Writer’s note: These are troubling times. As I write this, Russian troops appear to be at a standstill as they continue their relentless invasion of Ukraine. Terms like “possible nuclear strike” and “shut down Ukrainian airspace” are heard daily.
Jim and I, both history buffs, eventually had to limit the media coverage we watch in a day. At first, we were voyeuristically mesmerized by the real-time scenes of war and its destruction. Soon we had to put boundaries in place to give ourselves time to digest what was unfolding. Frankly, we needed periodic “breaks” so that our anger could subside. There are too many disturbing echoes of world history.
How is this going to end? Only god knows. In the meantime, we, like many others around the world, offer our prayers for peace. — general practitioner
March is Women’s History Month. This year’s theme is “Women Who Heal, Promote Hope”. Ironic, isn’t it, that we are celebrating women’s contributions to culture, society and history at the same time that Ukrainian women are giving us a real lesson in courage?
When the National Alliance for Women’s History came up with this theme, there was no way of knowing that March 2022 would see a horrific conflict with global implications. Interestingly, the group chose the theme “…both as a tribute to the tireless work of caregivers and frontline workers during this ongoing pandemic, and also an acknowledgment of the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have brought both healing and hope throughout history”. Who would have thought that COVID would finally be kicked off the front pages – by a Russian attack on its neighbour?
The “military maneuvers” that began on February 24 should have come as no surprise (although many leaders appeared to be unaware or indifferent to this decision – the one that Russian leader Vladimir Putin had been writing and talking about for years). Putin has made no secret of his ultimate goal: to restore the united socialist Soviet Republic to Stalin’s glory days. Invading Ukraine was his logical “next step”.
Putin mistakenly believed that Ukraine would be an easy target (even America’s top general predicted that Ukraine would fall to Russia in three days). Today, five weeks after the start of the battle, the Ukrainian people have proven themselves to be a formidable enemy. And the women are more than doing their part, each finding a role in the resistance – some taking up arms, others making molotov cocktails, still others ensuring the safety of their children and the elderly, and some telling stories with their story speaks eloquently to the world. Putin underestimated the power of women’s voices in Ukraine.
In 1991, when the USSR dissolved, Ukraine declared its independence from Russia. The land known today as Ukraine was originally settled by the Kyivan Rus people, mainly Scandinavian traders. Poland, Lithuania, the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary have all claimed it over time.
After World War I, a treaty recognized Ukraine’s independence, but that didn’t last. In 1922, the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic was formed and the people fell under Soviet rule. Just 10 years later, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin killed an estimated 3 million Ukrainians by deliberately imposing severe starvation there.
With World War II came Nazi occupation, a hardship some Ukrainians welcomed as a way to be relieved from Soviet control. This did not go well, as the Nazis massacred over one and a half million Jews. Non-Jewish Ukrainians were not spared either, as many were sentenced to hard labor or killed on the spot.
At the end of World War II, Ukraine remained part of the USSR. In 1954 Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine. Over the next three decades, the Soviet Union declined and Ukrainians became more outspoken in their opposition to Russia. This led to the declaration of independence of Ukraine in 1991 mentioned above.
What followed that statement was a 30-year period of Ukrainian political resistance to Russia. As Ukrainians grew in their resolve, a Russian leader rose up, determined to break that resolve.
Putin became president of Russia in 1999 for the first time. (Putin served as Russian President from 1999 to 2008 and then from 2012 to present. From 2008 to 2012 he served as Russian Prime Minister.) Several elections held from 2004 to 2019 illustrated the strengthening of the movement towards democratic freedom in Ukraine.
Perhaps the best evidence of this reinforcement is Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s unlikely rise to the presidency of Ukraine.
It would be hard to find anyone who didn’t know who Volodymyr Zelenskyy is today, but that might have been a whole different story before Russia’s current invasion of his country. Today, Zelenskyy is arguably the major player on the world stage – a far bigger role than this former lawyer, actor, comedian and filmmaker once played.
Zelenskyy was born to Jewish parents in 1978 in Kryvyi Rih, an industrial center in southern Ukraine. He grew up fluent in Russian, but learned to speak Ukrainian and English. He earned a law degree from Kyiv National University of Economics in 2000. While a knowledge of law would serve him well when he entered politics later, he had another interest that might prove -be even more important.
While a student, Zelenskyy discovered he had both a love and talent for acting. He and his group of performers (named Kvartal 95 – “Quarter 95” after the neighborhood where he grew up) appeared on Ukrainian television in the finals of the “Club of the Funny and Inventive People” – a contest of widely circulated comic improvisation. Zelenskyy then co-founded Studio Kvartal 95, a production company that quickly became one of Ukraine’s most successful entertainment studios. Later, Zelenskyy appeared in several feature films.
In October 2015, Servant of the People created the Ukrainian network 1+1. Zelenskyy played the role of a history teacher who exposes official corruption. The show was hugely popular and set the stage in the public mind for Zelenskyy to become President of Ukraine.
In 2018, Kvartal 95 registered “Servant of the People” as an official political party. It was this party on which Zelenskyy ran when he was elected president in 2019, winning 73% of the vote. Foreshadowing what he would do so effectively in the current crisis, Zelenskyy used his inaugural address to call for national unity – delivering his speech in Russian and Ukrainian.
Everyone is a stage
During World War I and World War II, the majority of news the public received about battles and troop movements came primarily from the radio. Jim remembers his father listening to HV Kaltenborn’s daily radio program informing listeners about what was happening with the war effort. Radio provided the most timely and detailed accounts of the war available. Newspapers did well, but radio could go deep. Later, television became a primary resource for the dissemination of information. With the development of television, global information has become more “visual”. With the advent of dedicated 24/7 news channels, news delivery has moved into “real time” in a way never before seen. When cell phones with video and photography capabilities became ubiquitous, even ordinary citizens could record and broadcast information – as it happened.
In news stories about the current invasion (which has caused the largest human migration since World War II), Zelenskyy, a leader with invaluable experience in communications and technology, has used that experience to dominate the world stage. . From his bunker in Kyiv, Zelenskyy addressed the world – appearing virtually in live broadcasts at the British Parliament, Canadian Parliament, United States Congress, German Bundestag, Israeli Knesset and Japanese Diet.
In each address, Zelenskyy has skillfully crafted his message to his audience – the world, of course, but also the leaders of the particular nation he is addressing. When addressing the Knesset, Zelenskyy reminded them that the date of the start of the war in Ukraine – February 24 – would be “… remembered twice in the history of the world, as a tragedy for the Ukrainians, Jews, Europeans and the whole world. On February 24, 1920, the Nazi Party was founded, killing millions of people, destroying entire countries, trying to commit genocide. It was a sobering reminder.
The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes was known as the “father of comedy”. Only 11 of his plays exist today out of the 40+ he is known to have written. Her most famous play, Lysistrata, tells of one woman’s strategy to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata addresses Greek women, urging them to deny their “charms” to their husbands until the men negotiate a peace. Such an idea will never come to Ukrainian women, I’m sure. No, they encourage men – and each other – to fight until victory is theirs.
As Ukrainians fight for their very survival as a nation and a people, women provide wonderful examples of courage in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. We can’t forget the images – an elderly grandmother sitting on a windowsill, a shotgun cradled in her arms; a musician playing the violin inside a bomb shelter to bring calm during the bombardment; an old man and his wife yelling at the advancing Russian soldiers, insisting that they “go home”; and a young girl’s chant “Let It Go” from Frozen to help keep your spirits up while huddling underground.
And they are not alone. Polish women leave their strollers at train stations for Ukrainian mothers fleeing to Poland with their children. An entrance bridge in Poland contains toys along the rails that each child can take when leaving home. And there are brave Russian women who are expressing their fury that their sons are being used as “cannon fodder”.
Women are doing these things – and many more – even as their hospitals, maternity wards, markets, businesses, parks, airports, nuclear facilities and even their homes are relentlessly bombed. And they will continue to resist the Russians as long as they have breath. Through it all, they bring healing and hope wherever they can. This is the essence of courage.