The invasion of Ukraine by a Stalinist-styled demagogue is on everyone’s mind, with the looming threat of further destruction and the sudden introduction of the unthinkable—a nuclear attack. We all worry, ache for the wounded, for the displaced innocents who are being forced to abandon their homes. But for me, this is much more powerful and real. I am a Ukrainian; not born on my parents’ soil but educated in the history of Ukraine and very much a part of its culture. For me, Putin’s attack brings a horrible feeling of Deja vu, because I am reliving the narrative I heard from my parents who escaped the Soviet regime during WWII. My mother and father are long gone, but their suffering has come to the surface once again through the experiences of my people in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s ancient history began in the 9th century with the founding of the kingdom of Kiev. This was followed by several centuries of rules by different princes, establishing the lands of Ukraine. The greatest fortune—and misfortune—is that these lands are some of the most fertile in the European continent. To this day, Ukraine is known as the “bread basket” of Europe. It is no wonder that neighboring kingdoms coveted and went after these lands.
After its glorious beginnings, Ukraine fell into series of take overs by neighboring nations. They endured countless invasions by the Russians, Lithuanians, Poles, and the Turk-supported Khans. Every conquest brought destruction and the stifling of Ukrainian culture and language. Through ten centuries, Ukrainians fell to one ruler after another, interspersed with short periods of independence. The most vicious invaders have been Russians—first with cruel tsarist regimes, and then in the 20th century, the Soviet rule. Through it all, Ukrainians have maintained their separate identity, they have refused to give up their independence, their language, and traditions. This culminated in the year-long, forced starvation imposed by Stalin in 1932, to subdue the Ukrainian nation that would not accept the Soviet regime. The Holodomor—extermination by hunger—resulted in the genocide of at least 7 million Ukrainians, with other estimates running much higher. Any information about it was stifled by the Soviets for years—it was the history they wanted to erase. Not until the late 1980s when the Iron Curtain fell did the world finally learn out about Holodomor—the Ukrainian Holocaust.
I know about Holodomor, not only from books and museum displays, I know about it from my mother who lived through it. In 1932, my mother was nine years old. She was eye witness to the horrors of a manufactured famine—all food products taken away by Soviet authorities, anyone attempting to store anything was shot; including entire families. My mother recalled people eating grass, tree leaves, old shoes. After a time no living animals remained, they had all been slaughtered and eaten. Not a single dog, cat, bird in a cage, not even mice or rats—even children disappeared. Starvation leads to unfathomable horrors.
I heard these stories throughout my childhood. I grew up with a fierce sense of independence, instilled with a desire to go and fight for the sovereignty of the land of my ancestors; willing to die for the homeland, to emulate my uncle—my father’s younger brother—who fought against the Russian invaders and was killed by them before his twentieth birthday. To do what my father and his sister proudly did, joining the Ukrainian guerilla forces to expel the Soviets. As part of Ukrainian Girl Scouts, I participated in military-style maneuvers that were meant to train us to go back to the homeland some day and fight for its freedom. None of that came to be for me. I have led a sedate life, free of the horrors of war. Until now.
Today, I cringe at what is happening in Ukraine. A monster has invaded the land of my people, a monster who has no justification other than attempting to increase his power, to subjugate not only Ukraine, but with sights beyond it. Putin, a former KGB agent, thinks he can go back to a closed state ruled by oligarchs who bow to him; he thinks he can “Make Russia Great Again” by going back to an inhumane enslavement of the people—not just Ukrainians, but his own Russian people as well. He thinks he can recreate a modern-day tsarist regime, where he is the ultimate power. The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is exactly the same as that of 1939, when Hitler moved eastward with the same ideology—take over Europe and eventually the world. Let us learn from the past; when a ruthless man attacks a sovereign nation it is only the beginning. Putin’s intent is far beyond Ukraine. I feel some sense of relief in seeing the world react quickly against him. Perhaps there are enough left who remember.
But it is my people, Ukrainians in Ukraine, who have demonstrated what I was always taught. We are tough, we would rather die than surrender!
Our national anthem says: “Ukraine has not died yet….we shall lay down our bodies and souls for our freedom…because, brothers, we come from the bloodline of Cossacks!”
I see myself in the little girl sitting with a rifle, ready to protect her country. She is me, long ago. My time for physical battle has passed, so I am doing what I can to help worlds away. Through the distance I feel helpless and I cry for my parents’ homeland, and I cry for world peace.