Thankfully, no one from Sonoma’s sister city Kaniv was killed in the bloody days in Kyiv (Kiev) two weeks ago, but nearly 100 people were, and flowers and candles are clustered outside City Hall. People continue to send donations and to go to the capital to support the continuing vigilance. Now, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, they are deeply worried.
The uprising in Ukraine is not about the European Union or Russia. It is not about regions of the country, or any alleged division between them. This has been much exaggerated in the western press and is dangerous thinking. Linguistic, political or ethnic differences do not line up neatly to create a “divided” country.
Many Ukrainians and Russians are married to one another. Most Ukrainians I know favor trade and cooperation with both Russia and the West. If there is a division, it is between the ordinary people on one side and the oligarchs and entrenched politicians on the other.
The “Maidan of Dignity,” as Ukrainians call it, has been an uprising by people from all parts of the country to overthrow a criminal government and to establish a fair and democratic nation. Period. The new government is committed to a unified Ukraine. The interim president is a Russian-speaking ethnic Russian from eastern Ukraine. A friend of mine knows him personally and tells me he is an honorable man, a protestant minister. Their goal is an independent Ukraine with a clean government, a healthy economy and a just system.
Ukrainians are notoriously patient, and they tolerated Yanukovich even though they knew he is, literally, a criminal and thief. But when he authorized brutality against peaceful protesters in early December, it was too much. Up to a million people gathered in Kyiv in the large central square, and there were at least tens of thousands there for more than three months, living in a highly organized tent city, even through a month of brutally cold weather.
(Note: The Ukrainian and official name of the capital city is Kyiv, pronounced almost like the word ‘cave’. KehYEVE. It is respectful to use it. Kiev is the Russian spelling.)
Then, as the world saw, the situation erupted into vicious attacks on Feb. 18. Sensational photographs create an impression of a violent people, but Ukrainians are orderly, calm and restrained. Videos give a better impression then selective still photos. Videos reveal months of huge gatherings with singing, hot food, church services and a free university. Then there were barricades and fires to protect the people from the police. Then came the violence two weeks ago, if you can stomach watching it, as dozens of unarmed protesters were picked off one by one – many as they ran to help others – by professional snipers shooting to kill, who have now been conclusively identified as Russian soldiers.
Then, on Feb. 22, the opposition “won.” Which leads to the question, why hasn’t everyone gone home? Yes, the people won, at great cost, the pullback of the military and police, compensation for victims and their families, release of all protesters arrested, criminal investigation of all deaths and outlawing the use of guns against the people. But shouldn’t that be normal in a civilized country? Ukrainians certainly think so. And since many of these steps have yet to be implemented, the people stay.
The parliament has re-instituted a constitution with more balanced power, and the president has been impeached. An interim president has been selected until elections can be held in May. This is an astonishing victory, earned by the perseverance and courage of people of all ages, all professions, from all parts of the country, too many of them leaving grieving families behind.
Yet the people remain in the Maidan to help shape the new government and keep an eye on the leaders. “Everything has just begun,” a friend writes. “Maidan stays to control new power. That’s now a new legal body of the people’s wish … That’s the beginning of new very happy country!”
But then, Putin made his move. He was expected to become heavy-handed once he no longer had to be a nice guy for the Olympics, but such an aggressive move was not expected. The rhetoric of the western press about a “divided” Ukraine is just what he wants. But there is no “danger” to ethnic Russians any more than to anyone else, neither in Crimea nor in any part of Ukraine.
No one in Crimea needs his “protection.” Suggestions of significant fascist influences are an insult to a nation that lost one-quarter of its population in the fight against the Nazis. The newly-appointed governor of a major region in the east is Jewish. It is pretty clear that Putin wants to foment dissension among Ukrainians, so a crippled Ukraine would “need” his salvation. Many suspected Yanukovich wanted the same end, only through crippling Ukraine economically.
As of March 5, friends in Kaniv are feeling optimistic that the crisis in Crimea is calming down and things will improve little by little. But in Kyiv, a friend says, “The Russians say they are not here any more, but in the metro and on the streets, I feel that they are.”
In the long run, I believe things can never be the same in Ukraine again. The Ukrainian people have showed to themselves and the world their strength, courage and humanity. As one young woman said, “The most important change has happened. We know that it all depends on us. We cannot leave it to the leaders.”
Meanwhile, March 9 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s much-loved cultural icon, poet, painter and champion of the common man. He was buried in Kaniv, his museum is there, and that is why Sonoma and Kaniv are Sister Cities. We have Jack London, they have Shevchenko, although he is a figure of much greater stature in Ukraine. There is a statue of him in virtually every town, and in Washington D.C.
The anniversary was to have been a huge celebration lasting for days, but because of the current situation it will be quite modest. On Saturday, March 8, there is a free concert of Ukrainian music and a play from one of Shevchenko’s poems in honor of the occasion. People will be able to see some Ukrainian culture in action, with incomparably beautiful Ukrainian music. It will be held at the San Francisco Main Public Library, Larkin at Grove, at 2 p.m. in the Koret Auditorium.
The people of Kaniv treasure their connection with Sonoma and can use our support, both moral and financial, at this critical time. Many have sacrificed in this historic effort and will continue to sacrifice. I’d be happy to help anyone locate Ukrainians they have known. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tarnie Baldinger has a connection to the Ukrainian city of Kaniv going back to 1991 when a Sister Cities student exchange sent her daughter Evie, and four other students, there, during the last days of the Soviet Union. Oxana Demeshko, the Ukrainian girl Evie stayed with, lived with Baldinger in Sonoma for three weeks that fall. Baldinger first visited Ukraine in the winter of 1994, and has been in Kaniv many times since. She has also visited western Ukraine and Kyiv, the capital, and spent several weeks in Crimea. She has many close friends in Ukraine and says, “a Ukrainian friend is a friend for life.”
This report is summarized from multiple personal contacts, news sources, and commentaries, Ukrainian and international.