If he still were alive, my grandfather would either be laughing, anxious or piping angry.
Or perhaps he’d be all of those in response to President Trump’s demand that the Ukrainian government investigate Joe and Hunter Biden in exchange for releasing crucial military aid.
Vladimir Stepankowsky was one of the leading propagandists for the cause of Ukrainian independence in the early 20th century. He got caught up with the movement as a student at the University of Kiev, and over time he established a Ukrainian press and wrote and distributed literature that Russia’s Tsarist government considered subversive.
Why? Because Russian governments for hundreds of years have relentlessly tried to absorb and snuff out non-Russian cultures within its sprawling borders. It has been a way of beating down dissent and forcing loyalty to the Tsar and to the central power, and it has continued in the Soviet and Putin eras.
When my grandfather was growing up in what today is western Ukraine, there were no Ukrainian language schools. Ukrainian newspapers were illegal. All official business took place in Russian, and there were many other forms of religious, political, economic and cultural suppression.
Ukrainians, a headstrong people, have fought for their independence for centuries. But history and geography have been catastrophically unkind to them. Many millions have died in the fight.
First it was the Mongols, who conquered and laid waste the old Kievan state in 1240, pillaging and slaughtering innocent men, women and children in their wake.
In turn, the land became subject to Lithuanian and Polish domination, and Ukrainians were treated as serfs or second class citizens in their own land. And these foreign interlopers did nothing to stop the Tartars’ annual slave raids that terrorized the Ukrainian population. (Ukraine means “borderland,” and parts of the area were indeed lawless and as dangerous as the American Wild West.)
The area briefly won its independence in the late 17th century, but soon fell under Moscow’s domination — and brutality. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great each put down Ukrainian uprisings with savage force.
Later, during the Soviet period, an estimated 6 million to 7 million Ukrainian peasants died during Stalin’s forced collectivization of 1932-33, which was accompanied by a “purge” (read annihilation) of the Ukrainian intelligentsia.
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So my grandfather worked against a powerful tide of history. Eventually, of course, the Tsarist police caught him with “subversive” literature in 1907. He fled to Western Europe rather than face trial and dreaded deportation to Siberia. He continued working as a journalist and a double dealer for the Ukrainian cause, and his autobiography reads like a spy thriller. It’s amazing he lived to die of old age.
His biggest obstacle, though, was plain old ignorance: Few statesmen, historians or mapmakers would acknowledge such a place as “Ukraine.” Their indifference was a measure of how effective propaganda policies had worked to snuff out the idea of Ukrainian national identity.
Certainly, we know better now. And Grandpa would indeed be laughing that the survival of the Trump presidency could hinge on its dealings with Ukraine. Ukraine has become a household word.
But Grandpa would be alarmed, too. Ukraine, as it has been throughout the centuries, is a rich and beautiful land that is pinched between East and West, between democracies and dictatorship, between Moscow and Washington, D.C.
And the president’s demands of Ukraine put the Ukrainians in a vise again, as several diplomats have testified during the recently concluded House impeachment hearings. The military aid was critical to keep Russian-backed militants at bay. Ukraine’s army is a puny weakling compared to Russia’s military might.
As acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor pointed out: Ukraine is on the front line of the battle to keep Putin’s Russia in check, to make sure that the Russian strongman abides by standards of international law and respects internationally recognized borders. The fate and aspirations of Ukraine are in our national interest, too. And I think my grandfather also would be alarmed that many people are dismissing the whole imbroglio as just another spat over dirty politics. He’d ask: Are they clueless to the high stakes? The role of presidential power; the nature of how we conduct foreign policy; and the use of governmental power and funds for personal political gain.Those are a few colossal issues in play in this conflict.
If he were still around, Grandpa certainly would feel outrage over White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s comment urging critics “to just get over it.”
Just get over it? Millions of people died in the cause of Ukrainian freedom. And if the president jeopardized their best chance to secure it in 1,000 years just for personal political gain — he is undercutting our self-interest and making a sham of the American ideal to spread freedom across the globe.
Grandpa would be enraged.