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Why must Ukrainians return from abroad?

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Aug. 30, 2012, 10:55 p.m. | Op-ed — by Zenon Zawada

Zenon Zavada, former chief editor of the Kyiv Post
© Zenon Zavada

About a decade ago, I asked a young Ukrainian woman, Olena, rather innocently, why she chose to remain in the U.S. rather than returning to “help Ukraine.” We were in the U.S. and judging by her visible irritation, I wasn’t the first person to pose this question.

Her emotions eventually turned to fury and our conversation concluded with her yelling, “If you care about Ukraine so much, then why don’t you go there yourself !?!”

Such questions address the dilemma of whether the individual has any obligation to his or her nation, citizenry, religious or ethnic group. Modern and post-modern thought asserts an emphatic “No!” and argues that such notions have long been considered archaic in the West (for at least a half century).

Yet these notions persist in societies dominated by hostile, fundamentalist ideologies, such as radical Islam, Communism and resurgent Russian nationalism (aptly referred to as “rashism” in Ukraine). 

Indeed many Russians still view those countrymen who emigrate to the West as traitors, a reflection of how far removed their values are. Such attitudes are largely absent in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, where those able to move to the West are viewed with respect and sometimes envy, rather than disdain.

Representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora in New York on May 3, 2010 protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s agreement to allow the Russian Black Sea Fleet to remain in Crimea until at least 2042.

Yet in the case of Ukraine, an attitude still persists among those in the third wave of the diaspora (those that emigrated during World War II) that the fourth wave (emigrants after the Soviet collapse) ought to be gaining their education or economic skills in the West with the ultimate goal of returning to Ukraine.

This attitude was exemplified by a column published in the Kyiv Post on Aug. 25, 2011, headlined “Those who go abroad should return home.” It was written by Bohdan Oryshkevich, co-founder of the USA/USA program that helps Ukrainian students achieve scholarships at elite American universities.

He expressed well-meaning emotions about Ukraine’s brain drain, yet lacked any argument to offer as to why any Ukrainian has a moral obligation (let alone financial incentive) to return to his native land, where his Ivy League education, valued at $100K-plus, would be rendered meaningless.

Yes, Ukraine should value these folks.

But it doesn’t, and the nation’s establishment shows no signs of doing so for at least the next decade, but probably longer. In the column, Oryshkevich couldn’t name a single Ukrainian citizen who found career success in Ukraine after returning from studying in the West. 

Guess what? I can’t either, except for a handful of priests in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, including its current leader, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who earned his doctorate degree at the Vatican. 

I do know of Nataliya Shulga, who came back from the U.S. after 13 years of research at Rochester University in 2005 only to find a $117 a month position as the director of the ecology faculty at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy.

She eventually left after her proposals for transparency and reform were rejected. Mind you, that happened at what’s considered to be among Ukraine’s most progressive universities. 

And, of course, we all know a few of the hundreds of businesspeople – from the Ukrainian diaspora and far beyond – who lost millions of dollars attempting to build some kind of enterprise here, only to get burned by trickery and corruption.

That hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of Ukrainians have been able to fulfill their dreams abroad after having no chance of doing so in Ukraine is a testament to the superiority of Western values and civilization and the bankruptcy of Communist society, which has now degenerated into post-Soviet society.

The government has done next-to-nothing in 21 years of independence to create financial and career incentives for Ukrainians to return from the West and introduce Western values and standards into Ukrainian institutions. It should be doing more, we can all agree.

Even more important than the fourth wave Ukrainians returning to Ukraine was for a movement to emerge of third wave diaspora Ukrainians (and their children and grandchildren) to return to settle in the homeland of their ancestors, which should have involved tens of thousands of people during the last two decades. 

At an Aug. 20 press conference, Kyiv-Mohyla’s former rector, Vyacheslav Bryukhovetskyj, mentioned Kateryna Maksym as an example of a Ukrainian student who returned to her native land, in her case to serve as a university vice president after earning an MBA in Italy. 

What deserves even more attention is Bryukhovetskyj’s mention of Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a Canadian citizen who serves as the director of doctoral studies at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and teaches courses in its business school. His family settled in Kyiv and he’s raising his children here. It’s people like Wynnyckyj who had the greater ability to have a positive effect on Ukraine. Such diaspora Ukrainians, born in wealthy Western nations to which their parents or grandparents immigrated, have the better ability to settle in Ukraine than the current immigrants themselves. 

“I am not independently wealthy,” Wynnyckyj said, but he’s able to support his family on what he earns in Ukraine. He compared living in Ukraine to the American Wild West of the 19th century, noting that there are abundant opportunities in both places to succeed and make a lasting difference. But neither were places for those “interested in a stable lifestyle,” Wynnyckyj said. “The price for those opportunities is increased risk in life.”

Some of the disaspora who returned undoubtedly have the education, the savings, the social security, 401Ks, and inheritances to help them. They have the valuable experience of having lived in a functional society with life-affirming values. They could have worked as doctors or teachers in Ukraine. 

Some have returned to work as lawyers – like Ivan Lozowy – but they are far and few between. Indeed, no more than a few hundred diaspora Ukrainians have settled in their ancestral lands after the collapse of the Soviet Union created the long-anticipated opportunity to do so.

Diaspora Ukrainians also offer that mutual understanding of Ukrainian and Western cultures that no one else has. They have intimate knowledge of Ukrainian culture and history that was erased by the Soviets, and could play an instrumental role in revitalizing a morally and spiritually devastated society.

On the other hand, Ukrainian university students are broke by the time they finish their studies or loaded with debt. They also need at least a half -decade of experience in the workforce not only to pay these debts, but to know how Western society and business operates. 

Moreover, it takes a lifetime of work to earn the money to live a middle-class lifestyle in Ukraine – to acquire an apartment or house and accumulate the savings to pay all the bribes to schoolteachers, doctors and bureaucrats.  Corruption is expensive, after all.

Yet the reason third wave diaspora Ukrainians (and their children and grandchildren) haven’t returned to their ancestral lands is the same reason why Ukrainian emigrants have been criticized for viewing Western education as an exit strategy.

Life is simply more pleasant in the West. Wages are higher. Prices for many consumer goods – gasoline, cars and even jeans – are lower. Bureaucrats are polite. Business licenses are easier to get. The courts are largely fair. The police are able to speak in complete sentences and often help people in trouble.

What’s being suggested to Ukraine’s talented youth is what only a few dozen “Don Quixotes” in the diaspora are willing to do: sacrifice a well-paying career in a stable country that offers a peaceful life – surrounded by polite people and superb customer service – in order to become a modern-day cowboy and undertake the rock of Sysyphus known as Ukraine. 

I propose that folks like Oryshkevich, a doctor, consider resettling in the land of his ancestors and working in a Ukrainian medical clinic or hospital.  That way, they could see for themselves – up close and personal – what millions of Ukrainians are desperately trying to get away from, which is a rotting wreckage of a post-Soviet system that is smothering those underneath it.

The best way for anyone in the diaspora to demonstrate patriotism for Ukraine is not to watch the Klitschkos on television or paint Easter eggs in church, but to pack your suitcases, hop a plane and live in Ukraine for at least five years.

Love is easy to claim from a distance, but much harder in the intimacy of its day-to-day trials.
Resettling isn’t that hard. Collect the documents proving your ancestry and you can get permanent residency. Open a savings account in a bank and you can live on 8 percent annual interest. It’s as much as 20 percent in the local currency. You won’t even need that $390 a month job (that’s the average salary, by the way, that fourth-wave Ukrainians would return to).

Numerous times, diaspora Ukrainians – who haven’t lived more than three months in Ukraine – have insisted: “It’s not as bad as you describe it.” Relocating here would give them the chance to find the evidence for such claims and prove me wrong. 

Instead I took the advice of Olena, the young immigrant whom I upset, and have lived here for seven years. Besides learning what Ukraine really is like – instead of what my grandparents remembered from the 1930s – I have gained a new appreciation for my homeland, the United States of America.

Indeed we Americans are very fortunate to have been blessed with such a country where there’s rule of law, independent courts and the opportunity to engage in commerce with relatively few restrictions.

Let’s stop pestering those Ukrainians wanting to live in America. Human progress will be far better served by them absorbing the remnants of Western civilization that are slowly being dismantled.

At this point, native Ukrainians who have succeeded in the West have little practical incentive to return to Ukraine. They’d have to be on a quixotic mission to do so. But perhaps their children or grandchildren will be able to return some day – several decades down the road – on rational, pragmatic foundations.

And maybe they will bring with them those critical institutions of Western civilization – rule of law, equality before the law and individual rights – that enabled us in the West to live such prosperous and fulfilling lives.

Zenon Zawada is a former chief editor of the Kyiv Post

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