My heart is heavy this week with the news coming out of Ukraine. A war the people there didn’t not want and did nothing to deserve. A war, or rather an invasion by a tyrannical despot who is responsible for deaths, destruction, and suffering of the population of an entire country all to stoke his ego. It’s especially disheartening to see that the rest of the world is doing so little to protect the history, culture, and sovereignty of a democracy in Europe while the people suffer. Even harder, my wife was born there, left as a refuge from the USSR in the 80s, and has connections there. My boys will probably never know what at least half of their cultural identity is like, and will almost certainly never be able to visit there.
My wife and I have very different backgrounds and views on cultural identity. While I’m a genealogical mutt with family history from across most of northern and central Europe and can trace back my family history in the US at least seven generations, my family still identifies strongly with various parts of our history and culture. My grandfather was an extremely proud Dane and while the majority of the words he taught us were nonsensical, we still identify strongly with the Nordic cultures especially around food, sport, and Viking pride. Our German culture is celebrated through the love of the food, visiting across the country on numerous occasions, and of course the beer. We also have a large percentage of British blood and feel spiritually connected to the UK as well. There is a family debate about our Hungarian ancestry which comes from on of the border areas and has suspicious gaps in data, so we may be partially Ukrainian as well.
My family loves to celebrate this ancestry and I feel a strong sense of it as well that I’ve been trying to pass down to my boys. They already know that if the USA is playing, we cheer for them. But the Danish “Vikings” as we refer to all of the teams are another point of pride in the Lund household and we have supported them during matches while enjoying Kringle, Pulsars, and Abbelskiver. This heritage is also a factor in deciding where we travel. Though the boys haven’t been yet, my family took trips when I was younger to parts of Germany and Denmark where we found ancestral towns and even gravestones.
My wife’s family, on the other hand, has a much different relationship to their culture and the modern day realities of their homelands. Born during the post WWII Soviet era, her parents had a tense relationship with their country as a part of the USSR. While there was Ukrainian culture and identity, it was buried and could result in punishment if that identity was celebrated too much, especially if it came at the expense of the USSR. As a Jewish Azerbaijani man, her father was even forced to change his name to a more Russian friendly one. I can’t speak at all for what that must have been like, but there are numerous reasons that they don’t feel a strong connection to modern Ukraine and especially Russia. They left as refuges, relocating to Italy briefly before immigrating to the US when my wife was still a young child.
Even before the invasion, Ukraine was not a place my wife or her family wanted to visit. Even as it became more democratic and modern, the beautiful historic and cultural sites of their previous home city of Odessa or the rest of the country did not appeal. Thus, it was unlikely that my boys would ever really visit there or even learn much about that heritage. Now though, I suspect they will have a unique view of their ancestral homeland, at least the one that constitutes the largest portion of their genealogy.
In the end, our family is American, and like many Americans we will have to come to terms with the duality of celebrating our heritage while distancing ourselves from the modern situations of that heritage. It’s that separation that has been present and a major part of American history since the beginning when religious and political dissidents like the Puritans and Quakers formed so much of the colonies, or the dark history of colonialism and persecution of the native population. But it’s that tension between the dark past and present along with the hope about being able to do things differently that has shaped so much of our country’s path.
Now though, it’s impossible to look at the situation in Ukraine and stay distant from it. The people there deserve none of this and it all comes down to the unbridled aggression and pride of an arrogant totalitarian dictator that needs to fuel his ego and keep the support of what is hopefully a dwindling vocal minority of his people. If the extraordinarily brave protesters in Moscow and the soldiers standing down in Ukraine as they realize what they are being called to do is not what they believe in are an indication, that support may be showing the first cracks. But at this point it’s too late. As tanks roll into the historic cities of Ukraine and missiles rain down on the Ukrainian people who want nothing more than to be free and self-sovereign, there was much more we could have and should have done to prevent it. Now, with the situation changing hour by hour, it’s impossible to know what will happen next and how much further this will lead. Whether a great-great-great-grandparent came from a town that was Hungary or Ukraine at the time, or if we’re in Odessa or New Jersey. Right now we are all Ukrainians and need to stand up to fight against totalitarianism, dictators, and the erosion of freedoms and democratic ideals at home and abroad.