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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

In Context: Ukraine

When I arrived at my monthly bridge game in early March, a friend asked if the troubles in Kiev meant World War III. I replied no; after President Obama resisted Republican demands that we bomb Syria a few months earlier, I was confident that we would avoid this conflict, too.

Besides, how many Americans even could find Kiev on a globe? It’s true that such geographic ignorance didn’t keep us from invading Kuwait or Granada or other similarly obscure countries under more heady administrations, but this president is more sensible -- and much less vested in creating profits for defense industries.

Instead, the chief thing that came to my mind with this most recent flavor-of the-month potential invasion was Petrovich Mussorgski’s brilliant orchestral work, “The Great Gates of Kiev.” The music is so stirring that I’ve always wanted to see what remains of the ancient gates to the city, but this would not be a propitious time.

Kiev, you know, is the capital of Ukraine. Vikings (Scandinavians) who went down the Dnieper River there converted Grand Duke Vladmir to Christianity in 988 – whereas the “nation” of Ukraine did not appear on any map until a thousand years later. Cities create nations, not the other way around, and Ukraine did not exist until 1918, the last year of World War I, when German generals cobbled together several realms north of the Black Sea.

Until almost the day before yesterday, if we spoke of it at all, we called it “The Ukraine.” I heard an American in Ukraine raging on NPR about the use of “the,” claiming that the grammatical article is derogative – and I was pleased when the interviewer pointed out that, of course, we are “the” United States. Some people enjoy feeling slighted and love to make others guilty about things that are in no way intended to be offensive.

The most thoughtful way to think about that “the” is to compare it to “the Ozarks” or “the Mississippi River” or – best of all – to “the Great Plains.” Most of Ukraine is, in fact, highly comparable to our Great Plains. Except for the Crimean Peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea, it is cold in winter and hot in summer. The more moderate temperatures of Crimea encouraged resorts: it was there, in winter of 1944 and in the town of Yalta, that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met with their ally, Joseph Stalin, to plan for the end of World War II.

Most of the area, though, is comparable to our Midwest, with flat land (steppes) and fertile soil that makes it easy to grow grain. The traditional breadbasket for Russia, Ukraine also is like our Midwest in the recent discovery of oil and gas. Think Oklahoma in the early twentieth century or North Dakota now -- a place that always was an asset has become even more so.

But we must be especially careful about again giving up more young lives for petroleum. Capitalists use the media to portray economic interests as political ones, cynically calling for “democracy,” when that is not the true issue. Such corporate types exploit our ignorance of history for their advantage -- and too many too-young media types don’t want to admit that they are ignorant, nor do the research to correct that.

* * *

Besides “The Great Gates of Kiev,” the other image that flashed in my mind was an illustration I used in my first book, Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America: 1840-1920. Indeed, it is the very first image in the book, a 1905 photo obtained from archives at the Statue of Liberty. I used it for this first chapter, which is about birth control (or the lack of it) because until recently, women’s lives were defined by repeated pregnancies.

The black-and-white image featured a somber family of ten, with seven of the eight children being boys. The oldest child was a girl -- something that I’m sure lessened the mother’s load, but doubtless severely limited the girl’s educational opportunities. She probably was about twelve years old at Ellis Island, and like her mother, wore an apron. The father wore knee-high leather boots with his trousers tucked into them, and the note pinned to his jacket for translators said that they were “Russian-Germans” headed to North Dakota. Today they probably would be called Ukrainians. I was born in western Minnesota near the Dakota border, and we had friends who – even during the Cold War of the 1950s -- referred to themselves as Russians.

The “German” part of the phrase used in the 1905 photo went back almost two centuries to the reign of Catherine the Great. By far the most powerful female ruler of the Russian Empire, she was not Russian: she was born to minor German royals in Pomerania – a region that is considered either German or Polish depending on who won the most recent war. My mother’s mother’s family, whose surname was Otto, came from Pomerania and considered themselves to be Germans and Lutherans.

Catherine was born with a German name, Sophie Friedrike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst. Like all upper-class people at the time, she was educated in the French language, and French also was used in the Russian court. She changed her name when she went to Russia to marry Peter III in 1745, and as Catherine II, she quickly evolved to be more a more intense Russian than her husband. He became tsar in 1762, but within weeks, Catherine’s palace supporters arrested him. The Russian Orthodox archbishop crowned her empress even before Peter’s death a few months later – officially of apoplexy, or what we would call a stroke. Her allies simply recognized the political abilities of the extraordinary German woman and saw her as becoming much more effective than her Russian husband would have been.

Catherine the Great indeed was great. She expanded Russia’s borders to the south and west, bringing in millions of new subjects, but she wasn’t simply a militarist. She was the first Russian ruler to allow the private printing of books, and she personally wrote plays and articles that introduced Western ideas. Catherine encouraged the arts and learning, including Russia’s first schools for girls. She built charities and demonstrated her approval of science by having herself vaccinated for smallpox. Although she never surrendered any political power, she led Russia from its benighted, superstitious mindset to a golden age of progress.

* * *

Among Catherine’s most important innovations was the recruitment of Germanic families to work the fertile fields in the area we now call Ukraine. (Sometimes it’s “Ukrainia,” as Germanic languages often pronounce the last “e” in a name as an English “a.”) When Russia took over Crimea in 1783, Catherine personally went downriver from Moscow to promote the new enterprise.

The victory gave Russia its first ocean port that did not freeze, and the area’s rich land made it rich enough that the British Empire would try to conquer it in the 1850s. To most Americans, that war means little more than Alfred Lord Tennyson’s hero-worshipping poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Although Britain lost, the Crimean War nonetheless was very important to world history: Briton Florence Nightingale developed her vital concepts in health care there.

Catherine the Great had died in 1796, a decade after the American Revolution and during the French Revolution. More than a century would pass before the Russian Revolution against its royal family in 1917, but the Western mindset that she helped implant became an important strain in the empire’s evolution – especially among the German-Russians of Ukraine. Some of the most progressive of them immigrated to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, where most Americans called them “Russians” or “Ruthenians,” not “Ukrainians.”

Writing this inspired me to check myself on my recognition of Ukraine in Foreign and Female. The expanded edition published in 1995 has a half-dozen index entries, but the original book, published in 1986, had just one (other than the caption on that poignant photo of the unsmiling family headed to North Dakota). The one text reference in the first edition was deep into the book and in a section on deportation. It featured a raid on the Ukrainian People’s Home in Newark – during a concert. New Jersey police obsessed with communists (read “terrorists” in today’s lingo) apparently thought it was suspicious to listen to music from one’s homeland. They blocked the exits, arrested the men, and then – on the assumption that women could not be political – forced them and the children out into the street.

Teachers then also were not nearly as conscious of ethnic diversity as today’s educators are. In the expanded version of Foreign and Female, I wrote of an Ohio teacher who adamantly refused to recognize what a student said about her Ukrainian heritage. The teacher insisted that she portray a Scottish girl in a play, adding “How can you be a ‘Uralian’ girl, when there isn’t any such place?” Even in high school, the battle continued. Her essay, “Ukraine, The Land and Its People,” was returned with cruel commentary: “Where in the world did you ever get the ideas that you wrote in your essay? The entire thing is a product of your imagination.” The student was threatened with expulsion when she tried to explain.

My source for that was YWCA files on second-generation girls, a group that often found themselves trapped between love for their families and desire to assimilate into American life. YWCA social workers – a new profession at the time – were very good at helping girls trasverse this gulf. Although its full name was Young Women’s Christian Association, it did not insist on a narrow definition of Christianity, and the YWCA’s work with immigrants merits more credit than it gets.

Even today, it is the thoughtful social workers, the caring teachers, and Florence Nightingale’s followers in health care who are changing the world in a positive direction, not its warriors. Let us hope that our children’s children will see killing one another as a hopelessly outdated idea.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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