If you’re feeling something stirring deep inside your soul when it comes Ukraine’s fight for its freedom against Putin’s Russia, you should and here’s why
SILVER SPRING—Almost by happenstance, I ended up at one of those DC Insider Parties this past weekend, hosted by one prominent scholar and thinker, Shadi Hamid, at the invite of one Ani Chkhikvadze, a journalist. While the details, shenanigans, and gossip of the conversations had at this private party shall remain sacredly private, I was delighted to have a moment of sheer serendipity when I was reviewing some of the work of the two en route to their party. Ani had recently tweeted an article she had penned for the Spectator World during a recent sojourn to Kyiv, while Shadi had recently posted to his Twitter an article of his for The Atlantic from 2017.
Unbeknownst to either of the two friends, their two pieces, written half-a-decade apart, synergized on some key themes spectacularly, causing inspiration to erupt deep within me in an almost primal way. Thus, I highly recommend you read both articles, first Ani’s, then Shadi’s, as together they amplify each other’s messages’ profundity beautifully, before continuing here.
Chkhikvadze is from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and works for the U.S.’s Voice of America (VOA) . While in Kyiv, Ani was inspired to put together a piece for another publication, as mentioned. The result is short, powerful, and struck me to my core.
Early in her article, she described the atmosphere in Kyiv:
Journalists and volunteers, fighters and chancers, people from all walks of life are drawn to a city in the spotlight of history. Visiting grandees make stops in Irpin and Bucha to see with their own eyes the horrors of Russian occupation. Foreign fighters mix with Ukrainian soldiers at the train station. Ukrainian flags fly on the balconies, murals of the war cover apartment buildings, barricades and sandbags block entrances to government buildings. On the streets, you hear English, French, Polish and of course Georgian, my native language.
My immediate reaction (while reading on my small phone screen and unable to see text that came after until I scrolled down) was that this must have been what the spirit and atmosphere were like in Republican Spain, in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. And lo and behold, Ani’s very next sentence made the same comparison: “There is, I imagine, something of the feel of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.” My heart raced as I came across a writer that, at least on this subject, was a true kindred spirit.
My next thought, naturally, turned to what Orwell might have made of the current situation in Kyiv, and I was certain that the same Orwell who flocked to the Spanish Republican banner would have just as enthusiastically—likely even more so—joined the cause of Ukraine today. Chkhikvadze then upped the ante on my feeling a sense of connection to her as a fellow writer in her next sentence:
“It is the same in all wars,” George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia. “The soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours.” Those lines ring true today. Things are clearer cut in Ukraine, but as with Spain in 1936, Ukraine has become a magnet for believers in search of a cause.
I was so eager to read the article I didn’t even notice at first that the title was “Homage to Kyiv,” an obvious homage to Orwell’s work form his time in Spain. As I kept reading it seemed almost like my writer’s spirit was communicating with Ani’s.
The rest of Chkhikvadze’s short-but-sweet piece is really inspiring, particularly for those wary and weary of the excess cynicism of our age, even with her dispatch coming out of a Ukraine in the midst of a horrific war in which the Russian military’s killing of defenseless civilians and endless stream of war crimes are constant realities throughout the country. Because, as Ani notes, something special in history and not felt for some time on this scale is happening there.
Ukrainians know full well this is not simply a defensive war for them against an archaically colonialist and imperialist Russia; it is, more than any major conflict for many years, a war of “freedom over slavery,” democracy against autocracy, good versus evil, fought for Europe and the West against genocidal Russian fascism. Thus, Ukraine fights not for just itself, but proudly for Western civilization and for the whole world against the most reckless of the major powers of our era, one that is antithetical to notions of freedom and justice and that seeks to destroy the Western-democracy-led post-World War II international order.
Like Gondor against Mordor in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Ukraine is a buffer between us and Russia and its fight against Russia benefits and protects the rest of Europe, the West, the world. Like Gondor fighting against Mordor, we see a Ukraine that prizes life and the lives of its people fighting against a Russia that is callously careless and barbarically cruel even to its own soldiers, called often by Ukrainians “orcs” in homage to Tolkien’s world (and, in perhaps the most Russian thing ever, two decades ago, a Russian scientist wrote a new version of The Lord of the Rings in which Mordor and its orcs are heroically fighting against the evil Western imperialists, led by a very different Gandalf).
And plenty outside Ukraine also realize this, hence, not only the tremendous international governmental support, but the support of thousands of non-Ukrainians coming to fight as volunteers within the Ukrainian military or to tend to Ukraine’s wounded.
Ani engages in a beautiful exploration of why:
It’s easy to be cynical and dismiss these people as mere adventurers and war tourists, but there’s something honorable happening here too.
The war in Ukraine has given concepts of humanity, democracy, and freedom genuine meaning at a time when in the West many have become sarcastic about them. We find it hard to still believe in the idea of inner honor, the sort that makes you die for your friend.
Orwell explained his decision to join the anti-fascist cause with a characteristically simple phrase: “common decency.” This is what I encountered again and again in Kyiv. Common decency. A desire to stand alongside these people as they face down the threat of oblivion. Amid all the misery that Putin has unleashed on Ukraine, that is an encouraging thought.
When Chkhikvadze quoted Orwell—“common decency”—I teared up, overcome by emotion. And I did the same, again, when reviewing this section to write my piece you are reading now. That Ukraine has brought out within much of the collective West a sense of “humanity, democracy, and freedom”—of the “common decency” in standing up for these things in the face of those who would trample them in pursuit of narrow ideas of imperialistic power exercised over others against their will—and has done so in a way we simply have not felt in any grand sense in a very long time—decades, even—cannot be denied, no matter what the cynics say.
It reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies: Gettysburg, when Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry, discusses the motivations of himself and his men in fighting the U.S. Civil War: “All of us volunteered to fight for the Union, just as you did. Some came mainly because we were bored at home, thought this looked like it might be fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came because it was the right thing to do.”
It also reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in all of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, when a despairing Frodo asks Sam near the end of The Two Towers, “What are we holding onto, Sam?” Sam replies: “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
While Shadi’s piece, though written five years before Putin’s current major escalation of the war in Ukraine, did not make me tear up, it is also deeply relevant to this aspect of the Ukraine war in ways similar to Ani’s even if his does not discuss Ukraine at all.
His piece is titled “The Political Thrill of Having an Enemy.” Shadi—a scholar at The Brookings Institution—opens by writing: “I didn’t have a cause to die for.” But many of the Egyptians he talked to during the Arab Spring and after, including to a Muslim Brotherhood member who had been imprisoned in Egypt, felt they had a transcendent cause in standing up to what they viewed as unjust governments supported by an unjust international system propping up those governments. “I want to break the international order,” the man told Hamid. “No matter how hard it is, this is the goal I want. That’s what I’m living for, even if I die in the process of fighting for it…Why am I entering this conflict? Not because of this life but because of the next.”
Hamid notes that, when witnessing in person back in 2011 the initial joy in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the early, heady days of the Arab Spring in Egypt, he was “almost feeling a certain envy” of their joy in this moment of history, which was theirs and apart from him; he writes: “I wondered what it would feel like to be part of a revolution, to be denied freedom your entire life and then to feel even a whiff of it.” He considers that it is often in stable Western societies where “boredom” permeates politics: nothing too threatening, nothing too existential is coming from the government. This is a boredom, he notes, that is foreign to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members suffering from or fleeing the murderous persecution of General Sisi’s Egyptian dictatorship. Shadi deftly quotes Andrew Sullivan to note that an authoritarian dictatorship can seem like an omnipresence that overwhelms you on a daily basis, invading your very psyche.
For Americans, this means that, in the era of Trump, many were experiencing something akin (but obviously not fully) to the non-boredom the Egyptians talking to Hamid described; the oppression and anxiety felt generated a level of excitement and purpose to life—at least political life—that has been generally absent in large proportional quantities in the West in recent decades. Some even wanted Trump to win for thrill of the chaos he would create, apart from his politics or agenda. Channeling Fukuyama, Hamid asks us to consider if the end of ideological competition would always only be temporary because without such competition, public intellectual and political life seems far less interesting, and that people would foster some new ideological conflict just to make things exciting again.
Next, Shadi references the late, great Christopher Hitchens as one of the prolific romantics of our era, who clearly felt a constant desire to be connected to humanity through one great struggle or another, to stand up to some great evil, in a way that defined much of who he was in life as both a writer and a person. Hamid quotes a reviewer of one of Hitchens’ last books published before his death from cancer at the end of 2011 to put out the idea that people like Hitchens replace God with themselves, but I’d like to think they replace God with a humanist cause.
Near the end of his piece, Hamid pens the following phrase that is also the article’s lede: “Knowing what you’re against has a way of clarifying the mind and sharpening the focus.” He concludes his entire piece with the following: “Being in a constant state of alarm, wanting to be alarmed, can be unusually thrilling.”
While Shadi is right, Ani’s piece makes me think how much better it is to be feeling just as strong that you are for something, not just for destroying or stopping another thing, but really for something in a positive sense. America fought two significant wars in recent decades against the brutal Taliban in Afghanistan and against Saddam Hussein’s brutal Iraqi regime, its remnants, and other brutal terrorists in Iraq, whether al-Qaeda, ISIS and its precursor, or other sectarian elements. But for much of those sad conflicts, it was hard to feel much passion for a lot of what we were fighting for: an inept, terribly corrupt Afghan government, not much good at fighting without U.S. support? A weak Iraqi government riven by sectarianism?
Like Shadi’s article, Ani’s piece certainly makes us aware than an enemy like Russia can inspire unity. But what is the even more powerful takeaway from her eloquent discussion, what is exponentially more inspiring and unifying is a Ukraine fighting against an enemy like Russia. Some say “Putin united the West.” I prefer to think, even more so, that Ukraine did.
See all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here
Brian’s Ukraine journalism has been praised by: Mykhailo Podolyak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; the Ukraine Territorial Defense Forces; Scott Shane, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly of The New York Times & Baltimore Sun (and featured in HBO’s The Wire, playing himself); Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), one of the only Republicans to stand up to Trump and member of the January 6th Committee; and Orwell Prize-winning journalist Jenni Russell, among others.
© 2022 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
Also see Brian’s eBook, A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia, or, Ukrainegate: A “New” Phase in the Trump-Russia Saga Made from Recycled Materials, available for Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook (preview here).
If you appreciate Brian’s unique content, you can support him and his work by donating here; because of YOU, Real Context News surpassed one million content views on January 1, 2023.
Feel free to share and repost this article on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. If you think your site or another would be a good place for this or would like to have Brian generate content for you, your site, or your organization, please do not hesitate to reach out to him!