Sunday, January 26, 2014

Positive and negative currents: The contradictory form of events in a revolutionary Ukraine

Things have been deteriorating and improving here in Ukraine. Protesters have begun to lose their lives. One activist from Lviv was tortured and left in the woods to freeze to death. Others have died from police sniper fire in Kyiv. On the bright side, protesters have taken over 11 oblast (provincial) government buildings and some are banning the pro Presidential Party of Regions and Communist Party from being a part of what will become the new government of Ukraine.

A lot has been going on lately, and, to be honest, Yulia and I haven't been writing much because we are trying to balance working on serious renovations to our house while staying updated on news of the revolution that is sweeping Ukraine. We have been experiencing the full range of emotions one would expect in the midst of such events, and we have to additionally manage being physically exhausted from the work we are doing on our house (More on the work we are doing on our house later. We will be very excited to post some updates once we finish the work we are doing.).

Yulia and I have tried to stay positive, and we do think things are generally moving in a positive direction. We have tried to promote such positive thinking in our blog as well. We believe that this is very important at the moment.

We find that comedy helps us in this respect, but we were left with more or less ambivalent feelings after watching the TV show, "The Colbert Report," on January 23rd. On the one hand we felt encouraged that, unlike other news media in America, this comedy show has the events in Ukraine on its radar. During the show Colbert donned a colander to show his support for the Ukrainian people.

However, our positive impressions pretty much end there. He did not mention why wearing a colander is an act of defiance to the Ukrainian government. He just saw that a protester was photographed wearing one and thought it was silly. For those of you who are not aware, the Ukrainian government illegally passed several laws (more contradictions, I know) on January 16th that banned the wearing of helmets during public protests. Many people responded by coming out to the streets wearing bicycle helmets, pots, and colanders on their heads to mock the new laws. It would have been helpful if Colbert explained this after making the tired, cliche joke about those backward, vodka chugging Ukrainians, wherever that backwater is located on the map.

He also framed the unfolding revolution as riots. Even though this is a comedy show, Colbert does satirize the news. I hope he isn't getting the impression that these are mere riots from the news media. When the Red Sox won the World series ten years ago, there were riots in Boston. When the Patriots won the Super Bowl there were riots too. This is a revolution that hopes to overthrow the government and create a new political and legal system for a whole country.

If Americans and other Westerners really do think that these are just riots happening in Ukraine, then it explains their bemusing remarks over the past several weeks. To be clear, people like John McCain and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt do get what is going on here and have been vocal about it. But other people of prominence have begun to sound like a broken record. For example, many politicians have been calling for peace on both sides. Yulia and I agree with this statement, but the reality is that Ukrainians have been peacefully protesting in the streets for two months only to be not listened to and met with beatings from the other side. At some point it is stupid and dangerous to recommend that people just peacefully protest as police beat them with impunity.

Last night Spanish politician Javier Solana tweeted,
"the elections were fair and recognized as such by EU and CoE. A solution has to be found within the Constitution."
 I believe very strongly in democracy, but this is absurd. I understand that President Victor Yanukovych was democratically elected, but that does not give him the mandate to do whatever he pleases. His government has been torturing and murdering people for disagreeing with them. This is anything but democratic.

I'm sorry for posting the above video. I understand it is disturbing, but it shows the kind of sadistic people we are dealing with here in Ukraine (The man who was tortured has now been released. He is well and is back on the streets serving on the Euromaidan security team.).

This is a real revolutionary situation, and I see the West making big mistakes. I believe that what is happening now will serve as an example of what not to do for diplomats of the future. The Ukrainian people are beginning to see that the West is not here to help them--that they have abandoned the Ukrainian people. The time to act is now, and politicians and diplomats are still repeating the same things they have been saying for several months now. This is lazy and irresponsible. People in Ukraine want things to be nonviolent, and repeating by rote that both sides need to be peaceful without actually doing anything will actually cause more violence in the end.

There you have it. This is the contradictory form of events here in a revolutionary Ukraine.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Our civilizational choice

Yulia is a brilliant person, and I wish she would write more often on our blog.We had a deep conversation yesterday after finding out the bad news about the repressive laws that just went into effect in Ukraine.

Yulia cited what a Party of Regions (the presidential party) deputy had to say about the new laws. He tried to frame the discussion as a choice of civilizations, and he feels that the West is trying to push their lifestyle onto places like Ukraine. The way the government is currently handling the situation is just an alternative to the Western way of doing things, he says.

This is all well and good. After all, the Western lifestyle is not always positive in our opinion. It is based on consumerism, and it can be wasteful, for example.

But what is being implicitly and explicitly used to counter the Western lifestyle is pretty much the same thing. The elites in their system (I don't know what to call it--Eastern? Russian? Donbassian?) drive fancy cars and fly around in private jets. The businesses they own are very similar to what Yulia and I are used to from America. The hardware store, "Epicenter," for example, is owned by a Party of Regions member. It is a big box store that is quite similar to "Lowe's" or "The Home Depot." The buildings themselves are sprawling landscrapers with giant parking lots located on stroads. They buy and sell large quantities of goods at low prices like "Wal Mart." What is so different from America in this case?

Yulia made the point that few people are suggesting that Ukrainians live in places like this:

Yulia's grandparents' village

or this:

The Carpathian Mountains

or this:

Our house

and live the kind of lifestyle that accompanies living in a place like this--growing your own food, repairing the old homes on your own, and entertaining yourself--like our ancestors did. Instead, the roads to these places are falling apart, the civic buildings are in decay, and there are few jobs here. People are all but forced to move to the city, live in an apartment, buy things from big box stores, and find a job to pay for all these things. This is what Yulia and I were doing in America, so what is all that different about the Donbassian lifestyle compared to the Western one?

Yulia and I think framing the discussion in terms of ethnic or civilizational divisions is inaccurate anyway. Look into any civilization, and those people were all growing their own food, repairing their own homes, and entertaining themselves at some point in history.

Those in power love to divide people up and claim them for themselves. That is what Vladimir Putin is doing with Ukraine, claiming that Russia and Ukraine are brothers in a pan-Slavic culture (Russia is, of course, the big brother in this metaphor.).

Pan Slavism is true--Ukraine and Russia do have some things in common historically, culturally, and linguistically. But why cut off Ukraine from Poland? Or Turkey? Or Austria? Or even Ireland? Surely they, and any number of countries, share much with Ukraine.

In the end we must conclude that this is just about elites fighting for control over people. Really, there is a worldwide consumer culture that happens to be dominant right now. This is at least true for Ukraine and America, the two countries we know most intimately. We are interested in an alternative to that culture and lifestyle, but we do not see it being encouraged by the elites in power right now.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ukrainians are not the Ukrainian government

Things have taken a turn for the worse in Ukraine's parliament over the past couple of days. Yesterday, parliament created a new law that would ban freedoms in Ukraine severely. For example, the law forbids people to wear helmets during protests, a step many protesters took after police beatings. Many people are calling it a slide into dictatorship.

The law was not voted for by deputies. Opposition politicians created enough of a disruption that traditional electronic voting could not be completed. So Party of Regions, Communist Party, and independent politicians voted by a show of hands. The "vote" took only a few seconds, but the man with the microphone claims to have counted 235 hands in those few seconds. Analysis of photographs prove that only 119 hands were raised (please see our Twitter feed for the photo).

The president signed the law today, showing that he wants Ukraine to be a dictatorship, not a democracy.

This is odd for me to write because the Ukraine that I see on an everyday basis does not reflect the horrific slide into authoritarianism that we see on the news. I'll never forget the time I came home in tears from the bazaar just after Yulia and I moved to this country. A granny at the market told me not to rush and helped me pack my bag with veggies at her produce stand. I was so tense from people's horror stories of con artists on every corner that I had forgotten that human beings, in fact, do inhabit this country. That anybody would label her a thief is just plain mean and untrue.

I just got back home from the city. While I was in the city I bought a load of spruce boards for making repairs to our house. I also had to find a driver to help me take the lumber home. I found the seller and driver through newspaper ads ( I called them myself, which is a big deal for me. Yulia's parents have graciously done the talking for me in the past. No one commented on my 1930s diaspora accent. No one hiked up the price on me because they thought I was a rich foreigner. I did not get stood up when we were supposed to meet. They treated me with respect, and I got a good deal on lumber and a drive home in turn. My anxiety, which you can be sure I had, was unnecessary.

This is the Ukraine I know, so if you are reading this and are unfamiliar with Ukraine, please remember that Ukrainians are not the same as our government. The government is making a really bad name for the country right now. When I see government representatives interviewed on my favorite outlet for news--they are red faced and shout loudly in Russian. I don't speak Russian, which makes them seem even more foreign to me among the Ukrainian speaking journalists and guests. I do not think these people will be in power long. Their tirades on camera show to me that they realize they are going down, and they know it. People are outraged, and the harder the government pushes, the harder the people will push back.

Yulia and I came to Ukraine with a focus on changing the country for the better starting with ourselves and our family. We are even more confident that we are doing the right thing, and we will continue with even more zeal now.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

State monopoly on violence

By Michael

My understanding of Thomas Hobbe's Leviathan is admittedly a bit fuzzy, but didn't he argue something like the government of a country should have a monopoly on violence (i.e. punishment, execution, war) so that ordinary people wouldn't have to take violence into their own hands (like solving legal disputes and meting out punishments)? I feel like the state monopoly on violence in Ukraine is all too obvious lately--tonight especially. Except the state is creating chaos and anarchy and not preventing it.

There was a kooky trial today in which two men were sentenced to 6 years in prison for plotting to dismantle a statue of Lenin in Boryspil in 2011 that had already been taken down by the local government. Here is Halya Coynash's explanation:
A phone call intercepted by the SBU [security service] makes it quite clear that the men knew that the Lenin monument had been dismantled, and therefore that the SBU knew that they knew.  Why they should have plotted to blow up a non-existent monument is anybody’s guess.
People on the streets were outraged by the ridiculous verdict. How can someone be sentenced to six years in prison for plotting to blow up something that doesn't exist? They blocked the path of a bus that was to take the two men to prison. Berkut riot police then arrived and beat protesters--breaking bones in some cases.

Around midnight tonight there were more conflicts with police. Yuriy Lutsenko was there and he was beaten. His nose and head were injured, maybe broken. First he went to prison as a political prisoner. Now this. How sad. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Out with the old and in with the new

Although the above photo may suggest so, Yulia and I did not go cliff diving by a volcano somewhere in the South Pacific on New Years Eve!

Instead we spent the evening at home and decided to start a new tradition. We made a bonfire in our backyard. We thought of three things we wanted to be rid of in the new year and cast them into the fire.

Casting my thoughts into the fire

and Yulia casting away hers

Levko and Toma joined us and seemed especially meditative as well

We hope that next year we will have more like minded neighbors with us at our village to join us in this tradition. We are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Derek and Katya, a young couple who are interested in buying a home in our village.

After the fire we ate a delicious dinner. We had a first in Ukraine: kale! I was at the Bazaar in Lviv a couple days ago and found kale for the very first time. It only cost 2 hryvnias (25 cents) for a bunch!

Out with the old and in with the new is not just a metaphor for us at the moment. We made a big step in fixing up our house recently and had new windows installed.

Old window (They were always wet and foggy like this. Some windows were actually rotten from the constant moisture! This is a photo of the best looking one.)

New window

We also starting installing wood paneling on our veranda. It actually looks like a real room now!

The plastic covering the windows is not permanent. We had to cover the window in order to keep the plants from freezing. We have some nasturtiums (the red flowers), date palms, and cedars that Yulia got in Greece growing up there. There is a large, double paned window at Yulia's grandparents house that we plan to install in the spring. 
We wish all ours friends, family, and readers the very best for the new year! And to those celebrating orthodox Christmas on the seventh--a very merry Christmas!