The Historical as Personal: Writing History in the Presence of Everyday Life

The phone rang sometime around 3 in the morning. I ignored the first call as I thought my dad had forgotten that we were now on East Coast time. He called again, but this time, he called Emily’s phone. She was sound asleep and didn’t answer. My phone rang again, and I finally picked up sensing something might be wrong. On the end of the call was my dad, sounding flustered and a bit in shock. 

I asked if everything was okay, and he said that his wife, Tracy (my stepmom), was in the hospital. It took him several seconds to finally getting around to telling me what was going on. Tracy had been rushed to the hospital because she started to stumble with her speech out of nowhere while at her daughter’s softball practice. My dad arrived at the practice shortly after Tracy had dropped off her daughter, a rare moment where both working parents were able to be at the same event at the same time. Tracy wasn’t making any sense when she spoke, a type of “jumbled word soup.” It didn’t take my dad long to realize that slurred speech could be a sign of something much worse. He acted quickly and intelligently and drove Tracy straight to the nearest hospital, which was only a couple of miles away. His response was actually faster than a 911 response call could have been in that moment.

I didn’t learn any of this information until I arrived at the hospital in Colorado. The 3am call was only the basics, and we were told not to be too worried at this point as they thought Tracy had a minor brain aneurism that could be mitigated with non-invasive surgery. My dad told us not to fly out to Colorado yet and that he would keep us updated on what was happening. 

Emily, an elementary teacher, went to work a few hours later. She was shaken, but she was determined to teach. I was proud of her for going to work in that moment. I don’t remember the drive to campus, but I remember sitting in my Russian class translating tweets from the Russian government. After class, I went back home. My aunt called a few hours later telling me that we need to get to Colorado as soon as possible. Things were looking bad. I called Emily at work and she came home early for work. We found a flight leaving out of Grand Rapids that evening.

Of course we had flight issues in Chicago. I haven’t had an on-time flight out of O’Hare in years. We missed our connecting flight, and United put us up in some shitty hotel under a bridge at a “discount” rate. I distinctly remember the brownish water coming out of the faucet in the bathroom. We trekked across the street to pick up some snacks and beer from a gas station, the only thing open within a couple miles of us. We finally made it to Colorado the next day.

Emily’s parents picked us from the airport and drove us straight to the hospital. It was a relief to see my family, but I wish I wasn’t seeing them under these circumstances. Tracy’s brothers and sister had all arrived. Her mom was in town, too. Tracy’s dad passed away the June before, a grief that many of us were still dealing with. 

I packed hastily in Michigan, and the shoes I had on were insufficient for endless hours of pacing on the hard-carpeted floor of the hospital. The waiting room in the ICU became our encampment. There was a coffee machine that provided some of the worst free coffee I have ever had. I must have had a 100 cups during the roughly two weeks that we were there. 

The news on Tracy was a rollercoaster. First it was good news, then bad, then good, then bad. The incessant influx of information from doctors and nurses was difficult to comprehend. Luckily, one of Tracy’s brothers is a doctor. He acted as our translator during the whole ordeal. Even he had trouble making sense of what was happening—no one understood how a woman under 50 with no family history of aneurisms or major health issues could be in the ICU. At this point, she had already undergone one brain surgery. 

The first time I saw Tracy in the ICU I felt both relieved to see her in the flesh, but also disoriented as I almost felt like I didn’t recognize her with a huge bandage over her head, a barrier between the problems hiding within and the world outside. She was knocked out and hooked up to more tubes and equipment than Mary Shelley’s monster. She also looked beautiful, a comment that many made during their visits to see Tracy in the hospital. She was naturally beautiful, and everyone joked that she was the only person to make a hospital gown look good. 

We held her hand and talked to her while she was unconscious, hoping that our words might trickle into her ears. I think around Tracy’s hospital bed was the most time my family had spent together in a lot of years. We told stories, cried, and reassured each other that life would be okay. Whether we wanted to admit it, we all knew life would go on.

About a week before all of this happened, I met my advisor for our weekly coffee and to discuss my dissertation project. I was struggling to frame my project in a way that adhered to all of the ideas that we had discussed previously. 

He very nonchalantly, asked me, “John, what happens after the famine? Life goes on, right?”

It was a simple, yet profound thought. We had talked around this very point for months, but it only made sense in that moment. Much of my early research had actually been about the aftermath of the 1932-33 famine in Soviet Ukraine, I just hadn’t realized it. The dissertation began to take a firmer shape. But just as quickly as these ideas began to marinate, I had to put them on the backburner.

During one of the quieter moments at the hospital, when visitors had gone for the day and others were sleeping on one of the many slightly curved hospital couches, I was fervently typing away at grant applications on my laptop. Grant deadlines don’t stop for the near dead. 

I needed the money to go back to Ukraine for the summer to study Ukrainian with my teachers at Ukrainian Catholic University and to work on my research. The grant apps seemed not take on their usual burdensome nature; I just wanted to submit them and be done. I finished two major grants over a two-day stint in the hospital. I won them both. I didn’t care. 

I’ve had relatively good success with winning grants for my research, but my second year was unreal. I won every grant that I applied for, something that will likely not ever happen again. The money allowed me to go back to Ukraine, continue my Ukrainian lessons, work in the archives, and make an additional research trip to D.C.. The grants would allow me to escape in Summer 2019 after a harrowing spring semester.

Back at the hospital, visitors increased dramatically every day. Tracy, an educator in Colorado, had worked in her district for years. It’s how she and my dad met. Both were teachers for several years, and both worked in administrative positions when their paths crossed. They met at a Relay for Life walk, and the rest is history. The visitors were kind and expressed well wishes. I didn’t mind the non-family visitors at first, but I began to resent them at the end. They did nothing wrong, but I felt like they were encroaching on our family space. Tracy’s fate was still unclear, and we needed time to just think. 

I remember bumping into a friend from high school at the hospital. It was a happy moment to see someone I hadn’t seen in a long time. He was now a doctor putting in his residency requirement at the same hospital that I had been sleeping at for days. When he asked why I was there, I didn’t know what to say. The next I saw him was about a week later. He walked by me when I was sitting on the floor with my head in my hands and tears in my eyes. 

Emily had a record 13 snow days over the 14-day period we were gone from Michigan. She only missed one-day of work. A small miracle for us. I didn’t have quite the same luck. The polar vortex that slammed the Midwest did close the university for two days, which saved me one day of teaching. I couldn’t get coverage for the other day, and I reluctantly flew back for two days so that I could teach my sections—a thought I’m still bitter about.  I was only back for two days, but most people tried to keep their distance. A few good friends checked in on me, but others didn’t know what to say. I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have known what to say either, but I do now. 

Once back in Colorado, things got worse. Tracy’s first surgery was supposed to alleviate swelling on her brain, which it did at first, but the swelling returned. She would have to go in for a second brain surgery. This meant removing another palm-size chunk of her skull. Effectively, half of her head was open. It was a dangerous, but necessary option to save her. 

We knew at this point that Tracy would probably never walk again. She would probably have difficulty learning motor skills, and it was unclear if she would even be able to talk. Some of us were willing to take any version of Tracy that we could possibly have. Others wanted their mom back in full form. The possibility of an altered mother, a changed protector proved to be hard to cope with for her youngest son, a twelve-year old boy. He just wanted his mom back. We all did. He just wasn’t afraid to say it.

It wasn’t long after the second surgery that the doctor asked to speak to my dad in a back room of the ICU. We all knew what it meant. The solemn look on the doctor’s face said it all. He was professional and explained everything to my dad and to Tracy’s brother, the doctor. The rest of us waited impatiently. My dad didn’t come out from the meeting. Tracy’s brother came out in tears, in shock, and gasping for words. He told us all that Tracy wasn’t going to survive this. 

Tracy was on life support for the time being. There was an option to keep her like this forever, artificially alive and artificially around. Luckily, she and my dad had prepared for this some time ago when getting their wills together. Tracy had told my dad she didn’t want to live like that. It was agreed that Tracy would remain on life support for the next couple of days so that family and friends could fly in to say their goodbyes. Hundreds of people came to see Tracy and say some last words. Her funeral a couple of weeks later would draw just under 2,000 people. She was loved and respected by many.

It was my job to notify some people of what was going on, one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever had to undertake. I called Emily’s parents first. Somewhat distraught, I talked to Emily’s mom on the phone and told them to get to the hospital because Tracy wasn’t going to make it. That was the moment that I fell on the ground and buried my head into my hands. My friend from high school walked by just in that moment. 

My dad never left Tracy’s side, and he was with her until she passed. She breathed on her own for about thirteen hours before officially passing on. I wasn’t in the room when Tracy departed this life. I was asleep on the shitty ICU waiting room couches scrunched up so that my six-foot frame could fit on the small piece of furniture. I woke up to my dad putting his arm around me and telling me it was time to go home. I knew then that the end had come. 

After Tracy’s funeral, Emily and I returned home to resume work, and we attempted to resume our everyday lives. In short, we tried to move on. We began the grieving process, of which I was all too familiar. As a historian of trauma, famine, and mass violence, I’ve read the literature on trauma and death. It was a new experience, however, to go through the process rather than read about it. I started to diagnose my own grief steps—a flawed and detrimental process. Understanding the rational side of grief as a scholar and undertaking the emotions of grief as a stepson were in contrast with each other. It took me a while to realize this. 

I returned to my final semester of classes, one of which was a seminar on historical trauma, a somewhat cruel coincidence. I was responsible for the presentation of Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery in our seminar only three days before I got the call about Tracy being admitted to the hospital. The rest of the semester was daunting. I felt as if my whole January could have been turned into a book about death and trauma and used as a key text for the course. I felt like a subject of historical trauma rather than a scholar of it. 

As I continued to work towards my dissertation ideas, I couldn’t help but be fundamentally shaped by my personal circumstances. It was sometime during that spring semester that the discussion I had with my advisor in early January began to coalesce with the death of Tracy. I began to think of the historical subjects I was studying from a different point of view. I had worked on the 1932-33 famine for quite some time, but I had never thought about what happened after the famine, at least not consciously. My work, on the other hand, had always seem to have known. 

I began to ask questions about life after the famine. Millions died, but what happened to the millions of others who lived? What did the living do with the other millions who had died? What happened to the children who lost parents? How did families attempt to recover their lives? These types of questions began to make more sense to me because I was asking these same questions of my own circumstances. 

Although my last name is Czech, there is also a good amount of British blood in me from my mother’s side. I remember a particular moment after Tracy’s funeral service where I had grabbed off the alter the urn in which Tracy remained. I remember being surprised at how heavy the ashes were. I joked to Tracy in that moment that she would smack me for calling her heavy. The British have a way with death and humor. 

This same moment also made me wonder what happened to the bodies of those who died of hunger during the famine. I had visited the mass graves of some famine victims in Ukraine before and knew they were common, but I wanted to know more. The aftermath of death started to haunt me. During my last trip to Ukraine, I made a day of reconstructing the steps of famine victims who fled to Lviv to escape hunger in eastern Ukraine. I conducted research at the Center for Urban History in the center of Lviv to learn more about Pidzamche, a neighborhood to the side of the hill that Lviv High Castle sits upon. I had been to Lviv High Castle numerous times, and never knew that a gruesome story related to famine lay below.

During the 1946-47 famine, the least studied famine of the three major famines in the Soviet Union, thousands of people hopped on trains heading west toward Lviv. The trains stopped short of the main vokzal (train station) and, instead, stopped at Pidzamche train station. Soviet officials stopped the hungry from entering the city, and many were loaded onto trains heading back east. Several hundred were shot on the spot and buried in a mass grave on the side of the station. The former mass grave is now a nicely paved parking lot. A small plaque hangs on the side of the station in remembrance of the event. 

After spending time at Pidzamche reconstructing the events, I went over Lychakiv cemetery. The cemetery is famous for the people it houses, but it is less famous for the victims of the 1946-47 famine that are also there. The bodies that were once buried next to Pidzamche station are now buried properly in an underground crypt in the cemetery. Big crosses mark their location in the lower part of the cemetery, which is surrounded by the fresh graves of soldiers who have died fighting the war in eastern Ukraine. 

Very few of the dead were lucky enough to have been found and reburied properly. As I researched the topic further, I found out just how important the removal of bodies was to both the Soviets and to the people of Ukraine. Each had their own agenda. The politics of death were contested. The first chapter of the dissertation was born. 

I remember taking Tracy’s two young children mini golfing during one of the long days we were at the hospital. At this point, the two teenage kids knew that Tracy wouldn’t make it. It was January and cold, so we went to a mall to play glow golf as a way to get out of the hospital and try and have a little fun. Everyone tried to have fun, but we were all miserable. All I could think about was how these kids would move on after Tracy died. Tracy was their idle, and for good reason. They would be left to negotiate life with a single parent and major chip on their soldier. They had been robbed of family. 

There a survivor who testified to the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine in the late 1980s that was about 12 years old during the famine, the same age as my dad and Tracy’s children. The famine survivor talked at length about losing both parents to starvation, surviving on the streets, and eventually winding up in an orphanage. The famine took a major toll. Many children incurred this fate.

Once again, my own worries about two young kids and the aftermath of trauma began to appear in my dissertation work. What happened to all of the kids who lost parents during the famine? I knew about the orphanages and the so-called “children’s colonies,” but I wanted…needed to know more. How did they survive? How did they move on? Did they have a fair shot at life? I was asking a selfish question. I was asking my historical subjects for answers to my present concerns. 

The point of all of this has not been to provide a sad story, although it certainly is one. I am sharing this as a form of catharsis, but also as a way to show that our study of history is never separate from our everyday lives. In fact, much of our research is informed by personal experience. Working on the dissertation has provided me with both an existential crisis and a set of answers. Turning to your research for answers can be foolish; it can be like waiting for Godot. There is also the threat of projecting your own circumstances on historical time and place. But it can also be beneficial. 

History is important for a lot of reasons, but understanding that others have experienced forms of problems that we face today is humbling. My research has revealed a lot about the aftermath of famine, a topic on which I am now writing a dissertation, but it has also provided some guidance on what happens next. Life does indeed go on, whether you like it or not. The trajectory of moving on is not linear or neat, but it is forward moving. There are moments of disruption, the very nature of trauma, and there are moments of progress. The hardest part of trauma is wanting to go back to the time before the trauma happens—it’s the longing for a return to the past. 

The other hard part of trauma is knowing that it never fully goes away. I think this, at least. The night terrors, bad dreams, insomnia, anger, sadness, and lack of understanding is always around. Some days it’s duller than others, but it’s always around. 

The historical is always personal. The narratives of the past shape the present, and in my case, I often look to the past to understand the present. I know that the parallels are different, skewed, and not always the same, but there are lessons to be learned from the dichotomy. I am sad to know that Tracy will never get to read my dissertation. She was always a staunch supporter of my work, and she was looking forward to visiting me in Kyiv next year. Instead, my dad and the kids will visit while I am abroad for research. The visit will now be much more than seeing a new place for them, and it will be much more for me than playing host. Ukraine will be a place for all us to better understand how we come to terms with difficult pasts. 

Remembering the 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine (Holodomor) on its 85th Anniversary

This year marks the 85thanniversary of the man-made famine, now referred to as Holodomor (death by starvation), that took place in Soviet Ukraine between 1932-33. The famine was the result of asinine collectivization policies instigated by Joseph Stalin in order speed up industrialization in the Soviet Union. Ukrainian language, culture, and religion also suffered immensely as part of the Holodomor. Current estimates place the death toll somewhere between 3-5 million people, although these estimates are rough and do little to account for the loss of unborn children, forced deportations, and those who perished in mass graves.

 

Only recently has the American government taken seriously the notion of the famine as genocide. On October 3rd, 2018 the United States passed a resolution that recognized the 1932-33 Holodomor as genocide, and the resolution supported the findings of the United States Commission on the Ukraine Famine that investigated the Holodomor in the late 1980s. Their findings, including the recognition of the famine as genocide, is found in their report that they submitted to Congress in 1988. Currently, over a dozen states recognize the famine as genocide, including Michigan, which officially marked the famine as such in November 2017 after a commemoration of the event at the state capital building. November 25thof each year is now the official day of Holodomor remembrance in Michigan.

 

Although the significance of state and federal recognition of the Holodomor is important, we must remember that Michigan has a long history of involvement in the Soviet Union, particularly in Ukraine. In 1929, a Soviet delegation approached Henry Ford in hopes of brokering a deal to build standardized tractor plants. Ford recommended his personal architect, Albert Kahn, for the job. What transpired was a $4,000,000 deal to build what would become the Stalingrad Tractor Plant in 1930. Upon the completion of the Stalingrad plant, the Soviets asked Kahn’s firm to design two more tractor plants, including one in Kharkov (built in 1931) which was then the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and one in Chelyabinsk (built in 1933).

 

The designs, blue-prints, and engineering knowledge provided by Kahn’s architectural firm helped the Soviets to build tractor plants capable of producing 40,000-50,000 tractors a year, however it should also be noted that the Soviets intended to use these plants to build tanks in what would become WWII. The tractors produced in these plants helped to speed up grain collectivization in the countryside, which devastated Ukrainian farmers and aided in the man-made process of the famine. The Kharkov Tractor Plant, as it was then called, attracted foreign workers from around the world, including Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the United States. Many of the foreign workers in the tractor plant would become first-hand witnesses to the famine between 1932-33.

 

The direct links between Michigan and Soviet Ukraine are more important than ever as the world commemorates the 85thanniversary of the famine in Ukraine. Knowledge of the event remains relatively low in the United States, despite the recent construction of a Holodomor memorial in Washington D.C. and continued efforts by Ukrainian diasporic communities across the U.S. and Canada. A newly constructed Holodomor memorial was recently unveiled in Toronto, demonstrating Canada’s commitment to recognizing the legacy of the famine and to literally build the history of the Holodomor into its urban setting. Because of Michigan’s unique ties to Soviet Ukraine, now is the time for the state to become a leader in the preservation and education of the 1932-33 famine. State governments have been slow to adopt appropriate measures that facilitate public knowledge of the famine, a key facet that contributes to the silence of the topic. Michigan can rectify this by promoting Holodomor education, establishing public art exhibits and museums related to the famine, and by working more closely with the Ukrainian-American community in the state. In the year marking the 85thanniversary of the Holodomor, Michigan would be wise to acknowledge its long history with Ukraine and publicly demonstrate its support for Holodomor recognition when so many others will not.

 

If Graves Could Talk

I apologize for the delay in my posts. On Wednesday of last week, I begun to develop severe allergies. I originally attributed my condition to the volumes of flowers and trees blooming in the park nearby. Things started to get worse when I woke up in the middle of the night with swollen eyes, a nearly-closed throat, and intense pains in my sinuses. Although unable to sleep, I managed to attend my lessons the next day, but just barely. My instructor was kind enough to go with me to the pharmacy (аптека) after our lessons and help me find an antihistamine. After I took the antihistamine, my body then turned my severe allergies into a 36 hour body flu. I was mostly in bed on Thursday and Friday fighting off whatever virus I contracted.

I attribute my brief illness to my body finally shutting down after a long year. I usually get sick right after the end of the spring semester as my body finally releases its stress, but I did not sick, this year, until I arrived in Ukraine. I am happy to report that I am feeling better after a steady diet of tea, books, and rest.

Yesterday, after resting for the previous few days, I visited the famous Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv. The cemetery is historic for its size and collection of graves. Graves of the intelligentsia and middle and upper classes take up most of the space. As per usual Lviv, you will find names in Polish, German, Ukrainian, and even one in English (a former pilot). Big names, like Ivan Franko (famous Ukrainian poet), are the main reason that many come to visit. The headstones are large, ornate pieces that could have only been commissioned from those with money. The ultra-rich rest comfortably in their giant mausoleums and vaults.

Although some of Ukraines more historically-rooted ideologues call Lychakiv home, the cemetery also plays a more contemporary role. As I walked up the inclining pathways from the entrance of the cemetery gates past the “most famous” graves, I arrived at the plateau where one can see sweeping views of Lviv’s neighborhoods, hills, and never-ending skyline. Although the spectacular view was a nice reward for walking uphill through a rather dire place, my eyes were pulled down to the other side of the hill where perfectly aligned crosses fit neatly into rows. As I made my way down the hill to see the markers, I quickly realized what I was seeing.

Pictures of men in military uniforms lined almost every grave. Each grave had a blue and yellow ribbon attached (national colors/flag of Ukraine). Although I already knew, I looked at the date of death: 2014, 2015, etc. These were Ukrainian military men who died fighting the war with Russia in eastern Ukraine after the start of the EuroMaidan protests in 2013. These men were some of the first to be killed in action during what was then being called a “conflict.” I think these men would take issue with the term

As I continued to walk along the bottom row of graves, I found myself in what I thought was the last row. I was wrong. In the last remaining patch of grass, four or five fresh graves had recently been dug. The mounds of dirt, still brown, fresh, and protruding out of the ground, had been dug for soldiers killed as recently as a month ago. Of the graves I saw, all men but one were younger than me when they were killed in the war. Yesterday, the war felt close.

Near the graves of the fallen soldiers, large crosses make up a wall with monuments in between them. At first, I thought they were markers of the war, but after looking more closely, I realized they were monuments/graves for those who died in the 1946-47 Holodomor. Those of you who know my current work know that I work on the 1932-33 Holodomor, which came after the 1921-22 famine–you should see a theme here. The 1932-33 famine did not really affect what is now Lviv because of its western location. The 1946-47 famine did hit the Lviv Oblast and some 1-1.5 million people died, and a third of the deaths were children.

Although 1.5 million deaths is very excessive, further mortality was minimized due to relief from the Ukrainian and Ruthenian diasporas. Unlike the 1932-33 famine, the 1945 harvest was poor and part of the famine can be attributed to an unusually low crop yield. This, however, does not mean that the Soviets were not involved. Stalin maintained impossible quotas that could not be filled and Nikita Khrushchev made sure they were filled as he served as the head of the Communist Party in Ukraine during that time.

The markers of the 1946-47 famine in Lychakiv struck me for a couple of reasons. First, I accidentally came across some NKVD (secret police) documents in the archive that discuss the 1946-47 famine while I was working on some research regarding 1932-33. The operational orders and methodology are important aspects to know when it comes to studying the various famines in Soviet Ukraine, but I am much more interested in the voices of those who survived. So naturally, I found testimonies from those who survived the famine of 1946-47 and am reading them fervently while I am here.

The second reason I found the famine memorial so striking is due to the size. In a cemetery that houses great artists, politicians, and soldiers, the famine monument stands tallest. The placement also made me curious. In this part of the cemetery, only graves of fallen soldiers and graves/monuments of famine victims reside. One could argue that this part of the cemetery represents the suffering of Ukraine–and they would not be wrong–but I took it to be more nationalist in character. Perhaps I should combine the two: national suffering. The memory politics of the 1932-33 famine are well-known and continue to play a role in the shaping of Ukraine as country, but perhaps modern Ukraine needs to think more critically about the years of 1921-1947 together, rather than in two-year chunks. Historians tend to divvy up time in eastern Europe (and elsewhere) into WWI, interwar years, WWII, post-war years, etc. It can work, but it also separates common occurrences, such as famine, into disparate events. Here are some pictures of the monuments:

Today is my last day in Lviv for two weeks. My language program is heading deep into the Carpathian Mountains to study, travel, and explore. Besides my daily lessons, we will hike the highest mountain in Ukraine (it’s not the Rocky Mountains, people), go rafting, explore different cities, visit castles, and participate in local Carpathian traditions. We will return to Lviv on the 29th of June and I will again be in Lviv for two weeks before returning the states.

I will attempt to update this blog from the mountains (assuming I have internet), but I may be too busy to do so for a few days.

Cheers from Lviv,

 

John

В Україні (In Ukraine)

The title of this post is reflective of discussions that my language teacher, Olya, and I have been having this past week over the use of prepositions. Every so often, I find myself wanting to use the incorrect form of prepositions when it comes to certain places. For example, на пошті (in the postoffice) or на заводі (in the factory) are correct uses of на. This, however, is somewhat misleading because the use of на is reserved for events or outdoor places. When one uses на вулиці (on the street) for example, the use of this preposition makes sense. The other preposition commonly used for locative terms is в/у (pronounced like vuh and oo), which is reserved inside spaces. The difference in these terms is something you memorize when you first start learning the language, but it still trips me up every so often.

My instructor is also fascinated with prepositions, but her interest lies in the way that Americans use terms such as “on Monday” and “at the university,” which disagree with Ukrainian uses of prepositions. We’ve both challenged each other about the way our respective languages make use of prepositions, but at the end of the day, we laugh and acknowledge how strange language can be sometimes. At the end of lesson six on Friday (yes, the last lesson of the day is very draining on both of us, so we have resorted to listening and translating music), we watched a music video by the Ukrainian artist Onuka. We watched the music video for the song Misto (city, in Ukrainian), which follows the female protagonist through her “emotional” life in the city. To her, the city is both a place to be in (в місті) as well as a protagonist in its own right. Although the video was shot in Kyiv, it made me reflect about my current time in Lviv. I decided to take today to walk around the city and observe what it means to be in a city and to see whether the city itself really pulsates on its own volition.

I won’t talk here about the long history of Lviv, but it is hard to walk too far without noticing the direct cultural influences of surrounding neighbors. At different times, Lviv belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Soviet Union, as well as the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The name itself, Lviv (Ukrainian), Lwow (Polish), Lvov (Russian), and Lemberg (German) is enough to fill tomes. My checked luggage that I brought from Michigan was tagged with a label that read Lvov and not Lviv. Airlines play politics, too. Many may have noticed the resurfaced debates over the spelling of Kyiv/Kiev. It is Kyiv and Lviv–they belong to Ukraine. Also, it’s not “the Ukraine” (my dad is getting better!). Enough of the language rant. Mea culpa.

As I began my thirty minute stroll into old town, I cut through Stryiskyi Park. Today, there was some kind of event going on where little kids were racing around on their bikes. As per usual, there was a wedding and a photo session of the bride and groom that was taking place when I left this morning and continued when I came back this afternoon. Ukrainians love taking pictures. So. Many. Selfies. There are many parks in Lviv, but Stryiskyi is one of my favorites. The trees are tall, flowers bloom boldly, and life transpires more easily in the dense forest. It’s a nice respite from the busy traffic on Ivan Franka street. I especially like the park because it is twenty minutes of serenity before engaging in the turbulent walking of urban Ukraine. People here walk with purpose, much like cities on the East Coast. I don’t usually mind it because I also tend to walk quickly, but I do like walking slowly when I’m touring around cities during my travels. All is well until a babushka cuts you off mid-stride and then looks at you like you’re the asshole. Minutes later, she zooms past you with at least two shopping bags full of items. Hopefully she will invite me over for coffee and a snack!

Although the cafeteria at Ukrainian Catholic University is tasty and inexpensive, I try to eat elsewhere on the weekends to switch up my diet. It was hot today in Lviv, so I opted for a light lunch of street hotdogs in toasted buns with ketchup, mustard, and mayo. This is typical street fare in Ukraine, and two dogs cost me less than $2. I sat on a shady bench in a park on the edge of Rynok Square and enjoyed my lunch while couples all around me took the time to make out all over the park. I’m not much of a PDA-type of person, so I quickly ingested my lunch before I lost it all over the park. After eating, I decided to trek to Lviv High Castle. The name Lviv High Castle slays me because although it is high up on a hill, there is no castle. It’s a glorified mound at best. Along the way, one will be be paraded in, around, and between (how’s that for prepositions?) tables full of magnets, vyshyvankas, and toilet paper that says, “Putin is a dickhead.” For a visual understanding of how society works here, I trekked in hiking shorts, a dry-fit shit, Salomon running shoes, and a Camel-Bak backpack filled with water. Local women here hiked to the castle in mini-skirts, complete with full makeup and hair. I honestly don’t know how people here don’t sweat more.

The top of Lviv High Castle is worth the walk. Atop the mound, a pole flies the Ukrainian flag. Beautiful 360 degree views surround the top of the castle, and plenty of selfies, too. I only stayed at the top for about five minutes because of the crowd and because I was at this very spot only a year ago. Not much has changed, but it’s a great spot to check out if you have never been there.

After making my way down from the castle, I headed over the Lviv book market. It may be my favorite place in the city. Herds of people pour into an open square to peruse new and vintage books, records, and items of memorabilia. Today I spotted great editions of Dostoevsky and Hemingway, but I used self-control and did not purchase anything. I do not have much room in my suitcase to haul home a bunch of books, but I may leave Ukraine with a few in tow.

The book market invigorates me on several levels. The amount of people actually interested in reading is refreshing. Yes, I know pockets of this exist in parts of the U.S., but the very fact that there are pockets is exactly the problem. Here, in the urban center of Lviv, people of all ages come to celebrate the art of print. Mutual appreciation is understood not by words, but by presence in the very space where books are sold. Aha! Perhaps the city is an actor, or perhaps it is a medium. Either way, it has a presence.

After the rejuvenation of the book market, I decided to keep walking even though I was exhausted. I headed over to the larger general market, browsed a few items, and left. I wasn’t in a shopping mood. Let’s be honest, I’m never in a shopping mood. I felt somewhat defeated after looking yet again for a craft beer bottle shop and bar that I had found online only to never find the location of the store. I found out later (when I got home) that the shop closed on May 1st of this year. They should really delete their online presence that says they are open!

When traveling, I always miss certain things about home. When I am in eastern Europe, I miss IPAs. Homebrewers and some bars do make hoppy-type beers, but they are not the same as good ol’ over-hopped West Coast IPAs. I am always craving this style of beer when I get back to the States. Instead, I stick to the local brews as to support the industry and give myself something to look forward to upon returning home. Mostly, I drink what’s cheap; I am on a grad school budget, you know. I also miss Asian inspired dishes. Emily and I eat A Lot of rice, vegetables, (sometimes chicken/beef), and beans. I cannot eat this diet here in Ukraine, which is fine, but I do miss Sriracha!

 

I digress. After my unsuccessful attempt to find Hop Heads (the now closed craft beer shop), I decided to walk over to the opera theater. The plaza was mostly closed off due to a half-marathon taking place tomorrow. If I had known about the race, I definitely would have signed up. I suppose I still could, but I have a large packed of Ukrainian homework with my name on it that I will need to complete tomorrow.

After taking a couple of pictures at the opera house, I sat in the shade for about twenty minutes watching three young skateboarders. Two were skating and one was filming. I take special interest in skaters because I was once one. I loved skating. For me, it truly was an art form. I loved the ability to traverse urban settings on my skateboard with nothing but a backpack in tow. Nothing seemed off limits and everything seemed possible. I still remember skating at the University of Utah on my summer breaks when I was still in grade school. My dad lived in Colorado and my mom lived in Utah. I visited and stayed with my mom in the summers in West Jordan, Utah. I would take the newly-operational light rail train downtown and then up to the U. My friend Kasey would usually come with me and film. She skated but she mostly helped film my tricks. I remember getting harassed by the campus police for simply having a skateboard in-hand.  Here, in Ukraine, these three riders simply skated all over the Shevchenko monument without anyone caring. It was liberating for me in a sense.

After getting kicked off university grounds, we usually found ourselves in an abandoned lot in downtown Salt Lake City. The spot was called the Dust Bowl. It was really just a slab of concrete that builders abandoned for one reason or another. The slab had a smooth surface, rails, and ledges that were perfect for riding. It was the ultimate urban skate spot, way ahead and far more legitimate than what Rob Dyrdek would forcibly construct in certain midwest towns with his signature urban skateparks plastered with the DC logo.

Watching these skaters shred all over the Shevchenko monument was the ultimate juxtaposition for me: modernity vs. the old. At first, I was somewhat taken aback because of my interest in Shevchenko’s role in developing Ukraine. I am a history PhD student studying twentieth-century Ukraine, after all. But after watching for a bit longer, I stopped thinking about Shevchenko and instead, started to think about the days I used to spend riding my skateboard all over the city. I blame my initial pedantic thoughts on too much archive dust and academic mannerisms.

So what does it mean to be in the city? In short, it means whatever you want. Although I tend to enjoy cafe society (no, not the Woody Allen film) and find Lviv’s cafes to be on par with other major European cities, I think there is more. Today reminded me that a city is both limited to what you want it to be, and unlimited in the sense that it can guide you to places and people you never intended to encounter. It’s part Baudelaire’s flaneur, but remember, the city can be the flaneur, too. I experienced this yesterday while sitting at a cafe having dinner. I enjoyed pasta and beer on the patio while watching endless groups of people stroll by. Then, the rain came. A torrential downpour lasted the better part of an hour. I think it was the city reminding me that it was still there.

Here I am, в Україні (in Ukraine). Well, I am in Lviv for one more week. After that, the rest of the summer language program cohort arrives and then we leave for the Carpathian region of Ukraine for two weeks. Perhaps my time in the Carpathians will again shift my outlook on what it means to be in Ukraine. Until then, I will continue to enjoy the cheap beer and pink sunsets over the university.

 

 

-John

 

 

 

Back in Lviv

привіт, друзі (Hello, Friends!),

I arrived in Lviv this past Sunday after a long series of flights. My itinerary took me from Lansing, MI to Chicago, IL where I had over a ten hour layover in the Windy City. My flight from Lansing arrived in Chicago around 5:40am and my next flight did not depart until 4:30pm. I took the opportunity to explore Chicago on foot. I walked over to Millennium Park, took an obligatory picture with the bean, and wandered through the rest of the park.

After exploring Millennium Park, I walked down the Lakefront trail to the harbor. It was cool seeing Lake Michigan from the Chicago side (the boats are a lot bigger and more expensive). I really enjoyed watching all of the runners and cyclists pass me as I casually strolled next to the lake. The atmosphere reminded me that I do indeed lived in the secluded midwest city of Lansing where all energy and hope go to die. The rush of people and activity reinvigorated me, a feeling I have not felt since leaving the very outdoorsy state of Colorado.

After strolling over to Navy Pier and grabbing a coffee, I wandered through the concrete jungle a bit more before deciding to go to the aquarium. My mom told me that I had once been there as a kid, but I had no recollection of visiting. Although expensive, the aquarium was well worth the price. I spent a couple of hours walking through all of the exhibits and contemplating life while watching Beluga whales vie for my attention. Whales are my favorite animal (Blue Whales, to be specific) but I love them all. Watching Orcas swim in the wild outside of Seattle a few years ago was awesome, and it made me feel like a pseudo-whale advocate after watching Black Fish. Whatever happened to Whale Wars anyway?

After walking several miles around Chicago, I headed back to the airport to get ready for my flight to Vienna. My flight to Vienna was mostly uneventful (the best kind of plane ride) and I managed to get a couple hours of sleep after a semi-decent meal of pasta, salad, and three glasses of the red stuff. I sat in the window seat next to a Russian woman and her American husband. They spoke almost no words to each other the whole flight as he watched movies and she sipped Prosecco. The only film I watched was The Darkest Hour, and I thought it was OK. Don’t judge me for not jumping on the Churchill train

Our plane was late arriving into Vienna, but I did not care. I had another five hour layover in the airport before taking a short (one hour) flight to Lviv. Upon arriving in Lviv, I exited the plane onto the tarmac to walk inside the new-ish terminal. Passport control took approximately one minute, which was welcomed after crossing the Ukrainian/Polish border last year by car. I think it took us something like five hours to cross last year and I almost got us in trouble because I had sleeping medication that the border guard thought was illicit drugs, but that’s another story. I successfully retrieved my bag and met my contact who was kind enough to drive me to the university.

I am staying in a building called Collegium, which is a university dorm that some students live in during the year. The building is a tall, yellow structure with five floors. I have a dorm room to myself on the fifth floor for the first two weeks. The bed is pretty small and I barely fit on it, but the rest of the room is fine. I cannot complain for paying $20/night.

I am in Ukraine for a total of six weeks. The first two weeks of my stay were added on because FLAS funding requires a minimum of six weeks in residency. The scheduled four week summer program that I am officially attending in a couple of weeks easily reaches the required credit hours required by FLAS, but they did not see it that way. To meet this requirement I scheduled two extra weeks before the program officially starts. I meet with my instructor, Olya, for six lessons each day. I will be the first to admit that it is a lot of language study and my brain is fried at the end of each day. I read a lot in Ukrainian at home, but I only really speak it with my advisor or the occasional scholar at conferences. Being in Ukraine each day reminds me how much I still have to learn.

After I finish my first two weeks of lessons, I will take part in the official four-week summer language and culture program at Ukrainian Catholic University. Students from around the world will meet in Lviv to learn Ukrainian and study together for a month. I am excited for the others to get here so that I can make new friends and connections. Living in a college dorm in a foreign country by yourself can be very lonely. The first two weeks of the summer program will be spent in the Carpathian Mountains. We will stay in a hotel during our visit and each day will consist of language lessons and excursions. After two weeks in the Carpathians, we will return to Lviv for two more weeks of study.

Each day, I eat lunch and dinner in the dining hall on campus. There are a variety of food options to choose from, but I’ve only eaten vegetarian dishes since I have arrived. Mostly, I choose steamed and cooked vegetables in sauce, potatoes, salad, soup, and and an Orangina-type drink. My average meal is somewhere between $2-3 depending on what I order. You can see a picture of one of the meal receipts below. When I exchanged money on Sunday, the rate was 26.1 UAH to $1, so not too bad. I hope to venture to some new restaurants this weekend when I have more time to spare.

I am about a 30 minute walk from Ploshcha Rynok (Rynok Square), the famous square in the middle of Lviv. It is filled with a variety of restaurants, shops, and museums. I have not walked down there yet this trip as I have been trying to sleep off my jet-lag and tend to my Ukrainian homework, but I plan to spend this weekend walking around the square and reading as many books as I can in the lovely bookshops in and around the square. I also plan to do a bit of reading and research in the library at the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe.

Another perk of UCU is its proximity to Stryiskyi Park. My dorm is literally on the edge of the park and I am able to go on my daily runs there. The park is decent in size and filled with greenery, fountains, monuments, and cobblestone paths. I will post pictures of the park when I have a chance.

Well, that is it for now. I will try and update this a couple of times a week, schedule permitting.

 

Cheers,

John

Project at a Glance

General Project Description

My digital project surrounds famine survivor testimony from the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine. The testimonies were collected between 1986-1988 from survivors who left Soviet Ukraine and moved to the United States. After conducting interviews with survivors of the 1932-33 man-made famine in Ukraine (which took some 3-5 million lives), the Commission submitted their Report to Congress, which housed their findings about the famine and survivor interviews.

For my project, I used Voyant Tools and Rapid Miner to examine the survivor testimony that was collected as part of the Commission’s work. My project intends to use text mining to understand how survivors remember and interpret everyday experiences during the famine.

Top 25 words

Role of Geography and Survivor Experience

In addition to interpreting the everyday experience of famine survivors through the use of Voyant, I also became interested in their experience in relation to where they lived during the famine. In order to understand the basics of this, I went through the testimonies and marked where each survivor lived during the famine. I created a spreadsheet out of this data and uploaded it to Rapid Miner.

 

This data helped me to understand where exactly each survivor resided during the famine and what each person experienced in relation to where they lived. I am still sifting through data to understand the differences and commonalities of experience based on geographic location.

Mapping Survivor Experience

Finally, I thought it would be a useful exercise to map survivor experience. I found an online map of Ukraine that is both interactive and free. The map allows one to drop pins and I will use this feature to drop pins where survivors lived during the famine. Once the pins are dropped, users can click on the pins and short biography of the survivor will appear. I will only include brief information, including name, gender, and a short 1-3 sentence summary of their experience during the famine for this project.

Map

 

Digital Teaching Assignment

This week, we were asked to create a digital assignment that we could potentially use in the classroom. I have created my assignment with an undergraduate senior seminar (history, that is) in mind. Our fictitious class, tentatively titled, “Comparative Genocides in the 20th Century,” will focus on the Jewish Holocaust and the Holodomor (famine in Ukraine).

The Assignment

For this assignment, I will have my students work extensively with the USC Shoa collection of Holocaust testimony. This visual collection hosts thousands of testimonies related to the Holocaust and other twentieth-century tragedies. Students will be required to watch at least 10 interviews with Holocaust survivors, and while doing so, they will take notes on what the survivors describe and say, including looking for patterns and themes that arise across interviews. I should note that this assignment will be done after our class completes significant reading on the Holocaust that gives us a better timeline of events and historical context. After students are done completing the readings and watching their required 10 testimonies, they will then work in groups of 3-4 to construct a timeline of the Holocaust. My hope is that they will find the survivor testimonies don’t neatly fit into a timeline of the narrative of events they read about in our selected readings. Their group will be responsible for figuring out a way to represent survivor experience on the timeline, and when they present their findings to the class, I will ask theme to explain their difficulties in doing so.

Part II: After students complete the Holocaust timeline, they will then do the same assignment with regard to the Holodomor. In addition to selected readings, I will also have students read at least 10 survivor accounts from the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine. They will again place a narrative of events on a timeline. In this ideal assignment, I would also have the Holodomor Bus visit our class. The bus, based in Canada, is a transformed RV that provides a total digital experience of the famine. While visiting the bus, students will take notes on the way that the famine is presented and any type of timeline they can find. After completing this, students will again convene in their groups and produce a timeline of events related to the Holodomor based on their readings, survivor testimony, and experience on the Holodomor bus.

Comparative Aspect

Once the timelines are complete, each group will present their timelines to the class, and we will discuss similarities and differences between each groups construction of timelines. We will then use this discussion time to think about any similarities or differences in the way that these twentieth-century atrocities were carried out. Students will use this space to think critically about the role of individuals in atrocity, which is why I place heavy emphasis on the use of survivor testimony. If the discussion allows, we will also talk about the limitations of our sources.

Project Planning Documents

My project planning document(s) can be found here: Project Planning Documents. I have uploaded my working bibliography from Zotero into a csv delineated Excel spreadsheet.

This is not a definitive list of sources and documents that I will use for my project on the famine in Ukraine, rather it reflects more broadly the digital scholarship that I have so far found useful for my project. In addition to these documents, I have also spent time scanning documents and books with the OCR equipment in LEADR. These documents are the ones that I am text mining for this project.

I have also added  a new page on my blog titled “Holodomor Project.” This will be where I house my final project. Once I am finished with text mining, I will upload certain visuals that best reflect the work I have done. Accompanying each visual will be a written analysis of the work I have performed, my findings, and how this data is helpful for historical research more broadly. Visuals will include word clouds, word use frequency, graphs that show patterns over the range of the text, and visuals that break down survivors by gender and location. I will have two very basic maps: one will be a map of Ukraine that shows the country divided into oblasts, and the other will be a map that has pins dropped around the country based on where survivors lived during the famine. When you click on the pin, you will be able to see the survivor’s name, name of oblast, and a short description of their experience during the famine. Although the map is not inherently sophisticated, I believe it adds a visual component to the text mining, therefore utilizing more digital tools for a comprehensive experience.

I will add my final bibliography at the end of my project on my blog.

 

-John

Digital Colonialism: Ethics of 3D Printing

In a 2016 article by Claire Voon, a replica of Palmyra’s Triumphal Arch became a contested issue when it was unveiled in New York. The arch, which was a scaled-down 3D printed version of the original, was created as a piece that reflected solidarity with the thousands of displaced Syrians. The issue with the arch, beyond its seemingly out-of-place character in a city full of modern architecture, was the fact that became a gawking symbol for tourists and locals, or “fetishized,” as archaeologist Karren Holmberg put it. The replica, a 3D printed commodity made in the name of art, became a target for its existence outside of its original country.

So does this 3D printed object represent what is now being referred to as digital colonialism? Well, according to the article’s definition, no. The arch rests in a public place where it can be accessed by anyone. It’s not locked behind a paywall that only those with a proper edu login can reach. But does the arch’s symbolism of solidarity really mean anything to displaced Syrian refugees? The article fails to articulate this point, and the only people interviewed are academics studying archaeology and architecture and a member of the public.  Not really a representative sample on the effectiveness of the installation, and it doesn’t help that many of them were critical of the project.

Behind my own pessimism of such a piece, I do wonder about the ethics of creating 3D printed objects as memorials to commemorate certain events. A positive of the arch is that it exists outside of a museum, therefore creating an accessibility not otherwise offered. This, however, is also problematic as no context (not even an explanatory plaque) exist on or near the arch. This means that many will walk right by (or under) the arch and not realize its significance or learn the history.

When I worked in a low-income school district back in Colorado, one of the social studies teachers won a grant that provided students with special Google glasses (they were made out of cheap cardboard; thanks for spending good money on kids, Google!) that they could put their smart phones in and take digital tours of historic places. I was one of the few adults who disliked this technology as I thought it stripped students of a real experience. I knew it was not possible to take all of these students on a trip to Rome to visit the sites, but I also thought they were being cheated by staring into a cheap set of glasses and being asked to imagine what it was like to be in a country that most of them will never know. The digital experience was created from 3D scanning of historical sites, such as the Coliseum, Egyptian pyramids, and the Eiffel Tower. I tried to be positive and understand that this was one way for students to get an “international” experience, but it never sat well with me. In this regard, Google capitalized by getting a tax break from their donation of cheaply produced cardboard glasses to low-income students.

Will an artist capitalize on profits made from the installation? If so, will the artist use some of the profits to raise awareness about the situation in Syria? If not, does this constitute a form of digital colonialism, or is it simply art? These are important questions that can be raised by 3D printing, and many of us (me included) have probably not thought much about this. Perhaps it is because of our limited use/knowledge of 3D printing, although many K-12 schools now have at least one in their possession, meaning a younger generation will have more experience with this tool than most of us will ever have.

Honestly, this topic has left me with far more questions than most of my other posts have. So instead of me writing a long post on this topic, I will finish with a host of questions that I think should be considered when working on such a project. Does 3D printing allow too many people to become creators? Is this a bad thing? Should 3D printing be put to as much scrutiny as the article describes, or are we overthinking it? Are all 3D printed objects a form of art?

 

 

Moving Image and Media Analysis

This week’s readings focused on moving image analysis and media, highlighting ways to think more critically about what we visually consume. Image Plot allows users to upload their own images to the program in order to create timelines, graphs, and other visual tools. One of the cooler functions of this tool is the ability to see change over time, otherwise known as the way to a historian’s heart!

I won’t pretend to possess any expertise of image analysis, but helpful videos provided by our instructors show the many ways that image analysis can be used for research purposes. I’ve only come across image and media analysis in film studies classes, and one of the courses I took as an undergraduate required us to do a scene-by-scene breakdown of ‘No Country for Old Men,’ which was excruciatingly detailed. Using a tool like Image Plot would have alleviated much of my pains, but more importantly, it would have allowed me to see broader changes throughout the film.

For my project on survivor testimonies, I am not using image or media analysis, but this week’s readings did make me think about the ways in which I could use this tool. An upcoming conference on the Holodomor is set to take place in Ukraine, and the theme is focused on visual aspects of the famine. See the conference ad (and visuals below):

I cannot help but think what image analysis would tell us about photos, pictures, art, and video of the famine. Not much of this type of source exists (it would imply intentionality and guilt), but the images/film clips might tell us something about the changing qualities of everyday life during the famine. Perhaps this is a topic for a film/literary studies scholar to pursue, or someone with more experience in this type of work than myself.

Although I will not be using image or media analysis for my project, I see many similarities to my use of textual analysis. Both forms of analysis interrogate their sources to bring out larger patterns and themes. The difference between visual and textual sources is minor in this respect, but I can see the power in visual representation over written form. Stay tuned for project updates (and maybe even a sample of my work) in the next couple weeks. We are on Spring Break next week, so I will be taking next week off from blogging. See you after break.

 

Cheers,

 

John