Marco Werman: The complicated history of Crimea and Ukraine has also left a mark on the region's people. Just ask our frequent contributor, reporter Alina Simone. She was born in eastern Ukraine to a Russian mother and a Jewish father.
Alina Simone: Identity in the Ukraine and in former Soviet Union has been really codified according to almost your genetics. It almost just requires a blood test. So your passport defines your identity as Jewish, Ukrainian, Russian, Tatar. As someone who was half Jewish, half Russian, my parents got to choose which identity was put on my passport and they chose Russian.
Werman: Did your father or your parents encourage you to claim any specific identity?
Simone: No, absolutely not. In eastern Ukraine, during the Soviet era especially, this was a heavily Russianized area in part because that's what was taught in schools and that's what was emphasized by the Soviet government. Russia was the dominant country in that exchange. So my father learned Ukrainian in school. He speaks and writes Ukrainian but he describes it as "a class that was easy to get out of." So my mother, who moved from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Kharkov when she was young, she was excused from this class and never had to learn Ukrainian, even though she was living in Ukraine.
Werman: So, as you said, you were born in Kharkov. Do you think of yourself as Russian then, or Ukrainian?
Simone: It's very complicated. I guess I do think of myself as Russian because this is the language that I was raised speaking and half of my family is from St. Petersburg. On the other hand, after the Orange Revolution, my father really got a lot more interested in current events in Ukraine and started paying much closer attention and, for the first time, really started encouraging me to own that part of my identity. I remember he said to me, "You know, by Western standards, you are Ukrainian. Our family has lived there for generations, and if we're moving toward a definition of Ukrainian that is more defined by people living within a certain territory who are invested in common ideals, who live on that territory, then you should feel comfortable saying you're Ukrainian and owning that heritage."
Werman: And what about that language you grew up speaking, Alina? Why Russian and not Ukrainian? Especially if your father was like, "You might want to think about making a stronger claim to this Ukrainian identity."
Simone: Well, my mother didn't speak Ukrainian and neither did my grandparents, who played a large role in raising me. They were all from Russia, so that's really why. My father was the one who was really born and raised in Ukraine, so he was the one who knew that culture and that language the best.
Werman: Yours and your family's is but one story but I bet it's duplicated many, many times and so there's got to be a lot of confusion all over the place with who's a Ukrainian anymore.
Simone: Yes, it's a country full of mixed ethnicities and I think it's really important to remember that because these cartoon-simple maps keep getting flashed on CNN with red blocks and blue blocks or orange blocks and what not, and I think it's really important to remember that location does not automatically equal loyalty and nor does language. I think, as in the US, there are plenty of people that speak languages that do align them with the politics of that country at all. The same goes for Ukraine. Just because you are primarily a Russian speaker, even if you are solely a Russian speaker, that does not mean that you support Russian annexation. There are plenty of pro-Midone protesters who spoke Russian as a primary language. Similarly, my father spoke to a friend in Kharkov this weekend who is an ethnic-Ukrainian who supports Russian annexation.
Werman: Alina, what's your biggest concern about Ukraine at this point?
Simone: Honestly, as someone who lived through the Cold War, my biggest concern is a renewal of those tensions. The tensions between Europe, America and Russia.
Werman: Our friend and a regular contributor here at The World, Alina Simone. Thanks for your thoughts on this.
Simone: Thanks Marco.