I remember reading George Orwell’s "1984" when I was in high school. It felt particularly real to me because I came from the world in which what seems like fiction to others was my reality.
For those who don’t know, "1984" is about communism and the scary, paranoid world that it brings. The book describes a consolidated system of government control and the total annihilation of freedom of thought. The slogan that I always associate with it is, “Big Brother is watching you.”
This phrase, and "1984" more generally, rings so true today because of Putin’s agenda for Ukraine.
Ever since he came to power, Putin has been determined to continue the past tradition of totalitarian rule.
He sees Joseph Stalin as his greatest predecessor -- a man who was responsible for human suffering and genocide.
In Ukraine, Stalin killed an estimated 7 million people through starvation because they wanted their independence from Russia. As described by The History Place, "Ukrainians perished in this farming area, known as the breadbasket of Europe, with the people deprived of the food they had grown with their own hands." Stalin also shipped Ukrainians off to Siberian prison camps.
Stalin, like Putin, wanted Ukraine to be an extension of Russia and to control the minds of each and every Ukrainian.
Ukrainians however, wanted to live differently and posed a great challenge to Stalin.
Stalin's response? Ethnic cleansing.
The brightest were eliminated first, as they posed the biggest threat. The masterful and the talented followed soon after.
The hard working farmers and countrymen were left without their own crops to starve to death, leaving Ukraine half empty.
Soon after this unfathomable genocide, Stalin repopulated Eastern Ukraine with Russians in order to consolidate his control over the region.
This period is called "Holodomor" (which means "death by starvation"). It happened in the early 1930s, about the same time the United States was suffering through the Great Depression.
Funnily enough, when I lived Ukraine I learned about the Great Depression, but not Holodomor. Stalin swept Holodomor under a rug as if it did not exist.
It was forbidden to talk, write or educate about Holodomor in the Soviet Union.
To this day, Putin denies that Holodomor ever happened.
Imagine if the Great Depression was wiped from the annals of history. If we didn’t have a chance to learn from it to make sure that it never happens again. How big would the ripples run in society from concealing the truth to such a degree?
Today, the situation in Ukraine is a direct echo of the past. The past of the pain that was hidden for too long. Ukrainians never got a chance to mourn their lost generations to the communist regime.
We were forbidden from knowing our own history. In this way, we were forbidden to love our own country.
When I came to the United States, I learned American history with the greatest enthusiasm – the good and the bad.
By learning about the Boston Tea Party, manifest destiny, slavery and the Civil War, I grew to be an American. I learned to be a real patriot without anyone forcing me to become one.
I learned to love my new home and at the same time love Ukraine more than ever before. I never had to choose; in America I could love both.
Ukrainians have not been given the same opportunity. And the biggest threat to Ukraine’s patriotism is Putin.
Putin is determined to make it a crime to love Ukraine -- either because he does not understand a single drop of patriotism or because he understands it all too well.
However, the difference between today and the 1930s is that if Stalin could conceal his atrocities, Putin no longer can.
Could Putin continue ethnic cleansing in the time of freedom of information?
Could he get away with annexing Crimea when everyone is watching?
It remains to be seen.
So far, President Obama and European leaders have not put enough real pressure on Russia for Putin to back down.
Things are getting worse in Crimea by the hour. Journalists who are brave enough to steam videos and report from the war zone are being brutally beaten by Russian troops.
Putin is trying his hardest to not to let anyone see what he is doing in Ukraine. But what is truly frightening is that if the West proves too weak, there is nothing is hold Putin back from executing another round of genocide in Ukraine, or anywhere else for that matter.
It is surely harder today to get away with killing 7 million people, but destroying them morally, emotionally, and culturally is certainly doable.
Russians will only negotiate if they feel the pain of sanctions and market disruption. They don't want to be or expect to be reasonable.
It is therefore Obama’s job to stand up in Putin’s way so that the there is no chance that another 7 million Ukrainians disappear.