I am not at all surprised that Ukraine citizens are putting up such a fight against the Russian invasion. In fact, I smiled just a bit, not at the war but at the resilience and ingenuity.
And I am not at all surprised that their current leader is a young, energetic, bright 44 year old former comedian (yes, he also has a law degree and a pedigree of intelligence and education, his father being a professor and his mother an engineer).
We had the privilege and fortune of travelling to several previously-eastern bloc countries between 2016 and 2019 – Poland, East Germany, Czech, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Bulgaria - all countries who have seen their share of conflict. (I am not schooled in world conflicts, and I know that wars have different motivations, but the fact remains that war involves someone trying to take, by violence, something from someone else, and this involves death and trauma and heartache.) It was in the ‘new' Poland that I started the phrase, “They ain’t goin’ back.” Much to my husband’s chagrin (due to the slang talk!), as we winded our way through these different countries, I kept repeating myself, “Nope, they ain’t goin’ back.”
What I meant was, these countries are never going back to autocratic control (at least without one huge, colossal fight). And I always said that the demographic that was going to rise up to save them was the 30-40 year olds.
One thing that really stood out for me in Poland was the brightness, the intelligence, the energy, and the optimism of that generation. They embrace democracy and education and capitalism. They are fit and look good and are confident. But they are old enough to remember atrocities and bloodshed - and no power and no food and no fun activities. This enthusiasm was evident through all those countries.
Another thing that stands out is how they remember. Whereas we seem so big on the cancel culture right now, those countries build a huge museum and put the tragedy right before your eyes. You can never forget. Think of the concentration camp tours - for instance, Dachau and Auschwitz (if at all possible, everyone should go to one – once). Think of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland, or the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland, or Schindler’s Factory museum in Krakow, Poland, or any of the several in Berlin, Germany, or the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo. These are just a few. The museums are world class, floor upon floor of graphic memories. And they line up the school busses outside the doors and parade students through (even elementary age). They are teaching them from childhood never to forget - but also teaching them what it takes to fight, to overcome evil. There are smaller monuments everywhere like the Berlin Wall Monument or the Sarajevo Roses in Sarajevo - they serve the same purpose, never to forget.
These pictures were taken of the museums in Gdansk and Warsaw and the memorial in Berlin:
So, the conflict in Ukraine is horrific and mind boggling. I never thought I would see such times again in my lifetime. And the world has stood up, in a little shock and wonder, at how the Ukrainians are fighting this war – building little ‘cocktail’ bombs out of bottles, standing right in front of Russian tankers, taunting Russian solders, handing out war guns to every possible citizen . . . but I am not surprised. The Ukrainians know how to fight. They’ve seen this all before (most recently, as we know, in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas). And they have been reminded by the monuments and museums. And they have been told by their parents and grandparents. And the 30 to 40 year old generation knows democracy and capitalism, and they like it, and they want their children to have it.
And they have a 44 year old former comedian as their leader who is quickly turning into a war hero. He knows, and he told the world, that his days are numbered as he is the Russians’ number one target. But he refuses to leave Kiev. He armed himself and joined the battle. He has not slept or shaved for days. He encourages and strengthens the people of his country and builds a belief that they will not fail. He has a wife, young children, and two dogs, and he says he just wants Ukrainians to grow up knowing their children. That’s not a lot to ask. That is the wish of parents everywhere. His grandfather had three brothers who were all killed in the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, along with their families and parents. (Washington.post.com, ‘Putin says he’ll ‘denazify’ Ukraine . . . ‘). He, eloquently, in speeches that might go down as some of the great speeches in history, educates the world on Ukraine’s reality and pleads for help from the democracies of the world. His overwhelming election in 2019, as a 41year old comedian at the time, was just a metaphor for the country’s desire for lightness, peace and progress. In his inauguration speech, he said, “Every one of us is the president now . . . it's our common chance for which we take shared responsibility. . . every one of us bears responsibility for Ukraine, which we will leave to our children . . “ (speakola.com, ‘Volodymyr Zelensky: Every one of us is the president now’). It’s a speech worth reading. (Photo Credit: AP, Ukrainian Presidential Press Office)
And that’s why the Ukrainians are fighting.
So, “they ain’t goin’back” without one enormous fight that will see every citizen standing up. They have history. They have memories deep in their psyche. They have youth and enthusiasm. They want democracy and capitalism. They have hope and belief. And they have an unlikely leader who was made for this role at this very time. It will be one colossal fight, and here’s hoping they are never forced to ‘go back’.