I was last in Russia in June of 2013. Now I am banned. My grandparents were from Ukraine and struggled against Communism. As a child I understood what Soviet Communism was. Those things are true of all Ukrainian-Canadians of my generation.
One of the most pressing issues in the world is the need for Ukraine to emerge as a sovereign, democratic, prosperous state. The future of Europe depends on it. Only a strong, secure Ukraine can contain Russian imperialism. A successful Ukraine will counter those forces in Russia bent on violent expansion and inspire Russians who see a different path. I am convinced that it is going to be through Ukraine that Russia becomes democratic.
I was taught at the kitchen table that the collapse of the USSR was inevitable. I was told that the Soviet Union was fragile and when it did collapse, Ukraine would emerge. That’s why I went to live in Ukraine; I wrote about the post-Soviet era and Ukrainians’ struggles to build a country.
My grandfather was from outside Lviv in Western Ukraine; my grandmother was from the Polesia region north of Kiev. Family stories were about growing up in the inter-war period as borders shifted from Polish to Russian control and the Bolsheviks established themselves.
My grandfather had a cousin who spent ten years in a Stalinist labour camp. My grandfather’s sister, a Catholic nun, told me she was once interrogated by the KGB. I asked, weren’t you afraid? No, she replied: “I told them no matter what happens I will be in heaven and you will go to hell.” I remember her joy when the USSR collapsed, and she could finally wear her nun’s habit in public.
My grandfather was a lawyer and editor, the first in his family to gain an education. He joined a campaign called Samopomich to help farmers and promote literacy. He was a teetotaler and would tell them, stop drinking and learn how to read!
In 1939 my grandparents fled Ukraine to avoid arrest at the outbreak of World War Two. Two of their children were born in Poland, two more were born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany; two more were born in Canada. Ukrainians who arrived in Canada after the war saw themselves as political exiles. They were forced to flee.
My family’s history gives me empathy towards other nations that have suffered invasion and totalitarian regimes. I understand the challenges they face in coming to Canada. I think of my grandmother.
We were close, she and I. Ukrainian was my first language; I went to Ukrainian school and learned Ukrainian history. I even went to Ukrainian girl guides. Later at university in Boston I taught a Ukrainian class. My children now attend a Ukrainian school in Toronto.
From childhood I was taught the value of community engagement: this was the central principle of life for my family. I worked for the Ukrainian News in Edmonton and became an exchange student in Ukraine in 1988, then still under Soviet rule. From the spring of 1991 to the fall of 1993 I was a stringer for the Financial Times, the Economist and Washington Post in Kiev.
My legal name is Christina. Though I was born into a Ukrainian family, it was considered appropriate to have a more English-sounding name. I changed it back to Chrystia. I still feel that duty to Ukraine.
(Editor’s note: this commentary was originally published December 12, 2014)