A CONVERSATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA

PatriotNotPartisan is honored and excited to welcome author Andrea Chalupa to chat with one of our contributing editors, Dr. Keith Pochick.  Andrea is a New York based writer who graduated from the University of California at Davis with High Honors in History and studied Ukrainian at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

She has spoken about Ukraine in the Council of Europe at the 2014 World Forum for Democracy in the final plenary session, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., at the Personal Democracy Forum (2014 and 2015), at New York University, Columbia University, and McGill University, and at other leading institutions. In 2015, she was an Aspen Ideas Festival Scholar, and she presented as well as gave the closing remarks at the Justice Sector Training, Research and Coordination (JusTRAC) Symposium in Prague in a forum on eliminating corruption and promoting economic development in Ukraine.

Andrea is the author of Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm, which is taught in high schools in Toronto and Kyiv through the human rights education initiative OrwellArt (http://OrwellArt.org ). As a social media organizer, she has helped crowd fund over $40,000 to transform an oligarch’s abandoned private zoo in southern Ukraine into a more humane environment for the animals and for the local community to enjoy. 

Andrea’s grandparents emigrated from Ukraine in the 1940s, and her family’s experience with Josef Stalin’s brutal and murderous totalitarianism has fueled much of her work.  We believe she is the perfect person to enlighten us about Ukraine’s history with Russia, and why that history is so relevant for modern Americans.*

*Editor’s note:  This conversation piece contains numerous hyperlinks which offer the reader both references and detail.  If a hyperlink fails to open, try copying and pasting it directly into the address bar of your web browser.

Keith Pochick:  Thank you so much for spending some time with me. You are an accomplished author, scholar, and traveler, and I learn so much every time I read any of your work.  Would you mind sharing a bit about your background, as well as your family’s personal experience in Ukraine under Josef Stalin?

Andrea Chalupa:  My grandparents came from Ukraine. As part of the long tradition of the American dream (which is under threat these days), my parents were born in World War II refugee camps, and came with their families to this country with only what they could carry. My mother’s very first sight of America was the Statue of Liberty; every time I see it from my neighborhood in Brooklyn I imagine her as a wide-eyed little girl.

Like typical immigrants, my parents worked hard -- my father, as a neuroscientist, advanced research into the mind and brain, and my mother, as a child safety advocate, championed the child car-seat and seatbelt laws in California. Through their example, our parents raised me and my older sister Alexandra to be civic-minded and proud of our heritage.

After graduating from UC Davis, where I majored in History, with a focus on Soviet History, I studied for a summer at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. Having saved money working through college, I traveled alone through Ukraine, and found someone to translate my grandfather’s memoir, which he had written in Ukrainian and left for me shortly before he died.

His memoir shows the real-life events Orwell allegorized in Animal Farm: my grandfather as a little boy witnessing the Russian Revolution fought on his family farm, surviving Stalin’s genocide famine as a young man, being arrested and tortured by the Soviet secret police as a young father during Stalin’s purges. Excerpts of his “real-life Animal Farm,” and my research into how my grandfather and his family immigrated to America with a rare Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm, produced in a World War II Ukrainian refugee camp with Orwell’s blessing and help, became the basis of my book Orwell and The Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm.

In 2012, I was asked to present my research into this at the National Press Club, and that led to a high school teacher in Toronto, Nadia Guerrera, developing a curriculum to teach my book as the basis of her human rights and media literacy program, Orwell Art (OrwellArt.org). And that then led to the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium asking me to write and direct a short documentary on Stalin’s genocide famine in Ukraine, featuring renowned experts like Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum. The film went on to screen at the United Nations. There is also another film and a graphic novel that I’m involved with on the same subject.

My grandfather was the world to me, and the gift of his memoir set the course of my life.

KP:  I love how you took such initiative to learn your own history.  There is only so much one can glean from a mail-in DNA kit.  Most of our ancestors left us much more than physical gifts and relics.  If we do some honest searching, we are able to find lessons and even warnings from previous generations.  New York is 5,000 miles away from Kyiv, and most Americans are quite isolated (for both geographic and educational reasons) from the geopolitical history of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Could you briefly describe the history and relationship between Russia, Ukraine, and the Soviet Union?

AC:  In general, Americans ignore foreign affairs and history to their own detriment. During the 2016 election, I warned my friends in media about Trump and Russia, focusing on Paul Manafort--the Republican operative who worked for years inside Ukraine for the Kremlin’s interests, helping drive the country deeper into a black hole of corruption--and often heard back that Americans simply didn’t care about Ukraine. Now the regular bombshells in the news on Trump and Russia have forced them to. Ukraine was a testing lab in many ways -- for years the Kremlin politically infiltrated the country, bought off Ukrainian politicians, and hacked the election infrastructure, including attempting to change the voting results of a presidential election. In a recent conversation with a Ukrainian investigative journalist, we wondered whether Americans have their eyes open enough to truly understand what they’re up against.

As a quick primer on Russia, Ukraine, and Soviet history, it’s important to remember that, after centuries under Russian rule, Ukraine fought for its independence during the Russian Revolution, and for a short time established political independence. After the communists won the war, under Lenin, in the early days of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians enjoyed relative freedoms. This led to a cultural renaissance in Ukraine where the intelligentsia flourished.

Under Stalin, everything changed--there were mass arrests, Ukrainian cultural institutions were banned, even Ukrainian communist leaders were arrested or driven to commit suicide. Then came Stalin’s man-made famine of 1932-1933 that deliberately starved to death several million Ukrainians. It’s a testament to Ukraine’s resilience that the country exists at all. There are dark chapters of history behind the first line of the national anthem: “Ukraine has not yet died.”

KP:  It’s inspiring to observe how shared hardships and horrors frequently steel great resolve in people.  The fighting spirit in Ukraine persists, and I think there’s a lesson in that for Americans.  Speaking of Stalin’s atrocities, I used to think that the Terror Famine in the Soviet Union (and Ukraine in particular) were due to the failures of a poorly devised “Five Year Plan” to collectivize and operate farms and land. My notion was that Stalin was ashamed of failing his people, and worked to cover up the millions of deaths which resulted. How much of the Holodomor was the failure of a new, inexperienced government, and how much of it was intentional genocide?

AC:  Think of it this way: Even by conservative estimates, 80-percent of those killed by Stalin’s 1932-1933 famine known as the Holodomor (“death by hunger”) were Ukrainian, and the state terror went beyond extermination--there was an all out attack on Ukraine’s national identity. It got to be so bad that one death certificate that survives from that time lists the cause of death as simply being Ukrainian. After Soviet soldiers and agents removed Ukraine’s grain, and confiscated food from the peasants, the borders of the country were sealed so that no one could escape. People were left to die slow excruciating deaths, and some turned to cannibalism. Ta Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic, in his essay on the famine:  ”I generally have a strong stomach when it come to reading about evil, but this was too much.”

Ukraine’s grain was confiscated so that it could be sold abroad to raise financing for the state, and food in general was destroyed or confiscated from many villages. One survivor told me that she and her brothers were boiling a pot of leaves and twigs--just to have something to eat--and a soldier came and dumped out the pot. She also described how soldiers would stab the ground with sticks with metal points on the end, searching for hidden food. In his memoir, my grandfather describes witnessing a body collector, his horse cart pulled to the side of the road, picking up a dead woman and throwing her and her still living infant in the back of his cart, to dispose of them like trash in a mass grave. The child was still alive. It didn’t matter. This was mass extermination.

Stalin, in his “homicidal paranoia,” saw Ukrainians as an enemy. Throughout his rule, Ukrainians of course were not the only distinct group that was targeted and attacked--in Stalin’s mind he had many internal enemies. Stalin’s genocide famine in Ukraine was in many ways one of the significant preludes to Stalin’s purges, which saw several million innocent people across the Soviet Union thrown into prisons, including my grandfather, many of them tortured and killed.

I’ve watched hours of interviews with leading academics of Soviet history discussing how the famine was a genocide, including interviews with Yale University’s Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and On Tyranny; Stanford University’s Norman Naimark, author of Stalin’s Genocides; Harvard University’s Serhii Plokhy, author of several excellent books on Ukraine and Russia; and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum, whose recent book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine cites testimony that my grandfather, himself a survivor, gave a Congressional investigation into the famine.

Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who first coined the word “genocide” and initiated the United Nations Genocide Convention, cites Stalin’s famine in Ukraine as a classic example.

The Holodomor remained largely unknown to the outside world for many years, and most people today have never heard of it. Some of the earliest independent sources came from Holocaust survivors from Ukraine. As they described the events of the famine, their interviewers had no idea what they were talking about. That’s in large part because many in the Western press at the time were complicit in helping the Soviet regime cover it up. Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote articles downplaying the famine. To understand the potential for corruption in the media, read UPI reporter Eugene Lyons’ 1937 memoir Assignment in Utopia, namely his chapter “The Press Corps Conceals a Famine.” It’s essential reading to realize how journalists, even credible journalists, are capable of being complicit in their self-censorship, social-climbing, and conformity to further the interests of an authoritarian regime.

In his memoir, Lyons confesses to how he and other Western reporters brokered a deal with the Kremlin one night in a suite in a Moscow hotel.  The parties agreed to deny independent journalist’s Gareth Jones’ reports of the famine in exchange for greater access to the Soviet regime. Access journalism can be incredibly pernicious.

KP:  Well said, and thank you for highlighting the vital role of an independent press which truly informs the public.  In a healthy democracy, elected officials and journalists may be cordial, but they aren’t friends.  A frequently adversarial relationship between the two signals a society’s commitment to truth, as well as robust freedom for citizens.

Russia considers itself a Presidential Republic. Anyone who follows Russian politics even casually understands that Vladimir Putin is the law. In Russia, opposing Vlad is bad for one’s health. Remember after the 2016 election when the Russian FSB agent had a bag thrown over his head and was carried out of a Kremlin meeting?  Has anyone heard from him since?  The list of suspicious high-level deaths with possible links to Putin continues to lengthen. 

Despite the inherent dangers of mounting opposition, we have seen the inspiring story of Alexei Navalny and his quest to expose corruption in high levels of the Russian government.  Because of his popularity and the threat he poses to Putin, he was deemed not qualified to run in the Russian Presidential election. He has been unfairly arrested, jailed, assaulted, and investigated. Do you have a sense that his movement against Putin is gaining traction despite its long odds?

AC:  What’s striking about Navalny’s movement is how young it is. You see high school and college students at the rallies, risking arrest or worse. Most Russians get their news from television networks, which are under the control of the Kremlin, either directly or indirectly. Any independent media left inside Russia continues to operate under great pressure. Navalny’s movement is being driven by the internet--he communicates with his followers over YouTube, by producing videos exposing the corruption of Kremlin officials, showing the excess of their stolen wealth.

Thanks to the internet, Russians see how people in other countries that are not kleptocracies live. They see an alternative to the corruption that plagues Russia. Putin is arguably the richest person in the world, and yet twenty million Russians are living in poverty--a decade high. Young Russians are demanding a better future, and they’re willing to fight for it. Their bravery is incredibly inspiring and gives hope for the next generation after Putin is gone.

Some Russian opposition organizers, including Ilya Ponomarev, the lone Duma member to vote against Putin’s annexation of Crimea, work in exile from Kyiv. A Ukrainian democratic organizer in Kyiv told me that Ukrainians are working with Russians to help kindle the fire of revolution, for when Russians are ready, which is Putin’s worst nightmare.

 

The journalist Sarah Hurst maintains a great blog dedicated to Navalny's movement and how it is shaping a new generation of resistance in Russia. For too long, Russian watchers were cynical about anything like this happening. Important seeds are being planted that can impact Russia for generations. It’s important to remember that there are a lot of important opposition voices, including Ponomarev, Ilya Yashin, Zhanna Nemtsova, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Garry Kasparov. PEN America hosted a fascinating discussion with Russian writers on the immense dangers and pressures that they’re up against.

KP:  Though we may act like it, Americans don’t have exclusive rights to democratic ideals.  Thanks for telling us about some brave Russians who romanticize those ideals.  Honest journalism in an authoritarian country is incredibly dangerous, and these people risk their lives and freedom for the truth.  They should be revered for their courage to shine light into dark places.

History has established that Stalin was a mass murderer and orchestrator of genocide. While I don’t speak Russian, I’m unaware of any critical comments Putin has made against Josef Stalin.  Is it fair to say that Putin reveres Stalin?

AC:  There has been a disturbing, surreal rehabilitation of Stalin under Putin. It’s really mind blowing. Imagine Germany putting up statues to Hitler. That’s what’s going on in Russia today. Around a dozen statues of Stalin have gone up since 2012, bookstores sell books glorifying Stalin’s victory against fascism in World War II, Stalin appears on mugs, t-shirts, statues, other souvenirs sold by street vendors, a plaque commemorating Stalin was put up in the Moscow State Judicial Academy, and his portrait was hung in the entrance of a Moscow subway station.

This is the result of a deliberate push by Putin to equate Stalin and the Soviet period with Russian glory: to insult Stalin is to attack Russia itself. Putin blames what he calls “excessive demonization of Stalin” as undermining Russia. It’s absurd, considering that Stalin targeted actual Russian heroes like writer Boris Pilnyak, theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, writer and poet Nikolay Oleynikov, and far too many others to name. It’s estimated Stalin killed 15 million to 30 million people.

To see how sickening the Stalin mania has become in Russia thanks to Putin, read about the heartbreaking case of Yuri Dmitriev, the historian targeted and forced to undergo psychiatric testing for discovering a mass grave of up to 9,000 victims of Stalin’s Great Terror.

KP:  Putin clearly has an admiration for, and a tendency to emulate, Stalin.  This should terrify anyone who believes in human rights or democracy.

May we turn our attention to the global political pendulum?

AC:  Sure.

KP:  American ideals and founding principles were quite radical in the 18th Century. Since then, Democracy swept across a large part of the globe. In the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed that Democracy was the “final common pathway,” and that the world would embrace it for centuries.  This obviously wasn’t the case.  The “Arab Spring” has regressed into a winter of power grabs, wars, and desperate familes, especially in Syria and Yemen.  Turkey, Russia, North Korea, much of Africa, the Phillipines, Myanmar, and so many other countries are now (or still) undoubtedly authoritarian.  What are some of the causes which pushed this pendulum back towards authoritarianism?

AC:  This is a great question. A wonderful writer on this topic, with diverse experience working on human rights inside Russia and Syria, is Maria Stephan who co-edited Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback? Her essay with Tim Snyder in The Guardian addresses this, and ways to resist.

One reason is social media. The democratizing power of the internet was first embraced by progressives to great effect--the surprise election of Barack Obama, and then by white supremacists, boosted by Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and Twitter--the surprise election of Donald Trump. Technology is only as good or evil as those who use it; so social media gives us a look at how the future of AI will play out, and it is terrifying.

Well-funded and coordinated propaganda spreads the influence of authoritarian regimes and furthers their interests. We’re in a brave new world of having to confront an onslaught of propaganda and cyberwarfare.

KP:  Wow – that is an eye-opening response which highlights the role of Net Neutrality in America.  It’s impossible to “win hearts and minds” without a reliable forum in which to announce one’s message and positions. 

If I were to ask average Americans what makes this country great, most would reply with the word “freedom” somewhere in their first sentence. It seems Americans know the word which makes our country different, but do we really know the meaning? Since free expression, free assembly, due process under law, and other sacred rights have always existed for us, it seems we take them for granted.  Do any of these same rights exist for an average Russian citizen under Vladimir Putin, and to what degree?

AC:  Russia has been experiencing a massive brain drain that it hasn’t seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. There’s a long list of human rights abuses inside Russia, with some of the more horrific being the reports of concentration camps of LGBT people inside Chechnya. Popular opposition leader Navalny can’t even run for president--authorities keep blocking his registration as a candidate, due to trumped up charges against him. Recently, I interviewed Masha Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, as part of an event to raise awareness of political prisoners inside Russia, hosted by Pen America. Masha’s message to Americans was this -- you elected Trump because you have the power of the vote, and you can vote him out. Basically, we Americans cannot take for granted the freedoms we have here. It’s still not too late to turn things around. It was in fact a Russian opposition leader, Ilya Ponomarev, whom I mentioned earlier, who reassured me, when I ran into him in Washington, DC shortly after Trump’s election, that America’s institutions are strong, and that we can survive Trump. I didn’t believe him at the time, but one year later, our free press and system of checks-and-balances, and the incredible energy driven by the many marches and political organizing, have so far kept Trump from fulfilling the worst of his authoritarian instincts. His purge has accelerated recently, but we have to keep working, and not take any of our freedoms for granted.

KP:  That is somewhat reassuring to hear.  But I believe America’s slide toward authoritarianism under Trump won’t just end after he is gone.  Americans will need the conviction and stamina to sustain the fight.  In my opinion, we need to commit to making it the cause of our generation.  The road ahead promises to be long and difficult; we need united hearts and steady wills to get where we want to go.

I’d like to ask you another question about American perceptions as they relate to our shared history.  After the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, America hasn’t seen a foreign country attack its mainland in 200 years.  Do you think this contributes to a (perhaps false) sense of invincibility?

AC:  Absolutely. The “moat” of our oceans has given us a false-sense of security. Americans have never lived under occupation, like the Dutch, the French, the Poles, etc. The growing sophistication of cyberwarfare and effectiveness of propaganda spread through social media have changed all that. Americans are in very new territory. We are the first generation to confront these challenges. We have to invent the playbook to overcome them.

KP:  Agreed.  What is your gut feeling on how the Trump/Russia investigation will end?

AC:  More indictments. It’s inevitable. These are stupid criminals. The indictments we’ve seen so far have confirmed that. Trump’s campaign and family should never have exposed themselves to this level of scrutiny--they are far too corrupt and surrounded themselves with corrupt people--but hubris and greed are powerful temptations. Mueller’s investigations are closing in on Trump, who, as we see practically every day, especially from his Twitter, is a chronic liability whose continued attempts to obstruct justice only strengthens Mueller’s case.

KP:  I’m hopeful you are right, but the complicity of a GOP controlled Congress and the seeming apathy of the Judicial Branch continues to keep me awake at night. 

As Americans, it is our birthright to romanticize underdog stories. The more I’ve learned about Ukraine, the more I’ve begun to root for her. Recently, much ado has been made of the US decision to send arms, including anti-tank weapons, to the Ukrainian military.  I was initially quite pleased to hear this, but will this position actually come to fruition?

AC:  There was a bipartisan effort in Congress for years to sell Ukraine the weapons it needs to defend itself against Russia, the second most powerful military in the world. President Obama was against this, because he believed it could contribute to escalating the conflict. Secretary of Defense Mattis, who has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine, and even spent Ukraine’s Independence Day in Kyiv, which must have made Putin’s blood boil, only has to remind Trump that Obama was against arming Ukraine--that’s the best leverage Mattis has to make sure Trump carries through on this promise.

KP:  It seems fraught with difficulties, and until the weapons arrive safely in the right hands, I’m a bit skeptical.  Am I being too paranoid, or is it possible this move is a ruse?  What are the best media outlets to get accurate information from both independent and state sources in Ukraine?

AC:  As we’ve seen, Putin’s regime is determined to undermine the United States. If they want to get their hands on any of the weapons the US sends over, it will be difficult to stop them, in my opinion. The Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council is a good space to follow -- @ACEurasia -- and so is the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab -- @DFRLa -- they both follow Russia’s invasion closely. Together, they created a primer on lethal weapon aid and exports to Ukraine.

KP:  Ideologically, Americans and Putinists are separated by a wide chasm.  I hope this piece opens the eyes of Americans who are hesitant to acknowledge that current Russian leadership is our enemy.  It is impossible to stop an enemy without first recognizing him as one.

Again, I appreciate your willingness to promote American understanding of the political dynamics in Russia and Ukraine – you have been incredibly helpful and meticulous in this project.  I hope we get to collaborate again in the future, and please keep PatriotNotPartisan updated with your ongoing writings and projects.  We are lucky to have you on board with us!

AC:  Will do.  I appreciate your thoughtful questions and your venue.   

Contributing Editor: Keith Pochick

Keith Pochick is a residency-trained Emergency Physician and Freelance Writer in North Carolina.  He mostly explores ways to maintain humanism in medicine and the importance of promoting health of doctors and healthcare workers.  An avid, albeit amateur American History buff, he currently thinks and writes about sustaining America’s identity and ideals.  He is married to a pediatrician, and spends his free time cleaning his own gutters and coaching a 4th grade hoops team.  Though he cut his teeth on Led Zeppelin, at times he will sing along to Taylor Swift songs in his minivan, even when no one else is in there.  He has found Taylor Swift songs to be catchy as hell.

Twitter: @keith_pochick

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