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After losing his America, my Ukranian papa finds democracy

By Larisa Alexandrovna | RAW STORY COLUMNIST

“We are going to a place where everyone is free,” my father said to me on a Lvov (a city in what is now the Ukraine) train station platform roughly 27 years ago. At the time I did not understand what that really meant.


That sentence became my father’s mantra as we spent an entire year maneuvering our way throughout Europe in the common trajectory of Soviet refugees at the time. It was the sentence my father repeated to himself over and over as we were forced to live in cramped apartments in the underbelly of the various societies we passed through. My father, who had studied physics in Moscow, cleaned toilets and mopped rotting floors all over a European route that led us from Vienna to what would be our final pre-USA destination, Rome.

Both of my parents began dreaming in American concepts almost as soon as we landed in New York. My father was going to “live the American dream,” and “God bless America” became a daily exaltation. The American flag was affixed to every part of our lives: from the rusted Buick we managed to buy for a pittance, to every window in our house. If my mother had a sewing machine, I am almost certain that she would have made draperies of stars and stripes, reds, whites, and blues.

The proudest day for my father was the day he became a naturalized citizen. He made miniature copies of his naturalization certificate so that he could have a framed version in every room of our house. Voting was documented with equal zeal: photographs of my father standing in line to vote in various elections are still collected in scrapbooks and treated with the type of delectation usually reserved for pictures of newborn grandchildren.

My parents only bought American-made products, even if these products were more expensive. “It is our duty to help our country’s economy,” my father would drill. This nationalism was more than simply a reaction to or a backlash against Communism. This nationalism was idealistic. My father always called himself an American first, and a former Soviet refugee (prior to the liberation of the Ukraine) second.

Pictures of our family shared treasured wall space with past American heroes: Dr. King, Abraham Lincoln and JFK joined our family gallery along side my beloved grandfather who had died in a tragic car accident during our first year in America. The Bill of Rights shared wall space with my grandmother who had also died during our first year here. Every tragedy we experienced was somehow balanced by the greatness and simplicity of “we the people…” Everything in our lives was measured not “in coffee spoons,” rather, against the moral obligation to understand and to act in concordance with “all men are created equal.”

Four years ago, something about “we the people…” changed for my father. That change subtle; it was not discussed nor obvious in more than a few aspects of my parents’ lives. The most apparent changes occurred silently even while the resonance of those changes was all but deafening.

In December of 2000, I noticed that the yearly voting photo was not added to the scrapbook of my parents’ American dreaming. There was no doubt that both of my parents had indeed voted. Yet the annual celebration and documentation of the voting experience was largely missing, save for the “I voted today” sticker that my mother displayed on her shirt for the duration of the day.

I noticed that my father had become more introverted and less interested in discussing current events. His natural curiosity and passion for discussions drifted from summaries, to snapshots, and then simply, to echoes. My father had effectively become silent — on the world in general and on America in particular.

During these last four years the cleft between my father and his America grew ever- larger. It seemed not so much that he was moving away from his America; rather, it seemed that his America was being extracted from him.

Occasionally, my father still perused his scrapbooks, eyeing his 27-year love affair his country, his America. But his silence began to find an alternative voice; it morphed into a strange obsession with trivia, harmless topics and meaningless references. It was as though the entire world had been boiled down to irrelevant niceties distilled for my father’s observations.

Papa arrived in America with only $56 dollars in his pocket and promptly purchased a $32 dollar dress for my mother in celebration of freedom. That kind of optimism and brightness of spirit hemorrhaged in earnestness during the 2004 election. The voracious negativity of the Bush-Cheney machine went beyond any common sense of purpose or decency. I watched in horror as the election became a game of who could out-lie, out-confuse, out-incite and out-humiliate in order to win. Citizens were played against citizens much like pawns. Private beliefs were hijacked and wielded with razor-sharp precision, with little regard as to what happens to the wounds after the game is won.

I watched in obvious horror, though my father simply remained blank. He would not speak of the election. He would not even speak about the war in Iraq.

When the 2004 election came off with a whimper, without question, my father began to forget basic things: his keys, his wallet, his false teeth. He forgot that he was being called “un-American” because of his Kerry bumper sticker. He forgot that because he voted for Kerry, he was called “immoral” and “unpatriotic.” He simply forgot where he put his checkbook just as much as he forgot how he had stood in line for several hours in order to vote. My father, vacant throughout the campaign, was now almost entirely splintered.

Then something astonishing and completely unexpected happened: Ukrainian citizens took to the streets in protest of what they felt to be a rigged election.

At first my father let this news unfold with guarded interest. He watched the Russian news via satellite in sessions of a few minutes at a time. I felt as though I was watching a child learning to walk; each step was anxious, nerve-racking and exciting all at the same time. At first my father watched the news as though through the corner of his eye, afraid to look on directly for fear of what he would or would not see. Then he began to watch face-forward but with frequent breaks. Then came the pacing while watching, back and forth, back and forth, but watching nevertheless and head-on as the fight for democracy became louder and stronger.

We watched in awe as journalists resigned to join their fellow citizens out in the square. Ukrainian people, my former forced comrades were now evoking their democratic right to a fair vote. Poor and rich alike, old and young alike, religious and non-religious alike, came together to fight for their voices to be heard. We watched on, together, as they spent night after night protesting in the cold.

Several days into this truly historic event, my father suddenly un-forgot. This was not a gradual process of the mind unfolding slowly, tentatively, probing around for memories of keys, wallets and the like. No, this was a sudden snap to awareness; a thought-to-thought instant reconstruction of from “then” up until “now.”

For the first time in four years, my father found something to talk about, cry about, yell about, and simply just live about. Perhaps my father recognized his own reflection in a 27-year old mirror, recalling his last day in the Ukraine, at a train station in Lvov where he told his six year old daughter of “a place where everyone is free.” I think my father un-forgot so that I would not forget my own reflection of his/our America; a vision that has always been based upon the following moral value that we can no longer take for granted:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…”

~Preamble, The Constitution of the United States of America


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