Alissa Kole is the founder and director of the GOVERN Center, a think tank and advisory firm, a former senior official at the OECD, and a former fellow at the London School of Economics.
On Feb. 24, I woke up feeling queasy and hung over, not from a late-night drinking session but from overconsumption of news. Even before getting out of bed I reached for my phone and typed “Ukraine” in the browser, stumbling on a Ukrainian website in Russian with real-time news: the bombings, the tanks, the airplanes. Vladimir Putin had just launched his “special military operation.” Yet what struck me most was the silence of world leaders, who should already have been not only speaking, but acting against Mr. Putin’s impunity.
As the headlines rolled down uninterrupted, pitiless as Mr. Putin’s regime, I saw my childhood unfolding in the seemingly endless, stifling Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was at the time a republic. Despite still living there, I had not noticed the dissolution of the Soviet regime, nor, after we left, the successive changes of governments and the unnerving – for Mr. Putin at least – march away from “Mother Russia.” I had not noticed that it had become a different country since I, as a 15-year-old, boarded a train from Odesa to Kyiv and then a plane to Toronto, never to return.
Truth be told, since we left Ukraine in 1995, four years after the unmaking of the Soviet Union, I had erased that country from my consciousness: its borders, its language and, with them, my childhood. I had erased my childhood there, in the Black Sea port city of Odesa established by Catherine the Great, in a 322-square-foot apartment with my parents and grandparents, who had miraculously survived the Holocaust but whose parents were not all as fortunate. I had erased the endless lines for sausages and bread, the recital of anti-American propaganda in history classes, the suffocating trams that delivered me from the obedience of school to ballet classes to home.
Airless conformism was never for me. I was the girl who showed up for a class photo in a red and blue dress while everyone else came in the prescribed school uniform. And today, just as that day when I refused to comply with instructions, I’d like to raise my voice with those who scream on behalf of Ukraine. It is actually not even my voice that should be heard, but the voices of people living in that country, which since I left, has become free of that airless conformism that Mr. Putin stands for.
The Soviet Union may have disintegrated, but its apparatus has endured. It is Botoxed, facelifted and dressed in Italian-cut, fine-wool suits, but it is still at the core the same politburo, except – having survived a permutation to capitalism from communism – it has become, as a virus, more agile. In addition to controlled media and militia it has, at its flank, the commitment of the Orthodox church and European dependency on energy imports. Ukraine, meanwhile, has been a thorn in its domestic toe. Mr. Putin has been saying so publicly for a number of years now.
He wants to take back Ukraine – all of it – as if it is a toy that has been denied to him for too long. At the very least, he wants Ukraine compliant like Belarus, which performs poorly on all counts: human rights, corruption, freedom of speech. And to do so, he no longer even needs an ideological pretext – Bolshevism, communism, proletarianism, anti-communism – for this is not a war of information or misinformation. Mr. Putin has the power to wreak havoc in Ukraine with impunity, and does not need to convince anyone of the necessity of this war, does not need to mobilize popular opinion, does need to calm any opponents. There aren’t any.
If there is any doubt about it, the comical scene that unfolded when he summoned the oligarchs to the Kremlin - all masked and at respectable distance from each other and dozens of metres away from “the Leader” - to tell them that this war was necessary for Russia’s security, is an obvious proof. Predictably, there too, all we heard was silence. The stock exchange might have lost 30 per cent of its valuation on the first day of the war, and the oligarchs’ money is being frozen abroad, but none of them dared to whisper a word.
Single-handedly, Mr. Putin is redoing and undoing history, completely unopposed. Meanwhile, the cost of lives on both sides – which no one in the Kremlin cares about – is already staggering and will be even more so. Russian conscripts want to fight this war no more than my father did in 1980, the year I was born, when he was picked up at home and sent to Afghanistan. And let us not forget that the Second World War was won on the back of 27 million Soviet lives, an expansive and expensive gesture that allowed the allies to dominate the Nazis. Without it, history would have been written with a different ink; maybe the European continent would not look as it does.
And now, the tables of history have turned, and Mr. Putin is calling for a “de-Nazification of Ukraine,” a country that lost eight million in the same war and is now led by a Jewish President who speaks fluent Russian. At the same time, the Russian army has just destroyed Babi Yar, a Holocaust remembrance site. What Mr. Putin really wants is Ukraine under the fold of Russia – and, sadly, that might be what he will get, even if it is obvious that he will not be able to hold on to it. It is difficult for me to admit this, but not to do so at this point would be naive.
The day before the war started, I called Mila, a dear friend living in Kyiv who had visited me only a few months ago. I told her in no uncertain terms to pack her bags and leave. She hesitated on account of her family, the garden she had invested years in growing and, finally, her faith in a peace that we were both afraid would not hold. “If he invades, it will be a third world war,” she countered to my insistence that she stay with me for a few weeks. As she was driving for three days trying to get to the Polish border from Kyiv, we both knew she was mistaken. This will not be the Third World War, as other countries are weary of intervening directly.
I am nauseous (mne toshnit), I wrote to her in Russian as she was driving away from Kyiv with her son and two dogs in the back seat. The Russian word for nausea does not quite translate to English. It is not about being nauseous when you think you might vomit, but about that specific moment when you want to but cannot. It conjures Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or maybe a Chagall piece I saw in New York where he sought to describe the horror of the Holocaust.
Almost 80 years of peace in Europe – apart, of course, from the bloody Balkan conflict – disappeared in one day. Hashtags reiterating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s three key demands – #BanRussiaFromSwift, #CloseTheSky, #SendNatoToUkraine – are flooding the internet as Russian tanks are flooding Ukraine. Looking at those hashtags spring up all over like the mushrooms my friend Mila loved to pick in the forest around Kyiv after the rain, I cannot help but think of The Scream.
And so, still in bed, news stories about Ukraine roll down my screen as tears roll down my face. I do not speak Ukrainian, but you do not need to when you listen to Mr. Zelensky’s pleas. He is 44, three years older than me. He knows his days are likely numbered, same as those of his family, and still he seems fearless. Listening to him is like listening to the Beatles or Leonard Cohen, or perhaps, Asaf Avidan or Dhafer Youssef: You don’t really need to understand the words.
It is not intellectual, it is animalistic. It is animalistic as that sorrow that rises in me for the country I never considered my homeland, of which I never held a passport, and which I have often avoided mentioning as my place of birth. But it was.
And today, for the first time in more than 40 years, I feel Ukrainian – not out of pity, or hate or sadness, but out of pride in the freedom that Ukraine and its people have epitomized since we left the Soviet Union.
And as I write these words, my vision blurs, as if that freedom is receding with the waves of the Black Sea. Among the many headlines flashing on my phone is a report that dynamite was laid on the beaches near Odesa to prevent Russian soldiers from arriving from the sea, accompanied by a warning not to go to the beach. Reading this notice, I hoped it was an attempt at Odesans’ famous sense of humour.
I was grateful for it, just as I was grateful for my cousin Sasha writing from Odesa this morning to tell me that his cat has been sleeping in his armchair all day, and that judging by her calmness everything will be fine. I hope it will be, but I am not sure. I am not sure at all that old Odesan humour will be able to resist Mr. Putin’s tyranny. I am not sure that many in Odesa, a vibrant city that has produced dozens of writers and intellectuals, are laughing today. I am not sure its Jews, once amounting to half its population, are feeling safe.
And indeed, skimming the headlines, I came across an article describing how a rabbi in Odesa has made contingency plans to smuggle the remaining 3,000 Jews though old Second World War bomb shelters. I swallowed hard at one sentence: “The director of Odesa’s Holocaust museum said he was taking first aid courses and learning how to shoot a gun.” The director of a Holocaust museum is learning how to hold a gun, I repeated to myself, with a growing feeling of the beginning of the end.
I am grateful that my grandparents are not alive to witness this unravelling, to see their native Odesa assaulted by the Russian army. They had been so attached to the city that even the prospect of leaving for the United States in the 1960s left them indifferent. I am sure they too would be feeling the same choking nausea I do watching the news scroll on my phone, and facing the horror of a silence worse than the grave.
A week into the war, as cornered Russia has amplified its fight and is now openly targeting civilians, voices supporting Ukraine – economically and politically – are heard everywhere. Yet sanctions alone will likely not be enough to stop this war in the short term, at least not without massive casualties on both sides.
Until a solution is found, the very people that Mr. Putin’s Kremlin predecessors sought to protect from the Nazis will continue to pay the price of this senseless war, as will Russian speakers in Ukraine that he is ostensibly trying to protect.
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