I can’t remember the exact date but I believe it was in the spring of 2000 that Eugene (the English approximation of my Ukraine visitor’s name), asked if we could go shopping for some specific items on his list.
He was a member of the delegation of young and emerging leaders of Ukraine who were visiting Arkansas as part of a U.S. State Department International Visitors program designed to give the visitors close up looks at the United States, its policies and its institutions. Along the way, visitors and hosts would be able to gain better understanding and appreciation for the other’s culture and family life.
Eugene was in search of blue jeans, specifically, Levi’s or Lee. And further, they must carry the label “made in the USA,” otherwise, I suppose, they might carry little value since knockoffs could be purchased virtually anywhere.
We set out on the quest for denim, checking through stack after stack of jeans in several department stores before finding an assortment of made-in-the-USA Levi’s in the local store of one of the national retailers that remarkably still exists in this country. We were in luck. The Levi’s were available in Eugene’s size, so he snapped them up and headed to the register.
Perhaps our search was made a little more difficult by the fact that about a year earlier, the Levi’s plant in Morrilton had closed, putting hundreds there out of work at the same time another major employer in that Conway County community shuttered its operation. How Morrilton’s economy recovered from those simultaneous punches to the gut is a story for another time.
At any rate, we were able to find American-made jeans in Eugene’s desired size, but one thing eluded us. We couldn’t find a denim jacket with the USA tag in a size to fit his toddler son.
We still had a denim jacket meeting those requirements in a closet. Our son had worn it more than a dozen years earlier and for some reason we hadn’t donated to the thrift shop, so we gave it to Eugene so he could check that item off his list. We offered to further scour the stores around town after Eugene returned home, but he said it was futile to try to mail him anything because it would get stolen after arrival in Ukraine and would therefore never be delivered to his home.
Eugene hailed from Simferopol, the capital and second-largest city in the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, an area that in 2014 was “annexed” by Russia. The Crimean peninsula has been hotly contested for centuries, but it remained part of Russia until 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev, leader of what was then the Soviet Union, transferred it back to Ukraine.
Russia says that since it annexed the region it remains part of the Russian Federation. Before the invasion and annexation by Russia in 2014, the territory was administered by Ukraine as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and many countries still recognize it as such.
Certainly, there are a number of parallels that can be drawn between Russia’s 2014 military action to seize Crimea and the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. Putin can’t claim he only wants self-determination for the people living in Ukraine. It’s pretty easy to see his raw ambition to swallow up a neighbor that was once part of the Soviet Union. Putin claims Ukraine is part of Russia culturally, linguistically and politically. It would follow that if he is able to “annex” Ukraine through the war he calls a “special military operation,” it would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.
But Putin’s special military operation — make that invasion — hasn’t gone exactly as planned. With help from the United States in the form of weapons and support from others, Ukraine has resisted mightily and in fact, in a counteroffensive, has taken back a portion of the territory Russia seized. Many of the weapons systems the United States sent were made in Camden.
We could have seen that Russian invasion coming because they built up forces in the area for months. I certainly hope we did, though the apparent delay in our getting the hardware to them at the start of the war might tend to suggest otherwise.
Maybe we thought the war wouldn’t last long enough because the Russians would run roughshod over Ukraine’s military and take the capital Kyiv too quickly for us to help. Maybe we thought we just should stay out of a shooting war since we departed from the last one we were in so clumsily.
Maybe we didn’t or couldn’t anticipate that this war would drag on for months, causing thousands of deaths, destroying homes, buildings and infrastructure. The lost lives can never be replaced, nor can the loved ones of those killed in the war ever heal from their loss.
What will the outcome be? How is the war affecting Eugene and his family? Though the rockets and bombs aren’t falling in his neighborhood, war in the region is certain to have a drastic effect.
Eugene was a travel agent when he visited here, but I doubt that many from Crimea are now venturing abroad. Plus, the U.S. State Department tells Americans to not travel to Crimea.
I expect that whatever Eugene is experiencing in terms of disruption of his livelihood and way of life, people in the war-torn portions of Ukraine are suffering them tenfold. What the post-war Ukraine will look like seems to be anybody’s guess.
It seems that will depend on how long the war lasts, or whether Ukraine ultimately prevails in defending itself or Russia succeeds in taking over the country. Regardless, the region will never be the same.
I long for a world where more blue jeans are made in America and the Eugenes of the planet can buy as many pairs as they want.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.