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Russell Frank: Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, Boy

by on May 11, 2012 6:00 AM

Word travels fast, if not accurately.

“I hear you’re going to Uganda,” said an acquaintance at a downtown café.

Close, at least alphabetically: I’m going to Ukraine.

(Come to think of it, there are a surprising number of countries whose names start with a U: United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, not to mention the UK and the USA.)

Specifically, I’m going to Lviv, formerly know as Lvov, formerly know as Lemberg, formerly known as Lwow. That’s what happens to a place name when it’s in a part of the world where empires rise and fall like the tides. In the past couple of centuries, Lviv, which is in the region known as Galicia, has been controlled by Poland, by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and by the Soviet Union. Now it’s part of an independent Ukraine.

Other Ukrainian cities you may have heard of are Kiev, the capital (and birthplace of the famous chicken dish); Odessa of “Friday Night Lights” fame (just kidding: that Odessa is in Texas); Yalta, where that iconic photo was taken of the Big Three (no, not LeBron, Dwyane and Chris, but Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin); and Sebastopol, the massage-therapy capital of the world (kidding again: that one is in Northern California).

Ukraine has been in the news lately, and not in a good way. The impressively braided former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko says she was beaten in prison, where she landed on corruption charges widely viewed as trumped-up. Ukraine had to cancel a Central European summit in Yalta when invitees began bowing out to protest Tymoshenko’s treatment.

Not to worry, though. I’ll straighten things out when I get over there in September. Actually, I’m going to Ukraine to teach journalism, American style. Those of you who regard American journalism as a shambles might think this is the last thing Ukraine needs, especially if taught by the likes of me, but let me simply say I am going to attempt to teach best practices in American journalism.

Class will be in English. The language of Western Ukraine is – surprise! – Ukrainian. It’s a lot like Russian, except that instead of saying Lvov, you say Lviv. At the moment I cannot even say “hello” in Ukrainian, but by the end of the summer I hope to be able to translate such newsroom mottoes as “get it first, but first, get it right” and “if your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

The way this came about is: Last summer I was scanning the list of Fulbright awards. Some countries were open to applicants from any discipline. Some, like France, slightly narrowed the focus to the social sciences and the humanities. Ukraine was specifically looking for someone to teach exactly what I teach, news writing and ethics. Since Fulbright only lets you apply for one award, it made sense to apply for the one I had a decent chance of getting.

Plus I liked the idea of doing my small bit to help a former Soviet Socialist Republic grope its way toward a freer, watchdog-style press.

So I applied. Two weeks ago, I got the good news. My dad left a choked-up voice mail saying it was the proudest day of his life and that a Fulbright was almost like winning a Nobel Prize.

Whoa, there, Pop! It’s very sweet to make your father proud but for all I know, I was the only person in the Milky Way Galaxy to apply for a Fulbright to teach journalism in Ukraine this year.

In fact, when I told friends I had “won” a semester in Ukraine, more than one of them said, “What was second prize? Two semesters?”

Nyuk, nyuk.

I almost called the Fulbright folks and said thanks but no thanks. After all, I had a pretty good backup plan: spend my sabbatical in Northern California, writing my little heart out. California would certainly be warmer, sunnier and easier than Ukraine.

Then there was this: If there hadn’t been a Holocaust, an American Jew could visit Ukraine the way an Italian-American visits Italy – to connect with the Old Country. There were more than a million Jews in Ukraine in 1939. Now there are a little more than 100,000. And as Daniel Mendelssohn makes clear in his superb “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” at least some Ukrainians willingly, even gleefully participated in the butchery.

One friend said, “Why do you want to live among a bunch of anti-Semites?”

But the history is more complicated than that. Others Ukrainians hid their Jewish neighbors in barns, cellars and attics. And today, Jews are trickling back in.

So I’ve gone from regarding a sojourn in Ukraine as an impossible attempt to see what is no longer there, to experience absence, to seeing it as a chance to witness the reestablishment, however small, of a presence.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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