Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ukraine's heartland

The word "heartland" occasionally comes up during my English lessons with Ukrainian students. After we discuss the definition I will sometimes have them practice speaking or writing by answering the question, "Where do you think Ukraine's heartland is?" I think Ukrainian students find this question stimulating because it requires them to grapple with a new concept in a foreign language in relation to something they know well--local geography. To be honest, I don't think there's a right answer to this question. Rather, there are several geographical focal points that typically come up in discussions of Ukraine's heartland.

The most obvious answer is perhaps Kyiv. Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine. It is located in the center of Ukraine on the country's largest river, Dnipro. Kyiv attracts the best and the brightest of Ukraine because of its job opportunities, universities, museums, etc. It was the capital of the Kyivan Rus, a medieval kingdom which many historians use as the start of Ukraine's history.

Kyiv is a fine answer, but I could see someone shooting holes in the argument as well. Kyiv is a city, not a region. Cities are easily manipulated and occupied by foreign powers compared to the countryside. This has been a common occurrence in Ukraine's history. Also, Kyiv was used by Vikings as a trading post. The Kyivan Rus was ruled by Scandinavian royalty who intermarried with the local population.

One of my students answered the heartland question with Lviv. He argued that Lviv is the cultural "heart" of Ukraine. The Ukrainian language is widely spoken there compared to other large cities in Ukraine. It is a city of artists and intellectuals. It was a historic locus for those who wanted to establish a Ukrainian state before independence in 1991.

But like Kyiv, Lviv is a city. Lviv is also historically diverse in terms of ethnicity, nationality, and religion. One could extend the traits of Lviv to the surrounding region of Halychyna, but Halychyna--as part of Austria-Hungary--was segregated from the rest of Ukraine behind a border for a very long time.

I hear that southern and eastern Ukraine are Ukraine's heartland less frequently. I usually make a point of bringing it up as a possible answer though. This was the core of the Cossack Hetmanate of the Zaporizhian Cossacks. The Cossacks stood up to the feudal system that existed at the time. As Timothy Snyder writes, "This political system brought the Cossack rebellion of 1648, in which free men who had escaped the system challenged its logic." The Cossacks and the land they rode horseback on, the Ukrainian steppe, was later romanticized by writers like Taras Shevchenko and Nikolai Gogal. Southern and eastern Ukraine--historic Zaporizhia--is therefore one of the key regions close to the heart of Ukraine's collective identity.

To see the disorder we are witnessing now in eastern Ukraine is tragic. Judging from history, foreign meddling in Ukraine seems to be a given by now. This is probably why there is no one place that can be called Ukraine's heartland. Ukraine's multiple heartlands have emerged in different places and at different times as a result of pressures from the foreign powers of the day. They become heartlands because of  favorable or unfavorable conditions.

It's hard to say what will happen to Ukraine's borders in the near future. Will Russia just try to take Crimea? Donbas? All of Eastern Ukraine? Southern Ukraine? The whole country?

If any or all of these things happen, the newly redrawn borders will not last for long in my opinion. The Ukrainian nation has been established for a long time now, and it will only be a matter of time until Ukraine is whole again.

Please see the video below. It was filmed in Zaporizhia and shows the residents of that city standing up to Russian separatists. If Ukraine is divided, Russia will not cleave it neatly and naturally. It will most likely be a jagged and painful wound for the country.

On the bright side, all wounds heal.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Language and privilege in Ukraine

When I was in high school I would occasionally use the n-word with my friends in the lunchroom. We reasoned that, since we weren't racist, we could use that word. Our intentions weren't to hurt anybody with that word, so we thought it was OK to use it. 

Later on, when I was in college, I felt assaulted by non-white students. We were in a "Race in the Urban Classroom" course, and my classmates and instructor talked about things like systemic discrimination and white privilege. I didn't know what I had to do with it because I had never discriminated against anyone.

I did field work in inner city elementary school classrooms. I genuinely cared about helping students of all races. I couldn't understand why someone would attack me for white privilege while I was helping non-whites.

After thinking hard about it, I made one big realization. I am not neutral. I am a race. That alone has meaning to people. Race exists in a context. You have a different relationship with it depending on when and where you are. Everybody's skin color (including my own) means something.

I realized that I had to be quiet, listen to other people, understand they weren't always attacking me when referring to white people, and then contribute to the conversation as a person of race. Realizing that I was a person of race was the first step to relinquishing my white privilege and power. 

And just like my skin color, words--including the n-word--are not neutral. Language may not carry inherent meaning, but it develops meaning over time. Because the history of the n-word is so violent and negative, I now find it best not to use it at all.

I felt like I became more well adjusted after this. I stopped being so defensive. I started to see myself not only as part of a race, but as part of a class, gender, and culture, all with meanings to people as well.

In terms of language I realize that my knowing English fluently is a big advantage. I'm pleased that I know it so well, but in certain situations I need to show that I am not (and English is not) superior to others. English is the "international language"  right now, but it has other meanings as well. It is the language of the Queen and ugly Americans. Two dominant world superpowers in the last several hundred years were English speaking countries--Great Britain and the United States. They are both extremely wealthy countries. I am from one of those countries. Their empires have exported the English language around the world. When immigrants come to the United States, they can speak their native language among themselves, but the reality is that they must speak English to people outside of their group. This was a disadvantage to Yulia and my grandparents when they immigrated, but as a native English speaker in America I could expect outsiders to speak to me in English. I didn't create that system, but I benefited from it while Yulia and my grandparents had more difficult experiences.

Obviously, white privilege and linguistic privilege are not the same things. Race is visual and labels a person before they have an opportunity to say or do anything. One cannot change races, but one can always learn a language. However, that does not change the fact that a person who speaks a dominant language enjoys certain benefits. They don't face the same "headwind" that non-speakers of that language face.

I often address this issue point blank. I teach English language learners and often talk about foreign accents. I tell them not to try and "fix" their accents. There are many different English accents around the word, and none of them is the "right" one. To me, it does not matter if they say "this" or "thees" just like it doesn't matter to me if someone says "water" or "watah." If their accent changes the meaning of a word, then it is important to change it, but otherwise it is not necessary. Of course, I also mention that I am quite liberal when it comes to language and that there may be people who disagree with me. It is important to be ready to deal with such opinions when they arise because they may feel unfair and demeaning to English language learners.

Yulia and I are grateful that we speak English fluently, but when traveling we do our best to remember that not everyone speaks English. Those who do are often going out of their way to accommodate us because we don't speak the local language. For example, when we were in Warsaw for a few days last summer we would say that we didn't understand Polish in Polish and then asked if the person we were talking to understood English. At restaurants we insisted on the Polish menu and used our knowledge of Ukrainian to figure out what the menu said (Polish and Ukrainian are very similar). Admittedly, these are token gestures, but this is what we feel is appropriate.

Because I think this way I did not expect the hostility to the Ukrainian language when I first came to Ukraine. Social and historical circumstances have created a country with many Russian and Ukrainian speakers. Most Ukrainians speak both languages. 

There are 150 million Russian speakers in the world, and it is the fifth most spoken language in the world. Russian speakers can travel to or live in many places outside of Russia, speak Russian, and expect others to understand what they are saying. Like English speakers, they enjoy a certain privilege.

In Ukraine, Russian has been promoted at the cost of the Ukrainian language. In Tsarist Russia, the publication of books in Ukrainian was illegal. In Soviet times the language of professionals and political elites was Russian. There was also discrimination against Ukrainian speakers. Yulia's grandmother once told me of a time when she was in a small store in Zaporizhya. While standing in line she was excited to see someone she knew there because she was far away from home. She and her friend talked to each other in Ukrainian. The line of people all stared at the two women, and , without saying a word, the store clerk escorted them outside. More recently, this is what is being said by some people. Olga Rudenko of the Kyiv Post writes how one man in Luhansk refuses to speak Ukrainian just because, as he puts it, it is the "pig's language."

But perhaps the most significant trauma to the Ukrainian people is the Holodomor. The Holodomor was a genocide. In the 1930s the Soviet government orchestrated an artificial famine in eastern and central Ukraine. The famine was targeted at ethnic Ukrainians. The government then used ethnic Russians to fill the vacuum that millions of starved Ukrainians left behind. The result is a large population of Russians and Russian speakers in this part of the country. The terror that many surviving Ukrainians felt (and feel) from this genocide has made them less willing to speak the Ukrainian language. 

From petty discrimination to outright genocide, these are the experiences that many Ukrainians have of the incursion of the Russian language in Ukraine. Of course, one could say that many people have negative experiences with Ukrainian speakers as well, just like white people can cite bad experiences with black people. But my point is not that one group has done bad things to another group and that they should be sorry for that. My point is that the Russian language enjoys a certain privilege in Ukraine because of these assaults.

Russian speakers can travel widely and speak Russian. In my opinion, that is not a bad thing. It is great to know Russian and to be able to communicate with many different people, have access to more literature, etc. But Ukrainian speakers can't do that with the Ukrainian language, and they are even limited in their own country. In Ukraine, only 28% of TV programs are in Ukrainian, and 60% of newspapers, 83% of magazines, and 87% of books are in Russian.

Since most Ukrainians speak both Russian and Ukrainian, one might logically ask, "Why not just speak Russian? In that way everyone could enjoy the benefits of speaking an international language." The major problem with this is that it reinforces the fact that Ukrainians were and arguably still are a colonized people. This evokes the ugly history of the Russian language and no matter how much some people may want to ignore or deny it, it will never go away.

But we don't think anger against Russian speakers is the best response. Some people know Russian better or just don't speak Ukrainian. We know how hard it is to learn another language, especially as an adult. In fact, people shouldn't be forced to speak any language. We don't think the goal for Ukrainian language proponents should be to get everyone to speak Ukrainian against their will. We think the collective conversation should focus on language itself and what it means to people.

While the history of the Russian language in Ukraine may be ugly, there are things Russian speakers can do. Being from the United States I can understand what it is like to speak a language that has gained prominence at the cost of native peoples and their languages. There is an increasing sense, for example, that Americans should not celebrate Christopher Columbus or Columbus Day. His entrance into the Americas spelled slavery and genocide for scores of Native Americans. Also, in the university, many English departments offer Native American literature courses. Although the literature is in English, these courses help Americans hear and remember the story of Native Americans. And Americans even incorporate the story of the injustice done to Indians in popular culture. The television show Parks and Recreation, for instance, takes place in a city hall. The murals of the city hall depict a shameful but true history of the fictional town. As Parks and Recreation shows, it is possible to call attention to and remember a dark collective history even in a comedy TV show. Although the racial discourse in America is far from perfect, Russian speakers in Ukraine could do similar things. Even though they cannot undo historical injustices, they can make history in the present by showing that speaking Russian in Ukraine does not always spell a threat.

In this way people will develop a deeper understanding of why there are different languages in the world. It will disrupt the myth that "this is just the language that people speak around here" as if language is naturally occurring and not a product of social and historical forces. When people understand this, they can understand why protecting any language is important. This will not only benefit Ukrainian and Russian, but all languages spoken in Ukraine. The whole conversation can then shift from people simply protecting the language they speak to actively protecting less privileged languages.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Dinner at Lviv's new vegetarian restaurant

Yulia and I made our biannual visit to a restaurant a couple of days ago. The last time just the two of us went out to eat was in the autumn. I wrote about it in the post called, "A Date with Yulia."

We typically don't go to restaurants very often because we haven't found many restaurants that make the kind of food we like to eat. Plus, it is now a rarity that the two of us are in Lviv at the same time. The animals and garden make it hard for us to leave.

But our kitties might just have to go unfed more often now as Yulia and I magically "find time" to go to the city together. We recently ate at "Green," the new vegetarian restaurant in town, and we will be returning.

We are way envious of the multiple lemons on the mini lemon tree on the counter

They have one heck of a good menu, with vegetarian, vegan, and raw vegan dishes.

Yulia's face upon learning that they make raw vegan borscht
For the quality of food, the prices aren't bad either. 15 hryvnias (just under $1.50) for raw vegan borscht? We'll have some!

The restaurant itself is simple and clean, cheery and natural.

There were no cranky men with big bellies drinking boisterously in the corner. All too often we are driven away from public places by people like this. Yulia and I hope that respectful people, like those we saw at Green, will become the new norm in years to come. The whole aloof cynic thing is not for us.

But not only did the people there respect our presence, so did the food!


Vegan fish sticks (not like the processed fake meat you'd expect--this is made from tofu and seaweed)
And what lovely deserts!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Going back outside

At the end of December, right before the new year, Yulia and I got started working on our veranda. The exposed clay walls and old ceiling needed to be covered, and three out of the four doors and a window between the veranda and living room needed to be replaced

Yesterday I finished nearly all I could do. Here are the results:

The door and window to the living room. The living room is north facing, which is why we included a window in the door and kept a window going to that room instead of doing away with it. The inclusion of these windows will help bring extra light into the otherwise dark room on the other side.

A close up of the window. Our "TV screen without a TV."

The yellow door will lead to what will eventually be the bathroom. The white doors lead to our dining room and kitchen.

Here is a step by step of how I replaced the interior doors:

Take off the old door. Use a crowbar to rip out the old frame.

Realize that doors from 50 years ago were shorter than contemporary doors. I had to use a hammer and pick to bore through the clay. I also had to saw through a thick beam of oak that was embedded in the clay. As I was sawing I prayed that the wooden beam was not load bearing.

Install a new frame

Add the door. Make 87 minor adjustments until everything is level.

Cover everything with wood paneling.

The front door still needs to be replaced, but I must wait for help from Yulia's dad with that. If I couldn't finish an interior door in one day it was no big deal. I could take my time and finish it another day. If I don't install the front door in a day, we'll have to go to sleep that night with a hole in our wall.

The frightful old front door (I boarded up the windows in the winter to help the room stay warm) with the new red door waiting next to it.

Can't finish the ceiling until the front door is replaced.
The big picture.

 I hate to say it, but just as we're finishing up our veranda it almost doesn't matter anymore. Our attention is shifting from interior renovations to the world outside.

Yulia made some sun tea yesterday with rose hips and fruits.

Before (Will the weak March sunshine be enough to brew tea??)):

After (Yup!):

Our garden is still kinda bare, but we see the potential in it!

But not everything is bare. Look at these edibles that overwintered:

Mache (Corn salad)
The flowers bring the first rush of color to a bleak landscape. They bring us outside like little bees.


Yesterday I took Toma on a bike ride to the forest and we brought some blooming wildflowers back home with us.

Lungwort "Медунка" (Bees love these)

"Анемона дібровна"

And we're planning another trip to the forest tomorrow. Curious what we will find this time...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


By Michael

Things in Ukraine have been surreal lately. I feel it most right before I go to sleep and right when I wake up. I'm often not sure if it is a dream or not. Is this really happening in the country I live in, I think? Looking out the bedroom window I can't tell. The honking geese on our quiet street continue to wake me every morning like they've been doing since we moved here in July. Daily life is as it always has been around here.

But according to our computer Russia really has invaded Ukraine. Conversations with other people confirm what I read on the screen.

I turn over the events in my head. It's just bizarre.

A couple weeks ago former members of Berkut riot police in Crimea forcefully took over the Crimean parliament and raised a Russian flag. OK. So the former Ukrainian government was essentially employing a fifth column? Did they not know about this or were they themselves part of that fifth column? Rhetorical questions. Of course they were a fifth column. I may not be a political consultant, but it might be a good idea for Ukraine to have actual supporters of the Ukrainian state working for the government in the future.

Recently, many Ukrainian news broadcasts have converted to the use of the Russian language at times. This, I assume, is to try and disseminate truthful information to Russians and Russian speakers who only have access to the propaganda and outright lies on Russian state TV. I support their efforts, though I must turn to other sources when they switch to Russian (I only know Ukrainian. Yulia knows both Russian and Ukrainian.).

But this is the kind of absurdity I've encountered. Last night I wanted to watch Hromadske TV. They were broadcasting in Russian. I switch to Channel 5. Also Russian. So I turn to an American radio show about Ukraine and a guest calls in and says that the Russian language has been outlawed in Ukraine. Dumbfounded.

If you have not heard the news, Crimea voted to become part of Russia yesterday. 123% of the population of Sevastopol voted yes. I'm not making a joke here. The falsification of the election was that sloppy.

The "referendum" was a sham to begin with though. One could not even select to keep Crimea part of Ukraine. The options were to join Russia or become autonomous.

However, there are things that revive me from the dream like state I feel I've been in. I sober up when I see things like this:

"Tartars get out of Crimea"

As residents of mainland Ukraine, we cannot say "good riddance" to the referendum. There is a population of people, the Crimean Tartars, who are indigenous to this area, and they are terrified of Russian rule. During the mid twentieth century they were deported from their ancestral home by Stalin and the Soviet government. About half the Tartar population lost their lives in the mass deportation and genocide. They once made up a majority of the population in Crimea. After their deportation and genocide there is now an ethnic Russian majority there. Seeing their Russian neighbors waving hammer and sickle flags must not be a welcome sight for the Tartars. If you want to know more about this group of people, I recommend this article from the New Yorker: "Who will protect the Crimean Tartars?"

Many Tartars have been fleeing Crimea since the Russian invasion. They are heading to Lviv. Our friend Taras has been taking part in finding housing for the refugees.

The irony is (and here we go back to the land of imagination), if you read the news, you would think that Lviv is the last place a small group of oppressed Muslims would want to go. According to Russian state TV and the occasional Western journalist, Lviv is a city of xenophobic fascists. Why are they coming to our city then? Because the world isn't the land of imagination.

Yulia and I may be biased because we are residents of Lviv, but we happen to think that Lviv, and Ukrainians in general, are quite tolerant people. We see outsiders welcomed here quite often. And we ourselves embrace other languages and cultures. Yulia plays American Indian, Latin American, Russian, and Ukrainian folk music at home for us, for example.

However, we also realize that no one will defend Ukraine and Ukrainian language and culture for us. So we must be its proponents and defenders. Yulia and I have been talking about this, and we plan to discuss that in an upcoming post.

Until next time!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Taking root: The arrival of new neighbors in our village

Like the first flowers of spring, Derek and Katya arrived in our village this weekend seemingly out of nowhere. Katya carried the sun in her rucksack while Derek slung the blue skies over his shoulder. Spring is here and so are our friends. For Yulia and I these are massive and much welcomed shifts in our lives.

The endless soggy mud of late winter has dried up over night. The sun is shining on my keyboard as I write these words. This week promises daily sunshine.

Today we are ready to put up a pen for our dog, Toma. While she is always excited to see us join her outside, her excitement overpowers her self control. She will destroy our garden which will be emerging and taking shape over these next few weeks and months. If you ever want to feel fear deep in your soul, mess with Yulia's garden. She will make sure you never trample another fresh sprout as long as you live. The dog pen is to ensure Toma's safety.

All sarcasm aside, Yulia is overjoyed to be planting things around our house. She has transplanted willow to make architectural forms of sorts. Willows can be transplanted easily. Its branches take root quickly. One can make garden walls and arches from them.

An incipient garden wall
It is good to soak other plants in a tea made from willow before transplanting. Willow has natural growth hormones that will help them take root also.

Transplants after soaking in willow tea

Yulia found some coltsfoot in the fields in back of our house. She transplanted them to our property not very long ago. This weekend they started to bloom!

Yulia and I took Derek and Katya on a walk in those fields yesterday. We saw a lone honeybee landing on those original coltsfoots. We wondered if she was from one of our hives. Seven of eights colonies seemed to have successfully overwintered. Maybe the eighth is just sleeping in. We'll have to take a look.

One of the biggest shifts happening right now is the arrival of Derek and Katya. Out of four people, you'd think one of us would have remembered to take the camera! But I assure you, they really are here. Yulia and I were talking about it, and one of the biggest changes we will have in our view of the world is that our close friends are only a few doors down from us. Until now everything has been "out there" for Yulia and me. Our friends and family are all a bus ride or plane flight away from us. We pay our bills and get paid in the city. We have to bring lumber and tools for fixing our house by car. Having our friends living here is a first step to self sufficiency. Planting our garden is another.

Speaking of, time for me to finish my morning tea and get going!


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Russian invasion of Ukraine

If you are somewhere outside of Ukraine, watching and reading about the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the news, you probably feel a lot like Yulia and me.

These are eerie sights for us indeed.

But we feel distant from the invasion. Unlike Euromaidan, not much is happening in western Ukraine. The currency is devaluing, of course, but it was devaluing before the invasion. During the past three months we had a very good feel for what was happening in Ukraine. We live here and completely understand the protesters. We were the protesters on many occasions. But what Putin and the Russian government are thinking is now totally beyond us. We certainly don't have the same kind of feel of the situation. Unlike Euromaidan, this is being imposed on Ukraine.

Some people may point to the residents in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and say that they are for being a part of Russia, but this is suspect. It seems that many pro-Russia protesters are actually just Russian citizens visiting Ukraine. For example, the man who put the Russian flag up on the regional government building in Kharkiv was from Moscow.

No doubt there are some pro-Russian Ukrainians. But their numbers are distorted by Russians pretending to be Ukrainians.

There is a massive disinformation campaign being waged. Timothy Snyder does a good job addressing it in his article titled, "Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda." If you have not read it yet, please do. Snyder accomplishes many things in one article. He summarizes the situation, giving a comprehensive overview of the events in Ukraine. He talks about the wide diversity of people involved in Euromaidan and the new government. A Ukrainian of Afghani descent first called for people to take to the streets in November, starting Euromaidan. The first protester killed was Armenian. The second was Belorussian. Not everybody's ethnic Ukrainian and Christian, but they are all for Ukrainian democracy. He addresses the propaganda being disseminated by the Kremlin and former president Viktor Yanukovych, and takes on American and Western misperceptions of Ukraine:

The Russian press presented the protest as part of a larger gay conspiracy. The Ukrainian regime instructed its riot police that the opposition was led by a larger Jewish conspiracy. Meanwhile, both regimes informed the outside world that the protestors were Nazis. Almost nobody in the West seemed to notice this contradiction.
Yulia and I moved to Ukraine from the United States, and we know about the sheer ignorance related to anything Ukrainian. When we were buying seeds in California last year, the cashier asked where we were going to be planting our garden. We said Ukraine. She said, "So, a South American climate?"

Yulia had to live with this more than I had to, of course. In America I am just another white guy. Yulia has told me stories how people insist that Ukraine has no cities. It is a country made up entirely of villages they tell her. A coworker once told my father in law that the Soviet Union was just like the United States. Ukraine was just another state like Virginia or Arizona. It does not have a separate identity, language, religion, or culture.

My family is from Ukraine and no one in my lineage has ever lived under Russian domination. My grandparents left before western Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. When they lived here this was part of Poland, and before World War One this was part of Austria for 300 years. My grandparents are all from Ukraine, but none of them spoke Russian.

During World War Two the Poles asked if anyone in Yulia's grandparents' village spoke Russian. They needed a translator. Someone told Yulia's great grandfather that Russian is the same as Ukrainian. Since he spoke Ukrainian, he said he could translate Russian. When the time came for him to translate, he had no idea what the Russians were saying.

Yulia's grandmother is from Cherkasy (which is pretty far east of here), and she never spoke Russian before the Soviet Union.

For us personally, ties with Russia are new and tenuous. Any ties are due to what we consider to be the Soviet occupation of Ukraine. Please keep this in mind when you hear people say that Ukraine and Russia have deep connections with each other or are the same nation. In some cases this is true, but in other ways it is not.

Either way, what is happening now has the distinct feel of a foreign invasion. We're not cool with it, and we do not welcome the Russian army.