Last week I got a letter from my friend Marjana Savka , a poet and editor in chief of the Old Lion Publishing House in Lviv, Ukraine. Please help, she asked. Spread the word: Ukrainians are not naive pawns between a shaky European Union and rapacious Vladimir Putin. They don’t want a revolution . A patient and peaceful people, Ukrainians want an open culture that reflects and honors diversity of speech and their right to express themselves. Those in the Russian-speaking east want to maintain a primary connection to Russia. Throughout the country, east and west, people want a government that represents all of Ukraine.
Yes, the writers and artists with whom I work want a trade connection with Europe, but trade is not all that they — and thousands of other Ukrainians — want. Yes, they want President Viktor Yanukovych to go, but they are willing to wait until the next election. What they want in the meantime is something that seems simple but is still elusive more than 20 years after Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union: a parliament that represents and doesn’t steal from the people of its deeply divided country. They want a government that operates in relative openness and honesty. They oppose a government that passes laws deliberately constructed to be so difficult to follow that the only options are bribing one’s way to normal life or risking jail for crossing an official or a mobster. (And they notice that the terms of Russia’s surprise offer to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian government bonds and deeply discount gas prices are secret. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s announcement that the deal averts bankruptcy and social collapse is widely understood as a pretext for future political strong-arming.)
The encampments in Kiev and other cities are being called EuroMaidan. A common translation of maidan, “square,” gets at only part of the word. EuroMaidan is as much a state of mind as a physical place. EuroMaidan is openness to the agora and the ancient ideals it represents.
As a writer and translator, I am deeply moved to see so many Ukrainians fighting to protect a national culture. As an American Jew working on a history of my family in the region, I used to be skeptical of what kind of culture might emerge in Ukraine. A few years ago, I took my father to the forest outside his home town, Zolochiv, where a group of survivors and their children dedicated a monument to the untold number of Jews killed there in two separate German actions during World War II. On the way, I met a remarkable group of young people in the western city of Lviv, and I discovered that so much of what my grandmother told me was wrong: Ukrainians are not all anti-Semites. Many writers and artists of central and western Ukraine are deeply invested in learning the truth about the ethnic and political murders suffered in these “borderlands” in the 20th century. And they are as fascinated as I am by the story of a sophisticated and multicultural Galicia, a region formed by the Austro-Hungarian empire in which German, Polish, Ukrainian and Yiddish literatures thrived separately and together.
It’s complicated. All the past is complicated. After we dedicated the monument in the forest, our group traveled to the museum-memorial at the site of the Belzec death camp. Once part of the same region as Zolochiv, Belzec is now just over the border in Poland, a country that has made many strides in confronting the events that transpired on its much-contested soil. I don’t know why neighboring Ukraine can’t manage something similar. The answer includes economics, and a trade connection with Europe is a start. But Ukrainians need to work hard to recover from the particular kind of amnesia that Stalinism forced.
Most of all, they need to repair the cultural condition of a place in which peoples were killed and languages suppressed. They need more speech, more demonstrations and more exchanges with more countries. Day and night in snow and ice, these hardy people stand, insisting on a future of good government. Eurovision song contest winner Ruslana Lyzhychko and pop star Sashko Polozhynsky are among those keeping their spirits up. They all deserve our support.