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My Time in Ukraine

"Nobody cares about Ukraine, not even Ukrainians," lamented Andrej Yakovlev more than once during production of my film Salt in the Air, to my consternation. What's interesting is that Andrej (cameraman) considers himself Ukrainian, although he's ethnically Russian and culturally Jewish, meaning non-observant. These facts, and the phrase, might help illustrate just how complex and emotional the "February Revolution" has been in Ukraine. 

During the creation of Salt in the Air,  I spent about five months in Western Ukraine. I was mostly in a very small town called Solotvyno, on the border of Romania in the Carpathian Mountains. Today, this area - from Ivano-Frankivsk to Lviv - is the stronghold of the Ukrainian opposition. Although I was only in Ukraine for this short time, I spent the vast majority of my time here. This could be called Ukrainian Ukraine, as opposed to Russian Ukraine. And, to a degree, this is true. But the assertion wouldn't diminish the very strong ties and personal connections between Western Ukraine and its Eastern and Southern parts. As the poet Oleh Lysheha told me, himself an ardent Ukrainian and former dissident from Ivano-Frankivsk, "Russia is our brother." 

Ukraine is more complex than we are led to believe by the Western media. Culturally and politically, clarity is hard to come by. One might be able to loosely divide the country into ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, but it's only partially true that they are separate. My crew, for example, was both Russian and Ukrainian, but they mainly spoke Russian. With diversity that is somewhat rare in Ukraine, the people of Solotvyno are Hungarian, Romanian, Russian and Ukrainian, with some Czech heritage. And the village is multi-religious, including Romanian and Hungarian Catholics, Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Jews. Yes, Jews. In the U.S., Ukrainians are often taken to be Hitler's stooges, or even "worse than Nazis." There is some foundation for this because many Ukrainians joined the Nazis and became horrible torturers in concentration camps. But many Ukrainians tell a different story. Some joined the Nazis to avoid the Soviets. They say they were stuck between two terrible powers and had to choose. And millions of Ukrainians were brutally starved by the Soviets in the early 1930s, so the threat was real. (See, Holodomor.)

Some of this seems apocryphal to me, but it is, nevertheless, the common Ukrainian lore. Oddly, the story seems to open up space for Jews to return to their home towns and do so by choosing Ukraine over Israel. Today, there is a Jewish community in Solotvyno, some of whom moved to Israel once upon a time, but have since moved back. One man I met was a prominent citizen who had run for mayor. He showed me many sites where plaques note the former existence of a synagogue. He had the plaques put up himself and felt proud of the effort. That said, the synagogues have not been rebuilt, nor have the local shuls. By contrast, Orthodox churches have flourished in the post-Soviet era. They are everywhere. So there you have a small picture of big complexity. 

Ukrainian nationalism has been said to be a big part of the opposition - an assertion based, in part, on fears of the past - and there is reason to think that the opposition is partly made up of Ukrainian thugs. But this strikes me as a misunderstanding of what is at play. It seems to me that Ukrainians are primarily tired of the corruption that has existed under now ex-President Yanukovych. The right wing thugs are there, and emboldened by the street violence and the transfer of power, but they are not in power, at least not as far as I can tell. 

My association with the Russian-Ukrainian ethnic divide began unpleasantly. The head of the salt mine had recently been appointed, but he knew nothing about mining or salt. He was Russian and came from the Eastern Ukraine, a city of 1 million people called Donetsk. It was a political appointment without professional training or experience. This guy was what you might imagine. Stiff. Quiet. Thuggish. Leather clad. He did not speak Ukrainian well. His version of a welcome party was to send a few guys out to surround us and intimidate us. They brought us to a small office within the salt mine's decaying administration building where we were questioned in a snide manner by an attorney who spoke some English. I didn't feel endangered exactly, more annoyed with a little fear mixed in. They were keeping us on our toes, so to speak. 

But after this little encounter, we were free to film. The relationship began tensely, even for my Ukrainian and Russian crew, but ended without incident and we are able to proceed with filming. (There was one subsequent encounter during which we thought they stole our footage, but it turned out not to be true.) This inconvenience strikes me as a common experience. There is large corruption, too, but there is also just plain, everyday annoyances that would not exist but for petty ego problems of small time managers. You can see how this could get old after awhile, especially if you combine it with real corruption, like extortion or violence. 

If I were to make any predictions, and I shouldn't, it would be that this conflict will smolder, even under a newly appointed government. There's been some talk of renewed federalization, which might be wise, to decentralize power away from Kyiv/Kiev. (An aside: Ukrainians spell it Kyiv. Russians spell it Kiev. This double naming is true for many cities in Ukraine. Lviv is Lbov, etc.) I used to think you could potentially divide the country down the Dnieper River, but Western Ukraine is probably too poor to go without the industries of the East. And Eastern Ukraine won't give up those industries without a civil war. So the country is stuck together: Two brothers, fists raised, fighting a bloody fight that only the family understands and cares about. And, then, not always.