could be engaged.

In 1944, when the front was approaching the boundaries of our province, I had two assignments from the UPA couriers to complete.  Here in Zniatyn [near the Polish-Ukrainian border] were the Bolsheviks.  In Ivano-Frankivsk the Germans.  And in Nadvirna were the Hungarians. These were the lines drawn of the fronts.  The first time it was not difficult to cross the front.  I crossed over with a boy.  This boy and I went on horses to the village of Krasna.  The Hungarians ambushed us, and the boy fled.  They interrogated me.  Later they told me in Polish, “You are a Bolshevik spy.  We do not have prisons, and you understand me well.”  [The Hungarian meant that they wouldn’t take her prisoner but execute her.]  So they led me into the woods to be executed.

But the boy who fled that was with me rushed to tell the UPA that I was arrested and they were getting ready to execute me.  And as the UPA were moving through the area near the front between the Russians and the Germans, the boy reached them.  The UPA ambushed the Hungarians.  There was some firing.  I was freed.  I left and was assigned to command another unit in another region.

[After WWII ended, the Ukrainian resistance continued fighting the Soviets.]

In 1946, the command informed me that a group being formed and we need to gather information and prepare the curriculum for this training camp.  I became very ill.  I laid in a bunker for two months.  They were transporting me from Verkhovyna to Varozhtay on a sleigh.  They covered me up.  We were only 100 meters from our destination when the Bolsheviks stopped us.  They asked, “Where is the wounded one?”  That is how I was arrested by the Bolsheviks.  [The Bolsheviks must have known she was ill and had been looking for her.]

I was sentenced to 20 years.  I received 20 years in Siberia.  I only served 10.  I was an invalid, and the healthy ones were kept in one place.  So I was moved around.  I was in many different places—Krasnoyarsk, Mordovia.

I returned from Siberia to Ukraine.  After this I was not active in the resistance, because I knew I was always under surveillance.  I returned in 1957.  I married in ‘58.  Had three children.  The OUN and UPA command told me for me to marry so that the Soviets would leave me alone.

Later I went to work.  Even after this they followed me.  I was always under suspicion.

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.

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.