Archive for the ‘Ukraine’ Category

Working on my new book … The Fight For Freedom

May 9, 2014

Not much time for blogging, as I am writing, writing, writing. Here’s the book I am working on:

19.3.2014 cover FFF - iPad cover (3)

WEAK THOUGH I MAY BE, I DO NOT STAND FOR RUSSIA’S NAKED AGGRESSION

March 3, 2014

Russia's President Putin, Defence Minister Shoigu and head of Russian army's main department of combat preparation Buvaltsev watch military exercises at Kirillovsky firing ground in Leningrad region

Russia has returned to its bullying, autocratic ways. Its arguments and actions in Crimea are the same as it used in invading Hungary in 1956 to put down the Uprising and sending tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring.

Now as then, Russia (at the time the Soviet Union) disagrees with a government brought to power by a popular revolt in a neighbouring country, and for no other reason feels justified in launching a military invasion.

Having been a correspondent in Eastern Europe in the Cold War, I vividly remember the loathing of the local populations for the occupying Russians who foisted on them oppression and poverty.

I also recall the euphoria after the enlightened Russian Mikhail Gorbachev set about democratising Russian society and in doing so ended the Cold War and released hundreds of millions of people from the fear of nuclear annihilation.

Now the ex-KGB Vladimir Putin has reverted to the Russian norm. I hear the “explanations” that Crimea once belonged to Russia, as if that justifies trampling over treaties it freely entered into.

I hear the “realistic” assessments that there is little the West or anyone else can do. That may be true but they are weasel words, excuses for failing to take a personal stand against wrong. I remember how my German mother took a stand against the Nazis and paid the price. I prefer her courage in a fight she was bound to lose than the comfortable evasions of the realists.

It may be useless, but I am angry and proud of it. I do not accept that in the long term might will prove right. In the meantime, I wait to hear one Russian voice raised in dissent.

Photo: Reuters

Troubled Eastern Europe: understanding the turmoil

February 26, 2014

The Budapest House cover                        IMG_0728

NOW ON VIDEO …

A talk about my new book featuring a woman who travels to Eastern Europe to rediscover her roots – and encounters a world in upheaval. It’s about dealing with trauma and moving on. As we can see in the Ukraine, the turmoils of Eastern Europe are far from over.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkIdgP_qbHQ

Ukraine: cut off and thirsting for contact with the world

February 23, 2014

I first published this blog after a visit to Ukraine in April 2010

The roads are broken up with potholes, the pavements are full of ice, slush and mud, the buildings are Soviet and not much works. The students I am teaching can’t speak much English or any other foreign language. The Schengen visa system makes travel to western Europe difficult, and few can afford it.

I am in the Ukraine. It means “borderlands,” and that’s what it is. One of my students asks me anxiously: “Do you think we are European?” I say: “Of course you are.” She is relieved. She was not sure she qualified, but she definitely does want to be one of us.

Excluded as Ukrainians largely are from contact with the West, they have an uphill task joining the modern world. The Institute for Human Development “Ukraine” in Kirovograd, a sprawling provincial city, is doing its best by inviting foreign teachers, but its internet service usually goes off in mid-afternoon because the service provider rations its kilobytes.

Nobody speaks nostalgically of the old days, but there is little sense that the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union in 1990 was a turning point. Life did not change much. Now the oppressors are corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen. Individuals are unsure that they are empowered. Pessimism is the norm.

In the gloom of the fag end of an Eastern winter however shines the eternal Slav spirit – warm, hospitable and emotional. My journalism students snatch the western newspapers I have brought from my hand (the Swisscontact aid organisation has sent me). I give lessons in journalism, but what they really want to hear is how it is where I come from. They beam with pleasure that somebody has taken the trouble to come to them.

My hosts immerse me in culture. I eat bortsch and blinis with cottage cheese. Two of my students take me to a sauna, I buy a fur coat and I end up at the local beauty contest. I learn how to toast vodka: the first of the 39 traditional Ukrainian toasts is for good, the second for friends, the third for women, and after that nobody can remember any more.

After a couple of weeks, I am feeling quite at home.

Ukraine: more Russian than you may think

February 23, 2014

I published this blog in April 2010 after spending two weeks teaching journalism in Kirovograd, in central Ukraine 

Most East European countries which left the Soviet embrace in 1990 felt they were regaining their independence. Not so the Ukraine, where the desire to differentiate itself from Russia is not so obvious.

It depends which part of the country you are in. In the west, there is a long separatist tradition. There, the Ukrainian language is widespread, and Polish words are used too, since Poland used to rule there.

In Kirovograd in the centre however, Ukrainian and Russian are used almost equally. A teacher at the Institute where I have been teaching journalism told me she spoke Ukrainian with her students and Russian with her friends. Further east in the Ukraine, Russian is even more common.

Kirovograd was founded in the 18th century by the Russian Empress Elizabeth as a fortress defending Russia against Tartars and Turks. Two Russian generals who defeated Napoleon came from its military academy. It was named first after Elizabeth, then after an early Soviet Communist, Zinoviev (a local boy), and then after another top Soviet Communist, Kirov. Trotsky also came from here.

Local guides don’t mention that Stalin had all three murdered. Somehow that does not help the townsfolk’s sense of identity.

So what to call the city now? An Orthodox priest tells me it should be Elizavetgrad again. One of my young students snorts in indignation: too old-fashioned. For lack of agreement, it stays Kirovograd. Three streets remain named after Lenin, Marx and Dzerzhinksy, the head of the Soviet Cheka secret police. For these too, nobody can come up with anything more suitable. It is hard to find historical references which are appropriate.

So what IS the Ukraine’s cultural identity, and how close does it want to be to Russia? This is a tough question for a young country and it deserves respect. It is not just a question of democratic Western Europe versus autocratic Russia. Many Ukrainians feel so close to Russia they do not even consider it “abroad.”

But the European Union of the West is likely to help the Ukraine to modernize itself much more effectively than Russia. There is not really a choice.

Ukraine: the revolution has won and it changes everything

February 22, 2014

A policeman from Lviv (L), who has joined anti-government protesters, visits barricades in Kiev February 21, 2014. REUTERS-Vasily Fedosenko

This weekend (22.2.2014), all the signs are that the Revolution in Ukraine has won:

– Russian-supported President Yanukovych has fled to the east, where there is an ethnic Russian population.

– Parliament in Kiev has declared him deposed.

– His riot police have lost control of the streets and partly deserted to the revolutionaries.

– His army has failed to intervene on his side.

– His main political opponent has been released from prison.

– He has lost control over the news flow: all the news now comes from the revolutionaries.

He may yet make a comeback, but as time passes, this seems less likely. The likely consequences:

– A huge setback for Russia. Having actively supported and protected him for years, their man is now more or less on the run.

– The historic beginnings of Russia were in the Ukraine; many Russians consider it de facto an integral part of their nation. The prospect of “losing” it to the West is therefore highly damaging for Russia’s standing.

– The mostly Russian population of the east may not wish to break with Russia. However people there are as aware as anybody that the European Union offers valuable benefits and an opening to the world at large. On whose side will they be?

– Nobody seems to want partition. So Ukrainians have to try to see what they can rally around. They show few signs currently of being able to do this. So expect long unrest.

– The EU negotiating team included a German and a Pole. Both are aware from recent history of the advisability of assuaging offended Russian pride. Have they offered any quid pro quo to Putin?

Lastly, the battered European Union has received a fillip at the sight of revolutionaries brandishing its flag to despatch a tyrant. The introspective grumblers in Western Europe must find it a shock to realise tens of millions of Europeans want to get closer to the EU, not more distant.

No big surprise really. The EU offers the rule of law, a harmonious framework for international relations and an efficient open market economy – none of which the Ukraine enjoys at the moment.

Picture: Reuters

By Marcus Ferrar: The Budapest House: a Life Re-Discovered. http://www.thebudapesthouse.com/

UKRAINE: THE LAST GHOSTS OF A FLOURISHING JEWISH COMMUNITY

May 13, 2010

Kirovograd, Ukraine, 13 May 2010 – For most Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe, the Holocaust was the tragic episode in their existence. In the Ukrainian city of Kirovograd, it was one among many. Today a sad remnant of 1,500 Jews hangs on and wonders whether it is worthwhile.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews were half the population of this large, sprawling city. They ran the local tramway, small industry, mills and shops. Most doctors were Jews, and Jews founded hospitals, pharmacies and schools. They were at the heart of city life.

They did not choose this place of their own accord. The old Russian Empire pushed Jews to the Pale of Settlement on the fringes of the Empire. Kirovograd, founded in the 18th century as Elizavetgrad, was one of the places where they could live – a fortress township built to defend Russia from Turks and Tartars.

So settle they did, but only in the city. Opportunities to become rich by owning land in the countryside were barred to them. In 1881 came the first pogrom, started by the local authorities. Then another in 1905, and two more in 1907 and 1919. Local Jews such as Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev joined the new Bolshevist Party and rose to its leadership – but Stalin had both murdered.

When the Nazis turned up and slaughtered all the Jews they could find – 22,745 of them – that was not quite the last straw. Having regained control, the Soviets refused to let the survivors (those who fled or served in the Red Army) commemorate the genocide.

The Communists insisted that the Nazis were the product of bourgeois capitalism, and denied that the Jews were singled out for racial reasons. They saw it all as class warfare, so the Jews were no different from the other Ukrainians and Russians killed in the war. Only in 1991 could the local Jewish community erect a Holocaust monument which told the truth. The state of Israel helped finance it.

Kirovograd is dotted around with fine buildings erected by the Jews, but hardly any remain connected with the Jewish community. The Communists forced the Jews to stop religious activities in 1938 and used the ornate, Moroccan-style synagogue as a recreation centre. This is the only building back in Jewish hands.

Inside is a modest exhibition illustrating their history. An American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped set it up. The guide spends two hours showing me around. There is so much to explain – a story of endeavour and transient success, but mostly a long, sad litany of persecution.

In local memories, the fate of the Jews is just one misfortune in a dire series. Several million Ukrainians perished in a famine in the early 1930s caused by the seizure of their food by Soviet commissars. Hundreds of thousands were killed by the Nazis, who treated Slavs only slightly better than Jews. These atrocities mark spirits deeply too.

When the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago, 5,300 Jews were left in Kirovograd. Now only 1,500. Nobody persecutes them any more, but in a poverty-stricken economy they are left to fend for themselves. They drift away to new homelands offering more promise.

Despite all its efforts, the community scarcely survives. The city which Jews were once told to make their home may soon have none at all. In their synagogue, I feel I am looking at a house of ghosts.

Ukrainians: among the best – in two ways

April 17, 2010

In the Ukraine, many things don’t work. Government is corrupt, the roads are holed, unemployment is high and living standards low. In two respects however, the Ukrainians are among the best in the world.

Firstly, the young women dress extraordinarily well, with stylish dash, impeccable taste and beautiful quality, right down to the high-heeled boots in which they pick their way through slush and mud at the end of winter.

Secondly, the Virsky Ukraine National Folk Dance Ensemble offers precision, flair and athletic excellence which recall the very best of Russian ballet. Not a foot or an arm out of place, superb cohesion, and a driving exuberance. http://www.virsky.com   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mb1–JkQh3g

Thank you, Ukrainians. You do some things very, very well. You raise our spirits.

Ukraine: more Russian than you may think

April 16, 2010

Most East European countries which left the Soviet embrace in 1990 felt they were regaining their independence. Not so the Ukraine, where the desire to differentiate itself from Russia is not so obvious.

It depends which part of the country you are in. In the west, there is a long separatist tradition. There, the Ukrainian language is widespread, and Polish words are used too, since Poland used to rule there.

In Kirovograd in the centre however, Ukrainian and Russian are used almost equally. A teacher at the Institute where I have been teaching journalism told me she spoke Ukrainian with her students and Russian with her friends. Further east in the Ukraine, Russian is even more common.

Kirovograd was founded in the 18th century by the Russian Empress Elizabeth as a fortress defending Russia against Tartars and Turks. Two Russian generals who defeated Napoleon came from its military academy. It was named first after Elizabeth, then after an early Soviet Communist, Zinoviev (a local boy), and then after another top Soviet Communist, Kirov. Trotsky also came from here.

Local guides don’t mention that Stalin had all three murdered. Somehow that does not help the townsfolk’s sense of identity.

So what to call the city now? An Orthodox priest tells me it should be Elizavetgrad again. One of my young students snorts in indignation: too old-fashioned. For lack of agreement, it stays Kirovograd. Three streets remain named after Lenin, Marx and Dzerzhinksy, the head of the Soviet Cheka secret police. For these too, nobody can come up with anything more suitable. It is hard to find historical references which are appropriate.

So what IS the Ukraine’s cultural identity, and how close does it want to be to Russia? This is a tough question for a young country and it deserves respect. It is not just a question of democratic Western Europe versus autocratic Russia. Many Ukrainians feel so close to Russia they do not even consider it “abroad.”

But the European Union of the West is likely to help the Ukraine to modernize itself much more effectively than Russia. There is not really a choice.

Ukraine: cut off and thirsting for contact with the world

April 15, 2010

The roads are broken up with potholes, the pavements are full of ice, slush and mud, the buildings are Soviet and not much works. The students I am teaching can’t speak much English or any other foreign language. The Schengen visa system makes travel to western Europe difficult, and few can afford it.

I am in the Ukraine. It means “borderlands,” and that’s what it is. One of my students asks me anxiously: “Do you think we are European?” I say: “Of course you are.” She is relieved. She was not sure she qualified, but she definitely does want to be one of us.

Excluded as Ukrainians largely are from contact with the West, they have an uphill task joining the modern world. The Institute for Human Development “Ukraine” in Kirovograd, a sprawling provincial city, is doing its best by inviting foreign teachers, but its internet service usually goes off in mid-afternoon because the service provider rations its kilobytes.

Nobody speaks nostalgically of the old days, but there is little sense that the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union in 1990 was a turning point. Life did not change much. Now the oppressors are corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen. Individuals are unsure that they are empowered. Pessimism is the norm.

In the gloom of the fag end of an Eastern winter however shines the eternal Slav spirit – warm, hospitable and emotional. My journalism students snatch the western newspapers I have brought from my hand (the Swisscontact aid organisation has sent me). I give lessons in journalism, but what they really want to hear is how it is where I come from. They beam with pleasure that somebody has taken the trouble to come to them.

My hosts immerse me in culture. I eat bortsch and blinis with cottage cheese. Two of my students take me to a sauna, I buy a fur coat and I end up at the local beauty contest. I learn how to toast vodka: the first of the 39 traditional Ukrainian toasts is for good, the second for friends, the third for women, and after that nobody can remember any more.

After a couple of weeks, I am feeling quite at home.


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