Ukrainian attorney Olena Lysenko stepped onto the California State University, Stanislaus campus with a small blue and yellow ribbon tied to her handbag, and while it looked like a simple accessory it actually represented something much more serious: the Ukrainian revolution.
Blue and yellow are the colors of the Ukrainian flag but also the flag of the European Union of which Ukrainian citizens hope to join. But in the wake of political upheaval that includes increasing Russian sentiments on behalf of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who has fled the country, Ukraine is in the midst of another revolution that is being called the “Revolution of Dignity.” Largely headed by students, citizens of Ukraine have taken to the main square in the capital city of Kiev to protest what they see as Russia’s exploitation of a weak political system within Ukraine among other ongoing internal issues. On Monday, Lysenko was just one of five Ukrainian lawyers that made their way to California to learn about the legal system in the United States and inevitably comment on their nation’s current crisis.
The international visit was made possible through the Open World Leadership Program, a congressionally funded program that brings leaders from post-Soviet Union era countries to learn about systems within the United States and develop relationships to provide a foundation for mentoring in their own country. This program was administered through the Modesto Sister Cities International, a nonprofit organization that promotes international peace between nations through sister city partnerships which are based on geographic, sociological, demographic and industrial similarities between international cities. The organization is a product of President Dwight Eisenhower’s citizen diplomacy initiative in 1956, and Modesto has had a relationship with Khmelnitskiy, Ukraine, a town from which several of the delegates were from.
“The goal is to develop diplomacy person to person so that delegates can build bridges across national borders,” said Adrian Harrell, president of the Modesto Sister Cities International Board of Directors.
While the delegates stated that the ongoing Ukrainian crisis did not impact their trip to California, Lysenko acknowledged the emotional stress that the crisis has caused in Ukraine. Ukraine is largely composed of Russo-Ukrainian families due to the countries’ overlapping history and this has caused anxieties among Ukrainian families and placed “constant pressure” on citizens, said Lysenko through Yevhen Bobyk, who served as facilitator and interpreter. Tetyana Sivak, a practicing attorney in mainly criminal cases who used to live in Russia and now resides in Ukraine, candidly stated that she does not support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s politics, stating that it is illegal and immoral to occupy another country’s territory and claiming it as one’s own.
The lawyer’s well honed political opinions and extensive legal knowledge provided local students a realistic insight into the problems in Ukraine and laid the groundwork for a global conversation in Marjorie Santos-Walker’s “Guerilla Revolutions of the 20th Century” class, just one of several appearances in the area. James Tuedio, dean of the College of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences that hosted the delegates, expressed that the lawyers’ visit provided something to CSUS students he deems an important component of academic education: reality.
“We want to learn from them their curiosities and we have our own curiosities on the stabilities and developments they’ve made as a country since the last revolution,” said Tuedio. “It’s important for our students to have a grounded reality check.”