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Ukrainian native is stunned by revolution
BHS teacher explains history to make sense of current strife
Nadia Kriger is a native of Ukraine who left the country in 1990. She now teaches at Bassett High School. In a Friday interview, she talked about the revolution in her native land and its historical perspective. (Bulletin file photo)
Sunday, February 23, 2014
By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer
For Nadia Kriger, the rapidly evolving Ukrainian revolution not only is a professional interest, but a personal one.
Kriger, 37, is an English Language Learners (ELL) teacher at Bassett High School. She has a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Old Dominion University with a focus on U.S./Russian/Ukrainian relations, a master’s degree in national security studies and intelligence gathering from American Public University System, and while in the Army, she traveled extensively between former Soviet Union countries.
She also is a Ukrainian expatriate, having fled her home country with her mother and three siblings in 1990.
Kriger originally hails from Lviv in western Ukraine. That area, she said, is “the heart of this revolution. All of my family is from western Ukraine. We feel their pain. It’s personal to that extent.”
In less than a week, revolution and political change have swept Kriger’s home country. Protesters clashed with police officers in Kiev, the country’s capital, resulting in roughly a hundred deaths and hundreds of injuries in a single day. On Saturday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital along with most of his inner circle.
It is a time of change and upheaval, and it has left Kriger in disbelief.
Since this most recent Ukrainian revolution turned violent on Feb. 18, Kriger said, many of her American friends have asked her to explain the developing situation there, which she has followed closely. To understand the Ukrainian revolution, she said, one must first understand a bit about the history of Ukraine.
The country is more than 1,000 years old, she said, and historically has been referred to as “the breadbasket of Europe” due to its abundant natural resources and proximity to the Black Sea. Those natural resources, she said, have led to dozens of occupations over the centuries — most notably from eastern neighbor Russia.
“In that alone lies the crisis of Ukrainian people,” Kriger said. “Because of the proximity (to Russia), Ukrainians have been dealing with trying to be owned or eradicated for ... hundreds of years.”
In the 1930s, Kriger said, when Josef Stalin became de facto leader of the Communist Party, he instituted a policy in Ukraine that resulted in massive famine. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union before it dissolved in 1991.
Stalin “made wheat a sacred national property,” she said, “which meant that no Ukrainian was allowed to buy or eat the wheat the country produced while he (Stalin) exported all of it to Europe.”
Seven million Ukrainians died in the famine, Kriger said, including three million children.
“No Ukrainian today doesn’t know about (the famine),” Kriger said. “It’s in our consciousness; it’s in our blood. ... No matter what happens with this crisis right now, Russia, as the bad guy, will forever be in the Ukrainian consciousness. There’s no way of looking at them as a nice neighbor.”
However, Kriger said, due to eastern Ukraine’s (and its capital city of Kiev’s) proximity to the Russian border, the eastern half of the country has become more “Russified” than the western half.
“The western and eastern parts of Ukraine are very, very different, culturally speaking,” Kriger said. “Even their language is different. It’s primarily Russian (in the east), where in western Ukraine, no one would even dream of speaking Russian” and instead speak Ukrainian.
The country is sharply divided in another significant way, she said. Western Ukrainians generally want to join the European Union (EU), she said, while the Ukrainian government in the east has pushed for closer ties with Russia.
In 2004, Kriger said, a similar revolution, known as the Orange Revolution, occurred in Ukraine. It resulted in the appointment of president Viktor Yushchenko and prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, both considered “pro-western, pro-EU,” according to Kriger.
The revolution also resulted in a new Ukrainian constitution that transferred much of the president’s power to Ukraine’s parliament.
Then, in 2010, Kriger said, Viktor Yanukovych became president of Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, she said, Yanukovych repealed the new constitution and had Tymoshenko jailed.
The current revolution was triggered in November, Kriger said, when Ukraine was preparing to take preliminary steps to join the EU, and Yanukovych instead made the unilateral decision to take a financial bailout from Russia in exchange for closer ties.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Kriger said. “That was a blatant, in-your-face decision by the president that showed where the country was heading.”
On Feb. 18, the revolution turned violent, with both protesters and police officers killed and injured.
And then, on Friday, something happened that shocked Kriger; Yanukovych conceded to many of the protesters’ requests, including releasing Tymoshenko from jail; returning to the 2004 constitution that limited the president’s power and enhanced the power of parliament; and holding a new presidential election in the coming weeks.
“This was absolutely astonishing to me,” she said. “I didn’t expect him to show up and sign anything.”
The question, Kriger said, is why would he concede to the protesters now?
“This is a country that has suffered in silence, especially during the Soviet Union years behind the Iron Curtain, for hundreds of years,” Kriger said. “The famine in the ’30s? No one knew about that. No one. The oppression, the human rights violations, the human trafficking, is absolutely atrocious. There is no freedom of speech whatsoever.”
There is, however, the Internet, Kriger said, allowing young, technologically savvy Ukrainians to share photos and videos of the government-sanctioned protest violence in their home country, which has stirred the interest of the rest of the world.
Perhaps, Kriger suggested, the shaky cell phone footage from Egypt’s bloody 2011 revolution that spread world-wide was in the back of Yanukovych’s mind.
“Had Yanukovych not done this,” Kriger said, “had he not conceded and signed, he would have shown not just his people, but the entire civilized world his disregard for his own citizens. ... It’s unfortunate that it took 100 people dying in one day for the world, especially the U.S., to notice, for CNN to finally pay as much attention to this crisis as they did to (Justin) Bieber and his DUI.”
As of mid-day Saturday, Yanukovych and his inner circle have fled Kiev, and their whereabouts are unknown.
Kriger said that she communicates regularly with a young friend in western Ukraine who is “naively hopeful” now that the protesters have won this battle. Kriger, however, still has concerns for Ukraine’s future.
“As is, Ukraine is incredibly unstable,” she said. “The poverty is just unreal. People are struggling in every way. The value of life is practically non-existent.”
Also, she said, “the entire government structure has to be changed. How will that happen? Then there’s the corruption that’s on every single level. The corruption there is of proportions that our western brains cannot even comprehend. Even when you get past those obstacles, there’s the economy, which is absolutely on the verge of collapse.”
It perhaps speaks to the attitude of the country’s people, Kriger agreed, that Ukraine’s national anthem does not have a self-assured title such as “The Star Spangled Banner.” The Ukrainian national anthem’s title translates to “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished.”
“Ukraine is not done yet,” Kriger said. “A lot of people ask me, how will this end? One thing I know for sure is that there is no going back. There’s no stopping this.”