Between Ukraine and America in a Time of War

May 10, 2022

A photograph of a sign in a yard in a residential neighborhood. Text reads: We stand with Ukraine. 100% of all proceeds will go to the Ukrainian people.

A Ukrainian American scholar in Philadelphia contemplates Americans’ waning interest in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Ukrainian, her first language, “diasporic words, words that resonate with resilience after centuries of oppression.”

I must’ve been five when my parents and grandparents decided to wind their way down what we called the серпантинa, or serpentine, from Glen Spey, New York, to High Point State Park in northern New Jersey. Glen Spey is where Ukrainian Americans nostalgic for the Carpathians used to spend their summers shivering in cold pool water and dancing to “Червона Pута” (Red Rue), a song about pristine Ukrainian forests and a red flower that grows in them. By contrast, High Point is American. The drive wasn’t long—maybe thirty minutes—but it brought us out of our enclave of Ukrainian culture and into a new world, a less international version of the 1980s US that felt alien to me despite the fact that my parents and I had been born Americans.

Equipped with a plastic bucket and a couple of shovels, I pushed open the heavy door of our old Volvo and took to the lakeside beach, the sand its own kind of immigrant to this elevation. Before long, an American girl my age made her way over to me. At first, we spoke the universal language of childhood play. Then, in English, she asked me my name.

Ліля,” I told her, with two conspicuously soft l’s that most Americans can’t pronounce. She looked suspicious, and her suspicion grew when she heard my grandfather, Dido, speak to me in a foreign tongue. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember that I replied to him in Ukrainian, the only language we spoke to each other.

“What language is that?” the girl then asked.

In the limited English I knew at the time, I said, “Ukrainian.”

“What’s that?” she pushed, my Dido hovering nearby and listening intently.

“It’s like Russian,” I said, not knowing how else to reply to her question.

My Dido called to me and waved me over, already making me feel the reality of my misstep even though I didn’t yet entirely understand it. I approached and was greeted with his distress: “Ніколи не кажи що Yкраїнська мова нагадує Pосійську,” he said to me. In English: Never say that the Ukrainian language is like Russian. He lectured on, instructing me to say that Ukrainian is like the laundry list of eastern European languages he rattled off. It’s like Polish. It’s like Belarussian. It’s like Bulgarian. It’s like every language from every largely invisible nation that got obscured because of the rise of the Soviet Union. But it’s not like Russian, he insisted. It’s not like the colonial tongue that has endlessly tried to eliminate our colonized Ukrainian language.

I of course knew the history that led us to this moment—a defining moment of my childhood when my innocent intercultural play ended abruptly in the quagmire of history into which I had stepped. My Dido and Baba (Ukrainian for grandmother) had been born and married in war-torn western Ukraine, where Soviets and Nazis had vied for control and where Ukrainians—Jewish or not, Russian-speaking or not—fell victim to each regime. Under the threat of colonialism and linguicide, which the Holodomor (the Stalin-imposed famine of the 1930s) aimed to enact, they lived lives that were both extraordinary and quite typical. Their story is much like the story of my other Baba and Dido—my paternal grandparents—though my paternal grandparents were too traumatized to tell it in the kind of detail that this Dido, my maternal Dido, could muster as he paced before me relentlessly until my Baba would finally yell out from the kitchen, “лиши її!” (Leave her!”), perhaps worried about how much of this savage World War II history a child should hear.

If you’re Ukrainian American like me, you know the story. It tends to begin with a knock on the door in the middle of the night. It involves Bolshevik Russians first and Nazis soon after. It involves the hiding of people or subversive books in small spaces. It involves guns and the deaths of relatives you never came to know. It may involve Ostarbeiter camps or the threat of Siberia. It involves luck and some brave and ethical soul who breaks the rules to provide help when no one else will. It involves different modes of transit, among them horses, trains, boats, and/or (in the rarest of cases, including my maternal grandparents’ case) a plane. It always involves a sponsor and an arrival in America. Then it involves extreme poverty, a dingy apartment, a terrible job, a savings account, and if your luck persists, the construction of a narrative of success through hard work in red-scare America that made many Ukrainian immigrants proclaim problematic allegiances to the capitalist free market, which of course is as colonial as “Mother” Russia. It involves much love, much suffering, and much perseverance. It involves a commitment to keep the Ukrainian language and culture alive through community because “Ukraine is not dead yet,” as our national anthem begins, revealing everything you need to know about Ukraine and Ukrainians. It involves traumas that flow across generational divides either because we heard the stories ad infinitum while splayed across couches in old homes with no air-conditioning or because we didn’t hear them yet we knew they were there, lurking in post-traumatic ruminations that manifested as silence at the dinner table or a sharp change of subject. “Хто хоче каву?” Who wants coffee?

But if you’re not Ukrainian American like me, if you’re not an immigrant or a child of the diaspora who feels home in the sour taste of borshch, the unbearable itch of your кeптар (your Carpathian wool jacket), and the subtle scent of melting beeswax as your mother teaches you how to decorate your eggs, the stories of Ukrainians may seem alien to you at best or generic at worst. They’re the stories of all immigrants, not unique as a collective of stories about this particular group of determined people, and hence somewhat like Ukrainians themselves when Ukrainian American children naïvely say that we are like Russians and our language is like Russian. These stories of Ukrainians melt into the melting pot, that much mythologized fabrication. They’re the stories of many immigrants who made their way to Ellis Island, a place we now know almost exclusively through black-and-white photographs. They’re stories that are simultaneously visible yet invisible, conflatable with any number of stories, important yet unimportant, part and parcel of what makes America America, particularly when we see those stories as part of American history and not part of the present, when a border wall continues to be built at the Mexican border despite mass opposition to its construction and when refugees from Syria and South Sudan are fading from our memories.

By invading Ukraine with a desire to erase it, Putin had made a largely invisible nation and its language visible. At least for a while.

That all changed in February 2022, at least for a while, when Putin attacked Ukraine in what still has potential to play out as the start of World War III. When news of Putin’s offensive hit alongside missiles targeting my ancestral homeland, social media users decorated their profile pictures and posts with blue and yellow and shared an endless assortment of memes that touched on everything from Zelensky’s bravery to the strength of Ukrainian tractors to the humor-infused wartime tactics of everyday Ukrainians. (Go f—k yourself is in every direction, one strategically modified Ukrainian street sign designed for the eyes of Russian troops came to read.) For the first time in my lifetime as a member of the Ukrainian diaspora, I felt uniquely seen, like I didn’t need to explain my language or the identity I have always held dear. Ukrainians were no longer quite so foreign. We were funny and we had guts. In turn, Ukraine was no longer somewhere out in the unknown wilds of eastern Europe. It was no longer some inconsequential part of the Soviet Union, a mere region, the Ukraine, a nation defined by a definite article that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to my Ukrainian ears. No American child in the sand at High Point would ever ask What’s Ukrainian? again because, ironically, Putin’s efforts to erase Ukraine had backfired. By invading Ukraine with a desire to erase it, he had made a largely invisible nation and its language visible. At least for a while.

But two months into this unjust and unprovoked war, I can’t help but notice that Ukraine has stopped trending on social media. The Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center where I take my six-year-old daughter to dance class every weekend now has parking spaces and no circling cars, no one waiting for someone else to depart. The Ukrainian volunteers, dark circles under their eyes, have disappeared from sight because the seemingly endless stream of donations has slowed to a crawl. The baby wipes, Tylenol, and winter coats have all been collected, packed, and shipped. And the friendly flags I’ve seen on my late afternoon walks around my neighborhood are being taken down. My American neighbors now have an American house, not one donned in blue and yellow. They’re finished with expressing visible solidarity with Ukrainians who reside in my predominantly Russian American neighborhood in the greater Philadelphia area. As I walked past their unadorned house the other day, I felt myself fading into the backdrop again, the news of the war now the white noise of history.

As I walked past their unadorned house the other day, I felt myself fading into the backdrop again, the news of the war now the white noise of history.

Such is the rhythm of news cycles in the US, I told myself as I passed my own plastic sign that continues to announce support for Ukraine and approached my front door, my scholarly imagination contemplating when and why stories gain prominence and then recede from perception. I smelled no wall of Baba’s or Mama’s borshch when I walked inside, no onions, no garlic, no sautéing mushrooms. As I closed the door behind me, the wind swept the рушник or towel (for lack of a better term) upon which I was married up and away from the wall where it hangs. I married my American husband on that рушник in a hybrid ceremony, neither fully Ukrainian nor fully American and officiated by a progressive Unitarian Universalist minister who would certainly understand the complexity of my feelings about US support for Ukraine if he were to hear them now. I don’t want Ukrainians to be butchered in Bucha, but I don’t want World War III to start either, I thought to myself as I made my way up the stairs and passed a shelf of about forty of my father’s books, all Ukrainian-to-English literary translations that he published as a scholar of Ukrainian language and literature. Some of the writers he translates have been persecuted or butchered themselves. I’m thinking here of Микола Зеров (Mykola Zerov), Василь Симоненко (Vasyl Symonenko), and Василь Стус (Vasyl Stus). These stories of butchering and war crimes in Bucha are nothing new, even though they’re new to most Americans.

These stories of butchering and war crimes in Bucha are nothing new, even though they’re new to most Americans.

Ukraine weighing on my mind, I made frozen pizza and salad for dinner that night, confronting myself with the fact of my Americanness—a reality that came into sharp focus for me when I made my first and only trip to Ukraine in the late 1990s, when my mother and I visited my father while he was on a Fulbright in Lviv. As an American then, I had American jeans, American shoes, and a 1940s Ukrainian language that was in ways Americanized and that was only truly fluent when I spoke about domestic things, not academic ones. And as an American now, I have all that and the privilege of my stable nightly routine. No bombs disturbed our frozen pizza dinner or the hour of game time that followed it. We played war that night, a game my father recently taught my daughter to get her more familiar with numbers. She’s struggling to distinguish six and nine, but at least she gets to go to kindergarten, I think to myself. At least war is just a game for her.

After many rounds of play and much coercion, my husband and I got her into the bath. And as we now often do, she and I sang “Червона Pута” with the help of our small bathroom’s acoustics while she lathered away the residue of the day. She only knows the Ukrainian words of the song as sounds, though I’ve taken time to translate it for her and told her that it reminds me of my childhood because I sang it and danced to it when I was her age. Someday I’ll tell her the whole story of that song, which I only recently learned myself. But not today, I think. She’s too young to hear about the threat of this song’s crystal-clear Ukrainian words spreading across a Soviet Union that wanted Ukrainian language dead so Russian could thrive. She’s too young to hear that Volodymyr Ivasyuk, the song’s composer, was murdered by the KGB for writing it, his eyes gouged out and his body hung in a forest outside of Lviv. She deserves the same innocence that I had as I sang and danced to this song in my youth in Glen Spey, not once recognizing that my song and dance were a form of protest.

After her bath, she asked me for a story, so I read her an American one about a cat who wants to be a unicorn and a unicorn who wants to be a cat. Neither creature ever fully inhabits a clear-cut identity. Identity is always a thorny thing, I thought to myself as I read to her in English, now unequivocally my dominant language and the language I study as a literature scholar. Who we are is always about the borders that have shaped our histories. Who we are is always changing. The story of identity is like the story of Ukraine, a literal borderland that is betwixt and between, neither here nor there, invisible, briefly visible, and then fading again.

The story of identity is like the story of Ukraine, a literal borderland that is betwixt and between, neither here nor there, invisible, briefly visible, and then fading again.

Добраніч. Я тебе люблю” (Good night. I love you), I said to her as I closed our book. I kissed her head and thought моя голова, my head, the nickname my Dido gave me when I was her age. And despite her largely monolingual upbringing as a fourth-generation American, she repeated my words back to me with knowledge of their meaning and precise pronunciation, “Добраніч. Я тебе люблю,” words that, I thought to myself, sound like Polish and Belarussian and Bulgarian, that sound like every largely invisible language from every largely invisible nation that has come into existence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. These are not Russian words, I thought to myself. These are Ukrainian words, diasporic words, words that resonate with resilience after centuries of oppression. These are storied words that exist as a kind of protest as night falls because we keep learning and uttering them. They endure despite the waxing and waning interests of the American news media. They survive in the face of a war that rages and despite forced migration and the inevitability of Americanization for any immigrants who come here. And they alone must sustain us until morning breaks.

Penn State Abington

Editorial note: WLT’s July issue will include a special section guest-edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris with writers on the ground in Odesa and Kharkiv offering dispatches from the front lines of the ongoing war.

Liliana M. Naydan is an associate professor of English and Chair of the English Program at Penn State Abington.