Thursday, May 31, 2007

Western Ukraine

So my most recent trip to Ukraine, though brief, had a bit of personal significance for me as it is where part of my family hails from. I am only a quarter Ukrainian, but as I don't look so Italian and I don't identify with the Irish/I am a slavophile my Ukrainian roots are pretty important to me. In general I think Americans struggle with identity issues a lot more than other nationalities. Yes, America has a strong tradition and such, but at the end of the day it is just a citizenship and there is always the question of where your family is from, something which comes up both as a result of weirdo last names and the strange dishes your family eats on special occasions. I am sort of jealous of the people who have very strong ethnic identities rooted in America (African Americans, Native Americans, Cajuns, Russian Alaskans, German Texans so and so forth), but for most white Americans their roots are in Europe and at some point you try and (re)connect with those.

The reconnecting is a bit weird if only because they places you are looking for don't really exist. The stories I heard in my family about the old country were from my great grandparents generation (i.e. about a hundred years ago). As a result what it means to be Swedish, Italian, or German in the US gets frozen where it continues to evolve in those countries. Old hatreds also tend to get frozen. An English professor of mine (i.e. from England) told me the Irish with the strongest negative feeling towards the UK she had met were Irish-Americans. I can't really compare with Irish Irish, but I know that with my dad and grandfather dislike the UK as if they were the Irish forced to leave Northern Ireland, and even I am quick to mention that my family were catholics from Northern Ireland and that my name is anglicized Celtic.

But I digress.

I actually heard very little about Ukraine from my grandma, which is a little weird as she probably had the most direct connection to the old country of all my grandparents (she speaks fluent Ukrainian). She was always quick to mention that Ukrainian wasn't Russian and that the Russians had done horrible things to the Ukrainians, but other than that she was pretty quiet on the issue. My grandmother basically wanted to be American, so despite being born Stephenia Matwijkow, she started be called Sally is school and eventually married an Italian and became Sally Mezzatesta. Anyway, I think the fact that she rarely spoke about it made me all the more curious and hence the interest in the trip.

So here are a few quick reasons why western Ukraine is special: it is the center of Ukrainian nationalism, it was part of Austria-Hungary, and not the Russian Empire, and the people are Greek Catholic and not Russian or Ukrainian orthodox. Interestingly, at this point I am much more familiar with the former Russian Empire and Russian orthodoxy so western Ukraine felt much more western European than I expected it to. The people didn't look especially Slavic to me, the churches didn't have onion domes, and they were far fewer icons in the churches than you would find even in other part of Ukraine (though people did pray to them in a way you wouldn't in a catholic church).

People were really nice and happy to speak to me in Russian, the food was good and cheap, and there were a lot of lovely churches (ah more baroque, the sign of Austrian domination). I suppose it was just interesting because I really had no understanding for the place. Certainly there was a strong Polish influence, but it seems simplistic to reduce it to that (i.e. Western Ukraine = Poland, even if it was part of Poland for a while). It was just weird because part of L'viv felt like part of Cleveland (a place with a strong Polish influence) , parts felt like Central Europe, but hardly any of it felt like Russia/eastern Ukraine (i.e. east Slavic).

Essentially, L'viv surprised me as it wasn't what I expected it to be. Interestingly while I was there I had one person tell me they thought I was Polish and another tell me I looked like I was ethnically Cossack (both identities linked to the region). I am not really sure where L'viv fits in with me, but I do feel challenged to develop a better understanding of the place. In many ways it was similiar to what I know and that surprised me.

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