By: Aarathi Sahadevan
As HB students, the news is something that we carry with us on a daily basis. We strive to fix the world that endures the atrocities of wars, the burden of conflict, the weight of injustice. Yet sometimes we forget that what we see is never the full story. That the screens we watch, the voices we hear and the papers we read are only interpretations that we must process and filter. Only after being exposed to a different perspective did I realize that I myself had made this mistake. True understanding of the complexities of our world and its problems is not something you can get from facts, or a report on CNN; this must come from seeing through the eyes of someone who has watched and felt the war, conflict and injustice we wish to change.
Background: The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has escalated to dangerous levels over the past year, some calling it the most dangerous regional encounter since the Cold War. It began in January when former Ukrainian President Yanukovych refused a deal to help integrate Ukraine into the European Union, which would have served to make the nation more independent from Russia and more influential in global matters. This caused intense backlash from Ukrainians in the west, who wished to free the nation from the strong grip of Russian economic, political and social influence. Soon after that, President Yanukovych and his pro-Russian policies were pushed out of office by a chaotic coup-d’état. Unfortunately, by then, the primarily Russian area of Ukraine known as Crimea was already in the process of being handed over to Vladimir Putin. Since then, pro-Russian separatists at the eastern Ukrainian border have been involved in violent clashes with more liberal Ukrainians from the western part of the nation. At this point in time, peace talks have failed to quell the fighting, and it looks as if it will continue in full swing until either side chooses to give up their position.
To gain a better, or rather, a different understanding of this conflict, I turned to Mark Litvin, a chemical engineer and part-time Tennis Pro at the Mayfield Racquet club who was born and brought up in a Soviet-controlled Ukraine. As the fourth generation in his family to have lived in Kiev, the bustling capital of Ukraine and a major site for many of the protests shaking the nation today, Mark possesses an intimate understanding of the deeply rooted relationship between his country and Russia. In 1980, after being denied permission to leave the country four times, he was finally able to immigrate to Cleveland as a political refugee from the USSR. He came to the U.S. with only 240 dollars and the bare necessities to sustain him and his wife in an unfamiliar country. He has since become a respected professional in his field and has created a new life for himself and his family, all the while remembering that the Soviet Union had deemed a traitor for leaving his home, his family, and everything familiar to him in search of a better life.
As a child, Mark grew up listening to The Voice of America, memorizing every top ten American song in the 60s and 70s. To Mark, whose household was deeply aware of the cruelty of the Soviet regime, America recognized the injustice of his predicament, and gleamed with opportunity for his future. His stepfather’s family, who ran a winery business in Crimea, was sent to the gulags (Concentration Camps) in Siberia, where they were never heard from again. Despite his mother being a renowned dermatologist and his stepfather being an educated businessman, their family lived in extreme poverty due to the system that had been imposed on them. At the age of 16, Mark began working in a textile plant, where he trained and worked for the remainder of his life in Ukraine. He was also drafted to serve three years at the Russian Navy base in Crimea. He was even threatened with torture for his treason when he applied for resignation from his job before he left the country in 1980.
Mark still remains attached to his home in Ukraine, having visited five times since 1980. He has watched as the USSR collapsed, leaving his country free, and then, more recently, watched as Russia’s slowly growing influence has once again trapped Ukraine in a tumultuous fight for independence. From his friends and family who still live in Ukraine, including the former Chief of the Ukrainian Army, he has gathered that this conflict is the result of Russian insecurity and paranoia about its influence and power. Putin has brought Russians the order, security and a strong sense of nationalism that they have sought, winning him an 82% approval rating among his constituents. Despite his tendencies towards the extreme, Putin is not crazy, even if he is tyrannical, and does not wish to involve Russia in a war that could weaken the public’s perception of him, or the regional and international power that the country possesses. Although the western perception of the conflict is that Ukraine should break off ties with Russia in favor of siding with the European Union and the West, Mark acknowledges that, in any case, Ukraine will always need to maintain relations with Russia, who provides it with oil, natural gas and various other essential resources. Until western powers can fill this need, Ukraine will remained chained to its neighbor, subject to its incessant bullying and scare tactics. All in all, Mark says that this conflict is not simply a question of Russia vs. the west; it is a complex game where, in the end, Ukraine must weigh the nearly 500 years of history it has shared with Russia and the resource reliance it cannot seem to break from with their hunger for independence and recognition as a modern western country.