Archives for the month of: March, 2014

It is hazardous – some would even say irrelevant – to venture into the Ukrainian-Russian confrontation from the quiet confines of Northwestern Connecticut.

But so much has been reported on this “breaking news” story that it might not do any harm to take a long look at what’s going on over there.

(Full disclosure: My father’s people came from Ukraine, and my surname means “Crimean” in Russian and Ukrainian. I also reported from that part of the world for the Associated Press during the cold war.)

Analysts have generally portrayed the Ukrainian crisis as the symptom of an east-west divide – the western part of the country being more aligned with Europe and the east with Russia. Perhaps that’s an oversimplification, but the essence is accurate.

Although Ukraine has a long history as a place and culture in its own right, it is thoroughly Slavic, more akin to Russia than any other country. Their borders, their languages, their traditions, and their politics – with some adjustments along the way – have been closely intertwined for centuries.

So, what has been happening over there, unlike Russia’s conflict with former Communist ally Georgia, is really a dispute between blood brothers, whether many Ukrainians want to admit it or not. The trouble is that Russia is a considerably larger and bossy big brother. Ukraine is also surrounded by six other countries, geographically serving as a bridge between Russia and Europe or a “buffer” between east and west.

Crimea is an anomaly. If you look at a map, it might seem logical that the peninsula is part of Ukraine, because Russian land technically does not border it. During Soviet times, that hardly mattered, because everything belonged to Moscow. Nikita Khrushchev, whose political career was forged in Ukraine, officially bequeathed Crimea to Russia’s western neighbor in 1954, but hardly anyone outside the region paid much attention.

Blessed by a mild climate, Crimea has been the playground of czars, commissars and oligarchs as well as the warm-water port for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. It was no accident that Stalin hosted the 1945 wartime conference of allied leaders in balmy Yalta during frigid February.

Just across the water from Vladimir Putin’s beloved Sochi, Crimea is not likely to remain in Ukrainian hands. Mr. Putin is already talking about building a bridge to the Russian mainland to seal its fate.

Despite my personal interest in Crimea, it is just a sideshow in the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. As Ukrainian emigres in the United States will tell you, the resentments run deep.

Ukraine, with its fertile farmlands, was once the “breadbasket of Europe.” During Soviet times, it wasn’t even the breadbasket of Ukraine. When Stalin forcibly collectivized agricultural property into state farms and raided Ukraine’s food stocks in the famine of the early 1930s, an estimated 10 million Ukrainians perished. The depth of hatred was apparent nearly a decade later, when some locals aligned with the invading Nazis against Moscow.

After World War II, the far western sector of Ukraine was carved out of Poland and Romania, while the eastern sector, which had become the country’s industrial base, remained, in all but name, an extension of Russia.

Enter Mr. Putin after the Soviet collapse and his determination to restore Russia to superpower status, often under the guise of “protecting” Russian populations beyond his borders. That, by the way, was the argument Hitler used to invade Czechoslovakia’s German-populated Sudetenland in 1938.

Not a good situation.

– George A. Krimsky 03/03/14

Our annual “Spring Banquet” for the local wildlife went off without a hitch this past weekend. Everyone came.

This will be the fifth year my husband and I have laid out a special spread at winter’s end. We don’t actually wait for the official first day of spring, because the birds and other backyard critters are especially grateful for hand-outs in the cold, not when the bugs and berries are out.

Basically, what we do is to go through our cupboards and fridge looking for foodstuffs stored over the winter that have proven popular and healthy for furry and feathered creatures. We have discovered, for example, that Cheerios are welcome, Wheaties are not. Don’t ask me why, but the bird experts generally say cereal is okay. We draw the line at Fruit Loops, though.

None of this stuff could go to a human food bank, by the way, because the packages had already been opened or exceeded their expiration dates.

Nuts are always a favorite in our house, and we were able to fill a large can with peanuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios and scraps of pecans. We washed the nuts to get rid of the salt. We found a box of ancient grain baked crackers containing golden millet, amaranth, quinoa and teff, which sounded exciting, but the “ferric pyrophosphate” turned us off. We also found some stuffing mix from last Thanksgiving, which looked appetizing with all the dried bread and herbs, but nothing but dust poured out of the package. Oh, well.

The freezer yielded some interesting goodies, and we examined them carefully for wildlife edibility. We didn’t think the frozen bag of croissants would do any harm, after being microwaved. Crows and squirrels particularly like the aroma.

Christmas cookies? Okay, we decided, once we scraped off the little red and silver balls. The oatmeal and raisin giants always do well, great fun watching a squirrel try to get one up a tree.

Then there was the package of Lefse from my Norwegian relatives in Wisconsin. Lefse is flat bread made of potatoes, flour, butter, cream, salt and sugar. Unfortunately, the package showed a tinge of green inside, so we tossed it.

And we can’t forget the Lutefisk, also a Norwegian holiday treat. Lutefisk is a dried white fish, normally cod that has been soaked in very cold water for a couple of weeks and then a few days in lye. That ingredient set off alarms, so we tossed the Lutefisk as well..

We had amassed a pretty good stash. Once we had set the banquet date, when it was forecast that nothing would fall from the sky (Saturday, March 15), it was time to set the table.

With guests that fly, jump, dive, climb, crawl and waddle, the layout is important so that everyone gets a fair share. This, of course, is optimistic, because in fact no one shares. Each species has its pushy ones, too. We have given up on trying to maintain order among our guests and just enjoy the show.

Invitations are not a problem, as we rely on the crow community to be town criers. When they first see us begin to distribute the food in bird feeders and pie plates on the deck, the “caw” goes out.

As usual, the black-capped chickadees arrived first – noisy and energetic. We knew the party was officially under way when the first male cardinal swooped down in his blazing robes. Then came the morning doves, which looked like a gaggle of nuns.

Blue jays, those avian Spitfires, dive-bombed the group. Jays seem to coordinate their hunt, like those raptors in Jurassic Park, with one or two swooping down for food before the next sortie flies in. Sparrows also joined the fun, with each coming in for a seed or small nut and then disappearing into the trees.

The chipmunks surprised us by jumping and cavorting as much as the squirrels, but their larger cousins got the lion’s share. We recognized two of our favorite guests from previous years, an older female Chipmunk we call Daisy and a brash younger male named Scooter. They live in a drain pipe up the road. Daisy would scrounge for 20 minutes until her pouches looked like saddle bags, while Scooter, who can jump 10 lengths of himself at a time, just grabbed and ran.

As the day wore on, the crows become more brazen. They may have been the initial announcers but were cautious about joining the feeding frenzy. They started landing away from the table and then walking up to feed, but they spooked easily.

As afternoon dissolved into night, visitors become sparser, and we retired for the night. Although we had the leaf blower at the ready for the morning clean-up, the deck was surprisingly neat following the day-long bacchanalia. I suppose we have the raccoons to thank for that.

With the banquet done for another year, we’ll revert to planters and baskets for the humming birds. Given the persistence of the winter, however, who knows when that will be.

– Susan Aiken 03/19/14