With independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, everything in Ukraine fell apart and reassembled: politics, economics, social ethics, education, identity. Friends of mine in Pereyaslav, both teachers, told me about how their whole retirement savings, set aside over two decades, had vanished. They pulled their old Soviet bank passbook off a shelf, like a curious heirloom, and showed me their savings account balance, unchanged since 1991 and completely worthless. Their savings were in a currency independent Ukraine no longer used, while their bank was an institution to which Russia no longer felt any responsibility. Independence gave both Russia and Ukraine an opportunity to rob, or at least abandon, them and millions of others.
My friends just shrugged.
More telling, however, was their response to my question, did they ever wish the Soviet Union hadn’t broken up?
“No. Absolutely not!”
Considering all the hardships, the collapsed economy, the political corruption, the uncertainty and insecurity, why on earth would you not long for the more stable and secure days gone by?
“Because we had no freedom.”
Suddenly, all the rhetorical exhortations I have heard about the value of freedom in America seemed nothing more than lip service, like excuses for irresponsibility or license. Here were two life-long educators who had lost their life savings, lost their retirement pension, lost most of the value of their salaries, lost any hope that they could relax and age with dignity and security, and when offered the choice between recovering what they had lost or taking a chance on an unknown future with the dubious benefit of personal liberty, they chose the latter. What could explain that other than an intense love of life, in all its messiness, and an equally intense hope for a better future?
So I went back to Pullman and applied for a grant to fund an exchange program to link these remarkable people with a bunch of equally remarkable folks at Washington State University. Since then, three dozen professors and graduate students from 14 different departments at WSU have joined the effort to help four university partner institutions in Ukraine create several introductory courses in “American Studies”—a subject of great interest in all the former Soviet republics.
Our task in this academic collaboration is not really to assist their slow and uncertain revolution—although in some small way we are doing just that. Nor is it to judge its progress—even though judgments are impossible to avoid. Rather, we are there to help Ukrainian universities build a library of resources and concepts that can be used to teach the new generation of Ukrainian students something substantive and meaningful about America as a nation, to feed their almost insatiable curiosity about the place that spawned Microsoft, Michael Jordan, Madison Avenue, and Madonna.
The U.S. State Department, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, funds this curriculum project, as well hundreds of similar educational partnerships all over the world. It is one government program even a cynic can laud. International educational collaborations do more to open one’s mind—and heart—than just about any other experience available, and the personal contacts promote understanding, empathy, and cooperative relations among the partner nations. In teaching American studies in Ukraine, the United States has many lessons to offer a society undergoing dramatic reform, both in terms of its successes as well as its many mistakes and failures. Learning how to explain America—the light and the shadows—to an audience of people who have never been in this country, and to make those lessons relevant to a people rebuilding their nation literally from scratch, has revolutionized my own teaching and my view of myself and my country. I am grateful to have participated in a small but meaningful way in Ukraine’s revolution.
The breadbasket of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine is a huge country by European standards, slightly larger than France, with not quite 60 million people, some of the richest soils in Eurasia, formerly extensive industries, and a national history that goes back 1,500 years. Extremely proud of their history, Ukrainians have a deep streak of irritation embedded in their nationalism. For most of their history they have been subjugated under one or another powerful neighboring nation or invaded by some marauding foreign power: the Tatars, Mongols, Poles, Russians, Nazis.
Over more than a thousand years of continuous occupation, Ukrainians have experienced not much more than 100 years of independence. Although the past is not much of a model for remaking Ukrainian society, tradition is the most powerful force of cultural cohesion in Ukraine. Ukrainians draw strength from this tradition to define independence. But what will independence bring? What will Ukrainians make of this opportune moment? Indeed, what does “independence” even mean in the context of today’s powerful trends toward globalization? Will self-rule and cultural survival gain ground, or will Ukraine become politically subordinate, economically dependent, and culturally marginal to the new world order?
A fascinating challenge of this project is to find ways to make the study of America accessible, interesting, and instructive to Ukrainians. The audience is entirely different from the typical classroom at WSU, and the delivery of information must consequently be custom-tailored. There are language barriers, cultural differences, a naïveté about the U.S. among students due to the fact that virtually none of them have ever been to America, yet all of them have media-generated images and assumptions about this most visible of nations.
There is an unavoidable gulf between visiting WSU faculty and the Ukrainian students and faculty, a profound sense of difference and of inequity. At the same time, there is a lulling, sometimes deceptive, feeling of connection, of familiarity, of solidarity. Ukrainians are among the most generous, hospitable, and open-hearted people I have ever met, despite a tendency among themselves toward factionalism. The students are eager to learn, faculty committed to enhancing their teaching skills. This all makes teaching there both a pleasure and a challenge.
But our worlds are so different. How do you construct a lesson on race relations in America for a country that is 95-percent ethnic Ukrainian and Russian? How do you teach, in four lectures, the basic political institutions of the United States as they evolved over 200 years? How can you explain in a week of lectures the market-based but highly regulated American economic system to an audience of Ukrainian business students emerging from a socialist command and control economy? Which American authors should they be introduced to? How do you offer a reasonable criticism of America’s consumer culture to an audience waiting desperately and impatiently for access to basic consumer goods that we take for granted here?
The challenge forces us to rethink what we teach and how we teach. In the process, we gain the opportunity to see our own country through the eyes of another culture. Above everything else, we get to assist another nation in its struggle for independence, peace, justice, and responsible development.
How do you construct a lesson on race relations in America for a country that is 95-percent ethnic Ukrainian and Russian? How do you teach, in four lectures, the basic political institutions of the United States as they evolved over 200 years?
Paul Hirt is an associate professor of history and the director of the WSU-Ukraine Exchange Program for International American Studies Curriculum Development.