A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

East vs West

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December advertisement featuring Valeriy Konovalyuk, a member of the Party of Regions, which has strong ties to Russia. The sign reads:

“Issue at stake: NATIONAL IDEA
Valeriy Konovalyuk
Farewell, arms!
Farewell, NATO!
National idea:
A new Ukraine-
Without the right to mistakes”

In a February 25 front page op-ed of the Kyiv Post, Myths from U.S.S.R. still have strong pull today: NATO is evil, Bandera worked for Nazis, and other myths that divide Ukraine, Yuriy Lukanov viciously condemns those Ukrainians (mostly eastern Ukrainians and Crimeans) for opposing NATO and Ukrainian nationalism.

(Before I go any further, let’s discuss that second myth. Stepan Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist leader, whose organization had originally been pro-Nazi Germany before splitting off and forming a new faction. According to several Dnepropetrovskians, incidentally, it was not uncommon for Western Ukrainians, especially the nationalists, to be pro-Nazi as part of their anti-Soviet crusade. From personal experience, I can assure you that there are many fascists in Dnepropetrovsk today, and I am told there are just as many throughout Ukraine, although they are not neo-Nazis.)

Lukanov states that “A civil war has been going on in Ukraine for the last several years, albeit a virtual one. Fights are cruel, as if the citizens want to destroy each other – or at least each other’s brains.” The Kyiv Post is extremely pro-Western, and this op-ed is no exception. While there is certainly a breach between east and west, I have not found it to be nearly as excessive as Lukanov would have you believe. There are a few issues, however, that are particularly devisive, particularly NATO.

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This sign was also advertised all over the city, right around New Year’s. It reads:

“To a new year
And the hope for a new Ukraine
Valeriy Konovalyuk”

The west wants in. The east doesn’t. Ukrainian president Yushchenko has been striving for entrance into NATO and the EU since the Orange Revolution in 2004, to the great ire of Russia. Yushchenko also made a big show of support for Georgia this summer and supported the country with arms (some allege that there were secret deals, as well).

Joshua Kucera, a Slate reporter, writes in Crimea Scene Investigation: Is Ukraine Next?, “Immediately after the dust settled in Georgia, speculation had it that Ukraine was next in Russia’s sights. (Google “Is Ukraine next?” to see just how much speculation.) Like Georgia, Ukraine has NATO aspirations and a president dedicated to moving away from Moscow and toward the United States and Europe. And it has Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea where most of the population is not Ukrainian but ethnic Russian. It also hosts a large Russian naval base.”

It’s not just Crimeans who consider themselves Russian, despite being born within the limits of Ukraine. One of my Russian teachers, Elena Alexandrovna (she teaches me on Mondays only, when Svetlana Alexandrovna works at her school), has assured me quite a few times that she is Russian, not Ukrainian. Others, like Svetlana Alexandrovna, though pround of their Ukrainian heritage, believe Ukraine should be part of greater Russia, given their families and friends all currently reside there, and they share so much common history.

Besides, they speak the same language.

This brings up another point Lukanov mentions in his op-ed. He writes, “Yanukovych [leader of the Party of Regions and opposition leader in the Verkhovna Rada] recently announced that, in his native Donbass, children are suffering and crying because they are forced to study in Ukrainian. Can you imagine a statement of this sort about French, English, Polish or other languages from politicians in these nations?”

Interestingly enough, I had heard a similar story only a day before reading the article. Anya, a very intelligent woman who is completely fluent in English and speaks very high Russian, was complaining to me that all her graduate school classes are, by law, only taught in Ukrainian. Even the professors struggle, she explained, since they live in Dnepropetrovsk and speak only Russian on a daily basis. She continued to say that she’s already studying for her economics final presentation, since it must be given entirely in Ukrainian, and that means memorizing a whole language of technical vocabulary and specialized terminology.

Meanwhile, in elementary schools, teaching Ukrainian has become a huge problem. Because it is not the primary language of the students, but it is forcibly becoming the primary language of education, students are left with poor skills in both their native Russian and their secondary Ukrainian. Eastern Ukrainian teachers have descried this new trend, advocating that students would be more fluent in both languages if they were permitted to continue teaching primarily in Russian.

There are two sides to every coin. I personally sit right on the fence for almost every issue, since my western loyalties and eastern environment allow me to understand both sides of the story. The more I know, the less I’m able to form an opinion. Everyone’s right, and everyone’s wrong.

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