Ukraine Is Our Past and Our Future

While she was in North London Hospital, she died.In her early twenties, my grandmother began to dream up scenes of her Ukrainian childhood. All around the ward she saw starving children, skeletal, collapsing in the long, white, strip-light corridors—lying, leaning, barely breathing by the hospital beds. At first my mother and I couldn’t understand what she was referring to. How many children were there? The ward was populated by only elderly people.

We discovered that Galina was hiding her childhood memories. Sumska was her elegant, high-end street in Kharkiv. She was back in 1932, the height of Stalin’s man-made famine meant to break the resistance of the Ukrainian peasantry to his rule. They were flung from the countryside to the capital in search for food. Their bodies lay scattered on the dirt road.

Sumska has seen the bodies of dead people scattered again. Kharkiv’s residential areas are under merciless bombardment. There are many more civilians who have been killed in Bucha or Irpin. A conservative estimate puts the number across Ukraine in the mid-1000s so far—with the number rising by the day—and that figure doesn’t include the 5000 who the mayor of Mariupol says perished in his still-besieged city. These murders undermine our perception of progress and time. “Can this sort of vicious slaughter of civilians be happening now, in Europe, in 2022?” some ask.

A dictator from the Kremlin wants to destroy Ukraine’s spirit, to end the notion of a sovereign Ukraine.

He is now being stopped. It is now possible to end the vicious cycle. This is important not only for Ukraine, it’s also for the world. For the same reason that Ukraine is the crucible of so much horror in history—it has also produced the ideas, stories, and policies that define good from bad for us all. It will. You must.

The situation in Ukraine today is one of repeat violations and repeated abuse.

In the 19th century it was the tsars who banned Ukrainian language books, schools, jailed Ukrainian patriots and dismissed the region as mere “little Russia.” In the 1930s Stalin not only starved (at least) 3.9 million peasants, but also executed Ukrainian intellectuals and artists, many of them in Kharkiv. In the 1970s, my mother’s generation, it was the turn of Ukrainian dissidents to face decade long sentences in “special regime camps” for daring to ask for Ukrainian language rights. Many Ukrainians include the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl in the list of Moscow’s imperial sins: because the reactor was in colonized Ukraine, the argument goes, there was less attention to safety than had it been near the Soviet capital. It would have been easier to evacuate the residents and inform them of the dangers of radiation if Chernobyl was closer to Moscow.

It is not only Ukrainians that are constantly oppressed in Ukraine. This is the territory of some of the worst pogroms against Jews in the Russian Empire; the Soviet’s forcible removal of Tatars from their ancestral home in Crimea; the scene of some of World War II’s most death-drenched battles; and the Holocaust. Through the 20th Century, 14 million people died in this area. Ukraine is the center of humankind. BloodlandsTimothy Snyder, Yale’s historian, has described the situation so powerfully. The Ukraine, perched between many rival Empires (Russian Austro-Hungarian Soviet, Nazi, Soviet) and rival nationalisms, is where European great power are most fearful of insurrections and therefore most vicious. It also has the legal blackholes where unimaginable crimes may temporarily become commonplace.

Continue reading: How Ukraine can win the war

But precisely by virtue of being such a concentration of cataclysms, the place where the world’s evils can coagulate, Ukraine is the place which gives birth to its antidotes. Consider Hersh Lauterpacht. His father was a lawyer, who was raised in Lviv during the 20th century. He experienced pogroms and lost both his parents to the Nazis in 1941. Through these experiences, he realized the importance of individuals having universal rights that go beyond the control and power of their state. A novel concept that is now taken for granted. Lauterpacht came up with the concept of “crimes against humanity,” a charge leveled against the Nazi leadership at the Nuremberg Trials. Raphael Lemkin from Lviv, another lawyer who studied law, provided us with the final concept of what the deepest evil is: genocide. It’s the systematic mass murder of entire populations. This groundbreaking concept was even used by Nuremberg, despite much opposition from other lawyers. Anne Applebaum tells a shockingly brutal story about this revolutionary concept in her history Red FamineLemkin was inspired by the past of his home region to consider genocide. He considered Stalin’s enforced famine a “classic example of Soviet genocide.”

Ukrainian writers have been able to find the stories that are good and bad. Traveling across territory recently retaken from the Nazis, Vassily Grossman was one of the first to describe the holocaust first-hand in ‘Ukraine Without Jews’. The poet Paul Celan, who heralded from my father’s home town of Chernivtsi, came up with perhaps the darkest and most resonant line about the war in his Death Fugue: “Death is a master from Germany.” The leitmotif of Ukrainian poetry is resilience in the face of oppression. Today in Lviv you can buy pretty pink t-shirts with lines from one of the nation’s most iconic poets, Lesya Ukrainka:

“He who has not lived through a storm/does not know the price of strength.”

The nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 sparked a renewed awareness of the environmental issues worldwide and an entire vision of the future as a result of the fight against man-made disasters to the environment.

Because Ukraine lies close to Western Europe, global catastrophes are more visible there. Most of the crimes listed above—Nazi, Soviet, ecological, genocidal, humanitarian—are not purely Ukrainian but take place across the world. While they may go unnoticed elsewhere, they are often detected in Ukraine where they come up against an array of institutions, legal, academic and cultural that forces us to understand them all and find solutions. This is what’s happening right now.

On the fourth week at 1 AM of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine I slipped out of my Lviv hotel room and made my way to the train station. It was past curfew and the streets were darkened. Lviv’s art nouveau buildings are so well preserved that it is hard to tell which century they belong in. This curfew evening, I could have been anywhere in the world. Lemkin und Lauterpacht were always on my mind and I was able to share their city.

I was on my way to Kyiv for an editorial meeting on a new project to record testimony and tell stories about the Kremlin’s crimes in Ukraine. It will not only produce materials for transitional justice but also an archive journalists, documentarian film-makers, playwrights, writers, photographers, and policy makers can use in order to further this story. But as the train rumbled through the night, with the muffled, gentle, disquieting thuds of artillery fire as we approached the capital, I struggled to define what specific “rights” and what larger “story” we would tell. Is the Russian bombardment on civilians war crimes? Most likely. Most likely. Though I didn’t know it at the time, a few kilometres away from Kyiv, in Bucha, Russian soldiers were likely executing and raping civilians indiscriminately and what could well be strategically: to break the town’s will. Soon the world would know what had happened there and many would be calling this a potential “crime against humanity.”

However, none of the above categories seems to satisfy. Putin’s speeches and Russia’s actions were aimed at far more than just killing and maiming. Putin has made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t think Ukraine is a real country, that any Ukrainians who think of it as a sovereign state with its own distinct culture are actually ‘Nazis’ controlled by America and who need to be eliminated. As in the 1930s there were kill lists that included the names of political figures and cultural leaders. Russia is transferring large sections of Mariupol’s population. The destruction of history, reality and memory is being done. Putin and his spin doctor propose to change the narrative of Ukraine. This will include its people and their lives, as well as their rights to determine their meaning. Children will be taught “alternative” facts where truth will be turned upside down; Russia will be the “liberator.” Moscow will even hold a new “Nuremberg” to punish Ukrainians they claim are guilty of war crimes—and ignoring their own.

Read More: What Putin’s Nazi Talk Reveals About His Plans for Ukraine

Such mass reordering of reality, obliteration of memory and history feels far beyond mere ‘war crimes’. It can even sound closer to Lemkin’s original concept of genocide, where he spoke of different kinds of genocide: “political, social, cultural, economic, biological and physical.” He also listed the techniques which could be used to commit genocide, including among them the desecration of cultural symbols and the destruction of cultural centres such as churches and schools. But his final legal definition was reduced to attacks on ethnic and ‘biological’ groups. Philippe Sands (a human rights lawyer) was the author of this book. East West StreetOn Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s behalf, he told CNN that he believes it unlikely to prove genocide. He favors the war of aggression charge because it’s completely unprovoked. This means Russian political leaders and soldiers will all be charged.

The best term of what Putin is up to I actually heard came from a friend who had campaigned endlessly to stop Russia’s atrocities in Syria. What was under attack, she argued, was the “right to exist.” This may be legally hazy, but for me it captured the essence of Putin’s wars in Chechnya, Syria and now Ukraine, as well as his oppression inside Russia. His goal is to remove people from the ability to decide who and what they want to be, as well as their futures, meaning and identity. He wants to control not just who lives and dies—but reality itself. He also wants to eliminate all vestiges of human rights and humanitarian law. Impunity is the true source of power.

Next day, I met up with my coworkers. a team of Ukrainian journalists lead by the irrepressible Natalia Gumenyuk, in Kyiv’s only open restaurant. The Crimean Tatars were represented in this place, which was fittingly symbolic of the return and growth of Tatars deported from Stalin’s Siberia exiles. It was the city where I was born, but it felt empty, anxious, and torn by the sirens’ screams. “The noise of the sirens follows you everywhere,” one colleague told me, “into the bedroom, the bathroom. You can’t escape it. And you can’t tell where it’s coming from, it’s all around you. Children are traumatised by it—they cry every time it starts.”

When we were discussing our editorial strategy, it was clear that we needed to go beyond the story of one war crime. To really respond to the totality of Putin’s attack we have to connect what is happening today to the violations from the historical past, to show how they repeat over and over; we have to tell not just the stories of people hurt and killed by the war, but also the culture and everyday life Putin is trying to wipe out; and we have to connect Putin’s crimes in Ukraine with those in Syria, Chechnya, and across the world, including to those committed by other powers.

Our goal is to provide justice, both in the actual court and the court that hears public opinions. However, if you look beyond this human story of good and evil about the right for existence, there is another way: how to approach political action. Lemkin and Lauterpacht were the inspiration for notions such as humanitarian intervention and responsibility to protect. The doctrines held that the international community must intervene when there are extreme crimes against humanity.

There are many people, including Ukrainians, that have been longing for something in Ukraine. For America and its allies, confronting nuclear powers directly with military force is a taboo. There will, however, be more challenges like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even though Moscow stumbles sometimes, Moscow doesn’t give up on its Imperial games. China has been eyeing Taiwan and India is exploding. America’s and its allies’ ad-hoc responses to Ukraine’s invasion have the seeds of something better. It could be a strategy that works in a world with nuclear powers again fighting each other, much like the Cold War. But unlike those who were economically dependent in the last half of 20th century, the two are now economically interdependent. Western allies responded to the invasion by using economic sanctions, pressure on communication, communications efforts and arming Ukraine as a random, unplanned way. It should be registered.

In the face of war crimes, in response to attacks on “the right to exist” and wars of aggression, we need a system of alliances that can respond immediately and strongly with all political and economic means, and with a clear model for arming our friends. We shouldn’t even be debating whether an oil and gas embargo should kick in after an atrocity like Bucha. It should be done automatically. This means that we must rethink how security, economics and human rights are connected to ensure democracy is not as dependent upon criminal regimes like Germany, which has been dependent on Russian energy. This means we must move to cleaner energy faster to free ourselves from the Russias, Saudis, and other countries in this region. This will require strengthening relations with countries such as Ukraine’s militaries so they can arm themselves accordingly.

The invading of Ukraine must be interpreted as a new way of understanding why democracies are able to work together quickly and relentlessly against the aggressive actions of Russia and China. It is likely that dictatorships will form their own networks. That could create a new type mutual deterrence, as well as a possibility for stability.

Once again, Ukraine is making us rethink our values, our laws, our policies, our defense. You cannot just attribute this war to Russia and Ukraine. There’s an increasingly coordinated network of dictatorships and soft authoritarians who think the 21st century belongs to them. To answer this fundamental question, the first step is to figure out how Ukraine could win. Ukraine is revealing a fault line in our thinking that has been highlighted many times, but one we chose to ignore. Ukrainian writer Igor Pomerantsev used the metaphor of poetry being a bat that flies through darkness, illuminated suddenly by our flashlight. The same metaphor applies to politics. Ukraine is the land where the unseen is revealed, the oppressed are remembered and where terror is given meaning. We are fighting for their freedom.

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