All in First Person

Identity Theft? An Exploration of Ukrainian National Identity in the Conflict with Russia

Despite falling out of the headlines of Western news sources, the bloody conflict in Eastern Ukraine is ongoing. This feature of two interviews and a personal piece look to ex- plore deeper questions of Ukrainian national identity and how it relates to Russia, the West, and the politics—both cultural and strategic—of the current conflict.

During the winter break between my two semesters abroad at Tsinghua University in Beijing, I made the trek to Xiaoshan, an administrative district of Hangzhou, one of southern China’s biggest cities. The occasion for this visit to Xiaoshan was a family member’s wedding. My grandmother’s cousin’s daughter, Chen Xingmei, was getting married to a young man, Chen Xingjiang, whom she met through work and with whom, by chance, she shares two of three characters in her name.

Susan said that her commune was “the best kind of anarchism, for a short time.” It functioned as an artists’ retreat, collective, and farm; although it now functions solely as a land collective, the colony’s hand-built houses still dotting the hill that leads to Haystack Mountain. A new bridge runs across the brook, whose banks are overgrown with wild raspberries. Upstream, a giant waterfall flows, where the commune members bathed every day, surrounded by rock sculptures. The construction along the brook is destroying their woods, and mountaintop tree removal is visible from the pastures and dirt roads.

My grandfather’s voice over the phone was quiet, but I could picture his mise-en-scène clearly. Sitting on his favorite chair in the veranda, he would be sipping his tea, occasionally pressing his glasses back up over the bridge of his nose to better watch the sun set over his small West Bank town of Nablus. He waited patiently as I fumbled through our tried-and-true conversation topics: family, the weather, regional politics. Finally, in a desperate attempt to revive our conversation, I asked for his thoughts on Barack Obama’s proposed freeze of Israeli settlements.

A few years back I, too, was a hardworking, idealistic college student who, like many politically active students, thought I might run for office one day. Friends of mine would join me to discuss politics as I tended bar after class at the West End (now Havana Central). We talked about political races the way most people discussed football stats. To us, watching Meet the Press on Sunday mornings was as exciting as Monday night football (well, almost as exciting). The idea of running for office one day was something we all dreamed about.

I didn’t get into college on my first try. I came from a good high school, made National Honor Society, and was class president. I also had pretty unimpressive grades, and got suspended from school my senior year. I was a mixed candidate, to be sure. Too self-assured to listen to anyone, bored senseless by class, and more than a little lazy, it’s probably a good thing that I wasn’t cool enough to drink or do drugs. But I was certainly cocky; I applied early to MIT and assumed that I’d get in. More accurately, it didn’t even occur to me that I wouldn’t get in.