By Olivia Kew-Fickus
When I was a student in Kyiv in the 1990s, I was welcomed whole-heartedly into a vibrant community of young, educated Ukrainians, friends who put up with my stumbling Russian and Ukrainian and generously shared with me their city and their country. They invited me into their tiny kitchens and taught me to brew borshch and paint pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs). They took me to see Swan Lake in the faded magnificence of the Kyiv Opera House. We took long bus rides where bathrooms were by the side of the road: “Boys to the left, girls to the right, and watch out for the stinging nettles!” We rode overnight trains and drank home-brew vodka and sweet Soviet champagne. We went to cathedrals, camps, dormitories, dinner parties, and music festivals. They sang to me, Ukrainian folk songs and things they had made up themselves. And they told me their stories.
It was those stories that reminded me how these friends had lived such different lives from mine. Most of them were one generation from and had deep roots in the village, where even in the 1990s there was no indoor plumbing. As children of the 1980s they had vivid memories of Chernobyl: men being rounded up with barely any idea where they were going in order to become “liquidators,” schools holding outdoor sports days to show that everything was fine, and then, once the truth was known, children being sent away to camps all summer long while the authorities cleaned Kyiv. They remembered seeing signs appear in this strange Latin alphabet as Western firms set up shop. They had lived through ruinous inflation and watched the fear in their parents’ eyes as they wondered how they would feed their children once their government jobs disappeared. My friends had entered university as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, as what was true and what should be taught changed around them.
What stayed with me most, however, was that everyone had a story that began, “My grandmother was the only one out of five (six, seven, eight) siblings to survive the famine and she only survived because…” The famine, or Holodomor, occurred in the 1930s because Stalin decided to get rid of the Ukrainian peasantry that, thanks to the fertile land and climate so different from that in Russia, ran prosperous farms and therefore didn’t want to be forced into collective farms. The Red Army took away all their food and seed stores and potatoes and anything they could eat, and left them with nothing. Millions died. When I started to get to know Ukrainian-Americans, I heard different but equally shocking stories. They generally came from a part of Western Ukraine around Lviv that had been part of pre-1945 Poland. The famine hadn’t reached them but the war had destroyed their lives. My Ukrainian-American boss, for instance, had been born in a barn in Austria in the waning days of war as her parents fled ahead of the advancing Red Army.
I slowly realized that everyone had a survival story because, by definition, those who were left were the survivors. In the past century, Ukrainians have survived one horror after another. Some, like the Holodomor and World War II, killed millions. Others, like Chernobyl, killed a few directly but left the people weaker and sicker and poisoned the land. Then the collapse of the Soviet Union destroyed their economy and upended everything they knew about their lives.
And yet despite this, Ukraine has transformed from the uncertain but hopeful post-Soviet greyness I knew in the 1990s into a thriving European country whose citizens enjoyed things like iced coffee and tropical vacations. Many left in the 1990s for lives abroad, but many stayed and held a strong sense of loyalty to their homeland. Things were not perfect, and corruption was still a problem, but people were thriving. Twice Ukrainians took to the streets to reject the imposition of a leader they didn’t want, and won. Russian intimidation, ranging from the poisoning of a presidential candidate to the armed seizure of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and the grumbling on of low-level warfare, was ever-present. However, over time, especially after the 2014 invasion, it had actually refined the Ukrainian consciousness and identity.
In the 1990s, the question of how loyal Russian speakers were to their Ukrainian identity was a live one. I seriously considered building an academic career on the study of the relationship of language to national identity before deciding that wasn’t my path. By 2022, the language question had become both more nuanced and less problematic. You could be a Ukrainian patriot and express yourself in Russian, although I understand it has become more hip in recent years for young people to speak Ukrainian. Language was definitely important, but it was not the sole indicator of national feeling.
In Ukrainian, there are two forms of each verb: the imperfect and the perfect, the state of occurring and the state of completion. Since 1991 Ukraine as a concept has been in the state of becoming a messy but vigorous democracy with a clear sense of its own European identity. This process completed on February 24, 2022. With his invasion, Vladimir Putin made Ukrainian nationhood a cause for which hundreds if not thousands of men, women, and children have died and will die.
This country, which has suffered so much in the past century, has once again entered a period of unspeakable horror. Cities are being shelled, nuclear power stations overrun, hospitals destroyed. For a very brief time, we heard about the story of the “ghost of Kyiv,” a Ukrainian fighter pilot who was supposedly picking off Russian planes. The ghost seems to have been a fabrication, but the phrase stuck with me because this is a war surrounded by ghosts. Not only of those who have died since this war began, but also by the millions of Ukrainians who have been killed during the past century, and all the many millions who were never born.
The first line of Ukraine’s national anthem is “Ukraine’s glory and freedom are still not dead.” It is a fitting anthem for a country that has had a long and difficult path to independence and stability. But Ukrainians are by definition survivors. Putin’s war has revealed this to the world. Ukraine, a country that never existed as an independent nation until 1991, has now written itself permanently onto the map of Europe. Tragically many new Ukrainian ghosts are being created each day, but Ukraine itself will never be a ghost. Ukraine is still not dead. Glory to Ukraine!
Olivia Kew-Fickus was a Rotary Scholar and then worked in Ukraine in the late 1990s. She now lives in Tennessee with her family and works in higher education.