Friday, November 26, 2004

A belated happy thanksgiving to all reading this; I hope that your thanksgiving was as full of wonderful food (including the OxTurkey, shown here; by the way, as concern over this has been expressed, let me confirm that Patrick's shirt in real life is neither shiny nor psychedelic -- though why he was wearing the colours of Kings College, Cambridge is beyond me, though I can understand why he should want to disassociate himself from the inferior Oxford college at which he has the misfortune to be) and beloved friends as mine was.
One topic of conversation at Thanksgiving dinner last night was the recent, disputed election in Ukraine. I've been thinking about this quite a lot lately. And somehow, thinking about it in conjunction with Thanksgiving, a snatch of song came into my head:
'Land where my fathers died/ land of the pilgrim's pride ...'
Now, the US is of course the land meant here; and what better time to think of the pilgrim's pride than Thanksgiving? And yet, until a few decades ago, the US wasn't the land where my own forefathers died. Ukraine was (or one of them). I still think of it as the country where my ancestors and distant relatives are buried -- many of them in mass graves. (Most of the Jewish population of Vinnitsa, the town where the Chernisses came from, were killed in 1941; however some Jews do remain -- see here and here. However, if one searches for Vinnitsa on google, most of the sites one finds are advertisements for Russian brides or 'dating services'.) Before the Nazis, of course, plenty of my ancestors were killed or brutalised by Ukrainians, many of whom were not particularly concerned with the fate of their Jewis neighbours under the Nazis. So my feelings about Ukraine are somewhat complicated -- it's the country I can trace most of my ancestors back to, but it's also the country in which they were persecuted and from which they fled to America -- and the country where most of those who failed to flee perished, horribly.
And yet, I do feel a strange connection to the place, despite never having gone there, and, up to now, feeling very little inclination to do so (the Baltics and Poland, yes; Ukraine, no). And so when, as it seems, a national election is rigged by thugs, and when protestors take to the streets, my emotions are stirred. This would be the case anywhere -- China, Iran, you name it; but here it is somehow different. Put it down to the mystic chords of memory.
Certainly, the prospect of events is both alarming, and inspiring. What has actually happened in the election remains unclear, but there are myriad reports of intimidation, violence, and fraud by the Prime Minister, and supposed President-elect, Victor Yanukovich. For this reason alone, there is good cause to support and hope for the ultimate victory of Mr Yanukovich's opponent, Viktor Yushchenko. Then there is the fact that Yushchenko is the (relatively) liberal, pro-Western candidate, while Yanukovich stands for authoritarianism and close ties -- indeed, subservience -- to an increasingly authoritarian Russia. (The political context and implications are powerfully set out by Anne Applebaum here; a number of reports on different facets of the situation from the BBC are linked to here.) No matter what happens, the country is deeply divided along regional lines (as this map shows; Vinnitsa and Kiev, where most of my own Ukraine-residing ancestors lived, are overwhelmingly for Yushchenko. This does not necessarily endear the 'orange' side to me: after all, Ukrainian nationalism -- stronger in the West than in the largely-Russian speaking East -- is associated with admiration for the Cossacks, who had a habit of killing and pillaging my ancestors, and many in the West supported the Nazis during WWII. And not all of Yushchenko's supporters are liberal-minded students; some of them are far-right nationalists (though I've yet to find any evidence of Yushchenko sharing such views). On the other hand, the Russian-leaning East wasn't the most philo-semitic place either, despite the rich Jewish life of Odessa). Most of the nation's coal is in the eastern part of the country, and the mine workers and owners seem to be overwhelmingly behind Yanukovich; if Yushchenko and his supporters should manage to gain power, it's likely that a strike on the part of the coal miners (as well as a march by the miners on Kiev, which would probably be in itself a bad thing -- you don't really want a large number of drunk, angry Ukrainian coal miners running riot through a major city) would be called. This, in the middle of the Ukrainian winter, would be a rather bad thing for the whole country. So even if the pro-Yushchenko forces should win out -- as I hope they will -- things will be far from good for Ukraine.
Yet, even aside from concern over the domination of Ukraine by an increasingly authoritarian Russia -- or the fact that there is some evidence that Yanukovich is, in fact, a crook --there is reason to hope that Yushchenko and his supporters prevail -- and to applaud the decision of Western nations, including the US, to refuse to accept the election results (it's rare, these days, that I can feel unequivocally proud of my country's behaviour in world events, so this is quite nice).
What I find most moving and inspiring, though, and what makes me hope, against my gloomy presentiments, for victory for Yushchenko and democracy, is the response of the brave (and, to a large extent, young) Ukrainians who have donned the orange ribbons, scarves and banners (never has this site been so proud of its colours) that represent the hope for Ukrainian democracy, and have taken to the streets of Kiev to protest the election results. Given Russia's slide back into acceptance of authoritarianism as the price of much-needed order, and the weakness of pro-Western, pro-democracy liberals in Russian politics, it is heartening to see so many people in the Ukraine supporting a pro-Western, liberalising candidate -- and to see so many of them willing to fight for democracy.
Throughout much of the former Soviet Union there seems to be a reigning mood of nostalgia for Communism and cynical despair regarding democracy -- as well as widespread corruption, lawlessness, and poverty; Urkaine has been no exception to this. So to see so many people bravely taking to the streets on behalf of law and democracy is significant and surprising, a cause for hope and a call to action.
The new, hopeful democratic spirit abroad in Ukraine (as I write these words, in addition to finding them a tad gushing, I also feel a strange sense of bewildered elation: democracy, hope, and Ukraine together? Can this really be? Is the country of my family's nightmares now also a country where dreams of democracy could come true?) is documented at length here, in the weblog of Veronica Khokhlova, a Ukrainian journalist, whose writings have recently appeared in the Guardian and the NY Times op-ed page. Khokhlova's blogging is currently somewhat irregular, given technical problems and the press of events; but I urge you to read through her Backlog's backlogs.
Right now, it's very unclear what will ultimately happen. The chances of success for Yushchenko and his supporters are not, I think, high; but it is not impossible, either. Defeat for the forces of democracy will not mean a complete return to Stalinism, of course; but it will be a shame, a victory of venality and brutality over hope and nobility.
Nevertheless, defeat now will not be total. Many Ukrainians have, before the eyes of the world, stood up for democracy; even if they do not win, they, like the protestors at Tiananmin Square, will not be forgotten.
As for the title of this post, Khokhlova's NYTimes piece explains:
'And over and over one hears the chant, "My razom, nas bagato, i nas ne podolaty!" ("We're together, and there are many of us, and we can't be defeated!") Three weeks ago, I would have probably said that this was what students shouted at their rallies, but now everyone does, and so many people mean it.'
For once, an inspiring echo from the land where my fathers died.
Let freedom ring.

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