Monday, March 03, 2014

On Discovering a Personal Connection to Ukraine

By Mike Dorf

In the late 19th century, all of my great-grandparents came to the United States from the area around the city of Lvov, in Galicia, a region that has traded hands among various nations over the centuries. Historically part of Poland, when my great-grandparents left, Lvov was officially known as Lemberg, as it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire since the late 18th century. Today, Lvov is Lviv, a city in the west of Ukraine.

Nonetheless, until the current crisis, I had never really thought of Ukraine as my familial "old country." The descendants of nearly all of my great-grandparents' families who remained in Galicia were certainly killed by the Nazis, and although there remains a remnant of the Jewish community in Lviv, it is just a remnant. Thus, I have tended to regard events in Ukraine much in the way I regard events in other foreign countries to which I have no personal connection. I am not indifferent, but I have felt no special concern for Ukraine.

Indeed, if I am to be fully honest, I will also add that my lack of attachment to Ukraine was based in part on my understanding that many Ukrainians were willing participants in the liquidation of their Jewish neigbhors--an understanding based on reading historical accounts and many discussions with my late mother-in-law, who grew up in the same region as my own ancestors (in the town of Stryi, just to the south of Lvov), and survived the Holocaust, even as nearly all of her family was killed. Of course I don't blame the children and grandchildren for the sins of the parents and the grandparents, but because Ukraine--as part of the Soviet Union--never underwent the sort of soul-searching that (West) Germans did after the war, the old attitudes survived longer in the east, or at least so I had come to believe.

Without denying that antisemitism remains a potent force even in areas that were made nearly "Judenrein" by Hitler, I have learned in recent days that the Ukrainian revolution that (for now) toppled Yanukovych was in fact multi-ethnic--and that even as the Kremlin describes the new government in Kiev as "fascist" and "Nazi", it was in fact chiefly the ancien regime that sought to exploit antisemitism. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Timothy Snyder provides an eye-opening description that paints the revolution in Kiev as essentially liberal democratic, and the Russian reaction as fundamentally authoritarian. David Remnick makes complementary points about Putin's intentions in The New Yorker.

Writing for a blog that reaches as many sophisticated readers as DoL reaches is a great privilege, but it can sometimes feel like a burden. When something important happens, I feel an obligation to say something--preferably something that I know at least a little bit about. In thinking about the situation in Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, I asked myself whether I had anything special to contribute. I thought about writing a post in which I would argue that the tendency of the United States to invade other countries in violation of international law (see, e.g, GW Bush, Iraq) undermined our leaders' ability to criticize other countries for the same behavior. Yet that seems mostly beside the point.

To be sure, I suppose that the posture of America and the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall  has tended to reinforce the Kremlin's fears of encirclement, and some of that Western posture has consisted of making nearby war in violation of international law (see, e.g., Clinton/NATO, Kosovo). But if the question is whether Putin would have hesitated to take the steps he is now taking if the U.S. and the West had greater credibility on the legal issues, I think the answer is clearly no. Questions of international law have played the same role here as they played in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1967, and in Georgia in 2008. That is to say, none.

And so, without a point to make about the law, I am left to state an expression of solidarity. Snyder asks the following question about the Kiev Revolution:
Has it ever before happened that people associated with Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, Armenian, Polish, and Jewish culture have died in a revolution that was started by a Muslim? Can we who pride ourselves in our diversity and tolerance think of anything remotely similar in our own histories?
Understandably not wanting to bring about nuclear armageddon, neither the U.S. nor the E.U. will provide direct military support to Ukraine. In such circumstances, perhaps the most we can do is to stand with the Ukrainians who began this revolution.  In time--and perhaps already--their revolution will take on a nationalist tinge, with all of the associated ugliness. But that will mostly be an effect of the Russian intervention, not its cause.

When JFK said "ich bin ein Berliner", he was expressing solidarity, not threatening military action in what was understood to be the Soviet sphere of influence.  The least we can do now is to express the same. So for me, for the first time, and at least for the time being, I'll say: Я український.


Bob Hockett said...

This is very poignant, Mike - thanks so much. The only thing I am tempted to add falls under the 'what might have been' category: it is that I often wonder whether, by thumping our chests in victory after 1991, by rushing to draw former Warsaw Pact members into NATO even after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact rendered NATO's own raison d'etre as anything other than an anti-Russian alliance obscure, by laughing-off rather than assuaging Yeltsin's publicly expressed concerns about the interventions in the former Yugoslavia, and then by laughing-off both Yeltsin and post-Yeltsin Russian concerns over missile defense and the legally questionable invasion of Iraq, we didn't in effect create the Putin we now confront. When I speak to Russian friends about the 1990s and now, the sense of humiliation uniformly expressed in connection with the former, and counterpart ersatz-redemption in connection with the latter, is unmistakable. Perhaps we are seeing here yet again, then, the truth in the adage that I think was spoken in a Ben Stiller film from a couple of years ago: hurt people hurt people. I'm not sure exactly what to do about it now, but surely it has to be something other than more name-calling.

Bob Hockett said...

PS: Thanks so much for the link to Tim Snyder's superb piece in the NYRB as well. While an important motif in the piece is how much more complex facts on the ground have been than the familiar 'Russia versus the descendants of the Nazi collaborators' meme heard from some Putin apologists would suggest, Tim's book 'Bloodlands,' on the truly gargantuan tragedy suffered by Ukraine's many peoples during the war years, does go a long way in explaining why the mentioned meme would resonate with those who do not look carefully at conditions as they are now.

AF said...

On the issue of Ukrainian identity, I don't think it really matters which present groups of Ukrainians are more antisemitic. Antisemitism or no, Jews residing in Ukrainian territory have not historically been considered Ukrainian. A friend of mine was born in Kiev in the 1970s, and emigrated to the US as a child. Her passport read "Jewish" not "Ukrainian."

None of this is to suggest that you shouldn't express solidarity with Ukraine. But I question whether descending from Jews who lived in Ukrainian territory provides a reason to do so.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Bob: Thanks for these comments.
AF: My whole point is that I now feel solidarity with Ukraine because of the values their revolution expressed, not because of my ancestral ties to the territory. So I agree that descending from Jews who lived in what is now Ukrainian territory is not a reason for such solidarity. I thought my comparison to JFK (who did not descend from anyone from Berlin) made that plain.

AF said...

Didn't mean to disagree with anything you wrote. I understood you to have raised the issue of Jewish and Ukrainian identity and left it open-ended, so I took the opportunity to chime in with an anecdote and an opinion. We Internet commenters tend to do that :).

Jimmyd said...

"My whole point is that I now feel solidarity with Ukraine because of the values their revolution expressed..."

Based on dubious evidence. I do not doubt for a moment that there are genuine liberal /elements/ present in this latest revolution but I do doubt that those elements are the predominate ones. For a counterpoint to the NYT article see recent posts at Club Orlov. I'm not a regular reader of Orlov because I do not believe in his thesis that the world is going to hell in a hand basket but I've read enough to know he is not a Putin propagandist, and he takes the threat of Ukrainian fascism seriously.

It's also difficult for me to support the revolution because it seems to have been so easily co-oped. Most of the people in power right now are allies of Yulia Tymoshenko and she is part of the kleptocracy and a totalitarian wannebe herself. It is an open secret that she remains in control of most of the money that Pavlo Lazarenko went to jail (here in the USA) for stealing.

I agree with Snyder's claim that what happened in 2014 was a "classic popular revolution." So was the one before and that didn't turn out so well. In fact, Ukraine turned out much worse than it was before because before the original Orange Revolution because it wasn't more than a hundred billion dollars in debt at that time.

Ukraine is a mess. Are there political groups in that country that liberals should feel solidarity with? Yes. But those groups have yet to illustrate that they hold any real effective say in the new government. Indeed, as Orlov trenchantly notes one of the very first acts of the new parliament was to pass a bill eliminating Russian as one of the state's official languages. It was vetod by the new president but it is not a shining example of liberal tendencies.


Louis XIV is reputed to have said "I am the state"... and that attitude on the part of rulers appears to be part of what is driving the difficulties of many shattered empires (however small). In this instance, I see a transferrence in Putin between "I am a Russian" and "I am Russia" that is wholly incompatible with Kennedy's declaration that he was a jelly-filled doughnut (pesky grammar rules regarding indefinite articles!). That transferrence seems encouraged by — to put not to fine a point on it — the megalomania so common among insecure tyrants and those who rose to power through any means but the most "pure" democratic process.*

What I'm seeing in Russia today is an utter inability to distinguish between means and ends, or to understand that means determine the ends actually achieved/achievable. Putin's actions and attitudes are much closer to the Russia of 1914 than he'd like to admit. Unfortunately, he's far from the only one with that problem; he's just on the front pages at this time.

* Sadly, that doesn't create any immunity — it's merely a risk factor. Not all lung-cancer patients were exposed to either tobacco smoke or asbestos.

Evin Terna said...

Ukraine is a mess. Are there political groups in that country that liberals should feel solidarity with? Yes. But those groups have yet to illustrate that they hold any real effective say in the new government. Indeed, as Orlov trenchantly notes one of the very first acts of the new parliament was to pass a bill eliminating Russian as one of the state's official languages. It was vetod by the new president but it is not a shining example of liberal tendencies. | |

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