In America, it often seems the Eastern front of World War II was a forgotten tragedy. As allies of the Soviet Union, the atrocities Joseph Stalin committed are often not discussed beyond collectivization and gulags. Visiting Ukraine offered a more holistic history of the Great Patriotic War and the experiences of those living in the Soviet Union in the midst of the war happening around them. Three famines throughout the 1900s killed millions of Ukrainians. Holodomor, also known as the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933 was man made and killed tens of millions of people throughout the caucuses as a method of ethnic cleansing by Stalin. Walking through the streets where Jews, POWs, Romanis, and Ukrainians marched to their death at Babi Yar taught the struggles in Ukraine and the remnants that are still important in their culture today.
Each of these events is no less important to understanding WWII and European history than the Nazis’ concentration camps and D-Day. And yet, ask the average American high school student about the Eastern Front and chances are they wouldn’t even be able to point Ukraine out on a map. Many Americans are finishing school historically illiterate, setting them up to have problems throughout, not just college, but the rest of their lives. How can anyone understand the world as it is now if they do not understand where it was, even just 70 years ago? A priority is placed on teaching our students history from an American perspective and we are doing them a great disservice. Speaking to students throughout the world makes “American exceptionalism” painfully clear. In Eastern Europe, students learn that the Soviet Union won WWII, whereas Americans are taught that they won the war with D-Day. Many Americans are blissfully ignorant of events happening around the world today. Unless they’re a news junkie, people don’t generally know of issues and conflicts that the US government is not directly involved in or talking about.
To someone who is generally more aware of international issues, the lack of perspective on the geopolitics of the current war between Russia and Ukraine is sometimes astounding. A lot of can be understood by understanding past relations between the two states. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, numerous countries in the Soviet Bloc have looked to shift away from Russia and towards the West. In international relations, we talk about the United States as a world hegemon. In Eastern Europe, Russia is the hegemon. This was ultimately one of the big causes of political tensions in Ukraine and between Russia and Ukraine. People wanted change and the government wasn’t doing that for them, leading to the Maidan revolution.
It was difficult hearing people’s stories and experiences and visiting an exhibit on the current war at the Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II. Ukrainian culture is vibrant and colorful. Ukrainian people are strong and determined. They want what ultimately everyone wants: a better life. Inflation in Ukraine right now (November 2018) is around 14% (for context it’s about 2% in the US). The hryvnya is worth 28 USD. The average yearly salary is about $3,500 (in the US it’s triple that). People were excited for change and a trade deal with the European Union and when it didn’t happen, they were upset. Russia violated Ukraine’s sovereignty when it invaded and annexed Crimea and the world and the US did essentially nothing. A country that has been shifting towards Western values for years was ultimately betrayed by the states it was looking up to.
There are of course reasons for this that can be discussed in depth at a later time, but it comes down to this: the world, and more specifically the US, does not care about Ukraine. What it cares about is Russia. Assisting Ukraine is a byproduct of reacting to Russian policies that don’t fall in line with what is expected of the international community. In the US, it’s not worth the risk that comes along with getting involved in a conflict with Russia. There are no strategic interests in Ukraine for the United States and that’s what is most important.
But being unimportant to the US government does not equate to being unimportant to people. Ukraine is important. It has great potential. People there live differently to us, as most around the world do. There is value in those people’s lives that needs realized. There is understanding that needs to be gained. There is food that needs to be tried, vodka that needs to be drank. There are stories that needs be heard. And there is pain that needs to be felt.