Rather than crippling the Ukrainian state and society as intended, the invasion has galvanized Ukrainians into a collective response.“The whole idea behind Putin’s invasion is to deprive the Ukrainian people of our right to choose — our government, our allies, our media, our future. He hasn’t succeeded. Ukrainians are doing what they can — as soldiers, as firefighters, as doctors or just as people willing to open their doors to those they don’t know. It’s also a way of showing that we are not ready to accept a world driven by madness, hatred and military force,” Nataliya Gumenyuk wrote on Friday for the Washington Post.
And indeed, while the rest of the world may have been surprised by Ukrainians’ fierce resistance to the Russian assault, for Ukrainians themselves this determined, unwavering collective response was a given. The trauma of the 20th century means that Ukrainians are no strangers to devastating times: “During World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war that followed, Kyiv was occupied by five different armies. In the 1930s, Stalin engineered a famine that killed more than three and a half million Ukrainians. Then came the Great Terror, World War II, Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, mass deportation to the Gulag, nuclear catastrophe,” as Marci Shore sums up in the Wall Street Journal.
But tragedy has not led to passivity. Mass protests, the Maidan in 2013-2014 above all, gave Ukrainians practice in collective action, sacrifice, civic transformation. The experience of jointly facing the prospect of death head-on prepared Ukrainians to respond to this week’s attack. Shore quotes Jurko Prochasko: “When you experience being with people who are ready to die for you, to make themselves vulnerable for you, to carry you if you’re wounded, a willingness appears—it’s a kind of rapture, a wonder at the possibilities given to man.”
The years since the Maidan have also prepared them. After all, this week was not the first time Russia invaded Ukraine. Since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russian invasion of the Donbas, Ukrainians have lived with the realities of Russian aggression. They know how to organize organically to support their military, they know how to fight, and they know why they have to. Ukrainians understand what is at stake, not only for them but for the wider world. “There is a strong feeling that if Ukraine wins — and I’m sure it wins — that can bring the end of both Putin’s and Lukashenko’s regimes,” Volodymyr Yermolenko told the New York Times.
Public displays of courage from the Ukrainian political leadership, beginning with Volodymyr Zelensky, are matched by the bravery shown by ordinary Ukrainians and the dedication of journalists who are capturing their actions and sentiments.
Paweł Pieniążek reports for Tygodnik Powszechny (in Polish) on the transformation of daily life and of Kyivites finding their own ways to help the common cause: an 80-year-old IT worker vexed that the territorial defense wouldn’t take him because of his age, or the caretaker of a makeshift shelter. A woman who has taken on the task of looking after the soldiers near her building, bringing them tea and coffee, says, “I don’t feel fear anymore, just pride and anger.”
Spending a day with policemen and members of the Territorial Defense, anticipating that Kyiv might be under siege at any moment, Nataliya Gumenyuk reflects in Rolling Stone on the seemingly universal impulse to join the fight: “Every day I find out that another friend — a sociologist, a journalist, a writer, a historian, a filmmaker, both male and female — has joined the Territorial Defense. …What Putin underestimated was that hipsterish Kyiv barbers, barmen, and social media managers would be ready to resist.”
True, the situation is bleak, and the human losses already incurred and those that will be incurred in coming days are horrible to contemplate. Yet Ukraine has stood its ground.
Ukraine is resolute: the wider world’s responsibility is to find the resolve to match, and to sustain it in months and years to come. Timothy Garton Ash notes in the Guardian that “Almost everyone in the west has now woken up to the fact that Ukraine is a European country being attacked and dismembered by a dictator.” So far, this has meant a swift and relatively unified response. But much more can be done and will need to be done over the long haul.
Listen: Jurko Prochasko describes the solidarity and civil courage on display in recent days for Deutschlandfunk Kultur (in German): Eine Analyse aus Lemberg - Putin ist von Neid und Wut getrieben
Watch: Online discussions and events have demonstrated yet another aspect of Ukrainians’ resolve: the determination to keep thinking together. On 27 February Kateryna Mishchenko joined Maria Stepanova and Ana Kordsaia-Samadaschwili for a discussion, organized by Literaturhaus Zürich and Debates on Europe, on the role literature and art play in times of war (in German and English).
Read: Paweł Pieniązek’s reporting from the Donbas, available in English translation in Greetings from Novorossiya, is an invaluable reminder that this past week’s invasion is only the extension of earlier Russian aggression towards Ukraine. Read more about it and other books that help make sense of Ukraine in a Five Books interview with Marci Shore.
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