Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My Love-Hate Relationship with Russia and Ukraine



A Map of the Former Soviet Union. 
Ukraine is the yellow country on the far west.

The kind of person we are inside shows itself both in what we do and how we react.  I had a soul-revealing moment when I heard the news in 2014 of Russia invading Eastern Ukraine and taking Crimea. The summary of the thought that raced through my mind:  “You Go Vladimir (Putin)!”

Cheering for Russia in a military dispute with Ukraine is like cheering for the New York Yankees against a high school team.  Nevertheless I had a vivid moment, not of loving Russia, but hating Ukraine.

The face that came into my mind was my grandmother.  She and my grandfather escaped Ukraine, then part of Russia, at the turn of the 20th century when more than a million Jews were slaughtered in Ukraine in a series of attacks called pogroms. My grandparents had the double good fortune of making it all the way to America.  Many other Russian Jews fled to Eastern Europe.  Those who fled to Eastern Europe and their children were killed by the Nazis 40 years later.

The Holocaust in Ukraine


My grandparents would have described themselves as Russian Jews, not Ukrainian Jews.  For the last thousand years Ukraine has been Russia a lot more than it has been an independent country.  Mark Schauss covers the sad history of Ukraine and Russia in The Russian Rulers History Podcast, available on iTunes. 

While Russia, Poland and much of Eastern Europe has a long history of hating Jews, Ukraine is the most anti-semitic country in a very nasty region. 

Next August, when I ride across what my grandparents called Russia, my trip will begin in Odessa, Ukraine. I won’t be in Ukraine long, but I expect to have the same experience arriving in Odessa that I had when I first set foot in Germany:  “Can this beautiful place really be home to those who slaughtered so many of my people?”

I am re-reading Vassily Grossman’s “Life and Fate,” a haunting book that is “War and Peace” set in World War II, particularly in Stalingrad.  Currently I am reading the letter a Jewish mother in Ukraine is writing to her son in the Russian Army.  The Germans just took over her town.  The Jews are being rounded up, robbed and will soon be killed.  Most of the neighbors are happy and cheer the Germans on, taking the possessions and houses of the Jews.  The mother writing the letter describes women who were friendly for 50 years suddenly turning on her with venom. The neighbor thinks the Jews are getting what they deserve. 

My love-hate relationship with Ukraine and Russia extends through my whole life.  My first military job was live-fire testing of the US Air Force missile inventory, everything from the Sidewinder wing rocket to the Minuteman multi-stage nuclear missile, the main weapon delivery system in the US Cold War arsenal.  Then I was a tank commander on the East-West German Border waiting for World War III to start. 

When I went to college after the Army, the literature of Russia and the literature of Florence, Italy, became lifelong passions.  Chekov, Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Pushkin, Tolstoy and later Solzhenitsyn wrote the books I loved most, along with C.S. Lewis, Dante and Machiavelli.  Now I am studying the Russian language so I can read the authors I love most in their language.  Russia is currently home to many brilliant authors, but who knows when they will be forced underground. 

From my grandparents persecution, to my Cold War childhood and military life, through finding the beauty of Russian literature in college, to my current plans to travel across Russia and neighboring countries, I continue to intensify my love-hate relationship with Russia and all of its sad and brilliant history.  At this age, my love-hate relationship with Russia and Ukraine is a permanent part of my life.