Perspectives on Ukraine (1 & 2): Feelings and History

Ukraine flag

It began a few weeks before Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. People who know me began asking me what I thought of the situation.

I studied that area of the world formally for some years, and I’ve watched with more than the typical American’s interest ever since. So it’s no surprise that virtually every day brought at least one e-mail message, text message, phone call, or face-to-face query from a friend, family member, neighbor, or coworker. What will happen next? How bad will it get? What does Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin want, and how far will he go to get it? Has he lost his mind? What should the US and the rest of the world do — and not do — to stop him?

These queries have become less frequent as the war has proceeded. Inflation, abortion, and the mass slaughter of schoolchildren and teachers are more than mere distractions; they deserve our sober attention too. But most of the questions I’ve heard about Ukraine are still open. I still hear them often, and they still matter immensely.

How One Blog Post Became (at Least) Four

I haven’t had much writing time lately, but my usual inclination is to write about such things. So, back around Groundhog Day, weeks before the invasion, I set myself the task of writing a single blog post of modest length about Ukraine. It would touch on the key points and issues as I see them, offer such insight as I think I have — or thought I had — and not go too deep or grow too long.

It didn’t work. We’re now three months into yet another tyrant’s extermination of fellow humans on Ukrainian soil, and that single blog post of modest length has never appeared.

I could surrender and post nothing at all on the subject, as I have on other consequential topics, when life beyond the blog overwhelmed. But this time I’ve chosen a strategic retreat instead. I’ve abandoned the one-post pipe dream for something more realistic: a series of posts of reasonable length (for me). So here is my first post on what is now the war in Ukraine.

These few paragraphs of personal chatter foretell a deeply personal starting point: my feelings. Then we’ll look at some relevant history, and we’ll be done for the day. In different ways, both these topics will inform your reading of subsequent posts, if you read them.

1. Feelings for Ukraine (and Russia)

Feelings are relevant. They’re important. I’m still a conservative, so I don’t think they should lead our views or our policy — but they should certainly inform what we think and do. Some connections between my feelings and thoughts are so deep that I can scarcely report or analyze them, but I’ll tell you what I can.

The Russians

The Russians I have known, in and out of Russia, almost all of them, are generous and kind. I find much to admire in them. They love freedom in a way most Americans may struggle to appreciate, probably because when freedom comes to Russians at all, it doesn’t come easily. (It used to be like that for Americans at large. It may be again, but that’s not today’s topic.)

I love Russian literature, music, and art. I enjoy most Russian cuisine. The Russian language, well spoken, is music to my ears. I heard Russians speaking Russian several times on a recent trip to New York City, and I felt no hostility or distaste for them based on what their homeland’s latest dictator is doing. I lately attended a Utah Symphony concert featuring some of my favorite works by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. My enjoyment was undiminished by the present atrocities. (The rest of the large audience was enthusiastic too.)

In the spirit of Col. Sherman Potter’s question, “Will Rogers never met you, did he?” . . . I have never met Vladimir Putin. I feel no fondness for him or his regime. He is an authentic Russian tyrant. We have known this for years.

The People of Ukraine

I admire the people of Ukraine for standing up against tyranny, asserting their full humanity against invading inhumanity. I admire them for valuing their nation as a nation, when the trendy view in the Western world is to imagine a utopian world without borders and to deride love of country as a racist impulse. I admire them for being, to a considerable degree, a people of faith — in a time and on a continent when faith is, we might say, less highly regarded than it might be.

Yes, Ukraine’s government is somewhat corrupt, but Americans can’t really point fingers without conspicuous hypocrisy. Yes, Ukraine’s president showed a prewar penchant for jailing his political opponents and shutting down opposing media outlets — policies the American Left has advocated for years, and especially loudly after the last presidential election. But at least the people of Ukraine have a leader who isn’t determined to make war on their neighbors, carry a diplomatic knife to a gun fight, or simply run away. They don’t have, at the top, a blood-letting tyrant or a vacuous, babbling sock puppet whose strings are pulled by unelected extremists.

But the present moment reaches well beyond government. In Ukraine we see a people rising up. This is the same spirit with which the Russians defeated Napoleon and the Soviet people defeated Hitler’s mass invasion. Much of the latter conflict involved Ukrainians fighting in and near Ukraine. Victory cost them half a generation of their loved ones and then some.

Ukraine - Never Give Up

It’s an established pattern of history: A people wanting to be free must first become or remain politically independent of outside oppressors. For Ukraine this presently involves resisting a brutal and powerful Russian tyrant. How can my heart not be with them?

Both, Actually

It may seem strange, but to think of either side in this unjust war is wrenching for me. As much as I feel for the people of Ukraine who have lost or will lose their lives, their homes, their family members, their livelihood, their neighborhoods, their schools, their churches — I feel for the Russian soldiers too. Mostly conscripts, they’ve been sent on a brutal mission that isn’t at all what they’ve been told. They’re in an impossible situation. I feel for the many mothers, fathers, and other loved ones who will eventually learn that the cause for which their soldiers died — the cause for which their soldiers killed — was brutal and unjust.

Lately, when I pray that God will prosper all who advance freedom, truth, justice, and peace, and that He will expose and defeat all who oppose them, my thoughts are more on that part of the world than they have sometimes been. My thoughts and my sorrow are with people on both sides of what is almost, but not quite, a civil war.

War and Other Violent Conditions

Whether we call it war or introduce other politically convenient phrases, war is usually begun by evil people with evil designs. Decent people do not make war for just any reason. On the other hand, peace at any cost is the ideology of current or future slaves. I’ve never been prone to mistake slavery-without-warfare as peace.

I have more feelings, inevitably. Perhaps they will emerge as I attempt to summarize what I think.

2. A Few Glimpses of Ukraine’s History

The past may not determine the future — that is the present’s role — but it sets the stage. Here are a few glimpses, beginning — because I am who I am — with two books.

Stalingrad and Life and Fate

Since last year, well before Russia gathered forces on its border with Ukraine, I planned for some of my reading this year to be a pair of thick novels by my favorite twentieth century Soviet author, Vasily Grossman. A celebrated World War II war correspondent, Grossman wrote in Russian but was born and raised in Ukraine. He was an unbelieving Jew, and his mother was among many thousands of Jews whom Hitler’s forces executed on a single day, after they seized the Ukrainian city Berdichev.

If you know the war’s history, the earlier novel’s title inspires solemn chills: Stalingrad. (That city is just east of Ukraine and has now reverted to its pre-Soviet name, Volgograd.) I finished that novel a few weeks ago.

The later novel, Grossman’s best, is Life and Fate, a sequel to Stalingrad. It begins while the great battle still rages. It’s already my favorite Russian novel of its century. I read and studied it in graduate school, and I’ll reread it next. Grossman essentially equates the hyperbrutal dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin. He portrays the people — even the land itself, even human freedom itself — rising up to defeat the invading tyrant in spite of, not by the orders of, the homegrown tyrant.

I sense a similar spirit from Ukraine just now. I earnestly hope the cost of defeating this particular expansionist Muscovite tyrant proves far lower than the price of vanquishing Hitler.

St. Sophia in Kyiv

For all that they live in Europe, Ukrainians are fairly religious. I honor that too, as I said.

St. Sophia Cathedral - Kyiv, Ukraine

The nearly thousand-year-old St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv is a great symbol of the Orthodox faith. Perhaps, between God and the people, it will survive the war. It was government property under the Soviets and, last I heard, has belonged to the Ukrainian government since the anti-religious Soviet Union crumbled more than thirty years ago. Perhaps, after these present battles are finally won, the government of Ukraine will give St. Sophia back to the church and thereby the people. The people have earned it.

The roots of Russian history are in Kyiv. It was the cultural, religious, economic, and political center of Kievan Rus’, as the Russians call it, until the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. Since then, Ukraine has rarely been independent. After two centuries under Mongols from the east, it fell under the rule of a Polish/Lithuanian empire from the west, the Russian Tsars and later Russian Empire to the north, and the Ottoman Empire to the south. It broke away from Russia shortly after the 1917 October Revolution but within a few years became part of the new Soviet Union — forcibly, of course.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine became independent. Now that independence is sorely threatened by would-be Emperor Putin.

Ties with Liabilities: Famines, Pogroms, Purges

Many Russian families have Ukrainian members. Many Ukrainian families include Russians. Stalin’s program of overwhelming other Soviet republics’ native populations with native Russians was a factor. But the peoples of Russia and Ukraine have been subjects of the same regime more often than not over the last millennium. Even now that they are not, intermarriage is common enough. So the cultural and family ties which bind Russians and Ukrainians are strong.

That said, it’s easy to understand why Ukrainians might lack enthusiasm for Muscovite rule.

The period 1918 to 1922 was horrific. Lenin’s new government declared that farmers no longer owned the food they produced. The state (the government) began to requisition food for the cities with little regard for the farmers’ own need to eat. This was a key part of Lenin’s plan to seize control of production and distribution, which was and still is the Marxist holy grail.

While civil war raged, so did famine. The famine of 1921-1922 took over five million lives, many of them in Ukraine, the empire’s historic breadbasket. One can only guess how keen were survivor’s memories of the famines Moscow and the war induced, and how bitterly survivors placed the blame.

Meanwhile, during the civil war, Kyiv changed hands fourteen times. And in the period 1918 to 1920 (not even the full length of the civil war), there were over 1200 pogroms against Jews in Ukraine — again because of policy issuing from Moscow.

In the war’s aftermath, the state (the government) moved to consolidate its control over the farms themselves, not just the food they produced. Small farmers faced high taxes. Those who managed to pay had their taxes increased. Those who couldn’t pay lost their farms to the state.

Late in 1929, Stalin announced that all remaining private farms had to be collectivized (taken from private ownership into state control) within three years. Zealots went to work. Hundreds of thousands who resisted were sent to the camps or simply executed. Many who were spared were forced to work without pay. Peasants slaughtered millions of cattle to avoid having them seized — and the next entirely predictable famine gained traction. One could scarcely buy bread in Ukraine for any amount of money. About four million more people died in Ukraine alone; millions more died across the USSR. Again, one can scarely measure the suffering of those who survived to remember, let alone the torment of the men, women, and children who starved to death.

Josef Stalin

In the 1930s came the purges, and millions more perished under Moscow’s bloody regime for the smallest political crimes, real and imagined.

More Ties, More Liabilities: World War II

Small wonder that, as World War II came to Russia in the summer of 1941, many Ukrainians welcomed Hitler’s invading soldiers as liberators. It was a short-lived enthusiasm; the work of death increased in Ukraine.

In time two more reasons emerged for Ukrainians, among others, to blame Moscow for yet another bloodbath. It became widely known that Stalin had crippled the Soviet armed forces before the invasion by purging — executing — much of the high command, leaving the USSR desperately weak when Hitler attacked with more than three million troops. Then Stalin essentially went AWOL for the first two weeks of the invasion.

Millions more Ukrainians died in World War II. Many towns and cities were completely destroyed. Some of the largest, longest, most grisly battles of the war happened in or near Ukraine.

More of the Same for Ukraine

Here are two more recent glimpses.

I’ve heard eyewitness accounts of tractors sitting idle in Ukrainian fields after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. They were idle because Russia had cut off fuel supplies to Ukraine, because they weren’t the same country anymore. This sort of problem is relatively quick to fix — over a period of weeks or months — but in the meantime a growing season was compromised across one of the major agricultural nations of the world. You can’t eat food you can’t grow.

In early 2014 Putin’s Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula, a key part of Ukraine, and annexed it. This was widely condemned as a breach of treaties and international law, and sanctions followed. In other words, you might say, Europe and the US (then under the Obama administration) gasped and clutched its pearls — and Putin has held Crimea to this day.

What’s Next

Now you know some of my feelings about the two antagonists in this war, and we’ve reviewed some of the ties between the two nations and a grim list of reasons why the people of Ukraine might not relish the prospect of being ruled by Moscow again.

Next time I’ll hold forth on the Western folly of dismissing Vladimir Putin as insane, and we’ll begin to survey the geopolitical chess board.

Reality is not a game for the casual checkers player. As an idle pastime, checkers itself is pleasant enough. But come to this chess board and try to play checkers, and masses of people die.

Photo credits:

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One thought on “Perspectives on Ukraine (1 & 2): Feelings and History”

  1. Kevin Barnes says:

    David thanks again for w wonderful commentary. Knowing nothing about Ukraine, its people, or its history it is all very interesting to me. I truly appreciate and value your knowledge and experiences on the topic and the situation that is happening over there. I am looking forward to you future writings on this. Thanks again.

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