During the political uprising in Ukraine, and just before the Crimean referendum to secede and join Russia, a VCU student spent spring break visiting her family in the troubled nation.
Valentyna Yashchuk, a senior who was born in Ukraine but moved to Virginia Beach in 2005, spent the week with her grandmother, father and half-sister in western Ukraine.
Much of the sprawling countryside was as she remembered it from when she was a child, with small family farms and quaint villages strewn about the 90-minute drive to her grandmother’s house. However, the mood of the politically and economically troubled nation has drastically shifted, Yashchuk said.
“One thing that has changed, I do think that people are afraid,” Yashchuk said. “I feel like everywhere I went the conversation was about the political situation.”
Even hours away from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine and ground zero for the protests and deadly violence, the fragility of the region was noticeable, Yaschuk said.
“Well my grandma’s really worried and so is my dad,” Yashchuk said. “My dad thinks they are going to start a war.”
After flying into Kiev, Yashchuk and her mother spent their first half-day in Ukraine walking around the surprisingly normal-looking capital. She said she wouldn’t have guessed the city was the scene of the riots they had seen on TV until they visited Independence Square, the site of the protests.
“There was one protest going on but most people who were there were just walking around and looking, putting down flowers and saying prayers,” Yashchuk said.
The flowers to honor the dead protesters were piled high in a mountain that looked as large as a small building. Yashchuk said there was an international media presence there but most of the people were doing what she had gone there to do.
“It seemed kind of odd in a way, because it seemed like they were looking in a museum,” Yashchuk said.
As Yashchuk boarded her plane to return to Virginia and finish the semester, the international media captured images of the secession of Crimea from Ukraine.
Reports of Russian troops storming former Ukrainian bases have alarmed many western nations. Lynn Nelson, Ph.D., an international studies professor at VCU, said Russian politics have alarmed U.S. citizens for nearly a century now.
“To some degree we are afraid of Russia as a potential competitor,” Nelson said. “They have a highly trained workforce who knows how to do everything just like ours. You can see lots of reasons why cooperation is hard to find sometimes.”
For George Munro, Ph.D., professor of Russian history at VCU, the results of the Crimean referendum was not surprising because the peninsula was populated mostly by cultural Russians. Munro said there never was much of a permanent Ukrainian presence.
“It’s understandable why most people who live in Crimea feel an emotional tie much greater to Russia than to Ukraine, in part because Ukraine is such a young country,” Munro said. “It’s only 20 years old and has not had time to develop a Ukrainian national consciousness.”
In western Ukraine, Yashchuk said there were talks of boycotting Russian goods in grocery stores despite the already steep food prices in the economically fragile nation.
Many of the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, have had a difficult time recovering from the political and economic instability following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“From the very start, after the break-up of the USSR, the republics were trying to find their way because they weren’t accustomed to making it on their own,” Nelson said. “Even worse than that, their economies were not set up for a capitalist arrangement.”
Yashchuk said she is worried Crimea is just the beginning for Russian President Vladimir Putin, because of the large population of cultural Russians living in eastern Ukraine.
No matter how far Putin advances, Munro said he is not simply reacting to the political strife in Ukraine, but rather acting out a plan for his country.
“He’s a chess player,” Munro said. “And when you play chess, you’re always planning several moves ahead of the other guy.”