Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 19 February 2024




We Ukrainians Are Fighting to Be Free

A Ukrainian soldier, seen from behind, holding a bouquet of flowers. He is standing on a train platform along with four other soldiers.
A Ukrainian soldier, seen from behind, holding a bouquet of flowers. He is standing on a train platform along with four other soldiers.

Ms. Stiazhkina, a historian and writer, wrote from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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It usually happens in the middle of the night or at dawn. Russians seem to like to kill the defenseless and helpless. They can’t do it at the front — there they have been repelled — so in the middle of the night, they launch missiles at maternity hospitals, high-rise buildings, train stations, metro stations, schools, libraries.

The worst thing during the attacks is the endless messages we send one another. The stupidest of the stupid is the question “How are you?” That question flies above Kyiv, Odesa, Kherson, Dnipro, gathering replies. “It fell close.” “I see a fire.” “We are fine but it is burning somewhere here.” “The house across from us is no more.” “The smell of death, my Anya said it smells like death.” Yet there is no alternative. It is a question that, for all its ridiculousness, cannot be left unanswered. Silence means misfortune and death.

We, the people of a decade of war, are used to those. The world is talking of a second anniversary. Wrong: The war has not been two years but 10, from when Russian forces annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas. Calling it an anniversary isn’t quite right, either. In Ukrainian, the period of time equivalent to a year is defined by two words: “richnytsia” (anniversary) and “rokovyny” (commemoration). “Rokovyny” often refers to memorial services, while “richnytsia” pertains more to celebrating life. So much sorrow has settled in our memory and calendars that everything is a memorial now.

Yet despite all the “rokovyny” in Ukraine across the centuries — the Baturyn massacre in the 18th century and the Valuev and Ems decrees in the 19th century, the executions in Bykivnia and Sandarmokh and the Holodomor under Soviet rule, the murder of the Heavenly Hundred in 2014 and the recent devastation of BuchaBakhmut and the Kakhovka dam — we’re still here. We are still fighting for “richnytsias,” for anniversaries and jubilees of our victory.

In these most recent years of war, a lot has changed. In Mariupol, there was a community center called Halabuda — a place where Japanese and computer literacy were taught, where book launches and concerts were held, where people learned to be businessmen and proactive citizens, where they painted, sang and developed projects for an environmentally friendly city. After a brutal monthslong siege led to the Russian capture of the city in the spring of 2022, Halabuda had to relocate. Today in Cherkasy, a city in central Ukraine, it’s where people repair drones.

There’s so much more left unrealized. More destinies that played out as heroic in war, but whose bearers can no longer do the things they may have been fated to: write books, open restaurants or discover a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Their smiles now exist only in photographs.

Among the things that have changed, perhaps, is the desire to tell the world what the Russians have done and are doing to Ukrainians, in the past and today. It used to be so vivid, so resonant, creating a second self for me — a self with stories of slain friends and photos of mass burials, along with a firm conviction that every death, every sorrow must be told, documented and avenged.

That feeling is gone. There are still the stories, photos and convictions. But I don’t want to tell the world about it anymore. The world is literate. It has access to the internet, to the news; it can see everything itself. I am grateful to the thousands, perhaps millions of people to whom we don’t have to explain or show anything anymore. They simply stood by us in Lithuania and Australia, Britain and Norway, the United States and Morocco, Japan and Estonia. I was lucky enough to know some of them by name. I was lucky enough to meet them — fearless and kind people — in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv and even in places where the front line is a kilometer away.

On the other hand, nothing has changed, not really. We have the same sense of clarity that we had in 2014. The same faith, the same love, the same rage. Do I want to go back to my prewar self, the one I was in 2013? No, I don’t. I don’t want to find myself back among the lies about “one people” from which genocide, war and murder will sprout again. I do not want to be back in the time when Russia’s attack was inevitable. I want us to win and there to be no war.

I think a lot about how in the first months of 2022, we might not have survived. It was my greatest fear. But the experience of those unnoticed war years, when Ukrainians fought Russian-backed forces in the country’s east, kicked in. It provided me with the strength, people and ability to be resilient, to withstand. I fled Donetsk in 2014. I decided I wouldn’t run anymore in 2022. I have never felt better. I have never been and will never be better than in those first months of the full-scale onslaught on Kyiv. In the words of the poet Serhiy Zhadan: “To be a sunflower in the fields of Donbas is to know how to live and what to die for.” I was a sunflower on the streets of Kyiv.

This year brought a new fear. I thought about the weapons we so desperately lack today. I started to wonder whether they are being given to us slowly not in an attempt to forestall Russia’s total defeat, as some have thought, but simply because they do not exist. “And what if they really don’t have it?” I asked my friend who is a warrior. “Then it’s the same as now,” he replied. “We stand. We fight. We endure.” My warrior friend knows how to calm me down. Before the war, he was an accountant. Now he is an artilleryman. And a bit of a philosopher.

We all try to stand up for ourselves. It means different things to different people. For some, it’s holding the front line. It’s weaving kilometers-long camouflage nets, tirelessly evacuating the wounded, donating every bit of money to the military. For others, it’s teaching children, baking bread, taking care of abandoned animals, telling jokes. Whatever we do, we are all standing up for ourselves right now, when we have a chance to escape from the occupier’s boot forever. To be free, to be alive. Now, when our chance to exist as a political nation, as a community, as a state, is equal to victory in war.

We are not just fighting for ourselves. We are fighting for a world in which it is safe to live. Is it appropriate at this point to ask for more weapons? We desperately need them. We need more weapons to prevent children’s literature from becoming literature for the dead; to avoid having graveyards filled with dead poets, dead villagers, dead engineers; to prevent cemeteries from replacing cities or Russian missiles from targeting our hospitals, schools and homes. We need support because despite emerging from 10 years of war stronger, better and wiser, we are only human.

Olena Stiazhkina is a historian and the author of “Cecil the Lion Had to Die,” among other books. This essay was translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan from the Ukrainian.

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