Who we are, what we believe in and the values we stand for have never been more important. What would you do if a regime you strongly opposed appeared on your doorstep?
I have long asked myself that question. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this is no longer a moot point.
I visited Ukraine three times in 2014 in the months after Crimea was annexed. My now ex-wife is of both Russian and Ukrainian origin and has friends in Kyiv, which we visited. We also went to Lviv. Both are charming cities. To me, Kyiv seemed more Soviet and therefore exotic, whereas Lviv, which is close to the Polish border, (see map below from nationsonline.org) reminded me of Vienna: beautiful yet familiar.
Everyone we spoke to in Ukraine shared the same aspirations. They were fed up of corruption and proud of how they had overthrown a leader who had done Moscow’s bidding. Our Kyiv friends showed us the square where thousands had congregated for weeks in freezing conditions, protected against bullets by the stacks of tyres they put up. They saw Ukraine’s future firmly in Europe. They did not wish to be part of some reformulated Russian empire – the shackles of which they had worked so hard to throw off.
Till then, I had known little about Russian colonisation. (NB Technically, it was Soviet colonisation.) I heard many stories on those trips, and one was so harrowing that I could not get it out of my head. I had to write about it. What emerged was flash fiction – a very short piece. Masha’s Burning Memory was included in the UK’s National Flash Fiction Day’s 2014 anthology, ‘Eating My Words‘. Our friend Olga, who had related the story, cried when she read it.
The real event on which her tale was based took place in 1933, during what is known as Holodomor or the Great Hunger. Lest we forget the past, there is a museum in Kyiv dedicated to its memory. Remarkably, Kyiv’s Holodomor Museum continued putting up defiant updates in the midst of continuous bombardment. For a full and exhaustive account of Holodomor, I recommend the book Red Famine by Anne Applebaum. It doesn’t make for easy reading, though; I haven’t been able to finish it in two years.
Who knows what will be left of the church above? When I compare Russia’s subjugation of Ukraine with Britain’s colonisation of Malaya, I realise we got off very lightly. Indeed, Russia makes our British colonial masters seem positively benevolent. No wonder Ukrainians are fighting so hard.
But there is more to Ukrainian resistance than mere political self-determination. What they want is simple: freedom.
A cliché, I know, and like many clichés, buried within is a kernel of truth. I get this.
I have experienced a type of freedom in the West which I have not found elsewhere. The freedom of opportunity, freedom to fully express myself and explore, the freedom to choose.
I come from a country where little of the above exists and I cherish my freedoms. (Now that it has become common to count your freedoms, I have also begun using the plural). Alas, too many of my Western friends take their freedoms for granted. They have not known ‘un-freedom’.
Part 2 to follow.