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Ukraine--What's Past Is Prologue ...

One of my favorite authors is Tom Clancy, whose last book before he passed away was Command Authority, a fictional account of a Russian attempt to invade the Crimea in Ukraine. Of course, characters and circumstances are exaggerated to tell a gripping story. Nonetheless, Clancy, as in so many of his books, seemed to have a crystal ball.

About three years ago during a visit to Black Sea nations, I participated in a tour of the Crimea region.

Natalia Janetti
Natalia Janetti

Although I am from Ukrainian heritage, I had no idea before the trip how much influence Russia has in the Crimean Peninsula. Many street signs were both in Russian and Ukrainian. Both languages were spoken.

I asked the guide why Russian signage was not removed when the Soviet Union broke up. She just smiled enigmatically and shrugged. We instantly got the idea that it wasn't over.

Crimea has changed hands many times, most recently when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev turned the peninsula over to Ukraine, then a Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine, including Crimea, became independent.

On our stops, we saw examples of war, revolution, and military strength from four eras:

  • In Sevastopol, we saw Russian naval ships docked, under a lease agreement, in the home port of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. We watched a crew on deck getting a morning briefing.
  • In Yalta, we visited the site of the still controversial meeting among Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Often called the Yalta Conference, it was held to discuss Europe’s post-World War II reorganization, the results of which ultimately led to the Iron Curtain. At that time, Yalta was in Russia.
  • In Odessa, we were fortunate to be on hand for a film festival. We sat on the Potemkin Steps with hundreds of local young people for a screening of Battleship Potemkin, a masterpiece 1925 silent film about a 1905 Russian naval mutiny and resulting street demonstrations that brought on a police massacre, some of it on the very steps where we watched the film. The mutiny against the Tsars is sometimes described as a harbinger of the Russian Revolution 12 years later.
  • In the countryside outside Sevastopol, we saw the actual Valley of Death into which British troops charged Russian artillery during the Crimean War. The clash, with its horrendous British casualties, was made famous in The Charge of the Light Brigade, the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem about the 1854 Battle of Balaclava.

As you read and view news about this current global hot spot, keep in mind its long and checkered history. One perspective comes from Alla Rogers, a Georgetown resident who was born in Germany after her parents were taken from Ukraine as forced labor. Her Alla Rogers Gallery on 31st Street in Georgetown has featured art from Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc countries. She puts it this way:

“Ukraine has the right to be a sovereign, democratic nation as guaranteed by its own constitution and as ratified in international treaties. Its courageous dead throughout history were willing to pay the ultimate price for this privilege. May we honor their memory and understand that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. May we support one another when these aspirations are threatened.”