Global power and the Ukrainian fulcrum

Shortly after I moved to Cleveland in 2000, I became friends with Alla, a Ukrainian woman in her late 20s whose son was the same age as one of mine. 

In her small house, the high shine of the wood floors made the old cliche of eating off them seem reasonable. Though normally soft-spoken and reticent, when Alla strapped on her accordion she embodied energetic merriment, transforming her tiny living room into a dance hall for our combined four boys who pirouetted and jumped to her music. 

Alla immigrated to the United States with her family when she was a girl and a few years later her father died of brain cancer. I asked if she thought it was due to radiation exposure from the Chernobyl disaster. She said no, but who would want to live with that specter and what else it might bring? 

A year after we’d become friends, Alla lent me a slim book about the Holodomor, or Great Famine. In 1929, Soviet leader Josef Stalin collectivized agriculture in Ukraine, confiscating farms and homes. Production dropped, unrest grew and Stalin, rather than fixing the problem he’d caused, brutally doubled down and confiscated food supplies. 

Between 1931 to 1934, nearly 4 million Ukrainians died because of Stalin’s genocidal famine. At the same time, the Soviets worked to dismantle the Ukrainian language, culture and religion in an attempt to Russify the nation. Many who resisted were executed or sent to the Gulag (forced labor camps). 

Filled with firsthand accounts of the Holomodor, I found my friend’s book hard to read to the end, which is why I did. Twenty years later, I remain haunted by one particular victim: a woman found dead with her infant at her breast where it suckled in vain before also dying. 

Alla, whose parents were born more than a decade after the Holomodor, carried her people’s collective memory of what Soviet occupation had wrought and wanted others to know too. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the first time the world as I knew it changed. The second time came 10 years later when terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center towers. The third is the current pandemic. 

Now the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia has begotten a fourth global watershed moment in 30 years. The geopolitical future of the world is on a fulcrum and what happens in Ukraine will decide which way it tips — toward democracy or authoritarianism. 

As Russia amassed a warmongering number of troops and armaments along its border with Ukraine in the first weeks of 2022, experts equivocated whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would invade a sovereign nation without provocation. 

Of those experts, Alexander Vindman, the former director for European affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, who, like Alla, immigrated from Ukraine to the United States with his family as a child, has proved most prescient. The transcript of his Jan. 10 interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly reads like the playbook for Russia’s invasion and the global response. 

I’m not alone in lately recalling author William Faulkner’s words: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

To know Ukrainian history is to know Ukrainians will fight any invasion and attempted occupation mightily and indefinitely. Ukrainians are not Russians. Ukraine is a sovereign nation for which the Russian government has no credible reason to invade, bomb and occupy. Large numbers of Russian citizens, who have risked imprisonment to protest Putin’s war, agree. 

After I moved to Akron in 2003, I saw Alla less frequently. When we last spoke on the phone in 2009, her second son was a toddler and she’d recently given birth to a daughter. She always had wanted a large family and I was happy for her. 

Alla told me that, like her father, her sister had died of brain cancer since we’d last talked and that she, too, had had a tumor removed from her brain, but assured me she was fully recovered. We talked easily for an hour, mostly about our children, before hanging up. 

When I called her cellphone several months later, her husband answered. He was disconcerted when I asked for Alla. She and her daughter had both died — Alla from cancer, the baby from complications of the treatment. 

Instantly I realized that Alla’s call, conversational and upbeat, had been a farewell. Her quiet, determined bravery in the face of death now seems essentially Ukrainian. Ukrainian bravery, on full display in the face of Putin’s orders to take their country no matter the cost of human life, is humbling. 

Just as COVID went from a distant news story to a pandemic that upended the world, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed the world order quite suddenly in a seminal situation. 

To Ukraine, its people, and the future of democracy, I say Солідарність, or solidarity. In this moment, Ukrainians are the vanguard protecting the free world. They deserve the full support not just of NATO allies, but all democratic nations. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 6, 2022.

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