Ukraine was considered part of Russia at the end of the 19th century when all four of my grandparents were born and lived there. My father’s parents lived in the western part of the country in the area called Komenets Podolsk, the section where Jews were allowed to build shtetls. My grandfather’s town, Petrawerowka, is no longer there, but think of Tevye to envision what it looked like. My mother’s parents were wealthier and more integrated, and my grandmother studied at the University of Odessa. Somewhere in that area she met and married my grandfather…even as the revolution was creating chaos and upheaval around them. They lived in the town of Vinnitsa, one of Putin’s targets, and it was from there that they escaped when my grandfather was jailed by the Bolsheviks.
My sister and I traveled to Ukraine in 2013. We began our tour in Kiev, a modern city punctuated with the distinctive domes of Russian churches. In the northern part of the city is Babi Yar where Jews were lined up at the side of the big ravine and shot into their graves during WWII. Among them were my great grandparents, Shepsa and Sura Gershunovich.
On March 2, 2022 Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia, which has launched an invasion of his country, of seeking to “erase” Ukrainians, their country and their history. Five people were killed in an attack on Kyiv’s main television tower at Babi Yar, the site of World War II’s biggest slaughter of Kyiv Jews and a place of memorial and pilgrimage. (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP). Click on the first photo above for slideshow of historical and modern views of the Babyn (Babi) Yar site in Kyiv.
At the end of the Dnieper River, where it empties into the Black Sea, is Odessa. Though modernized, it is still beautiful and historic. In the center is a magnificent opera house which stands as a testament to the cultural haven Odessa is and hopefully will remain. Along the river is a tree-lined promenade where my grandmother described walking during her days as a student. I could picture her strolling there as a young woman, not knowing yet all the things I now knew about her…who she would marry, where she would live, who her children would be. Our trip ended in Yalta, where we may have been the last Americans before Putin retook that region. There we saw the old Tsar’s palace where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin divided up the world at the end of the war. Putin reminds me of Stalin in his grab for land.
As I write this, this beautiful country is being destroyed. The Russians have already bombed the Memorials at Babi Yar…poignant and soulful reminders of what man is capable of doing to his fellow man. And Odessa has been in Putin’s sights. Let’s hope this senseless war ends soon.
Why Does Ukraine Matter to Americans?
Oh, you say it doesn’t. Most Americans probably couldn’t find Ukraine on a map. Besides, why would we want to get involved in another possible Afghanistan? Just leave me alone so I can buy what I want and have the freedom to go anywhere, at least in the Continental U.S.
Wait a minute! But isn’t Ukraine a budding democracy with an ever-growing cultural attachment to the West, especially Europe? I suppose, but who really cares? Haven’t we done enough to make the world “safe for democracy?”
Okay, okay—your point is well made. But let’s think about this in a different way.
So, what might lie ahead? If the U.S. challenges Russian military intervention and annexation in Ukraine, are we on the path toward war? Maybe, maybe not. The world is entering an entirely new uncharted post-cold war era, one in which the prevailing balancing act constructed by the United States and allies following WWII is no longer holding. The conventional view held by Vladimir Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping, and their friends is America is a declining power and does not have the political will to challenge flagrant acts of military intervention in a neighboring country—think Ukraine and Taiwan. Alas, the Trump mantle of “Make America Great Again” has done anything BUT!
The United States and Western allies are coalescing to convince Mr. Putin that Ukraine is not simply his for the taking. As President Biden put it, “Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belonged to his neighbors? This is a flagrant violation of international law, and it demands a firm response from the international community.”
Just how far President Biden and his allies will go to bring this new unfriendly international chapter to an end and restore the promise of democracy in Ukraine is unknown. Trade and financial sanctions have already been put in place to pressure the Russian oligarchy into changing course, including putting a hold on the certification of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline running under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. Nonetheless, there is considerable pessimism that sanctions alone will convince Mr. Putin to change course.
The Biden White House has made it clear that while the U.S. does not want to engage Russia in a military showdown, the message is clear—the U.S. and allies will continue indefinitely to arm Ukraine with defensive weapons that will extract a price in the lives of Russian soldiers, sailors, and airmen. But will the price be high enough? Pessimism once more seems to prevail.
Is there no happy ending to this story? Probably not, unless Americans simply want to stick their head in the international sand and, then? Two oceans have not kept America safe, nor will sand. The U.S. must stand with Ukraine.
Joan Weaving embarked on a successful business career as the first woman Product Manager for Nabisco, Inc., and a Corporate Vice President for Equitable, before starting her own consulting company in 1988, specializing in leadership development and executive coaching for major corporations. Joan has been an active OLLI participant and has played a key role in the conceptualization and execution of the annual Board of Advisor’s retreat. Joan leads our Exploring Leadership Opportunities class in the fall term.
Don Menzel is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his recent move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.