Ukraine Is Us, and We Are Ukraine

I don’t have any pictures of the time I spent in Ukraine. I spent maybe two days there with the rest of the program studying abroad in Eastern Europe, another stop on the endless tours we took riding in white vans around the area looking at historical sites. We stopped in one city, and I can’t even recall its name.

What I do remember about that place was its poverty. A crumbling building. An outdoor market with blue tarps strung above stalls as a roof. One of my friends went to buy some of the cheapest cigarettes he could find, just to see how bad they were. He brought home a small bottle of vodka with Cyrillic writing.

Obviously, not everywhere in Ukraine is like this. We have stereotypes in the US that the country is filled with nothing but old women in babushkas farming rutabagas, and that’s simply not true. But it’s not like Ukraine was doing great, even before the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. I was there in 2009, and it was still trying to pull itself out of the disaster that was Soviet control. Many people there were living very, very difficult lives.

Now that Russia’s invaded fully, I don’t know how much chance those people have of ever being ok again. The war will probably take years, and frankly sanctions probably aren’t going to help much. Russia has a deep, nationalistic attachment to Ukraine. Many of its greatest writers, Nikolai Gogol being probably the most recognizable, came from Ukraine, and Kyiv has a long history of cultural exchange with Moscow. Many Russians (namely the country’s de-facto dictator) believe revisionist histories that speak of Ukraine as a rightful piece of the Russian empire. It’s the same playbook that dictators and kings have used for thousands of years to justify war. It’s what eventually lead to the concept of countries and borders in the first place: this piece of land is ours because it has always been ours. Because it is part of our blood.

It’s an ideology I’d thought died out in Europe nearly thirty years ago when the bombing stopped in Sarajevo. But it turns out it was just sleeping.

I know this war seems very distant to a lot of us, and seems destined to be compartmentalized into another picture of burning, gutted buildings we scroll past when we’re bored. But don’t let it. The invasion of Ukraine symbolizes the return of an ideology that left cities pitted with mortar holes and left the bones of its victims sticking out of barely concealed mass graves for American college students to find. It’s an ideology that’s here, in my country, and in every country where a nation becomes more important than the people who live in it.

I don’t pretend to be a policymaker, and I’m not advocating for any specific action, because I do not know what would help. What I am saying is that we need to keep Ukraine and places like it in the forefront of our thoughts, not only because its people are in danger, but because the conflict demonstrates again and again the perils of extreme national identity. National borders are, and have always been, artificial constructions that we use to separate ourselves economically, culturally, and militarily from each other. The humanity that connects us is not.

Watch Ukraine. Help Ukraine, in any way that you can. This isn’t just a war between two far-flung Baltic states. It’s a conflict that shows us how far we still have left to go for peace, and what happens when you value borders more than the people that live behind them.

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