Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Ukraine I Know

Many of you, Uncataloged readers probably have never thought much about Ukraine, except as my posts from and about Ukraine have appeared,  or when your museum thinks about traditional Easter celebrations and those painted eggs.  And perhaps you read my previous posts about the current protests (here and here).  But even casual readers of the news or Stephen Colbert watchers have noticed that something big is up in Ukraine.  Now what you see are armed policemen, burning tires, big crowds on the square,  and beaten protestors. As I do my best to follow the events of these days on Facebook and Twitter,  I think about my time in Ukraine, worry about friends and colleagues, and as a result, have decided to share a few words about the Ukraine I have come to know, a far more complicated place than the news pictures show--but a place that absolutely deserves our support.  So please forgive the non-museum related post--but it was museums that got me to Ukraine in the first place five years ago.

Many of the protestors are like you and me.  You might have come across reports that the people protesting on Maidan (the main square) are terrorists or provocateurs.  I urge you to watch this video. I know my former students from  the National University at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and many of my friends and colleagues have been out every day protesting.  It's not surprising that educated Ukrainians, many of whom have had opportunities to study or travel in western Europe or the United States, feel deeply committed to the concept of a civil society.   But several things have surprised me as I watch the protests.

First, when I first visited Ukraine, it seemed really difficult for many Ukrainians I met to think that they could stand up and make a difference--and that extended to things big and small.  At one point, I encouraged some colleagues to begin a museum educators group and someone said, "but who are we to start it?  It must be official."  What I see in the protests is that now,  many Ukrainians have realized that it's their time to stand up.  (of course, it's not everyone--I just read a translated open letter to "kitchen philosophers"  who stay at home.)
Second,  that I see so many faces of everyday people in the crowds:  not necessarily intellectuals,  or well-off people.  They look like the woman who sold me vegetables, or the man sitting next to me on the mashrutka going to work.  This protest is no longer about affliliating with Europe,  but it's about the right to live in a civil society, where corruption does not infuse every aspect of life (and make no mistake, it does).  It's beautiful to watch the courage and determination of everyday people (because now, even going to a protest carries a jail term--or worse).  On this year's Martin Luther King day, his words particularly resonated with me.
But other things don't surprise me.
  • Trust and Mistrust As an outsider and an American, I found this very complicated when I first came to Ukraine.  If you know a person--they are family, or you went to school with them, you absolutely trust them.  If you don't know them, you probably don't trust them.  The protests seem to have both reinforced this and at the same time, changed it a bit, as the protest movement moves beyond small groups of people you know into a larger movement.
  • Making Do.  Ukrainians have amazing skills in making do.  I've seen all kinds of creative fixes in all kinds of living and work situations and the protests are no exception.  A home-made catapult?  We're on it.  Torn down by the police?  We can build another.  Need to feed a lot of people?  We'll bring out the giant soup kettles.  Wearing helmets outlawed?  We'll wear colanders and pots for protection.
  • It's Cold Outside   I've laughed at several video pieces where I've seen foreign journalists interviewing someone and the Ukrainian interviewee interrupts to offer a hat, or mittens, or to say the journalist's coat is clearly not warm enough.  I often had people tell me the same.
  • The Language of Organization  in English translation, the language often sounds very Soviet to me as an American but fascinating to see that language used in a different context. 
  • Singing  Ukrainians are beautiful singers and singing has been a part of the protests.  One of my very first events I went to, on a very cold January evening, was a choral concert.  It's funny, I rarely remember hearing the national anthem sung,  but it is now sung regularly on Euromaidan. 
  • Social Media I've been able to stay in touch with friends via Facebook since I first went to Ukraine.  The protestors use of social media has been fast, comprehensive and a combination of moving and funny.   The film collective Babylon 13 is making great short films,  called Cinema of a Civil Protest.  They're well worth a watch.  And independent journalists have covered the protests tirelessly despite being directly targeted by the riot police.
  • Not Everybody's a Good Guy   There are right-wing nationalists on the side of the protestors.  To my mind, single-minded ethnic nationalists are not good guys really anywhere and some of these groups have made no secret of their aims.  However, it doesn't discredit the entire protest. And of course, there are plenty of people, from the president on down, whose goal is to preserve, not Ukraine, but their personal wealth and privilege.  Hopefully their time is soon ending.
  • There's Support Coming from Everywhere in Ukraine  Many Ukrainians often dismiss the east of the country as Russian and corrupt.  I've spent a fair amount of time in Donetsk, as recently as last May, and like everywhere I've been in Ukraine, I've been lucky enough to meet passionate people who care about the future of their country.  It's not a division between east and west, but a division between people who want a civil society with human rights and those who don't.
Make no mistake. Sometimes I found life in Ukraine (at several points, living just blocks from where the protests are in Kyiv) incredibly frustrating.  Bureaucratic rules,  a brusqueness that often shaded into rudeness, a reluctance to change, a sense of different values than I hold.  But honestly, sometimes I find that in the United States too (having just spent more than a few hours this week trying to track down a package from the Postal Service).  I can't predict what happens next in Ukraine.  But here's the Ukraine I know:
  • Talking with my graduate students about Ukraine's past and trying to puzzle out how museums might make a difference.  
  • Sitting in a kitchen in a Crimean Tatar settlement, thanks to my friend Barb, and learning how to make dumplings from Lenura.
  • Doing a workshop on visitor friendly museums in Kharkiv,  and hearing one participant announce at the beginning that interactive elements were "not for our people" and having her change her mind by the end of the day.
  • Moved to tears by the staff at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, as we worked together on an exhibit project,  when they brought out letters and other archival materials documenting how people--all kinds of people--had helped others different than themselves during World War II.
  • Sitting in a tiny cheesemakers' hut in the Carpathians,  eating cheese, bread, cucumbers and tomatoes, talking about the world.
  • Walking across in front of St. Sophia's at night, looking down to St. Michael's and thinking," this is a great city."
  • Hearing high school students in Donetsk share their oral history interviews with family members who worked in the mines.
  • And more conversations than I can remember: in the car to Opishne with Ihor;  on the train to Donetsk or the veranda of the Bulgakov Museum with Irina;  and with more people than I can count in kitchens, in cafes,  on the street, in museums, train compartments, and of course as part of the Pickle Project.  Ukraine is a beautiful place but it's the people that matter to me.
When I was there, often people I know would say, a bit laughingly,  at the end of a conversation with me, "Linda, you are so optimistic!"  It sometimes seemed a quality in short supply.  But, for Ukraine, although I worry greatly,  I still remain optimistic in every way for all of you.  To your future!


Debbie R said...

Thank you for your updates and thoughts on what's going on in Ukraine. As a first generation American of Ukrainian ancestry, I can completely relate to the dichotomy that you express in this post. It's a difficult time in the nation's history but hopefully things will soon take a turn for the better. If nothing else, Ukrainians always know how to survive, even if it's their own government.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Debbie--it's a privilege to share my thoughts (and my talented colleagues) on current events in Ukraine--appreciate you reading, and I agree, I hope for the best.