What I Learned From the Ukrainian People
By Andrew Loftesnes
The unprovoked Russian war of aggression against the sovereign state of Ukraine is the most stark case of good and evil since the Second World War. The Russian state is waging a genocidal campaign in order to manifest the imperial ambitions of a single evil man. Vladimir Putin undoubtedly has been emboldened after years of indiscriminate and consequence-free slaughter of the Syrian people, and by the unopposed annexation of Crimea in 2014. Any policy which aims to achieve anything short of an unquestionably defeated Russia is against the national security interests of the United States, and a moral calamity. But there are other times and places to talk about policy.
I want to talk to you about the Ukrainian people.
I want to tell you about what I learned by being in their presence from mid-April until mid-July of 2022, while serving on the ground in Ukraine as a humanitarian volunteer. I did nothing brave there, and the only aspect of my experiences in that country which I wish to share with you is what I learned from being in the presence of a courageous people who want nothing more than for their lives to go back to the way they were before February 24, 2022; the last day in which their existence was like yours and mine is now. I want to tell you why they have a special place in my heart.
I flew out of the United States the day after leaving my job and found myself on the Polish side of the Ukrainian border a few days later. I will tell that you two things about crossing that border back in April. The first is that as soon as you did so, it was clear that you were in a nation at war. The emphasis here is on the entirety of the nation, and not a distinct class in the society which burdens the whole of the conflict. The second is that you have entered the territory of a people with a distinct, cherished and fiercely protected identity. Both of these factors stood out in stark contrast to me when I thought of the American home front during the 20 years of the War on Terror. These circumstances stand out even more in our present age of petty and manufactured divisiveness.
I was only 9 years old on September 11, 2001, but given that my dad was working in the Pentagon at the time, I remember the day well. I also remember the immediate period following the attacks and the visceral feeling of common identity shared by a people who shared a community. For most Americans today, this is now a distant and almost impossible seeming memory.
In Ukraine that spirit not only exists but has endured and been strengthened since the first day of the invasion. I stood in the presence of Ukrainian civilians in a bomb shelter as they broke out together in song; “Do not worry, glorious Ukraine, You have a free people… And we, our glorious Ukraine, shall, hey, hey, rise up and rejoice!” I spoke with wounded soldiers in a hospital in central Ukraine who wanted nothing more than to return to the army and continue to defend their country. I am confident that Russian missiles and Iranian provided drones targeting civilian infrastructure will never make the winter cold enough to break the spirit of such a people. This Russian strategy will only strengthen the very identity which it seeks to destroy. For Ukrainians, the simple act of enduring is an act of defiance and resistance against the Russian war machine.
The Ukrainian people want to help themselves. Not only do they insist on it, but they excel at it. The entire nation has mobilized in a way which I have to imagine was similar to civilian populations in Europe from 1939-1945. For Ukraine and its people, there is only the war effort. Civil society groups which existed before the war to promote Ukrainian culture and traditional folk music, are now gathering in basements to teach community classes on weaving sniper suits, making homemade MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), and moving medicine to locations where it is most needed. Across Ukraine we encountered groups consisting of ordinary people who banded together at the community level to deliver humanitarian aid to where it was needed the most. We met young people who stayed behind to be of service to the elderly of their community, for whom evacuation may have presented serious challenges. Do you think that any of these volunteers thought they would spend a day of their lives doing this before the day the war started?
From the Ukrainian people I learned about service. Everywhere we went in Ukraine we were surrounded by local volunteers. What was astonishing was that many of them were (are) themselves displaced persons. As soon as they reached a place of relative safety compared to their previous location, they began to turn around and help. Many did this even as they themselves were homeless, sleeping in public spaces, and dependent entirely on the generosity of those around them. Every day across Ukraine, I saw the best of humanity embodied by people who had lost everything but still had the strength and compassion to ask, “how can I help?” This comes to mind often when I hear talk of “war weariness” among the American public, brought up in debates about how long the West can or should help Ukraine to hold the line.
Now back in the United States, I think of my Ukrainian friends and the countless people I met, and the long winter being weaponized by the Russian war against their way of life. A war which grows increasingly barbaric in its desperation and fear. I deeply hope that anyone reading this will not forget about them, and will reach out to help in whatever way suits you best. The winter will be long. Most tragically the war itself may very well be long. But one thing I learned from the Ukrainians is that normal people can make a difference. They are doing it every day and if you are so moved, you can make a difference as well.
When I think of the Ukrainians themselves, I think not only of lives shattered or of a dark winter which must now be endured. Far from it. Instead, I think of what I learned about from being by their side. When I think of the Ukrainians I think of a spirit which cannot be broken, of a hope which cannot be killed, of a people who will endure, and of a nation that will win.