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Crisis in Ukraine affects communities in America

Column | Nothing, if not Critical

Barely hours into Moscow’s Saturday evening Easter services, cries of “Christos voskres! Voistinu voskres!” were intermingled with calls for action against sovereign Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox patriarch of Moscow, Patriarch Kirill, buffered messages of Christian spirituality with calls for, “an end to the designs of those who want to destroy holy Russia” during Moscow’s Resurrection Matins services. The Russian patriarch’s phrases hearkened back to the imperialistic ideologies of pan-Slavism, as Patriarch Kirill spoke of Ukraine’s “spiritually and historically” linked relationship with Russia.

Not to be outdone by the Russian Church, Ukrainian Orthodox Church Patriarch Filaret spoke harshly of Russia as well, citing Moscow’s “aggression” and “evil” toward the “peace-loving” Ukrainian nation. Despite the Paschal season’s messages of Christian fellowship, Russia and Ukraine remain as divided as ever among their own leaders.

Unfortunately, these ideological justifications for political action were hardly limited to religious rhetoric. Crimean Tatars, a Turkic minority group native to Crimea, have faced organized discrimination over the past few months, including Russian military forces leaving red “X’s” on the doors of Tatars’ households. Pro-Russian separatist militias — which some sources claim are Russian special forces units — have gradually seized territory along Eastern Ukraine, bringing the March Crimean crisis further into Ukraine. Tensions have only escalated further after Easter morning, during which pro-Russian paramilitary soldiers exchanged fire with a group of nationalist soldiers within the Eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk. The shooting left one dead and three hospitalized, and strained the weekend’s calls for an Easter truce during the Paschal holiday.

Despite months of mounting tension, news on the Ukrainian crisis has only wavered in and out of Western focus. According to a Gallup poll held during the middle of March, 32 percent of Americans did not follow the Ukrainian crisis “very or somewhat closely,” compared to 71 percent of Americans following “very or somewhat closely” to news on Libya, and 87 percent following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. Furthermore, 51 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 admitted to barely following the crisis at all, expressing a sense of apathy among American youths.

In fact, many Americans have struggled to simply identify Ukraine as a nation. According to a Washington Post survey, when participants were asked to locate Ukraine on a high-definition world map, only 16 percent of Americans could correctly identify the Eastern European nation. Some respondents even pointed to South America, Australia and Africa on the identification map.

Although Russian-Ukrainian relations remain a key event within current events, many Americans remain uninformed, or even apathetic, toward the burgeoning crisis. However, this runs counter-intuitive to supporting our diverse, local community. Without awareness toward the events happening within Ukraine, the ripple effects of Russian-Ukrainian tensions are often lost within our own communities. Although Russia and Ukraine might be an ocean away from the Atlantic coast, the Ukrainian crisis directly affects Eastern European Americans within our nation.

Indeed, Ukrainian and Russian populations exist prominently throughout the United States. According to U.S. census reports from 2000, 2,652,483 Americans identify as Russian American, whereas 893,027 citizens identify as Ukrainian American. Likewise, demographic reports suggest that huge portions of the Russian and Ukrainian American population live within our own local communities. According to population statistics, approximately 24 percent of the entire Russian American community lives within the tri-state area, as well as approximately 25 percent of the entire Ukrainian American population. In other words, New York and New Jersey both hold a relatively significant portion of our nation’s Russian and Ukrainian identities.

To those of us who are Eastern European Americans, the ramifications of the Ukrainian crisis becomes clear within our own communities. Despite our successful social and racial assimilation into American culture, the socio-political upheavals of our homelands ripple into our personal lives, affecting our religious and familial relationships. Due to the traditionally decentralized nature of Orthodox Christianity, international political tensions run the risk of further separating Russian, Ukrainian, Greek and Carpatho-Rusyn American Churches from their European brethren. And, while some of us may be first, second and even third generation, the brewing tensions repressed during the Soviet era have clearly spilled into the post-Soviet era, leaving serious personal and political implications for many of us who identify as Eastern European Americans. For us, Ukraine is not just an abstract. The Ukrainian crisis runs the risk of tearing families and communities apart.

In order to properly understand the impact of the contemporary Ukrainian crisis within the world stage, we must consider the fact that our own neighbors, friends, and loved ones may be tied to the crisis within Ukraine. And, by realizing the local and lived experiences of Eastern European identities within the tri-state area, we can begin to understand the international connections between events in Ukraine, and the lives of our own Eastern European Americans within the United States.

Philip Wythe is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English with a minor in political science. Their column, “Nothing, if not CriticalPhilip Wythe,” normally runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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