Sunday, February 22, 2004

This is perhaps the best article written about the Ukrainian Diaspora, It is written by Andrey Slivka, and was published on February 18, 2004:

How The Diaspora Can Be Effective: Some Notes

Opinion: By Andrey Slivka, Kyiv Post Chief Editor
Kyiv Post, Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb 18, 2004

On the U.S.-based Ukrainian Diaspora Web site Brama.com. I found posted
the following letter, which crystallized a range of Diaspora attitudes about
Ukraine. It was about Kyiv and its mayor, Oleksandr Omelchenko, and read:

"Omelchenko is no sweetie hero - the Diaspora should not forget that the
mayor is one of those Kuchmists who tremendously abused his public office
during the last mayoral elections...

"The curbs of the 'European' downtown Kyiv are full of parked cars... The
'European' and 'national' Maidan Nezalezhnosti subpassage is full of
drinking, smoking, and drug-using youth...

"Tens of homeless people are begging inside the Maidan subpassage - flower
merchants kick strangers as they pass by. Stray dogs are hovering around.
Clouds of tobacco smoke fill anyone's dress with a harsh smell. This is the
true 'revived,' 'modern,' and 'European' Omelchenko's Khreschatyk!

"The police (sorry, militia!) could clear the place with little effort, but
they are busy collecting illegal cash fees..."

Most of that isn't true, of course. Downtown's sidewalks aren't overwhelmed
by parked cars. Nor is the Maidan subpassage a pit of hooliganism. Kids
smoke and drink there, but no one's "ravaging" or "aggressive." As a jogger,
I've had my disagreements with Kyiv's stray dogs, but they're an ancient
local issue that my native Ukrainian acquaintances hardly notice. There are
no more beggars in Kyiv than in any capital. And I've never heard of anyone
being kicked by a flower vendor.

Yet the seething letter expresses the Diaspora's disappointment with
contemporary Ukrainian reality. In 1991 the walls came down, and what the
Diaspora - of which I'm a member - saw wasn't all good. Ukraine should have
been full of smiling peasants in native dress and with copies of Shevchenko
under their arms, all of them ready to break out into nationalist anthems
and rustic dance.

More, they should have been full of gratitude to their Diasporan brethren,
who, they ought to have known, had kept Ukrainian identity alive during
the Soviet era. Instead, while they've had their successes since 1991,
native Ukrainians have had to deal with a lot of messes and troubles.

In other words, by ex-Soviet standards, they're typical. They get by, and
their kids smoke and drink beer. But "typical" was not what the Diaspora had
been taught to expect in the Ukrainian weekend schools of the East Village,
of New Jersey, of suburban Philadelphia and Edmonton, and elsewhere.

The Ukrainian immigrant community's inability to engage Ukraine is
remarkable. It's got to the point where "Diaspora" is often pronounced in
Kyiv with a roll of the eyes. Diasporans are those aggressive people on
Andrivsky Uzviz in embroidered shirts native Ukrainians never wear; they're
to be avoided.

This is a problem, because Ukraine could use the sort of help well-meaning
and relatively wealthy foreigners could provide. Toward improving
Diaspora-native Ukrainian relations, I've compiled a list of points I think
Diasporans might keep in mind as they interrelate with what they consider
their spiritual homeland.

1. We're not Ukrainian. Not really. What we are are Americans, or Canadians,
or Aussies, of Ukrainian descent. Or, more accurately, of Galician descent,
meaning we're from a region that's not typical of Ukraine. Many of us are
technically from Poland. We speak a heavily Polonized, antique Galician
variant of Ukrainian. When I tell them my ancestral history, some native
Ukrainians innocently respond: "Oh, so you're Polish."

Also, we didn't stay in the USSR and suffer. We spent the Soviet years in
the West. The point is that we're both cultural outsiders and lacking the
moral authority required to dictate terms to Ukrainians. Humility is called
for.

2. Russian is an indigenous language of Ukraine. Ukrainians have a variety
of nuanced attitudes toward Russian, but pure resentment isn't one of them.
The language issue will not play here.

3. Ukrainians haven't declined in character since the 1940s. This goes back
to the Diasporan view of pre-Soviet Galicia as a rustic Eden. Contemporary
Ukrainians, it's thought, lack the mettle the old Diaspora generations had.
They don't like to work, the idea goes. This is a very false perception.

4. The Famine and the Russians. There's nothing to be gained from the
tenacious Diaspora conviction that the Famine was an expression of a Russian
desire to exterminate the Ukrainian people, Nazi-style. It's not even true.

The Famine was an act of Stalinist savagery. Russians view Ukrainians as
their bumpkin country cousins, who have no business trying to rule
themselves. No one wants to exterminate their bumpkin country cousins.

Native Ukrainians won't listen to someone tell them that Russians view them
like the Nazis viewed the Jews (or the Ukrainians). They don't see that; it
insults their view of the world.

5. Kuchma isn't Satan. He's your typical post-Soviet strongman, situated
somewhere on the continuum between Russia's Putin and Belarus' Lukashenko.
Actually, he might be better than Putin. Diasporans should try not to be
more outraged by him than actual Ukrainians are.

Conversely, Viktor Yushchenko isn't perfect. On the fringes of Our Ukraine
you'll find enough louche figures, flirting with unpleasant rightist
politics, to give a responsible person pause.

6. Symbolic politics are no longer important. They were in the Breschnev
era. They're not anymore. Ukraine is now a real country. It needs less new
Shevchenko monuments and more specialists in insurance, biotechnology,
finance, television production, etc.

The Diaspora still specializes in symbolic gestures. Sending to Kyiv youth
dance troupes from Connecticut isn't much use now. Besides, it can be
misunderstood here as act of condescension: "This is how you Ukrainians are
supposed to dance." Kids from Connecticut, if they want to help, should
specialize in HIV science in college. And learn Russian.

7. Diaspora issues are not important. Last summer, Kyiv witnessed a
contretemps when the World Congress of Ukrainians, a Diaspora group, was
cheated by the Presidential Administration. The latter, at the last minute,
reneged on a deal to lease the Ukraine House to the WCU for the group's
annual meeting. It was a dirty trick on the PA's part, obviously designed to
harass an organization sympathetic to the opposition.

The PA's treatment of the WCU has become a minor Diaspora cause celebre.
There have been demands that PA head Viktor Medvedchuk resign over the
incident. But in fact, of the 1,000 reasons Medvedchuk should resign,
swindling the Diaspora is the 1,001st. Given what's going on in Ukraine
right now, it's relatively unimportant. Again, humility is called for.

8. Think small. We should forget demanding meetings with President Kuchma
or Medvedchuk, or holding summits with Yushchenko. (In the latter case we
might be doing him more harm than good, since even anti-Kuchma Ukrainians
don't like the idea of a politician being steered by foreign nationals.)

Instead, we should pay attention to Ukrainian life as it's lived on the
ground. Is there a school library in Donetsk that lacks books? Then buy the
books, even if they're in Russian. Is someone suffering from multiple
sclerosis in Lviv who would benefit from western treatment? Provide it for
them. Does a youth hockey program in Chernivtsi lack equipment? Donate
it. Is there a chair in, say, French literature at Shevchenko University?
Establish it.

True, the Diaspora has done this sort of thing before. Witness all the fine
Chornobyl relief work it's done. But then, Chornobyl relief is inherently
political: "Let's help fix the disaster those Russians made." The point is
to help out, to build civil society, in all the quiet, gentle, humble ways.

9. Be a good guest. This is what all the above comes down to. We're in
someone else's house here. We're far, far from home. Let's try not to talk
too loud, or offend the hosts, or tear the curtains. Otherwise, we do more
harm than good. (slivka@kyivpost.com)

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