North Shore residents with connections to the Ukraine seem cautiously optimistic about reports of an agreement to end the violence in that East European nation.
“I’m glad they did this,” said Ukrainian immigrant Serge Sacharuk, who attends St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Salem.
Looking back on the clashes that have so far taken scores of lives, he lamented, “This is awful. This is absolutely terrible. The people aren’t violent. They’re just fed up. ... The Russians don’t want to let Ukraine go.”
The Rev. James Morris is Sacharuk’s pastor, and while he’s not Ukrainian himself, he is a keen student of the country who has made frequent trips there, the most recent in 2009. “We were all very shocked when this started a couple of months ago,” he said. “The Ukraine has been independent for 20 years. Things were getting better.”
His congregation feels deeply about the trouble, he said, though few have any direct connections. While a number of Ukrainians have immigrated to America in recent years, most live in the Boston area. The Salem flock consists of second- and third-generation Ukrainians and a few who came here many years ago.
Still, he said, “They are very saddened. They want to pray.” They prayed at first for a solution, but “now we have the dead to pray for.”
The Ukraine has had a tragic history, and some of that past plays a part in the current turmoil, according to both Morris and Sacharuk. Westward-looking Ukrainians, who mostly live in the western part of the country, find themselves battling the current government, which is more sympathetic to Russia. The Soviet legacy in the Ukraine, however, includes the Holodomor, the famine engineered by the government of Joseph Stalin in 1932-33 that was designed to starve out restive Ukrainians. Estimates place the death toll in the millions.
During World War II Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis, and following the war it was entirely consumed by the Soviets. For Sacharuk, who had been seized for forced labor by the Germans and taken to Austria, the communist takeover was an end to his dream of returning home.
“We wished we could go back, but if you go back you wind up in Siberia,” he said. Though a displaced person through no fault of his own, he would have suffered the fate of many who earned the distrust of Stalin simply by being in German hands for a while.
Instead, Sacharuk emigrated to the United States. Now 86, he said that over the years he was allowed to visit relatives in the Ukraine, especially after independence in 1991. He keeps a close watch on his native land through stories carried on the Internet. Both Sacharuk and Morris lay the blame for the country’s current problems on President Viktor Yanukovych, whom both describe as corrupt. Yanukovych’s recent moves in the direction of Russia rankled many Ukrainians.
“I don’t like to dwell on the negative,” said Morris, “but there is a deep-seated distrust of Russia.” The Holodomor is remembered each year. For the western Ukrainians the sound of the Russian language “hurts their ears. It’s the language of oppression.”
Attitudes in the Ukraine, however, are divided generally between those who speak Russian as a first language and worship in Orthodox churches, and those who speak Ukrainian and attend the Ukrainian Catholic Church (which is distinct from Roman Catholic Church). While the western side of the country is more rural, says Morris, it is in many ways more developed.
“Western Ukrainian people are far more interested in the model that Poland gives them,” he said. “They work hard and they have something to show for it.”
Both Morris and Sacharuk are resigned to the possibility that the Ukraine’s fate may not be determined by Ukrainians alone. Sacharuk despairs of relying on the influence of the European Union or the United States.
But if the Ukrainian government aligns with the European Union, said Morris, “they can’t steal anymore.”
“Russia is a very powerful country,” Sacharuk said. Oil wealth gives them added clout. He salutes the efforts of his former countrymen nonetheless.
“Freedom isn’t free,” he said. “You’ve got to fight for it. I’m proud of them.”