Ukrainian-American author Maria Lewytzkyj opens our eyes toward Russia & Ukraine

Maria Lewytzkyj with Lys Anzia – WNN Interview

Ukrianian woman holds flag
In April 2013 a Ukrainian woman in Kiev holds the national flag during a rally that has high hopes for Ukraine’s inclusion into the European Union, along with a wish for stronger democratic representation inside the country. Image: Ivan Bandura/Flickr

(WNN) San Francisco, California, U.S., AMERICAS: Exploring the current situation for Ukranians who want to prevent what they call a Russian ‘invasion’ of their country, ex-CIA analyst and foreign policy writer Maria Lewytzkyj brings the issues covering the recent political struggles in Ukraine to the public in a new book that brought her into the region to talk in person with those most affected by changes that have been hitting Ukraine since the democracy movement began.

Putin’s Putsches: Ukraine and the Near-Abroad Crisis,” outlines the Ukranian conflict as fear and concern in the region continues. In her new book Lewytzkyj refuses, as she says, to “stand by and watch history repeat itself.” Her own parents left Ukraine to live in the U.S. on the heels of earlier strife in Ukraine.

“Innocent lives are being disrupted, their fragile lives upended as people are forced to defend a way of life from an agonizing assault on building a free world,” outlines Lewytzkyj.

In an interview with Maria Lewytzkyj, WNN – Women News Network human rights journalist and founder Lys Anzia works to gain deeper insights from Lewytzkyj’s on-the-ground contacts in the region. The goal is to better understand the current situation in Ukraine and Russia and with it the impacts that political and societal change has brought to women living inside the region.


Lys Anzia: How do you see Putin’s policies affecting women in Russia today?

Maria Lewytzkyj: Russia belongs to a conservative group of countries. The country ranked as an unimpressive sixty-first out of 133 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report.

This is a complicated question, because on the one hand in Russia you find a large number of conservative women enamored by Putin and empowered by his politics. On the other hand, you see women’s rights being violated in various ways.

Many Russians are deeply devoted to gender roles that are economically modern, but socially traditional, so non-traditional gender roles are dangerous in Russia. That’s because not only does the state promote a certain social and moral code, but so do many within the culture itself.

Sexual freedom and Western European values like feminism are a recent phenomenon and [something that is] criticized even by the Patriarch Kirill, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church. He is very powerful and holds a lot of influence in Russia with Putin’s policies.

Kirill labels feminism as a dangerous phenomenon that could destroy Russia. In March 2013, on International Women’s Day, police broke up and arrested 17 women because they shouted out slogans that were not approved, like “Feminism is liberation.”

How can a woman consider living her own dream when there is always a man to remind her of her place in society? If [it’s] by choice so be it. But I think the limitations placed on women are constant and vocalized.

What sort of message did Russian women get when hearing Putin, during his interview on French TV in June 2014, take a personal jab at Hillary Clinton? Rather than addressing the real question Putin said “It’s better not to argue with women. But Mrs. Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements.”

For me, if I heard the leader of my country make a sexist statement like that, I would feel completely misrepresented in this day and age. I would hear: boy, I better watch what I’m saying. I would feel that basically by disagreeing with your countries policies invites a swipe at my gender and that what was being said is that Putin has the right to decide what is graceful or not.

It insinuates that he defines graceful as a statement that doesn’t criticize Russian policies.

To put it in patriarchal terms, she wasn’t ‘ladylike’.

In a consistent succession of bullyism Putin shows that a woman shouldn’t have a choice when it comes to the type of woman she wants to be. What about personality? What about free choice? What about developing oneself to think critically and not be worried that the skirt doesn’t match the lyrical quality of her voice? What sort of self-discovery can someone really achieve if society already tells you 90 percent of the work you need to do is: [just] to fit in.

The patriarchal mindset creates a cultural tone which allows any men who consider Putin to be respectable to follow suit and place limitations on women. If the most powerful man in your country can make statements about a powerful woman to undermine her legitimacy, rather than defend her against criticisms, then why should women in Russia believe they will be taken seriously?

How can you celebrate free expression as a woman if you’re not encouraged to be yourself without the social requirements, that if challenged, lead to you becoming a social outcast?

That’s very confining to me. I would feel frightened as a woman who had my own ideas about myself, society and the world around me.

A young Ukrainian woman protester stands near the fire on December 9, 2013, the day after what was called "The March of the Million" in Kiev brought Ukrainian citizens from around the country who were hoping for change. On the ground reporters from the Associated Press said the turnout that day numbered 500,000 people. Ten weeks later Ukrainian government forces were blamed for over 100 protester's deaths as violence escalated on Kiev's maiden (town center). Image: Ivan Bandura
A young Ukrainian woman stands near a bonfire on December 9, 2013, on the day after what was called “The March of the Million” that brought Ukrainian citizens from around the country who were hoping for change under hopes that began as peaceful protests at Kiev’s Maidan, the town center known as Independence Square. On the ground reporters from the Associated Press said the turnout had numbered 500,000 people. Ten weeks later Ukrainian government security forces were blamed for over 100 protester’s deaths as violence escalated in Kiev. Image: Ivan Bandura

L.A.: What brought you to your interest in writing about Russian President Vladimir Putin?

M.L.: Many [people] underestimate his defiance of international norms and standards as they unfold with all its consequences. Putin has been trying to rebuild Russia’s status through an attempt to build a Eurasian Union, which I cover in my book. Initially he covertly supported separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine exploiting the region’s uncertainty about the new government that emerged in Ukraine after mass demonstrations led to the previous [Ukrainian] president’s impeachment.

With contempt toward international law and international peace and security standards, [that have been in place] since World War 2 he thrives off of anti-Americanism and erodes civil liberties.

For political purposes he narrowly interprets Western values. To counter Western influence, and its reliance on democratic principles in establishing tolerance and protections against prejudice, he sees Russia as the moral compass of the world and its arbiter . To Putin the foundation of Western values is flawed.

I don’t see that a state has the right to interfere in a person’s pursuit of life, liberty and choice to the extent that Putin exerts, especially given the persecution and danger that many social groups face under his leadership.

He’s not respectful to many cultures, especially if they aren’t conservative or traditional. 

I think the world should keep its eye on authoritarian rulers who abuse religion doctrines to bolster and shield state power. [This is the kind of leader who] threatens the values and international norms that many around the world hold as pillars to a tolerant world that celebrate our differences and our individual protections.

People need to be able to connect on particular political issues across various borders to improve standards of living and advocacy and not feel alone in their suffering.

L.A.: What about the women in Ukriane who still want to speak-out?

M.L.: A lot of the mainstream media has not focused on this aspect. Putin’s misogynism percolates throughout an administration and government-sponsored media that displays him as the protector of traditional values. Therefore [it is] keeping women subservient.

You may not have heard of this show, but it’s been on prime time [television] in Russia on Kremlin-backed NTV. Called “The Furies of Maidan: Sex, Psychosis and Politics,” it depicts a Ukraine that has regressed into a nearly literal inferno of gyrating women that represents the attitude that Putin and his supporters have toward women.

The point that the show makes is to discredit female leaders who were involved in the mass protests in Kiev that led to the impeachment of former [Ukrainian] President Viktor Yanukovych, who reversed momentum toward European integration in favor of Russian relations.

Those aligned with Putin interpret the actions of female activists and political leaders as having displaced energy from sexually frustrated or pathological reasons, concluding that this was the “driving force” behind Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution. In the dramatic words of a 45-second [propaganda] promo: “They like it hard. They are turned on by danger. And woe to anyone who fails to appreciate them.”

By demonizing these women Russian officials promote Putin’s policies. They are also sabotaging any value that women bring to their country’s historic effort toward building a democratic society. These [Ukranian] women told Russia to respect their borders. They celebrated their political empowerment by voicing their opinion and learning what they believe and demonstrating their convictions.

Telling Russian and Ukrainian women that it is “not ladylike” to protest or seek political office further confines women. It also attempts to discourage them from ‘arguing’ with the authorities or using their own critical thinking skills to form their own ideas in opposition to Putin’s ‘group think’.

It’s typical chauvinism to think that Russia must protect Ukraine. It’s even worse for Putin and his administration to continue to disrespect the political efforts of women and minimize them. All the while ignoring the fact that literally one of the biggest threats these women must protect themselves against lies within Putin’s [own] policies and the misogynistic cultural attitude [those policies have] toward women.

L.A.: Do you feel that growing arrests and restrictions in Russia today under freedom of expression, with activist bands like Pussy Riot, are making all artists, musicians and writers feel nervous? Has fear for creatives in Russia been growing?

M.L.: I think it is heavily restrictive. Voices silenced by the government can’t be a good thing for our human experience or for freedom of expression for those who are considering the deep questions, traditions and reactions to life.

Anyone who has tried his or her hand at art or writing, or any artistic expression like dance or theater, knows that at the center of  art is a feeling of expressing oneself. How can you express yourself freely when you have to filter out passionate feelings about politics or society?

Memorial to slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Helsinki, Finland
In October 6, 2013, on President Putin’s birthday, Amnesty International in Finland placed this memorial to slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya on the streets of Helsinki. The journalist was killed on the President birthday seven years earlier on the same day in what is still considered a mystery to many human rights activists around the world. To date information on who ordered the killing of the woman journalist has not been solved as President Putin and those inside the Kremlin deny any involvement. Image: Amnesty International Finland

Half of your life is completely at the mercy of the whims of society. Those who represent you [especially] if you are fundamentally at odds with having the state order up the type of music, art, theater or literature like going into a fast-food drivein. [It makes you] feel this thick layer of oppression on your back.

I’m sure there are artists that don’t mind working with what the times demand as they explore the subjects that seem appropriate. But how can someone not look at what has happened to Pussy Riot over and over again. [How can someone not look at the] fear that their rap, their punk expression, or even their folk song that hints at politics and/or religion, is going to be censored?

Artistic expression is deeply personal and one’s art doesn’t speak to everyone, but to have it become an example for the state to use to implement its traditional values is horrifying.

The religious offense law was drafted in the wake of Pussy Riot’s punk prayer in Moscow’s central cathedral.

The new law actually impacted the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar when it couldn’t be performed in Kiev’s Rostov Philharmonic Theater following complaints from Orthodox Christians. The Deputy Director of the Theater, Svetlana Zhabina, publicized that they had no choice in the matter in temporarily closing down the production. They just had to wait for the government’s decision. One of the actresses in the show, Maria Klimova, publicized that the Theater had been performing Jesus Christ Superstar for 20 years and that there is nothing insulting about Lloyd Webber’s version of the story.

During the Soviet Union, moral ambiguity was forbidden and art had to glorify the state. That’s why “Doctor Zhivago” was so daring for its time because of its subtle opposition to the times.

Now, I’ve read that Leo Tolstoy’s great-great-grandson, Vladimir Tolstoy, Putin’s [is now] cultural advisor. [He] has helped write a controversial document on Russian cultural policy commissioned by Putin. The aim of the policy is to create a cultural environment “that would be based on our [Russian] history and traditions.”

It is being criticized for its objective to establish norms that would apply to all media.

L.A.: How do you feel about the controversy in the continued denial of any possible involvement of members of the Kremlin in the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya? Although nothing to date has formally connected the two in this case, as you know Politkovskaya was an investigative journalist who had reported on corruption at the Kremlin for many years and was a well known critic of Putin. Strangely enough she was assassinated on Putin’s birthday in October 2006.

M.L.: Five [people] were convicted of killing Politkovskaya. Putin of course called her work “extremely insignificant.”

The Moscow City Court just recently denied one of the convicted, former police officer Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, a motion to suspend his 11-year sentence for health reasons. He’ll [now] have to get [his] medical attention in the prison hospital.

Amnesty International said that the verdict that found the five accused guilty left too many questions unanswered. [They also said] full justice will not be served until those who ordered the crime are identified and face the courts. I think that it’s dangerous for activists and journalists to cover human rights and corruption in Russia.

Given the extent of the Russian propaganda machine in the context of Ukraine, it’s a tall order to call for dissent and criticism [to become] a welcome voice in media with the rise of state-run media; and the consequences that independent media and journalists face there.

BBC recently (September 17, 2014) lodged a formal complaint with Russian authorities after one of its news crews was attacked while looking into reports on Russian soldiers have been killed near Ukraine’s border by unidentified men.

Impunity and silencing make freedoms seem untenable for those who appreciate human life in the fog of war.

Caring enough to stand up and say something and do something truthful might not override the power of those who are willing to go to any extent to quiet individuals like Politkovskaya, who exercised mind-blowing support for human rights.

That makes me confirm that we are in the age of denial. I once talked about this with author Jan Black when we discussed her book “The Politics of Protection – Moving Human Rights Protection Upstream.”


Ukrainian-American Maria Lewytzkyj is a political analyst who has worked with the CIA. With experience in the world of government, nonprofit and the business sector Lewtzkyj is the daughter of Ukrainian immigrant parents to the U.S. growing up with a thirst for knowledge and research. Attending college, while she worked as a legal assistant, Lewtzkyj later received her M.A. degree in International Policy Studies with an emphasis on Conflict Resolution from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. As an author of a new book, “Putin’s Putsches: Ukraine and the Near-Abroad Crisis,” she is currently working as a freelance writer, editor and journalist covering the field of global advocacy with a focus on social and environmental justice.

Lys Anzia has spoken at the UN numerous times on media and activism as a human rights journalist. She is also the founder of WNN – Women News Network. Her editing and journalistic work can, in addition to WNN, also be seen on WUNRN – Women’s UN Report Network, Vital Voices, Women’s Media Center, World Bank and UNESCO publications, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reliefweb, The Guardian News Development Network and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, among many other publications.


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