December 26, 2014

2014-2015: Living in historic times


At New Year’s, we reflect on the year gone by and look to the next.

For Ukraine 2014 – which for all practical purposes started at the end of November 2013 – was fraught with history: peaceful demonstrations, which featured guitars, religious services and an endless flow of speakers, attracted hundreds of thousands over the course of many months, along with millions more in scores of cities and towns around the country and tens of millions participating in the movement online. Like the Orange Revolution, the Euro-Maidan continued well into the cold of winter. By their massive presence, Ukrainians affirmed their resolve to orient their country on Europe and its standards and values, and away from Russia and the moral rot and corruption it’s associated with.

On a February night, government snipers turned a demonstration for Europe into a revolution as the smoke and fire of a Maidan turned violent generated yet another hero-martyr story: the Heavenly Brigade (Nebesna Sotnia). They’re now enshrined in Ukrainian history with the students who died at Kruty in January 1918; World War I-era Ukrainian Sich Riflemen; the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), fighting both the Wehrmacht and the Soviets in World War II and for a decade following; the dissidents of the 1960s and ‘70s; the Helsinki Group and Rukh in the ‘80s and ‘90s; and going back centuries, the Kozaky and the Haidamaky. Throughout it all, there have been heroic clergy – men and women – serving day-to-day, year after year, generation after generation for a thousand years.

The Euro-Maidan coincided with the bicentennial celebration of Taras Shevchenko, the orphan peasant whose poetry roused his enslaved countrymen, reminding them that they were a nation and exhorting them to throw off their chains and sprinkle liberty with the vile blood of their oppressors.

As we end 2014 and enter into a new year, euphoria over the Maidan has faded to the grim reality of Crimea and military conflict in Ukraine’s east, where ample blood is shed by new heroes and age-old enemies. Over the past several months, as Russia invests vast military and propaganda resources into its hostile response to Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, I’ve heard more than a few comments which begin with the phrase, “Well, who knows if Ukraine will survive, but…”

Such fears are understandable, based as they are on concerns about the country’s difficult reality, but they are also unfounded. Ukraine will survive. As long as there are Ukrainians, there will be Ukraine. It’s in the national anthem and in the collective unconscious. As they have for millennia, families have been sitting down to “Sviat Vechir” (Sacred Evening) dinner to observe the time when the Earth starts returning toward the sun and every day gets longer. The ritual, now identified with the birth of Jesus, is celebrated in good times and bad.

In 2014, we also commemorated the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. Heartbreakingly, it was on January 6, 1915, when homesick soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian imperial armies on the Eastern Front sang Ukrainian carols across no man’s land on Christmas Eve and then proceeded to kill each other on Christmas Day. Asking themselves how this could be, Ukrainian leaders concluded: “Because we don’t have a country of our own.” Building one had been the principal project for the nation throughout the 20th Century. Sustaining it is the challenge it faces for 2015.

Looking forward, the country, despite its obvious military and economic weaknesses, has never been stronger. Thanks to the Maidan, the nation is consolidated. Illusions about Russia have been discarded. Eviscerated by President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime and infiltrated by Russian agents, the Ukrainian army is now rebuilding. With the help of volunteer militias, it’s been in the field against Russian-backed forces for more than half a year. Internationally, over 100 countries backed Ukraine in the United Nations General Assembly, condemning Russian aggression; Russia couldn’t even get a dozen to its side.

The U.S. and Europe have been steadfast in their support, imposing and maintaining sanctions against Russia while welcoming Ukraine’s government leaders to Washington, Brussels, Paris, etc.; Vice-President Joe Biden has racked up frequent-flyer miles to Kyiv; President Petro Poroshenko addressed a joint session of Congress where Ukraine has many friends – in December, a bill to support Ukraine militarily, economically and politically passed unanimously. The International Monetary Fund is providing support, while also demanding badly needed reforms. And throughout all this, the Ukrainian diaspora on several continents has stepped up, lobbying its elected representatives on behalf of Ukraine and working with the media locally and nationally to rebut Russian propaganda, serve as election observers in Ukraine, etc.

Less than a year after the showcase Sochi Olympics, Vladimir Putin must be wondering what his campaign to restore Russia’s greatness and garner international respect has gotten him. He’s routinely compared to Adolph Hitler; his name attached to a vulgar refrain is chanted with derision; his provocative foray accompanied by four warships to the G-20 meeting in Australia ended with him fleeing in humiliation after one world leader after another either rebuked or ignored him. Instead of respect, his actions have evoked global contempt and resulted in a stronger, more resolute NATO and a Russian economy in shambles.

2015 is sure to be active – many events we can predict: old-style Christmas, Malanka, the blessing of Jordan water and a cross of ice, Saturday language schools, weekly youth meetings, concerts, summer camps, fall farewells to college students, Thanksgiving, St. Nicholas, new-calendar Christmas, New Year’s. And so the cycle repeats itself, with us a year older. We’ll greet new babies and no doubt bid farewell to relatives and friends; hopefully attend a wedding or two and enjoy a relaxing vacation.

In the meantime, history will march forward with events inevitably demanding a response. It’s essential to remain steadfast with Ukraine, to help the country realize its enormous potential within the European framework, a transformation that will ultimately benefit not only its own citizens but also those in the rest of Europe and, yes in Russia too. We must remain not only interested but engaged. It’s both a blessing and a curse: may you live in historic times – we do.