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Ukrainian-Americans

Less powerful nations must chart their own courses without foreign interference.

Her earliest memories were of endless wheat fields and the sweeping steppes. She also remembered being afraid of the police - and the bitter cold. My babushka advised me: “If your feet stay warm the rest of your body will, too.” Like Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof’s beloved dairyman who dreamed of being “a rich man,” my grandmother Dorothy Kwass was a Ukrainian Jew who migrated to America.

On my father’s paternal side, Samuel Alexander Rampell was born in Odessa. Shortly after Czar Alexander II’s 1881 assassination, vicious pogroms (race riots) were unleashed against Jews and little Samuel sailed to America with his mother.

The Kwasses, my dad’s maternal line, were innkeepers in Kiev’s shtetl (ghetto). Their name is derived from kvass, the fermented sweet drink served at their inn. When the menfolk were drafted around 1904 during the Russo-Japanese war they became draft dodgers and fled to the land of the free, with five-year-old Dorothy.

In Fiddler, following a pogrom, Tevye and his family were expelled from Anatevka and with little more than the shirts on their backs, they too ran away from Ukraine and came to America. In doing so we transplants escaped the hardships of: Three Russian revolutions, a Civil War, famine, Stalinism, Nazi invasion, extermination at Babi Yar, the Holocaust, Chernobyl, the Soviet Union’s collapse and its aftermath, etc. PM Press recently republished Voline’s The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921, with its tumultuous account of the Ukrainian anarchist peasant leader Nestor Makhno’s resistance movement.

Because I remember where we came from I’m in solidarity with today’s refugees and immigrants, knowing my ancestors were in those same shoes not so long ago.

Although U.S. streets weren’t exactly paved with gold, the Rampells, Kwasses and countless Tevyes went on to live out our versions of the American Dream. Thank you America - for the opportunities you gave us and horrors you saved us from! Because I remember where we came from I’m in solidarity with today’s refugees and immigrants, knowing my ancestors were in those same shoes not so long ago. And I’m also troubled by the mistreatment my ancestral homeland is still suffering.

Today, Ukraine is caught between two superpowers who, even after the Cold War continue to play the great game of realpolitik, using the land of my ancestors as a pawn. Reminiscent of Russian domination of Ukraine, Putin’s invasion of Crimea and incursions into the Donbas are disturbing. But so are allegations of Pres. Trump’s meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs to pursue his own personal and political interests.

An objective observer can reasonably deduce the perception of impropriety and a quid pro “Joe” in Trump’s dealings with Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky vis-à-vis Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Trump has been accused by a to-date anonymous whistleblower (deemed credible by the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General and of “urgent concern”) of withholding congressionally allocated defense funding for Ukraine - needed for countering Russian aggression - plus high level meetings between the new president and Washington, unless Zelensky collaborates with Trump’s requests. His “favors” include digging up dirt on the Bidens for corrupt conflicts of interests, including Hunter’s serving on a Ukrainian energy company’s board while his father was U.S. vice president and involved in the volatile region. In essence, many believe Trump pressured Zelensky to provide him with politically damaging dirt on a potential presidential rival, in exchange for log jammed U.S. aid for the beleaguered nation.

From what we know as of this writing, subsequent congressional testimony by members of the diplomatic corps reportedly corroborated the original whistleblower’s assertions. A second person with supposedly firsthand knowledge has also blown the whistle on the dubious scheme.

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(To be fair, inquiring minds also want to know Hunter Biden’s qualifications and what he actually did to deserve a reported $50,000 per month from natural gas producer Burisma - besides having the same last name as America’s veep?)

A comedian and actor, Zelensky went from playing a Ukrainian president to actually being voted Ukraine’s head of state last May. (Unlike Trump, Zelensky overwhelmingly won the popular vote, receiving 73% of the ballots.) Like his character in the satirical Servant of the People TV series, Zelensky was elected on an anti-corruption platform.

By apparently implicating Zelensky in the Biden brouhaha and electoral interference in America, Trump seems to be compromising Zelensky and undermining his good government program in a country beset by bribery, fraud, etc., and partially occupied by Russians. Leave it to Trump to besmirch a clean government reformer with his own corrupt stench. But there’s more at stake here than Ukraine’s fate.

Trump has denigrated Rep. Adam Schiff, House Intelligence Committee chairman and a Jew, demanding his “arrest” for “treason” and nicknaming him “shifty Schiff.” As Peter Beinart noted in The Forward, the word “shifty” is an anti-Semitic trope. This is especially ominous vis-à-vis Ukraine, as Zelensky is the first Jewish president in a land that historically experienced pogroms that drove Fiddler’s Tevye - and my great-grandfather - into exile.

Globally the big picture is even more alarming. After the U.S.S.R.’s 1991 collapse newly independent Ukraine had to decide what to do with its nuclear arsenal - then the world’s third largest. Ukraine decided to destroy its 1,700 nuclear warheads in exchange for security assurances from Moscow, London and Washington. Obviously, Russia didn’t uphold its end of 1994’s Budapest Memorandum - and now Trump is accused of holding arms for Ukraine hostage to his political interests. (And how does this tie in with the eyebrow-raising Putin-Trump relationship?)

The non-proliferation-weakening message is ominous: Nuclear-armed states such as North Korea should never disarm, while countries without WMDs should seek nukes. Otherwise minus a nuclear deterrent, they could end up like Ukraine and Iraq - invaded and subjected to Machiavellian horse trading by a so-called ally. The lesson Chairman Kim, Iran, etc., likely draw is: Ukrainians are suckers. Denuclearized buyers beware!

Unlike, say, Latvia, Ukraine isn’t small. It’s almost France’s size, with 42 million-plus people (slightly more than Poland). But compared to Russia and America - which haven’t dismantled their nukes - Ukraine is clearly at a disadvantage in terms of the power dynamic. But Kiev has another ally.

There are about 900,000 Ukrainian-Americans. While there is little we Ukrainians of the Diaspora can directly do vis-à-vis Putin’s aggression, our organizations, federations, media and the Orthodox Church in this country that our forebears emigrated to must stand up and speak out for the Motherland. We must demand that Trump, Giuliani, Bill Barr, Mick Mulvaney, etc., keep their hands off Ukraine and allow our ancestral homeland to be free of external interference to pursue its own anti-corruption path. And if evidence mounts in the days to come that Trump tried to extort Ukraine for his own personal, political purposes at the expense of Kiev’s security, Ukrainian-American organizations, foundations, churches and individuals must demand Trump’s impeachment and that he be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is a Ukrainian-American L.A.-based freelance writer and author.