Bedford resident Vladislav Shapiro, a Ukrainian-American from Kyiv, says his homeland is enveloped in “an existential war.” Russia’s aggression reflects an imperial “regime and philosophy and ideology for last 300 years. The world cannot contain that.”
Shapiro will speak on “Root Causes of the Russian Invasion in Context: Ukraine’s History, Culture, and People” on the next two Sundays, Jan. 29 and Feb. 5, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the First Parish Church on the Common. The free lectures are part of the church’s Lyceum series, and there will be ample time for questions.
Among Shapiro’s emphases will be cultural and historical differences between the Ukraine and Russian populations.
“My biggest goal is trying to educate Americans about what is going on,” Shapiro said in an interview. “I really want to educate people on the realities, and I really want to hear their questions — our community wants to know what the American public wants to know.”
Shapiro, who grew up in Kyiv, said he was about nine years old when he learned that relatives were among the 34,000 Jews massacred by Nazi forces in 1941 outside the city in a ravine called Babi Yar. “At that time in the Soviet Union, you learned that you were Jewish early – and not in a pleasant way.”
He earned his undergraduate degree at Moscow State University and arrived in the United States in 1991 – shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union – to attend a graduate program in math at Brandeis University. That’s where he made his first connection with Bedford, he said: playing pickup basketball with a group that included longtime resident Lou Ennis, a university vice president who was in his 60s.
“It took me 10 years to get my green card, through education and work,” said Shapiro, now an advisor in the cybersecurity industry with a worldwide clientele.
“The Ukrainian community in Boston is pretty big, but we’re in our own bubble,” Shapiro said. “We need to go out and start talking to Americans. How can we promote Ukraine in the United States? It’s the biggest country in Europe, with 42 million people. And for a long time, it has been in the shadow of Russia.”
Indeed, he said, that hierarchy can be traced back some 350 years to the period of the czar Peter the Great. Through the generations, he said, an attitude of cultural superiority became entrenched.
Russians, Shapiro alleged, “see Ukraine as a separate nation, but they have a funny dance, they sing great, they have great alcohol, great soil. But what are they going to do without Russia?” He said it reminds him of a line from the song in the musical Hamilton,” when King George tells the colonists, “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”
“There is something called the Russian world – Russian people and other Slavs who belong to that world,” he said, and it is patronizing. Russia looks at Ukrainians “like misbehaving young children. The attitude is: This is territory of people who are supposed to be Russians.” He said in Russia, “to speak in derogatory terms about non-Russians is normal, even among intellectuals.
“Russian nationalism believes everyone in the Russian world should obey and accept the fact of cultural superiority,” Shapiro observed. “Ukrainian patriotism is about keeping Ukrainian culture intact. We need to prioritize what was lost.”
Currently in the country, he said, citizens are attempting to destroy symbols as a backlash against Russian culture. “The monuments remind people of painful memories.”
Ukrainian students learned history as written by Russians, he said. “In Ukraine, you didn’t speak the Ukrainian language. The message was that the Ukrainian language was for peasants. The intellectuals were speaking Russian.”
There was a time in the 1970s when the use of Ukrainian was grounds for imprisonment, he added.
“For a long time, Russians were not allowing the world to know about Slavic languages or cultures, particularly Ukrainian,” Shapiro stated. During the dictatorship of Josef Stalin, he added, promotion of Russian arts and letters in the West was underwritten by the KGB.
The West, he explained, is the cultural enemy, “luring Ukrainians. Russians believe they are fighting a holy war against western influence.” Russia regards the West as “a beautiful place – to spend money in. This ideology brought this war.”
Shapiro said most of the Russian population is “100 percent sure they are not fighting Ukrainians. They are fighting the Ukrainian government that is being lured, and Ukrainians are just puppets. I have relatives in Russia who still believe in that.”
He commented that Ukraine will prevail only when the U.S. and European allies make every weapon available – short of nuclear. Putin will threaten, but should not be believed, as Russian oligarchs have worldwide financial interests.
“We need to tell our politicians that you are talking to a school bully,” Shapiro said, which ends “as soon as a bigger kid shows.” And if Putin wants to talk, “the first thing you do is pull out of Ukraine.”
The biggest winner of an extended war will be China, Shapiro pointed out, because as customers of Russian energy dwindle, China’s purchases will be cheaper. He noted that the current war was launched on Feb. 24, 2022, two days after the close of the Olympics in China, because the leader of China demanded the delay.
Shapiro thinks the very survival of Russia as a modern state is in question.
“The best and smartest people are gone – anyone I knew who has half a brain is already gone,” Shapiro said, adding that was one of Putin’s goals. “He wanted every smart person out.”
Although he has spoken informally several times, Shapiro said, “I am not a politician. I am a mathematician.”