Monday, April 11, 2022

History and Context

Our weapons are not weapons with which cities and countries may be destroyed, walls and gates broken down, and human blood shed in torrents like water. But they are weapons with which the spiritual kingdom of the devil is destroyed.
 —Influential Anabaptist religious leader Menno Simons (1496-1561), whose followers were known as Mennonites
Many words have flowed on the war in Ukraine. Given the going price of talk (cheap), allow me to throw in mine for what they’re worth (two cents).

Since my main gig is film blogging, I can begin by recommending two movies. When Russia invaded Ukraine last month, I was at a film festival, specifically the Dublin International Film Festival. By complete coincidence, one of the films I saw there was Elie Grappe’s Olga, a fictional story about a teenage gymnast forced into exile during Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests and Revolution of Dignity during 2013-14. In the movie we see Kyiv as the modern, glistening city it was and, hopefully, will be again. We also get a crash course in how Ukrainians rose up against a corrupt, pro-Russian government and chased it from power. It’s a useful reminder that the current war has a context and that Ukraine has a history that didn’t begin only when the country started showing up daily in our newscasts.

The other movie is one I saw three years ago at the Galway Film Fleadh and which I recently rewatched. It was directed by Oscar-nominated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland and is based on the true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. It is called Mr. Jones after the film’s central character and also after a George Orwell character that may have been inspired by him. The film recounts his journey to Moscow in 1933 where he was determined to learn how Stalin was funding the Soviet Union’s military buildup. On a visit to Ukraine (then part of the USSR), he slipped away from his handlers to see firsthand the devastating famine caused by Stalin’s policy of wheat exports. Such an atrocity was seen as impossible in the minds of other western journalists, who idealistically saw the Soviet Union as the way to the future and to modernity. The most egregious example was The New York Times’s Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty, who actually won a Pulitzer Prize for articles debunking Jones’s famine accounts, which had appeared in The Times of London. Despite Duranty’s clear journalistic malpractice, his Pulitzer has never been revoked. Jones was kidnapped and murdered in Mongolia in 1935, presumably by the NKVD (Soviet secret police).

Beyond film recommendations, I offer my own strange connection to Ukraine. As far as I know, I have no Ukrainian ancestry, but it so happens that four of my great-grandparents were born in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast region of Ukraine, which is currently under Russian occupation. Several earlier generations were also born there. They were farmers who did not mix much with people outside their own German-speaking community.

They began as a Dutch Anabaptist movement and fled persecution in the Low Countries in the early-to-mid-16th century for Poland’s Vistula Delta region where they were valued for their skill in building dykes. In the mid-to-late-18th century, they were invited by Catherine the Great to settle in what is now Ukraine. This was territory recently won by Russia in a war with the Turkish Ottoman Empire and which had been dubbed New Russia or South Russia. In return, the devoutly pacifist Mennonites were granted special status which, among other things, exempted them from military service. During the reign of Tsar Alexander II in the late 19th century, the government moved to strip the special status, prompting many of them to emigrate elsewhere. Families resettled all over the world, and that is how my maternal grandparents came to be born in Kansas, live for a time in Oklahoma and then finally settle in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

What my family history tells me is that, while Vladimir Putin insists Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, it is actually a conquered territory that Russia has used as a buffer against perceived threats and which Moscow has treated brutally for generations. No wonder so many Ukrainians (though not all, it should be noted) would prefer to be part of the democratic liberal community of Western Europe.

To much fanfare, the European Union has kicked off the long, bureaucratic process of admitting Ukraine as a member. Depending on how events on the ground develop, this could turn out to be farsighted, provocative or merely symbolic. The dilemma for Europeans is whether Ukraine will eventually be seen as a new and shining outpost of Western values or wind up as an unfortunate sacrifice to Russia’s paranoia about its security. Would such a sacrifice even satisfy Putin?

To put it another way, will Ukraine be Finland in 1940 or Hungary in 1956? Or more worryingly, Poland in 1939?