In search of context

I am reasonably assured by his office that Vic Toews has read Michael Ignatieff’s Blood & Belonging. Not sure if that make this better or worse.

Spent the afternoon reading the Ukraine chapter of Blood & Belonging, 44 pages in all, from which the infamous passages have been taken. A short review after the jump.

He arrives in Ukraine with family history, stated prejudices and deep concerns about the very nature of ethnic nationalism. What follows is an attempt to investigate all three.

From my childhood in Canada, I remember expatriate Ukranian nationalists demonstrating in the snow outside performances by the Bolshoi Ballet in Toronto. “Free the captive nations!” they chanted. In 1960, they seemed strange and pathetic, chanting in the snow, haranguing people who just wanted to see ballet and to hell with the politics. They seemed fanatical, too, unreasonable. Hadn’t they looked at the map? How did they think Ukraine could ever be free?

Yet the tendentious fanatics who refused to look at maps, who refused to accept that Soviet power would last an eternity got it right, and the rest of us were wrong.

He goes to Kiev, meets with a journalist, talks to a hero of the Ukranian independence movement and interviews the Ukranian president. He writes about the contradictions and struggles of a new nation. He explores the caves beneath a monastery. He sets off for his great-grandfather’s estate. The old mansion is now a school and he visits with the children. He stays at the church and is smothered by the choir who clutch at his sleeves and cry with memories of his family. He is taken then to three graves—those of his great-grandfather, his great-grandmother, his grandfather’s sister. Here the chapter turns.

The priest points out on the white marble of my great-grandfather’s grave cuts in the stone made from a butcher’s knife. This was a slaughterhouse in the 1930s. I run my hands across these black slices in the marble. We stand and sing the viechnaya pamyat, the hymn of memory, the priest blesses the graves, and then they leave me alone, with a candle.

Nations and graves. Graves and nations. Land is sacred because it is where your ancestors lie. Ancestors must be remembered because human life is a small and trivial thing without the anchoring of the past. Land is worth dying for, because strangers will profane the graves. The graves were profaned. The butchers slaughtered on top of the marble. A person would fight to stop this if he could.

Looking back, I see that time in the crypt as a moment when I began to change, when some element of respect for the national project began to creep into my feelings, when I understood why land and graves matter and why the nations matter which protect both.

He goes to Lyov, the cradle of independence. He goes to Saint George’s Cathedral and attends a Sunday service.

Standing among men and women who do not hide the intensity of their feelings, I understand what nationalism really is: the dream that a whole nation could be like a congregation; singing the same hymns, listening to the same gospel, sharing the same emotions, linked not only to each other but to the dead buried beneath their feet.

He goes to a rock concert.

It is impossible to be cynical about freedom when you see it in the faces of the young couples who come to hear the Gadukin Brothers, Lyov’s best rock-and-roll band, play a free concert in front of the magnificent Austro-Hungarian opera house in the center of the square … Nobody is imitating the West here; they are doing their own strange Galician, Carpathian thing, and the Gadukin Brothers up on stage are saying what is on everybody’s mind. Through the guitars and drums, you can hear them sing: The old red cart went into the ditch/ Lenin was the driver/ Now the cart is blue and yellow/ And no one knows where it’s going.

He details at length the poverty and struggle of the people he sees. He travels to the disputed territory of Crimea, itself agitating for independence from Ukraine. He hangs out with the navy, divided now between Soviet and Ukranian rule. He visits with a struggling miner in Donetsk. He has a nightmarish and depressing stay at a local hotel (“At this stage of the journey,” he writes, “I hate Ukraine.”). But he concludes with two long paragraphs, the last of which is as follows.

You come away from Ukraine believing that all the rhetoric about nationhood, about the return to Europe, is very distant from the quotidian reality, the vast pile of stone and rubble that must be moved out of Ukraine’s past before it can slowly recover a way of life that is really its own. And nobody knows what that life would be, for there is no visible alternative. Everyone alive now has known only the Soviet way of life. Behind them lies only the nostalgic paradies of prerevolutionary peasant Ukraine, a lost world caricatured in the hotel handicraft shops; beyond their borders lies the impossible world of the capitalist West. Impossible, because it is easy to import videocassettes and blue jeans and condoms and food for hard-currency restaurants, but so much more difficult to import Western habits of mind and reconcile them with a Ukranian way of life, to fuse them with a vision of belonging to the here-and-now. There is a devastating innocence in nationalists’ faith in independence. Freedom itself is never the end of the road—only the beginning.

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