By Dr James Zogby
The Ukrainian struggle for independence speaks to me on so many levels. Because I know the history of the Ukraine, I understand their resentment and fear of their often domineering Russian neighbour. I also understand their deep attachment to their land, their culture, and the story of their people.
Ukrainians have been forced to endure so many bitter hardships in the last century. They were occupied by foreign powers, their lands were divided and exploited, the people were ruthlessly subjugated, and, during one especially cruel period, they were subjected to genocide by the Soviet leader, Josef Stalin.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Ukrainians came out from under the Soviet domination, hoping for a future that would be defined by unity, sovereignty, and freedom. But with their country’s economy still yoked to Russia, independence has not been easy for the Ukraine.
It was precisely this desire to see their nation freed from Russian hegemony that brought the Ukrainian people to seek deeper economic ties with Europe. Afraid of losing his connection to his “satellite”, Russian President Vladimir Putin bullied and bribed the Ukrainian leadership into backing away from seeking stronger relations Europe, instead forcing them to choose to enter into a “customs union” with Russia.
In response to their government’s surrender to Russia, Ukrainians exploded in protest, with hundreds of thousands gathering in the Maidan— a square in Kiev. Their demonstrations have been massive, non-violent, and sustained. In an effort to try to keep the government in line, the Russians have alternated between using threats and bully tactics to offering strong financial incentives. For their part, the Ukrainian government intensified repression against the protesters, and ratcheted up their use of force culminating early this week in the killing of scores of demonstrators. International and domestic outrage was immediate and harsh. As the Ukrainian President became increasingly isolated and began losing political support— from members of his own party— he relented, offering to back away from Russia, surrender some of his power, and to call for new elections.
The story is clearly not over. Having weathered the harsh winter, the young demonstrators in Maidan do not trust their government and are not ready to go home until they see results. The government has changed its position so many times in the past, they may do so again. That may be one reason why the protesters have stayed in place.
But as unsettled as the situation remains, I can only imagine the elation of those older Ukrainians as they see young people defying and appearing to succeed in defeating the plans that Putin’s Russia had for their country. Having been subjugated for so long, this victory, though incomplete and uncertain, must feel great. (I was delighted to hear that, last month, in the midst of the protests, thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators in Maidan watched and cheered “The Square”, the Oscar-nominated film about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square that was conceived and directed by Jehane Noujaim.)
I am not only following this dramatic story as it unfolds in the media, I am living it through the eyes of my Ukrainian American friends. Like my generation of Lebanese Americans, they were born American of immigrant parents. They grew up hearing stories of the homeland, and throughout the Soviet domination of the Ukraine, they wanted nothing more than to see freedom flourish in their parents’ country.
Like all children of immigrants they struggled with issues of identity and faithfulness, such as how to become American while maintaining pride in their heritage. Their parents and their church created institutions that kept them close to their Ukrainian culture and community. And they joined organizations that gave voice to their concerns, as Americans and as US citizens of Ukrainian descent.
I’ve been to Ukrainian American events and meetings. They are a committed community. I recall the pride they felt when they were able to get the Democratic National Committee and then President Obama to issue statements condemning and commemorating the Holodomar— the Soviet-imposed genocidal starvation of Ukrainians in the 1930s. I have seen them, throughout the events of the past several months, lobby, educate, and lend their expertise to the cause of a free Ukraine. They want the land of their parents and grandparents to be out from under the Russian heel.
The Ukrainian people deserve our support because the values they speak to are so fundamental and the story they are telling is so compelling. This is a struggle that they must win simply because it is right.
Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters, a book that brings into stark relief the myths, assumptions, and biases that hold us back from understanding the people of the Arab world.
This article was originally published on the Arab American Institute website.