It’s Time the West Moved Past Its Misconceptions About Ukraine

A former Peace Corps volunteer highlights four things he wishes everyone knew about Ukraine.
Austen Dowell, Ukraine news, war in Ukraine, Ukraine corruption, Petro Poroshenko Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky Ukraine, Ukraine national identity, Ukraine separatist republics, Ukraine Russian relationship, Ukraine 2014 revolution

Monument of Independence, Kyiv, Ukraine, May 2018 © MaxxjaNe / Shutterstock

August 18, 2020 04:49 EDT

My service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine between 2018 and 2020 allowed me to witness truly historic moments as they happened, whether it was the country’s biggest-ever Pride parade or the landslide election of a comedian to the office of president. Ukraine was host to the largest Peace Corps contingent in the world prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, a reality that attests to a mutual interest in maintaining close ties between both the peoples of the two countries and their respective governments. My days were filled with curious Ukrainians asking me about life in the US, and I had the honor to prepare students who had won prestigious scholarships to go live and study in US high schools for a year.

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Nonetheless, I have been struck by the lack of general interest or knowledge about Ukraine shown by my community in the US. Most of my friends and family knew about Chernobyl — the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters that took place in 1986 — but they had few other points of reference for asking about my time in Ukraine. While this is most likely just another example of the average citizen’s obtuseness about world affairs, this ignorance can give rise to misperceptions that are then articulated at the highest level, such as the harshly negative picture painted of Ukraine during the 2019-2020 impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

As a returned Peace Corps volunteer and someone passionate about international engagement, here are four things that I wish everyone knew about Ukraine today. 

US Involvement in Ukraine

First and foremost, both countries have mattered to each other for a long time. It’s just that Ukraine is a country that Americans just can’t stop forgetting about. The United States inherited a deeply complicated relationship with Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union emerged from the ruins of imperial Russia, but it was Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration that provided the aid that saved tens of thousands of Soviet citizens from perishing in the manmade famine of 1921.

Fast-forward 70 years, and Ukraine’s popular movement toward independence was marred by then-President George H. W. Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech in 1991, urging Ukrainians to not be hasty about trying to break away from the Soviet Union and form their own sovereign nation. The country then quickly faded from the Western public eye, with its only enduring legacy enshrined in the board game Risk as a huge yet indefensible territory holding the keys to Europe.

This popular culture placeholder might have accidentally captured geopolitical thinking, with policymakers well aware of the historic role of Ukrainian territory as a buffer state and agricultural powerhouse. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, most Americans would only be able to identify Ukraine in a mocking way, laughing with Kramer and Newman at a heavily-accented stranger angrily protesting that “Ukraine is game to you!”

The country’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity propelled the country back into US news coverage. Ukraine became a staple of Western media and public handwringing as neighboring Russia annexed Crimea and sent troops and armaments into Ukraine’s eastern territories. This furor subsided amidst the signing of a (constantly violated) ceasefire, and US and European audiences seemed to forget about the conflict, which has taken over 10,000 civilian lives and displaced 1.5 million people to date. Now, Ukraine has reappeared once again as part of President Trump’s recent impeachment trial and as a domestic hacky-sack for November’s presidential election. 

Today, Ukraine is still a geostrategically vital country. Initial fraternal appreciation for the Russian people and state following independence have collapsed amidst Russian armed interventions in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. There is considerable scholarly debate about what Russia’s vision for its involvement was and to what extent the conflict is a knee-jerk reaction, a cynical bargaining tactic or possibly even a Ukrainian civil war. Crimea has long played host to first the Soviet and then the Russian fleet, while the natural resources and the heavy industry located in the eastern provinces also play a role in fueling the cycle of violence.

Just as Complex

Second, much like Americans, Ukrainians are divided in their attitude toward the costs of conflict. At the school where I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer, there is a plaque, and annual assemblies, dedicated to an alumnus who was killed after volunteering to fight. That being said, I also had discussions with young Ukrainians who insisted that some people who volunteered just ended up sitting in the barracks, and that the army’s efforts were being undermined by corrupt officers and apathy.

Daily life continues in a way that seems to belie the fact that part of the country is under occupation, but beyond the conversations and public events there is a palpable sense of disquiet. Many Ukrainians regard the inhabitants of occupied Luhansk and Donetsk territories as deserving of destruction because of their separatist, Russia-leaning sympathies, while others stress that the conflict will only end by reengaging all Ukrainians with a federal government that can better share political and economic power with its many provinces and regions.

While many Ukrainians still have family and friends living in Russia, the attitude toward the Russian government itself has never been so low. The capital has officially been transliterated into English as Kyiv, rather than the Russian-derived Kiev, while an intense discourse rages over what place Russian-language music should have on the radio and in movie theaters. Official events will often start or end with the stock phrase “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes,” which the Russian media establishment has attempted to connect to ultra-nationalism and fascism.

For many Ukrainians, however, the phrase is used to honor the fallen while indicating pride in their nation. Ukraine is a country that self-identifies as a historical victim of imperial oppression, and the national hero is the Cossack, representative of the democratic, horse-riding defenders of Ukrainian nationhood. The Ukrainian national anthem is somewhat reminiscent of Western anthems, with a ringing endorsement of a certain national spirit that has survived against all odds and will usher in a brighter future.

A Bright Potential

Third, Ukraine should not be dismissed as doomed to its past. Much of the initial excitement in the international media about the 2014 revolution, exemplified by the brave protests on Maidan Square in support of the country’s closer association with the European Union that captured the world’s attention, quickly turned to a narrative of how oligarchs and fascist elements were hijacking the popular movement. This is a favorite stalking horse of the Russian state media, but it is true that far-right elements did figure in the initial fighting both against government security forces and in the chaos following the operations in eastern Ukraine.

Similarly, there is no avoiding the widespread corruption that has marked the history of Ukraine as an independent state. Oligarchs like Renat Akhmetov and Ihor Kolomoisky have controlled large swathes of the nation’s industries, and these robber barons inspired countless lower-level iterations.

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Ukraine’s economy has been hamstrung by the economic consequences of the conflict in its eastern provinces with Russian-back separatists, while attempts at reform are widely seen as opposed by corrupt officials and their oligarch sponsors. One friend of mine in Korostyshiv talked despairingly about Ukraine’s future and opined that the country should simply be divided between Poland and Russia. This rare perspective certainly attests to the dim view that many younger Ukrainians have for the future of their country.

The nation has undoubtedly suffered from a population drain as Ukrainians leave for other countries in pursuit of higher wages, and the cultural implications of this exodus are far reaching. A 2015 hit song called “I’m Going to Mom” by the acclaimed Ukrainian pop-parody group Dzidzio followed a fictional protagonist as he traveled to visit his mother, whom he had not seen in 15 years, in distant Portugal. Everyone knows someone who has left the country, and this lends itself to an atmosphere that encourages pessimism about the future.

Additionally, Ukrainians continue to harbor deep-seated suspicion about the ability of the government to protect property and civil rights. Popular resentment of oppressive Soviet governments was compounded by flagrantly corrupt Ukrainian governments following independence, and protests such as the 2004 Orange Revolution have been seen as failing to deliver meaningful change.

The progress of the national conversation under current President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to a genuine attempt to combat these forces. It is perhaps telling that his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, a fabulously wealthy chocolate magnate, running on an “Army, Language, Faith” platform, was beaten in a landslide in last year’s election by Zelensky, a comedic actor with no political experience who campaigned on a vague anti-corruption platform. While Poroshenko’s positioning had become important for establishing a new Ukraine as viable and separate from Russia, the Ukrainian people explicitly called for further progress.

If Poroshenko was the ardent nationalist defender of Ukrainian values, then Zelensky has attempted to shift the national tone toward a more inclusive, forward-looking vision of what it means to be Ukrainian.

This has met with opposition, particularly as the conflict in the east kills Ukrainian soldiers every day and impatience grows with the progress of the Zelensky administration is making against systemic corruption. Many families I knew regarded him as a Kremlin-backed stooge, while others thought that his good intentions could not be accomplished given the seriousness of the economic situation.

The excitement and hype surrounding anti-corruption and ending the conflict with Russia have certainly diminished, despite a raft of important legislative decisions and massive changes in the prosecutorial and police services. The firing earlier this year of a reformist prosecutor general and decreasing public support seem to paint a picture of an agenda that is falling short as it comes up against entrenched regional and criminal interests. While viewed more or less as a decent person, President Zelensky finds himself between the hottest of frying pans and the fire.

That being said, there is a clear narrative of attempting to move forward toward a new, hybrid Ukraine that can draw closer to Europe. Public discourse can be witheringly negative about future prospects, but the fact that observers can opine about the virtues of one reformist candidate over another speaks to an underlying paradigm shift that has slowly been occurring. The war in the east has in many ways forced Ukraine to grapple with its own cultural and national identity. There is a sense of needing to seize the moment and an understanding that a country with such rich resources and human capital has the potential to become great again.  

History Matters

Finally, Ukraine has a wide spectrum of ideas about its identity and historical legacy. The country is multilingual in a way that is difficult for many outside observers grasp, with the Ukrainian and Russian languages not necessarily linked to ethnicity or political viewpoint. Usage can differ wildly by community, and large swathes of Ukraine speak a patois mixed between Ukrainian and Polish or Ukrainian and Russian. With vanishingly small state pensions (sometimes as little as $50 a month) and few support services, many older Ukrainians genuinely believe that life under the Soviet Union was better than it is now.

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The younger generation is the reverse, with the national conversation now oriented toward coming to terms with the atrocities and oppression that occurred under the Soviet regime while embracing international engagement.

The territory of Ukraine has historically been divided between the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian empires, and later the Soviet Union, and those divisions continue to manifest themselves in contemporary culture and politics. However, it is too common that observers see an East-West divide as the defining feature of Ukraine. I suggest looking at it as something akin to regions in the United States: New England and the South had vastly different historical experiences, which can be tied to contemporary politics. However, this would ignore a host of other historical and contemporary factors. The people of Ukraine have collectively undergone a long series of hardships and crises.

Much as Western nations are being called upon to reexamine their national identity and the sins of the past, so Ukrainians now grapple with what kind of society they want to leave for their children. As Ukraine is talked about in the upcoming months, we must remember that it is a complex society that is multifaceted in its viewpoints, and it is slowly overcoming the many obstacles history has placed in its way. One cannot define a country solely on the basis of its corruption scandals or bizarre-sounding domestic news stories. If there is one final takeaway, however: please don’t call it “the Ukraine.” This would be faintly analogous to walking into a modern forum and trying to call the US “the colonies.”

While the Ukrainian schoolchildren that I worked with will undoubtedly face many problems moving forward, they are not living in the blighted, defunct Ukraine that President Trump’s impeachment defense wanted to sell to the American public. In hindsight, it seems laughable that a US administration with its own raft of suspected corrupt enterprises would try to play up the struggles of another country. If anything, the tenor of public discussion in Ukraine should serve as an example that moments of national crisis can help a country to heal old divisions and move toward a brighter future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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