Monday, April 28, 2014

Smiles Aren't Free



Spring is here and the trees outside my apartment are filled with singing, chirping, super-excited birds. These fluffy little sparrows, warblers, robins, jays and even a cardinal are full of a zest for life that I envy. As soon as the sun comes up they are just so happy and excited.

Since I returned to Canada from Russia I have found my life disconnected from what is truly important. I had become a slave to paying bills. I worked 7 days a week but, after all the bills were paid, had no money to show for it. I was working and sleeping and working and sleeping, and just basically waiting for the clock to run out so I could finally die and say "Whew! That was a tough forty years. Glad that's over!"

Life in Canada married to Katya has been nothing but jumping from one hurdle to the next. We were both happier in Russia, and had more disposable income and, in my case, more hair. But Russia is no place to retire and Canada is ranked in the top 5 countries to live in the world for a reason, so we're here making a go of it. It's been a hard road, and then finally, this year, I got a slap in the face from God and broke free of the slavery of my mundane, unimportant job.

This year I struck out on my own as a self-employed freelancer and business owner. I opened my own online ESL school which hasn't done too badly, and now I'm working on a plan to expand it to a physical location in Toronto. My goal is to have both platforms filled to capacity by the end of the year, at which point I'll look at hiring a teacher or two and opening another location, maybe in Vancouver or Ottawa.

As a freelancer, I write articles for magazines (mostly in-flight magazines, which is a fairly lucrative yet often-overlooked publishing market), ezines, blogs, press releases, faq pages...anything that pays cash.

My Mondays now aren't so bad. I look forward to updating my blogs, seeing what writing work I can snatch up, and tweaking my marketing campaign for my English school. I couldn't do any of this without Katya's help.

Loving Life

A lot of this was Katya's idea. She saw how much I hated my job, with its stupid schedule (4 am - 7 pm, 7 days a week, no vacation for the first year), tyrannical boss and complete lack of any say in anything I did with my life. She remembered how much I enjoyed teaching in Russia, and urged me to give it a try.

5 years ago this September I set out to Mytischi, a suburb of Moscow, full of life and hope and a completely free and calm spirit. I soaked everything in and relished as many moments as I could. I was single and travelling and meeting people and living what was a dream for me.

For a few years I lived like that, although things got more difficult when I became a freelance teacher in Moscow, mainly due to the insane amounts of travel this required. Nevertheless, I was still free and making money and enjoying life.

Russia happy
In Russia I had a certain "joie de vivre". Look at that smile!
When I moved back to Canada and made the shift from Halifax to Victoria, I was still full of hope and adventure. I became an At-Sea-Observer, working on fishing boats for weeks at a time (I spent 6 weeks aboard the world's largest fishing trawler, the "Annalies Ilena", where I slipped on a ladder and dislocated my knee).

Zombies

That adventurous, life-loving mentality I had been living with for many years died a painful death when Katya and I were reunited in Canada together. Then the ugly, bland, soul-destroying realities of North American living kicked in. My fisheries job came to an end with government cutbacks and the fact that it was cheaper to put lesser-paid new recruits out at sea than me. So I got a job managing airport security in Victoria.

That job was an endless process of bickering, political in-fighting, gossiping and completely childish behavior from adult staff, including temper tantrums, crying and whining (a feature common to all airport staff around the world, as I've learned). The day-in, day-out grind, coupled with the high cost of living in Victoria, crushed me. When I got a raise after one year I decided it was time to move on. They offered me $40. Not per pay. Per year. Thanks, but keep yer forty bucks.

Life in Canada as a married man has been soul-destroying and completely pointless. Work, sleep, work, sleep, work, die. I've always been determined that that will never be my life, yet the pressure to support and provide for a wife and, eventually, children is intense, and although the need to pay bills and feed everyone hovers over everything, the lifestyle of work and work and work and then hopefully die sneaks up quietly until you don't even notice that is what your life has become. You become a brainwashed, walking, working, pooping cadaver doing whatever is ordered.
A Canadian zombie...
To top it off, just to have this wonderful opportunity to live such a pointless existence, I required a car. So I bought a 2009 Hyundai Accent. Now I had to pay the finance and insurance. More bills. More work.

Hard Work

We created a culture in North America of praising "hard work" but we've completely misinterpreted what "hard work" really is. Most people think it means to work every day and have no life of your own and never complain about your crappy little lot in the grand scheme of things. That, however, is not "hard work". That is "slavery".

Hard work means to throw yourself, completely, into a project and to work on it ceaselessly until it is completed. It means to build a house or write a book or start a company. It means working on something you are passionate about. It doesn't mean an endless grind of mundane repetition with no end in sight, for just enough peanuts to keep you alive. Unfortunately, that is what working has become in North America.

That is what I had become in a very short time since I returned from overseas.

So what if I want to hang myself every few days, my hair is falling out from stress and lack of sleep, and I don't even have time to visit my family for a coffee. Must...Pay...Bills.

Smiles aren't free in Canada....
Epiphany

Then, at work one day, as a group of business-looking people happily shuffled through airport screening, on their way to some seminar in Chicago, it hit me. What the hell happened to me? Was this going to be my life? When I got home I spent the hour or so before I passed out looking up what it would take to open my own online ESL business.

Over the next couple of weeks I set out to find the odd client here and there. One week I actually had a day off so held an online seminar on social media marketing in English, which was a success. Google+ Hangouts is the perfect tool for such classes as it allows up to 10 people in a video chat and comes with handy apps like a shared whiteboard.

With new confidence and Katya's urging I put in my 2 weeks notice and could barely keep myself from skipping out of the airport 14 days later shouting "Looseeers" to everyone still stuck there.

I received 8 email inquiries for lessons in my first week, four of which converted into customers and provided a stable income. I've since picked up a few more customers and also started to write articles for cash. Life is starting to become more like it's supposed to be: free, happy and meaningful.

It's only been a month or so, but I think my hair has actually stopped falling out!

As a freelancer and a self-employed business owner, I am free to live my life the way I want. I now make my own schedule, and decide my own income (for the most part). So long as I watch my financials carefully I won't get burned by taxes next year.

Even Katya is happier now! We're no birds in a tree but we're on our way to at least having more time to enjoy the birds. With some more real hard work I'll have an actual, physical language school in the heart of Toronto, and then I'll be chirping from the tree tops once more.

My ultimate goal, for which I strive...



Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What Russia Does Well

I'm not falling for this whole "Ukraine invasion" thing. Russia isn't fooling me. Just after hosting a highly-successful Olympic games, complete with super-modern stadiums and technology, Putin sends the "Russian Army" into Ukraine. Have you seen these guys? They are kitted-out to the nines and are well-trained and well-disciplined, and very motivated. Top notch soldiers.

It's all smoke and mirrors, though. Russia has a conscript army with very low pay and even lower morale. Those guys in Ukraine were probably Spetznatz (special forces), the cream of the army and volunteers to a man. The regular Russian army is in a shambles, much like the rest of the country.

So the Russkis in Crimea aren't fooling me.

Politics

But it goes to show that Russian maskirovka is something that Russia does very well. Maskirovka is the art of masking, distracting and confusing, and is a Russian political-military specialty that goes back to the Second World War.

Russia as a country is a great manipulator and always plays towards an end-game. This is why it can often seem that Putin is two steps ahead of Obama at every turn; because he is. Obama has no defined goal and can only react, while Putin has studied his opponents well and knows exactly what he wants and how he's going to get it. This is a great Russian specialty, served on a silver platter.

Sweets

Another thing Russia does very well is sweets. Yes, the delicious candies you can buy at any store. Russia has the best damn sweets I've ever had. I particularly fell in love with these tube-like sour things that had delicious sweet innards. No idea what they were called but man were they good!

Bakeries

Russia also does cakes and pastries very well. I like shopping for cakes in Russia because every one of them has a name is based on some traditional recipe. Think Black Forest cake. The "Napolean" is particularly good. As for pastries, damn!

The secret to Russian cakes and pastries, I think, is that they are made fresh with fresh ingredients and based on proven recipes. Cakes and pastries here have taken a real nosedive in quality over the past decade or so, and like Putin's realpolitik, Russia's realpastrytik is freakin' amazing.

Aviation

Russia is also very good at making airplanes and training pilots. Some of the best machines in military aviation have come out of Russia (think the Mig-15, Mig-25, Mig-29, SU-33) and even civil aviation has benifitted with beasts like the Antonov-124. The pilots that go along with these airplanes are top-notch and graduate from one of the world's best military pilot-training schools.

The only problem with Russian aviation is that they don't maintain the airplanes (or pilots) once they're built. So you can have the best machine in the world in the hands of the best pilot in the world, and it don't mean jack when the engines fall off!

Architecture

Russians used to do architecture very well. The huge, solid kremlins that dot the countryside are testament to Russian building, and the palaces and solid buildings of St Petersburg, Moscow and Ekaterinburg are proof of what Russia used to be able to do. Today they've gone the same route as everyone else: cheap buildings slapped together by cheaper labor.

Dairy

Finally, Russia is very good at dairy. Milk, cheese, yogurt and sour cream are top-notch in Russia. Here in Canada Katya is exasperated that she can't find yogurt with more than 0% fat! We've seriously looked up and down aisles in at least ten different grocery store chains across the country, and everything is "0% fat! Get healthy today! No fat in our yogurt so we're just like every other piece of garbage yogurt on the shelf! Woohoo us!" It must be a conspiracy that yogurt in this country sucks.

Russia has better yogurt, better cheese, better sour cream (60% fat, baby) and better butter. I'm guessing their cows are better, too.

Mooo.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Russian Women and Me


I lived in Moscow for a few years and experienced many adventures and situations that are out-of-the-ordinary back home. I recorded most of these in my blog Mission To Moscow, which has become more popular since I stopped writing in it and has gained more than 30,000 hits per month (and decent ad revenue, to boot). I couldn't get that kind of traffic when I was actively writing it!

Some of the most popular posts on that blog involve stories of drugs, drunken stupors and/or girls. Particularly Russian girls. 

By "girls" I mean, of course, grown women. But adding "girls" + "Russian" in a blog post drives Google search traffic crazy. Also, while I'm no misogynist (don't get me started on feminist BS), I'm also no pansy-pants white knight, and see nothing wrong with admiring the beauty of hot women. Russia, as it were, is filled with hot women. 

Since returning home, anytime somebody at work or a friend learns that I lived in Russia, they almost always ask "What about the women? I hear Russian women are hot! Is it true?" I almost always answer like this:
"Yes"
Followed by
"But..."

Bevy of Beautiful Slavic Ladies

My first few days in Russia were the most jaw-dropping I've had in a long time. Everywhere I turned, I was surrounded by breathtaking beauty the likes of which I had never seen before, except for maybe in Seoul. 

This was Moscow, the "New New York" as it's called, or the "New York of Europe". Moscow has emerged from the dreary grey slab of Communism to embrace free-market capitalism in all its glory, foibles and all, and as the political heart of that vast country, it has become the center of finance, fashion, technology and wealth. St Petersburg still holds its claim as Russia's cultural and artistic heart, but nothing there gets done without money from Moscow.

People from all over the country migrate to Moscow. You can have the best degree in the country, but living in the styx in Russia is akin to living in a developing country, with crappy infrastructure, corrupt officials and little opportunity. This is why hordes of young people flock to Moscow and St Petersburg in search of riches. 

Also, Russian women outnumber men by nearly 5-to-1 (depending on the area, and who you ask. Everywhere, though, there is a huge surplus of women). This means that not only do large numbers of women flock to the cities from the decrepit countryside, but also the competition amongst these women for a suitable partner is fierce. Thus, they stay in shape and dress to the nines. 

For a guy like me, arriving in Moscow from Canada, where North American norms of female conduct include jogging pants, self-righteousness and a bucket of fried chicken, the bevy of beautiful, feminine, fashionable women was awesome!

I had a sore neck my first week there from constantly gawking left and right!


After a few weeks, as I got into the regular rhythm of living and working in Moscow, I began to grow immune to these beauties. That is, there were so many of them at any given place and time (including at work!) that I stopped processing them. By the end of my first year in Russia the hordes of beautiful Russian girls were simply background noise.

In North America, when a beautiful, well-dressed woman walks past every straight man, and many women as well, will do a double-take, maybe even stare, slack-jawed (for those who never learned to use their peripheral vision). In Russia, when an ugly woman walks by, the same effect is observed, so rare a sight is an ugly female.

No Feminism

Russian women are not as hostile as, say, Canadian girls (who I find to be the most prudish, after the Brits), and third-wave feminism has not turned them all into brainwashed man-hating paranoid bundles of freaked-out stress, because feminism was toyed with during the Soviet era, and then roundfully rejected by the vast majority of women (in Soviet times, to prove they were more "progressive" then the west, women were forced into the construction trades, where a vastly higher number of them were injured and/or killed when compared to male deaths. Today tall construction cranes are a symbol of post-Soviet feminist oppression, and women in Russia hate the entire ideology). 

Katya summed it up best when I was dating her, and I cooked dinner, washed the dishes and did the laundry for a week or two straight. "Would you please just let me be a woman?!?" she hollered in exasperation. No arguments there. No dill in my sandwich, please.

Beware The Russian Woman

The Russian girls were also very easy to approach and, because most of them hold higher education, they all spoke some English even if they were a bit shy at first to speak it with an actual foreigner. The thing is, I barely had to approach these girls at all. Quagmire and I would just speak English to each other and four or five Slavic girls would mosey-on over to us and strike up a conversation. 

Russian girls are, however, dangerous. While they appear normal on the outside, that is, blondes, redheads, brunettes; they are completely different than us on the inside. The way they think and look at the world is heavily influenced by Russia, which is a completely different place than, say, California or New South Wales. Because so many have migrated to Moscow from the countryside, they look at the world through provincial Russian eyes. Read some Tolstoy for a deeper look into the provincial Russian soul.

As a man, and a westerner, it was just automatically assumed that I pooped money, which I could then use to purchase anything the Slavic beauty at my side fancied. Even if I don't speak Russian I'm expected to order all the food, negotiate with the sales person, give directions to the taxi driver and fend off other males with appropriate displays of ape-like aggression. 

This is one reason I ended up marrying Katya. She wasn't like that. She sometimes insisted that she pay for dinner, just so she felt better about herself and her half of the relationship. She did all the talking with the waiters and shopkeepers, and laughed with me when I insulted drunk Russian macho guys in English while they looked dumbly on in surprise. Katya was different.

Of course, Katya is no provincial. She grew up in the suburbs of Moscow, the largest city in Europe (population 15 million +), center of fashion and finance, and is a native Muscovite. They are truly different then the millions of  country girls who crowd the city every year, trying to be modern and urban but clinging to their provincial way of thinking. 

Beware the Russian woman
So, did I nail any of these hot women?
Yes
But....

Well, I won't kiss and tell, but I did marry one, didn't I?



Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Russian's First Days In Canada




2012 was Katya's first year in a foreign land and one thing I learned about myself is that I need to remember that this is all new for her. As somebody who grew up in this country, it is easy for me to think that everything is normal, and I find myself constantly assuming that it is normal for my wife, too. Many times it is not!

Ontario, she finds, is very "normal". Not normal as in similar to Russia, but normal as in "plain". "It's normal here." She told me after 4 months of Ontario living. "People go to work. Go home. Pay their bills, Take a week vacation in the summer. Normal." This was after more than a year of living in British Columbia and a summer in Alberta.

She has done very well for herself in Ontario, I might add. Whereas in Victoria the most she could find was the odd cashier position at retail outlets, part-time for minimum wage, here in Ontario she landed a good job in logistics management in Guelph within three weeks of arriving! Salaried with benefits, a few weeks vacation every year and on a bus route. Our rent is much lower than it was in Victoria and she's learned "normal" life in Guelph pretty well.

But it wasn't always normal for her, and I keep forgetting that some things are just outside of her realm of knowledge.

Kitchener, Ontario

When we first arrived, back in January 2012, after we had cleared customs, we spent three days in Kitchener. Katya was completely jet-lagged, waking up at 3 am and going to sleep at 5 pm. She was also shell-shocked and unsure if she had made the right decision. She had left home for good, moving to a weird western country with her foreigner husband and leaving everything, including her family, behind for good.

Her first few days in Kitchener, Ontario did not pan out very well for her. First off it was January, and that particular year was snowless in Southern Ontario. Everything was muddy and rainy and gray. I took her on a bus in Kitchener (which she loved, constantly wowing at how much more modern and cleaner our buses are compared to Russian buses). I taught her the etiquette of letting the elderly and disabled have the front seats, and she was blown away by the hydraulic lowering of the front and the unfolding ramp for people in wheelchairs! If you're unfortunate enough to be stuck in a wheelchair in Russia, then good luck!

Katya on her first Canadian bus in Kitchener, Ontario. This is her first day in Canada!
I took her on a tour of downtown Kitchener, not the most exciting of excursions but something to do nevertheless. In front of city hall we came across two police officers on horseback, just hanging out. Katya was enthralled, but only having known Russian police she was hesitant to look at them too much. I said "Don't worry about it!" and walked over to the cops. "Excuse me? Do you mind if my wife takes a picture of you? It's her first day in Canada."
The officers smiled. "Sure! Go right ahead!"
Katya snapped a good photo.



Pub Grub

We made our way down King Street to a pub, where we went in for some lunch. This was Katya's first time in a Canadian restaurant (and she wasn't impressed). The waitress brought us menus and I ordered a pint of Rickard's Red. Katya didn't know what to get so she shared mine and decided she didn't like it. 

We perused the menu, with its regular boring pub fare, and I explained each item to Katya. Maybe out of stress, or out of a sudden and crushing realization that she was now far away from home, she burst into tears. She started sobbing uncontrollably. I tried to comfort her and she said "I'm sorry. Just give me a moment". After a few minutes of crying she recovered herself and, through sniffles, said she didn't know what to order. I ordered a plate of onion rings for us to share, and she was happy with that. In fact, by the time we finished the onion rings, she was smiling again and declared they were delicious.

We went to Guelph that evening to meet up with my uncle, aunt, cousin and grandfather. They were all very happy to meet her and treated her like family, with hugs and tea and cookies, and my uncle's hilarious way of joking around with people. We went to dinner at the Shakespeare Arms in Guelph, where a magician was going table to table with a top hat and a real live rabbit that Katya fed pieces of her salad to. She loved it, but right in the middle of dinner she fell asleep. I mean she seriously just conked out! My family must have thought she was a heroin junky or something!

The rabbit that helped put my wife to sleep at the pub...
The next day she woke up at 4 am and woke me up around 7 to watch the squirrels scavenging around in the yard outside the window. "Squirrels! I love them!" she declared with excitement. Squirrels or any wildlife are rare in the Moscow region, which is sprawling and industrial and covered in highways and smokestacks. She watched them play around all morning.

Toronto, Ontario

Finally, on our last day in southern Ontario, we boarded a Greyhound for the short 1-hour trip to Toronto, where an Air Canada flight to Victoria was waiting us. Katya was again amazed at our bus system. "There's an actual toilet on this bus?!? I have to see this" 
Then, after returning from the on-board toilet, she declared "Wow! Garbage bags hanging beside each seat! That's a genius idea!"

As we drove into Toronto she was filled with excitement, the first time I had seen her happy since we arrived in Canada three days before. When she saw the CN Tower and all the big skyscrapers of Toronto, she was awed. "This city is HUGE!" 
"It's only 6 million people. A lot smaller than Moscow" I replied.
"It doesn't look like it." She said, snapping a photo of the CN Tower from the Gardiner Expressway.




In downtown Toronto we transferred onto the Airport Express shuttle bus (the free on-board wifi thrilled Katya) and made our way to Pearson International, where we had arrived three days before after a grueling Aerosvit flight from Kiev. This time a beautiful, modern and comfortable Air Canada Airbus was waiting for us, but before we boarded we stopped at the Tim Horton's in the domestic departure lounge.

It was at this moment that Katya realized she would be fine, and for me it really sunk in that all of this was completely new to her. Strangely enough, Katya had heard of Tim Horton's before, usually attached to a joke about Canadians (when Russians think about Canadians at all). For the first time in her life, she realized that it is a real chain. 

Katya Tries Tim Hortons

She ordered a black steeped tea (Russians are big tea drinkers, and they like it steeped in a traditional style), an orange juice and a honey cruller doughnut. As she bit into the doughnut and drank her tea, she casually remarked "I like it here." I had to do a double-take. After the past three days of tears and sudden pass-outs, it was Tim Horton's that made her start to enjoy Canada! It was just like one of those "Happy Immigrant Tries Tim Horton's" commercials from a few years ago!

With Tim Horton's in our bellies and smiles on our faces, we meandered through Pearson's beautiful Terminal 1, found our gate, boarded our comfortable aircraft (Katya said "Wow! It's so modern, and clean!" She had only ever flown crappy ex-Soviet airlines), and took off for Victoria. 

We had a transfer at Vancouver International five hours later, and boarded a little propeller-driven commuter flight, which hopped over the Juan DeFuca Straight and landed in Victoria literally 12 minutes later. Katya loved the propellers and said "It feels like we're really flying!" 
"We are." I reminded her.

That day was a turning point for Katya in Canada. She loved every moment and once we arrived in Victoria and Shanana picked us up in my giant Dodge Grand Caravan XL (AWD), Katya was smiles and giggles and comfortable. There were more no more homesick tears from here on out.

Katya smiles for the first time in 3 days as she digs in to her first Tim Horton's and declares she likes Canada.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mabou, Cape Breton


I'm on my third iPod in 10 years, and I love it. I wish the iPhone was as good a device as my Android Samsung because I would snatch one up in an instant! I digress..

My first iPod was gifted to me, by me, while in Seoul, South Korea. It was a silver iPod with a black and white screen and by the end of the first year I had that sucker loaded up with so many songs and playlists that it was impossible for me to revert to an unfriendly mp3 player. Three years later my ex bought me my second iPod, a black iPod classic with 60 GB of memory! 

That iPod went everywhere with me! It survived our catastrophic breakup (for me, at least). It was in Russia with me, and out on boats at sea with me, and in Ukraine and Germany and Sweden and England with me. Then last year it started to go wonky and the battery stopped holding any charge at all. That was exactly 5 years after I received it so not bad.

Knowing how much I love my iPod, Katya took me by complete surprise for Christmas 2012 by giving me a brand new iPod classic, this time matte black with 120 GB of memory! Wow!

I set about transferring all my files over to my new iPod, a fairly easy process once you've done it a few times. Some of my songs are grandfathered from that original iPod back in Korea! I mean these are files that have been with me through thick and thin, adventure and boredom.

What does any of this have to do with Mabou, Cape Breton, you may ask? Bear with me, and you'll soon understand.

Recently I set about organizing a playlist that is a sort of soundtrack of my life. That is, I'm making a huge playlist with songs that meant something to me at the time, in the order that they happened. As an example, some of the songs I was listening to back in 2004 when I bought my iPod in Korea were Prison Song (System of a Down), Edge Hill (Groove Armada), Hey Ya! (Outkast), Just Want 10 Minutes (Ee Young Lee) and Amish Paradise (Weird Al Yankovic..don't ask). Well, on my playlist are exactly those songs, and when they play it totally brings me back to those days!

Seriously, when those songs play in order I can see our (my ex and mine) flat in the Bundang Acrotel building, and feel the warm heated floor below me and hear my ex laughing at something and taste the shitty Korean beer and maekju mixed with fruit juice that got us completely shit-faced. 

That's how powerful this playlist is for me, so I'm working slowly and diligently on it so that it is just perfect!

One section of this playlist that I found particularly powerful brought me back to the summer before I went to South Korea. I hear Bob Marley, Sublime, Bare Naked Ladies, The Rankin Family and Breathe, by Swollen Members, all back-to-back, and I'm immediately transported to a magical sunny summer in Mabou, Cape Breton.



In my old blog, Mission to Moscow, I wrote about that great summer, so I won't rehash too much here. I can remember painting my ex's father's barn (or one half of it, until he decided we sucked at painting), perched up on ladders with black-fly hats draped over our faces, which did nothing to keep us getting bitten. When "Hairshirt" plays I think of cruising around the countryside in our Chevy Cavalier, or whenever "Waiting In Vain" comes on I think of how that Cavalier rolled across a parking lot and into traffic, causing chaos in the center of that little town. 

"Santeria" reminds me of when our friends T & J came to visit from Ottawa and we went to the Red Shoe Pub (or whatever) and ate freakin' hot chicken wings until I was literally high.

This portion of the playlist is an audio trip down memory lane to days past. Sitting in my ex's living room while her mother ironed my underwear (don't ask about that, either) and we waited for our contracts to come in from the recruiter for the school in South Korea while we drank copious amounts of vodka Ceasars is attached to David Gray's "Sail Away", and Guns N' Roses "Rocket Queen" takes me back to trips to Port Hawkesbury.

What does this have to do with being married to a Russian, you ask? Well, it's not immediately apparent, but knowing how I came to be married to a Russian is part of knowing about life with a Russian wife. Actually it's not, but this is my blog and it is what it is. Besides, eventually my playlist will reach my memories of life with Katya and the beginnings of our relationship, so it's all building up to that. Who asked you, anyways?



Sunday, April 13, 2014

Crisis In Ukraine


Three years ago this summer Katya and I met up in beautiful Ukraine, where neither her nor I required a visa. Katya is half-Ukrainian and has grandparents living there. Read my earlier post for details about that trip.

In the past month, as the world is aware, Ukraine has turned from a peaceful (but poor) place filled with culture and a magical sense of calm to a land at war with itself and threatened by its neighbor.

The Euro-Maidan, that is, the mass demonstrations and protests that happened in support of integration with the EU in the Maidan Square of Kiev, overthrew the corrupt pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and saw former Prime-Minister Yulia Timoshenko released from imprisonment. A new interim leadership has been installed although all the same sitting Parliamentarians that were elected before the revolution are still there.

This revolution was a mass protest of the people, although certain elements of far-right groups, most notably the Right Sektor, were also involved.

Some things to know about Ukraine are:

1) Eastern Ukraine has a majority-Russian population, who speak Russian and identify with Russia. A lot of this land, particularly around Karkhov, Donetsk and the Donbas Region were "gifted" to Ukraine by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. At the time they were all part of the same country so it didn't matter. Today they are two completely separate autonomous nations, and the Russian half of the Ukraine has been longing to rejoin Russia for 20 years.

2) Western Ukraine is overwhelmingly Ukrainian. They speak Ukrainian and have a distinct culture and heritage, different from the eastern half of the country. The people in this half overwhelmingly want an independent Ukraine that is a member of the European Union. It was these people who overthrew Yanukovych back in March.

3) During the 1930's, under the brutal Soviet rule of Joseph Stalin, the western Ukraine was cordoned off, its farms collectivized and all its food stolen to feed the rest of the USSR. An estimated 7.5 million people died in what Ukrainians call the "Holodomor", the mass famine purposefully caused by Stalin to ethnically cleanse the western Ukraine.

4) Following on the heels of the Holodomor came the Second World War and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Western Ukrainians greeted the Germans as liberators, and cheered in the streets as German tanks rolled through, girls kissing German soldiers and people throwing flowers onto the marching columns. Many Ukrainians joined the German forces, particularly the SS where they were the main guards at the nazi death camps and during the mass shootings of Jews. The German occupation, however, was brutal and Hitler saw the Slavs of the east as nothing more than cheap labour to be exploited. Another mass starvation accompanied by firing squads and mass lootings and rapes by German soldiers ensued, so many Ukrainians joined the fight against the Nazis.

5) After the war, following the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, many of the Ukrainians who had fought the Germans turned their guns on the Russians. The war didn't end in Ukraine until 1950, five years after the Second World War officially came to an end. To appease the angry and fed-up Ukrainian population, Nikita Kruschev, Premier of the Soviet Union after Stalin, granted territory to Ukraine in 1954, mainly the Crimea and the Donbas region including the cities of Karkhov and Donetsk.

Today we have a country with a split personality. The west is distinctly Ukrainian and eyes Russia with suspicion (understandable after so much terror and bloodshed), while the east feels disenfranchised and removed from their rightful motherland, Russia.

The Russian annexation of Crimea was nothing more than a chance for Vladimir Putin to exploit the situation following the chaos of the Euro-Maidan. The Kremlin in Moscow has agitated the people in the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine by calling the small number of Right Sektor protestors in Kiev a giant mob of fascist revolutionaries who have siezed control of the government and now plan to exterminate all ethnic Russians. This is, of course, balderdash and very amateurish propaganda at the most. However, the fears and long-standing complaints of the ethnic Russians in the east proved to be fertile ground for provocation and now the most common-cited reason for joining Russia is "The fascists have seized power in Kiev".

I personally have in-laws in both Russia and Ukraine. My wife doesn't know which side to take, so we have decided that to keep the peace, we should not discuss it with each other.

My own opinion is that, in order to avoid war and bloodshed, eastern Ukraine should vote themselves back into the Russian Federation. The country of Ukraine would become smaller by nearly 40%, but it would be restored back to its original pre-World War Two borders, independent and able to join the EU or do whatever it wants.

Loss of territory, inhabited by people that overwhelmingly don't want to be there anyways, is much better than civil war, bloodshed, death and the generations of hate and fear that will cause for the future, not to mention the bigger threat of an outright showdown between Russia and Europe, again on the old battlefields of Ukraine.

Ukraine has already suffered generations of blood and tears. Let the east go back to Russia and the west can join Europe. I believe this is the only way forward for the ultimate goal: peace.