Ukraine’s real-life page-turning novel is getting complicated with new characters and scenes. America’s part in the story is a big one.
Interim President Arseniy Yatsenyuk came to Washington to see President Obama this week.
Ousted President Victor Yanukovych went to Moscow to give a speech.
In next week’s episode, citizens in Crimea will vote on a referendum on whether to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is playing good-cop, bad-cop with America and Russia and may be the only one with real sway. Mrs. Merkel has alternated between suggesting to President Obama that Vladimir Putin is “in another world,” to rapping Mr. Putin on the knuckles for illegal behavior.
Which power will emerge as the real hero in this tale of two countries? My money is on Ukraine — because of one word: culture.
You can’t stop culture with military might. Culture creates societal change and is rarely motivated by the butt of a rifle or the barrel of a gun.
Visiting Ukraine last April, I saw the range of influences that make up the cultural diversity of this unique country. Every facet of Ukrainian life is a reminder of shared traditions.
I came in the season of Easter when children dye Easter eggs for the holiday. I attended a Jewish Shabbat service the same week.
I found museums in Kiev alive with paintings — Ukrainian art and Russian works co-existing in the National Art Museum in Kiev, from David Burliuk to Maria Sinyakova to Mikhail Boichuk and others.
Music in Ukraine ranges from Polissa pop to Kolomiya rap, from Cossack songs to Russian ballads. Even the cuisine is varied —from borshch to ukha, blyntsi to Paska. Its dishes and ingredients hail from Russia, Poland, Germany and Turkey.
Literature in Ukraine is translated around the world into German, English, Russian and other languages. Ukrainian poets and authors are often on display at Germany’s Leipzig Book Fair taking place this week.
Culture is a durable good and fortifies a nation.
What makes this tale so tragic is that even with a strong culture, Ukraine will pay a heavy price for Russia’s intervention. The Russian assault on Ukrainian life will drain the country of necessary resources at a time when the economy is terrible — one of the issues that Mr. Obama and Mr. Yatsenyuk discussed.
In addition to the positive sides of Ukrainian life, I saw, firsthand, an educational system in dire need of support. I visited School No. 168, bringing together students of diverse backgrounds including Ukrainian youth with disabilities. Like many educational institutions, School No. 168 needs funding, more books and computers so that young minds can be nourished and nurtured — so that they can produce more great writers and artists.
That’s where America and the West come in. We have to provide resources to keep Ukraine sturdy. The International Monetary Fund and congressional money is helpful but won’t immediately change circumstances on the ground. We need a public diplomacy campaign to raise money for Ukraine and to raise the rhetorical outrage. Let’s adopt Ukraine as a cause. The Ukrainian people have the right to choose their own diverse narrative — to write their own story.
As for the referendum, the Crimea is part of Ukraine and no referendum will be considered legal or binding by a 2014 global community. The Russian government can’t tell Ukrainians they are not part of Ukraine just as you can’t tell Ukrainian-Americans residing in Pennsylvania that they are not part of the United States.
Ukraine will emerge from this crisis stronger because of its culture and citizens. We have not read the last chapter.
Tara Sonenshine is former U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and a distinguished fellow at George Washington University. She leads the media program for the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy based in Berlin.
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