New Razom Board Member: Maria Genkin

We are thrilled to announce a new member to the Razom Board of Directors: Maria Genkin.

Maria has been deeply involved with Razom since 2017 and has been an enthusiastic supporter since 2014 when she attended a concert by Taras Chubai in New York. It is Maria who co-founded and is now managing the Razom Book Club. It’s Maria who initiated and built the partnership with the Serhiy Zhadan Charitable Foundation in Ukraine. It’s Maria who recommended Razom to PEN America as an organization to host an open community meeting with Oleg Sentsov in New York, where Maria moderated the conversation from the stage in January this year.

Born and raised in Lviv, Maria grew up speaking Russian. She was drawn to Razom because the volunteers and the projects reflect the multi-dimensional characteristics of a modern, forward-looking Ukraine, and she is looking forward to promoting Ukraine by encouraging connections among various groups and regions around the common goal of establishing a successful and self-reliant European Ukraine.

Maria has kindly shared with us her personal path of establishing her identity as a Ukrainian, which you can find below.

We heartily welcome Maria at the Razom Board of Directors! Looking forward to amazing collaborations and fun while building a prosperous Ukraine project by project RAZOM.

My story
by Maria Genkin

As I am beginning my tenure as a member of Razom for Ukraine Board, I want to reflect on my background and the path I took to being involved in an organization working for a Ukrainian cause. It is not a straightforward path as in the last fifteen years I have started a Russian language school in NYC and served on the board of the Joseph Brodsky Fellowship Fund. Nevertheless to me it is part of the same story and it really comes down to my identity.

I have always considered myself a Ukrainian, but growing up Russian speaking in Lviv had made this identification somewhat difficult. Ukrainian and Russian communities in Lviv were not well integrated. In the late 80s and early 90s, with the resurgence of Ukrainian Nationalism and disintegration of the Soviet Union, these differences became especially apparent. To be a Ukrainian meant to speak Ukrainian exclusively, have relatives that fought for independencе, go to the newly resurrected Greek Catholic Church, own a vyshyvanka, that may have been passed down from a grandma, don’t eat meat at Christmas Eve dinner, and hold off all housework on Sundays. At least this was my perception of what ‘being a Ukrainian’ was at the time.

I did not fit that mold. My name was Maша Кiсельова. Even though my Ukrainian speaking grandparents lived only 200 kilometers east of Lviv, I spoke poor Ukrainian, went to a Russian school (coincidentally the same one where Ruslana Lyzhychko went at the time), and had mostly Russian speaking friends. My Ukrainian grandparents came from the other side of Zbruch, were ambivalent about Ukrainian nationalists, loved their socialism, and while they celebrated Christmas, nobody remembered that you were only supposed to have vegetarian dishes on the table.

My Ukrainian speaking mom from Khmelnytska oblast, met and subsequently married my Russian speaking dad, when they both attended Lvivska Polytechnica. He has lived in Lviv for most of his life. When she moved in with him, she also moved in with his dad, my grandfather. Grandfather was not a greatly educated man, who moved to Lviv after his retirement in 1959, and he did not speak a word of Ukrainian. Hence my mother switched to Russian, and when I was born, continued to speak Russian to me. The theories of bilingualism being beneficial to brain development were not yet popular at the time. 

My high school was a Russian high school, which was not that unusual. At least 35% of the population of Lviv was Russian speaking, and for the most part, it was not Russified Ukrainians, but transplants from Russia itself, that, like my grandparents, filled in the vacuum left by Holocaust and the post-war reallocation of Poles. I was fortunate to have amazing teachers of Ukrainian, but I am saddened to say that at that time of our lives we felt very removed from what was happening around us because of the language and our backgrounds. Many of my classmates felt like unwelcomed outsiders. The local brand of nationalism to us seemed quite outdated and unrelatable.

That was the time of ambiguity for me. Can I be a Ukrainian when I don’t fit here? Russia is now a different country, but I still have relatives there, and I feel cultural affinity, but at the same time, I do not feel as I fit there either, and there is a lot in Ukrainian culture that still matters greatly to me. Who am I?

After I enrolled in Lvivska Polytechnica, I started traveling in Ukraine more. I became a co-founder of the Lviv chapter of the International Student organization, AIESEC. Being in that organization introduced me to students from Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Berdyansk and Kherson.  Under the auspices of Bohdan Havrylyshyn, AIESEC Ukraine has established itself as an independent entity and I have attended our first congress in Donetsk in the winter of 1994. With this experience came a realization that there is a Ukraine bigger than our local Lviv version of it and with all of the differences in the regions, we have a common goal to build a prosperous Ukraine. Around the same time I also made a lot more Ukrainian speaking Lviv friends and I realized that I have had certain prejudices and they do not hold true once you meet real people and you start working on the common goal.

However, what changed it all was a scholarship from the Ukrainian Professional and Business Persons Organization that I received in the summer of 1994 to attend the Summer School at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI). Bohdan Vitvitsky, a former Federal Prosecutor,  was one of the sponsors. I took courses with George Grabowicz, a professor at HURI, and Virko Balley. Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, who is currently a director of the Canadian Ukrainian Institute, became a lifelong friend. I met Halyna Hryn, who is currently a president of НТШ, and Virlana Tkacz. But most importantly, I listened to a lecture on national identity by Roman Szporluk, at the time a professor of History at Harvard, and it was all of a sudden very clear to me. Identity is not something that is imposed on me by others – I define what my identity is. And no matter what language is dominant for me or what my background is, I have a right to choose to be a Ukrainian. And I have never changed that.

A year later, in 1995, I came to the states on a scholarship to attend Cornell University and met my husband. When his friend, himself a refugee from Moldova, came up to me asking “where in Russia are you from?”, my reply was very clear: “I am not from Russia, I am from Ukraine.” My future husband thought this was hilarious, as very few from his Russian speaking circle were actually “from Russia” and this was used generically to really mean “Where in the Soviet Union are you from?” However, for me even back then this was not an appropriate question. 

The other story my husband likes to tell is that he first noticed me when I showed up at some “Russian” movie festival soon after arriving in Cornell. When he asked around who I was, he was told not to bother: “She is from Ukraine”, was the answer, and the implication was – she is a strange one for sure.

But yet we clicked. My husband emigrated here in 1992 with his family as a refugee from antisemitism. His mom is a daughter of “rozkulachenykh” – four of her older siblings died in the forced movement of the family to Siberia from the Urals. And his father is a Ukrainian Jew from Dnipro. What connected us and still connects us is values, and not languages, religion, or identities. We both consider the current Russian government  criminal. We both would like to see Ukraine freed from corruption. But we do continue speaking Russian at home and when our children were born, we spoke and continue to speak to them in Russian. At the same time, we have not given them a Russian identity. They have visited Ukraine every year since they have been born. They have spent the traumatic summer of 2014 in a summer camp in the Western Ukraine with refugees from Donetsk. My son and I spent the summer of 2019 volunteering for Go Camp in Kharkiv oblast. While their connection to Ukraine is not built on the language, I like to think that it will be long lasting.

After my son Aaron was born in 2004, I realized that I wanted to take a break from the corporate world, and stopped working in Goldman Sachs in the spring of 2005. Many of my friends were getting married and getting pregnant at the time, and we realized that there was no Russian school in the city of New York at the time. And if we want the children to continue to speak the language we speak in the family, and know how to read and write, we need to build some structure for it. 

There is a separate question on why preserving Russian was important for us. And I can honestly say that if we had children after 2014, it would not be. But prior to 2014, there was not as much of a dichotomy for me between the language I grew up speaking and my identity, which was very clearly Ukrainian, even prior to 2014.

I organized the school with three friends, two of whom immigrated from Ukraine in the 1980s with their parents as Jewish refugees, and one who came from St Petersburg in the early 90s.  

The school is a private business, not an NGO, and is fully funded by tuition. We have never taken a penny from the Russian government or a Russian oligarch, and this is by choice. Neither I nor my partners were comfortable with the Russian government involvement even prior to 2014. This is not to say that the Russian government has not approached us in one way or another or tried to work with us. We have always refused the offers and stayed the course. We are a school of Russian language, not a Russian school. We teach the language, not the politics. When we start exploring the history, we shy away from contemporary style patriotic history, and instead explore the topics more relevant to american families attending our school. One of the books that we read with twelve year olds explores the issue of antisemitism in the Soviet Union, and the other, Elchin’s “Breaking Stalin’s nose” is about a child that is left an orphan because of Stalin’s purges. 

I was approached with a proposition to join the Board of the Joseph Brodsky Fellowship Fund  in 2013 and came fully on board in 2014.  I joined the board as I was quite impressed with the people on the board and because I agree with the mission of supporting those Russian artists that build the bridges with European culture and western values. Amond my fellow board members was venerable Bob Silvers, an editor of New York Review of Books, a universally admired person. 

I was not aware of Brodsky’s poem about Ukraine when I joined the board but found out about it shortly after. I have explored the circumstances around writing this poem with Ann Kjellberg, Brodsky’s literary executor, and I hope to eventually be able to foster a  discussion about this poem in Brodsky’s legacy with the involvement of the Ukrainian intellectual community.

Everyone on the board has been very supportive of Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, and I do not have any reason to think that Brodsky today would have felt differently. 

There were also some stark intersections between our Fellowship recipients and Ukraine. Elena Fanailova, a major Russian poet, and Radio Freedom host, is very vocal about her position. She has spent some of her fellowship translating Serhiy Zhadan into Russian. Boris Khersonsky, who as many of you know, is a Ukrainian poet based in Odesa, is also a Fellow. I have met Boris through the Fund and hosted a discussion with him in 2014 where we mostly spoke about Maidan and the situation in Ukraine.

I first met Zhadan through the Joseph Brodsky Fellowship Fund. We have hosted an evening with him for the NY literary world. Bob Silvers came and asked him to write for NYRB. The Head of the US Poetry Foundation was there as well as some other American poets and writers. 

Joseph Brodsky Fellowship Fund has never taken money from Russian government. In the last couple of years, their support has been coming from Zimin Foundation, a fantastic organization with a record of supporting exiles from Russia.

As for many of us, the last part of the transformation of my identity happened during the Maidan and years that followed. In 2014 I protested annexation of Crimea in front of the Russian Consulate, I posted obsessively in social media, and I also discovered a new organization coming together during the Maidan, called Razom. I quietly supported some of their initiatives and watched in awe how passionate and organized this group of people was. 

It was not until 2017 that I finally met some Razomtsi and organized a fundraising event with them benefiting Yara Arts. I then helped to organize yet another event that year with Slava Vakarchuk. With every event and every project, I met more and more wonderful young and passionate people that have the same goal that I have and that represent modern Ukraine in all of its diversity. This finally felt like home for my Ukrainian identity here in New York. I am proud to join the Board of this organization and to contribute to unlocking the potential of Ukraine.

/* */