The recent turmoil in Ukraine not only has riveted Minnesotans of Ukrainian heritage, it’s also created a fresh sense of what it means to be Ukrainian, some of them say.
First came the large-scale demonstrations in Kiev by Ukrainians wanting stronger ties with the West. Then came tension between Ukraine and Russia, which last week annexed Crimea, long considered part of Ukraine.
The result has been a whiplash of emotions. But Ophelia Karamushko, Walter Anastazievsky and Stefan Iwaskewycz, who are active in the Twin Cities-based Ukrainian advocacy organization Maidan Minnesota, said that the events overseas also are serving as catalysts for a new identity, especially for those born in the post-Soviet era.
“It went from being an ethnic identity to being an identity of a citizen of a country,” said Anastazievsky, 51, of Shoreview.
Minnesotan Natalia Krasnobaieva, who was born shortly before Ukraine’s 1991 independence and is from Crimea, said that as she began organizing pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Minnesota, she saw people coming together in an unprecedented way.
Previously, people had been reluctant to say they came from Ukraine, but now there is pride, she said. “It is a revolution of dignity,” she said.
Karamushko, 38, of Eden Prairie, said that her husband was among those who once felt some shame about being of Ukrainian heritage. “When people asked what country he came from, he’d always say Russia, because unconsciously, it was embarrassing to say you were from Ukraine,” she said.
Ukrainian politics is sharply divided, with pro-Russia parties deriving support from eastern provinces and more Euro-minded parties finding support in the west. The State Statistics Committee of Ukraine estimates that of the approximately 45 million people living in that nation, 17 percent are ethnic Russians, concentrated in the country’s eastern and southeastern regions.
But Taras Rafa, 40, of Minneapolis, who emigrated from Ukraine in 2005, said the myriad ethnicities and languages are losing the significance they had during the Soviet years. The recent protests and Russia’s invasion of Crimea “unified the nation to the extent it was never unified before,” he said.
Demands for individual freedom are replacing ethnic considerations, said Paul Jablonsky, 54, of Minneapolis, a first-generation American long active in preserving Minnesota’s Ukrainian culture.
Those who grew up in an independent Ukraine are living a radically different history from those from earlier generations, he said.
“Many [older people] believed that Ukraine would never be free. They truly believed there’d be nothing to go back to,” Jablonsky said of emigrants who, like his own parents, left their home countries in the postwar exodus.
At times, this difference in life experience can make it hard for younger Ukrainians to communicate with their parents, Krasnobaieva said.
Many in her overseas family get their news through television, which in Crimea and many parts of eastern Ukraine is dominated by propaganda-heavy Russian channels.
“We are perceived as aliens, in a way,” Krasnobaieva said of younger Ukrainians who are most likely to question authority. They have grown up with access to the Internet and social media and had more opportunities for education and travel.
“What [older Ukrainians] remember and what they care about is the bread on the table,” she said.
Maidan Minnesota’s Iwaskewycz, 39, of Plymouth, said he thinks the way Moscow has framed the current conflict is a clever attempt to appeal to older Ukrainians who found some comfort and security in living under a domineering government.
Anastazievsky agrees. “[Putin is] really relying heavily on that Soviet propaganda and that mind-set that is still there for people,” he said.
That yearning for stability is also the reason Krasnobaieva is not sure that recent protests will engage the older generation still living in Ukraine.
Some of her former neighbors in Crimea continue to revere Stalin, she said. They don’t know about the penalties anti-regime activists faced or the brutality that went on during his rule, she said, but they do remember the stability of everyday life.
Hunger for change growing
The current Maidan movement, which advocates for democracy and human rights in Ukraine, can be traced to that country’s 2004 Orange Revolution, said Iwaskewycz, who lived there at that time. Characterized by protests over disputed elections, the Orange Revolution was a “dress rehearsal” for the current movement, he said.
The civil society that first roused itself in 2004 has lain dormant until recently, except for smaller, short-lived protests.
“The feeling of people, the grass roots energies that fueled the Orange Revolution, were very real,” Iwaskewycz said. “Those fires were not doused.”
The Orange Revolution relied heavily on the directorship of opposition candidates Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko, but such leadership is absent from the current Maidan movement, those from Maidan Minnesota said.
“People over these two or three months, they’ve changed so much,” said Karamushko. “They don’t look anymore for this, you know, big figure to decide for them their destiny. Now they want to be instrumental in the decisions.”
“The Orange Revolution to a certain extent was co-opted by these leaders like Yulia Tymoshenko,” said Anastazievsky, who served as an elections monitor in the final round of the 2004 elections. “Now nobody wants to be co-opted by even a politician who is coming in and saying, ‘I am on your side, I will do this for you.’ They don’t want to hear that anymore.”
Instead, the messiness of democracy is playing out as policy moves by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and President Oleksandr Turchynov’s interim government are debated on the streets.
“It is kind of a nascent form of democracy. It’s an old form,” Iwaskewycz said.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Ukrainian-Americans will continue to watch it all closely, and with hope for peace and change.
Elizabeth Hustad is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.