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By Nanci Leiton
The weather was cold and blustery the day I stepped ashore in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea. Snow blew across the sidewalks and collected in frozen drifts under the eaves of the gray block buildings as we scurried along streets with other brave souls bundled up against the frigid temperatures.
It was 1989, and this was the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. My guides were fellow students, Oksana and Tatiana from Odessa Polytechnic University. They took me to see tourist highlights like the Potemkin Stairs and Primorsky Boulevard but, honestly, it was so cold, much of what I remember is ducking into cafes and bistros every few blocks to stamp our feet and drink hot tea (and turn down shots of vodka from friendly gents) in an effort to warm our numb fingers and toes. Outside, we hurried past barren shops with lines for staples like bread and milk, and we avoided the vendors hawking fur-lined caps and cheap Soviet military memorabilia. Those three days were a blur of ice and snow, friendly people and limited resources.
Fast-forward 10 years, and I’ve now worked in another country of the FSU (Former Soviet Union) for three years, this time after the Singing Revolution. My Latvian colleagues at Ķeguma Komercnovirziena Vidusskolu remind me daily of what it was like to live under 50 years of Soviet rule: the nationalization of their family land to create the great kolkhozy (Stalin’s collective farms); the theft of Baltic seaside homes and cities—once European vacation destinations—for the Soviet military elite; the deportations to Soviet gulags; the oppression of the Latvian language, folk traditions and culture. That I can converse in basic Latvian brings more than one pensioner to tears because they hadn’t heard their language spoken willingly by foreigners for decades.
Later, as the Volunteer Coordinator in the Peace Corps office for the Baltic States, my travels took me to Estonia and Lithuania where I observed similar reactions and the high value placed on language as part of cultural identity. In direct reaction to the intentional “russification” of the republics, the first thing that nascent governments changed after independence were the street signs. From Russian cyrillic to latviešu valoda (Latvian, a language in the Balto-Slavic family), lietuvių kalba (Lithuanian, another Balto-Slavic language) or Eesti keel (Estonian, more closely related to Finnish). This switch was an instant and visible indicator of cultural pride and identity in each state.
These practices were repeated across the FSU; from the Baltics to Turkmenistan, countries took back their national identities even as ethnic Russians remained where they had settled, marrying and building lives in these (returned) states. (In 2014, about 17% of the Ukrainian population was ethnic Russian.) Ukraine declared independence in 1990, after almost 70 years under Moscow’s thumb. Now, we see the rise of tyranny–the effort to take back a country that made its wish for autonomy known more than 30 years ago–as the Kremlin shells city after city in Ukraine.
We know these actions disturb our friends and neighbors here in Oregon. One of my former students manages the cosmetics aisle at my local Fred Meyer as she completes her economics degree. When I saw her last week, she confessed that she’s stopped visiting her favorite “Russian” store (owned by Ukrainians) because she’s ashamed of her Russian heritage. My Ukrainian neighbors across the street are glued to their social media and the news, rarely leaving the house with their preschool-age children whom we used to see playing in the yard, waving at the garbage truck and chasing the neighborhood cats. Fear for their friends and family back home rules their lives. I feel helpless to respond except to show my support as a neighbor and friend.
However, my fellow Retired Peace Corps Volunteers have extensive coverage of ways to help the people they know and love in their adopted homeland. (See the link below for locally-recommended and vetted organizations through which to advocate and donate.) In an effort to do SOMETHING, I asked the president of TESOL-Ukraine what teachers in Oregon can do to help our peers there. Here is her reply, in part:
Dear Ms. Nanci Leiton,
We are thankful to the TESOL Oregon and you personally for the desire to demonstrate your solidarity with TESOL -Ukraine and support us in these difficult times for the whole country including all English language teachers of Ukraine.
TESOL-Ukraine embraces nearly 800 English language teachers all around the country, including secondary school and college teachers as well as university educators. Recently, due to the military conflict almost all students and school students from the eastern and southern parts of the country had to flee to the western part of Ukraine and abroad; more than 250 schools and university buildings have been damaged and ruined. Every second child of Ukraine has immigrated abroad. In these conditions, we are trying now to resume classes at schools and universities online. It goes without saying that teachers are scared, exhausted, disorientated. At the same time we have to calm down and support our students.
I believe, in these uncertain times, any help from our friendly colleagues in TESOL Oregon will be highly appreciated by us …even the fact you remember us and have made an effort to connect and help.
Olena Ilienko, TESOL-Ukraine President
I don’t want to see Ukraine return to the cold bleakness of the brief winter days I spent in Odessa so long ago. Although it may seem obvious that modern Russia is not the USSR, it’s not my Western perspective that matters. Listen to the people who have lived through Russia’s aggressive tactics before. These are real people trying to resume their lives, “scared, exhausted and disorientated.” Listen to the voices of those who thought they’d escaped cultural “rehabilitation”, deportations of their relatives to Siberian gulags, and decades smothered by a blanket of Soviet snow; then reach out to your neighbors, students, and fellow teachers. Lend a hand, a buck or a voice.
Photos: The Singing Revolution (Riga, 1989) and Nanci's Business English class (Ķegums, 1997)
RPCV Alliance for Ukraine (List of ways to help)https://www.allianceforukraine.org/articles/advocacy-and-donations-for-ukraine-what-our-members-can-do-with-rising-tensions-in-ukraine?fbclid=IwAR1uihbnz_LrNQ24bkTqPmYJzFMCs84EH-lb6aU6AuwWVdyGP3rYBTy2rVI#main-menu-mobile
Ukraine’s history and its centuries long road to independence https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/ukraines-history-and-its-centuries-long-road-to-independence
Language as the core value of Latvian culture: The Australian Experience by Jānis Priedkalns in the Journal of Baltic Studies; available through your school or library at this link: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43211870
Ethnic Russians in the former soviet republics https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/ethnic-russians-in-the-former-soviet-republics/2014/05/17/25298b4e-de19-11e3-8009-71de85b9c527_graphic.html
The Singing Revolution - https://artsci.washington.edu/news/2013-12/when-songs-trumped-rifles
Ukraine’s economic crisis: A historical perspective https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2015/06/04/crisis-in-ukraine
Humanitarian Situation Report (UNHCR)https://reliefweb.int/report/ukraine/unicef-ukraine-humanitarian-situation-report-no-5-17-23-march-2022
Soviet Russia's Persecution of Latvia By Alexander V. Berkis in Institute for Historical Review (1988) http://ihr.org/jhr/v08/v08p-25_Berkis.html
Soviet Repression and Deportations in the Baltic States https://gulag.online/articles/soviet-repression-and-deportations-in-the-baltic-states?locale=en
The challenges of re-Ukrainianization: Why and how we must support Ukrainian language https://krytyka.com/en/articles/why-and-how-we-must-support-ukrainian-language
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