Bits of Honesty for My Western European and American Friends
You ask me if I am OK. You ask if my Ukrainian friends are OK. You share pictures of the devastation in Ukraine. You express support for Eastern European countries and outrage against Russia's war against the innocent Ukrainian people. You may have even written your representatives or participated in a protest. Thank you. But I am not OK.
I won't be for a long time. My Ukrainian friends are not OK. They won't be OK for even longer. And we are not sure what that OK is going to look like when it comes.
What does OK look like after having witnessed senseless destruction, massive loss of lives, and devastation of everything you have called home? We will be coughing up this war for a very long time, so if you ask us if we are OK, you'd better be prepared for the long haul. You'd better be prepared that we will not be OK long after the next crisis takes over the headlines and the TV screens. You'd better be prepared for some intense discomfort and for not having solutions.
I use the word "we" here speaking of Eastern Europeans with the full awareness that I am writing these words from thousands of miles from the war zone. I wake up every morning and go to work. I am finishing up my dissertation. The logistics of my life are not interrupted. I sometimes question myself whether I have any part in the "we."
if you ask us if we are OK, you'd better be prepared for the long haul
My Ukrainian friends, colleagues, and former students post updates from bomb shelters, basements, and metro stations. They try to be heard through the explosions and the gunshots and the screams of the injured. I don't know what that is like. I don't know what it is like to wake up to the sounds of exploding bombs or air raid sirens. I have not had to make Molotov cocktails. I have not known what it is like to stand in front of a burning house that just yesterday was home. They have.
And yet, without taking away the reality that this war is first and foremost affecting them, I feel a sense of shared destiny. I, a Lithuanian, as well as my compatriots, know that we are next on the list. If Ukraine falls, it's our turn to learn how to build barricades, make Molotovs, and sleep in shifts. My family and friends are already buying iodine pills in case one of the nuclear power plants in Ukraine explodes. They are stockpiling rice and canned food. We hope we won't need it. But we also know we just might.
This last week my middle sister and I have been talking about her family's evacuation plans. I have a six-year-old niece. Every day I wake up with news of more children, her age and younger, having died because Russian forces have bombed civilians. Honestly, I feel like chicken shit, because my sister is holding it together, modeling calm and composure for her daughter – all the while working around the clock to raise money and procure diabetic care supplies for Ukrainian people with diabetes affected by this war. I know, I know, we all do what we can where we are with what we have. Still though.
I, a Lithuanian, as well as my compatriots, know that we are next on the list
Don't take this personally more than you need to, but it takes a whole lot of patience not to say, "We told you so" (we did tell you so). We were trying to tell for the last twenty if not thirty years that our "normalcy" is fragile. That it is not a question of whether Russians are good people (very many are; heck, I am a quarter Russian myself; the Russian people in my life were sometimes the best people) or whether Russia has made significant contributions to world cultural heritage (it has).
The real issue we have been trying to get through is that this Russian regime is murderous. We tried to tell you that when the war in Chechnya broke out. We tried to tell you that when the Kremlin instigated and financed the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We begged you to listen when this Russian leadership fractured Sakartvelo (you may know it as the Republic of Georgia; they have asked to be called Sakartvello, so we will do that from now on). We screamed bloody murder when Russia annexed Crimea violating Ukraine's sovereignty.
If I could get a penny for every time I was advised to be reasonable, to weigh the opportunity costs of significant Western sanctions or intervention, to stop being melodramatic – and on occasion, even advised to check myself whether I was not "fascist" or "nationalist" (excuse me, but damn those who said this; I am a proud leftist, and I would know what's fascist from a mile away), I could probably make a real significant donation to support Ukraine right now. What I am is anti-imperialist, as many of my fellow Eastern Europeans are; and we recognize imperial ambitions when we see them.
I understand – I think at least a little bit – that it is hard to fully empathize when you come from a country that is one of the superpowers, one of the decision-makers in the world. You cannot know what it is like to be from a periphery, from the part of Europe that has been routinely sacrificed so that the West may protect its peace. We know even now that in many ways we are expendable; we are the buffer zone. We are what buys the West extra 24 hours to coordinate the defense, need be.
That is what Ukraine is being now. The buffer zone. Especially if you are European, you need to remember that Ukraine is resisting so you do not have to jump out of bed when the sirens go off.
if you are European, Ukraine is resisting so you do not have to jump out of bed when the sirens go off
And look, there will be bad, horrible things that will surface when the dust settles. Heck, there is discrimination at the border happening as we speak, and citizens of various African countries are receiving the brunt of it. That's real. And it's bad. I cry for the parents of a two-month-old Black baby who could not find shelter as hard as I cry for my Ukrainian friends in the bomb shelters.
But let me tell you what. There is no pretty war. There are no happy endings when rockets and bombs are destroying everything in sight. Bad %#!t surfaces. And just as wars bring out the best in people, it also brings out the worst. If you are concerned about that, do something about it. Support organizations that offer inclusive care. Open up your home to those most brutally affected by the war. Help organize transportation for them.
If I had to sum up where I was going with this, I probably would say that things are bad; very bad. We told you it will be bad. Now it is. You see all of it in its most ugly form. I am afraid, it will get worse.
In the meanwhile, please learn to listen to us. Now, first and foremost, listen to Ukrainians. When you see ugly stuff surface up, whatever it may be, ask yourself what you can do to help or empower others to help.
And if you are truly on board, prepare for the long haul.
List of Ukrainian NGOs, media and Twitter feeds
How you can help Ukrainians by Vox.com
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Gražina Bielousova is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at Duke university, North Carolina. Follow her writing on Facebook.