Tillerson’s questionable question

We’ve got to be frank: we were hoping to learn more about U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s talks in Moscow before weighing in on the strange question he posed on April 11 to European foreign affairs ministers meeting in Lucca, Italy. That meeting of the G-7 took place on the eve of his visit to Russia. The secretary asked: “Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” According to various news reports, the question caused many more questions and consternation about U.S. foreign policy. Was there change afoot in U.S. policy toward Ukraine? The U.S. State Department tried to downplay things, with spokesman R.C. Hammond saying the secretary was merely using a “rhetorical device.”

A rhetorical question or not, there’s been much reaction from members of Congress, analysts and opinion writers, all of whom gave their own answers as to why Ukraine is indeed important to the U.S. Let us begin with the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which the U.S., the United Kingdom and Russia gave security assurances to Kyiv in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.

Russia’s political prisoners

The case of filmmaker Oleh Sentsov made world headlines recently when PEN America announced it was bestowing its Freedom to Write Award on the acclaimed filmmaker and writer. Mr. Sentsov, readers may recall, has been held by Russia and its satraps since May of 2014, when he was taken into custody by Russian security officers in Symferopol, held incommunicado for weeks and then taken from Crimea to Russia, where he was imprisoned and tried – by “a court of occupiers,” as he called it – on trumped-up charges of terrorism. His sentence: 20 years. Amnesty International said his trial was “redolent of Stalinist-era show trials.”

“He’s been forced to sacrifice this promising career in film because of his decision to speak out,” Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, was quoted as saying by The Washington Post. “It’s just a very vivid illustration of the intolerance of dissent by Putin’s government.”

Known for his maiden film project “Gamer,” Mr. Sentsov was working on a second film project when Russia invaded Crimea.

Following up on Ukrainian Days

The first Ukrainian Days of 2017 – and the first to be held during the Trump administration – were on March 8-9 in Washington with nearly four dozen Ukrainian Americans from 12 states and the District of Columbia participating. Group members visited the offices of more than 50 members of Congress to personally press their concerns about Russia’s war against Ukraine and the urgency of strong U.S. support for Ukraine. It was also a valuable learning experience on which further advocacy can be built, as the activists attended several briefings and a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, and received an information package on “How Congress Can Assist Ukraine.”

The director of the Ukrainian National Information Service (UNIS), Michael Sawkiw Jr., explained that, although such Ukrainian Days were usually held once a year, “since the election of a new Congress and president in November 2016, as well as renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine, …once again Ukrainian Americans must send the message that Ukraine’s fight for democracy and independence is not a battle that it can fight alone.” He added that there will be several such advocacy events this year. A front-page news story about Ukrainian Days appeared in this newspaper on March 19; in the March 26 issue, the Michigan delegation followed up with a separate report on its activity. (Next week, on our UKELODEON page, we’ll carry a high school student’s article about the participation of a Philadelphia-area Ukrainian studies school’s civics group.)

Now, UNIS is encouraging Ukrainian Americans to follow up on the Ukrainian Days mission by conducting similar advocacy on the local level in their states and congressional districts.

A community milestone

Within our Ukrainian American community, there are many milestones that we come together to commemorate or celebrate, ranging from anniversaries of various organizations and historic events to local events like first holy communions and Ukrainian school graduations. One of our most celebrated milestones is the annual presentation of debutantes at gala balls held across the country. A tradition that goes back to the 1950s in this country and to the 1920s and 1930s in Lviv, Ukraine, these balls are truly a community event as we welcome the next generation of young people into our hromada. Notice that we said young people, not young ladies? Well, that’s because we know full well it’s not only the parents of our lovely girls who are proud to introduce their children (soon to be adults) to society.

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea

Three years ago, Russia occupied the Crimean peninsula, lopping off a part of Ukraine’s territory. Moscow sent troops into Crimea on February 28, 2014, in what the chair of the Verkhovna Rada and Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said was “brazen and unjustified aggression, thinly veiled as ‘protecting Russian speakers’.” The incursion came just a week after the corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych, a vassal of Russia and Vladimir Putin, fled Ukraine. It was a flagrant violation of international law, the U.N. Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, etc. The invasion was soon followed by the March 16 “referendum”– a political farce that was declared illegitimate by the U.S. and the West – in which, according to the occupying “authorities,” voter turnout out was 83 percent and some 97 percent voted for Crimea joining the Russian Federation. The voting was certainly held under duress, and there were questions about who exactly voted.

“Bitter Harvest”

“Bitter Harvest” opened for a limited engagement in U.S. theaters in the United States and the United Kingdom on February 24, and in Canada on March 3. Unfortunately, the reviews of professional critics were not good. And yet, as often happens with movies, the story and its message resonated with those who went to see this important historical drama about a genocide that remains unknown to many around the globe. Writing in The Huffington Post, Diane M. Francis provided the historical context for the film – “Millions perished, newspapers lied, and leaders around the world ignored it all” – and noted: “The film’s love story, rapturous scenery and first-class score present an unforgettable human face to this genocide.”

In the National Review, George Weigel says the film “tries to bring a human texture and a certain comprehensibility to this almost incomprehensible tale of systematic, state-sponsored mass starvation, telling the story of the worst period of the Holodomor (when some 30,000 Ukrainians starved to death every day) through the lives of two young lovers… The film, while perhaps not great cinema, succeeds in personalizing the Holodomor and reminding us that this genocide happened, literally, one person at a time, as an elderly peasant, a child, or a wife and mother each died from state-induced malnutrition and starvation, wasting away to nothingness while Soviet thugs blocked the borders of Ukraine to prevent their escape and ruthlessly expropriated (or destroyed) every possible foodstuff in order to bring Ukraine to heel.”

The film’s release also brought out some of the usual suspects, the Holodomor deniers like Grover Furr, whose article titled “The ‘Holodomor’ and the Film ‘Bitter Harvest’ are Fascist Lies” (don’t bother reading this stuff – it’s nothing new in the realm of anti-Ukrainianism) was published by The Greanville Post. The website described the author as “a brave English professor at Montclair State University who has almost single-handedly – and out [of] simple decency and sheer necessity due to the scarcity of true scholars in the field of counter-Western disinformation – pushed back against the mountain of lies disseminated by the West to smear the name of Stalin, the Soviet Union and the idea of communism itself.” (N.B.: The Greanville Post describes itself as “a counter disinformation site; an instrument created to resist imperialism in the infowar sphere…”)

Much more troubling was a review in The Washington Post by Michael O’Sullivan which read: “The Holodomor – an early 1930s famine in which millions of people in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, are said to have died [our italics] when their foodstuffs were confiscated by the central Soviet government under Joseph Stalin – could have made for a tale of great, stirring tragedy on the silver screen.

Patriarch Josyf’s legacy lives on

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of the great Ukrainian leader and great churchman Patriarch Josyf Slipyj, who strove to secure the Ukrainian nation’s rights and freedoms, and was imprisoned by Soviet authorities for refusing to betray the Ukrainian Catholic Church. He was, as St. Pope John Paul II said, a man “who had suffered hardships not unlike those of Christ at Golgotha.”

He was born in Zazdrist, in the western Ukrainian region of Ternopil (then under Austro-Hungarian rule), on February 17, 1892, and was ordained in 1917. In 1939, when western Ukraine came under Soviet occupation, he was secretly consecrated an archbishop by Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky of Lviv, and he succeeded the metropolitan after his death in 1944. He was arrested by the Soviets on April 11, 1945.

Ukraine’s suffering children

Last year in February, UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, reported that “The conflict in Ukraine has deeply affected the lives of 580,000 children living in non-government controlled areas and close to the front line in eastern Ukraine.” Of those, 200,000 – or one in three – needed psychosocial support. More than 215,000 were internally displaced. At that time, Giovanna Barberis, UNICEF representative in Ukraine, stated: “Two years of violence, shelling and fear have left an indelible mark on thousands of children in eastern Ukraine. As the conflict continues, we need to reach these children urgently to meet their physical as well as psychological needs.”

Now, one year later, the news is even worse: 1 million children are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to UNICEF. “This is an invisible emergency – a crisis most of the world has forgotten,” Ms. Barberis said.

From Kruty to the Maidan

It’s been a month of remembrances and memorials. First, the 99th anniversary of the historic Battle of Kruty, and most recently, the third anniversary of the killings on the Maidan of the “Nebesna Sotnia,” which is translated as either Heavenly Hundred or Heavenly Brigade (a “sotnia” is a company of 100 soldiers). On January 29, 1918, in a battle near the train station at Kruty, some 80 miles northeast of Kyiv, a small contingent of Ukrainian forces – composed mainly of a student battalion of the Sich Riflemen and a company from the Khmelnytsky Cadet School – faced a superior Russian Bolshevik force of 4,000 men. The Ukrainian contingent succeeded in blocking the Bolshevik advance on Kyiv for several days. The young Ukrainians’ resistance also enabled the Ukrainian National Republic to conclude the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a major accomplishment as a result of which the UNR was recognized by the Central Powers despite the Bolsheviks’ attempts to represent Ukraine.

The UNA turns 123

On February 22, the Ukrainian National Association celebrates the 123rd anniversary of its founding back in 1894, when its first convention was held in Shamokin, Pa. It was there that 10 brotherhoods with a total membership of 439 people and assets of $220 resolved to form a fraternal association as had been suggested by an editorial published in the Ukrainian-language newspaper Svoboda on November 1, 1893. “Ukrainians scattered across this land need a national organization, namely such a brotherhood, such a national union that would embrace each and every Ukrainian no matter where he lives. …in unity there is strength, and it is not easily defeated…,” our sister publication wrote. Through the 123 years of its existence, the UNA has always extended a helping hand to its members, the Ukrainian community in the United States and Canada, and Ukrainians wherever they live, including Ukraine.