Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ukraine: Part Three

At times I can’t seem to praise this program enough because it would provide elemental learning experiences for absolutely anyone, not just those seeking a career in international relations. Hell, maybe this program should be included in our public school curriculum: Once Little Billy’s done Social Studies, send him on the next plane to Ghana to discover a human condition other than his own. When the world’s becoming a tighter network what’s the harm in people trying to become less alien to one another?

We Canadians gained invaluable insight through absorbing various degrees of culture shock provided by our counterparts and host-families. All of us probably felt one step closer to becoming true-blooded cosmopolitans as we spoke in nothing but parables to loved-ones back home; so many stories of delightful madness … reading through my journal, I realize my abattoir of bizarre anecdotes will likely become indicator of a swift decent towards senility come my golden years…

Experiencing the lifestyle was just the first step to this brilliant social experiment! The most enlightening aspect was our weekly group discussion. We would have been shut off from one another a generation earlier, but now as Canadian and Ukrainian participants we were able to sit down and scrutinize various issues surrounding us. An exchange of different perspectives to broaden our minds and better understand our foreign brethren… this exercise proved difficult when Canadians began addressing the more troubling aspects of Ukrainian life. In other words, we couldn’t avoid mentioning the prejudices we’d been noticing.

…some of my most interesting stories raise this touchy issue, which hasn’t made them any easier to discuss years after the program –an element of controversy sure to make any grandchildren think I’m certifiably bat-shit crazy and warrant an early check-in at Shady Acres, where ‘pirogue-night’ will have to be discontinued after instigating many of my discomforting rants.

Now as I flip through page after page of notes I come across one brief instance that begins simple enough but takes an odd turn for the worst:

My counterpart and I would frequent his grandparents’ apartment. Initially, I was uncertain how I’d be received as an outsider by people possibly of an older soviet mindset, but his grandfather and I ended up getting along famously; it felt as if we'd known each other for years. Who knows, being a very successful businessman himself maybe any Westerner with an affinity to free enterprise was no stranger.

This was the place where I rubbed elbows with Ukraine’s high-society. During a dinner party with his family, friends and other aristocrats I sat next to a woman who was a judge for the Supreme Court of Ukraine. This was a surreal opportunity not only because I was in the presence of someone who played a pivotal role in the revolution but someone who attained prestige within a profession not known for gender diversification. I asked whether she faced any obstacles in her career being a woman. She explained how, despite her success, she encountered many stereotypes which made it difficult for Ukrainian women to move away from the traditional roles set out for them; Stereotypes that weren’t overtly disrespectful, just persistently discouraging.

As we spoke, the grandfather had grown concerned watching me use a fork and knife to eat a piece of salted fish. He urgently interrupted the conversation.

“He says only a little girl wouldn’t use her hands to eat that,” my counterpart informed me.

I looked around the table and expected to see at least one smirk reflecting the facetiousness of this remark, but there wasn’t the slightest reaction from anyone. This comment wasn’t a little off-colour… no?

The man wasn’t fooling around. He watched me silently, waiting for me to drop the cutlery and save what manhood I had left. He was patient because he really didn’t want to resort to calling me a pussy in front of everyone.

So… my ability to brave greasy hands was what separated me from a female? A little girl none the less: the epitome of sissy-dom. Was this worth the interruption and having me reprimanded? I wondered what trouble I’d cause if I had tampons fall out of my purse at that moment. Would he immediately phone the circus to report a fugitive?

His insular comment couldn’t have been better timed to illustrate his indifference towards this woman’s issue. He was genuinely oblivious to providing case-in-point which was a shame he couldn’t appreciate being part of one of the finest examples of irony.

The room fell silent and everyone’s eyes were on us. A cross-road had been reached between two old friends. Was I going to let my testicles descend so I could finally finish my meal? Why was I having dinner-table stare-downs with so many people in this country?

I have other stories related to prejudices I’d encountered, some far more drastic that could paint Ukraine as some sort of bigoted backwater, especially for those accustomed to more politically-correct overtones. These instances might be worth mentioning, but I can’t help worry that by simply reciting them there’s the danger of stepping atop a moral high-ground… and missing something… something important. Or should I just go with my instinct and play the critic and provide my diatribe of Ukraine? Don't I deserve to? I am Canadian after all, a people renowned for tolerance.

Any doubts, just look how we’ve been brought-up by the greatest teacher of the Western World: television. When we witnessed the inner-city children of Sesame Street living peacefully amongst multi-coloured puppet monsters with crippling neuroses, we believed all levels of acceptance possible. Any of us left doubting the senselessness of hate were at least instilled with the fear of Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning. We were educated to say no to discrimination with the same determination we were supposed to say no to drugs… Well, the older I got the more I realized this campaign was just as fail-safe as the other. Let's just say our PC mantra can become a thin veil to our own brand of prejudice.

I met many Ukrainians who told me a series of jokes intended to insult the intelligence of citizens from one neighboring country. Someone asked, “How does a Moldovan cook an egg? He throws it against the wall and then irons it. ” Unbeknownst of the stereotypes of this obscure nationality, the only thing I could appreciate was the absurdity in such unbridled maliciousness. After hearing several of these jokes I had to laugh and ask, “What the hell has a Moldovan ever done to you?” But switch-up Moldovan with any familiar ethnicity and haven’t we all heard this joke a million times before?… well, not specifically about cooking an egg on the wall, I still don’t know what the fuck that really means.

As I’ve mentioned before, it becomes reflex to point out and even dramatize the unfamiliar – and a new tone of prejudice can be as potent as an unrecognizable body odor! Self-reflection can be neglected just as easily in a place as distracting as Ukraine, so I must remind myself that stepping atop higher ground while discussing intolerance would be removing myself from an issue I know all too well, every Canadian does. Canadian participants lent just as much insight into the topic as Ukrainians. We could even play on irony just as well as my counterpart’s grandfather.

This doesn’t really surprise me because I believe absolutely every single one of us is fully capable of gross generalities, prejudice, discrimination and being overtly racist, homophobic or sexist. Aversion is a rigorous process of self-policing because we can fail to recognize our own unhealthy preconceptions when the harm they have on other people isn’t as obvious as say, lighting a torch, tying a noose and joining the late-night Welcome Wagon.

So how does such a brief story about a dinner party raise so many questions? Well when I think of stories that could instigate discussion I can’t help but refer to one of my oddest experiences… at the banya.

It all began at the house when I was sitting around the kitchen table with both my host-brothers and their friends from out of town. It was rowdy night of drinking and talking shit about those wily Russians.

Suddenly everyone wanted to move the party elsewhere. I heard the word banya being tossed around. My counterpart wouldn’t explain what this was because he was too busy shaking his head. I was just told to bring a bar of soap and a pair of sandals. Soon we were marching through town.

The banya could be considered a sort of spa or bath house, where men sat in an absurdly hot sauna (wearing pointy felt hats so their hair wouldn’t singe) and then they’d step out and dive into a deep, stainless steel vat of ice cold water. After this it was back into the sauna where they’d repeat this process until their body began feeling the euphoric sense of shock. This was considered to be healthy for some reason, maybe because it conditioned the body to handle extremes in temperature. If we weren’t doing this we were showering or sitting around drinking tea. Most importantly, all of these activities were done bare-assed naked.

Needless to say this was a confusing experience. One moment, we were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking our faces off like a bunch of ruffians then, an instant later, we were at a different table, naked and quietly sipping tea. I’d never imagined twenty minutes could provide such a drastic transition where my primary thought-process of, “I sure hope I don’t feel sick from mixing vodka with beer,” could immediately turn to, “I sure hope I don’t spill any of this hot beverage on my balls.”

With no escape in sight, I overcame my fear of exhibitionism by trying to think of this moment as just another unique cultural experience. I’ll admit, after a while there was a strange sense of freedom in being able to shamelessly wear our skin like poorly fitted suits; elation familiar to elderly men meandering locker-rooms the world over… but everything was soon spoiled by some weirdo sitting across from me.

This guy started looking down at my business. After having a good long look he looked me in the face momentarily only to look back down again. He repeated this several times and began smiling to himself. Aware of the difficulty in establishing dialogue, I gave him the universal “can I fucking help you” look. Once this failed to deter him I noticed everyone staring at my penis, even my host-brothers were catching the quick glance while whispering to each other.

I’d become anxious to figure out why I’d become lead spectacle in this freak-show. Firstly, I thought people were amused with what I’d been born with, but this didn’t seem the case amongst so many other show-stoppers. Then, I worried whether it was because we were worlds apart in relation to body-hair grooming. As negligent as any traveler, I looked as if I were auditioning for a skin-flick circa 1967 and, being the ambitious method-actor, I was trying for the part of the homeless man… well, everyone else looked to be waiting outside the same casting office so that wasn’t the case either. THEN WHAT THE HELL WAS IT? People were acting as if my penis had suddenly become animated and started telling dirty jokes.

Then it suddenly dawned on me: Everyone was still wearing their turtlenecks; not one trouser snake had its collar hemmed; no one had ever seen Private Johnson still wearing his helmet while ‘at ease’ – I could attempt making analogies for circumcision all day.

So that was it? That was what was causing me so much attention? The idea of such superficiality caused me to develop an unabashedly pretentious air; walking around while shouting in my head, “Look at it all you want assholes! For the longest time I thought smegma was a name for some sort of soup!”

Passing through the locker-room I encountered one guy who looked at it, looked me in face with intense disgust and turned away abruptly. A reaction like this felt like a swift kick to the stomach. It seemed a little extreme for someone simply disliking the aesthetics of it. I had to double check whether he’d read something personally insulting tattooed above my groin. What the hell could invoke such a reaction from someone? Well, this nude exposé proved circumcision wasn’t prominent amongst the majority of Eastern Orthodoxy nor the secular crowd in Ukraine… so did that just leave a Jewish affiliation? This reaction made a little more sense considering that anti-Semitism was still alive in Ukraine.

A short walk through the woods near my host-family’s house quickly turned into a horrific history lesson when I stumbled upon a mass grave where 2,500 Jewish citizens of Ostroh and the surrounding area were assembled for execution by occupying Nazi forces. Those who had once made up sixty per cent of Ostroh’s population were now reduced to several families.

Ukrainian Jews have experienced a history of devastating pogroms long before World War Two. Long afterwards, cultural sensitivities in Ostroh amounted to bulldozers clearing away headstones at the Jewish cemetery to make way for a park. An ancient synagogue with a mystical history was now nothing more than a refuse dump. Taking a trip to the western city L’viv, Canadians could easily see where prominent Neo-Nazis left their mark. A grievous conversation with some Ukrainians could easily entice an anti-Semitic rant. While all of this seemed overwhelming to Canadians, we had a chance to discuss the matter with our counterparts.

Now, one thing I should mention about our group discussions was how they could be… well…. complete fucking disasters!!!… when all fore- and afterthought was left by the wayside; when debates digressed into pissing matches; when emotion trumped reason and all productivity came to a grinding halt. At times we were nowhere near reaching any understanding... these moments were goddamn frustrating!

… Although… in retrospect I appreciated the genius of this exercise all the more because it showed us the pitfalls of diplomacy firsthand. I walked away with new insight into the dangers of misunderstanding, wondering whether shit ever got that petty at the United Nations.

– Sure, there are times when it seems like this program offers nothing but a grim reality-check, but I still think we should put Little Billy on the next chartered flight. He’s already dealing with more disconcerting allegories in English class. Weren’t we all handed Lord of the Flies to read in our youth? Our teachers’ way of saying, “This is what you pubescent piss-ants would do to each other if left to your own devices and don’t think things change once you get older, so whoever relates to Piggy better shape-up before the real world eats you alive.”

Due to my own weaknesses I hadn’t grabbed the conch near enough. Upset and confused I spent too much time trying to rationalize my aggravation to a dog with a broken leg. Now that I’ve had time to internalize what happened I hope it’s not too late to share useful perspective.

Well, one such car-wreck of a discussion combined the complications of language barriers, age-old questions of Jewish identity and quick tempers. It started when Ukrainian participants mentioned a distinction between being Ukrainian and being Jewish. This knocked the wind out of all of us Canadians considering the unfounded marginalization of Jews throughout history, especially in Ukraine… hell, most of us had seen Fiddler on the Roof.

“How can someone not be considered Ukrainian simply because of their religion?” Someone asked.

“Ukrainians are Ukrainians and Jews are Jews,” was the explanation reiterated to us.

However, the Ukrainians were speaking in the broader terms of ethnicity. Jewish identity wasn’t always exclusive to religion; there were many believers and non-believers who consider themselves ‘a people,’ just as many Ukrainians weren’t restricted to nationality; as their culture had been established long before having an independent state.

We might have not agreed with what we were hearing, but we should note how much of what you read on Ukraine cast its Jewish population among its ethnic demography, so Ukrainian citizens consider themselves many things including ethnic-Ukrainians, ethnic-Russians and ethnic-Jews. Maybe there was underlying ethnocentrism that demanded serious questioning, but I didn’t think we were hearing signs of malevolence from our counterparts.

Hostility arose from several Canadians, the severity of which depends on who recounts the conversation, but it was undeniable judgment had been passed on the Ukrainians. They definitely felt it and thought it was cause of a major sore spot on group relations. Was this our innate reaction to speak out against what we thought were signs of intolerance? Well whatever it was it came off as alienating.

Not long after this discussion I joined a Canadian participant, and good friend of mine, for drink. Several seconds into our conversation I was reminded of our own home-grown bigotry with the most racist comment towards First Nations I’d ever heard… and I’ve encountered plenty of racism towards Aboriginal Canadians through various lines of work. Racism that transcended tasteless jokes and ignorant stereotypes, constituting a level of contempt I thought could only be expressed from underneath a white hood. While my friend’s comment made my skin feel as if it was crawling off my body, it wasn’t surprising because I’ve known many good people who try passing-off sentiments typically published on the stalls of public toilets as casual conversation; Rational people unknowingly proving themselves as social liabilities. Well, we Canadians not only have the tact, but we have the dark history to boot.

While growing up I had to pass a residential school every time I went into town. I paid little attention to the big redbrick building, except when it was time for its elaborate Christmas light show. What happened behind its walls became of interest after reading a book of testimonials from former students. These schools were established across the country during the late 19th century and the last one closed down in 1996 (Gordon Residential School, Saskatchewan.)

These under-funded joint-ventures between government and church were notorious for decrepit accommodations detrimental to children’s health; over-working children on farms that provided a supplemental budget; providing minimal food that led to malnourishment; denying proper medical care to the sick. This created prime breeding ground for the school’s tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century, resulting in an overall death rate that has been estimated at forty two per cent. Some cite this figure as much higher considering how few records were actually kept. (At one point, File Hills Boarding School in Saskatchewan had a death rate of seventy five per cent.) Parents who refused to put their children at risk couldn’t contend with the fines or prison sentences coupled with compulsory attendance.

Despite wide-spread knowledge of the problems nothing was done, “The deaths, and the conditions of the schools pricked no collective conscience, wrought no revolution in policy, or even any significant reformulation,” explains John S. Milloy, professor of Native studies at Trent University and author of the bestselling book, A National Crime.

The inaction to prevent infection amongst students had been deemed criminal by various inspectors at the time. To the discomfort of Canadians, people reviewing this history today have been using that controversal G-word many consider too generally defined.

These children were put under the guardianship of the government and measures were enforced to distance them from the “backsliding” influences of their parents. Some parents were left to question not only how their children died but where their unmarked graves were. "They have been buried without the knowledge of their parents, in places that their parents cannot visit or get to … many children simply disappeared."

The extent of physical and sexual abuse within these schools hasn’t been revealed to the general public. “There was a pronounced and persistent reluctance on the part of the Department [of Indian Affairs] to deal forcefully with incidents of abuse.” Producing evidence for review was often futile as “excuses” from principals “backed by their churches would have greater priority.” There are personal accounts of torture and murder that will hopefully be addressed during Canada’s South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission. [Kevin Annett is an activist that has been compiling testimonies.]

Results of an indoctrination designed to “kill the Indian and save the man” are broken homes and a culture put to shame. What consequence does this have on a people? These aims of “elevating” Aboriginal Canadians to their white contemporaries have failed, as now there’s a massive disparity between cultures. Third world conditions exist on numerous reserves that face contaminated water supply and over-crowded housing, sustaining a life expectancy five to seven years below national average.

But was the intention really to create equals? Many civil rights for Aboriginal Canadians came after the international pressure that followed Canada’s signing of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human rights in 1948. Not until 1951 was it finally legal for Aboriginal Canadians to perform culturally vital ceremonies such as Potlatch, and hire lawyers to deal with treaties. Aboriginal Canadians couldn’t vote in federal elections without having to renounce their status until 1960.

This is not distant history by anyone’s standards. So is there reason we do not educate young Canadians of the history of these discriminatory policies? – Not to create a guilt-complex but an awareness of how easily this could happen and become ignored.

I can only imagine how all of this sets-the-stage for further misunderstanding during times of conflicting interests as seen at Oka, Restigouche, Ipperwash, Caledonia and elsewhere. Despite how Canadians may understand these situations, we should recognize the rest of the world might not agree with us. In 2007, Canada stood by the few who refused to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I imagine if we were to explore these issues during group discussion we might very well bear the brunt of judgment.

So Ukrainians and Canadians had different minorities they discriminated against… well we weren’t lost of all commonality…

After Canadians took to confrontation some Ukrainians figured we’d be unwavering proponents of tolerance during further group discussion… but that role could never be so clear-cut; many issues still fall into grey throughout the world. When it came time to discuss homosexuality, we shared just as much ambivalence as the Ukrainians. Was this surprising? Not really. Didn’t people start feeling uncomfortable once they began suspecting Bert and Ernie were pushing their beds together?

— Canada has reputation of leading the way for gay rights but this hadn’t come without serious controversy. Our 2004 federal election saw debate over the legality of civil marriage make top agenda —

We broached the topic since there was a possibility of Ukrainians having gay host-family members when in Canada. One discussion had everyone share their personal feelings towards homosexuality. The Ukrainians were divided and the Canadians unanimously endorsed acceptance, but some were quick to emphasize their apprehension. I found this curious because over the years I’ve engaged many Canadians in similar conversation and this same underlaying theme comes up most the time: “I’ve got no problem with homosexuals… but the idea of homosexuality really bothers me.” After hearing this so often, it begins to sound as if people are swallowing some pride in accepting and if this is the case, I can’t help but think there’s much confliction and reservation that still exists.

No one should have to apologize for their taste, however, in a time when sex removes itself from taboo and becomes a fundamental recreation and marketing engine I wonder if people recognize the irrelevancy of their taste. An irrelevancy better emphasized if their displeasure was directed towards the unconventional heterosexuals who rub them the wrong way.

To help put this into perspective imagine if I approached a straight friend who was a sexual libertarian; I’m saying, a Saturday night for him and his girlfriend usually consists of setting up video-cameras and slipping into crotch-less gorilla suites just before they start priming their Ass Blaster 5000. Now imagine if I told this friend that I was ashamed of what he was doing and I think he should be ashamed as well. I let him know he’s heading down a slippery slope because who’s he going to take the Ass Blaster to next? His own sister? I explain how he shouldn’t have the right to marry his girlfriend because he’d be shitting on the principles of everyone who’s a Justice of the Peace, including those at Papa Pre-Nubby’s franchise of Drive-Thru Wedding Chapels/Cold Beer and Wine Stores. I also mention how he’ll be stepping on the b-line straight to hell and not because he decided to cleanout his garage on the last Sabbath.

After my friend laughs this off, then slowly realizes that I’m serious, he’ll be quick to remind me not only what a complete fascist I’m being towards matters that don’t concern me but how disparaging I am to all things that make life interesting and possibly enjoyable. Maybe he’d have a point. The reason I’m not reminded of this from my homosexual friend is because he’s probably resigned after knowing so many who approach homosexuality with a blinding sense of hatred, shame and fear.

While amongst the mob of ruff-necked nudists in the sauna I wondered what would happen if I were obviously gay. I suspect there might be trouble considering these guys probably believed they’d never met anyone homosexual in their lives. I thought there was something paradoxical about this idea.

That’s when he approached me, the brutish stranger whose body flaunted the timely ravages of testosterone; dreaded prevision along the path my own body was traveling. He inquired whether I’d be a Good Samaritan and give him a beat-down with bundles of wet weeds people were using on each other. As he lay down I heated the weeds over some coals, then I proceeded to tenderize him like a blob of hairy meat. Soon he insisted it was my turn. Why the hell not? I’ve abused my body thus far. I took the standard position of lying on my back and cupping my hands over my genitals. He beat me from head to toe – kind of felt like being belted with razor wire.

After explaining this to my male friends back home they stared at me wide-eyed, as if I’d just recounted my experience being molested in a Ukrainian prison and concluded the story by asking them for a kiss. It’s understandable; the banya would typically exceed my comfort level with naked men. How were these Ukrainians able to do this when strong homophobia still exists in Ukraine?

Then again, I had never held hands with so many men walking down the street then when I visited Tanzania, Africa, where homosexuality was illegal. It was customary for men to hold hands, particularly when one was giving the other directions. This was challenging but, just like the banya, there were no erotic intentions behind it… the banya hadn’t threatened my sexuality, just my privacy.

Growing up, I saw our arbitrary nature in distinguishing homoerotism. I remember high school and the clique of up-and-coming beer-league pro-stars who’d jokingly slap each other’s asses in the shower after gym class: the same guys who’d slam the effeminate kid into the lockers because he was shit at ultimate frisbee and hence, a queer. Not only does homosexuality balance on the thin line between acceptance and rejection but everyone has drawn their own thin line between good-clean-fun and foreplay.

We Canadians might have come a long way, but I wonder if we pat ourselves on the back while still keeping a watchful eye over our shoulder; wasted effort when we don’t even know what we should be afraid of.

Anyways, after long-term exposure to male anatomy I began thinking of women as even greater anomalies considering their attraction to such flawed design…. Although, there wasn’t sign of any women nearby, maybe they all had the sense to stay away from this sausage parade.

My host-brother had arranged for me to have a massage, so I knew of at least one woman here. Grabbing a towel for cover, I went to the masseuse only to discover I had to wait my turn. While in the lobby the manager approached me and insisted he take me somewhere I could stave off my boredom. He lead me through an entrance next to a sign saying “BAP” which I should have recognized as Cyrillic text for “BAR.”

I walked into a bar where a group of women were socializing and I was suddenly conscientious of the towel barely covering me. I struggled to cinch what now seemed like a hand towel around my waist as the manager pulled drinks out of the cooler asking, “Cola? Cola?” In my best Ukrainian I said, “No!... no thank you!.... no money! No! No!” Needless to say this incited much laughter from the ladies.

This would have been a devastatingly humiliating circumstance, but I was reconciled to bearing the justice of karma because only days earlier I had made a similar intrusion into a women’s sanctuary, causing just as much humiliation… but not on my part.

This relates to Ostroh University’s infamous no-smoking policy exclusive to females. During our orientation, prior to our departure for Ukraine, we were forewarned by past participants that any girl needing a drag near the university should do it in hiding — the washroom was recommended as her best bet.

I was walking home with a Ukrainian participant who wanted to have a smoke. She had a hideout in mind, so I followed her along a muddy path up a hill behind the university cafeteria. We reached the remnants of a brick wall where six women were crouching in the mud, smoking. I recognized some as the cafeteria staff. Once they saw me they extinguished every cigarette simultaneously and filed down the hill in embarrassment (such skill manoeuvring stilettos on loose ground.) With the hideout all to ourselves, my friend sought cover behind the wall and lit up. The mud was littered with hundreds of butts; sign of an underground society who just wanted a smoke free from a scorn reserved for those harbouring ovaries.

Many students told me any female caught smoking could damage her reputation at the university which could have drastic consequences. What about the men? Well, there was a canopy set up for their smoking-pit next to the entrance. This wasn’t the attitude of the university alone; women who smoked anywhere in Ostroh were frowned upon.

The point of this one-sided policy was divulged during the rector’s introduction, when he lectured all female participants of the adulteration smoking had on their god-given grace… a man of this status must have his word travel far…

“Women who smoke are disgusting,” a student was explaining to me while smoking in the local pub.

“Yeah, but you smoke,” I remarked.

“Yes… but women who smoke are disgusting.”

“So do you. What does that make you?”

“I don’t know… but women who smoke are disgusting.”

This logic was frustrating but how far was it from the rector’s own rationale which was predicated on women conserving an image? For whom were these women upholding their image? Who were the real beneficiaries?

“Yeah, but you smoke!” I wasn’t giving up so easily since beer was the equivalency of ninety cents Canadian.

“Yes. I smoke.”

“So are you disgusting?”

“No…. you don’t understand: Women who smoke are disgusting.”

Were women doing it for this asshole?

The purpose of our program was to help us become culturally understanding, but one Canadian raised an interesting point during group discussion. He mentioned the drawbacks of this resolute sensitivity. What if cultural differences challenged our very morals? Do we accept perspective and policy, despite being discriminatory, just because they’re part of someone’s culture? Do we tolerate the intolerant?

Well, maybe we had good intentions when confronting Ukrainians about Ukrainian Jews, but I found it strange how we let that issue became an elephant pissing in the corner of the room when we didn’t address this bullshit smoking policy. Sure it’s a habit worth discouraging, but it was also a glaring double-standard an establishment like Ostroh University should’ve recognize. I was sensitive to the fact that the university was kind enough to host us, but if we were in the game of pointing out prejudices such was the more obvious.

The troubling thing for me was… it hadn't occured to me to raise the issue. It would have been easy but now it’s nothing more than an afterthought. Why didn’t I? I don’t know. All I do know is men throughout the world spend their life obsessing over women but most often fail to pay them respect somewhere along the way.

So what am I getting at with all this? Well someone back home might very well say, “Ukraine eh? I here there’s quite a bit anti-Semitism over there. When it comes to women’s lib isn’t it a throwback to the 1950s? I bet if you’re gay you sure wouldn’t want to visit.” Sure there was evidence I could cover but failing to mention what I’d learned from Canadians would be hypocritical. What can I say, other than, it was very revealing to see this broad cross-section of Canadians aginst a backdrop like Ukraine because it proved that timeless cliché about all of us “being the same” still applies when we don’t want it to. Standing back and looking at both camps of participants our most glaring discrepancies were our accents and haircuts.

I image this sermon of mine might piss-off some people, but I hope I've made my criticism as constructive as possible... because only we ourselves can change the way we think and act.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ukraine: Part Two

Sitting with my back turned, I watched the table of Ukrainian girls behind me at the other end of the pub.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” My friend, a fellow Canadian participant, asked me.

I turned back around to face him and the other participants at our table, “Lots. You’ll have to be specific,” I replied.

“You and I are going over there,” he demanded while those beside us listened intently.

“I’d rather not.”

I went back to watching the nine girls across the room who were absorbed in their jovial conversation and when they burst into fits of laughter the prospect of interjecting became even more terrifying. I didn’t know the first thing about hitting-on one complete stranger let alone an entire group. I could only refer to my strategy for confronting black bears in such a state of anxiety.

“What are you afraid of? We’ll just go over there and say hello.”

Was it so simple? My inner alpha-male was telling me this situation should be paralleled to some death-defying feat straight out of a shitty action film: My friend was the fearless maverick who’d flown this mission many times before, but he was still in need of a seasoned wingman to fly perfect formation and engage all targets… I guess my friend’s figurative air-force was having something similar to a bring-your-child-to-work-day.

His mind wasn’t changing, “Get up!”

“I don’t seem to have my balls on me today. I think they fell off this morning and rolled behind some furniture. Tell you what, I’ll go home and have a look. When I find them, give them a quick rinse and figure out how to reattach them, I’ll think about joining you next time we’re here.” At this point he was standing beside my seat, “… ALRIGHT, I’M UP!”

We stood at the end of the girls’ table with all of them staring at us. It was up to my friend to justify our intrusion, “Hi, we’re Canadian. Can we sit down?”… I wasn’t sure whether I’d followed Tom Cruise into battle or a hell-bent kamikaze pilot. To my surprise his ambiguity worked like a charm.

Smiling, they made room for us and insisted we have some cake since we’d caught them celebrating a birthday. Their university coordinated our exchange program so they’d seen us around campus and wanted to know how we were enjoying our stay. They were part of the massive student population inhabiting the small town of Ostoh and, like the many people we’d met, they were hospitable and genuinely interested in getting to know us.

My friend led the conversation beautifully while I sat perfectly motionless in attempt to reduce my visibility and eye-balled the girl sitting next to me so, if she were to make any sudden movements, I’d be ready to run outside and climb the nearest tree.

Without warning my incontinent friend was up and off to the washroom, leaving me to fly solo. I thought I was taking things slow and easy by discussing music, but the moment I unknowingly mentioned several of these girls’ favorite bands they startled me with a loud cheer of recognition. I turned to see if anyone witnessed this overreaction and everyone back at my table looked just as shocked by my charisma as I was. Instilled with new found confidence, I asked them what I really wanted to talk about… the Orange Revolution: A country-wide uprising that embroiled many outside interests and became an international media extravaganza in 2004-05.

… I’d never experienced such a complete turnaround in a conversation with people I’d been so new acquainted, where any formality requiring us to uphold innocuous small-talk was completely disregarded. I was now in a forum where these girls held no reserve expressing their raw emotions.

“It makes me sad to think this has happened,” someone expressed, “I’ve given up. We have no control.”

“We are good people! We don’t deserve this!” someone else mentioned.

For Ukraine, the disintegration of the soviet empire didn’t elicit the upheaval seen in other satellite states: East Germans emigrated in droves once crossing their borders no longer entailed passing patrol officers’ cross-hairs; Embattled Romanian citizens stormed government headquarters to dispose their stubborn dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu; Protesters in the Baltic States withstood Soviet tanks that had come to clarify the limits to Gorbachev’s “restructuring;” Once the empire lay in ruin, Ukrainians voted for independence and their old ruling elite half-heartedly stepped from one model of government to another. No longer taking orders from Moscow and out from under a one-communist-party-system, this oligarchy was still uninspired to take democratic reform beyond learning a new political language.

Corruption became increasingly prevalent throughout all levels of society as opportunists strived to benefit from compounded economic turmoil and weak political opposition; this meant anything from paying bribes to avoid police harassment to hearing about vote-rigging come election-time. These similar problems had long plagued Romania, Belarus and Russia and Ukrainians were growing tired of following suite. In 2000 the death of Ukrainian journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, murdered shortly after criticizing President Leonid Kuchma, was indication to many Ukrainians of the consolidation required in challenging a corrupt authority.

Presidential candidate, Victor Yushchenko, hoped to represent frustrated Ukrainians during the 2004 elections. His alternative was looking west for a leading example. Many nations that had struggled coming out from behind the Iron Curtain found promising opportunity integrating into Europe, so Yushchenko set his sights for joining the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization rather than focus on maintaining strong ties with Russia.

Vladimir Putin, well versed in geopolitics and looking to renew Russia’s prominence in the world, became placid with concern watching his neighbours turn away and NATO moving closer to his doorstep. Ukraine was of particular concern because the fate of Russia’s western naval front in Ukraine’s Sevastopol was under question, most gas-lines sending Russia’s chief export to all of Europe bypassed Ukraine and there was still significance in Kyiv being epicenter of Russian history.

So Putin and his administration put their stamp of approval on Yushchenko’s opponent, Victor Yanukovych: protégé to outgoing president Kuchma and likely to continue operating Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of economic and military influence. Yanukovych was endowed with strategists and funding from Russia, the only problem was that many Ukrainians would no longer stand for the electoral fraud required getting him into office.

These girls I spoke to had joined the hundreds of thousand other Ukrainians who’d camped for days, weeks or months at Kyiv’s Victory Square during the winter of 2004 and 2005. They refused to recognize Yanukovych’s victory in a runoff election after a blatant show of voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing.

“We were angry about Yanukovych, but we were also happy Ukrainians were coming together,” someone recalled her week in Kyiv. “Knowing we were going to finally change things was exciting.”

Student movements helped bring citizens from across the country to the street in demand of another election in spite of, what most believed to be, an attempt on Yushchenko’s life. Earlier that fall, he nearly died of dioxin poisoning after having dinner with Ukrainian Security Services officials.

Just as Gongadze was for Ukrainians, Yushchenko’s scared face was a wakeup-call to the international community, causing many world leaders to denounce Ukraine’s election results. The prospect of Yushchenko making a slightly larger and friendlier Europe was appealing to the Western World at a time when a pro-active Russia was inducing memories from the Cold War.

During the 90s Boris Yelson’s foreign affairs looked more like a harmless transcontinental pub crawl, now an ambitious and calculative Putin stood-by Yanukovych to recognize his stolen presidency. No one was proven responsible for Yushchenko’s poisoning, but it seemed like a maneuver straight out of a KGB handbook. Yushchenko conjured massive support from western leaders who remembered the comfort in establishing buffers between them and an unpredictable Russia.

Pressure mounted as media from around the world came to broadcast the community of tents in Kyiv while the Ukrainian military stalked the periphery. Once a new election was agreed to, legions of international monitors came to ensure its fair conduct. Yushchenko won with 51.99 per cent of the votes over Yanukovych’s 44.19, without further crisis.

This was the point in the story where I'd left off two years earlier. I was fascinated by the extensive media coverage the revolution generated in North America. While it was an uplifting story for viewers it was short lived. International headlines were quick to change topic, possibly leaving those who did’t comb the back-pages to assume there was betterment forever after.

Now it was 2006 and these girls were disheartened by Yushchenko failing to fulfill his promises. Ukraine was no closer to an EU membership because corruption was still rampant within government. In-fighting had divided the champions of the revolution, giving Yanukovych the clout he needed to be appointed prime minister during the 2006 parliamentary elections. Concessions Yushchenko made for constitutional reform after the revolution came back to haunt him because it was now undetermined who would hold greater power, president or prime-minister. In other words, Yanukovych took his tug-of-war with Yushchenko off the streets and into office.

“What was the point of it all when we wanted to keep Yanukovych out?”

Yushchenko has been a disappointment.”

“You have to be patient. Too many people are angry because they expect results immediately,”

“One good thing is there’s greater freedom of speech.”

Once my friend returned from the washroom and listened to the girls’ frustrations he appeared to panic internally. He probably figured the worst outcome of having me fly this mission was watching me get shot-down; little did he know I’d be dropping a cargo of chastity-belts and leaflets preaching the virtues of abstinence. Leaning towards me, I could hear the urgency in his voice as he whispered, “Can we please talk about something else?” The mood changed the moment the subject was dropped, like the topic had never been mentioned, and we all enjoyed the rest of the night as carefree young adults.

The immediate charge of this conversation was surprising to me but I would soon realize discussing the revolution usually struck a nerve with Ukrainians; tapping into an overwhelming reserve of sentimentality that could change the tide of any conversation. Testing the political atmosphere in 2006 was opening a door to let a hurricane through the room. This excited me because I figured pandemonium usually provided the most immediate learning experience.

Well… the first thing I learned was how to come to terms with my limited understanding. As an outsider, dealing with a convoluted issue only widened the disconnection between me and my surroundings. Conclusions became harder to reach. Language and cultural barriers already led to my misunderstanding of others, but an impassioned discussion could really amplify people’s erraticism to the point where reading people became an act of inventing fiction. When things got too strange all I could do was fall into the warm embrace of confusion, especially when dealing with my host-family…

By simply opening a door I immediately came face-to-face with what my host-father must have looked like thirty-five years ago. This was surreal enough an experience I questioned whether I just stepped out of the bathroom or some decrepit time-machine my host-father constructed so he could finally beat me down and haul me off to the tool-shed for interrogation. This stone-faced young man looked me up and down.

“Meet your host-brother,” my counterpart introduced us, “he has come from Kyiv for a visit.”

His cold and inquisitive eyes locked onto me as we shook hands – mine still wet after washing them. He seemed in search of anything that would assist him in shaping a first impression and, with the little trust established between us at this point, I probably brought him to the conclusion that all Canadians couldn’t refrain from splashing around in toilet water. I couldn’t have come up with a more suiting introduction.

When there’s more eye-contact than dialogue between two people they’re most likely in a showdown rather than a conversation. That was my thinking, as I sat opposite end of the kitchen table from host-brother. His deadpan stare hadn’t averted from me after we’d joined my counterpart and host-mother for dinner. He must have learned the art of intimidation through years of stink-eye staring contests with his father. A look that intense can trick the brain into believing its telepathic capabilities: “Why are you really here? Couldn’t my mother just have gotten another cat?... the moment you look away I’m coming over this table to attack you with a flathead screwdriver.” I could only stare back in shock.

Tarzan’s aimless meandering began annoying my host-mother who was busy cooking. I pulled him against me so he was out of her way, hopefully averting a full song and dance.

“Stupid dog,” my counterpart scolded – He held little regard for the smaller creatures incapable of walking upright and earning a decent income.

With the articulation of a two-year-old, I said, “My favorite dog, Tarzan,” in Ukrainian.

My host-mother and counterpart laughed and shook their heads. Looking at my host-brother I saw he now had a coy smile. Did I just prove myself a simpleton in his eyes? He didn’t waste any time in finding out. He leaned forward and finally spoke.

“He wants to know if you know anything about the Orange Revolution,” my counter-part translated.

“Sure…. YushchenkoYanukovych.” I replied.

My host-brother’s facade instantly melted as if I’d said the magic words. Suddenly we had a lot to discuss.

He, like the majority of ethnic Ukrainians in Western Ukraine, had his heart set on Yushchenko’s plan for modernization, particularly obtaining that EU membership meal-ticket. Unlike the girls at the pub, he didn’t seem disillusioned by Yushchenko’s failures, rather, he felt increasingly perceptive to Russia’s hand in Ukraine’s politics, that is, spotting the strings leading from Yanukovych’s appendages to Putin’s hand. My host-brother was on one side of a growing divide between western Ukrainians and the large minority of ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Maybe, if I were on the other side of the country I could have met the mirror image of my host-brother. Someone who spent the revolution in counter-rallies supporting Yanukovych, was suspicious of western persuasion, considered the abolishment of communism as one failed experiment in westernization too many, remembered NATO as an instrument of the Cold War. When this person described Yushchenko as “western-friendly” it was probably euphemism for “puppet, pawn or stooge.”

Did my host-brother’s contempt for Russian persuasion have foundation? The days when Ukrainians endured Soviet misconduct wasn’t distant memory to my host-brother. Many of his generation suffered health problems resulting from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 when a Kremlin cover-up left citizens unaware of their exposure to fallout from a nuclear power-plant meltdown north of Kyiv. After several days the truth surfaced with the gradual infiltration of outside media reporting a massive nuclear cloud spreading across the globe. This has left a lasting embitterment not only towards the pretense of Gorbachev’s “openness” but Russia’s underhandedness in general. However, these were the days before drastic reform. Was my host-brother seeing Russian coercion?

Earlier that January, my host-family was of many who went without heating for several days when Russia’s state controlled Gazprom cut gas supply to Ukraine. This was when contention between the two countries over gas-prices finally peaked. It started when Russia raised Ukrainian’s gas prices to European standards preceding the revolution, causing many to revile this as a bullying tactic in retaliation to Yushchenko’s installation. Defiance ensued and Ukraine was accused of it stealing gas on transit to Europe. Russia’s reluctance to continue subsidizing post-soviet states led to similar rows with Georgia and Belarus.

My host-brother and I talked all evening. My interest in the revolution was of great interest to him and I was happy to have cleared-up my misconceptions of him so quickly. It was late when we shook hands, said goodbye and he left the house. I was under the impression our discussion was finished for the night.

After I’d settled into bed my host-brother burst through my door and turned on the light. He was waving CDs in the air.

“Uh,… hmm… uh, revolution!… uh, uh…. hmm… revolution!” his struggle for English didn’t damper his excitement. It was just as unnerving to have him now embrace me in camaraderie. What the hell did he want? Did he think he found a new camping buddy for pitching-up outside parliament?

My counterpart wasn’t far behind him, “He wants you to listen to some bands that played for the revolution.” Was my bedroom now a revolutionists’ hideout? Walls can begin to close in very quickly. My counterpart saw Tarzan was in the room and became angry, “Tarzan… out!”

“The dog stays!” I snapped.

Now my host-brother’s coy smile seemed one of understanding as he nodded to my counterpart to forget about the dog.

I turned to ask Tarzan what we’d gotten ourselves into, but he was preoccupied with chewing off his new cast, consisting of a Coke bottle and nylon-stocking.

We sat around a ghetto-blaster and listened to music like one of those nuclear families seen in 1950’s stock-footage who gathered around to watch their radio as if it were a television, except I was in my pajama bottoms and my host-brother in his winter jacket.

He was still buzzing from the excitement of the revolution while describing the performances he saw in Victory Square. Political change might not have become reality for him but he saw a newly instilled sense of unity between Ukrainians. These were his days to feel good about being Ukrainian and that hasn’t been easy.

Throughout history imperial Russian resorted to campaigns of violence to prevent nationalism and to ensure unity within Soviet sates. Ukrainian nationalists weren’t exclusively persecuted, particularly during the Stalin years; it was common for poets, teachers or anyone advocating the Ukrainian language to be exiled to Siberia.

Independence in 1991 was opportunity for ethnic Ukrainians everywhere to distinguish themselves from being ‘little Russians’ who spoke in their obscure dialect. Nowwhere was there a more distinct Ukrainian identythan the wester provinces which had known brief tastes of cultural freedoms under European occupation before World War One. The days of Russian assimilation now over, Ukrainization efforts were left to contend with a prominent Russian pop-culture.

My host-brother could easliy give the impression that even today simply 'being Ukrainian' constituted having a stronge indignation towards Russia. Even his lessons in culture somehow digressed to Russia's inferiority. The language barrier made it difficult for me pick-up his finer points, but his sentiment was vague enough to seem familiar…

“He says he doesn’t like George Bush,” my counterpart translated.

“Huh?... ok... he remembers that I’m Canadian right?”

“He remembers.”

My host-brother awaited my response, as if looking to find a mutual distain for an overbearing neighbour. He wouldn’t have to look far to meet a Canadian who was generally indignant towards the US. His rant was just as subjective as many of the rants about America I’ve heared back in Canada. Maybe this tableside banter was typical everywhere in the world where there was a more powerful country nearby. I just become alarmed when I’d hear such impassioned generalities go beyond the table.

We participants sat in an auditorium listening to the official greeting from the rector of Ostroh Academy National University.

This university was a recreation of a famous 16th century academy and staunch defender of Ukrainian identity - We Canadians were reminded of the faux pas of speaking Russian in its halls. During the revolution the university was a strong voice for Yushchenko - A staggering majority of students attended protests.

After the pleasantries the rector addressed one of his concerns, “I’ve known many Canadians who come here and like to drink. Know there are sever problems with alcoholism in Ukrainian society, so out of respect, please avoid drinking excessively.”

I was following this line of reasoning until his conclusion, “…alcoholism hadn’t been part of Ukrainian culture until Russia brought it here through years of occupation.”

It was strange enough such a strong accusation came with no pretext, but my biggest concern was figuring out the point to his last comment.

What was this supposed to invoke, especially with Canadians? Was this line of reasoning useful in deterring Ukrainian youths from alcoholism? How did it make the participants who could be considered more ethnically Russian feel? Was there a cost to this logic? Was this perpetuating resentment? Where is the line between patriotism and chauvinism?

It felt as if I’d been sitting at the table listening to one of my host-brother’s more impassioned rants. What kind of history makes for this kind of animosity?

History became relevant with a simple ride through the country and watching people living amid the apocalyptical remnants of a different world. Soviet statues left standing for no other reason than neglect. Everywhere massive factories, once making Ukraine leading manufacturer in the Soviet Union, stood empty, gradually disassembling themselves.

While walking through a park in the nearby town of Rivne, several participants and I came across a group of elderly men bustling around benches and tables in the cold. From a distance they looked to be some determined chess club, but when walking amongst them we saw they were selling a vast collection of soviet relics, primarily war medals. Tables were covered with a variety of awards brandishing pilot-wings, red stars or hammers crossed with sickles; all intended as high achievement at one time. Some things told direct stories of people’s lives, such as the pictures of long-lost relatives on military identification cards, but everything shared a common story about time served under an old empire. It was as if, for the sake of a couple of hryvnia, they were absolving themselves of their past just as someone in Canada would be freeing himself of clutter in a yard-sale. Was this indication of desperate times or deep-seeded apathy… maybe both? It was a shame these old-men weren’t congregated here for the sake of healthy competition, so then it wouldn’t have seemed a show of total defeat.

I bought one medal that had caught my eye. It was a medal celebrating someone’s accomplishments in collective farming, a policy that made for one of the worst memories in Ukraine. The Kremlin enforced the collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture for distributed throughout the empire but there was a gross discrepancy in what Ukraine gave and what it received, leaving millions to starve to death in a famine of 1932-33. Declassified material shows Stalin’s brutal regulation measures and his general contempt for Ukrainians. Ukraine has now declared this event as a genocide, which Russia refutes.

This medal celebrated a staple of the Soviet system that had such dire consequences here. I couldn’t even imagine such a history.