“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
After I moved to Minnesota 11 years ago, I was thinking: “Shall I keep my identity as Ukrainian, Russian, or embrace my new place of living as American (whatever I imagined that was)?” It was no less an existential question for me than my personality that has been changing ever since. As I found for myself, an identity in the U.S. is largely based on personality, spiced by political affiliation, shaped by cultural preferences, sprinkled by religious beliefs and thinly wrapped in national origins — at least for people like me with European roots. As a nation of immigrants, Americans enjoy being born into a melting pot of nations and ethnic groups. National identity becomes secondary, if not tertiary, in the land of personal freedom and individualism. I believe it has been working to benefit the country’s social fabric quite well in the last century. (I may be wrong, as I only have witnessed a tiny bit of the U.S. modern history.)
Back in the USSR when I was born, it was a different story. It may be just my story. I am looking back at the society I lived in during my childhood. I had surely been proud to be part of the family of 15 republics, from Estonia to Tajikistan, in the country, the largest on the Earth with territory covering eight time zones, vast natural resource and amazing human capital. We were taught at school that Slavic nations’ beginning in the past was in one place, Kiev Rus, and that our future would always be as united nations. It turned out to play a bitter trick later on.
From a rather short memory about the Soviet time, I recall that nationality and intergroup relations in the former Soviet Union mattered. First of all, it was that bittersweet “fifth” column in a Soviet passport requiring the declaration of national identity that could singularly determine one’s fate, socially and professionally. Friendships, marriages, neighborhood relationships — all these social networks were invisibly divided and united by nationality.
I arrived in the United States hoping for national origins to be the least determinant in a society of meritocracy, hard work, ethics and opportunities to build life in pursuit of happiness. When asked, “Where did you come from?” — it is still a very common question for Americans to ask — my many counterparts preferred to say Russia, and so did I. Because almost no one knew or could show Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus or other former Soviet republics on a map. My identity was a Soviet man, a country, an ideology. The common language we spoke was Russian. And even the USSR was mostly associated with Russia and Russians in the world. Without an attempt to do scholarly historical analysis, it partly explains why the Ukrainian nation is still divided over its identity.
Recent political and social events in Ukraine have brought something very fragile and strong at the same time in the hearts and minds of many Ukrainian immigrants all over the world. We felt proud for our homeland country’s accomplishments and historical significance, from more than a thousand years of history to contributions to European and world culture and politics (for example, in 1945, the Ukrainian SSR became one of the founding members of the United Nations organization) to richness of resources and industrial, agricultural and military potential (by signing the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Ukraine gave up the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile between 1994 and 1996), and much more.
I keep carrying my rediscovered Ukrainian identity with me. I am very thankful that this country still proves that being Ukrainian, as being Russian, or American, should not come at a price of suppressing one or another. What truly should unite us, regardless of place of birth, country or nationality, is mutual respect, appreciation for differences and diversity of views, and a deep sense of personal responsibility for peaceful coexistence on this planet, since it is the home for all of us. It is worth it.
Nataliya Harkins, of St. Michael, is an educator, researcher and talent development practitioner.