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.