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Thinking Ukraine

I’m not particularly well-informed about Ukraine.  That said, I suspect I am in the top quarter of Americans – my mother-in-law was Ukrainian.  I spent several recent years using messenger to visit with a high school classmate who lived there – Randy would send a bright morning message as he drank his first cup of coffee, and I would exchange a couple of thoughts, then announce it was bedtime in my half of the world.

I would have enjoyed his willingness to be a tour guide of Ukraine – but travel is a difficult thing after being field-dressed in order to survive colon cancer.  It just wasn’t in the cards.  I know the geography – its a prairie that will soon turn from frozen ground to mud as Spring comes in.

My mother-in-law was one of the 2.2 million Ukrainians selected to be “guest workers” in Germany when the Nazis came in and “liberated” Kiev.  She was a psychiatrist, and had lived through the Bolshevik revolution, the Holodomor*, and a long tour in Hitler’s camps.  She was more than a little paranoid – and her experience justified that paranoia.  As a physician, she spent the days outside the camp, doing house calls, accompanied by a series of recovering SS soldiers assigned to supervise her (possibly the best way to describe them would be walking wounded) assigned to make it impossible for her to find a way to escape.

When the second World War ended, Joe Stalin announced that those conscripted Ukrainian “guest workers” would have to do another 10 years in Siberian camps to give them time to think about their collaboration.  She chose to emigrate to the US.  She discouraged ever thinking about travel to the Soviet Union, fearing laws that would have allowed her daughter to be held there and used as a lever to get her to use that reservation for a stay in a Siberian camp.  Yet I could hear the love for Kiev.

Her father had been a University professor, Mechanical Engineering, and was classified as an “enemy of the revolution.”  He avoided his potential visit to the gulags (or worse) by shifting from engine room to engine room on river steamers working the Dneiper.  While my mother-in-law was pretty quiet on politics, you didn’t need to listen long to realize that she didn’t like the idea of Russian control. 

So I watch the news.  I see the same toughness, the same strength that let my mother-in-law survive the Bolsheviks, the Holodomor*, and Hitler’s camps.  I see that strength of character facing the inevitable, just as she did when she survived the Hitlerites.  I think of Randy’s glowing descriptions of Ukraine – there is a special beauty to the prairie, whether it is in our midwest or in Europe.  And I recall the words I heard on October 15, 1969.  The speaker then said something like, “You don’t have to worry about Ho Chi Minh – he doesn’t want to see you in Viet Nam.  It’s your own country’s leaders that put you at risk.”

*The term “holodomor” translates from the Ukrainian as “death by hunger” or “death by starvation”.  In the winter of 1932-33 famine was a deliberate policy of the Soviet leadership to eliminate the wealthier Ukrainian peasants.  This following quote, attributed to Lenin, provides a little insight into the Ukrainian view toward the Moscow leadership:|

“The kulak uprising in [your] 5 districts must be crushed without pity. . . . 1) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Take all their grain away from them. 4) Identify hostages . . . . Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry . . . . Yours, Lenin. P. S. Find tougher people.”

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