In March 24 last year, I was in my Toronto kitchen preparing school lunches for my kids when I learned from my Twitter feed that I had been put on the Kremlin’s list of Westerners who were banned from Russia. This was part of Russia’s retaliation for the sanctions the United States and its allies had slapped on Vladimir Putin’s associates after his military intervention in Ukraine.
For the rest of my grandparents’ lives, they saw themselves as political exiles with a responsibility to keep alive the idea of an independent Ukraine.
Four days earlier, nine people from the U.S. had been similarly blacklisted, including John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Harry Reid, then the majority leader of the Senate, and three other senators: John McCain, a long-time critic of Putin, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Dan Coats of Indiana, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. “While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family in Siberia this summer,” Coats wisecracked, “I am honored to be on this list.”
I, however, was genuinely sad to be barred from Russia. I think of myself as a Russophile. I speak the language and studied the nation’s literature and history in college. I loved living in Moscow in the mid-nineties as bureau chief for the Financial Times and have made a point of returning regularly over the subsequent fifteen years.
I’m also a proud member of the Ukrainian-Canadian community. My maternal grandparents fled western Ukraine after Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in 1939. They never dared to go back, but they stayed in close touch with their brothers and sisters and their families, who remained behind. For the rest of my grandparents’ lives, they saw themselves as political exiles with a responsibility to keep alive the idea of an independent Ukraine, which had last existed, briefly, during and after the chaos of the 1917 Russian Revolution. That dream persisted into the next generation, and in some cases the generation after that.
My late mother moved back to her parents’ homeland in the 1990s when Ukraine and Russia, along with the thirteen other former Soviet republics, became independent states. Drawing on her experience as a lawyer in Canada, she served as executive officer of the Ukrainian Legal Foundation, an NGO she helped to found.
My mother was born in a refugee camp in Germany before the family immigrated to western Canada. They were able to get visas thanks to my grandfather’s older sister, who had immigrated between the wars. Her generation, and an earlier wave of Ukrainian settlers, had been actively recruited by successive Canadian governments keen to populate the vast prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
Today, Canada’s Ukrainian community, which is 1.25 million-strong, is significantly larger as a percentage of total population than the one in the United States, which is why it is also a far more significant political force. And that in turn probably accounts for the fact that while there were no Ukrainian-Americans on the Kremlin’s blacklist, four of the thirteen Canadians singled out were of Ukrainian extraction: in addition to myself, my fellow Member of Parliament James Bezan, Senator Raynell Andreychuk, and Paul Grod, who has no national elective role, but is head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.
I made the Russian list of the unwelcome as a three-fer: an activist Ukrainian-Canadian, a politician (I was elected to Parliament in 2013 to represent Toronto Centre), and a journalist with a long paper trail that frequently displeased the Kremlin, since I covered Moscow’s brutal war in Chechnya in the 1990s and also wrote a book about the rise of the Russian oligarchs. I interviewed Putin himself in 2000, shortly after he took over as president. When, in 2011, he decided to take the presidency back from his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, I wrote a column in The New York Times arguing that Putin’s Russia was on its way to becoming a full-fledged dictatorship that would eventually be vulnerable to a popular uprising.
Until March of last year, none of this prevented my getting a Russian visa. I was, on several occasions, invited to moderate panels at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the Kremlin’s version of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Then, in 2013, Medvedev agreed to let me interview him in an off-the-record briefing for media leaders at the real Davos annual meeting.
Hear Chrystia on Putin’s “Novorossiya”
That turned out to be the last year when Russia, despite its leadership’s increasingly despotic and xenophobic tendencies, was still, along with the major Western democracies and Japan, a member in good standing of the G-8. Russia in those days was also part of the elite global group Goldman Sachs had dubbed the BRICs — the acronym stands for Brazil, Russia, India, and China — the emerging market powerhouses that were expected to drive the world economy forward. Putin was counting on the $50 billion extravaganza of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to further solidify Russia’s position at the high table of the international community.
President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight from Ukraine in the face of the Maidan uprising, which took place on the eve of the closing day of those Winter Games, astonished and enraged Putin. In his pique, as Putin proudly recalled in a March 2015 Russian government television film, he responded by ordering the takeover of Crimea after an all-night meeting. That occurred at dawn on the morning of February 23, 2014, the finale of the Sochi Olympics. The war of aggression, occupation, and annexation that followed turned out to be the grim beginning of a new era, and what might be the start of a new cold war, or worse.
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