We Are All Ukrainians

In the waning days of 1989 I moved, for professional reasons, from Buffalo to Chicago. It was not an easy thing to do; my family was all in Buffalo, as were almost all my friends. I was at home there – familiar with the streets, the bistros, the politicians, the theater, the Sabres. I knew no one in Chicago. Still, I had been offered a job in Chicago for more money than I ever imagined making – nearly fifty thousand a year, which was roughly forty thousand more than I had cleared in the previous year’s solo legal practice.

Typical homes in Ukranian Village, Chicago
Typical homes in Ukranian Village, Chicago

Chicago is largely made up of a hodgepodge of heavily ethnic neighborhoods, and the apartment I had selected was in something called the Ukrainian Village. I am not Ukrainian, but it didn’t matter; I knew that wherever I lived, I would be a stranger.

I thought a lot about that as I drove west. It was a full day’s drive – a little over five hundred miles – but largely on one street, Route 90. It was desolate, cold and windy, and I remember it as being dark for all five hundred miles, although that couldn’t be true. New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, and finally Illinois. Four states full of strangers. And when I finally got to Chicago and on to the Dan Ryan Expressway, I celebrated by plowing into the car ahead of me.

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Fortunately, all the damage was to my car. I say “fortunately” because I had no insurance. A gross income of ten thousand dollars left surprisingly little for such luxuries.

A friendly tow truck dragged the remains of my car to my new apartment. Happily, my new landlord – perhaps used to new tenants who totaled their cars on the same day they were to move in – had waited for me. He ushered me into my new digs and handed me my keys. Regrettably, there was no electricity. Also, no furniture. But I had brought my sleeping bag, which was stashed in the back of my ruined car.

It was nine o’clock, and I was starving. My landlord recommended a couple of local restaurants – within walking distance, of course. I set out, legs wobbly, to find sustenance. And then…

Fireworks. Huge, loud explosions. Skyrockets. Pinwheels. And then…

Church bells. Loud, assertive, pealing – not one church, not two – but four. Ringing as though it was Easter – not any old Easter, but the original Easter, with Christ arising from the dead.

Well, that was a little over the top, I thought. I mean, it’s nice to be welcomed, but…

When I turned from Walton Street to Oakley, I saw that every house was flying a flag I didn’t recognize. It was sky blue on top, and yellow underneath. Perhaps they’re Knights of Columbus, I thought.

I went to the first restaurant my landlord had recommended. There was a sign taped over the door. “Closed for private party,” it said.

And then it hit me. The first inklings of Ukrainian independence had begun to assert themselves.

It wasn’t until seven months later that Ukrainian patriots would issue their declaration of State Sovereignty.  And it was two more years until the Soviet Union dissolved.

But there, in Chicago, on that frigid night, the men and women of the Ukrainian Village knew their future. And Christmas and Easter and the Fourth of July had merged into one. After three generations of Soviet domination, Ukraine would be free.

Dazed, in the frigid night air, I wandered down Chicago Avenue. This was an intensely important public moment for the people who lived in my new, adopted neighborhood. But it was also an intensely private moment for them. They had lived for over sixty years in fear that their every hope and dream would be reported to the Soviet masters of their homeland, who would respond by punishing the relatives they left behind.

I went to the second restaurant my landlord recommended. The door was locked. Inside, I saw a table of perhaps half-a-dozen people, arguing fiercely with each other.

And at that moment, I realized that I was hungrier than I had ever been in my life. I was all stomach. My head, my heart, my judgment had all disappeared. I was all appetite – for food, for comfort, for the embrace of freedom that the collapse of the Soviet Union had provided, for anything.

“We’re not open,” the proprietor explained.

I opened my heart to her. I told her of my miserable ride, my crash, my empty new apartment. I told her that I wanted, somehow, to invest in the creation of this new nation. I talked, I guess, until she couldn’t take it any more.

“Come in,” she said. “We have some goulash.”

She dished me out a plate. I decided to push the envelope. “Could I have a beer?” I asked.

“We are not licensed,” she said. She thought for a moment. “I will have beer,” she said decisively. She took a bottle, poured some into a small glass, and took a tiny sip.  “I don’t like,” she said. “You may have if you wish.” She returned to her fellow Ukrainians, and they talked about their new nation.

I know how this story should end. I should tell you that this was the best meal I ever had in my life, and in addition the beer was a sort of ambrosia. But, sadly, we were in real life. The food was awful. The beer tasted like Bud Lite.

But when I left I was full, and the neighborhood – formerly insular and cryptic – bloomed with the infusion of freedom the collapse of the Soviet Union would bring to Ukraine. People held open houses; planted astonishing flower gardens; invited folks – even folks from Buffalo – into their homes. My neighbor went home to Ukraine for a visit – for the first time in fifty years. When she came back she could not describe what she had seen without weeping.

I write this today because on Friday the Ukrainian parliament, under the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych, passed legislation which would criminalize the free speech of those who would oppose his effort to make his nation a vassal of Russia. “Slander of government officials” would be subject to imprisonment. More information about this legislation is here and here.

I understand that we are different than Ukraine; that our experience does not necessarily qualify us to judge political decisions made thousands of miles away. But we are all human beings, and wherever there is oppression – in Ukraine, or North Korea, or Egypt – we are all implicated.

I'm done. Your turn.