When Russia Invaded Ukraine, My Family’s Past Became the Present
Megan Buskey on Ukraine's Long Fight for Independence and the Moment History Knocks on Your Door
In February 2022, the omicron variant of COVID-19 had shuttered all the places I frequented as an urban thirty-something—restaurants, coffee shops, bars, music venues. The days had the agonizing slowness of previous COVID waves, but February felt particularly ominous. Pulsing beneath the stillness of this second pandemic winter was the drumbeat of possible war.
The news was full of the fact that Russia had amassed more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders. The U.S. government was warning with growing urgency that Russia intended to use this force to launch a full-scale attack on Ukraine. To me, a Ukrainian American with many family members in the country, the news was alarming, to put it mildly. Unthinkable. Bombs falling on the Kyiv neighborhood I had lived in when I was 22? Rockets pounding the steppe that surrounded my grandmother’s native village? Russian warships firing at Odesa, where my aunt vacationed each summer with her grandchildren?
What made that feeling even more wrenching was that, like many of their countrymen, my own family had been persecuted for being Ukrainian. When I thought of people I knew who could be at risk, their faces merged with the image I had of my grandmother at 25, her face smudged with coal dust from working in the mines after the Soviets exiled her to Siberia for the offense of being related to a Ukrainian nationalist.
On February 21, I scowled at my computer screen as Russian president Vladimir Putin gave a lengthy address on the Ukraine “matter.” Putin was holding forth like a drunk, belligerent uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, slouching in his chair, waving his hand imperiously.My family’s fraught history in Ukraine featured many of the same factors—Nazi influence, Ukrainian nationalism, Moscow’s imperialism—that Putin was invoking to justify the invasion.
His rhetoric was all over the place. He was concerned about the Donbas, a coal-rich region of eastern Ukraine coveted by Moscow. Ukraine was indistinguishable from Russia, its existence a strategic error committed by Lenin. It was now time to correct Lenin’s mistake, to “decommunize” Ukraine for real. Kyiv had stolen gas from Russia. Ukraine was being run as an American puppet state. Russian-language speakers were being suppressed. Ukraine was going to develop nuclear weapons. NATO was going to use Ukraine to attack Russia. Aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism had been “elevated in Ukraine to the rank of national policy.”
This was not the first time Putin had trotted out this motley set of arguments. In fact, he had been making these claims for years. In 2014 he had condemned the pro-European protestors on Kyiv’s central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, as “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites.” They had “resorted to terror, murder, and riots” to seize power, Putin said. “These ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II… flaunt slogans about Ukraine’s greatness, but they are the ones who did everything to divide the nation. Today’s civil standoff is entirely on their conscience.”
In the years that followed, he returned to these points again and again. Putin was clearly preoccupied, if not obsessed, with Ukraine’s existence as an independent state. Twisting the country’s complex history to his own ends, he settled on the message that Ukraine needed to be “de-Nazified.”
The claim was preposterous. For starters, the country was now led by Volodymyr Zelensky, one of the world’s few Jewish heads of state. Still, I understood, on some level, how that history could still be felt to be pressing on the present. My family’s fraught history in Ukraine featured many of the same factors—Nazi influence, Ukrainian nationalism, Moscow’s imperialism—that Putin was invoking to justify the invasion. I knew that their interplay was complicated.These horrors have moved inexorably from history books and archives to the Ukrainian present.
When Russian missiles began to rain down on Ukraine on February 24, that nuance was buried under the rubble and carnage, like many other aspects of Ukrainian life before the invasion. Russia’s war on Ukraine was the most shocking and devastating geopolitical act in Europe in more than a generation. And it would bring me closer to my family story than I ever thought possible.
Over the past decade, I have spent a lot of time researching my Ukrainian family history for my book, Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet. My family’s experience was, in my eyes, both typical and extraordinary, and for both reasons I wanted to preserve it. My grandparents, who were born in western Ukraine in the 1920s, were part of the generation that was just old enough to be deeply scarred by World War II. The Nazis conscripted my grandfather as a forced laborer and sent him to work in the Third Reich.
By the age of 17, my grandmother was both a mother and a widow, her first husband having died after the Nazis sent him to Auschwitz. The end of the war provided no respite: fighting between Soviet forces and Ukrainian nationalists continued in the western Ukrainian countryside, and in 1947, the Soviet Union exiled my grandparents to a gulag special settlement in Siberia because my grandmother’s brother fought with the nationalists.
I did most of my research in the late 2010s, at a comfortable remove of more than 70 years from my family’s most difficult episodes. I was naively confident that such struggles would never be repeated on wide swaths of Ukrainian soil. By that point, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine had metamorphosized into a “frozen conflict” that, while grim, seemed destined to stay that way. If anything, the history I was looking back at fascinated me because it seemed so distant and improbable.
Now all of that has changed. Bombs leveling Ukrainian cities, terrified civilians hiding in shelters for months, families torn apart, Ukrainians deported to Siberia, the steppe pockmarked with mass graves—these horrors have moved inexorably from history books and archives to the Ukrainian present. While I took virtually all of these things in at a remove, moderated by a screen, they have a proximity unlike any I had known before.
The experience of witnessing this war has made me see that my family story was not a set of events that were done and settled, but part of a historical pattern that was still being repeated. Russia’s interest in dominating Ukraine had never been resolved, I now realize. And even if this current war ends soon, this danger will persist for as long as I’m around to see it.
If there is any solace in this realization, it is that it shines a bold light on possible actions. That action can take many forms—whether it’s advocating for military support to help Ukraine defend its sovereignty, financial support to help the country rebuild its destroyed infrastructure and damaged lives, or intellectual support to help tease apart the insidious ways that Ukrainian culture has often been cast as inferior to Russian.
I titled my book Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet, a phrase from the first line of the country’s national anthem, in part because I wanted to reflect how I continued to learn from my grandparents’ difficult pasts even as time made these events more distant. The more conventional reading, I now see, still applies—Ukraine is a place that is an ongoing fight for its existence as an independent state. Before this more recent war, I had read these words as containing a hint of defeat. But with this longer view, I now seem them as defiant.
Adapted excerpt fromUkraine Is Not Dead Yet by Megan Buskey. Copyright© 2023 by Megan Buskey. Reprinted with the permission of Ibidem Press.