UKRAINE: Zelensky’s Prayer On the meaning of “We are still here.” – By Franklin Foer | The Atlantic

Zelensky’s Prayer — On the meaning of “We are still here.”

By Franklin Foer | The Atlantic

This Friday, as Passover begins, my thoughts will turn to my late grandmother. Born in Ukraine, she survived the Nazis, the only one in her immediate family to escape the guns of the génocidaires. Each year, at the beginning of the seder, she would stand from her chair, if she could, and recount the story of her flight, never explicitly drawing comparisons to the exodus from Egypt. As she finished her testimony — which, like the seder itself, entailed the ritualistic repetition of details and phrases — she would stare across the table and tell us, “You are my revenge against Hitler.” 

This year, I began to think about those words long before the holiday season. They returned to me on the night of February 25, the second day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.        

In the darkness of Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stepped into the empty streets, trailed by a coterie of advisers. A rumor, nefariously spread, held that Zelensky had fled for his life, a decision that would have arguably made rational sense. After all, sources in U.S. intelligence were telling reporters that his government would likely be toppled in a week’s time. To counteract the sense of doom descending on Ukraine, he recorded a video on a phone. Using the gentlest version of his gravelly voice, he told his people, “We are still here.” 

Like my grandmother’s admonition, Zelensky’s words were a prayer and a defiant rallying cry. I felt as if they had been uttered, unconsciously, in the spirit of Passover. 

The Haggadah instructs its readers to tell the story of the exodus as if they were themselves slaves in Egypt. It demands an imaginative leap that places those at the table in a chain of events, asking them to vicariously conjure the terror of fleeing the Egyptians, but also the jubilation of liberation. Like the subtext of my grandmother’s conclusion, the seder not-so-subtly imposes a burden on its participants. Because their ancestors persisted through the worst, the present generation can’t be the ones who give up. In other words, the ritualistic retelling of the story of Jewish survival becomes the basis for Jewish survival. 

Zelensky, a performer by trade, has been telling a story about his own people, in the hopes that it can help carry his nation through its own struggle against a pharaoh. Among the hopeful words in his story is we. His daily video messages to his people repeat flourishes like, “We are all Ukrainians. We are all Europeans. We are all free people of the free world.” But that description of national sentiment wasn’t always an objective description of political reality. Ever since Ukraine became an independent nation, in 1991, its politics have been divided along linguistic and geographic lines. Political parties representing the Ukrainian-speaking west vied for power against factions representing the Russian-speaking east. Clearly, Vladimir Putin hoped that this divide would bolster his invasion, that denizens of eastern cities would greet the Russian army as liberators.

In Putin’s analysis of the world, a nation’s military strength is an outgrowth of its national character. The mightiest states have traditionalist foundations, a sense of nationhood grounded in religion and patriarchal values, the affection that comes from blood and soil. That’s another weakness he identified in Ukraine: Its cosmopolitanism. Ukraine aspires to align with the European Union and its dream of transcending national borders. Its president has espoused tolerance for LGBTQ people; he was an entertainer who once pretended to play the piano with his penis. Ukraine is weak because it is decadence incarnate.

When Zelensky speaks of the Ukrainian nation, he is formulating an alternative to the Russian version of nationhood. In wartime speeches, he toggles between Ukrainian and Russian, signaling that both languages are authentically Ukrainian. The nation’s obligation, he implores, is to all its inhabitants, “wherever they are, whoever they are.” He has resisted grounding his appeals in religion — or the tropes of chauvinism. Even though Ukrainians have ample grounds to feel a sense of historic aggrievement, he never attempts to seize the mantle of victimhood for his people. The story he tells is about a community that will prevail thanks to its shared solidarity, neighborly sense of mutuality, and “sincere and constant support of each other”, as he put it.

But Putin wasn’t the only one who viewed this sort of patriotism as an ersatz version of the real thing. Even liberals were uncertain about whether it had any staying power. In that sense, Ukraine has become a demonstration of a universal project. Or, as Zelensky said last week, “Kyiv is the capital of global democracy, the capital of the struggle for freedom for all on the European continent.” Proving the resilience of a benevolent ideal of patriotism potentially serves as an antidote to right-wing nationalism.

In the end, soldiers and their weapons will save Ukraine. But the will to resist is the surprising fact of this war. And that resistance is fueled by a sense that Ukraine might actually prevail in the end, despite the initial doomsaying of American intelligence. As with Passover, the story of Ukrainian survival becomes the basis for Ukrainian survival. 

Indeed, the war has the makings of one of the most unlikely stories in military history. Six weeks ago, there was hardly a pundit who had predicted the current state of play. In parallel with the aching tragedy of the invasion — alongside the mass graves, the pancaked cities, the millions of refugees, the everlasting trauma — something that could properly be described as miraculous has transpired. Despite the superior arsenal and size of the invading army, Zelensky is still alive, and his government remains standing. Russia is abandoning, at least for now, its campaign to destroy Kyiv — and Ukraine is still here. 

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/15/2022 at 5:14 am

    Happy Easter, Everyone – I am told that they don’t Fly Kites on Easter Monday in Guyana like they used to – any more?!!

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/15/2022 at 9:05 am

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/16/2022 at 7:16 am

    With Western weapons pouring into Ukraine, some analysts have pointed to another adversary Russia is facing – THE MUD.

    Squelchy, boot-sucking mud and fresh green leaves are likely to play a major role in the coming battle.

    The fighting seasons in Ukraine are generally considered to be in the winter when the ground is frozen hard, and in the summer when the ground is baked dry by the sun.

    No commander would choose to start a military campaign in spring or autumn in Ukraine or Russia, since melting snow and rain turn fields and tracks to mud so thick that it clogs up tank tracks and makes them impassable for infantry.

    The “muddy season” even has a name – “RASPUTITSA” in Russian and “BEZDORIZHZHYA” in Ukrainian.

    “The mud makes it very difficult to manoeuvre tanks and other heavy kit around,” said a Moscow-based military analyst who didn’t want to be named. “It can be a nightmare for armies reliant on big kit.”

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/16/2022 at 7:20 am

    Reminds me of “PUTTA – PUTTA” – Then, I remembered Miriam Makeba:

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/16/2022 at 4:21 pm

    Opinion: From Jail: Russia Will Be Free. I’ve Never Been So Sure.

    By Vladimir Kara-Murza | The Washington Post

    Editor’s note: On Monday, Russian human rights activist and Post contributing columnist Vladimir Kara-Murza gave an interview in Moscow to CNN in which he harshly criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A few hours later, he was picked up by police and summarily sentenced to 15 days in jail on a charge of disobeying law enforcement. Kara-Murza sent this column to The Post through his lawyer.

    Sofia Kalistratova, the legendary Moscow lawyer who defended dissidents in the “anti-Soviet” trials of the 1960s and 1970s, told her charges: “Everyone else may cross the street on a red light, but you must always cross on green.” She knew that her clients couldn’t give the authorities the slightest excuse to accuse them of breaking the law.

    I have always tried to follow this principle. True, my lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, says that if this advice worked in the ’60s, it definitely doesn’t work now: “They’ll just go ahead and write that you crossed the street on purple. And then they’ll accuse you of inventing a nonexistent light and maliciously crossing on it.”

    Vadim was right, and almost literally. When I returned home on Monday evening and began to park my car, five or six police officers of the Second Special Regiment of Moscow’s Main Internal Affairs Directorate, who had been waiting at the entrance, rushed at me, hustled me into their minibus, took away my phone and drove me to the Khamovniki police station.

    According to the police report filed later, when I caught sight of the waiting officers, I “changed the trajectory of my movement,” “accelerated my pace” and offered them “active resistance.”

    Orwell lives on: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

    And yet there was one true statement that made it into the verdict of the Khamovniki district court in Moscow during my subsequent trial: It noted that the court’s decision took “data on the personality of V.V. Kara-Murza” into account.

    Everyone who participated in the process, including Judge Diana Mishchenko and the Interior Ministry officers who brought me to the court, understood that the only reason for my arrest was my political and, above all, antiwar position.

    IN FACT, NO ONE HID IT. When the officers of the Khamovniki Police Department, who brought me to Special Detention Center No. 2 in Khoroshevo-Mnevniki to serve out my sentence, rang the doorbell, they said: “Here’s a political for you. They should have called you from headquarters.”

    There are many “politicals” — people targeted for political reasons — doing time in Russia right now. Even in the Khamovniki police station, where I spent the first day after my detention in a stone box measuring 2-by-3 meters, I met two young women in neighboring cells who had been picked up for writing antiwar graffiti.

    Among the inmates in the special detention center are a young man and woman who had staged a protest in response to the murders in Bucha, Ukraine. There are also students of the Higher School of Economics who were detained for an antiwar demonstration. And these are only those whom I myself saw in two days in two places in Moscow.

    When you are told that no one protests against the war in Russia, don’t believe it. Hundreds of people who took part in such protests are imprisoned in police stations and special detention facilities. The police grab them immediately and take them away. And there are no more media outlets in Russia that can talk about it.

    Yet the attitude toward “politicals” is good — both among the prison staff and the inmates. In this sense, nothing has changed since the dissidents of the 1970s. I wrote this phrase and thought, So we’re walking in the same circle. We never managed to break out of it in the short window of opportunity in the ’90s. But we’ll get out one day, for sure. There will be another window of opportunity — and this time we need to use it correctly. There will be a dawn. The night, as you know, is darkest just before the light.

    As Boris Nemtsov liked to say: “We can do it.” RUSSIA WILL BE FREE. I HAVE NEVER BEEN SO SURE OF IT AS I AM TODAY.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/16/2022 at 4:31 pm

    I was reading this paragraph and thought – that’s the way it is in the USA, no??

    According to the police report filed later, when I caught sight of the waiting officers, I “changed the trajectory of my movement”, “accelerated my pace” and offered them “active resistance”.

    EXCEPT, in the USA, they shoot ya and explain later ….

    • Kman  On 04/17/2022 at 11:31 am

      You got that right.
      America is worse than Russia on many fronts, but the west and the UN ignores it.

      I back Russia, China, India, not because l like or support their policies, but because they provide the world some protection from big brother. If there were no balancing force, just imagine the shape the world would be in.

      • Bernard  On 04/17/2022 at 4:37 pm

        So, you back Russia, China and India!

        What about Venezuela?

        It’s because of the US that Venezuela is kept at bay from invading the Essequibo region.

        In America, you are free to express an opinion or practice your religion without fear of arrest and torture.

        Torture is a common practice in the aforementioned countries. You can be arrested and jailed without due process in Russia and China simply for criticism of the government. Not so in America.

        In as much as I disagree with much of America’s foreign policy, I’d rather live there than in Russia or China. Or India.

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