In 1905, my grandparents fled a village near Rovno in the Russian Ukraine so my grandfather wouldn’t be drafted into the tsar’s army. Jews were being pressed into military service for 25 years, he told me, which was all the more reason to escape the hardship and anti-Semitism of rural Russia. He was often nostalgic, not for Ukraine or Russia, but for the smells of the forest where he had worked to cut down trees.
For many reasons I never felt drawn to seek out that village, despite several visits to the Soviet Union and Russia, and two to Ukraine in the 1990s. Probably the Nazis had destroyed it, and independent Ukraine was struggling: The country’s 2005 Orange revolution, meant to liberate it from lingering Russian-style corruption, fizzled badly. The country was not on my radar screen.
But suddenly, Ukraine has become the most fascinating country on the European continent, the test case for whether the seven peaceful decades after World War II were an anomaly rather than a permanent norm. So this week I will finally be traveling around Ukraine, not to revisit my family’s past, but to explore whether Europe faces a frightening future.
Have we really reentered an era where borders of major countries can be changed by their neighbors through invasion or subversion? Vladimir Putin’s rush to re-create the Russian empire by seizing Crimea and destabilizing eastern Ukraine raises questions that were supposedly resolved by the Second World War.
I’ll be looking at whether Ukraine can hold together under unrelenting Russian military and economic pressure, and what it will mean if that pressure fractures the country. It’s already clear that the story is far more complicated than the Russian narrative would have it.
Yes, the Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine, who have close economic and family ties with nearby Russia, feel alienated from the Kiev government that they believe ignores them. Yet — and this is something I want to explore — repeated polls show that the vast majority of Russian speakers in Ukraine do not want to become part of Russia. They want something else.
Their fears of persecution by Kiev have been whipped up by Russian television stations, which are universally watched in eastern Ukraine. These shows portray Kiev in the grip of fascists and Nazis who threaten the eastern regions. In reality, the Ukrainian far right at the moment, while sometimes unpleasant, is less anti-Semitic and xenophobic than the Russian far right.
So one key question is whether the Kiev government can do more to counteract Russian propaganda and convince Russian speakers in the east that Kiev is listening. This is something I will be asking officials in Kiev as they draft a plan to decentralize Ukraine’s regions and give more power to local governments. Of course, Putin will do everything in his power to undermine such outreach, and is threatening to undermine Ukrainian elections on May 25.
In his new version of nationalism, the Russian leader has proclaimed himself the protector of Russian speakers everywhere, whether in Latvia or oil-rich Kazakhstan or beyond. Perhaps he wants to protect the 20 percent of Israelis who speak Russian. There’s no telling where this could lead.
Putin is also promoting cultural warfare, posing as the bulwark of Russian-led Orthodox civilization against the weak and dissolute West led by the United States. Ukraine is split between its Catholic west, which looks toward Europe, and a Russia-leaning eastern Orthodox half, so many observers have accepted Putin’s framework.
But — and I also want to check this in my travels — the “war of civilizations” trope is nonsense, I believe. The real divide in Ukraine, I suspect, is between a younger generation that wants a transparent economy and connections to the world, and an older generation that yearns for the remembered “security” of a closed Soviet Union. The sad truth is that the corrupt, oil-based economy of Putin’s Russia can’t offer older Ukrainians the cushion they dream of. If their country devolves into civil war, the industrialized half that goes with Russia will be doomed to economic stagnation.
In Kiev, I will attend a fascinating conference in which historians, writers and academics from Ukraine, Europe, Russia and America will be hashing over these questions. I will interview civic activists whose protests led to the downfall of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February, and ask them how they think their country can move forward. I will interview right-wing Ukrainian nationalists, whose modest strength is vastly overrated by pro-Russians, and Ukrainian separatists in the east, whose modest strength is magnified by covert Russian military support. The operative question: Can Ukraine push past extremists on both sides, or will Russia make this impossible?
I will be looking at whether, with more outreach from Kiev and tougher Western sanctions, Ukraine can be saved from an implosion with its dangerous repercussions on Europe. And I will be talking to Jewish community leaders, in part to learn what my life would have been like if my grandparents had remained in Rovno, my family had survived Hitler, and I had grown up in Ukraine.