“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, who no one else can spare us . . . I can see that the picture of what we were at an earlier stage may not be recognizable and cannot, certainly, be pleasing to contemplate in later life. But we must not repudiate it, for it is proof that we have really lived.”
– Marcel Proust
This quote from Remembrance of Things Past is a fitting way to begin my new blogging adventure. Proust is addressing issues of identity and transformation; the necessity of understanding who we are as a function of our history. However flawed or jagged the past might be, it is part of us and we must embrace it to gain insight into our present selves. With a little luck, we can even learn enough from the past to move toward a better future. Nothing seems more true or more urgent to understand in today’s world.
I haven’t always thought about my identity and history in quite such consequential terms. In fact, I’ve spent much of life hurrying away from the past, trying to fit as seamlessly as possible into my new American life. Having learned English quickly the way children do, I didn’t have to carry the burden of my roots on my tongue for very long. Unlike others of my family, I wasn’t cursed with a “foreign” accent. I could pass for an all-American kid. But kids grow up, and even those in a hurry to become their adult American selves yearn to know and understand the history that has shaped their lives.
My journey took me from my birthplace in the Soviet Union’s Ural Mountains, dividing Europe from Asia, to Poland, where my father was born, to join a postwar Jewish refugee community. Eventually, we traversed Europe, through then Czechoslovakia, East and West Germany, and France, where we boarded a Dutch ocean liner and finally crossed the Atlantic Ocean. When we landed in New York Harbor one frigid February day, my cultural journey was to get even more complex, and I see now, extraordinarily rich.
As a child I didn’t understand that my parents’ sacrifices were in fact tremendous gifts to me. I was a kid from the Soviet Union in America at the height of the Cold War–and a Jew to boot. This was, to say the least, very strange and hard. Harder still for my parents, who had lost everything – and nearly everyone – in World War II, and who uprooted their barely rebuilt postwar lives again and again for a shot at having a better American life, in what turned out to be an often openly hostile and very foreign land. There were no civic institutions supporting Soviet-Russian refugees like us, not in the ’60s. As challenging a transition as it was for my small family, it was a time of great transitions for the U.S. too, whose cultural revolution and resulting struggle for equality, inclusion, free speech, civil rights, and, yes, peace and love, became my refuge and has informed everything I’ve done since.
By training I am a linguist, lawyer, advocate and teacher. I have degrees in Russian Literature, Slavic Languages, Linguistics, and Law, from Rutgers University and the University of California, Berkeley. I speak several languages and read a good number more. My interests have always been diverse and progressive, ranging from cross-cultural communication to human rights to garage punk rock. My primary focus these days, however, is Russia and Ukraine.
I didn’t know until it happened, that my past journeys prepared me so well for this one. As I watched last year’s EuroMaidan protests, where so many ordinary Ukrainians poured into Kyiv’s Maidan Square, calling for a better government so they could have a shot at better lives, I instantly understood their struggle. But there was something else too. I recognized in them my own family, those who walked the same ground they were walking, streaming in from the countrysides and the cities to make their voices heard. I recognized their songs, their foods, their faces, and their hopes. This was both startling and exciting. You see, because Ukraine had been my family’s Bloodlands, I had pushed it back into the recesses of my mind. I had almost forgotten that Ukraine had also been my mother’s much beloved homeland. It was where she grew up, attended school, learned to embroider, sang on the radio, played at the beach. And when war and hate forced her to abandon her homeland just as she was about to embark on a promising academic career, she quietly hung on to her memories of Ukraine like precious artifacts.
Maidan was my wake-up call to look beyond my presumptive image of Ukraine as one of war and tears. Euromaidan showed me a Ukraine of solidarity and unity, of joy and excitement, of hard work and determination. I saw young and old, Muslims and Jews, hipsters and bikers, musicians and poets, all in common pursuit of what I had come to take for granted in my adopted homeland, democracy and dignity. I soon realized that I had to reexamine what I thought I knew about Ukraine, past and present. I’ve taken on that challenge over the past many months, embracing my Ukrainian heritage, the good and the bad, for my family, for me, and perhaps even for Ukraine.
I wrote on some of the issues EuroMaidan brought up for the Ukrainian diaspora, particularly for Jews, back in December 2013 at the height of the protests. Wherever we were, in the East or in the West, whatever our past hurts, there was no denying that we were witnessing the birth of something new and something great in Ukraine. This new Ukraine was determined to move beyond its past and the burden of its Soviet legacy, toward a democratic, inclusive civil society where European values of justice, dignity and rule of law would reign over corruption and might. I couldn’t turn away, and so I got involved.
My journey has now taken me full circle, back to the part of the world where I started, though from a different vantage point and equipped with experience and important skills. Not only can I read about what is happening in my former and ancestral homelands, but I am of there too, which informs and deepens my perspective.
With Russia back in the news almost daily, there’s a lot of information to process. Some of the larger issues are clear. Putin’s overt and covert aggression in Ukraine has killed thousands, leveled cities and villages, displaced millions, and this may only be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As war ravages Ukraine’s southeastern regions, Russia is moving rapidly from its nominal ‘managed democracy’ to a full-fledged repressive state, persecuting critics, bankrupting civil institutions, dividing society into patriots and traitors.
A good deal of this information, particularly about Ukraine, is also quite muddled, contradictory, which can be overwhelming in a different sense. This isn’t just a matter of being lost in translation. The landscape of the Russia-Ukraine war is purposely made messy, to mess with our heads, so to speak. This is part and parcel of Russia’s hybrid warfare, a war effort not only on land, but one on tv and the airwaves, whose goal is to control and manipulate information. It’s an old tenet that history is written by the victors. But in today’s information age, controlling information enables Russia to write its own history right now, sometimes before it happens. Russia has established a sophisticated network of state-run international media outlets, overt, like RT (Russia Today) and SputnikNews, and covert, like the St Petersburg troll factory, whose job it is to pump out a specific Kremlin version of reality. And when that narrative proves too hard to swallow, which it often does, then their job is to overwhelm us, sow confusion, so perhaps we’ll just disengage, not knowing what is true or who to believe.
This is where I come in. I can shine a bright light, a magnifying glass, on Russia’s information war so perhaps you won’t throw your hands up and disengage. Perhaps I can guide you through the morass of propaganda that obscures the truth. At the very least, I hope to raise awareness, particularly in the U.S., where Americans are naturally war-weary and whose knowledge of Eastern European history is often rudimentary, that neither Russia nor Ukraine is someone else’s problem. What’s happening there will have important repercussions for all of us for generations to come.
So I ask that you care about what’s happening in Ukraine, Russia and other post-Soviet regions. Many in the West thought our work was pretty much done when the USSR and its totalitarian regime collapsed. Obviously, we were wrong. These complicated regions demand our attention, from the hawks as well as the peaceniks. We’ve come too far as a global community in articulating and embracing international standards of justice and human dignity to turn the clock back. So I will continue to do my small part, here and elsewhere, to keep the truth from being drowned out by the propaganda lies. I’ll post important and interesting news and analysis from all over the world. I’ll translate and give you my take in short and long form as needed. If you find you don’t agree with something I say or share, no worries. I’m not here to argue. I’m here to help open the East to the West.