Ukraine has had a painful history of suffering and subjugation on an almost unimaginable scale. It is now literally fighting for its life against naked Russian aggression. The response from European and American leaders — from Angela Merkel to Barack Obama –is at best tepid and at worst scandalous.
Through it all, the Ukrainian people have demonstrated extraordinary courage. This month, I honor two of them, people with dramatically different backgrounds who have both given so much to assure that Ukraine has a future as a free and democratic country.
By way of historical background, beginning in the 1920’s the Ukraine was controlled and subjugated by its bigger neighbor, Russia. In 1932-1933 Stalin imposed what Robert Conquest has called “The Terror-Famine.” It amounted to forced collectivization of all farm land but also imposed impossibly high grain quotas for production, while at the same time removing every other source of food and preventing help from outside from reaching the starving millions of people in Ukraine. (See Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest, Oxford University Press, 1986.) When his book was first published, critics questioned his conclusion that the Terror-Famine killed 2.75 to 7 million Ukrainians out of a total population of 28 million. After the Wall came down in 1989, and original Soviet source materials became available, he was proven correct and that the total number is closer to the high end of estimates: at least 5 million to 7 million. Fourteen countries now officially recognize this terror-famine as a genocide and it is known now as the Holodomor.
In the period after World War II, the Russians were heavy handed in their treatment of all the Eastern European “satellite” states, including the Ukraine. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the Orange Revolution of 2004, the Russians continued to manipulate Ukrainian politics and exert control by economic means, especially through oil and gas shipments which were vital to the Ukrainian economy after the Chernobyl nuclear electric generating plant disaster. In 1994, Ukraine agreed to surrender and dispose of all of its nuclear weapons (it had approximately one-third of the entire Soviet arsenal on its soil), in return for commitments of non-aggression from Russia.
That all changed in 2013-2014 when Russia’s puppet Viktor Yanukovych, who was then the President of the Ukraine, attempted to roll back Ukraine’s integration into the European Union. Putin rejoiced but millions of ordinary Ukrainians left their work places and went to Maidan Square in the capital of Kiev to protest. At that time, The Economist said: “The protest was no longer about an association and free-trade agreement with Europe which Mr. Yanukovych had just ditched, it was about an existential choice between the post-Soviet system, in which a corrupt and dysfunctional state violates its citizens, and a European one, based on the rule of law and respect for citizens.” The protestors were met by thousands of what The Economist labelled “plain-clothed goons.” Many were beaten but remained undeterred. The protest went on for almost a year, until Yanukovych was forced out and fled to Russia in 2014.
At that time Petro Poroshenko came forward to serve as President. Poroshenko had become a billionaire in the candy industry in Ukraine and was known as the “Chocolate King.” He was well educated and pro-Western in his outlook. Poroshenko had, in fact, climbed on a tractor in Maidan Square to urge the demonstrators to remain peaceful minutes before Yanukovych’s goons started beating them in 2013.
In 2014, Putin started a war against the Ukraine, seizing Crimea and much of Eastern Ukraine, using Spetznaz special forces disguised as “Ukrainian Freedom Fighters,” the so-called “Little Green Men” who were heavily armed with tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, and other weapons. To date, over 10,000 Ukrainian civilians and members of the Ukrainian armed forces have died and much of eastern Ukraine has been laid to waste. Throughout this entire ordeal, President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian people have defended the Ukraine, despite numerical and qualitative disadvantages in weaponry to the Russians, while Poroshenko has repeatedly advocated for a peaceful solution to the conflict.
One event that brought international outrage was the shooting down of an Air Malaysia 777 by Russian anti-aircraft crews operating in Ukraine; they killed 298 people — mostly Dutch tourists headed to the Far East. President Poroshenko and the Dutch Government demanded an international investigation, but Russia vetoed that effort at the UN saying that it was “not timely” and was “counter-productive.”
With this background, we now come to the subject of my other hero of the month: Wassyl Slipak. Slipak was born in Lviv Ukraine and became a child prodigy in music. He began performing in France in the 1990s as a baritone opera singer and quickly achieved fame as the lead baritone in the Paris Opera. By 2011, he was at the top of his field, winning the prize for best male performer at the Armel Opera Competition in Szeged, Hungary.
But that all changed in 2014, when Russia invaded the Ukraine. Slipak left the opera and joined as a volunteer with the free Ukrainian forces, fighting in the eastern Ukraine, carrying a belt-fed machine gun and adopting the nom de guerre “Meph” based on his highly praised renditions of the aria “Mephistopheles” from the opera “Faust.” He adopted a traditional Ukrainian hairstyle, similar to a Mohawk, and served at various positions along the front lines in a maze of Russian minefields and trenches. Along the way, he became a folk hero to the Ukrainian people.
Explaining why he gave up everything and returned to Ukraine, he said: “I was inspired to serve my country by the popular uprising on Maidan Square in Kiev while I was living in France. Ukraine can become a successful country if we start heeding the voices of the people.”
On July 2, 2016 Wassyl Slipak was killed by a sniper in Debaltseve, Ukraine. He was 41 years old. He is survived by his parents and an older brother.
It can truly be said that while the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Ukraine became a separate country, its real independence dates from Maidan Square, and Wassyl Slipak is a national hero for giving up an incredible career and the luxury of celebrity and fame to help make that possible.
R.I.P. Wassyl. My prayers are with President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian people, who every day face the Russian bear without the level of help and support they deserve from Europe and America. While our leaders rationalize that they can deter Putin from his aggression using economic boycotts and sanctions, the Russians show no signs of withdrawing or accepting Ukrainian territorial integrity. — Jim