Security, Freedom, Democracy, Courage, Pluralism, Perseverance, Generosity
December 11, 2022
Debts are awkward, especially debts of gratitude. When we owe others too much, we can find it hard to express our appreciation. If we are not reflective, we might minimize our debt, or simply forget it. If we think highly of ourselves, we might ignore a debt to someone we regard as less important. In the worst case, we can resent the people who have helped us, and portray them in a negative light, just to avoid the feeling that we, too, are vulnerable people who sometimes need a helping hand.
Americans (and many others) owe Ukrainians a huge debt of gratitude for their resistance to Russian aggression. For some mixture of reasons, we have difficulty acknowledging this. To do so, we have to find the words. Seven that might help are: security, freedom, democracy, courage, pluralism, perseverance, and generosity.
Perhaps the most important and the most unacknowledged debt is security. Ukrainian resistance to Russia has vastly reduced the chances of major armed conflict elsewhere, and thus significantly reduced the chances of a nuclear war.
Before this war began, one scenario for a major conventional conflict with nuclear risk was a Russian invasion of a NATO country. Ukrainian resistance has revealed the weaknesses of the Russian armed forces, and destroyed much of Russia’s fighting capacity. Thanks to Ukraine, this scenario is far less likely than it was a year ago, and will remain unlikely for years to come.
The major scenario for global conflict in the twenty-first century was thought to be a Chinese-American confrontation over Taiwan. As a result of Ukrainian resistance, Beijing sees the difficulties it would face in an offensive in Taiwan. The flashpoint of what most analysts regarded as the most likely (or even inevitable) scenario for major war has essentially been removed.
This debt is all but impossible for Americans to register. In daily press coverage, we are drawn to the headlines that make us feel threatened, or suggest that the war is somehow about us. This can prevent us from seeing the overall picture.
For American policymakers and security analysts, it is literally dumbfounding that another country can do so much for our own security, using methods that we ourselves could not have employed. Ukraine has reduced the risk of war with Russia from a posture of simple self-defense. Ukraine has reduced the threat of a war with China without confronting China, and indeed while pursuing good relations with China. None of that was available to Americans. And yet the consequence is greater security for Americans.
For me personally, the greatest debt concerns freedom. This is a word that we Americans use quite a lot, but we sometimes lose track of what it really means. For the past thirty years or so, we have fallen into a very bad habit of believing that freedom is something that is delivered to us by larger forces, for example, by capitalism. This is simply not true, and believing it has made us less free. “The whole history of the progress of human liberty,” Frederick Douglass said, “shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle.” It will always be the case that freedom depends upon some kind of risky effort made against the larger forces. Freedom, in other words, will always depend upon an ethical commitment to a different and better world, and will always suffer when we believe that the world itself will do the work for us.
By choosing to resist invasion in the name of freedom, Ukrainians have reminded us of this. And in doing so, they have offered us many interesting thoughts about what freedom might be. Volodymyr Zelens’kyi, for example, makes the interesting point that freedom and security tend to work together. Throughout this war, speaking to Ukrainians, I have been struck that they define freedom as a positive project, as a way of being in the world, a richness of the future. Freedom doesn’t just mean overcoming the Russians; it means creating better and more interesting lives and a better and more interesting country.
It is hard to overlook what Ukrainians have done to defend the idea of democracy. In a basic sense, this is what the war is about. Vladimir Putin represents the twenty-first century practice of managed or fake democracy, in which an oligarchy preserves some appearances and rhetoric of democracy, because it has no alternative to propose, while hoarding wealth and power and making any meaningful political participation impossible. The Russian system relies on a televisual spectacle that assures Russians that everyone else is just as corrupt, and so they should love their own Russian corruption because it is Russian.
But what if everyone is not equally corrupt? What if there were a neighboring state, Ukraine, where elections are actually free, and where unexpected people can come to power? This is what has to be made unthinkable, by hate speech directed at Ukrainians, and by war since 2014, including the full-scale Russian invasion of this year. Its goal, precisely, was to physically eliminate the legitimate Ukrainian government as well as the leaders of Ukrainian civil society, and thereby make of Ukraine a kind of Russian hinterland.
The elemental resistance of so many Ukrainians to this, which Russian political and media elites cannot understand, is grounded in the simple notion that Ukrainians citizens should choose their leaders. Ukrainian democracy has many problems, and during the war has been altered by the necessities of combat. But Ukrainians are defending the basic concept of self-rule, and at huge cost to themselves. They are doing so at a moment when it seemed that authoritarianism was getting the upper hand around the world. For anyone who cares about democracy, this is a huge debt.
In all of this, Ukrainians have set an unmistakable example of courage. In the Republic, Plato has Socrates name courage as one of the virtues of the city. I can’t help but think of this when I recall Zelens’kyi’s choice to remain in Kyiv, even as almost everyone beyond Ukraine expected
him to flee. The security of some (us) sometimes depends on the courage of others (Ukrainians). Freedom will always require courage: as Pericles said, “freedom is the sure possession alone of those who have the courage to defend it.” And the same holds for democracy. It is an inherently courageous endeavor, since the larger forces of oligarchy will always be in opposition, and our less noble inner voices will always urge us to submit and conform. His courage, as he himself puts it, was “representative”: he knew what his people expected him to do, and he did it.
Who were these people? Zelens’kyi, who represents a national minority in Ukraine (he’s Jewish), was elected by 73% of the population. This suggests the pluralism that is essential to Ukraine, and to Ukrainian resistance. Apologists for dictators (and there are many such people in the United States) tend to claim that only uniformity will bring effectiveness, especially is times of war. This is certainly the approach that Russia brought to the war: uniformity of command, uniformity of ideology, and the bloody and criminal attempt to homogenize Ukrainian territories under occupation, which amounts to genocide.
Ukrainians, meanwhile, have resisted in a very different way. When the government speaks of liberating Crimea, it emphasizes the rights of its indigenous people, the Crimean Tatars. Much of Ukrainians’ success on the battlefield depends upon a heterogenous and self-confident civil society, capable of supporting soldiers and performing services in areas where the central state is weak. The Ukrainian armed forces allow local commanders a great deal of discretion. Those armed forces function in two languages, Ukrainian and Russian, and represent diversity of gender (and sexual orientation). The Ukrainian armed forces, unlike the Russian (and many others), also represent diversity of social class. Interestingly, the research tends to show that diversity in groups tends to lead to better decision-making. Russian propagandists see all of these manifestations of diversity as deviance. But the lesson seems to be that respecting dignity leads to better results, including on the battlefield.
It is easy for me to write of these debts. It takes but a moment. But they have been accumulated over time. Ukrainians have demonstrated extraordinary perseverance. The decision to resist at the beginning, crucial though it was, has to be followed by that same decision, over and over, hour after hour, day after day, shelling after shelling, bombing after bombing, missile attack after missile attack, drone strike after drone strike. Ukraine is a country where most of the population has had to leave their homes, where whole cities have been destroyed, where millions of people right now are denied access to electricity and water. Winter is coming, and the Ukrainians persevere.
Everything that the rest of us gain from Ukrainian resistance — in terms of security, freedom, democracy, courage, pluralism — depends upon this capacity to persevere. Given the way we Americans process information and emotion, rapidly and with a hunger for the next thing, this element of our debt to Ukrainians might be among the hardest to appreciate. The Russian poet Mayakovsky, in his anti-imperialist poem “Debt to Ukraine,” asks “Do you know the Ukrainian night?” And answers: “No, you do not know the Ukrainian night. Here the sky goes black from smoke.” We do not know the Ukrainian night. But this perseverance is a powerful debt to Ukraine.
Ukrainians tend to confound our ability to appreciate all of these debts with their own generosity. I have been to Ukraine and back since the war began, and it is a long trip, even when made in the best of circumstances. When Ukrainian colleagues make that journey in the other direction, they seem always to remember to bring gifts for the Americans they will see (especially for their children). There is a simple dignity in this: despite war, courtesies will be preserved. But in that effort to carry a meaningful object on a difficult two-day journey from a war-torn country, I tend to feel a deeper awkwardness: we Americans lack even the custom of bringing gifts to hosts, let alone the habit of appreciating them — can I possibly be sufficiently grateful?
I thought of this a week ago, in Carnegie Hall, listening to an American Christmas song, “The Carol of the Bells.” Every year since childhood I have been struck by how this song stands out from all the other season melodies, as the only one of captivating beauty. There is a reason why it seems different: it is actually Ukrainian, an arrangement by a Ukrainian composer (Mykola Leontovych) of an ancient polyphonic folk song.
The song was taken over by our culture, with new English words about bells, which are lovely enough in their own way, and which preserve the spirit of good cheer in the original. The Ukrainian song, though, is not about Christmas at all; it cannot be, since it refers to pre-Christian traditions. It is about spring, about the favorable signs brought by animals, about present love and coming prosperity. It is a song of affirmation and encouragement. Its very name, “Shchedryk,” suggests generosity and abundance.
“Shchedryk” was performed in Carnegie Hall in October 1921 by Ukrainian musicians seeking support for a threatened Ukrainian republic. Its Ukrainian composer, Leontovych, had been murdered by the Bolshevik secret police earlier that year. Most of what is now Ukraine would soon thereafter be incorporated into the Soviet Union. The song was Americanized in 1936, not long after the great famine, the Holodomor, in Soviet Ukraine, just at the beginning of Stalin’s great terror. Its origins were forgotten, as was Ukraine in general.
The Ukrainian children’s choir that travelled to New York this month to perform the song came bearing a gift, their presence and their performance, one that gently echoed back to us our appropriation of a song, but without resentment, only with generosity. When it was performed as an encore, with the Ukrainian and American lyrics in alternation, Ukrainians and Americans in the concert hall were crying, for good reasons, if for different ones, but together.