Yes, Ukraine Is a Real Country

I’m writing this eight hours after the shocking headlines that left so many of us feeling anguished and helpless. Whatever the eventual scope of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” by the time you read this, it’s a good moment to consider the question of what is and isn’t a real country and how worried we should be when parts of one are lopped off by invaders.

In Putin’s view, Ukraine is just part of the same Slavic, Russo-centric motherland. Once upon a time I shared his opinion, though not for the same cynical reasons. While my lifelong interest in the region and certificate from Columbia’s Central and East European (now Harriman) Institute hardly makes me an expert in the region–there are thousands of people with the language skills and specialization you should listen to before me–allow me to share my early impressions of the country now being sliced apart and of its people.

I had been living in Budapest, Hungary in the summer of 1992 between my two years of graduate school and the highlight of my summer was going to be a late August train trip through the former Soviet Union. With Hungary’s rickety telephones and Russia’s even worse ones, it would take 30 attempts to get through on a static-filled line on a call that could cost me half my then-meager weekly pay. But I finally got a visa, a plane ticket and a few hundred dollars and I flew to St. Petersburg on a Tupolev 134, my first of many journeys on scary Soviet passenger jets.

I stayed with Yuri, a Russian man a few years older than me whom I had befriended that year at International House in New York. The city was poor but stunning. Walking through the archway to the Hermitage where the October Revolution had started 75 years earlier, strolling along the canals during the long summer nights, and visiting the Summer Palace were magical experiences.

My friend Caryn and I had some trouble securing sleeper train tickets to Moscow because local mafiosi had bought them all up and were selling them at a 1,000% markup. That made them a whopping $5 or so. After an exciting night of drunken brawls outside the locked door to our compartment (the train had to stop briefly to evacuate an injured passenger by ambulance), we continued to Moscow. It was the first of several trips I would take to Russia’s capital over the next 10 years. The highlight was touring the Kremlin, which felt like (and recently had been) the fading center of an empire spanning 11 time zones. The lowlight was being attacked outside the Lenin Museum by a nationalist demonstrator whom I had photographed because he had the one sign not in Cyrillic: “Death to USA Fascist Israel.” He yelled американский еврейский шпион! (American Jewish spy!) at me as he tried, unsuccessfully, to take my 35 millimeter camera. I still have a snapshot of him somewhere.

After buying more tickets from mafiosi, we departed a couple of days later for Kyiv. Ukraine had only officially been a country for eight months with 92% of its people voting in a referendum to leave the Soviet Union. Functionally, though, it was somewhere in-between. There were no border or passport checks. There wasn’t even a national currency yet. I exchanged a very small number of dollars for “karbovanets” – coupons that looked like Monopoly money and were hardly worth more. I remember paying about a dollar for 600 rides on the Kyiv metro despite the fact that we would be there for just a couple of days. I didn’t have a smaller bill. Despite being rich by local standards, there was hardly anything good to buy. The only proper meal we had was at the home of our hosts, friends of Caryn’s boss in St. Petersburg. She spoke Russian with them and, in typically Russian fashion, their generosity to guests was humbling. As with Yuri and his family in Moscow, we were given the best of what they had to eat and drink when they had very little and allowed to take up the best spot in a tiny, cramped apartment.

Other than being poorer and more chaotic than Russia’s two major cities, I had a hard time feeling that I was in the capital of a different country. Everyone we encountered spoke Russian, and not as a second language–they all spoke Russian to one another as well. A monument to the fort that was the original site of the Kievan Rus, the seed of what would later become Russia, centered around “Muscovy” to the northeast, had a recently-installed plaque in Ukrainian and Russian. I spent a long time comparing the two inscriptions in their own forms of Cyrillic and searching for the handful of differences. It seemed like a stretch to turn what was a dialect into a full-fledged language.

Our next stop after another overnight train, Lviv in western Ukraine, was definitely no longer Russian. Caryn had to use her knowledge of Czech to fill in some of the linguistic blanks. The feel and the architecture were different. But were they Ukrainian? This was once Lvov and before that Lemberg–a Polish and before that a Hapsburg city populated by Jews, Germans, and Poles. The people living there had mostly moved into a depopulated city from the countryside. It was even poorer than Kyiv. We met a young man who spoke good English and asked what the very best place was to eat in the city. Blowing the rest of our soon-to-be-worthless banknotes, we feasted and asked him about life there.

Boarding the train to Hungary, we saw an older man shake the hands of two military officers on the platform still wearing their Soviet uniforms with the peaked caps. He then got into our compartment and it turns out he was a Hungarian doing some kind of business with the locals. He didn’t know English so I spoke Hungarian with him and Caryn spoke Russian with him for the trip to the border. Each of us would translate back to English in the three-way conversation.

When we got to the border, the train had to stop for about two hours because the Soviet Union had a different track gauge than the rest of Europe, ostensibly for security reasons. The train had to be lifted by a crane to have its wheels changed and, while that was happening, two Ukrainian guards got on to shake down the passengers. I had read in a Hungarian paper that summer that anyone not buying a through ticket would be thrown off and forced to bribe their way across the border, potentially waiting for days. The chaotic crowd outside the train window at the station confirmed it. I had sprung most of the rest of my dollars for a far more expensive “international ticket,” but I had lost a small paper customs certificate given to me in St. Petersburg that declared how much “valuta” (foreign currency) I had brought in with me. This was a Soviet form with a hammer and sickle and from what supposedly was a different country, but the guards wanted it and I was afraid that we would be thrown off the train too.

This was happening in the town of Чоп, Ukraine, which is where my father was born. It was Čop when he was born (part of Czechoslovakia) and Csap when my grandfather was born (part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). All of the Hungarian and Yiddish-speaking local Jewish population had been taken away to Auschwitz almost 50 years earlier and my dad’s family (who by then had moved to nearby Ungvár and then forcibly to its Jewish ghetto) were among the small number of survivors. After the war, the sliver of territory became the Soviet Union and by that time the new nation of Ukraine. So here was another town, like Lviv, populated by “Ukrainians” living in houses built by dead or departed people.

Knowing well that antisemitism remains rife in Ukraine, I was in no mood to delve into family history with the agitated guards, but I wanted to stay on the train. I switched to Hungarian and the two of them did immediately and flawlessly, becoming much more friendly when I told them my father was born in the town. They asked what life was like in America, when he had left, and I kept the details sparse. Then I raised the delicate subject of the missing Soviet form and they looked at each other and told me not to worry about it. I guess I was like a combination hometown boy and celebrity to them. 

As the train started rolling again for the four hour journey to Budapest, I left Ukraine impressed with the warm, resilient people, but not with their claim to being a country with an especially strong historical legacy. First of all, the linguistic and religious differences were more of a spectrum, becoming more Ukrainian (and Polish and Ruthenian) as we headed west, with a little sliver of Hungarian as we reached the Carpathians. The borders of this new country were a Soviet bureaucratic construct.

Thirty years later, my opinion has changed. I’ve been back to the former Soviet Union many times, though never to Ukraine again. What has made the difference has been the bloody, senseless wars and ethnic cleansing I’ve seen in the region and beyond in the name of nationalism and religion. This is the 21st century. We have nuclear weapons and we have weaponized social media that can cause far more harm far more quickly than ethno-religious wars in the past. 

What I’ve heard from friends is that Kyiv, which seemed like such a Russian city back then, is far more Ukrainian today. Even if that weren’t the case, though, it’s a recognized country with borders. If we live in a world where might makes right and maps can be constantly redrawn then we live in a far scarier world. For all of our sakes, we need to stop and say “no more.” A speech in the United Nations by Kenya’s Martin Kimani about Ukraine using the example of his own continent, where borders are even more arbitrary, put it beautifully:

Today, across the border of every single African country, live our countrymen with whom we share deep historical, cultural and linguistic bonds. At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later. Instead, we agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited, but we would still pursue continental political, economic and legal integration. Rather than form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known.

Martin Kimani

For all of our sakes, let’s forget the historical back-and-forth and just focus on the map. You can see it there in clear black lines–Ukraine is a real country.