WORDS AND PHOTO: ANNA BISIKALO '17
“We can’t believe we brought you all the way here only to have you study where you’re from,” my parents say to me every once in a while, lightheartedly but honestly.
We moved to Massachusetts in 1999 from Ukraine after entering the annual US Diversity Visa Lottery. You can apply if your country has a low rate of immigration to the US, and each year 55,000 winners are given Green Cards. We were one such winning family. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian economy in the 1990‘s was stagnant when it wasn’t sharply declining, and there were few opportunities to work. Emigrating at that point was a very good option and my family chose it.
Learning English was not deliberate—I watched American TV for a year, picking up the language subconsciously and the culture as well (at least, the culture of Sesame Street). I spoke Ukrainian at home and English at school and at some point began learning Russian, mixing all three sometimes. This was all fine and good until I visited Ukraine.
My parents and I have gone back to Ukraine for the whole or part of the summer every year since moving here. While living in the US, I have spent a cumulative two and a half years in Ukraine, spread across annual summer visits. But, the first several times I went back, I didn’t speak during the initial weeks. My young brain went rigid and I couldn’t get over the feeling of being not-totally-comfortable in my native tongue. My relatives spoke to me and I replied in elementary sentences, stopping frequently to ask my mom how to say what I needed to say in Ukrainian. It was embarrassing and frustrating for me, though no one else minded. As I got older, this period of what felt like constantly buffering speech got shorter every year. But I still viscerally remember being unable to rely on either language to process information or express myself.
The current conflict in Ukraine reached dangerous levels beginning in the winter of 2014, though it is informed by centuries of political and ethnic tension between Ukraine and Russia. Hundreds of Ukrainian citizens protested against the Ukrainian President Yanukovich for refusing to sign an agreement for Ukraine to begin applying to the European Union—an agreement which had been promised to the country’s citizens for years. The President allegedly called for violence against the protestors and himself fled the country.
The situation escalated when the Russian government annexed the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea, claiming that the ethnically Russian populace wanted to re-join Russia. After that, Ukrainian separatist rebels in the East of Ukraine were joined by Russian forces (though Russian President Putin has not admitted to sending any) and the Ukrainian army began fighting them in the Eastern region of the country. 6,116 people have died in the last year as a result of the war. Propaganda and lies are broadcast from Russian media to its citizens and abroad. Misinformation is ubiquitous. Neither you nor I can be sure we know the truth about events in the war.
When the conflict in Ukraine escalated rapidly, I ignored much of it. My parents emailed me news articles and political analyses and I told myself that I would read them later and often didn’t. At the time, I was taking a class on Soviet Russian history and learning about the horrors of Eastern Europe’s long 20th century. I was simultaneously doing research for a professor about the role of humiliation in international politics, looking at Putin’s actions in Ukraine and how he is responding to Russia being historically snubbed by the West. This fall, I wrote a paper about the evolution of Ukrainian nationalism from 1917-2000 and how it has been undermined by Russian political actions. I am currently doing research about the Holodomor, a famine that took place in Ukraine from 1932-1933 and killed millions. Many countries recognize it as a genocide of the Ukrainian people perpetrated by the Soviet Russian government.
That winter of 2014, I began to feel a schism, a feeling of separation within myself that I couldn’t reconcile. I was reading scholarly works and statistics while disregarding the emotional toll of having war in my homeland. I found theory much easier to understand than human
suffering. Focusing on the millions wrongly executed and imprisoned by Stalin’s regime, I actively ignored those being killed by Putin’s. And when people asked me what I “think about the situation...you know...in Ukraine?” I didn’t know how to answer. It was unclear whether they wanted an analysis of the political situation or my raw response to what was and is going on. I chose neither, usually responding with “I think it’s pretty bad, yeah.” One day I sat down and read all of the emails and news articles and watched footage of the news and violence and lies. A few hours of that left my breathing shallow, my heart beating too fast and my temples throbbing. Keeping an emotional distance seemed to be the healthiest option.
The same feeling of discomfort that I experienced when I didn’t have total control of my Ukrainian began dwelling in me. I process and express information best in English, but when I can’t do the same in Ukrainian it’s painful. Similarly, I understand my world best in academic terms. Making sense of things, for me, lies in reading texts about them couched in jargon and abstract ideas. When it comes to connecting with a topic on an emotional level, something in me resists.
I ache to access that way of processing the events in Ukraine. I feel guilty because all of the intellectual work I’m doing on the topic feels tangential. I make time to read books from 2001 about the Soviet legal policies regarding the ethnic groups in the USSR, but not time to call my aunt in Ukraine just to see how she’s doing. Academia is what I have the strength to do when fully feeling my emotions becomes a burden.
I am not the only person who studies a field that I am connected to personally. Having a cultural and sentimental background in a topic makes studying it feel crucial. And I am not saying that an emotional approach is better than an intellectual one, or vice versa. They aren’t even easily differentiable. I am sometimes emotionally struck by an academic text because the author’s way of framing the world makes sense to me and I feel a visceral, sublime clarity. And there are moments when I know something to be true intuitively, emotionally—something that I can’t yet describe theoretically.
But when a situation is as tragic, confusing, absurd and intimate for me as the war in Ukraine is, rationalizing it feels wrong. People die while I walk through the stacks of my library and that feels wrong. I felt linguistically distant from Ukraine when I had trouble speaking the language as a child. That has been replaced by an acute physical and emotional distance between myself and my batkivshchyna, my homeland.
I don’t know how to deal with Ukraine. I know that I am uncomfortable when acquaintances casually tell me that they think “Putin is so wacky! He takes his shirt off and rides wild animals—it’s so funny.” They don’t take him seriously and I wish I didn’t have to. I know that my family is safe for now, and that they live in a tense and ever-nervous community. I know that I love Ukraine deeply. I think that learning every fact and theory about my homeland will allow me to understand it, and I know that’s not true. I long for catharsis and I don’t know if I’ll ever experience it.