Ukraine on Fire: Voices from the midst of the tragedy
March 25, 2022
My friend and colleague Toliy is a Ukrainian professor, who lives in a small city called Ostroh, in the western part of the country. He, like so many of his compatriots, now suffering under the relentless advance of Vladimir Putin's militant barbarism, is not going anywhere. He and his wife, Larisa, remain in this university town, doing whatever they can to do battle for their nation.
Toliy writes: "Our women as well as men are ready to take up arms and fight against the invaders ... This tragedy united people with different political views and opinions. It's incredible, though it's painful for all of us to know that people in Kharkiv, Kyiv or Sumy were wounded or killed. It is as if I was wounded."
Toliy's courageous words make him a hero in my book. Of course, Ukraine is now a country of heroes. Ordinary people from all walks of life, including mild-mannered professors, are united in an almost cosmic struggle of good versus evil, right versus wrong, justice versus injustice, freedom versus fascism. They have moved the conscience of the world, and just as JFK once stood in a divided Germany and declared, "I am a Berliner," so a new theme and slogan is being heard from the lips of the citizens of the free world: "I am a Ukrainian!"
We all know that war is hell, but we also know that some of the most profound examples of bravery, courage and moral strength are born in its flames. We are reminded of the biblical story of Daniel, thrown into a fiery furnace, and yet he emerged unscathed. But we also know that in war many never emerge. And when war and the broader effects of war touch friends, colleagues and family members, we see it from entirely new perspective. Ukraine today is on fire; it is burning. And as the Russian army advances, the people of Russia, including my own wife and adopted daughter, are suffering as well, from the horror brought about by a single autocratic dictator.
For me this war, this tragedy is personal. I first met Toliy in Orlando in 2014. At the time he was a guest speaker at UCF, and he came to my home to enjoy a dinner prepared by my Russian wife, Elena, who is herself one quarter Ukrainian. Toliy speaks Russian as well as Ukrainian, and my wife has long pointed out that Russians and Ukrainians are indeed one people. From my part there was an ulterior motive behind our meeting, since Toliy contributes to an academic journal published by the National University of Ostroh Academy. Over time a fruitful collaboration began, in which I would send Toliy my articles and he would translate them into Ukrainian for publication in the journal. Toliy also connected me with one of his colleagues, Dmytro, who, though a non-Jew, spoke fluent Hebrew and had studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was now establishing a Judaic Studies program at the academy in Ostroh. Needless to say, I was impressed, especially since part of Ukraine's long history involves a dark undercurrent of antisemitism, including vicious pogroms and collaboration with the Nazis during the German occupation of the country in World War II.
I immediately became excited about the possibility of creating a formal collaboration between this Ukrainian fledgling program and the UCF Judaic Studies Program. To move the process along I was invited to teach a special summer session on the Dead Sea scrolls at the Ostroh Academy, in the summer of 2016. I flew into Kyiv in an unusually warm July, where I was met by several students, who took me on a six-hour ride in a van to what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. Ostroh is a country town, quite a distance even from the nearest train station. Ukraine immediately struck me as a poor country, flat in topography and largely agrarian. The hospitality of the people, however, was undeniable. I soon settled into a modest hotel, and toured the stately grounds of the Academy, with its finely manicured gardens and statuary. The cafeteria food was simple, and I often satisfied my western palate with pizza from the nearby restaurant.
The next day I was given a tour of a long-destroyed synagogue, centuries-old, which American benefactors were attempting to restore. Adjacent to the building's shell was a Jewish cemetery, the headstones of which had been dismantled during Stalin's repression. Now they were being carefully replaced, as a memorial to the large Jewish population that once resided here, but has long since vanished.
My teaching duties, which commenced shortly thereafter, were sheer pleasure. The classroom was fitted with the latest technology, including an LCD projector. Teaching in English posed no difficulties for these graduate students, some of whom were from Poland and who spoke multiple languages. What impressed me the most was that all of them were non-Jews, who, like Dmytro, had studied Hebrew and were able to follow along in the Dead Sea Scroll texts. It was an absolute marvel, as I had never seen such dedication in a group of students before. I could not help myself from explaining, "You put my American students to shame!" At the end of my series of classes, I asked Dmytro, "What can I do to help your program?" He had only one request: "Send books!" Indeed, the Academy was attempting to build a Judaica library, and it dawned on me that my efforts might make a considerable contribution.
When I arrived back in the States, I organized a Jewish book drive, with help from the Heritage Florida Jewish News, which published my call for donations. During the months that followed, I sent multiple shipments of books to Ukraine and continued my collaboration on the publication front. I also corrected the English version of Dmytro's Ukrainian articles, destined for publication in international journals.
Before leaving Ukraine, however, I spent two full weeks in downtown Kyiv, doing research for two articles of my own on the country's Jewish population, of today and of centuries past. Ukraine, after all, was the location of the mythical town of Anatevka, classically brought to life in the tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer and immortalized in "Fiddler on the Roof." Visible reminders of Ukrainian Jewry include the Brodsky Choral Synagogue, a memorial plaque at the birthplace of Golda Meir, and a statue of Sholom Aleichem. I was endlessly impressed by the city's art, its monuments, its millennia-old churches, and the majestic Dnieper River, cutting a swath through the heart of Kyiv.
As a student of history, I was well aware of its rich legacy. The ancient settlement of Kievan Rus, founded by the Vikings, was already a city before Moscow was even a village. While Ukrainians and Russians are indeed one people, Ukraine has always been a separate land with its own identity. Across its long history, it has been pillaged by assorted invaders, from Mongols to Poles. Its eastern half was taken by Russia during the Russo-Polish War of 1654-1667. During the infamous rule of Joseph Stalin, Soviet efforts to impose collectivism and crush Ukrainian nationalism left 3.9 million dead. Then came the horror of Nazi occupation, memorialized in the spectacular Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
Not far away, I visited Babyn Yar (previously known as Babi Yar), where in late September 1941, the S.S. along with German police and Ukrainian collaborators, massacred more than 33,000 Jews, throwing their bodies into the ravine. What happened here is a blight on the history of Ukraine and on human civilization itself; yet, Ukrainians today are overwhelmingly a different breed. Yes, Ukraine has its share of extremists and neo-Nazi racists, but by-and-large they are as unlike their antisemitic forbears as today's Germans are unlike the Hitlerians of the past. The Ukrainians I met, learning to read Hebrew and establishing a Judaic studies program, are to be applauded. Arguably, they are making an important contribution to European civilization as a whole. They are strong nationalists, while at the same time embracing liberal values of freedom and democracy. Moreover, there is no contradiction between the two.
It is too often assumed that nationalism and liberalism amount to proverbial oil and water. Being a nationalist is embodied in the likes of jingoism and "America first-ism" at the expense of liberal values. Today's Ukraine, however, in spite of a legacy of political and economic corruption, is a testament to the fact that nationalistic and progressive impulses can and should complement each other. To be sure, it is because of Ukrainian nationalism that Ukrainians embrace liberal values.
Those values were brought to life in the heart of Kyiv, in the student-led Maidan revolution of 2013-2014, the focus of which was to oust the Russian puppet prime minister Victor Yanukovych. Having set up barricades on Independence Square, the demonstrators managed to take City Hall, only to be confronted by security police, who ultimately shot dead some 90 people from Feb. 18-21, 2014. Ukrainian parliament subsequently deposed Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. During my time in the city I saw where it all took place, including the charred remnants of City Hall, being painstakingly reconstructed.
Looking at those tumultuous days through the wide lens of history, it has been argued that this is well-described as the Revolution of Dignity. It rested on three main pillars: patriotism, socio-economic reform, and the ideals of democratic liberalism. The Russian response was predictable: invasion. Russia essentially walked into Crimea in March 2014. At the same time it began actively backing Russian separatist forces in the Donbas region of south-eastern Ukraine, resulting in a bloody conflict lasting to the present. While staying in Kyiv, I witnessed a spontaneous parade through Independence Square, in memory of the Ukrainian soldiers killed in defense of their nation. At the Ukrainian State Museum, I walked through a new exhibit memorializing the sacrifice of so many of Ukraine's sons in the Donbas region. Most riveting was a jeep riddled with bullet holes, and I could only wonder who might have been the occupants of that ill-fated vehicle.
During the years that Vladimir Putin has been in power, Russia has seen many changes, most of them bad. I met Elena not long after Putin rose to power, at a time during which Russia might have tilted in a more western direction. In those days President Bush related that when he looked in Putin's eyes he saw a man he could deal with. Of course John McCain later declared that all he saw were three letters: a K, a G, and a B. Obviously, McCain was right.
In due course, my wife found a little girl in an orphanage near Irkutsk. Mr. Putin had made it clear that American citizens could no longer adopt Russian children, so my wife (a dual citizen) proceeded, without reference to my existence. I was nonetheless heavily involved, formally applying for U.S. citizenship, to bring this little girl (Nikka), to whom I have become deeply attached on my multiple visits to Russia, to America. My wife has held a U.S. passport for years, but a visa is required for Nikka. The wheels of bureaucracy were progressing, slowly but steadily, when COVID hit, along with international tensions, which all but closed the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. After a delay of nearly two years, Nikka's case has been transferred to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where she now has an immigration interview scheduled for April 26. Little could we have imagined the outbreak of Putin's all-out war on Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Elena and Nikka are still in Putin's Russia, utterly aghast at the barbarity that now characterizes their country.
Toliy and his wife remain in Ostroh, Ukraine, where entire cities have been destroyed.
He writes: "Students are at home. I am in touch with them. Many are doing volunteer jobs, some of them are fighting, others stay at their native towns and cities and are involved in various activities, helping militaries or volunteers. Everyone tries to find his/her place due to the circumstances ... I want you to know and let other people in the U.S.A. know that we are defending our country and we are fighting and we will not surrender."
A dual Canadian-Ukrainian academic, Mychailo Wynnyckyj, author of "Ukraine's Maidan, Russia's War," was interviewed on YouTube, sharing that in the midst of the air raid sirens, he was reminded of the words of the American national anthem: "And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there!" Chocking back tears, he shared that through the smoke and fire all around him, he realized, as a Ukrainian, that "our flag is still there."
As Americans we must remember that freedom is never more than a single generation away from extinction, that what happens "over there" affects us all, and that the support we offer to Ukraine, both morally and militarily, carries with it cosmic consequences. We must also remember that our national anthem, too often glibly chanted without regard for its meaning, ends not with a declaration but a question: "O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"
Kenneth L. Hanson is an associate professor and coordinator of the University of Central Florida Judaic Studies Program. He earned a Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, in 1991. His many scholarly articles focus on the Second Jewish Commonwealth and the Dead Sea Scrolls.