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Not long after my daughter was born, my then-fiancé and I went with baby in tow for a weekend at a condo in Rocky Point, just over the Mexican border from Arizona. The border guard who checked our passports on the way home had a pretty heavy foreign accent. I wonder about his story. 

A border story

I don’t know what his accent was, but he was a long way from where he grew up. To go from wherever he started to become a Border Patrol guard in Arizona must have been a very circuitous life. His story is probably fascinating. I only know this one part of it.

When he looked at my passport, he did a double-check of my name. 

“Matriko,” he said, reversing the R and the I. It’s infuriatingly common.

Ma-tir-ko,” I corrected, as I have a thousand times.

“That’s an uncommon name…”

“Blame Stalin,” I replied. 

He laughed. 

I’m not sure how I knew he would understand that joke. The Holodomor isn’t something that gets talked about around the average American dinner table. But I assumed he was from somewhere far enough outside the US that he paid more attention to foreign politics than most Americans bother to. Plus, as a border guard, he probably sees a far wider variety of people than most. 

We don’t teach Ukrainian history well in schools

Stalin’s attempts to collectivize agriculture caused armed peasant rebellions in Ukraine in the 1930s. This would be approximately when my dad’s parents hightailed it to New York. At least that’s what I have been led to believe by the family stories. 

Anyway, so the Holodomor was when Stalin tried to starve out anti-collectivist farmers in the Ukraine, which led to a drop in production which led to (depending on whose numbers you use) at least 3.9 million dead Ukrainians. 

So I understand why they’re not thrilled at the idea of being part of Russia again. It didn’t go particularly well for them last time. 

Resistance of the West to aid

The problem with the anti-Soviet Ukrainians of the 1930s is that, in the scramble for extremely limited resources, some of them fell in with the Nazis in Germany. There’s no getting around that. My Russian Culture professor in college escaped the Ukraine as a boy by way of Nazi Germany. That sort of thing definitely happened.

People will do a lot of things to get out of a bad situation. The question is how much of yourself you compromise along the way. 

So yes, another problem here is that there are small but vocal groups whose families sided with the Nazis against the Russians in World War II and are retreating to the last set of symbols that kept their asses alive. It’s sad. They’re scared and they’re angry. By all reports, they aren’t the majority. 

Still, they’re vocal enough that it makes a lot of people in the West a bit wary about getting too entangled.

Putin-free since 2014

But think back to just 2014 when the Putin stooge President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted. Those people are still there. They definitely haven’t asked for this war. They thought that Viktor skedaddling to Moscow under dead of night while they threw a party at his estate was the last they’d see of being under the Russian thumb. 

They know a guy like Putin rewards loyalty. 

He thinks they’ve been disloyal. He didn’t just pick Ukraine because of its resources or location. 

I’m worried he wants to make an example out of them to the rest of the former Soviet bloc states. I don’t think this is only about Ukraine. Reporters and investigators have been saying for years that he has a strong nostalgia for the height of Soviet power and Russian influence. 

I think he wants the other countries that stand between Russia and NATO to believe that they are only not part of Russia because he allows them to be not part of Russia. That’s what I think he thinks. Everything I’ve ever heard about the guy makes him sound like an absolute goddamned maniac. 

Then there was the brief spate of reports in 2020 that Putin has Parkinson’s. No one even knows whether there’s any truth to that one. The Russians denied it, but I don’t think anyone seriously believes they wouldn’t lie if it were true. So we need to at least consider the possibility that Putin is making a last grasp at cementing his legacy. 

There isn’t much I can do about Putin

I never knew my dad’s dad. I knew my grandmother, but from my earliest recollections, she was just an old woman living off her deceased husband’s pension in a retirement condominium in New Jersey. If I have any family in Ukraine, I’ve never met them and have no idea who they are. 

I’ve been reading Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book to my daughter a lot. It’s a story opposed to war and the way it inevitably spins out of control. You can never tell what kids are going to pick up around the house. As a work-at-home columnist writing since last week about a war that just started yesterday, I think it’s important to give her some context for anything she might be overhearing in the world right now. 

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FOR INFERNAL USE ONLY Jack Matirko was raised in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but it didn't take. His projects include The Left Hemispheres Podcast, The Naked Diner Podcast, and An Ongoing and...