Sunday, March 02, 2014

Zaporozhye, Kiev, Moscow and Batoche

The Capture of Batoche - French Metis vs English Colonialists (borrowed from Wikipedia)

My great-grandfather lived his entire life on and near the banks of the Dnieper River, inside the area we now know as Ukraine, specifically on the outskirts of current-day Zaporozhye:

In 1789 Mennonites from Prussia accepted an invitation from Catherine the Great and settled in what became the Chortitza Colony, northwest of Khortitsya island. Mennonite-owned mills and factories were built in Alexandrovsk and later expropriated by the Communist government. After the Russian Revolution [they] emigrated, fled as refugees, or were deported from the area. Currently few Mennonites live in Zaporozhye. Mennonite buildings still exist in the area and in the other main Mennonite colony center, current day Molochansk. (A cursory and mainly accurate account from Wikipedia)

It wasn't the Mennonites' religion so much as their ethnicity and their economic dominance that rankled the Russian authorities in 1914 and onward, and for which their lives were gradually made unbearable. My family had left much earlier.  After my great-grandfather died, his widow and offspring emigrated and settled in the Rosthern area in 1892-3.
     Note that it was Moscow that called all the shots for the region we now call Ukraine, not Kiev.
     The degree to which ethnicity and language continue to act as divisive markers continues to be as tragic a presence in the region as it was when the Russian Revolution overran the area. Putin's excuse for sending troops into the Crimea is ethnically driven in part--along with strategic considerations, of course:

“Putin has defied calls from the West to pull back his troops, insisting that Russia has a right to protect its interests and Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine.” (

The psychology of all this is complicated, but it's probably safe to say that my German-speaking ancestors fared better in Canada than they did under absolutist monarchies and communist dictatorship because here they had landed in a working democracy with a bit of experience in multiculturalism and multiethnicism. They were scorned for their unwillingness to bear arms during the World Wars, but the most Canada would do to express this resentment was to require their participation in forced labour camps as “conscientious objectors.” (Herding Japanese-Canadians into concentration camps was another matter; being of European descent apparently stood for something.)
     It's easy to come to too-broad conclusions about the conflict in Ukraine. Some media are portraying it as Russia and the West engaging in a tug-of-war for the hearts and minds—and the loyalties—of Ukrainian citizens. Others interpret it economically: Ukraine is an economic basket case currently dependent for survival on outside help, some preferring that it come from the East (the ethnically Russian), and some looking westward for a better, more modern future (the ethnically Ukrainian). It's probably accurate to say that whatever the immediate causes of the conflict, the deeper ones are a combination of grinding dissatisfaction with national poverty and ethnic and political animosities reaching way back in history to the Czars and the old Soviet Union.
     The closest we come to the Russian/Ukrainian divide here in Canada has to be the French/English “situation.” As in the Ukraine, we have here two distinct groups, both of which are large enough to affect the economic, nationalist aspirations of the other. It's probably naive to think that the kind of dangerous confrontation currently building between the two groups in the Ukraine could never occur in Canada, hard to imagine as that may be. Perhaps it seems so unlikely because there are elements in a working democracy that keep us reaching for negotiated conclusions and not for rifles. It's been a long time since we resorted to guns to settle differences here in Canada; where I live, since 1885 at Batoche and Duck Lake.
     As for protesting and ousting the government through demonstrations, have you been outside today? It's a frozen hell out there!
     Harper, you're safe until the next election, at least. That's the way we deal with unpopular leaders here in Canada. Yawn.

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