On December 2 of this year, I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on day two of a three-day “residence” sponsored by the Ann Arbor Coalition Against War. The first day, December 1, saw a wonderful event the organizers called “Pubology”, set in the upstairs bar of the Original Cottage Inn. It was standing room only, with a very engaged crowd who had lots (and lots!) of outstanding questions.
The next day, December 2, found me in the Journey of Faith Church, with a very respectable crowd. I arrived early, and was standing to the side, collecting my thoughts (it is my goal to provide a unique talk every time I do public speaking, so I was trying to line up some chronologically consistent talking points that I could string together to make an hour-long presentation).
I did a quick survey of the room when I entered (an old habit dating back to my prior life) and was immediately drawn to a middle-aged man seated in the chairs that had been set out for the attendees. Most of the time when I come early to events like this, the people who are already seated at least make eye contact and smile. This guy didn’t. Instead, he was focused on a stack of flyers he held in his hand, and when he did lift his gaze, the look was not welcoming.
I don’t take being on the Ukrainian government-sponsored “Black List” (published by the Center for Countering Disinformation, part of the Office of the President) lightly. To be labeled a Russian propogandist and an information terrorist who should be arrested and tried as a war criminal is no laughing matter. The same can be said for the “Myrotvorets” (Peacemakers) hit list promulgated by the Ukrainian SBU (intelligence service). It is—literally—a death list, with those on it marked for “liquidation” at the hands of the Ukrainian secret services.
In short, between these two lists I had a giant target painted on my back, one that was largely funded by my own government for the purpose of suppressing my constitutional right of free speech. Moreover, here in the United States the odious ideology of Stepan Bandera is actively fostered and promoted, manifesting itself in “Heroes Parks” where the busts of Bandera and his Nazi colleagues are openly displayed and admired, to the halls of the US Congress, where lawmakers who once rightfully insisted US taxpayer dollars be prohibited from being used to train and equip Banderist organizations like the Azov Battalion, described by Congress as a White Supremacist Neo-Nazi terrorist organization, but now openly welcome senior Azov members into the People’s House, where they are feted and praised by Congressional hypocrites.
In this day and age of political violence, one doesn’t have to work too hard to come up with a scenario where a Banderist true believer imagines that an official green light has been given to act out and liquidate someone the US government has labeled an “information terrorist.”
This was on my mind as one of the event coordinators escorted this very same man up to where I was standing. He was wearing an overcoat which hid much of his torso and hips from view, and his arms remained folded across his chest, holding papers and who knew what else. The organizer handed me a piece of paper—one of the flyers the man was holding—and said he had some questions for me.
The top of the flyer was emblazoned with the word “Holodomor,” with a subtitle declaring “Forced Genocidal Starvation of Ukrainians by Soviet Union 1932-33.” The font colors were red and black—blood and soil, the colors of Bandera.
At the bottom of the page were the words “Slava Ukraini”—Glory to Ukraine, the Bandera salute.
My alarms were going off. I did a quick scan of the room, which was rapidly filling with people coming for the talk. None appeared to be in position to support this guy, but that could change in an instant. I took a step toward the man in the greatcoat, crowding him, thereby making it more difficult for him to unfold his arms, all the while staring into his eyes, looking for some indication of intent.
I saw fear and anger.
“Are you familiar with the Holodomor?” he asked in an aggressive tone.
“I am,” I answered, still staring at him. “I read Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow [the first definitive study of the famine of 1932-33 that swept through the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, killing millions] when it first was published back in the 80’s.”
“So you know about the genocide of the Ukrainian people,” the man said.
“I know of a human tragedy that befell millions of Soviet citizens in Ukraine, Belorussia, Russia, and Kazakhstan,” I replied.
“You’re a Russian propagandist!” the man exclaimed.
I had had enough. This guy was giving off all the signals of someone looking for trouble. I took a half step forward, crowding him some more. If he was hiding a knife or some other weapon, I’d be able to neutralize him before he could attack me.
“Fuck off,” I said, firmly, shocking him and my host. “Who the fuck do you think you are coming in here and addressing me like this?”
The man became very indignant. “Fuck off? What kind of event is this? Fuck off?”
I shuffled closer, staring at him.
“What, are you going to punch me?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. The correct answer was headbutt, followed by a knee to the solar plexus, followed by a head stomp.
If it got to that.
He stared back. “So now we are in a staring contest?” he asked.
I remained silent.
“You are a Marine,” he said. “You want to kill me!”
You have no idea, I thought.
The host quickly intervened, separating us. She tried to calm the man down, all the while looking perturbed. I took a step back, still focused on his hands, all the while scanning the room for any potential collaborators.
It was becoming clear this guy wasn’t an assassin, but rather someone out to pick a fight over Ukraine.
“What do you know about the Holodomor?” I asked.
“I know it was a genocide perpetrated by Stalin. One that is being continued today by Putin.”
I laughed. “Are you an academic? A Russian studies expert?” I questioned.
“I am a political scientist.”
“Do you speak Russian? Have you done the research into this topic yourself?” I queried.
“I spent five weeks in Ukraine.”
“When did you get back?” I probed.
“So let me get this straight,” I concluded. “You spent five weeks in Ukraine. That’s the extent of your expertise. And now you want to engage me in some sort of debate on the issue of the Holodomor? Get the fuck out of here.”
By this time the host had brought over some help, and the man in the greatcoat was ushered back to his seat, all the while complaining about me to everyone in the crowd.
The event proceeded, and by all accounts was a success. The man in the greatcoat was given an opportunity to ask questions, which he did. Clearly my answers did not meet with his approval, given that he loudly proclaimed me to be a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He then got up to leave, the task of disrupting the event complete.
Afterwards, I grabbed one of the flyers he had been distributing amongst the attendees. After reading the text, it was clear this man was part of a broader political effort designed to use the narrative of the Holodomor as a vehicle to denigrate Russia and to promote Ukrainian nationalism.
“It is time,” the flyer declared, “to acknowledge that the current war in Ukraine is an extension of the genocidal policies of the Russian state. Such policies were a tactic of the USSR and continue to be so as directed by Vladimir Putin, in an effort to extend Russian rule over non-Russian republics of the now defunct Soviet Union.”
“It is time,” the flyer continued, “to reject Vladimir Putin’s claim that Ukrainians and Russians are ‘one people’ as a precursor to and defense for this War.”