by Len Lear
If long-time Mt. Airy resident Mary Kalyna has her way, she and her fellow Ukrainian-Americans will not let the rest of the country — and the world — forget about the naked aggression employed recently by Russian president Vladimir Putin against Crimea, the peninsula in the southernmost region of Ukraine. Putin sent in military forces to take over Crimea, located on the Black Sea and home to about 2.2 million of Ukraine’s 45 million people.
Kalyna, 59, who has lived in Mt. Airy for 30 years, is a graduate of Cornell University who also holds an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s famed Wharton School. She has worked mainly in marketing research, but she is currently on sabbatical and has been spending almost all of her time helping to organize and publicize anti-Putin, pro-Ukraine demonstrations in the Delaware Valley. She does not like the title of “spokeswoman,” but she has been quoted in much of the recent coverage of the crisis in Ukraine by the major news media in the Delaware Valley.
The Philadelphia area boasts the second largest Ukrainian-American population in the U.S., about 50,000, and virtually all are united in their opposition to Putin’s invasion of Crimea. Some have organized a boycott of Lukoil gas stations because Lukoil is a Russian corporation. The local group which has been protesting regularly call themselves “Euro Maidan Philadelphia.” There are also other “Maidans” throughout the country. “Maidan” is a Ukrainian word for the central square in Kiev, where protests began last November against the almost unbelievable corruption by then-president Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies, who stole billions of dollars from the extremely poor Ukrainian economy. More than 100 protesters were murdered by the forces of Yanukovych, who fled the country and is currently being protected by Putin, the former KGB operative whose critics in Russia have a nasty habit of winding up dead or imprisoned and tortured.
Mary Kalyna was born in upstate New York, although her parents were both put in Nazi slave labor camps as teenagers, where they remained for five years. After World War II they became “Displaced Persons” and eventually found their way to the U.S. We wanted to ask Mary some questions about the crisis in Ukraine because of her personal perspective and her knowledge of the region’s tortured history:
LOCAL: Putin has been saying that many Ukrainians were Nazi collaborators during World War II, and this apparently justifies the harsh treatment of Ukraine by Russia ever since then. He has denounced the current protesters as “ultra-nationalist” or “fascist.” Isn’t it a fact that many Ukrainians did welcome German soldiers as liberators at first because of Stalinist evils on the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend?”
KALYNA: Putin’s propaganda machine has been saying that as a way of trying to discredit the movement, but the fact is that Ukrainian people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, suffered horribly at the hands of both the Nazis and the Russians. Almost every single Ukrainian has horror stories about family members being sent to concentration camps. My father’s parents were sent to Siberia for 25 years, and he never saw any of his family members again. My mother never saw her father, brother and sister again. Everyone who went back to Ukraine regretted it. Many were sent to Siberia. Most ordinary Ukrainians were always under suspicion by the Communists.
LOCAL: What is the makeup of the protest movement in Ukraine?
KALYNA: Even if the current movement was a right-wing movement, would that justify marching into an independent country and taking it over by force? The fact is that this is a grass-roots movement for democracy that includes people from every element of society, including major Jewish groups and the chief rabbi in Kiev. I personally have been involved in this country in the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-Vietnam movement and the anti-Iraq War movement.
LOCAL: The protest movement in Ukraine seemed to pop up overnight. What were conditions like for most Ukrainians in the decades leading up to these protests?
KALYNA: These protests are not just about the corruption of Yanukovych, as bad as that was. It is an expression of anger over decades and decades of misery and suffering. I have an aunt there who has an outhouse, not indoor plumbing. It’s also about the denigration of our culture, of not being allowed to speak our own language, of having to sing Christmas carols in secret, of being afraid to talk on the phone, of the killing of millions by Stalin. And Yanukovych was simply an agent of the Kremlin.
LOCAL: What is the economy like in Ukraine?
KALYNA: Almost everyone is desperate to leave. Many people go to Poland, where they are allowed to work six months out of the year. The work is not great, but at least it is work. I have cousins who do housekeeping in Poland. That is why they want to be a part of the European Union and also to be free to talk. And as bad as it is in Ukraine, it is even worse in Russia. The corruption goes all the way down the line. Students have to pay bribes to teachers just to be allowed to take exams. Cops stop you to demand bribes. I was in Ukraine in 2007, and the infrastructure is so bad because the money meant to fix these things is going into the pockets of corrupt officials. And it is very bad for journalists. The first girl to take a photo of Yanukovych’s palace was later run off the road and viciously beaten.
LOCAL: One argument used by Putin to invade Crimea is that most people there, almost 60 percent, are ethnic Russians who want to be ruled by Russia. Is this valid?
KALYNA: And why is it that most of them are ethnic Russians? Is it because Stalin deported most Ukrainians (Tatars) from Crimea after the war, sending them to Siberia, where most of them died. If Stalin had not killed so many Tatars, there would not be an ethnic Russian majority in Crimea. (Ed. Note: In response to Putin’s demagogic argument that most Crimeans are Russian speakers, Francois Heisbourg, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has said, “That’s like saying France has a right to invade Belgium or Switzerland to protect French speakers there.” And Trudy Rubin, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s foreign policy columnist, recently wrote, “It is like saying that China has a right to seize Taiwan or islands whose possession is disputed with Japan or the Philippines.”)
LOCAL: How did your protests in Philly begin?
KALYNA: One of our protesters, Yulia Kurka, who came here from Ukraine two years ago, put something on Facebook last November about our first demonstration, which was at 16th and Vine on Thanksgiving Day. About 12 to 20 people showed up, which we thought was good for Thanksgiving Day. After that the demonstrations were every Sunday at Independence Mall. Our biggest one was on Jan. 26. There were over 400 cars, with many from other states, and more than 1,000 people. It ended at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral on Franklin Street in North Philly.
LOCAL: By the way, how do you feel about living in Mt. Airy?
KALYNA: I came to Philly in 1976 because I wanted to be in a larger city, and I had friends here. I lived in Germantown for a few years and then Mt. Airy for the last 30. I love Mt. Airy. It is diverse in every way. I love the park and the feeling of community. It is a great place to live.
Ed. note: There will be an art show, “We Are All Ukraine,” this coming weekend, March 28, 29 and 30, at the Latvian Art Society, 531 N. 7th St. Waldemart Klyuzko, an artist from Ukraine whose works will be on display, will be on hand to speak. For more information, call 215-776-1004 or visit latviansociety.blogspot.com. For more information about upcoming demonstrations, email firstname.lastname@example.org.