Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Out of the shadows of history

By Aussiegirl

BonnieBlueFlag just posted this comment on UT, which I have posted below, and what can I say -- it was so lovely I just wanted everyone to read it on the main board. And not just because it's personally complimentary to me -- but because when I started this blog, harrassed as I was into even doing it by MsFalconersCabanaBoy over at Pajama Pack, the central gathering site of all Lucianne.com regular posters who blog, http://www.pajamapack.blogspot.com -- I could never have imagined that events in Ukraine would unfold in the exciting way that they have, and that Ukraine would suddenly burst on the international scene and intrude itself on American and international consciousness.

I had been so accustomed for years growing up to people not having the faintest idea what I meant when I said -- "I'm of Ukrainian heritage." So if I have been able to explain the meaning of what is going on to an audience which had little knowledge of this part of the world before, then I am so grateful and pleased.

When this story was first breaking - with the vast demonstrations in the snowy streets of Kyiv garnering headlines on the evening news and in the newspapers, a childhood friend, who is also of Ukrainian heritage, emailed me to say -- "I'm so excited by everything that's going on in Ukraine -- do you remember when we were kids and nobody even knew what Ukrainian was?"

So I had no idea when I started writing this blog that I would end up being able to share my heritage and culture and history with so many people through this medium. Perhaps it's a good time to talk about what it's like to grow up in two cultures, as there are many people in America who also grow up this way. This has always been the way of America. Immigrants come here seeking a better life for themselves and their family. The first generation stories of all these immigrants is similar -- regardless of the native culture.

My parents grew up under Stalinist communism in eastern Ukraine -- in the Kharkiv region -- the easternmost province of Ukraine -- the one which is now most heavily Russified and heavily favored Yanukovych. But when they lived there everyone spoke Ukrainian. My mother and father both lived through collectivization, brutal repression, the Great Famine Genocide of 1933, when Stalin's policy of forced collectivization purposely starved over 7 million Ukrainians to death. They survived the Stalinist terror following those years, but my mother's father fell victim to one of those baseless arrests and was imprisoned in a gulag in Sibera for over 10 years. When the Germans invaded Ukraine they perpetrated their own horrors, heaping torture upon torture. Eventually my parents fled overland the entire breadth of Ukraine, hoping to get to the west when the war was over, because it was clear to them that Germany's days were numbered as the Soviet army was driving them out of the snowy steppes -- as they had swept before them Napoleon's army a hundred and more years earlier -- these armies falling victim to the harsh winter, as much as the might of the Russian Army.

When they got to the border, however, they were taken as forced labor to Germany, and spent the bulk of the war in Berlin, working in factories. They survived the intense bombing of Berlin, and only barely managed to escape Berlin on one of the last trains to leave before the Soviets marched in.

But their adventures were not at an end. Their joy at being liberated by American troops, who showered my nearly starved family with rations and chocolates, was short lived. Before long they were rounded up and placed in detention camps, in former POW camps, behind barbed wire and with armed military sentries poised on the guard towers. Only this time their prison guards weren't Soviets, and they weren't Nazis -- but they were Allied troops -- American, British and French. They had fallen victim to yet another hideous 20th century perversion of politics -- the Yalta Conference -- under which they, as refugees from the Soviet Union, were to be forcibly "repatriated" and sent back to a sure death or imprisonment in a gulag.

They spent FIVE long years after the war, being herded from prison camp to prison camp, men, women and children -- sometimes forcibly and with blood, as most people were willing to die rather than be forced to return. Many committed suicide because of their despair. This is an unknown and also untold chapter of history that I hope to address bit by bit in the coming months, as my father played a pivotal role in this episode, and finally managed to save not only his own family, but all the people who were in his group from deportation. I was born in one of these detention camps following the war.

Following these harrowing years in Allied hands, they finally won their freedom and managed to get a visa to emigrate to Australia. We lived there for 7 years, but my father never lost his dream of coming to America. And so -- we finally did. And who could have imagined, that a young girl and boy growing up in a small village in Ukraine, who carried water in a bucket, and chopped wood for a fire, and lived a harsh and difficult life under Stalin, would eventually land on the golden shores of America, land of the free and home of the brave -- and live in comfort and retirement near the great capital of the free world -- Washington, D. C.

So it is because of them, and the history they lived, and the culture of the Ukraine they so loved that they instilled in me -- that I am grateful that I can now share these thoughts with a wider audience. If any of you find this interesting, it is deeply gratifying to me.

Growing up with your foot in two cultures is at once an enlarging -- and confining -- experience. Enlarging in the richness that it offers, but somewhat confining in that you find that a large part of what makes you -- you -- is completely unknown to everyone you meet. Especially when nobody has ever even heard of your nationality. What's Ukrainian? -- they ask -- is that like Russian?

And unlike the Italians and other immigrant groups that came here, whose home cultures thrived back in the mother country, Ukraine's culture was in danger of being completely obliterated. The Ukrainian language had been suppressed since Tsarist times -- and at various times it was forbidden to write or publish in it. Still many did, at their own peril and risk, and kept this beautiful language alive. Then under Stalin, a policy of deliberate Russification was continued, under even harsher penalties, and under the communists even the Orthodox religion, along with all others was banished -- so what had been a rich cultural heritage, was in danger of being lost to the world forever.

It was because of this that those Ukrainians who found themselves in the diaspora felt it incumbent upon themselves to be that vessel of cultural heritage, of language, and custom, that would shelter and carry this precious jewel until such time as Ukraine was once again free -- and could reclaim its rightful heritage. Let me also say, that Ukrainians are also completely integrated into American society, we love this country as much as we love our own Ukrainan heritage, and consider ourselves Americans first, because the beauty of America is that anyone can be an American, and celebrate on the Fourth of July the birth of freedom an independence for ALL men, while cherishing in their hearts the beauty of another culture. That's what makes the melting pot of America so great, and the stew taste so wonderful here.

I always thought of our little outposts throughout the world, these little emigre communities formed around various churches and civic organizations, like those people in Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's dark tale of a future when books are banned. At the end of the novel, when a band of dissidents escapes to the mountains, they find a group already gathered there, who have taken upon themselves the task of each memorizing and becoming a "book" - so that one day -- when books can again be printed, the beautiful legacy of literature and knowledge will be resurrected and put in its rightful place.

So when I heard and watched these events unfold in Ukraine, and I realized that Ukrainians had finally gotten up off their knees and reclaimed their rightful heritage as a free and democratic and cultural people, I wept with joy -- because it felt like a liberation to me as well, that my own Ukrainian song which had been planted in me by my parents, and which I had cherished all my life in secret -- could now also burst into life and take wing along with those doves and those balloons. A great part of my Ukrainian soul was also liberated and acknowledged by that solemn oath and those noble words spoken by President Yushchenko. I can now proudly say to anyone -- "I am a Ukrainian American" -- and know that they will know what I mean -- and understand a bit of who I am -- for Ukraine will now be known for more than just being a dim outpost of forgotten people, with a forgotten heritage, or the site of a terrible genocide, or of a nuclear disaster, or of a thuggish and criminal regime. Ukraine can take its place in the family of nations -- and the dream of a resurrected Ukraine that my parents cherished and nurtured their entire lives in exile, will finally have been achieved by brave people, fighting bravely for goodness and decency once more.

I couldn't be happier. To be an American -- and to be a Ukrainian -- these are riches beyond compare.

Here's BonnieBlueFlag's lovely post which led to this outpouring:

As a young school girl in the years after W.W.II, I had a mental image of countries with exotic names like Ukraine, Armenia, and Lithuania as simply being territories of the great mysterious U.S.S.R. An extremely large and very cold place ruled by people with names like Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.

Khrushchev burst into our current events class (in 1960) with his infamous display of temper, while pounding on the table with his shoe at a meeting of the UN. His previous remark in 1956, "We will bury you" was already a well known threat to every American.

There was really no way that any one of my age in my time and place, could know that the Ukrainians lived in even more fear of the Russians than we did. I was left to assume that all of the people of Ukraine, Armenia, Lithuania, et al., were well represented by the words of Nikita Khrushchev.

Many of those initial images and thoughts about the satellite states of Russia fell away with time, as I accumulated more historical knowledge, especially through the Reagan years.

Today with the advent of the Internet, the Blogs posted from Ukraine and most importantly, Aussiegirl, I have watched and learned so much about the struggle of a people to be free of Russian domination.
I sincerely hope that as we celebrate the "Orange Revolution," we will also celebrate new freedoms for many other countries beginning with Iraq.

Aussiegirl, thank you for being such a wonderful guide for the rest of us who knew so little about Ukraine and its citizens just a few months ago.


Post a Comment

<< Home