A View of Ukraine

The violence and political unrest in Ukraine has been in the news for months, and Thomas F. Hogan ’67 P00 of Litchfield, Conn., recently shared with HCM his unique insight into one aspect of that country’s politics. The following article, entitled The Russian Personality and the Ukrainian Bureaucrat, is “based on the views of the Russian personality by a renowned diplomat, George Kennan,” Hogan explained to us, “contained in his famous ‘long telegram’ of February 1946, to his superiors at the State Department from his post in Moscow. Hogan, who practiced law from 1974 to 2003, was stationed in Ukraine with his wife, Judith, from 2003 to 2005 as U.S. Peace Corps volunteers. “We had almost daily contact with people from all elements of Ukraine society,” Hogan says, “and upon reflection, see how Ukrainian bureaucratic behavior 58 years later mirrored Kennan's observations." 

 

The Russian Personality and The Ukrainian Bureaucrat

The initial national renown accorded the late diplomat, George Kennan, arose from his famous “long telegram” of February 22, 1946 sent from Moscow to his superiors in Washington. In it, Kennan offered several observations about the Russian personality that he said contributed to the Soviet attitude toward other nations. Fifty-eight years later, Mrs. Hogan and I were living in southwest Ukraine as U.S. Peace Corps volunteers. We had the opportunity to observe the display of similar personality traits from Ukrainian bureaucrats who had adapted to Soviet method during the Cold War.

To start with, Kennan distinguished between the Soviet state leaders and ordinary citizens, and remarked so far as the Soviet leadership was concerned: “At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” He attributed that insecurity to a historical situation where a peaceful farming people were surrounded by fierce nomadic tribes. This geophysical feature was enhanced when Russian rulers realized that their land was surrounded by more sophisticated and competent societies. They suffered from an inferiority complex that convinced them that their system of government and conduct was inferior to others. Thus, they would shun contact with other nations. The rulers of Russia did not want their subjects to learn of other peoples and foreign ways.

We had a rather constant sense of this attitude when teaching secondary school and college students in Ukraine for four semesters. We were constantly asked by our students to tell them about America. What they thought they knew about America stemmed from what little they were taught by their teachers and from the type of newspapers one encounters at the grocery store checkout counter.

My wife taught at the collegiate level, but her students were no more knowledgeable than my seventh graders. For instance, we would be asked if all Americans had a swimming pool, to go with the three cars in the driveway. Did we know Brittany Spears and Arnold Schwarzenegger? They knew so little about the United States because they were taught so little. After all, the United States had been the enemy. To many adults in the Ukrainian bureaucracy, we probably still were.  And this reflects what George Kennan said about the Russian rulers being paranoid, not necessarily the ordinary people. You could see the earnestness of my youngest students in their facial expressions. They had had no experience with Americans being their enemy since they were just being born as the Soviet Union was dissolving and Ukraine was gaining its freedom.

The Director of my school was probably my age, and was reportedly, a former Communist Party functionary. How the staffs at our schools reacted to our presence evidenced Kennan’s description of an inferiority complex and an unwillingness to engage foreigners. While some of the younger teachers were willing to observe different teaching methods, the older ones were not, resisted the opportunity to interact with the two Americans in the classroom, shunned the chance to socialize and avoided any intellectual give and take in part because of their lack of fluency in English, and in part because they had been raised during the heart of the Cold War.

The Director was even more recalcitrant and served as an example of the bureaucrat Kennan described: “…for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries.” We had no classroom books for students, so we would make our own materials through Internet access or through books or magazines we managed to cobble together. But my school Director would not permit me to duplicate the materials on his copier, so the students went without, until we found ways to circumvent his obstinacy. Here was a sixty something, onetime Communist Party official refusing to allow the children in his charge to learn anything about the West.

Kennan continued: “Only in this land which had never known a friendly neighbor or indeed any tolerant equilibrium of separate powers, either internal or international…” could Marxism thrive. Into it came two middle aged U.S. volunteers, who must be viewed as a threat. It was simply what Kennan had described in 1946; there would be as little contact as possible between representatives of the East and the West.

Further evidence of this attitude occurred when we introduced English language books to our respective schools. Through the generosity of neighbors, friends, our church in Litchfield, teaching colleagues of Mrs. Hogan in Litchfield County, we were responsible for transporting almost two thousand English language books, five thousand miles to the schools in a small city on the Romanian border in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. We viewed the books as an opening from the West to the school children living east of Churchill’s drapery. The Director refused to send anyone to the post office to pick up the books. Through intervention of the Peace Corps the books eventually arrived, only to be secured in a locked library.

As Kennan puts it, Russian rulers “…have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between the western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned the truth about the world without….” In our community, a former Soviet Army Major had opened a computer business and approached us about his contributing an Internet connection to my school. We communicated this offer to the Director who for months refused to have anything to do with it. Again, the Peace Corps intervened, and a four way meeting involving the Peace Corp employee, the Major, the Director and me occurred, an agreement was reached, solemnized with a vodka toast, and weeks later, the agreement was broken by the Director.

Any troubles that we encountered stemmed from the bureaucracy in one form or another, whether train conductors, local militia or the post office. As Kennan would appreciate, we felt welcomed by ordinary citizens, our students, were invited to many homes, treated courteously by merchants etc. As we learned, and as the literature advises, the people of Ukraine trust first in themselves, then their families, then close friends. They don’t trust their government. Though much has changed from the 1940s, this suspicion arguably bears out Kennan’s observations about the Russian leaders, their fears, their inferiority complex, insecurity and wariness of contacts with the West. While Ukraine struggles today, we observed that the younger citizens wanted more contact, not less, with the West, and are exhausted by the corruption of their so-called leaders. We would offer that the personality traits, described by Ambassador Kennan decades ago, still obtain with many of the older generation in Ukraine, and certainly with the current leadership in Russia.

Thomas F. Hogan ’67 P00 practiced law in Litchfield County, Conn., from 1974 to 2003. In 2003, he and his wife, Judith, entered the United States Peace Corps and taught school for two years in Ukraine. Upon their return, Tom began teaching at the University of Connecticut. Prior to being a lawyer, Hogan served over three years active duty with the U.S. Army, including two years at the Pentagon in the Office of the Assistant Vice Chief of Staff.

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