What the world does not understand about being Ukrainian

From half way around the world I have been glued to my Twitter and Facebook, Kyiv Post and Ukrainian Pravda and make frequent calls to family in Ukraine to check up on them. I read everything I can about the Maidan and the current events. I read the stories of the people who are standing up for their future and national identity and wish I could be there by their side. They are professionals and farmers, PhD’s and factory workers, Orthodox, Christians and Jews. Despite all their differences, they have one thing in common; they are Ukrainians.

I was born and raised in Canada, the child of Ukrainian Diasporas. I listened to my father’s stories of how he was a “Freedom Fighter”. He didn’t use the names OUN or UPA because the Soviet propaganda machine had tainted those terms as negative and evil and anyway, whatever they were called, that’s what they were; Freedom Fighters. They were fighting for a free and independent Ukraine.

For over a thousand years the lands of Ukraine were fought over, taken over, sliced and diced, between a variety of Kingdoms and Empires; and the Ukrainian spirit survived. My father was born under Russian rule followed by a brief period of Ukrainian Independence. Then came the Bolsheviks and when Ukraine resisted Communism, Stalin’s famines; which killed millions of countrymen. My uncle was sentenced to jail and died in a gulag for the crime of stealing a single loaf of bread to feed the family. After millions of Ukrainians were killed off, the Soviets transplanted millions of Russians into the South and East to replace the dead Ukrainians that worked in the factories and fields. These transplantees had no love for Ukraine; they were Russians living in Ukraine. However for the ethnic Ukrainians, the spirit lived on.

Stalin continued his campaign of striping Ukraine of its national identity. Imprisoning or killing Ukraine’s intellectuals, writers, and artists; banning the Ukrainian language and traditions.  For decades, my father spat on the floor at the mention Stalin’s name. It is no wonder that the thought of statues honoring Stalin in city parks and squares is so distasteful to so many ethnic Ukrainians.

Then, the Soviets and Nazis trampled the Ukrainian soil, destroying anything that stood in their way. My mother, at 14 years old watched Nazi soldiers shoot her closest childhood friend in the back as she ran to hide, simply because she was a Jew. Later that year, she was torn away from the family and relocated to work in Germany; yet she always held Ukraine in her heart.

My father during this time volunteered to fight for his beloved Ukraine. He joined up with others who had the same common goal of a Ukrainian land self-determined by Ukrainians. Call it Nationalism if you choose to. They did not hate Poles or Germans or Soviets; they hated their governments’ desires to occupy and control the lands that belonged to Ukrainians.  They were fighting for the freedom and the future of their homeland. This is the spirit that I see in the Maidan today.

My parents met in Germany and were relocated as refuges in Canada where like Ukrainian Diaspora communities that popped up around the world, they kept the Ukrainian spirit alive. They built Ukrainian social halls, churches and schools for their children so that they would grow up with an identity as Ukrainians and know of their incredible heritage; the good and the bad. Elders in the community tell me that I speak beautiful Ukrainian because it is not tainted with Russian. That pleases me because from half a world away, I am proud to be Ukrainian.

That brings us to the struggles of today. The people of the Maidan and that of those from around the world, who support her, will not be put down easily. What the world needs to understand is that the Ukrainian spirit is strong. The desire to escape the heavy hand of Russia is deep. The yearning for Western freedoms is powerful. The majority of Ukrainians are tired of living under the control of a minority segment of the population which is corrupt ethnic Russians who would be very happy to reinstate the Soviet rule over Ukraine once again.

Personally, I think that this time, the Ukrainian spirit will not give up until they have achieved independence. Unfortunately, the cost of freedom is usually very high.

Glory to Ukraine!  Слава Україні!

Alex Stepchuk

18 thoughts on “What the world does not understand about being Ukrainian

  1. Pingback: Tobias Ernst: The Ukrainians know the difference between a people and it’s government. That’s why you have so many nationalities and ethnics on Maidan. | Voices of Ukraine

  2. I’m sorry, but you may be unaware of how ruefully biased and outright xenophobic this article is! First, you assume it is the “ethnic Russians” that are corrupt and uncaring about Ukraine. I can assure you that 1. there are PLENTY of ignorant Westerners who are corrupt to the bone and even collude with the Russian Federation and 2. there are plenty of “ethnic” Russians from the East who identify as proud Ukrainians and love this country. Also, you probably don’t realize how patronizing you sound. You don’t even live here, and the statute of limitations on your parents suffering has expired, and is non-transferable. If you want license to spout such xenophobic ideals, maybe you should live here for a few years first?

    • Would you be available for an interview on Skype? I’m a student journalist in Canada looking to do a short video interview with someone who is currently living in Ukraine.

    • Samuel, i find your comments as offensive and arrogant of what the truth is about Russian propaganda and their style of imperialism.Go and live through famine,torture and the burning of all of your possessions,then come and tell me what it was like to endure such painfull atrocities.Will you abide by the statute of limitations,probably not,as your mindset will be telling you to seek compensation for your inhumane experiences.
      Do

  3. Thank you, Alex! Great and clear explanation! I left Ukraine 6 months ago. My heart hurts for Ukraine, but at the same time I’m incredibly proud of our people. Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!

  4. Many congratulations on your eloquence Alex. You have truly captured the essence of all Ukrainians living “na chuzeni”. Your story is the story of many thousands of Ukrainians scattered throughout the western world since the end of WWII. Well done mate, from another Ukrainian in Australia!

  5. If you spend some time in Ukraine, you will find that many ethnic Russians in Ukraine today are Ukrainian patriots, even activists who fight for Ukraine’s independence, culture, and language. It is incorrect to vilify ethnic Russians the way that this essay does. One of the wonderful things about the current Euromaidan movement is that it has brought together Ukrainian citizens not only of different faiths, but different ethnic backgrounds, to fight for human rights and true democracy in their country. Indeed the first victims killed by the government aggression were not ethnic Ukrainians: Serhiy Nigoyan was an ethnic Armenian, and Mikhail Zhyzneuski was a native of Belarus.

  6. Since he doesn’t live in Ukraine, Mr. Stepchuk would obviously not be aware of the immigrants to Ukraine from Russia who have become fervent Ukrainians themselves; as an American with no ethnic or familial ties to Ukraine who has nonetheless come to love the Ukrainian spirit, so similar to the American spirit, I see how this could be possible (and even likely). I hope that Mr. Stepchuk is able to forgive those who so badly treated Ukraine and its people, and embrace those newcomers — both the former Russians and the newcomers-in-spirit like me — who have embraced the Ukrainian spirit.

  7. My heart bleeds for you Alex…

    1 question… when you state “After millions of Ukrainians were killed off, the Soviets transplanted millions of Russians into the South and East to replace the dead Ukrainians” What South and East would that be??? Are you referring to Oblasti which were never Ukrainean and were given to Ukraine only about 50-60 years ago by Russia as a present???? I am from the south – Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
    Like absolute majority of the population there I do not identify myself as Ukrainean… Despite the fact that both of my great grandparents died during Holodomor, both my parents and grandparents have no cultural ties or desire to be in Ukraine… and this echos across majority of population at least in my city of birth.
    I live in Canada now.. and I see so many ethnic western Ukraineans here just boil with unexplained hatred for Russia (simply based on what they are being fed by the media) from the warmth and comfort of their homes far away from Ukraine….to all these people I say: SHUT UP. If you are such a patriot, then go back and fight with real Ukraineans… not pseudo-patriotic bullshiters in Canada/Australia/US and the rest of the world” Your heartfelt and tearful articles dont do sh*t for anyone there and have no impact on anything other than wasted time and breath….

  8. Dear Alex, please read the following link:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacres_of_Poles_in_Volhynia_and_Eastern_Galicia

    You seem to be honest and idealistic person. I hope that article will change your view on UPA and OUN. I dont question the patriotism of many of its members. The problem is those organisations are also responsible for the killings of thousands of innocent civilians in order to “purge” the Ukrainean territory from the other nationalities.

  9. Very well said! I was born and raised in Ukraine but immigrated with my mom to England when I was 12 right in the middle of the crisis of the 90’s. I never thought much of Ukraine and I never had a chance (or much desire) to go back until a huge personal crisis sent me running there for emotional cover 18 years later. I had many fears about going back, many nightmares plagued me but as soon as I walked out of the airport, I felt myself take root. I felt “motherland” reach up through the ground, connect to me and chain me heart and soul to it for ever. Even before Maidan began, I fund myself become a patriot for Ukraine but when I saw the events develop, like yourself, I was glued to every piece of media I could get my hands on and kept in constant contact with my family in Kyiv. I cried, I raged and most of all I swelled with pride for my country and its children. Two weeks ago I finally had a chance to go back again. Only for two weeks but I ran to the Maidan and Grushevskogo with uncontainable sense of urgency and excited expectations. It was all that and more! I never wanted to leave, I wanted to be a part of what was happening there! Unfortunately leave I had to. But I made sure to take photos and listen to stories, which I hope to put together and share with as many people as I can! But you are right, no one can truly understand what it is to be a Ukrainian but a Ukrainian!

    Slava Ukraini! Geroyam Slava!

  10. cough – cough… Dmytro K and Miko – Are you the same person or are you two sitting at the same desk? Please tell me what a Ukrainean is – and I’ll tell you what a troll is. Here is the problem people – disingenuous Russian’s who know nothing and care nothing about history or reality, fed on RT propaganda and they can’t get enough… We have to stop listening to them right away.

  11. “….the Soviets transplanted millions of Russians into the South and East to replace the dead Ukrainians that worked in the factories and fields. These transplantees had no love for Ukraine; they were Russians living in Ukraine. However for the ethnic Ukrainians, the spirit lived on.”
    – it does sound very much as the nationalism. And if the feeling that being loyal and proud of my country is great you deliver a very clear massage that ones are better and more important than others , as well as they know better and must be entitled to “what is right and what the spirit is …” It all seeds of aggression against each other , among two neighbors. If it happens that one cultural element is stronger in one or another region it has its reasons for that. People who leave there keep it alive. It doesn’t mean that others who have this element less or more are less superior or have no spirit by default.
    Thinking of that kind can go long way …. And here some sad history :
    “At the time of the OUN’s founding, the most popular political party among Ukrainians was the Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance which, while opposed to Polish rule, called for peaceful and democratic means to achieve independence from Poland. The OUN, on the other hand, was originally a fringe movement within western Ukraine, condemned for its violence by figures from mainstream Ukrainian society such as the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky, who wrote of the OUN’s leadership that “whoever demoralizes our youth is a criminal and an enemy of our people.” Several factors contributed to the OUN-B’s increase in popularity and, ultimately, monopoly of power within Ukrainian society, conditions necessary for the massacres to occur.”
    Youth doesn’t know what the war is. They don’t know what is after-war is either. They want to be heroes , they are fearless and they can be moved by ideas. And then comes history.
    It might come that the future without transplanted Russians might be bright in Ukraine.
    Be careful , people.

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