"Ukraine is Not Giving Up": On The Hope for A Free, Democratic, Multiethnic Ukraine
Interview with Oleksandr Shyn, a Korean-Ukrainian student living in Taiwan.
When we attended the Ukrainian solidarity protest last week, we were drawn to a speech by a Korean-Ukrainian student living here in Taiwan. We reached out for an interview, and we’re so grateful that he agreed to share his life story with us. Here he discusses his fears and anxieties about his parents, who are in the Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine. Oleksandr Shyn speaks movingly of his hopes for a democratic Ukraine and about his family’s migration: his grandfather was one of nearly two hundred thousand Soviet Koreans deported by Stalin from Far East Russia.
His parents grew up in Uzbekistan, where Olek was born and lived until he was one, when they moved to Ukraine. Since last October he’s been in Taiwan, pursuing a master’s degree in indigenous language education policy. Our conversation ranged from the current war to his family’s journey to his sense of identity as a Korean Ukrainian and his hopes for a free, democratic, multiethnic Ukraine. We were struck by his self-possession, clarity, and fearless sense of conviction.
Albert: How are your parents and loved ones? Are they okay?
Olek: My parents live in a small village near Crimea. Most Korean Ukrainians live in southern villages, because there’s easier access to the fields. Most people do agriculture, and normally you have several Korean families per village. As it’s so close to Crimea, the Russians managed to occupy the whole area on the first day of their attacks.
That’s when I felt especially devastated—really helpless and desperate and useless. I’m here and they’re there, and they were now outside of the control of the Ukrainian government. You don’t know what to expect in that case. You don’t know what’s going to happen if there’s a shelling, if someone is injured. Are ambulances still working? Are all social services still operational? What’s going to happen? I was very anxious.
By the time I talked to them, at the end of the first day, they were already under Russian occupation. The front lines had already moved north by about thirty kilometers. They seemed fine. There was no more shelling, no more explosions. They told me the electricity had gone out for a short time but it was back. There were some wi-fi problems. But the tanks had passed through already. They didn’t stop in the villages. I think they passed on to more important towns and cities to fight there.
Now they can sit down and pretend nothing’s happening; they hear one or two explosions per day, far away. Some of my Korean relatives have even managed to go out into the fields, because it’s actually the season when you bring stuff out from the greenhouses to plant them.
Michelle: Could you share a little bit about your background as a Korean Ukrainian?
Olek: I come from a family of Soviet Koreans. In 1937, Stalin, who was afraid of Japanese spies in the area, deported people of Korean descent from the Russian Far East to Central Asia. It was one of his most massive deportations. It was also the first one of an entire ethnic group.
My ancestors lived for three generations in Central Asia, in Uzbekistan. My grandpa was deported there when he was a child. My parents were born in Uzbekistan and spent their whole lives there. I was also born in Uzbekistan. In 1996, when I was one year old, we migrated to Ukraine. My whole family now lives in southern Ukraine, in a province called Kherson, which borders Crimea. These areas are all currently occupied by Russia.
Albert: Why did your family decide to go to Ukraine in 1996?
Olek: Many reasons, but mainly for agriculture. Most Koreans in Uzbekistan back then were farmers, including my grandparents. My parents are farmers as well.
Ukraine is a huge country, and in the South you have a lot of land called “black soil,” which is some of the most fertile soil in the world. Many Koreans in the 1990s, given the economic stagnation in Uzbekistan after independence alongside the Soviet collapse, decided to move to Ukraine.
Going back to Korea was not an option, because obviously in the 1990s there were already two Koreas, which was very different from the history my parents and grandparents had experienced. North Korea wasn’t an option for most people, and South Korea wasn’t either because it was very distant for them mentally.
You’ve probably heard of another ethnic group called the Crimean Tatars. In 1944, they had a similar experience of being deported by Stalin to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. After independence, a lot of Crimean Tatars decided to come back to Ukraine, to Crimea, their historical homeland, and many Koreans started coming over around the same time. At some point the Korean embassy in Ukraine estimated that there were around forty thousand ethnic Koreans living there.
Albert: What was your sense of identity growing up?
Olek: Yeah, it’s a very interesting question. I identify as Korean, for sure. We’ve always identified as Koreans, and I think for most ethnic Koreans in Ukraine that’s the case. We who grew up in Ukraine or Uzbekistan are very alienated, detached from the two Koreas. We know we’re Korean people; that was never an issue. But language is a different thing. When I was a kid, I learned only very limited vocabulary from my parents. My parents don’t really speak much Korean. They were the generation that were the most Russified, so they lost a lot of their language. Even though they can converse a bit in Koryo-mar, which is the dialect Koreans from former Soviet countries use, they can’t write or read Korean script because they were never educated to.
In conversations with my Asian-American friends, I have the impression that they grew up somehow trying to suppress their ethnic heritage. There’s a big difference, in that regard, with Ukraine. Perhaps this is because of the Soviet tradition, which promoted some sort of equality, however flawed, where all people of all ethnicities are there to build an ideal Communist society. For us, it’s never a question of whether we’re Koreans or not. It’s always clear that we’re Koreans. I’d say very few of the Korean Ukrainians I’ve known have a problem identifying as Korean, even though we don’t speak the language or anything. I think that’s common among ethnic minorities in Ukraine, like Armenians or Greeks or Georgians. It’s very normal to know for sure that we’re Korean, and we’re proud of it.
It was only recently and more in my generation in Ukraine, after the 2014 revolution, that there was a very quick spike in pro-Ukrainian sentiment. Even among many Koreans, especially people about my age, we would call ourselves Ukrainians. And that was a break from how we traditionally identified. In Russian, there’s the word Russkiy, which means ethnically Russian, and there’s the term Rossiyanin, which refers to someone who has Russian citizenship. We also have that difference in Ukraine, so before 2014 I would say I was Korean by ethnicity and Ukrainian by citizenship. That would make sense to people. I mean, as in other parts of the world, racism is everywhere in Ukraine. But the way people perceive ethnicity versus citizenship is very different.
After the Maidan revolution, there was a dramatic shift. People began to say they were Ukrainian. People began accepting that as normal. So when I told people I was Ukrainian, it wasn’t as much of a surprise anymore. To be honest, when I meet members of the Ukrainian community in Taiwan, they’re surprised because most people here come from areas outside of south Ukraine, so they have no idea that there are actually historically East Asian populations here. They know there are Vietnamese and Chinese diasporas in big cities. But when they hear an obviously East Asian–looking person speaking Ukrainian, they do get surprised.
But it’s not a big issue. When I say I’m Ukrainian, they understand that I’m a Ukrainian citizen without digging into the ethnicity question. But I think that gives you a sense of how, for those of us who talk about building democracy or building a Ukrainian state or just reimagining our society after the revolution and during and after this war, these are the conversations we’re having.
Michelle: Does your sense of identity differ from that of your parents or grandparents?
Olek: Before Thursday, my parents had very positive sentiments about Russia. They thought about Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as having some sort of political unity. Not necessarily full integration, but some sort of cultural or political unity. I would often see how they projected that into hating the U.S. and the EU.
But it all changed last week.
My mom saw my posts on Facebook about the protests here. During the protests, we chant Слава Україні! [Slava Ukraini!], which means “glory to Ukraine,” and the response is Героям слава! [Heroiam slava!]. The phrase originated as the patriotic nationalist chant of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose history is contested because the Soviet Union did everything Russia is doing right now to brand the insurgents as Nazis. For many Ukrainians, they symbolize the fight for the country’s independence. So the people who advocate for being friendly with Russia normally don’t accept this chant. Some would say the chant sounds aggressive, you know?
So I was surprised when my mom responded to one of my posts with Слава Україні! And when I called her, I could tell she was really disappointed by what Russia’s doing. My dad was just simply overwhelmed.
These days, everyone I see just uses the chant to show solidarity with Ukraine. And that’s a major change. I’ve never seen this much solidarity among Ukrainians. The border and the polarization have fallen away. Many people I talk to feel this is going to be a new Ukraine, and that we’re all united in our hate for Putin. I’m not going to pick another word; that person deserves nothing but hate from any Ukrainian. But I think the legacy will probably change Ukraine for the better; Putin managed to unite Ukrainian society. It shows how in the worst of times people manage to overlook such superficial things. You know, after this war is over, we can deconstruct and put it into a certain framework to define this new Ukrainian identity that we’ll all have moving forward. But there’s just so much solidarity right now.
Albert: It seems like language is a big part of your story. Did you learn Ukrainian in school growing up?
Olek: Until I was seven, I only spoke Russian at home. That was the main language between my parents and me. I was one when we moved to Ukraine, but we didn’t have a TV and I didn’t really have Ukrainian friends. I started learning Ukrainian when I was seven, when I first started going to school. I don’t remember the whole process; I feel like in a year or two I just started speaking, and there’s that critical period where suddenly you’re fluent.
We live in a small village where people speak what we call Surzhyk, a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. People also call it “Russified Ukrainian” because Ukrainian wasn’t standardized for a very long time due to constant bans and all the oppressive policies from the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and so on. So people do speak a mix of languages—it’s often Russian words with Ukrainian pronunciation. But mentally we perceive it as Ukrainian.
When I was a kid, when I would say something, people would say to me, “You’re speaking Russian.” But I would respond, “Well, you’re not specifically speaking Ukrainian to me either.” [Laughs]
At school, we had to speak standard Ukrainian, the one we use right now. That’s when I transitioned from colloquial to formal Ukrainian.
When I entered ninth grade, I transferred to a public school in Kharkiv. I’m sure you know that name now, as it’s one of the most heavily shelled cities today. There’s a Korean school there, a comprehensive school for just two hundred kids. It’s a public school, under the Ministry for Education, but it also has a lot of funding from the South Korean embassy. So I studied there from grades nine to eleven.
Albert: Was the school majority Korean-Ukrainian?
Olek: Oh no, of two hundred kids only about fifteen of us were Koreans. The rest were mainly Georgians, Vietnamese, Georgians, and Russians.
Albert: And they all had to learn Korean.
Olek: Yes, but of course not as diligently as us. [We all laugh.]
Michelle: How much Korean study was required?
Olek: Five hours a week. It was a required foreign language. It’s more than what indigenous Taiwanese kids learn of their language right now. And imagine non-Korean kids in Ukraine, like Russians, having to learn Korean for five hours a week. But normally for one of the five hours we’d just watch a show or something in Korean.
Even though it was the main curriculum from grade one, our Korean-language education wasn’t that good because of a lack of teachers. But it was more than enough to convince me that I had a connection to the language. In 2013, I went to Korea for my bachelor’s and applied for the National Scholarship. I went to Seoul National University.
Michelle: What was it like going from Ukraine to South Korea?
Olek: It was a totally different journey in terms of realizing who I am. Because, as I mentioned, in Ukraine we grew up 100 percent sure we were Korean. For most of us ethnic Korean teenagers there, yes, there’s this country called South Korea, which is perhaps our historical motherland. But when you go there, you hit a wall. You realize this isn’t the Korea you imagined. I went around the time the Korean wave—K-pop, K-drama—was spreading all over the world. A lot of Korean Ukrainian kids started going to South Korea for summer camp. They’d learn Korean or take culinary cuisine courses.
We all had very different responses. Some of us learned South Korean very quickly and adopted the identity. But many of us realized that even though we identified with this country to a certain extent, we’re more Ukrainian than we are South Korean.
Michelle: What makes the difference? Was there an experience in Korea that you felt was particularly alienating?
Olek: Especially after 2014, I felt more responsibility for Ukraine. A shift happened with me: I realized that while I do represent Korea in many contexts, I don’t have a connection to the current South Korean history of nation-building and state-building. I wasn’t there for that, and my ancestors weren’t either. In Ukraine, on the other hand, the process was ongoing. And in 2014, when we started going out for protests to support Ukraine against Russia, and started this cultural group in Korea to rally Ukrainians together, there were a lot of Korean Ukrainians in Korea. That’s when we started openly talking about how we’re Ukrainians and how we need to remember that. We did identify to a certain extent with another country, with another culture.
Ukrainian culture and identity are the minority in the context of the greater Russian cultural sphere. We grew up with this ingrained, internalized perception that everything about Ukrainian is substandard—that it’s deviant and not as perfect as Russian. That’s the mindset my parents grew up with. Only in the past several years did my parents start seeing Ukrainian language and culture as their own thing. They had constantly been looking through the lens of Greater Russia, which they had adopted as one of the model minorities in Uzbekistan. In my generation, we had a real shift in realizing that this was a colonial problem. Not many people use that term when they speak about Russia. I wish they did. I’m not sure if you heard the Kenyan ambassador to the UN recently.
Albert: We did.
Olek: It aligns so well with what Russia is doing and shows a lot of similarities between Ukraine and countries in Africa or in the global South more broadly. This is a heated point of discussion in the Ukrainian community here, by the way. I see Russians here supporting us, and we’re grateful because a lot of things depend on them; Russians who speak up against their government are very important. But Russians here in support of Ukraine communicate to Taiwanese society that Russians aren’t guilty, that this is a one-man war. Some Ukrainians don’t accept that. We do appreciate Russians standing up for us. But when they say, “I did not choose Putin and I did not choose this war,” I disagree. This is their battle. There are centuries of oppression that Russians haven’t grappled with. We’re fighting a lot of hate, as well as internalized hatred.
Even when I lived in Korea, we started talking more about how we grew up really thinking Ukrainian meant lower-quality. I would hear my Russian relatives or my relatives from Uzbekistan who consider themselves part of Great Russia talk about how, for example, the word in Ukrainian for helicopter can be said three ways; one sounds like a Slavic word, another one is from German, another one probably from French. I don’t know. All three are accepted. And when they hear that, they say, “What inconsistent speech! Why can’t they just come up with one unified word? How dare they even call it a language when they can’t decide?”
Well, that’s synonymous with their perception of the Russian language as powerful and great. And as kids we didn’t question that. We just grow up thinking the Ukrainian language was the language of villagers. But after 2014 we started questioning that. We started to dig into the question of colonialism. Russia never managed to decolonize. We see this as one of the driving forces behind what’s happening in Ukraine right now. And Russian allies here in Taiwan don’t understand that. When they tell Taiwanese journalists that this isn’t the Russian people’s war, that it’s Putin’s war, that no one in Russia supports it, they don’t understand that this isn’t entirely true. I go on Twitter and I see Russian people saying very hurtful things. They call us Nazis. They say Putin will rectify Ukraine. They say we deserve this. And my relatives in Russia will say, “You’re living in a land that’s historically part of Russia. This is only the right thing to do.”
Albert: I see you’re a spokesperson for the Liberal Democratic League of Ukraine. Could you tell us more about what you do?
Olek: The LDLU is a youth-led NGO. We started as advocates for liberal democracy in Ukraine. I was appointed an officer for Asia. That’s the way we delegate responsibility. We want transparency, accountability from the government, and human rights. We’re against police brutality and for reforms in all public institutions, especially in terms of corruption, which is one of the biggest problems in Ukraine. In terms of international policy, of course we advocate for pro-European policies. We oppose Russia’s colonialism and imperialism.
We support Hong Kong; that’s one of the core things there. We have an institution called Free Hong Kong Center (FHKC) in Ukraine that’s affiliated with us. I think one of the reasons Hong Kong people support Ukraine so much right now is that they saw how much we did for them back during their protests.
Taiwan has become a very important part of our organization. One of the resolutions we adopted requests that the Ukrainian government recognize Taiwanese statehood, which, you know, is a little bit more than what many Taiwanese themselves want. [Laughter] But it shows how liberals in Ukraine tend to feel a lot of disappointment related to Ukraine’s pro-China policies. We appreciate the successes Taiwan is achieving in terms of human rights and democratic institutions. But we’ve been receiving so much support from Taiwan. I didn’t expect this much support. That’s very different from South Korea.
Albert: How is the support different?
Olek: In Korea we really felt like we had to fight alone. When we went out to protest the annexation in Crimea, even though a lot of Koreans showed solidarity, it was still the Ukrainian community that had to make South Koreans listen. In Taiwan, by contrast, we see effort just coming from every corner. We see so much.
Michelle: The president voiced her support today.
Olek: This morning five people from the Ukrainian community had a meeting with a legislator. And the Taiwanese set up a website to make donations from Taiwan easier.
Albert: How are you feeling, four days into this? What are you hopeful for?
Olek: It started with shock. Thursday was horrible. I cried a lot. I had these sudden outbursts of crying because I felt helpless and useless and desperate.
By the end of day one, the Ukrainian army showed us a miracle. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t just Putin who thought this would be a Blitzkrieg, right? We thought this would be quick—that we’d lose our capital city or that the president would leave the country. Now he’s being very brave and his ratings are skyrocketing. I can tell you he wasn’t as popular before this started. Many members of the Parliament did escape a day before, the pro-Russian ones; they flew out on their beautiful charter planes. So we did think he might leave, and that would be the end. We thought we’d lose our democratic Ukraine and in its place get a puppet state and whatever comes with it. All the achievements in human rights, civil society, the freedom we have in our NGO and all the advocacy we do—we wouldn’t have the right to do any of that under the Russian regime. But the army and the leadership in Ukraine changed that. I’ve never been more proud and hopeful, and I’ve never had more trust in our leadership.
Another type of ongoing warfare is disinformation. But the president and the ministers, mayors, and governors across Ukraine send updates every day about their being on duty. They’re not scared. This is all new, and the way they’re communicating allows constant access to information, which helps us abroad.
You see Ukrainians resorting to all kinds of optimism and humor. It’s everywhere. And I think it’s really helping. It reflects how hopeful we are. We share memes here in the Ukrainian community, in a Facebook group: just Ukrainian soldiers speaking to the people, you know, or a captive Russian soldier asking for his parents to bring him home to Russia. This inspires us because we can see that there’s hope. Ukraine is not giving up.
The Mandarin version of our newsletter came out early this week, on Monday. Here’s the link if you missed it.
Congratulations to Nomi Stolzenberg and David Myers, whose book, American Shtetl, got a rave review in the New Yorker. Also, for some historical context on the war in Ukraine, listen to David interview two experts on Eastern Europe and Russia on the excellent podcast, Then and Now.
For our March book club we will read Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies. Please put Friday, March 25th at 7 PM EST (8 AM Taiwan time) in your calendar. We will also finish discussions of Brothers Karamazov.
Since February, human rights activists have cycled for Tibet every Wednesday, rain or shine. This week, Michelle joined them, biking to the Moscow Representative office in Taipei to protest for Ukraine. (She almost got run over and discovered how out of shape she is.) Here are two pictures: