GLORY TO UKRAINE!
In 1991, 2004 and 2014, the Maidan in Kyiv was the stage for three major events that etched Ukraine into the European consciousness. These were the fall of the Soviet Union, the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan respectively, the last of which ended in bloodshed but united generations of Ukrainians. Whereas the Orange Revolution succeeded in overturning a fraudulent election, the Euromaidan did nothing to change Ukraine’s entry into the European Union. For nearly four months, Ukrainians protested President Yanukovych’s sudden decision to renege on his promise to make Ukraine part of the European Union (EU), and instead bound Ukraine to Russia in the Eurasian Economic Union. Then, on February 24, 2022, the entire world not only understood Ukraine’s existence but began speaking Ukrainian. Within a week, the words “Slava Ukraïni!” had been uttered by everyone from truck drivers to the world’s leaders. Some copy and pasted the Cyrillic version—“Слава Україні!”—onto their social media posts. Whereas in WW2, nationalists and freedom fighters churned out handmade leaflets to boost morale, today we only need to turn to Twitter to get our hero-fix.
For a Ukrainian-American, I should be reveling in a bittersweet victory. From North America to Australia, from Asia to Africa, the world now recognizes that Ukraine is not Russia. In the span of just a few days, Vladimir Putin has accomplished what most Ukrainians the world over have been trying to do for nearly a century. As a first-gen American, I grew up defending myself and my heritage; a heritage passed firmly down by a family of displaced WW2 refugees. “No, I am not Russian. Yes, Ukraine is a separate country. I speak Ukrainian. Why should I speak Russian? Does every Italian speak Spanish? Does every Portuguese person speak fluent French?”
The world will never forget what the Ukrainian flag looks like thanks to the landmarks and architecture illuminated worldwide in blue and yellow. An obscure president has risen to superhero status. TikTok videos propagate the high morale amongst Ukrainian defenders; videos feature young soldiers dancing with bazookas and Kalashnikovs. Street fighters teach viewers how to make Molotov cocktails and where to target for the best damage, or—better yet—if you don’t have a tractor to tow one away, a young woman has created an instructional video on how to drive home a captured Russian tank. It’s surreal when, from every corner of the world, we can watch David throwing stones at Goliath. And feel the suffering. Or at least imagine we do. In the process, we are glorifying Ukraine. We are glorifying the heroes born on social media. We are witnessing communities, a country, even a world stitched together by a common cause: to cheer on these blue-and-yellow underdogs. Thanks to Hollywood, we are conditioned for that happy end to arrive within 90 minutes. In war, it does not. And the impact is felt over generations.
I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to make sense of the horrors my relatives survived in WW2. During one of my interviews with her, my grandmother stopped and rubbed her face. When she looked back at me, she said very soberly, “There was nothing glorious about our fight. I hope your generation never has to experience what we went through. Ever.” And here we are. I spend my nights sobbing.
I write historical fiction for complex and deeply personal reasons. If I have to simplify it, then my mission is to recover and repair the stories we have lost so that we can reflect on how we have gotten to where we find ourselves. I write to build empathy. And I write to resolve the truth behind the big picture; to make it clear that conflict is not about two teams meeting on the battlefield—one called “good” and one called “bad”. There are no winners in this story.
“Glory to Ukraine!” demands the response, “Glory to the heroes!” But even that salute is not complete. There is a third part. It is, “Death to enemies.” I don’t see many people posting that on their social media. Neither in English nor in Cyrillic. To understand the power of this salute, you must understand its history. Versions of it were used during Ukraine’s War of Independence (1917–1921), and then was adopted by a renegade partisan group in the 1940s, whose mission was to “purify” Ukraine of Jews, of Poles, of Nazis, of Soviets. It is a chant that was banned by Soviet authorities and resurrected in 1991 when Ukraine wrested itself from the USSR, and when her borders reappeared on world maps. Finally, Glory to Ukraine! echoed over the Maidan by a generation born into freedom, and has now become eternalized as Ukraine battles for its very existence during the Russian invasion. The salute is mired in blood and in sacrifice even as its meaning has shifted to unify an entire world. And maybe that is okay if the words are not lost in a vacuum; if the words—which mean so much—can be understood.
GLORY TO THE HEROES!
I was raised by freedom fighters. In the 1970s and ’80s, “Nordeast” Minneapolis was a unique blend of Eastern European, German, Jewish, Lebanese and Indian families. A Lebanese deli and a Ukrainian butchery became iconic in the Twin Cities. Two Ukrainian churches were located right across the street from one another: the Byzantine Catholic one and the Orthodox Christian one. My father belonged to the former, my mother to the latter. My relatives could not return to Ukraine because it was now the USSR and their family names were listed alongside a one way ticket to a gulag. I grew up in a family whose story was anything but secret. Every time we were served bread, we were reminded of where we’d come from, and how very lucky we were to have that bread. These stories quickly gave me an unquenchable thirst for justice and for defending the “underdogs”. From an early age, I rooted for the Davids in this world, cheering them as they stood up to the Goliaths of the universe.
For the first two decades of my life, I had no idea that I was stewing in nationalism either, or what that even meant. This Ukrainian-American generation grew up in the lap of Ukrainian consciousness and we felt special because we spoke a language hardly any other American knew, and wielded knowledge about a country few understood had the right to exist. Russia and Russian were curse words in our Diaspora. We learned “our” stories, “our” history and “our” heritage in Ukrainian schools that were held on Saturdays. We attended church every Sunday, because first came God, then family, and only then friends. We expressed our unique identity through Ukrainian folk dance, Ukrainian scouts and went to Ukrainian summer camps where kids from Chicago and Minneapolis met in the woods of Wisconsin for three weeks and marched around singing rousing battle songs about freeing Ukraine from foreign enslavement. If you’d seen us, you’d think we were paramilitary. I wouldn’t have understood what that meant. All I knew was that I was fiercely proud. Proud of my heritage. Proud of my people. Proud about knowing where I’d come from. We were all lying in wait for our moment when we would rise up, grab hold of our independence, and make sure the world knew Ukraine. We were waiting to be those glorified heroes.
Some will laugh. What were a bunch of Americans thinking they were going to do? Return to the home country? That is exactly the mentality our Diaspora instilled in us. When Ukraine regained its independence, first-gen Ukrainian-Americans left in a swarm to work as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business people. People I’d grown up with were heading over to help reboot the country and make their parents and grandparents proud.
I was also feeling this wave of national pride but tackled it a bit differently. In the 1990s, I was studying journalism. When I realized that my grandmother and her siblings were aging, I started recording their stories with the intention of immortalizing them. Instead, I learned something that took my pride down several notches. Everything I thought I knew about my family couldn’t even scratch the surface. My relatives were surprisingly forthcoming, but it would take me many decades before I felt I could do the stories justice. It was many years, many trips, and what felt like many lifetimes later, that I began to understand what their struggles were about; what this fierce need for sovereignty and independence cost them. And now I share a cautionary tale: glorifying any country, especially one at war, is a delicate business. It can quickly create a one-sided fiction based on misinformation and misunderstanding; it can do more harm than good because the disappointment that comes afterwards is earth-shattering. The true story of the Ukrainian is not in the least bit a black and white tale; it is not even allegorical. It is human with all the fragility and strength and contradictions and complexities every human being carries within themselves. However, it is also a common story that connects us at the most elementary level: the need to be free.
DEATH TO ENEMIES!
In 1945 journalist Edgar Snow pronounced that, “World War II was a Ukrainian war.” It is understandable why he would be compelled to do so. The Eastern Front had seen some of the most horrific, no-holds barred violence. Stalin and Hitler had both applied “scorched earth” policies, burning everything down so that the other side could not profit from any valuable resources.
During WW2, no Ukrainian could ever name just one enemy. No Ukrainian knew from day to day who the enemy really was. Stalin’s and Hitler’s armies were inarguably responsible for the slaughter of millions upon Ukrainian soil, but add to that the fluid infighting between Ukrainian political factions, and the result was rampant fratricide and blind hate. Partisan units fought and mass murdered locals whose ideologies were not the same; fell upon Poles, under whom western Ukrainians had been oppressed; and Ukrainians had a hand in the extermination and deportation of the local Jewish populations. Details were slow to come to the surface after the war, no thanks to the Soviet Union’s lock-and-key policies, but when that information did trickle out, many exiled Ukrainians around the world were confronted by the ugly truths about their countrymen. Many were also given the opportunity to reconcile with their pasts. I, for one, was only beginning to understand things that sobered me. My community’s stories were complex, shocking, real-life struggles for survival, and they came at heavy prices.
In 2002, I took the vast material I had and aimed to unravel the tangled roots born of Ukraine’s role in the WW2. In 2020, I published six of those stories under the title Souvenirs from Kiev. It was my attempt to connect the world to Ukraine and Ukrainians, and to share my understanding of a lesser-known history. Now, Bookouture has offered to help get these stories into the hands of more readers than I could possibly reach alone. I took liberties with the characters and events in order to weave together a complete portrait of the Ukrainians that I have met, loved, and respected—of a culture and country that I have grown to better understand as I have matured, and to love ever more deeply. My romance with Ukraine has turned into a true and steadfast love; the more I learn about her fragility and faults, the more I embrace and accept her.
Russia has been trying to effectively wipe Ukraine off the world map for thousands of years. They haven’t succeeded yet. And they certainly won’t be able to now that the entire world knows the country’s salute. I plead for peace in these pages, but that hybrid freedom fighter in me cannot deny this one very simple fact: by republishing these stories, I am picking up my stone and throwing it at Goliath. I am suddenly empowered to help make an impact. My mission has not changed: I want people to understand. To learn. To have their horizons broadened and to realize that there is no glory in war; there is no glory in the fight for survival. Instead, I turn to the brighter light found in the Ukrainian anthem:
Ukraine has not yet perished; not her glory, not her freedom
Fate shall smile upon us!
Our enemies shall vanish like dew in the sun;
And we too shall rule our beloved country.
I like to imagine Russians standing up to Putin and making him draw back. Because if they do not—if we do not stand up to him—we have learned nothing from our previous mistakes. This spring, before our very eyes, a new world war is blooming, and it will not—I promise you—take on the shape and color of sunflowers.
Austria, March 2022
From the new foreword in Souvenirs from Kyiv.
Photo credit featured image: Ilya Cher / Unsplash.com