By Bishop Paul Peter Jesep
The Ukrainian Diaspora must be reborn or at least reformed. If there is any doubt of the need then look no further than the recent controversy regarding a high profile Ukrainian-American activist. He marginalized the horror, travesty and enormity of the Holocaust by writing that “big money” drives the “industry.”
The Kyiv Post called the remarks “stupid.” That was charitable. The activist also has penned that Jews are partly responsible for the crimes committed under Communism. As the newspaper rightly pointed out Jews should not be held accountable any more than Georgians. Joseph Stalin was a Georgian. Yet no thinking, rational person would blame Georgians for the atrocities of Stalin. The newspaper urged the Diaspora to find suitable representatives that do not offer crude, shockingly ignorant and inflammatory comments that divide the family of humankind. The Kyiv Post offered a blunt, honest and accurate assessment.
The activist went with Secretary of State Colin Powell to President Viktor Yushchenko’s inaugural. The Bush Administration, red faced with embarrassment after learning of the activist’s views, later commented that had they known of such positions he would not have been invited to accompany Secretary Powell.
Independent of the embarrassment that many Ukrainians feel as a community regarding the controversy, there is a larger, more important issue that transcends the asinine outlook of one person that unfortunately tars the entire Ukrainian-American Diaspora community.
How should the Diaspora present itself to the world? The activist referenced above is not the face of the American Diaspora, though there is an unfortunate perception he represents it due to notoriety. The other question raised is the role of the worldwide Diaspora in a post-Soviet era. Either the Diaspora revisits its mission and embraces a changing world or it will be ignored.
“Two roads diverged in the yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both …
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.”
– Robert Frost
There must be leadership from a new generation. In the past, I’ve penned that the Diaspora must be better equipped at getting out a coherent, sustained message to the Western media as to what it means to be Ukrainian. The Western media still portray Ukraine as some kind of historical aberration of greater Russia. The Diaspora needs a marketing infrastructure with qualified personnel. This requires sophisticated leaders who think outside the box.
In addition, while the Diaspora was very successful in pressing Western governments years ago to address human rights abuses during the Soviet era while maintaining the vibrancy of a non-Russified culture, it has fallen at the cross roads unsure of the direction to take. This underscores the reason why another generation must step forward to guide the worldwide Diaspora in various Western nations.
In another editorial in the Kyiv Post, Jen Sunden the publisher said, “At present, no Diaspora organization is playing an important role in Ukraine.” He’s right. The Diaspora is stuck in a pre-Soviet, anti-Communist mindset that does not lend itself to realities of the present day.
No one, but for the Communists, should be afraid of reform. Change is part of life. In the corporate world, businesses must develop new services and products to stay competitive. An individual must grow spiritually, however broadly one wishes to define it, or he or she loses a part of their humanity. So too must Diaspora organizations be overhauled if they are to be relevant.
As Sunden pointed out, the worldwide Diaspora is composed of many affluent, highly educated individuals who have maintained some type of cultural connection to their ancestral Motherland. It has significant potential to be enormously helpful in today’s Ukraine.
There are many challenges that Ukraine faces that the Diaspora can better address in a positive manner ranging from combating AIDs, fighting anti-Semitism, orchestrating a strategy to end homelessness, fostering a free and independent media, and encouraging civil liberties for all citizens no matter their background. This is not to suggest that such issues aren’t already a concern to some Diaspora Ukrainians. Yet there is no identifiable, coherent strategy to assist on such social and cultural issues because the focus still remains on the past.
It is naive to believe that President Putin or Kremlin bureaucrats have given up on exploiting or influencing Ukraine. Hence, it is pragmatic to remain watchful regarding the Russian government’s motives and for the Diaspora to be ready to offer a measured, appropriate political response if merited. Its focus, however, must remain on Ukraine’s new beginning with both the challenges and many wonderful opportunities ahead.
The Soviet Union is dead. There is a new world order. Let the Diaspora’s political activism begin anew.
Hopefully, this commentary along with the others that have come before it, will encourage ongoing dialogue about the urgent need for fresh leadership and the shifting of Diaspora economic, political and intellectual resources. It’s possible that many of the current Diaspora organizations and those identified as leaders are unable to meet the challenges of a post-Soviet, post-Kuchma Ukraine. If that is the case, then it’s time to consider starting new organizations leaving the old ones to implode from their own irrelevance.
Bishop Paul Peter Jesep is Chancellor of the Archeparchy, Vicar General of Public Affairs and Government Relations and Episcopal Vicar of Colombia and Venezuela in the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church Sobornopravna of North and South America. His Grace, a lawyer and political scientist by training, has studied at Bangor Theological Seminary (bts.edu), the third oldest such school in the United States. He is also a former aide to U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). The views expressed here are strictly personal.