BRAMA, Jan 19, 2004, 1:00 am ET|
Thoughts of liberation on Martin Luther King Day
by Hanya Krill
Today, as Americans honor the memory of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, I will be contemplating the words from an old spiritual song that he made famous - "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
Thinking back to the Soviet Union of the late 1980's with its Perestroika policies, I remember praying that Ukraine may be freed - at last. At the end of the few tense days of the August 1991 "putsch" it seemed that my prayers were about to be answered. When Ukraine declared its independence on August 24, 1991, I was sure that they had been.
It would have been naïve to expect smooth sailing from that moment on. Analysts were predicting decades of adjustment before the newly independent states would be standing on their own feet. Ukraine had its own special brand of problems that were not limited to rebuilding its economy. Mostly it had to fast-forward through the stages of nation building that other countries were afforded centuries to develop. After suffering some 350 years of subjugation by and subordination to its northern neighbor - Russia - Ukraine had much to do in order to separate itself from its past. At the time, there was not a doubt in my mind that Ukraine would succeed.
The declaration of sovereignty (July 1990) even before the USSR was dissolved (December 1991) was a clear indication that Ukrainians were ready to move towards a new future. President Kravchuk traveled to the West and inspired confidence in the Diaspora that Ukraine was prepared to make changes. Experts were called in from Europe and North America. Funds were made available for a wide range of projects that would educate and materially assist Ukrainians. When the first national elections came along, it looked as if Ukraine was well on its way to becoming a full-fledged democracy and truly independent state. In 1994, President Kuchma became the second president and Oksana Baiul won the first Olympic Gold Medal for independent Ukraine. All was right with the world.
It is only recently, in the 13th year of independence and nearly 10 years after the milestones of 1994, that doubts have crept into my thoughts about just how free Ukraine really is. The president of the country seems incapable of making a major decision without first consulting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Kuchma's political and economic decisions invariably favor the big bear to the north. 2003 was the "Year of Russia" in Ukraine. Even when it comes to matters of religion and church property, i.e. of the Christian Orthodox persuasion, the bias is clearly for the Moscow-based patriarchate.
Last fall, President Kuchma issued a decree to officially commemorate the 350-year-old Treaty of Pereiaslav - an agreement that was interpreted by Soviet historians as a consensual "union" between Ukraine (then a Kozak Hetmanate) and Russia (Muscovy). Contemporary historians argue against that interpretation, saying that it was nothing more than an agreement for military protection by the Tsar. Many consider it to be a black mark in Ukraine's history that any other nation in a similar situation would be trying to forget. President Kuchma disregarded the Verkhovna Rada hearings where strong objections to marking the 350-year anniversary were voiced by scholars and politicians alike. He similarly brushed off the letters expressing opposition that came from individuals and organizations both from within and outside of Ukraine.
It is incomprehensible to me, an American who would never dream of paying tribute to the period of colonialism under Great Britain, why a seemingly patriotic, post-independence, popularly elected president would choose to honor a negotiation that subsequently led Ukraine into centuries of repression. That the American colonies existed is a fact of history not to be ignored, but Americans celebrate Independence Day, not "Colonization Day." More to the point, Native Americans do not celebrate "Sale of Manhattan Day" (or Columbus Day, for that matter), a deal that by all accounts did not work in their favor. Likewise, Ukraine should know its history, but the relevance of an obsolete agreement from 350 years ago is insignificant to modern Ukraine regardless of the historical interpretation. Irrelevant events do not deserve official recognition in the form of national holidays. If anything, as someone suggested, this day should be designated as a day of mourning.
Small groups of die-hard communists, Russophiles, and Russians commemorated the anniversary in a few cities around Ukraine on Saturday. They could easily have done so as private citizens exercising their right to freedom of expression without the official sanction and support provided by President Kuchma's decree. Hopes that Ukraine and Russia would "unite once again" were expressed at the rallies - a detestable notion for those who love independent Ukraine, but a perfectly realistic expectation in light of the agreement for a single economic space with Russia that President Kuchma successfully pushed through last year.
One day after the January 18th observance of the Pereiaslav Treaty, as I contemplate the freedoms that Martin Luther King aspired to achieve for African Americans, the concern that Ukraine is not truly free dominates my thoughts. Reverend King fought to strip the legacy of slavery from the American consciousness that continued to oppress African Americans despite the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. Ukraine needs its own Martin Luther King who will remind Ukrainians of how they were enslaved, how their land and resources were usurped, how they were and continue to be treated as second-class citizens in their own home. Ukrainians need someone who will inspire and free them - at last.
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