Tag Archives: Russia

Book Review: Diane Chandler, “The Road to Donetsk”

I was recently contacted by Blackbird Digital Books to read and review a new digitally published novel, Diane Chandler’s The Road to Donetsk. I received a free digital copy of the book and no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Photo from Google Images

In May 1994, fresh-faced 26-year-old Vanessa arrives in newly independent Ukraine from Manchester, England for her first international aid stint. From Kyiv (Chandler spells it Kiev, the Russian transliteration) Vanessa will oversee the implementation of a £3 billion program to help set up job centers and training to battle rising unemployment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One of the first non-Ukrainians that Vanessa meets in Kyiv is Dan, an American working for USAID in Ukraine. Before Vanessa is properly introduced, we find ourselves in a propellor plane with her and Dan, on a last-minute trip to Donetsk for a coal mine tour. (Donetsk and its people, we quickly sense, will become a central part of the novel’s narrative.) Vanessa is immediately attracted to Dan’s relaxed American charm, and it does not take long before a romance develops. However, for the first third of the book the romance feels forced and awkwardly dropped into the otherwise fascinating and insightful commentary on Ukraine in its early days of independence.

Chandler vividly and accurately depicts Ukraine in its many guises: simple, sparkling yet laborious village life alongside grim and grimy underpaid miners; expat communities in Kyiv; vast steppe and birch forests; crumbling balconies and garish curtains; complex people who are hard to get to know. Chandler knows her stuff, having managed aid programs in Ukraine around the time she sets the novel. Vanessa’s story at times reads like Chandler’s memoir, so accurately and sensitively does the author portray Ukraine.

Vanessa begins her time in Ukraine as a stereotypical self-professed altruist; she feels a need to “help improve” the lives of the Ukrainians and yet shies away from learning from the people, about the people. Dan emerges as her mentor as well as her lover, feeding her astute commentary such as:

…it’s the way it is here. They expect you to come up with the answers. They always come prepared with their set piece, they toss a problem in the air and then they sit back wanting you to fix it for them. [..] Look, in the Soviet Union, you didn’t speak out, you didn’t offer solutions… (69)

Myriad cultural differences lie under the surface, differences so ingrained into each culture that Vanessa needs all the help she can get to begin to understand them. A surly Ukrainian colleague on the aid program staff helps dispel Vanessa’s naivety:

But do you really expect that we should welcome you here as missionaries? To show us the right ways? If so then you are misled. Because we are more clever than you. Have you any idea of the intelligence we needed simply to survive under communist regime? (355)

This could not be a more timely book, highlighting Ukraine’s precarious position between Russia and Western Europe that has been the case for much of history. This position is particularly relevant since the Euromaidan demonstrations starting in 2013 that have led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. In the context of the novel, a Ukrainian tells Vanessa at one point that Ukraine stands “at the crossroads between East and West, we are the prize which you and Russia fight over. It is like a tug of war” (354). How times have not changed.

As Vanessa struggles with her position as a western aid facilitator in a complicated country, her romance with Dan also develops its own complexities. The novel’s romantic elements start to feel less forced as Vanessa’s attraction to Dan develops a balance between Dan as a more experienced mentor in the aid world and Vanessa’s fresh, somewhat naive take on it. Recalling that this story is told as an older Vanessa’s memories, we start to sense that something may happen to doom the relationship. Will Ukraine get in the way?

Overall, Chandler’s novel is insightful and enjoyable to read. There are some inconsistencies, such as when Ukraine’s Independence Day is stated as August 25th (it is actually the 24th). I  also found some of the British slang stilted: Vanessa sits “keening silently”; why not just “weeping”? Despite these rough patches, The Road to Donetsk improves greatly after the first third and illuminates important and timely aspects of the aid world.

My reading experience was further enhanced by having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I often identified with Vanessa’s feelings and observations about the Ukrainian people and their lives. For example, I never did discover the answer to this conundrum:

…the young for the most part attractive and svelte, while the older peasant women had become almost tubular with age, their skin gnarled. At what point did this transformation happen? I wondered… (150)

Discussion of how Vanessa’s aid program impacts the country and people at the grassroots level also struck a chord with me, as this is what the Peace Corps aims to do in sending out volunteers to communities around a country. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) strive to “walk alongside” the people to foster cross-cultural connections and transfer skills. I remember having similar feelings to Vanessa upon reading this passage near the end of the novel:

That we expect a programme to bring about a lasting and yet so radical change in three short years is unfathomable for me – although I did genuinely expect this back then. […] All those people who came into contact with our programme took with them skills and experience into the local economy, into their future… (383)

Many PCVs begin their service with expectations like Vanessa’s; however, we soon learn that despite all the grants we write and trainings we lead, implementing something sustainable in a country with such a different history, culture, and mindset can be nearly impossible. But the people who do come into contact with a PCV or other aid program take away skills and experience, along with memories, into their futures. The exchange is mutual and it changes us for the better.

———

The Road to Donetsk has been named a Finalist for this year’s People’s Book Prize. You can purchase Diane Chandler’s novel from Amazon UK and Waterstones. Many thanks to Blackbird Digital Books for the opportunity to read and review this fascinating novel.

 

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Unrest in Ukraine

The protests started when Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president, announced at the last minute that he wouldn’t sign an association agreement with the EU. There had been build-up to the Vilnius summit for months, and things looked positive for Ukraine’s signing the agreement, which would have granted Ukraine free trade with the EU and done other good political things — until Yanukovych abruptly backpedaled. He claimed that pressure from Russia (i.e., Putin) was too strong and he was afraid that signing the agreement would piss Putin off. Yet as I see it, Ukraine would benefit much more from free trade with the EU, and from the agreement’s implication of moving Ukraine closer toward integration with western Europe.

Apparently many Ukrainians shared my thoughts, because they took to the streets in Kyiv and around the country to protest Yanukovych’s backing down from signing the agreement. At the end of last week, the peaceful protests turned violent when riot police showed up in the middle of the night and started beating protestors. That only made people come out in greater numbers. More than ten days later, the protests are still going on; hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are out in the streets. Protests are still going on in Ukraine and elsewhere — even London.

Media is playing a big role in aiding the protests; tons of stuff is being blasted out via Facebook and online news platforms. The main marker being used for the protest movement is Євромайдан (“Euromaidan”), to represent people gathering in “maidans,” or squares — most largely in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) — to protest in favor of moving closer to Europe.

It’s thrilling to watch the Ukrainian people fight so hard for democracy and freedom that being associated more closely with the EU would represent. Part of me wishes I were there to join in — living and working in western Ukraine for two years during my Peace Corps service definitely turned me into a big supporter of the country and its people. Sniatyn even had their own pro-EU gathering a couple of days ago, which I would’ve loved to attend. I am rooting so hard for the Ukrainians, following the news closely, and hoping that things turn out well.

That’s a very basic summary, but there is a lot of history behind the current movement — most notably the 2004 Orange Revolution, but also going further back to Soviet and pre-Soviet times. If you want to read more about what’s been going on and why, check out some of the articles below; I’ve tried to pull out the most interesting bits, but many of them are worth reading in full.

  • For some backgroundThe New York Times ran a clear, succinct opinion piece near the beginning of the protests, called “Ukraine on the Brink.” I recommend reading that first to understand where all of this comes from in Ukraine’s history. Business Insider‘s “Why 1 Million Ukrainians are Protesting” also gives a relatively non-biased overview, complete with media, of the protests and the history behind them. Forbes published another great overview, “Why Ukraine Matters” (for a lot of reasons!), in neat sections.
  • “Ukraine’s Battle for Europe” focuses on the younger generation of Ukrainians leading the protests and how mass media has aided the movement. The writer of the piece, Oleh Kotsyuba, puts it well:

The protesters have at times called for resignations, impeachments and new elections. But what’s most striking is their association of Europe with a set of values that results in absence of corruption, a strong social safety net, an inclusive health-care system, fair wages, a stable currency and a responsible government that delivers reliable services and treats citizens with respect. For them, these were even more valuable than the tangible benefits of joining the E.U., like the right to work in other European countries and the prospect of big European investments in Ukraine.

What the European Union and other Western nations can do is to start looking into ways to make an “association agreement” with Ukraine less threatening to Russia. It’s worth exploring, for instance, whether Russia itself could be brought more closely into the European fold. Another possibility is to see how freer trade with Europe could be made compatible with Ukraine’s eastern trade ties. Once Ukraine is ready to start looking around, it should not again have to face a brutal either-or choice that Mr. Putin seems determined to impose.

Six months ago, a dozen Ukrainians would have been unlikely to rally for the pro-EU agreement. What changed? Certainly, Friday’s crackdown provided a spark.

For that, Yanukovich may have no one to blame but himself. The president’s own propaganda machine spent months touting the benefits of the EU agreement, raising the hopes of millions of Ukrainians who want to see their country as part of a European, not Russian, frontier. Whether Yanukovich intended to sign the accords or was negotiating with Putin all along is irrelevant now. Dashing the hopes of millions of people is a dangerous game.

[…] When fear of a strongman begins to melt, so does his power. Seeing hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Kiev may have emboldened members of the country’s elite to begin to move against the president. Ukraine’s rapacious [oligarchs] may—for the first time—have found common ground with their increasingly impoverished compatriots in getting rid of a tyrant.

  • Here’s an interesting angle: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Kyiv Patriarchate, traditionally tied quite closely to the government, is actually supporting the pro-EU protestors. Read about it in “Kiev Protestors See Potent Ally Under a Spire.”
  • Masha Gessen, one of my favorite opinion writers for The New York Times who also happens to be Russian, wrote “A Whiter Shade of Envy” about how the Russian intelligentsia are amazed at — and admire — what the Ukrainians are doing and (hopefully) accomplishing. Gessen’s essays are always worth reading.
  • In “Amid Unrest, Ukrainian President Defends Choice on Accords,” you can read about the lame excuses (lies?) that Yanukovych made up about why he didn’t sign the EU association agreement.
  • “Crackdown in Kiev: Battle for Ukraine” in The Economist focuses on the violence that broke out last weekend, initiated by special riot police at the cowardly hours of early morning.
  • For fear of seeming totally biased in favor of Ukraine (which I am, but still), there was an op-ed published this week in the New York Times taking a more pro-Russia — or at least anti-EU — stance in terms of Ukraine’s position. The author or “How the E.U. Pushed Ukraine East” does make some interesting points about how Russia isn’t totally to blame in Yanukovych’s failure to sign the EU association agreement. Worth a read, if you’re interested in another perspective. Though I don’t agree with all of it, I do see the value of the claim that “Instead of adopting a strategy that would have allowed Ukraine to capitalize on its close cultural, religious and economic ties with Russia, and which could have also served to build deeper ties between Western Europe and Russia, from the outset European negotiators went out of their way to turn Union association into a loyalty test.” 

Things are happening fast and there are tons of news updates every day — way too many for me to follow them all, but I’m trying to stay as up-to-date as I can. Hopefully my overview will give you a better sense of what’s happening and spark your interest to pay more attention to Ukraine, now and in the future.

News Roundup: Mid-November 2013

It’s November. That means many cold, gray, rainy days. But lots of interesting reading has helped keep me warm when it’s miserable outside. This month’s News Roundup includes some juicy stuff related to Ukraine (my country of Peace Corps service), classical music and success, the importance of libraries, sex and healthcare, and cycling. Read on, follow the links for the full articles, and leave a comment with your thoughts.

Ukraine & Eastern Europe

  • A few weeks ago, the New York Times Travel section featured a lovely piece, “Lviv’s, and a Family’s, Stories in Architecture.”  L’viv, the unofficial capital of western Ukraine, has a fascinating history, having been variously controlled and inhabited by different ethnic and religious groups. The article does a wonderful job of reading L’viv’s history through its architecture, as evidenced by this excerpt (it really is a beautiful city and worth visiting):

A short walk through the city’s historic center would take me past buildings that reflect contributions of its Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Armenian and German communities, all of which had roots going back to the late Middle Ages. I saw churches from the many different denominations that shaped this city’s skyline: a squat Armenian cathedral from the 14th century with a jumble of intersecting roofs; a huge 17th-century Baroque church built by the Jesuits and modeled on the Church of the Gesù in Rome; Ukrainian Orthodox three-dome churches.

  • Here’s another interesting article on L’viv, from Germany’s Die Zeit, “Flucht vor dem Kopfsteinpflaster” (“Escape from the cobblestones”). Apparently L’viv has proclaimed itself the cycling capital of Ukraine. The author discovers that’s not saying much, but there is one man who has a dream to create over 250km of bike lanes in Ukraine by 2020. Having been to L’viv a few times, I can say they have a long way to go, but it’s not impossible to try and make cycling in the city more popular. Good for them.
  • Speaking of Ukraine, the first Sunday in October was Teachers’ Day, for which Ukrainian schools go all-out. I’ve written before about my experiences of Teachers’ Day in Ukraine. The Oxford University Press blog also has a nice article about it, “Celebrating World Teachers’ Day,” that talks about the importance of teachers and teaching literacy.
  • “Comparing The United States to Ukraine” is a fascinating look at the two countries; the former of which I am a native, the latter where I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Ukrainians used to ask me, “what you do like better, Ukraine or the US?” — this comparison really shows the plusses and minuses for both countries; in many ways they’re hard to compare. (Thanks to fellow Sniatyns’kyy Rayon PCV Sarah for bringing this to my attention.)
  • “The Russia Left Behind” is a moving look at the slow decline of small Russian villages along the road from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It’s also a great piece of multimedia journalism, with videos, slide shows, and maps as you travel the route along with the authors.
  • This BuzzFeed list, “17 Bizarre Foods Every Russian Grew Up With,” is great because I know many of the foods from Ukraine. The only food I’m not familiar with is #13 (kishka). My favorites are #15 (vinaigrette) and #2 (“fur coat” salad, which actually grows on you despite how weird it sounds). Salo (#7) and kholodets (#6): not so much!

Music

  • “21 of the best insults in classical music” is just a good piece of fun — I found most of these completely hilarious.
  • In more serious music news, “Is Music the Key to Success?” is a great piece from the NY Times. The author cites a bunch of famous and successful people who studied music at some point in their lives. Having studied a bit of music myself, I can agree about “[T]he qualities…high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideasMusic may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.”

Humanities

  • And the humanities debate continues…This month, the NY Times featured a set of letters from education professionals around the country on the “Role of Humanities, in School and Life.” I was pleased to see that the President of my alma mater (Oberlin College), Marvin Krislov, contributed a letter in which he said:

I have seen how studying English, history, art and languages gives our students entree into cultures and callings. By connecting diverse ideas and themes across academic disciplines, humanities students learn to better reason and analyze, and to communicate their knowledge, creativity and ideas.

[W]e have an obligation to read for pleasure…If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. […]

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. […]

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language…we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

Sex & Healthcare

  • Here’s a fascinating Guardian article on “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” The author cites some alarming statistics and notes that, “Marriage has become a minefield of unattractive choices. Japanese men have become less career-driven, and less solvent, as lifetime job security has waned. Japanese women have become more independent and ambitious. Yet conservative attitudes in the home and workplace persist. Japan’s punishing corporate world makes it almost impossible for women to combine a career and family, while children are unaffordable unless both parents work. Cohabiting or unmarried parenthood is still unusual, dogged by…disapproval.” The entire article is worth reading.
  • Along similar lines, also from The Guardian: “Why young women are going off the pill and onto contraception voodoo.” This is so scary! Please, ladies (and gents), use real, scientifically-proven birth control. No, the pull-out method is not a reliable form of contraception. I leave you with a somewhat stocking excerpt:

[M]ore than half of the unintended pregnancies in the US occur among the 10.7% of women who use no contraceptive method at all…This finding comes only a few months after a study carried out by…Dr Annie Dude at Duke University. Dr Dude’s findings revealed that 31% of young women in America aged between 15 and 24 had relied on the pull-out method at least once. Unsurprisingly, these women were 7.5% more likely to rely on emergency contraception than others and…of those who relied on the pull-out method, 21% had become pregnant. Apparently, these women had never heard the old joke: you know what you call a couple who use the rhythm and pull-out methods? Parents.

  • In the US, the “Obamacare” debate and issues continue. I don’t know why so many people need convincing that it is important for everyone to have healthcare access. Nicholas Kristof, in “This is Why We Need Obamacare,” says it better than I can: “While some Americans get superb care, tens of millions without insurance get marginal care. That’s one reason life expectancy is relatively low in America, and child mortality is twice as high as in some European countries. Now that’s a scandal.”

Cycling

[T]here is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene. When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, “Oh, well, accidents happen.” If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, “Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,” that will most likely be good enough.

News Roundup: Sushi, Food Stamps, Shakespeare & Three Sisters

As we move into October (October already?!), here’s a roundup of what I’ve been reading and thinking about over the past month. Click the links to access the full articles. Thanks for reading, and please post your comments/questions/requests below!

Upcoming posts: more recipes (squash, anyone?), an overview of my MA program, and two reflective/retrospective Peace Corps-related musings.

Just for Fun

  • I’m making my way through George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books, after having seen the first three seasons of the HBO series. It’s kind of fun to read the books after having seen the series; it’s filled in a lot of gaps that I remember being confused about. Anyway, if you have read and/or seen Game of Thrones, you’ll get a kick out of this hip hop remix.
  • Runner’s World periodically posts (humorous) “motivational posters.” This one is a recent favorite.
  • Oh, programmatic music! “The 1812 Overture: an attempted narration” from the Oxford University Press blog, took me right back to Music of the Romantic Era. Give it a read/listen — it’s good fun.

Education

  • “Three Sisters (Not Chekhov’s)”  is an astute NY Times op-ed by Joe Nocera on the US’s system for educating teachers, which seems to have a lot to be desired. Granted, I have not been an education student in the US, but from what I’ve read, and what Nocera says, there is too little classroom practice and too much theory. How about schools actually teach how to teach? Nocera notes,

Melinda recalls thinking that even the most basic elements of her job — classroom management, organization, lesson planning — were things she had to figure out on her own, after she had begun teaching. When I asked them what they had learned in college, they shouted in unison: theory! (Denise went on to get a master’s degree in education, which she laughingly described as “not exactly hands-on.”)

America & The World

  • As you probably know, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine from 2010-2012. We were technically employed (but not, since we were volunteers) by — or “serving” — the US Government. Yet it felt strange to say that. “What it Means to Serve your Country” addresses just this: that we think of “serving your country” as something military-related. I’ll let this excerpt speak for itself:

…for thousands of diplomats, intelligence professionals, Peace Corps Volunteers, AmeriCorps VISTA members, firefighters, policemen, and others working to improve communities around the nation, it would be awkward to say “I served my country.” It shouldn’t be. Service to country isn’t linked to combat.

[…]

Serving my country means that I gave up the normal progression of my life–high school, college, work–to do something whose end was civic. The same could be said for the veterans of many other types of national service.

  • “Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi” is an excellent piece of journalism on the former sushi chef for North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. Even if you care nothing for the politics, read it for the fascinating story and quality of writing/reporting.
  • “Panera CEO learns about hunger on his food stamp diet”– the article title is pretty self-explanatory. Food stamps are part of a really important program in the States for people who live below the poverty line. This article made me like Panera even more than I already do. A sampling:

We, in corporate America, must be part of the solution. At Panera, we have tried to stretch ourselves to think of how to address hunger in new ways and challenge others to do the same. We have developed five nonprofit “Panera Cares” community cafes with no set prices and have donated hundreds of millions of dollars in products to food banks. Our view is that unless we at Panera take care of the world that we live in, there won’t be any society left to support us. If the past week has taught me anything, it’s that hunger is not a problem of “them,” it’s a problem of “us.” Hunger exists in every community, in every county, in every state.

Literature & Life

  • Charles Isherwood over at the NY Times has a thought-provoking article called “To Renovate or Not To Renovate?” Isherwood discusses theatre productions of Shakespeare plays and muses about the benefits and detriments to setting Shakespeare plays in modern times. An interesting read.
  • “Embracing Revision” is a piece from The Equals Record with wise words for writing and life that I connected with:

If I have learned one thing about the practice of writing, it is that the magic happens in revision. It is in returning to words that have already been laid out—turning them over, taking them apart, and rearranging them—that I discover what I really meant all along. And if I have learned one thing from this book thus far, it is that revision is a thing to embrace in life too.

We cannot tell where we are destined to end up and who we are destined to be. Yet, we can count on returning, again and again, to some of the people and places and ways of being we have already encountered. Each day is not simply a new bead on a tenuous string of life. Rather, each day is a revision of the last, and today is a first draft for tomorrow.

Russia

  • “Russia Leans on its Neighbors” talks about how much Russia is bullying the former Soviet republics not to sign trade alliances with the EU. Having lived in western (EU-leaning) Ukraine, this bullying infuriates me. Not to mention, the US is hardly taking any stand against Russia’s behavior. Here’s a taste:

The Kremlin openly dismisses its neighbors’ independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Glazyev…called the idea of Ukraine’s desire to take a European course an act of “sick self-delusion.” Only the European Union reprimanded Russia for the move against Ukraine. The United States remained silent. The failure of Washington and the European Union to articulate a coherent policy for Eastern Europe, Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia has been interpreted by Moscow as a tacit recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union — and license for Moscow to seek renewed hegemony there.

The stakes are high. Even if Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan and the rest are not paragons of liberal democracy, their independence and security should be in the interest of the United States and its allies in Europe.

News Roundup: Food, Culture, Taxes, & Telecommuting

There has been lots going on in the national and international news since my last news roundup. Allow me to walk you though the articles that most strongly caught my eye in the last month and a half. We’ll cover everything from economy, taxes, and class to food, arts, Ukraine, and telecommuting. I’ve tried to categorize them so you can skip sections that don’t interest you. As always, click the links through to read the full articles.

Economic Segregation & Equal Opportunity

  • Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth is an insightful opinion piece by Joseph E. Stiglitz about the near-impossibility of social mobility in America today. It’s really worth a read — I’ll leave you with his words to spark your interest:

“It’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity. According to research from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia. […] After 1980, the poor grew poorer, the middle stagnated, and the top did better and better. Disparities widened between those living in poor localities and those living in rich suburbs — or rich enough to send their kids to private schools. A result was a widening gap in educational performance — the achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40 percent larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier, the Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon found.”

  • On the note of wide economic gaps, watch this short film about the distribution of income in the US. It is shocking and even a bit disgusting but necessary to know so we can try to change it.
  • And again, because of the appalling income distribution in the US, Why Taxes Have to Go Up (for the richest of the rich):

“As it happens, those taxpayers are the same ones who benefited most from Bush-era tax breaks and who continue to pay low taxes. Even with recent increases, the new top rate of 39.6 percent is historically low; investment income is still taxed at special low rates; and the heirs of multimillion-dollar estates face lower taxes than at almost any time in modern memory. […] On the spending side, Republicans are resisting cuts to defense. That implies brutalizing cuts in nondefense discretionary areas, like education and environment, which are already set to fall to their lowest level as a share of the economy since the 1950s.”

Food and Healthy Eating

  • This in an interesting piece from The Atlantic about how Americans spend money on food.
  • You’ve probably heard about how good the “Mediterranean diet” is for you. Well, it’s true! Yet another study as affirmed that a diet rich in healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish, and wine may prevent diseases and help you live longer. Mark Bittman writes this nice column about how the Mediterranean diet is really just synonymous with eating real, fresh food. In his words, “What’s new is all the junk that been injected into our foods and our diet since the end of World War II. What’s not new is that eating real food is good for you.”
  • Staying on the “real food” kick, Bittman also has a great piece in the NY Times Magazine from the weekend of April 6th. He examines fast food and asks if it’s possible to have healthy fast food. The answer? Yes, but it’s going to be tricky to balance fast with cheap with healthy.

“…there’s now a market for a fast-food chain that’s not only healthful itself, but vegetarian-friendly, sustainable and even humane. And, this being fast food: cheap. […] What I’d like is a place that serves only good options, where you don’t have to resist the junk food to order well, and where the food is real — by which I mean dishes that generally contain few ingredients and are recognizable to everyone, not just food technologists.”

Peace Corps & Ukraine

  • I will continue to advocate for the Peace Corps for as long as I live. My Ukraine experiences were unforgettable. This Huffington Post article, called “Not Your Parents’ Peace Corps” (that’s certainly true — and I would know! My dad was a PCV in Tanzania in the ’60s), mentions the impact that today’s PCVs can have, both in their countries of service but maybe even more so back at home:

“‘The impact of Peace Corps service lasts a lifetime.’ Living and working in villages and communities far from home, volunteers learn to see the world in new ways and to communicate in new languages, to adapt to new environments, manage teams, troubleshoot obstacles and organize large-scale initiatives. Put simply, the Peace Corps is a life-defining leadership experience and launching pad for a 21st century career.”

  • This is a wonderful short film of Ukraine, made by a couple who spent some time cycling through (mostly) western Ukraine. Sniatyn doesn’t appear, but you will see shots in Kolomiya, the next biggest city, and the beautiful Carpathian Mountains. This video made me miss Ukraine.
  • In not-so-chipper news, Ukraine continues to struggle to define its position between Russia and the E.U. If you’re interested in the political side, read this opinion piece.

“…the E.U. would like to sign and ratify an Association Agreement with Ukraine by the time of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November. For this to happen, the E.U. is looking for progress in Ukraine’s handling of three issues: prevention of selective justice, elections with international standards, and other reforms as defined in a jointly agreed Association Agenda. […] The most persuasive steps that the Yanukovich administration could take would be to free Tymoshenko and Lutsenko. […] An Association Agreement with Ukraine serves fundamental E.U. interests. It would also serve the interests of the people of Ukraine and increase the chances that Ukraine undertakes necessary political and economic reforms.”

Music & Literature

“Beethoven’s music is too often seen as exclusively dramatic, expressive of titanic struggle. In this respect, the “Eroica” and the Fifth symphonies represent only one side of his work; one must also appreciate, for example, his “Pastoral” Symphony. His music is both introverted and extroverted and it again and again juxtaposes these qualities. The one human trait that is not present in his music is superficiality. Nor can it be characterized as shy or cute. On the contrary, even when it is intimate, as in the Fourth Piano Concerto and the “Pastoral” Symphony, it has an element of grandeur. And when it is grand, it also remains intensely personal, the obvious example being the Ninth Symphony.”

  • Another NY Times Magazine feature article, this time on “The Epic Ups and Downs of Peter Gelb,” the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager. Worth reading, if you are at all interested in the classical music and opera world.
  • As an English major, I was struck by this piece on the value of teaching how to write through literature. I love this:

“The question “What was your favorite moment in a story?” is an easy entry point for both a student schooled in the finest prep academy and a science major straight out of a substandard district. Anyone can find a favorite line. Placing further pressure on those lines — Why did you like it? What changed at that moment that brought energy to the text? — can help students trust their instincts: they were on to something! It’s a less intimidating approach to literature, free from the burden of historical background and devoid of grad-school jargon.”

Women’s Rights & Telecommuting

  • I’m sure you’ve caught wind of the telecommuting debate (to allow it, or not to allow it?) sparked by the new Yahoo CEO who banned it. I completely disagree with her decision, both from my own experience and for many of the reasons stated in the article: “[…] numerous studies show[] that telecommuting workers are more productive than those working on-site. […] a work force culture based on long hours at the office with little regard for family or community does not inevitably lead to strong productivity or innovation.” There are, of course, good reasons for working regularly in an office setting amongst other people, but there are also many reasons for a company to allow employees some flexibility in where they work some of the time.
  • A smart opinion piece urging the UN to take a stance on violence against women. I particularly agree with this: “Violence against women must be seen as a human rights issue, and that has nothing to do with culture or religion.”

Just For Fun

  • Those of you interested in languages and word origins should look at this, “Visualizing English Word Origins.” 
  • A dense but worth-reading excerpt by the late philosopher Ronal Dworkin’s forthcoming book, Religion Without God.
  • “Diagnosis: Human” is an op-ed on today’s over-diagnosis of ADHD and excessive diagnoses of other disorders. The author argues that, rather than trying to diagnose every little thing — too much energy, depression from grieving — we should remember that we are, after all, human and are therefore allowed to — and should — experience human emotions:

“Ours is an age in which the airwaves and media are one large drug emporium that claims to fix everything from sleep to sex. I fear that being human is itself fast becoming a condition. It’s as if we are trying to contain grief, and the absolute pain of a loss like mine. We have become increasingly disassociated and estranged from the patterns of life and death, uncomfortable with the messiness of our own humanity, aging and, ultimately, mortality.”

 

What have you been reading lately?

Humor break: stereotypes

So the other day my friend Oleh Yaroslavovich, who studies history at university in Chernivtsi and is doing his 2-month teaching practicum at my school, wanted to sit in on my 11th form class. However, my 11th form didn’t show up, so Oleh and I spent an hour having interesting conversations in a mix of Ukrainian and English. At one point Oleh was talking about some funny cultural stereotypes — Russians vs. Ukrainians — and I knew I had to post them on my blog.

Russians, Oleh said, are known for: the balalaika (musical instrument), drinking lots of vodka, bears, матрьошка (those nesting dolls, I think), and the accordion.

Ukrainians, on the other hand, are known for: Cossacks, drinking lots of vodka (only here it’s called horilka), onions/garlic, salo, and the tsymbali (musical instrument).

Which would you choose?

Literary Ukraine

I haven’t written a “fun” (yet educational!) entry in a while, so this one will be on what some famous authors have written about Ukraine (before it was Ukraine, obviously).

After a month-long hiatus (oops!), I’m back to reading Anna Reid’s Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. In chapter three — “The Russian Sea: Donetsk and Odessa” — Reid focuses on the development of Catherine the Great’s “New Russia” (made up of what is today south-eastern Ukraine) in the early 19th century.

To begin, Reid quotes author Nikolay Gogol (1809-1852; Ukrainian Микола Васильович Гоголь) — who was Ukrainian but wrote his novels, short stories and plays in Russian. In the following excerpt from Village Evenings near Dikanka and Mirgorod (1831-35; trans. Christopher English, Oxford, 1995, p. 257), Gogol expounds upon the beauty of the fertile steppe of “New Russia”:

The surface of the earth appeared here like a golden-green ocean, flecked with the colours of a million different flowers. Through the tall, slender stalks peeped pale-blue and lilac cornflowers; the yellow broom thrust its spiky tips upwards; the white clover adorned the surface with its umbrella-like caps; an ear of wheat…stood ripening, deep in the grass. […] The air was filled with the song of a thousand different birds. Hawks hung motionless in the air, their wings spread wide and their keen eyes fixed on the grass. […] With measured strokes of its wings a gull rose from the grass and bathed luxuriously in the deep-blue waves of the air… (Reid 55-56)

Sounds pretty great to me. Some 50-60 years later, Anton Chekhov (at left; 1860-1904; Russian Антон Павлович Чехов) wrote a short story called The Steppe (1888) as what Reid calls “a memorial to a landscape that was vanishing forever” (Reid 56). Chekhov grew up on the Sea of Azov in what is now Ukraine, and below is an excerpt from The Steppe (from The Chekhov Omnibus: Selected Stories, trans. Constance Garnett and Donald Rayfield, London, 1994, p. 32):

You drive on for one hour, for another…You meet upon the way a silent old barrow or a stone figure put up God knows when and by whom; a night bird floats noiselessly over the earth, and little by little those legends of the steppes, the tales of men you have met, the stories of some old nurse from the steppe, and all the things you have managed to see and treasure in your soul, come back to your mind…And in the triumph of beauty, in the exuberance of happiness you are conscious of tension and yearning, as though the steppe knew she was solitary, knew that her wealth and inspiration were wasted for the world, unsung, unwanted; and through the joyful clamour one hears her mournful, hopeless call for singers, singers! (Reid 56-57)

Beautiful. You can read the full text of The Steppe online in Constance Garnett’s translation by clicking the title of the story in this sentence.

After the steppe, Reid moves on to discuss the history of Odessa, a city founded by foreigners on the Black Sea. Something in my brain has had me leaning toward / hoping I’ll be chosen to learn Ukrainian, but after reading about Odessafounded in 1794 by Catherine the Great — I’m beginning to reconsider. Not that I’ll have a language choice anyway. So, why was Odessa a city of foreigners? Well, as Reid tells us, it was brought to reality by a Frenchman, Armand-Emmanuel, Duc de Richelieu (1766-1822; he was great-nephew to the infamous Cardinal Richelieu), who became the first governor of Odessa in 1803 and then of all New Russia. This Richelieu sounds like a great guy: in Odessa, he offered “cheap land, religious toleration and exemption from military service” and thus “attracted persecuted minorities from all over Europe and the empire” (Reid 58-59). Sweet. He was such a mensch that a statue of him in a Roman toga was built at the top of the Odessa Steps:

Hottie! Or just god-like. Take your pick. So this Duc de Richelieu did many good things for Odessa. Even Mark Twain (1835-1910) visited the city in the 1860s and compared it to the American West:

It looked just like an American city; fine broad streets and straight as well; low houses (two or three stories); wide, neat, and free from any quaintness…a stirring business-look about the streets and the stores; fast walkers; a familiar new look about the houses and everything; yea and a driving and smothering cloud of dust that was so like a message from our own dear native land that we could hardly refrain from shedding a few grateful tears and execrations in the old time-honored American way. (Reid 60; from The Innocents Abroad or the New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869), London, 1897, p. 355)

Seems like a pretty hip place, even — or maybe especially — in the 19th century. Russian author Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837; Russian Александр Сергеевич Пушкин) even had his famous Eugene Onegin retire to Odessa, which the latter sums up as follows:

But why succumb to grim emotion? Especially since the local wine / Is duty free and rather fine. / And then there’s Southern sun and ocean. / What more my friends, could you demand? (Reid 61-62; from Eugene Onegin (1825-32), trans. James Falen, Oxford, 1995, p. 223)

And there is more than streets, statues, wine, and sun — there’s music, too! The Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra seems to be quite popular — they have an American music director, Hobart Earle. And, at least when Reid’s book was published in 1997, the city is making an effort to bring back its “multi-ethnic identity,” post-Russification (Reid 62). The Odessa opera house (pictured, right) was built by Austrians in 1887, and Odessan-Jewish novelist Isaac Babel illuminates the city’s musical history: “All the people of our circle — brokers, shopkeepers, bank and steamship office employees — taught their children music” (Reid 62; from Collected Stories, trans. David McDuff, London, 1994, p. 59). This tradition, says Reid, “produced great violinists, among them Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh” (Reid 63).

So basically, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, Odessa — and much of south-eastern Ukraine — sounds awesome. Even if I’m not placed near there, I will definitely make an effort to visit during my service!

And speaking of music, I just bought this recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (the opera based on Pushkin’s novel) on iTunes and ordered the DVD on Netflix so I can experience some Russian-language opera before I leave.