Whoever Wins in Ukraine, We Have To Look Beyond Our Borders
Through The Eyes Of Our Friends
“Dear Andrew,” a friend said, “You have to learn more about Ukraine. A beautiful place with a complex history.”
I had met Oksana (not her real name) a few years ago. She had been thrilled to see that my little girl looks very much like my wife’s Ukranian grandmother, the one who taught us to dye Easter eggs.
“She is Ukranian!” Oksana gushed about my little girl. “She has the face of an angel.”
“We attended his lecture last Sunday,” she smiled. “It was a joy to speak with him afterwards. It was like we were all home in Russia again.”
Gates of Europe offers a classic review of the history of the peoples dwelling in the lands commonly called Ukraine. I found the story far more challenging than the simple histories of grand growth or dread decline.
Ukraine has been stretched by the gravities of competing peoples and ideas for a thousand years. From the Golden Horde of the Mongols and Turks to the east, to the ever-transforming lands of Poland to the west, and certainly by Moscovy and Russia to the north.
This dynamic gif shows how the borders of the region south of the Baltic Sea have changed drastically in the last four hundred years. You won’t see Ukraine until 1918.
Like in a Tolstoy novel, similar figures reappear in the history even though the names are constantly changing.
When I finished Plotky’s history of Ukraine, I spoke at length with Oksana’s husband, a tall man with a great smile. He had spent years in Russia and loved the people, the architecture, the music, food, and culture.
“You may not know that Oksana was born in the Ukraine. She grew up on a farm before going away to college.”
A retired European business man, his last decades of work had been in Russia as an executive of a large manufacturing company. He had modernized the organization’s financial and production systems after the Soviet Union collapsed.
“When I met Oksana, she was working in Moscow. Moscow and St. Petersburg were then and are still vibrant, modern cities.”
He had rubbed shoulders with the men who took control of the Russian economy in the late 1990’s. Oksana would glowingly tell me about those times, “Everyone in Moscow loved Robert! (not his real name, either)They always wanted him at their parties.”
Over months she went on to explain, “Andrew, you have to understand that Russia is a very social place. You must become acquainted with people first. No one will do business with you until they know you and like you.”
Robert agreed, saying that the drinks shared after work were more impactful than the work you did during the day.
The subject the two of them sparred over was Putin.
“Robert questions Putin. He says my dear Mother Russia will never grow because it is too corrupt.”
It is true. Robert was dismayed with the way the Russian economy had been gobbled up by a few, the oligarchs who had coalesced around Putin.
“Companies developed two systems of governance,” he said. “When the red phone rang, you knew it was the real boss calling. If you didn’t do whatever they said, whether it was to pay taxes, sell stock, or to hire someone, you would lose your job tomorrow.”
The nature of the real boss was a little vague.
Maybe it was the army or the FSB — the modern version of the KGB, the Soviet secret police. FSB was an abbreviation for the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. It had become a Praetorian guard, secret service, and border patrol.
Putin himself had been Director of this critical agency. Per decree, the Director of the FSB now reports directly to the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin himself.
A co-worker of mine had left Russia as a teenager in the late nineties. When people would criticize Russia as a dictatorship, he would say nothing. If directly questioned about the leadership of Russia, he would shrug and offer a vague response with a smile.
His eyes in those moments seemed to communicate: “Well, of course. But it is what it is. Let’s have another drink to celebrate the things we can control!”
An American friend from college had learned Russian, interned in Russia, found a job with a Russian company, and married a Russian woman.
“Of course!” Oksana declared. “Russian women are the most beautiful! Ukranian, especially.”
Eventually he moved back to the States while continuing to travel to Russia regularly. In 2020 I ran into him in an American grocery store. After sharing news of our children and work, I asked about the Russian Constitutional referendum earlier in the year. To me, it seemed designed to give Putin even more control over the police and the courts. As well as the right to hold office through 2036. That would be 37 years of his rulership, right?
He looked around as if to determine whether anyone was watching or listening. Then responded carefully, “Well, yes. It does those things. But the vote was democratic. It was all very constitutional.”
There was no reason to talk any further about politics.
Over the years of knowing her, I came to learn that Oksana had earned a PhD in chemistry from Russia’s best technical university. She was one of only two women admitted to the program in her time there.
She told the story that a high school principal had tried to dissuade her, “I’m sure you will not be happy going to such a school. It will be rather challenging, I’m sure, for a woman.”
To her credit, she attended and graduated.
She found her place in Moscow society, far from her family. She made friends and became quite popular, despite the pressure of an all-consuming career.
Robert’s work, the growth of a company, the employment of thousands, the creation of wealth and power, was not nearly as challenging to speak about.
The two married. And when they retired and moved to the US, Robert would often talk about how Russian corruption and cronyism was ruining the country for the everyday person, even for the successful small businessman.
“Russia will never grow its economy or its population when so few reap the benefits. Not when all you’ve worked for during your life can be taken away by a single phone call. It’s pure economics and human motivation!” he would declare.
Oksana bristled at the criticism of her mother Russia and at her relative weakness. Russia was the world’s largest country in terms of land mass. She had almost single-handedly defeated the greatest threat to European freedom during World War II.
From the Russian perspective, the Allies delayed the invasion of northern Europe until Russia had largely exhausted Germany. The 17 million Russian, 7 million Ukranian, and 2.3 million Belarus casualties versus the 420-thousand and 460-thousand lost by the US and the UK does lend credence to that argument.
Yet, the year 2021 found Russia with an anemic population older and smaller than in the mid 1990’s. Its economy was not even the size of South Korea’s, a country with one-third its population.
In the midst of her husband’s oratory one night, Oksana responded to Robert, “I don’t know much about economics. All I know is that the rules of the market are not nearly as definable as the laws of chemistry.
“But it is still clear to me that capitalism, as great as it may be, does not work for everyone in America or Europe either.”
Since becoming Prime Minister in 1999, the calm, purposeful, powerful champion of Russia, Vladimir Putin, had restored much of Russia’s bruised pride.
“Vladimir Putin understands Russia’s true greatness,” Oksana would say.
Like a Ukranian nationalist poet at the turn of the century she would go on about how we all must be proud of our country.
“Putin is an idealist, really. His deepest regret is the fall of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev should have never let it happen.”
Putin had won a second war in Chechnya. He had engaged in Syria while the United States was retreating from the Middle East. He had retaken Crimea — land won by Catherine the Great over two hundred years before — without a single shot being fired.
“Putin is returning Russia to its rightful place. Our scientists are as great as any in the West. We can now work together as equals.”
Oksana initially welcomed the possible return of parts of the Ukraine to Russia in 2014, “The Ukranians are Russians. We are brothers and sisters.”
Sadly for her, Putin’s star began fading.
The poisonings of the anti-corruption activist Litvinenko, Putin’s political opponent Navalny, Yushchenko, Politkovskaya, Skripal, Kara-Murza, and Verzilov were all wildly coincidental and “undeniably terrible.”
Russia was leaning on its neighbors and snipping at the freedoms of the citizens in Moscow and all over the country.
“Dear Andrew, I am still Russian. I voted my conscience in the 2020 Constitution Referendum. Some decisions must be made.”
On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, I sent Oksana a simple message, wishing safety for all of her family.
She replied with a Thank You.
After Kyiv survived the first days of the assault, she sent me the image of Svyatogorsk Lavra Monastery in the Donetsk region of Ukraine along with the following note:
“The world is a place full of great beauty. May we learn to appreciate those beauties without having to seize them for our own.”
My hopes and prayers go out to the people of Ukraine. But also to all the people of Russia, Europe, America, China, and the rest of the world.
We can do better when we search for truth together.
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