Saturday, May 14, 2011

Introducing virtual Maria Sonevytsky

Hey internet, I've made a website called where I'll be logging all of my current and past projects. Please visit me there!

In other fabulous news, I am all set to distribute my dissertation this coming Monday. I cannot express how happy this makes me. I spent a few hours today culling through my photos and collected archival images from 2008-2009, feeling intensely nostalgic. I share with you a few at my random and impetuous choice.

Former PCV Scott Slankard and me on a midsummer hike in Mangup Kale, Crimea.

Me, Franz, and Mykhailo Tafiychuk on our first trip to the Tafiychuk homestead in May 2008. (Photo by Roman Pechizhak)

Milara and I relax on May Day.

Visiting Odosia Plytka-Sorokhan in Kryvorivnia (photo by Oksana Susyak)
An old Polish postcard advertising a kolyba in Hutsul'shchyna. Calisthenics!
An amazing archival image given to me by Rustem Eminov of the Khan's Palace in Bakhchisaray - of a student Crimean Tatar ensemble (that included his grandmother, Zeyneb Lumanova) in 1933 in Simferopol.

There are a billion more, but you'll have to read the diss to see those. Ha! I dare you.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Last (Field)notes

This may be the last I write for some time, since I left Ukraine yesterday and hope to achieve some distance between the last frenzied months of fieldwork and the process of digesting and writing up all the data that will begin next semester back in New York, back at Columbia (and because our 2009 summer Debutante Tour commences tomorrow in the UK!). I’m typing these thoughts as the sun sets behind Wawel Castle in rainy Krakow, in the comfort of my distant cousin’s comfortable 5th floor flat. When I finally crossed the EU border yesterday, I will admit I experienced a rush of relief, and not only because the roads were suddenly free of the potholes that have nearly ruined the shocks on my weathered car. But it was a bittersweet crossing - I left fully aware that my life is moving forward and now away from the dear friends and adopted family that filled up my life over the last eighteen months.

In the last few days, both Ostap and Oksana, two of my closest friends and informants, independent of one another, confronted me about my role as an observer, just an observer. Just an ethnographer. Someone who stays for a while, ingratiates herself in communities of people, then leaves, writes a book in a faraway country in a foreign language to further her career. To what end? they both asked. Their words stung a little, and hit an old but still raw nerve for me, the place where my struggles about how to be a person of action, creating change, making things happen, should intersect with the academic work I do, which often feels too far away from everyday life, too serious or analytical to have an impact on the way the world works.

But I’m grateful that these two managed to strike that nerve again in my last days, because it reminded me of the responsibility that I have to the people whose courage, creativity, and perseverance inspired me over the course of my 18 months of fieldwork, people whose opportunities have been thwarted by the outrageously corrupt system that they live in, yet people who still manage to introduce beauty and art and justice into the world. And their confrontations reminded me of my belief in the power of stories, in the powerful act of creating an archive, a repertoire, a book. Personal, powerful stories can topple history and shape the future. Now it's my job to make them heard.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lady Ethnographer, or, Why The Cossack Didn’t Punch Me

I was sharing a late night tea recently in Rakhiv, a Carpathian town on the Romanian border, with a Peace Corps volunteer, a Fulbrighter based in L’viv, and Vasyl, a Rakhivite eager to try out his English language skills on us three native speakers. He had spent some studying English in America after he won the greencard lottery. We got onto the topic of differences between educational methodologies in Ukraine and the US, which segued onto the topic of patronymics, the formal way that teachers in Ukraine are addressed, i.e. “Hello, Maria Rostyslavivna! (“Maria, daughter of Rostyslav.”) The US contingent complained about the confusion that this breeds in schools where identical names are common, as in Rakhiv school no. 2, where three different Maria Ivanivna’s teach. In America, Vasyl told us, since this patronymic system wasn’t used, he preferred to address his teacher as “Lady Teacher.” To him a sign of respect, to us, somehow funny. “Hello, lady teacher.” He seemed confused at our laughter, so, as we dug deeper into an explanation, we came to the conclusion that it seemed misguidedly flirtatious to American ears. Redundant and idiomatically clumsy, “Lady Teacher” sounds like a vague come on, especially the way he was saying it. Vasyl blinked and smiled mischievously, “Well, what’s wrong with that?” Innocent enough.

I’ve been thinking a lot, in my waning fieldwork days, about the challenges and benefits of being an American “Lady Ethnographer” in Ukraine. My two field sites – Crimea and the Western Ukrainian Carpathians - presented their specific sets of different challenges. But more often than not, the mix of off-color wisecracks, blatant verging on aggressive passes, remarks about the un-lady-like nature of the work I do and the work I should be doing (seemingly alone in the world, 28 years old with no babies to show), the way I drive my beat up car (fast), and so on, made me feel uncomfortable at times, occasionally bemused, pissed off at others. It is too simple to say that I objected to being cast as the weaker sex, because women’s roles in these traditional societies are complex and too demanding to be weak – witness any wrinkled babushka hauling firewood like a lumberjack to understand. And it’s too easy to say that I simply resisted the popular belief that Americans are incompetent at basic life skills, because everything we own comes ready pre-packaged, everything we eat is microwavable, and everything that breaks is disposable and replaceable. But some combination of being cast as a delicate flower and as a helpless Americanka usually made me all the more determined to show that I was tough too, to push to the mountaintop faster, to get plenty of dirt under my fingernails, to cook dinner for the whole family. This led to a few absurdist spectacles - as when I spent three long early spring days doggedly tilling and planting a potato patch in Verkhovyna, pointedly alone, albeit publicly observed and teased by the neighbors and their friends (“Hey, look at the Amerikanka dig!”) - and a few frightening situations, as when I found myself mouthing off against men who held some bigoted or ignorant belief in harsh enough terms that, if I had been a man myself, the final punctuation on the hostile exchange would almost certainly have been my broken nose.

But I am a lady, after all, and you do not hit a lady. (At least, not in public – domestic violence is an entirely separate, ugly fact of gender relations in large segments of Ukrainian traditional societies.)

In the year and a half that I have spent in Ukraine, there have been numerous confrontations in which I have butted heads with worldviews predicated on hate, suspicion, or misinformation. Sometimes these confrontations are productive, carried through by both parties with diplomacy, to where I think I can feel the earth move slightly under my opponent’s feet. But sometimes they are not: they escalate to a fever pitch, to where the stakes seem high enough and the hurt runs deep enough that I can imagine how words might lead to physical violence. The two scariest episodes of such were both in Crimea, both surrounding my response to propaganda against the Crimean Tatars. In both cases, I was relieved to be a lady.

About a month ago, I got into it with a man in Cossack uniform. The setting for our verbal brawl was spectacular: at the foot of the Uspensky Monastery, which is carved into the gravity-defying cliffs above Bakhchisaray. A colleague from Turkey had come to Crimea to attend the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, and following the high-falutin’ “peace and harmony and a brighter future” rhetoric of the opening ceremony at the Khan’s Palace, we decided to blow off the banquet lunch and go, instead, on a hike up past the Russian Orthodox Monastery to the ancient cave city of Chufut-Kale. I stayed behind as he went up to the sanctuary in the caves because I was curious to speak to the “Cossacks” who I had noticed guarding the monastery in recent months. On that day, there were two men wearing military-style uniforms and berets, with badges and insignia linking them to the “KHY” – one of the xenophonic self-appointed “security forces” that are cropping up in various parts of Ukraine. I started up a conversation with the beefier, clearly more senior, of the two. Our exchange went something like this:

MS: [in Ukrainian] Hello, I’ve noticed you here the last few times I’ve visited, and I’m wondering who you are, who sent you…

Cossack: [in Russian] We were invited by the monks to defend their monastery.

MS: Did you invite yourselves or did they reach out to you?

C: We offered our services, and then they invited us.

MS: What is your purpose as an organization?

C: To defend our Motherland, Mother Rus,’ and our glorious religion.

MS: Your badge says you are Ukrainian Cossacks.

C: That’s right, we are. We defend the Ukrainian territory from foreigners, in the name of Mother Rus’.

MS: I’m confused. Do you speak Ukrainian?

C: [visibly annoyed, attempting to speak Ukrainian, but really speaking Russian with a Ukrainian accent.] Yes, but it’s not the language used here. You don’t understand anything, little girl.

MS: Who are you defending the monastery from?

C: [red-faced] You wouldn’t understand, little girl.

MS: I think I might understand, I know a little about this. Can you tell me from whom you’re defending the monastery?

C: [pause, sigh] From the Crimean Tatars. They want to steal it from us.

MS: Really? Who in particular wants to steal the monastery?

C: You don’t understand anything, little girl. You have to have lived here your whole life to understand. Many of their organizations are plotting…

MS: Can you name one such organization?

C: [long pause] The Meijlis.

MS: Ha! The Meijlis wants to steal the monastery! That’s simply not true, sir. You are misinformed.

C: [He is red-faced, a crowd of listeners has gathered around us.] Girlie, you don’t understand anything, They want to steal and take everything, those traitors, as they’ve done for centuries. They want to transform our Crimea into an extremist Islamic caliphate.

MS: [I lose it] Sir, you are operating under a set of xenophobic delusions. Your organization is breeding mistrust and hatred for no reason. This is Slavic supremacy. This is racism, plain and simple.

C: Devotchka! You don’t understand anything!
[He is steaming mad, looks like he wants to hit something, and storms away, starts telling sympathetic ears about the unjust abuse I have heaped upon him. They glare at me, the head-scarved Orthodox women selling honey and the Cossacks. My Turkish friend comes down the stair and I quickly steal him away from the scene, explain what happened down the road and fume for another twenty minutes.]

In retrospect, as in every situation where I’ve lost my cool and angrily confronted a scary (male) bigot, I regret it, because I know that my outburst led to nothing positive, just a rush of adrenaline and a pounding heart. But no change of heart in my opponent - probably just increased irrational hostility towards the perceived enemy and, for those that have known of my citizenship, toward the US, which is largely believed to be churning out its own anti-Russian, pro-NATO and pro-EU propaganda. (Which, to be fair, it was doing openly under the Bush administration. We’re still waiting to see what Obama’s strategy toward Ukraine is.)

Ukraine today is caught between two warring accounts of history, as it is caught between two different attitudes towards otherness, be it gendered, ethnic or raced otherness. In Russia today, Medvedev has taken some alarming steps to institutionalize the revisionism of Soviet history initiated by Putin. In the new revised version, Stalin is rehabilitated as a hero, Hitler’s attempt to take Gdansk is seen as “reasonable” and the fear and terror of the purge eras is underplayed. The flat-out refusal to acknowledge the genocidal Ukrainian Holodomor that took over ten million lives in 1932-33 goes along with the implicit denial of Ukraine as a viable nation. Russian blockbuster epic films like this year’s “Taras Bulba” simplify Gogol’s telling of history to preach a transparently throwback pan-Slavic message: there is no difference between Ukrainian Cossacks and Russian freedom-fighters, we are all Slavic brothers, fighting against the same (Polish/Muslim/NATO/US) enemy. The effect of seeing so many heroicized fallen warriors adhering to a Soviet ideal of masculinity, gurgling blood while they shout “Glory to Mother Rus’! Glory to Russian Orthodoxy!” seems to have had a mild brainwashing effect on many of the film critics whose reviews I read after seeing the bombastic film for myself, since they all seemed to repeat a variation on a theme: we are all Slavic brothers, Ukrainians should realize that. Commercials on Ukrainian television showed enthusiastic viewers proclaiming similar (19th century) visions of pan-Slavic unity after seeing the film.

Isn’t this as eerily transparent as it is familiar? Propaganda is an insidious but also necessarily blunt tool to serve its function of clubbing masses into alternate worldviews. But shouldn’t this also make it easier to dismantle, to deflate the delusion? How do you battle against blatant distortion of the historical record without risking violence, nevermind the obvious conflict of an outsider coming in preaching her own ideological worldview? When do we step back and throw up our hands and feel guilt at our privilege and the entitlements of our citizenship and our attempts to ideologically dominate in a foreign place, and when do we fight for the truth to come to light, for the historical fact to be, at the very least, acknowledged?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Deportation Day, 65 Years

Over dinner in Simferopol with my adopted Crimean Tatar family last week, Ayder, a veteran of the Crimean Tatar human rights war against the USSR, used the term "genocide" to describe the present Ukrainian non-policy towards Crimean Tatars. He cited the attacks by militia groups on Crimean Tatar businesses and homes over the last twenty years, the inadequate implementation of protections for the indigenous people and the minority population, the alarmist attitude towards their Muslim minority group, framed without cause for extremism and denied land permits to build a new sobornaya mechet’, and so on. In my cautious academic way, I suggested that genocide was perhaps too strong a term: as careless and irresponsible as the Ukrainian government has been towards the Crimean Tatars, an indigenous people of Crimea, genocide implies a systematic, violent destruction of an entire ethnic group. It is more sinister than the bumbling indifference of the Ukrainian state. No, he asserted: "we are uncomprehending witnesses to a subtler form of genocide. The Crimean Tatars are being choked out of existence."

No one will dispute that Ukrainians, ethnic or not, face an Augean stable's worth of dirty and seemingly insurmountable problems in their country. Perhaps the struggle of the Crimean Tatars seems marginal. Emphasis goes to the geo-political rifts that have widened again between East and West, Russia and Europe: Westerners stereotyped as rabid Ukrainian nationalists are weary of Easterners depicted as Russian chauvinists. Crimean Tatars - remarkably loyal to the Ukrainian state since they were allowed to return to their ancestral homeland after 50 years in Central Asian exile – are nowhere in the debate. It would do Ukraine well to act in solidarity with the Crimean Tatars. To the essentialists, solidarity with others smells of capitulation, when it is actually a source of strength and communion.

Contrary to the simpleminded slogans of some factions of the Ukrainian right, Ukraine never had a simple purely Slavic story of ethnogenesis. Just like every other nation, it never had only one language, one religion, one monolithic culture. Ukraine is and has always been multi-ethnic. Retrograde policies of essentialist nationalism that exclude precisely the groups that are trying to contribute to and build the Ukrainian state are, sooner or later, going to embitter the excluded. A multi-ethnic Ukraine must exist, and its ideal should not be for stalemate, a platitudinous tolerance; Ukraine must seek a deep acceptance and respect for its diverse minority and indigenous groups. A propos to the Crimean Tatar situation, the Ukrainian government should finally approve a law to grant the indigenous people of the Crimean peninsula rights and protections as a threatened, indigenous people of their ancestral homeland: land rights, education in the native language, an end to religious discrimination, and ultimately, a right to self-determination within the territory of Ukraine.

We can learn from a Hutsul musician who I spoke to a few weeks ago, during the Easter holidays. We sat in his ancient Volga as he played me old cassette tapes and told me his deportation story. His family had been deported to Siberia during the war and not allowed to resettle in the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast until the 1970s. Reading about the Crimean Tatar non-violent resistance of the 20th century, their fierce support of the Orange revolution in 2004, and their annual celebration of Taras Shevchenko's birthday, he asked me for a recording of a Crimean Tatar violinist from whom he could learn some traditional melodies. I asked him why, and he said, "to show my respect, as they’ve been showing it to us." In place of fear, respect. In place of dim hostility, a desire to understand. In place of ignorance, education.

The policies of the Soviet Union brutally uprooted and ended countless human lives across the map of the former USSR. To his credit, Yushchenko has worked to promote awareness of the Holodomor against the grain of Soviet (and some post-Soviet) accounts of Stalinist history. But, in the 20th century, there were other genocides on the territory of contemporary Ukraine. Today, let us not be witnesses to other, albeit more casual, acts of destruction.

Today, May 18th, Crimean Tatars from all over the world will gather in Lenin Square in Simferopol on the 65th anniversary of their day of their deportation. They will mark their darkest day with somber music and a call for no more genocide. Tomorrow, they will commence the first World Congress of Crimean Tatars - the first meeting in history to bring the massive and diverse Crimean Tatar diasporas and the Crimean population together – at the Khan’s Palace in Bakhchisaray. They will make a renewed commitment to persevere, and a call - to the Ukrainian government, the UN, the Council of Europe, and the international human rights community - for support and assistance as they struggle to build back their community in Crimea.

Last night, the candelight vigil organized by the Crimean Tatar Youth Center spelled out the words: No Genocide - in lights. I think we can all easily agree on this slogan, but we must also sharpen our awareness to other more insidious forms that annihilation can manifest in, and battle and battle against it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Hot off the Pressje! The latest edition of the Krakow-based magazine has published a gorgeous full-color spread of the No Other Home photographs and article. Behold:

A hearty thanks to my extremely brilliant, extremely distant but kindred spirit kind of cousin, Marta Soniewicka, who approached us with the idea of publishing it, translated the text into Polish, and even hand-delivered four copies to me on Friday.

It’s true: on Friday, Marta crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border on foot and boldly ventured east of the EU. I met her on the other side, where I spent a couple hours hanging out in my car, avoiding the smugglers and border drunks. We hightailed it back to L’viv for a photography exhibit opening and a decadent Georgian meal.

On my 28th birthday, Marta and I pilgrimaged to the village and town of Upper and Lower “Syn'ovydne” (Synewidzko/Synewodzko in Polish) in the foothills of the Carpathians - from where we may or may not take our common last name. Marta, whose interest in genealogy and thoroughness as a researcher reunited our disparate family branches in the 1990s, tells that Synevydne was founded in the 12th century (the oldest tombstones we found were from the mid-19th), translates as “blue water” in proto-Ruthenian (the waters of the Striy and Opir rivers really were blue on Saturday), and that our distant ancestors were large landholders - and since large landholders often took the names of the places where they lived as surnames, this gave a shade of credence to the otherwise lark-like expedition on which we embarked. It was fun, anyway.

We spent the night in the nearby idyllic Carpathian town of Slavsk, hiked to the top of a mountain, dined on marinated vegetables, banosh, and a little horilka, and then steamed in the private banya of the Boyko home in which we stayed the night. I was in bed, sleeping on a post-birthday, post-banya, post-feast cloud, by 10:30 PM. No complaints.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Penguins and Hutsuls

At the anti-kryzova knaypa (anti-crisis club) in L’viv, there’s a sign on the wall that reads “Crises are not Frightening to Penguins and Hutsuls.” 

They have a point. Every time I've shared this phrase in Verkhovyna, people nod their heads in agreement. 

Since most every local heats the home with firewood and survives the winter on stores of corn meal, summer’s pickled vegetables, milk and cheese from the family cow or goat, the energy crisis seems distant. If it gets really cold, there are local banyas or homebrewed fire water usually within reach. 

The gas crisis doesn’t pose the same threat here that it does to the cities, and people take pride in that, but the opportunity to make cracks about the crisis is not wasted. SMS New Year “vinchuvannia” that reference the gas crisis have opened a whole new frontier of Ukrainian text message poetry.