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Let's Not Forget That Many in the Ukraine Are Genuinely Pro-Russia

03/20/2014 12:24 EDT | Updated 05/20/2014 05:59 EDT

"Leiderman. Is that German?"

"Maybe."

It's the non-committal answer I give every time someone asks that question. The origins of my last name are as complicated as the last hundred years in Eastern Europe.

"Did your family come from Germany?"

"I don't know."

It's probably hard for my new dentist to understand why I'm being so dodgy about my origins, but the truth is that it's a very long conversation.

"Where were you born?"

"Russia."

I know he's just making small talk, but this topic is a bit of a minefield -- especially now.

"You're parents are from Russia, too?"

"Ukraine."

"So you're Ukrainian?"

"We're Russian."

I've been having this conversation since we moved to North America and I was in grade school. My parents, and their parents, and as far back as anyone knows have all come from Odessa, in southern Ukraine. We speak Russian, we say we are Russian, and we carry Russian passports. Before the protests began in Kiev and Putin stepped in to be reviled as keeping Ukraine under his thumb, no one had ever questioned that.

Ukraine's contentious history, and the battle over its sovereignty, dates far back to before Yanukovych, Putin and the European Union. It was divided between the Russian Empire to the east, and (largely) Austro-Hungarian Empire to the west only 100 years ago, but the two populations still remain wary of each other, never forgetting their differences. The problem with Ukraine today stems from a paradox in which history has moved quickly in Europe, and borders change faster than identities.

My family comes from the Russian Ukraine, and we happen to be Jewish. The Russian Empire allowed Jews to obtain permanent residency in what was called the Pale of Settlement - a narrow stretch of land that today comprises parts of Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Odessa was once at the heart of this, and the Jewish-Russian Ukraine, in sentiment at least, identified more with the Russian Empire than with Ukraine's other half. Pogroms and anti-Semitic raids on the Pale, especially Odessa, didn't warm anyone's heart to the cause of Ukraine's sovereignty. So when the Soviet Red Army arrived in Ukraine, it was largely the Russian and Jewish east that is remembered to have given up the keys to the kingdom.

My parents, both born shortly after the war, grew up with an oral history that was no doubt biased and based on Soviet propaganda. To this day, contentious matters that are no longer discussed at my parents' house include the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, which killed 7-10 million people. Too much yelling ensues when my North American education questions the Soviet-era fealty engrained in my mother.

That being said, today it is not Soviet brainwashing that leans Eastern Ukraine toward Russia. The Ukrainian Russians I know are critical of Russia, and of Putin. However, the history and 'us vs. them' mentality reaches far back to a familial sense of identity. It's an issue you cannot go against without picking apart your entire concept of who you are and where you come from.

Only three generations ago, the ancestors of Russian Ukrainians chose Russia over Ukraine, and it is a fact that many in Ukraine continue to do so today - not just a piece of Russian propaganda. These people are real.

2014-03-20-1954Odessa.jpg.jpg

My story isn't unique. Changing borders and Diaspora, as well as war, have left lasting impressions that convert identities and divide generations around the world. In current events between Ukraine and Russia, this is especially true for people caught in the centre of a tug of war between powerful forces. It can be tempting to side with one over the other, refusing to be pulled to and fro in a constant state of uncertainty.

True experiences of the past become blurry as an overwhelming desire to hate one side while identifying with the other takes hold. And, it so happens that many injustices committed by the Soviet Union in Ukraine pale in comparison to the disenfranchising image of Western Ukraine in the minds of the pro-Russian Ukrainians, of which there are many.

Fast forward to the present, and I visit Kiev in 2010. A woman is selling water on the street, and I politely ask her for a bottle in Russian. She answers me in Ukrainian. I attend a NATO function, during which youth delegates try to argue why Ukraine should be a NATO partner (this was before Ukraine abandoned NATO ambitions under Yanukovych in 2010). The conferences are held in Russian, a type of de facto lingua franca, decrying Russia for its apparent role in holding Ukraine back.

After Kiev, I visit my grandmother in Odessa, where she still lives in an apartment in the same square, concrete, Soviet block that was given to her by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. The distribution of resources for infrastructure and health care doesn't seem to have reached the south yet, but she refuses to leave. The history she holds on to is not necessarily fact, but it is the post-war identity that has governed nearly every decision in her life - and has explained the lack of decisions available during the Soviet Union, which spanned her entire childhood and adult life.

Her family's history, what little is left of it, is stamped on every sidewalk, roadside stand and cemetery. And Russia, though Odessa is part of the sovereign Ukraine, plays an immense role in the hearts and minds of the people.

They may not be protesting on the streets in Kiev, and Western media has vilified many pro-Russian efforts as propaganda delivered from under Putin's thumb, but the point of all of this is to say that many in Ukraine are genuinely pro-Russia.

It may have something to do with how the leader Ukraine's far-right movement, the Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), Dmytro Yarosh, is calling on Chechnya's most wanted terrorist, Dokku Umarov, to act against Russia. These are the same Chechen rebels who have been blowing up buses, apartment blocks, and schools. Or perhaps it is Yanukovych's fault for playing both sides -- cuddling up to Russia as he promised western Ukraine the European Union. But at the end of the day, it will always be the people who suffer, and Ukraine has a long history of suffering.

As the world urges Russia to respect Ukraine's sovereignty, it becomes more evident that the east and west have been stuck together with a Band-Aid to form neighbour countries in turmoil.

There are enough populations who feel abandoned by a Ukrainian Ukraine to fight for Russia, and enough who are ready to engulf Kiev in flames in order to show their desire to move away from the perceived dangers of an Eastern block and take their place among Western nations.

Similarly to how Britain partitioned Ireland nearly 100 years ago, creating a Northern Ireland due to the desire of many in the six northern counties to remain a part of the United Kingdom, this appears to be a problem with no winning solutions. And just like that move, its effects and malcontents will no doubt make themselves heard for years to come.

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