Category Archives: Politics

Helping Ukraine requires remedy for Cold War rhetorical hangover



Monuments to dead Ukrainian heroes like this dot the landscape in Ukrainian cities. This one commemorates a 1941 bombing. Here’s hoping they don’t have to erect more


Two weeks ago now, I got this message from a friend in L’viv, Ukraine: “They are shooting the protesters on Independence Square. I don’t know what to do!” As the death toll in Kyiv rose, as Putin postures, the political opposition to ousted Yanukovych stands resolute. Ukrainians are reaching out to the West by taking to FaceBook, Twitter, e-mail—all available media platforms. The West is slowly responding.

At my house, when we see images of violence in Ukraine, we do not see generic protesters in a far away land; rather, we see our friends on fire. They are friends we made during my 2011-2012 Fulbright in L’viv, a gem of a city located an overnight train-ride west of Kyiv. My son’s friend Vlad was in Kyiv’s Independence Square. So were families in whose homes we celebrated Christmas and Easter. They are professors and students; authors and booksellers; musicians and reporters; parents and children. Our friends speak of a country unable to move forward and unwilling to move back.

The name “Ukraine” means “borderland.” The region has been overrun by waves of invaders for much of its recorded history, starting with the Vikings. I first visited in 1998, when stores were open but empty of merchandise, people trembled as they walked by the police (until independence, the KGB), and meeting foreigners on the street was rare. What a change in 2011! Stores were bustling, streets full of families and lovers, and the country busy preparing to host foreigners for the 2012 European soccer championship.  Yanukovych had even agreed to negotiate membership in the European Union. But at the last minute, he succumbed to Putin’s economic threats, and sold Ukraine to Russia.

The hopeful Ukrainian public, however, proved neither as fickle as Yanukovych, nor as feeble as he would have liked. Taking to social media, people organized massive protests in the public squares or maydens around the country. They called their movement “Euromayden” and paired the blue-and-yellow flag Ukraine yellow-on-blue flag of the European Union. The patchwork coalition of Yanukovych’s opponents represents the far right, the far left and just plain folks in between. They populated Kyiv’s mayden through snow and ice since November. After spending New Year’s Eve there with her family, one friend called it the most exhilarating time of her life—she felt the kind of hope she believed would carry Ukraine closer to Europe and to intellectual and economic freedom. But with this week’s violence comes the desperate fear that hope is lost.

Western governments have called for dialogue– first between Yanukovych and his opposition, and now between Ukraine and Russia– but dialogue is impossible without committed Western support. True dialogue can occur only when the two parties command equal power, and respect each other. The power difference between bullying Russia and the bullied Ukrainian government can equalize only if the West stands behind Ukraine. Then the equal-power requirement for dialogue may be met.

Still, the requirement for respect remains elusive. Part of that problem lies with the way we talk about the parties in conflict. It’s about the choices we make when we use names. Whether we admit it or not, English-speakers suffer from a Cold War hangover. Evidence appears daily that North Americans still think of Eastern Europe in terms of the Cold War. For example, since this crisis began in November, I have heard television and radio reporters in both the U.S. and Canada refer to Ukraine as “The Ukraine.” I heard it on NPR on Sunday. Yesterday, when I appeared on Time Warner Cable’s News14Carolina, the anchor who introduced the piece referred to Ukraine the same way. I’ve got news for them: The Ukraine was a Soviet republic; Ukraine is a European country east of Poland. Similarly, newspaper style guides that dictate spelling in the news we read continue to use the Russian version of Kiev rather than the Ukrainian, Kyiv. The Soviet Union influences our thinking, even from the grave.

During Soviet times, some Soviets referred to Ukraine as “Little Russia,” and many pro-Soviet Russians still do–including Putin. The terminology rhetorically links the histories and identities of the two countries in a way that helps Putin justify his complaints about Western “meddling” in the independent Ukraine, as if his interest in Ukrainian state affairs were an extension of his work in Big Russia.

Contrary to our mothers’ counsel that names will never hurt us, names do hurt us. Names can assign power, for example, giving power to some and taking power away from others. The way it works can be as obvious as the way verbal abuse builds up the power of abuser while tearing down the power of the abused, and as subtle as the creation of an attitude that encourages one country to come to the aid of another–or invade it. When we identify a country as a “former Soviet republic,” we perpetuate the attitude that Moscow still dominates it. We do the same by preferring the Russian-language spelling conventions for Ukrainian names. This Cold War attitude encourages us to interpret the crisis in Ukraine as a domestic dispute over in the Russia house, and so it plays into Putin’s plan for EurAsian domination and his seeming denial that Russia has lost any geopolitical power since 1991.

While names can hurt, they can also help. Using specific terms that demonstrate we care about the power of naming can help Ukraine shed its problematic past associations. When we abandon the outdated attitudes about the opposition between Western and Eastern Europe that we still reveal in our language, then we encourage the kind of attitude that encourages our governments to respect Ukraine as an independent nation and behave accordingly. It will allow Western governments to provide the support the Ukrainian opposition needs to participate in true dialogue with the government to achieve the dignity and freedom citizens of an independent country deserve.


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Filed under Politics, Ukraine, Visual rhetoric


After people finish their Fulbright experiences, the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars asks them to “reflect on the experience and whether [they] feel it has played or will play a transformative role in [their] life, either professionally or personally.”

Shashlik, the Ukrainian take on shishkebab, became one of our favorite meals on our first trip to Ukraine. Here Bill, left, takes part in an Easter Monday shashlik ritual with our friend Mariana’s (l-r) brother, father and husband. Nostrovia!

My response was difficult to write. Every time I started to write it, I started to cry. My Fulbright experience has been significantly transformative on both professional and personal levels–cognitive, behavioral and emotional.

In Crimea, a university interpreter helps me engage the students on the topic of narrative interpretation of journalism. We examine different reports of the Okasana Makar case with regard to “Who is the villain?”

The reasons I start to cry when I try to reflect on my experience is that, first, I feel so honored to have been granted the opportunity. Second, I have been so moved by the spirit and generosity of the people I met in Ukraine, both colleagues and students. Third, I am so concerned for their future. Here is what I said in my reflection.

Two generations of Mischas prepare shashlik in the Carpathian Mountains for a big family picnic in June, before “little” Mischa goes back to work in Kyiv. The day Adam became our son (14 years ago next week) we celebrated with shashlik just a little bit further into these woods.

First, I am honored and humbled to have been granted the opportunity to live and work in Ukraine. I can’t say it often or well enough. I look forward to composing and publishing a document to reflect my multifaceted experience of the culture, and provide insight for others on a practical and theoretical level about the nature and benefits—or not—of national identity in this historically complicated society that is making its newly democratic way.

Bill’s mother Margaret (now known affectionately there as Baba Magda), center, and my colleague Dr. Borys Potiatynyk, found out a lot about the Politylo family in Hrabova. That’s cousin Galya in the black leather coat determining that her grandmother and Magda were first cousins, and her third cousin Zachary back against the wall behind Borys.

Second, the people I met and with whom I renewed acquaintance impress me with their generosity and their hospitality. The impression covers both my professional and personal experiences. My research project focused on national identity with regard to Euro 2012. While I had expected the project to go in one particular direction, ethnographic work requires an open mind; consequently, my observations and experience with regard to visual expression of national identity has extended to the performance of national identity. My recalibrated understanding of the culture in L’viv and Transcarpathis, as well as my new experience of Crimea and Odessa, has determined the overarching metaphor for my project to be hospitality–hospitality as the performance of national identity. New and old friends invited my family on expeditions and to dinners for a number of reasons, including religious (Julian calendar Christmas, New Year’s and Easter). Through their hospitality, they expressed the importance of history, tradition, family and personal relationships that influence their interpretation and expression of national identity in ways that I am trying to understand and express myself. I am working on a series of rhetorical analyses of visual and performance texts that take different expressive forms (academic article, photo essay, poetry, sketches etc.) that I hope to publish as one volume.

Zachary, Adam, me, Bill, Natalia, Vwyko (Natalia’s uncle) and Margaret celebrate Easter dinner. Photo by Natalia’s husband Vasyli, who is as gracious a host as he is a fine photographer.

On a personal level, the experience profoundly influenced my family. My  husband was able to visit his grandfather Mathew’s hometown in L’viv Oblast—the first of his grandfather’s descendants to do so. He persuaded his mother to come to Ukraine for the first time and, together and accompanied by my colleague Borys, they returned to her father’s birthplace to seek and meet relatives they never known. My sons were able to familiarize themselves with the country and the culture of their birth; one reveled in it, one rejected it, but at least they know what it’s like where they came from. We all learned about the history of the area and have left with a much greater appreciation of the human price of history.

Cousin Galya invited the whole family, including my mother, Louise, over for dinner. From left, Zachary, me, Louise, Galya, Adam, Galya’s Kolya, Bohdan’s Oleh and Bohdan.

The human price of history prompts my concerns for the future of my new family, friends and colleagues. We know that we had the luxury to jet into Ukraine with our return tickets in our luggage, but we left behind people who do not have that luxury.  We left people behind for whom the hope of the last decade does not linger, but rather who watch that hard-fought hope seep away. My Ukrainian teacher’s parents met in Siberia where both sets of grandparents had been sent on economic or political whim. Upon their return to L’viv, the family was able to wrest one of the two families’ homes away from the military officer who squatted there. She hears news that Ukraine is selling its rich topsoil to international bidders and that the rada is legislating additional official languages, and she fears for the future of her children. A Russian-speaking Ukrainian colleague in Crimea bristles at the appearance of election posters of the political party in power that surround photographic images of the mid-twentieth century with the red and black communist party ribbon and other Soviet imagery. These women and more of my friends fear for the survival of an independent Ukraine. My experience in Ukraine makes me afraid for them, too.

My friend Yulia escorts me on a whirlwind tour of Crimea. Here she introduces me to Novy Svit on the Black Sea. The Novy Svit vineyard provided champagne for my mother’s birthday and our 25th wedding anniversary.

Having first-hand experience of corruption in education was particularly disconcerting. Witnessing the tragedies of Oksana Makar and Yulia Timoshenko and other less famous obscenities reel out in internal and external storylines without closure has been sickening, let alone disheartening.  Sometimes the sadness strikes even closer to home, as does the news of the July 10 roof collapse that killed an Ivan Franko student and a Texas volunteer with the student religious community that Adam and Zachary visited with their friend, Kristy.

L’viv volunteers prepare for watching Ukraine play England in the Fan Zone.

On the other hand, teaching students to examine the nature and communication of national identity, and volunteering with inspirational members of the diaspora and aspirational young people to welcome the world to L’viv during Euro 2012, have allowed me to witness their attitudes and aspirations, and to suspect that even if most of the voters in the next election are fooled again, these young people won’t be. The journalism students in L’viv and Crimea, where I participated in a workshop, understand their responsibility for shepherding change at the national level. For example, the student who started writing for the Catholic News from Washington, DC, this week inspires me. While political change may not come soon enough for some of my professorial colleagues, I am confidence that it will come because she and her classmates will help effect it through their journalistic and creative communicative activities. I hope to welcome my Ukrainian friends, colleagues and students, to my own home in the U.S. to share our hospitality as soon as the borders open and Ukraine takes its place as one of the world’s democratic nations.

Ukrainian hospitality focuses on family. Here, my mother celebrates her birthday while visiting us in Ukraine with a grandson under each arm.


Filed under Euro 2012, Fulbright, Politics, Research, Teaching, Travel, Ukraine, Uncategorized, Visual rhetoric, Volunteering

Another season, another Neo-Nazi march

They came back.  The marchers.  We could hear the rhythm of their call-and-response commotion just after 7:15 this evening.  We opened the windows to look out onto the street. Zachary took photographs.

If it weren’t for the words coming out of the bullhorn and the crowd’s enthusiastic repetition, it would have seemed a happy occasion.  Men parading down the street in their sirotchky, those embroidered shirts that many people around here wear for festive national and religious occasions. Indeed, you might remember we bought the boys sirotchky for their first day of school in September.  (They will wear them on their last day of school in May, and they have worn them to church in between—notably on Easter and Christmas.)

Earlier today, I wondered what holiday people were celebrating.  Zachary and I were traveling back from the airport after seeing off Bill and his mother, and we noticed a number of men on the bus wearing their festive shirts. How nice they looked!  As one man and then another would climb aboard, they would shake hands and smile and chat animatedly. Everyone got off the bus happily near the center of town. I did not realize that the good humor was anything but benign.

Those men must have been among the noisy crowd that were coming down Doroshenka Street. As we leaned out of our windows, we could see young girls leading the way. Then came street-wide banners that I could not read.  But in front of one of the banners, a young girl dressed in white dress and wearing flowers in her hair seemed to be the ceremonial leader.  An example of young and perfect womanhood, so important to racial purists like Aryans and Nazis, neo- or not. Three or four hundred marchers followed her, mostly men.  This march was not as scary as the march Jan 29 when marchers braved a frigid night to carry torches through the dark. But it certainly drew our attention.

The January march brought out twice as many participants.  I marveled that so many more people would come out in such freezing temperatures than I had seen on the night of the first march I witnessed in September.  Then I realized that marching in the dark could be anonymous.  Especially in a balaclava.

Tonight I could see their faces.

The fellow with the bullhorn was wearing his sirotchke over khaki cargo shorts. He dodged Saturday evening pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk beneath my window as he rode the wave of common purpose down the street.  His head was shaved on both sides and the long hair that remained was slicked back into the distinctive Cossack ponytail. (I wondered what the SS would have thought about that.)

“Slava Ukraina!” he bellowed. Glory to Ukraine!

“Slava Ukraina!” the crowd replied huskily.

“Slava Natsi!” Glory to the nation.

Maybe I should spell it the way they meant it.  Slava Nazi.

In Zachary’s photos, you can see black and red flags: communist or anarchist. In fact, the black and red combination recalls the communist party in Soviet times. I learned as much this past week on my trip to Crimea. The ribbon of the communist party is appearing on election billboards and posters all over Crimea together with messages that recall the Soviet “good times” and the ruling Party of Regions.  Similar posters appear all over Odessa. You can see the red and black striped ribbon, sort of faded but still recognizable, in the top right-hand corner of the poster below, peeking out of the shade above the red stripe. The picture shows a legendary church near the train station where icons miraculously reappeared on the walls s many times as unbelievers tried to erase them. It says in Russian, “Odessa: This is not just a city.  It is God’s smile.” Maybe the new boss will be more god-fearing than the old boss, but still — remember the good old days? (Brought to you by the communist party.)

In the photo below, see the black flags with the single-hook cross or wolfsangel on them?  The single-hook cross looks like a Z with an additional horizontal line slashed across the middle, and then turned on its side. The single-hook cross waved  by these marchers evokes the double-hook cross, which we know better as the swastika. The swastika was adopted by the National Socialist German Workers Party in 1920, and we all know that what followed in the next 25 years ruined centuries of positive spiritual meanings the symbol had communicated for cultures around the world. These days, the swastika is illegal in many countries in Europe, leading neo-Nazis to adopt other symbols around which to rally.  Other symbols such as the single-hook cross or wolfsangel.

These days, the wolfsangel is used by white supremacists.  It is also used by Satanists. Hmmm.

Perhaps both groups refer to Hermann Lon’s (1910) book Der Wehrwolf.  It does not seem so strange, then, that the werewolves on HBO’s series True Blood  are tattooed with this very symbol.  In fact, one of the episodes referred to the historical Nazi initiative Operation Werewolf, an end-of-the-war effort visually branded by the wolfsangel.

The blue shield carried by many people in the center of the marching group looks like a version of the Middle Ages coat-of-arms of the Principality and Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia.  If lots of things had things had turned out differently, I might be spending the year in Galicia right now instead of Ukraine. L’viv was an important Galician center.  Through political maneuverings and other the stuff of history, the area of Galicia morphed into part of the Austrio-Hungarian empire, to which it belonged until the First World War.  The blue shields seems to speak of that time of pseudo-independence; however, the shield is a more recent emblem, that of the Ukrainians who joined the Nazis to fight the Soviets: the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Galizien (1st Ukrainian). Even though loyalties and actions during the period of the Second World War were tremendously complicated, the message expressed by the shields carried down my street tonight is not:  “We are Ukrainian, and we are Nationalists in the Nazi tradition,” they say. This must be a worry for Euro 2012 organizers.

The burst of fireworks that began a minute ago is a bit disconcerting. While I don’t think tonight’s march has led to a revolution quite yet, this is the third march we have witnessed from our apartment window. It reminds me that Ukraine’s politics are tremendously complicated.  And that independence and democracy need special care and feeding if they are to flourish.


Filed under Politics, Travel, Ukraine, Visual rhetoric