Ukraine: A Personal Look at a Country in Crisis

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A Personal Look at a Country in Crisis

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Over the past year or so, world news has been regularly filled with reports of difficulties, open warfare and even atrocities in Ukraine. Russia under President Vladimir Putin is redrawing the borders of Europe by force, the lines etched in blood.

Having personal connections to both Ukraine and Russia, I am deeply saddened at what is going on. Of course, all of us should be appalled at such developments and mourn for those directly affected. Yet it’s often hard for people to wrap their minds around such things.

Today there is terrible war and much suffering among the military and civilian populace alike, with destruction of city after city, resulting in more than a million refugees.

In the 1920s Soviet leader Josef Stalin, one of the most cunning and evil men to ever walk the earth, made this repulsive statement during a devastating famine in the Ukraine: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

While Stalin’s mind was twisted beyond measure, he cruelly understood the inability of the human mind to comprehend wholesale murder and disaster. It’s all too easy to set these grievous monstrosities apart from our day-to-day lives.

For me in this case, it is not so. While I am a naturalized lifelong citizen of the United States, my father was Ukrainian and my mother was of Russian descent. Most Americans today would probably have difficulty comprehending what they endured some 75 years ago—relevant today, as it increasingly parallels current events.

As one with deep personal ties to Ukraine and Russia, allow me to offer some perspective about what is happening there, looking back on a difficult past and focusing ahead on a remarkable future. (Be sure to also read the companion article “The Russian Bear Reawakens!.)

A harrowing family history

I’ll start with some of what my parents went through. As teenagers, they experienced the Nazi German invasion of Ukraine. My mother was terrorized by a German bombing raid of her hometown that left 700 people dead. A year later they were forcibly taken from their homes by the Nazis and then made to work as slave laborers in German factories for the rest of World War II.

After the war they ended up in a United Nations refugee camp in occupied Germany’s British Zone. There they married. I was born in the camp, and then in 1949, when I was almost two years old, our family of three crossed the Atlantic to the United States. Over time we all became U.S. citizens.

My parents had survived terrible horrors, including personal abuse and witnessing the deaths of so many of their friends and coworkers. Many of these died in the last desperate months of the war from the relentless bombing of German towns by British and American planes, ending up as “collateral damage.” By the grace of God, my parents made it through.

While they felt enormous gratitude for having survived, it was still difficult for them. For the first four years of living in the United States my parents had no contact with their relatives in Ukraine. But after Stalin died in 1953 there was a slight easing of relations between the USSR and America, and my parents received their first letters from their respective homes.

How well I remember that day! My mother trembled and cried after the postman delivered a registered letter from Ukraine and she heard from her family for the first time in nearly 10 years. In one day my father received word of the deaths of his mother and brothers in the war. It was stressful at our home as my parents tried to shield us children from their personal trauma and grief over their families whom we as children never knew.

My parents longed for their homeland. They felt estranged and separated, but going back would be a one-way trip and would probably result in severe punishment, even death, for being supposed “collaborators” with the Germans—even though it was forced labor.

So they couldn’t go back. But they didn’t forget where they came from. And they made certain that I and my siblings didn’t either. Thus I am deeply invested in Ukrainian culture and ethnicity. I didn’t learn to speak English until kindergarten age. I was taught Ukrainian grammar, writing and history.

Ongoing personal involvement in the region

In my professional life I have worked extensively in Ukraine, Russia, Estonia and other former Soviet republics. In the past 40 years, in addition to serving as a pastor and administrator, I’ve worked there as a translator, journalist, guide, and manager of non-profit projects in conjunction with Russian broadcasting, supporting orphanages and education and exchange programs.

For the past 20 years I’ve been deeply involved with a center for rehabilitating children in Chernihev, about 30 miles east of the infamous Chernobyl reactor, along with members of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev and Ukrainian members of Rotary International.

So when I hear the news or am contacted directly by friends in Eastern Europe and Ukraine (nearly daily by Skype or e-mail), I am very deeply affected by the current devastating conflict that has already taken thousands of lives.

I earlier witnessed and lived through the amazing transition from the seemingly immovable Iron Curtain days to the dismantling of an atheistic Communist monolith with its heavy-handed control of its subjects. But the hopes of that time have been replaced by misery.

Today there is terrible war and much suffering among the military and civilian populace alike, with destruction of city after city. More than a million refugees are being resettled all through Ukraine.

Through an international non-political charity that I helped found and organize (LifeNets), we are helping children to evacuate from the war zone as well as helping elderly and displaced people in the Donetsk region and elsewhere. The rehabilitation center we have worked with in Chernihev is taking in dozens of children from this region who survived the shelling by invaders.

Short-lived independence?

To understand where we are today, let’s consider a short history. Breaking free of Soviet domination, Ukraine became a sovereign independent nation on Aug. 24, 1991.

Freedom and democracy came rather suddenly and unexpectedly. Regrettably, the nation did not fare particularly well under this new system, being understandably unprepared for free governance. To some, democracy meant “Now I can do whatever I want.”

There was also a sense of whiplash as the country overnight leapt from a one-party system to multiple parties of various interests and agendas trying to govern. Corruption set in immediately, as the Mafia there quickly filled power voids and established control.

After independence the economy didn’t get better. It got worse. Ukraine became very poor. When visiting my relatives in western Ukraine in 1996, I was shocked to hear them pining away for the better days of greater plenty under Soviet rule. Capitalism and democracy were not working for them. Under the one-party system, there had been security and control.

Of course, under communism the economy had been quite limited and hopelessly inefficient—and no one was free to leave. Now the people had the freedom to buy anything and go wherever they wanted, but there was no money and often no work.

Both the Russians and Ukrainians, finding it difficult to manage moderate governments, have found themselves back under intimidating dictatorships, as is their historic norm.

My friends in Chernihev wrote to me last July 4 with congratulations to America for 238 years of independence. In the same message they lamented about what might be the fate of their freedom after only 23 short years.

I am told by many of my Ukrainian friends and contacts that they do not know how the crisis of Russia’s invasion will end. No one sees the bottom. Will more of Ukraine be taken? Will all of it—piece by piece?

Why does Russia want control of Ukraine?

Ukraine is a compact country of 45 million people living in a territory slightly larger than that of France. It’s a beautiful country rich in natural resources for both farming and mining. At one time the country was known as the breadbasket of Europe. Its amazingly fertile land called “black earth” requires little or no fertilizer. It has beautiful navigable rivers, including the Dnieper, Dniester, Desna, Pripyat and Danube, that flow into the Black Sea and give passage to, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean.

Besides its position on the Black Sea shores, there are other factors that heighten Ukraine’s strategic importance. Ukraine is at the crossroads of East and West, having long been an intersection of nations, including Mongols, Turks, Poles and Russians, who have in times past helped themselves to this land and people. Today Russian oil flows through Ukraine to the West.

And now Ukraine has, since gaining its freedom, been trying to shift its allegiances and economic ties to Western Europe. That raises fear and paranoia among Russians, who continue to mistrust Europe and America and especially dislike the notion of being kept in check by them.

This is compounded by the fear of Ukraine being accepted into the American-led NATO alliance. If Ukraine were a member of NATO, it would be protected by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that an attack on any NATO nation is considered an attack on all, requiring all NATO nations to respond with force. From a Russian point of view, the idea of Ukraine nestled inside the NATO alliance is intolerable. So the Russians act now.

Today’s crisis in Ukraine is one to watch carefully, as it is one of a number of serious flashpoints in the world. Any one of these could cascade and ignite a sequence of events quickly leading to regional then world war.

And we may yet see more of these flashpoints on Russia’s borders, as it seeks to recapture the empire it has lost. Make no mistake: This Russian belligerence holds ominous implications that go far beyond the aggression in Ukraine. Are the Baltic nations next? And then what?

A brighter tomorrow—and the mission at hand

Ukraine has had a traumatic history hard to imagine. The country was a primary target of Stalin’s purges and resettlement or outright genocide by Stalin. My mother lived through the 1933 artificial famine in which more than 6 million starved to death. Then the costly Second World War ruined the nation. Much later in 1986 the country suffered the devastating Chernobyl nuclear disaster. When will the suffering end?

From the pages of the Bible, I confidently know that even as this world “groans and labors with birth pangs,” it does so as a precursor to the return of Jesus Christ.

While I hold my Ukrainian ancestry to be precious and remain profoundly grateful for the freedoms offered to me as a naturalized citizen of the United States, I know where my ultimate citizenship lies. As the apostle Paul, “a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5), wrote to a gentile congregation in Greece nearly 2,000 years ago, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20, English Standard Version).

From the pages of the Bible, I confidently know that even as this world “groans and labors with birth pangs” (Romans 8:22), it does so as a precursor to the return of Jesus Christ. The time is ripening for that wonderful day when He will at last come again, this time as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16). Many biblical passages proclaim that when Jesus returns, He will then rule the nations—even with a “rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15) for those who would seek to viciously oppress other peoples, be they Ukrainians or anyone. That day is coming, and it is certain!

God has given His people the responsibility to proclaim this good news or gospel to the whole world—and the mission of this magazine centers on that task.

Moreover, we must all strive to follow this biblical command: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act” (Proverbs 3:27, New International Version). According to God’s will, if we can help then we must—not for the praise of men but because it is the right thing to do. We must also humbly labor in prayer and action for the very core of our hope through Jesus Christ, crying out to God, “Your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10).

Until it comes, let’s remember that the world around us is not yet subjected to God’s rule. Rather, “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19, NIV)—the ultimate liar and destroyer, Satan the devil. His diabolical handiwork is evident in the horrible deaths of millions in Ukraine as well as all the atrocities of human history.

But let us also remember that when Jesus returns, such satanic evil will end! This gives me the greatest joy when I am profoundly saddened by the tidings from Ukraine.

Through God’s grace mankind will survive, and peace will come. Join with us to help bring this vital, uplifting message of good news to the world!