What Ukraine Is Teaching Us




How tone-deaf, cold, rude, and stupid would it sound to say I envy Ukrainians?

Not the bloodshed, not the suffering and the wrenching sorrow and the destruction of all they have built.

But their spirit.

Here is how Olena Zalenska, the country’s first lady, described Vladimir Putin’s “fatal mistake” to Vogue: “We are all Ukrainians first, and then everything else. He wanted to divide us, to shatter us, to provoke internal confrontation, but it is impossible to do this with Ukrainians. When one of us is tortured, raped, or killed, we feel that we all are being tortured, raped, or killed. We do not need propaganda to feel civic consciousness, and to resist.”

Could the same be said about us? I am not sure that here, in this big estranged country, we have enough civic consciousness left. Would we feel others’ plight even with propaganda, or would we dismiss that as fake news?

The observation that this country could not even band together against a lethal pandemic has already become a weary, disappointed cliché. We have lost so much—not just the old solidarity and compassion, the automatic fellow-feeling, but also the fire. What would we be willing to fight for—our phones and streaming services? Our homes, of course, but not, perhaps, all the other homes around them.

The Ukrainians are fighting not just for a homeland but for a cultural identity, for their Ukranianness. They have been resisting Russian influence for a long, long time, and they know exactly who they are. When they talk about what it means to be Ukrainian, I remember feeling sure of what it meant to be an American. I no longer do. Either we got too big or we got too fat; we have spent these years wrangling over who is entitled to what, subdividing ourselves, confusing what freedom even means, and forgetting that it carries responsibility. Fashionably cynical, we roll our eyes over each season’s slate of candidates—is this the best they can do? Money and media shape an electoral experience so warped, you have to question the judgment (and perhaps even the sanity) of anyone who runs.

As for the rest of us, we spend our time wanting things. When Ukraine came to us for help, we gave the sort of help we are good at giving: stuff. The Ukrainians already have what we need: the courage of convictions. The kind of patriotism that is not jingoistic, yet is fierce enough to give their lives purpose. They are defending real freedom: the right to live outside a despot’s reach. We squabble over the right to breathe on each other. It seems remarkable to us that artists in Ukraine gather in basements to make Molotov cocktails and grandmothers learn to shoot. Asked what gives her hope, Zalenska said, “My family—just like every Ukrainian—and my compatriots: incredible people who organized to help the army and help each other. Now all Ukrainians are the army. Everyone does what they can.”

If Putin took over here, quite a few of us, judging by recent history, might revel in his strongman dictatorship and luxe oligarchy. There would be no “us.”

Meanwhile, here is a twist: Russians “ have consistently expressed greater willingness to sacrifice their material well-being in the interests of their country’s military goals—and are more willing to accept conflict with other nations to defend Russian interests.” So they are just as patriotic as the Ukrainians—or are they just more militaristic and nationalistic?

Stephen Nathanson identified four elements of patriotism: a) special affection for the country; b) personal identification with the country; c) special concern for the well-being of the country; and d) willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good. Based in love and loyalty, it promotes public sacrifice, not empire. But Putin is not giving his people that chance

I was patriotic, once. But my fondness for my country has eroded steadily. This disaffection did not even bother me until recently; it felt defiant, independent, making me a citizen of the globe and not someone clinging to old geopolitical boundaries. I have never been a fan of the nation-state; nor have I trusted the sort of patriotism that insists one’s own country is best. But watching the Ukrainians, I wish I felt that sense of belonging, that glowing pride, that automatic loyalty to every other U.S. citizen.

Durkheim said a homeland helped forge morality, because it controlled a society at its highest level of organization. Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke points out that our lives have meaning when we feel connected to the world around us—and our brains need those reference points just to function. Our loyalty moves outward in concentric circles, but I have been skipping one, leaping all the way from my little town to the globe.

Once I did find meaning and moral cues in my nation’s leaders, its history, its Bill of Rights and Constitution. Now I think of waterboarding and kids in cages and outsourced businesses and vast inequity, and maybe this is immature of me, like a teenager pointing out their parent’s occasional flaws as though that spoils the whole picture. I am afraid we do need a firm parental figure. Such statements used to seem both pathetic and dangerous, but that was because I trusted the three branches of government to work in concert, I did not like or trust the candidates aspiring to lead, and we were not in crisis. Now, it would be heaven to know we had a leader who was courageous, intelligent, capable, moral, farsighted—and not hamstrung.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy plays that role, even for those of us outside the country. We are watching him act more bravely and speak more bluntly than our presidents ever dare. A friend worries that we are making him into a superhero—well, we need one. Besides, he is an underdog; you cannot accuse a man of leaping tall buildings when he cannot even secure a few fighter jets from you. We have stalled and dithered, allowing horrific atrocities to be committed because we want some kind of plausible deniability, some place on the edge of the conflict where we pass a few weapons into the ring while insisting we want no part in the fight. A lawyer I know was ready for Ukraine to give up weeks ago. “They are all dead,” he muttered. “It’s David and Goliath.” It is indeed. Remember who won?

Curious what strengthened Ukrainian solidarity, I read further, and a few layers of naivete drop away. Ukraine had plenty of far-right nationalists, just like us, before Russia attacked. One of its strongest fighting units, the Azov Battalion, was a neo-Nazi group formed to oppose Russia’s earlier invasion of Crimea. Its call for Ukraine to lead the White races of the world even gave Putin a little ammunition for his purported denazification.

Eight years later, the battalion is fighting for the entire nation, and the old neo-Nazi ideology has, at least for the time, dropped away. Leftists and other anti-fascists have joined the Azov, swelling its ranks to 10,000, and the group was welcomed into the framework of the Ukrainian military. Because all that matters is Ukraine’s freedom, the Azov is fighting, wholeheartedly, for a liberal government with a Jewish president. Washington Post reporters found little sign of White supremacy among these soldiers, just a few old tattoos that they admit send the wrong message.

Wars rally people to a common cause. Often war is proposed, sardonically, as a way to pull a country together. That, as one of my philosophy professors used to say, is a failure of imagination. We are too far gone, if it takes horrific suffering to cut through the denial and complacency.

But if a group of neo-Nazis can set aside their imagined superiority and welcome their ideological enemies to their ranks, surely we could set aside Donald Trump and all the other social polarizations. Maybe we are still capable of fighting, side by side, for the broadest freedom of all.

Hard to say. We have not yet begun.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.