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(This was written in Lviv, but posted in Cambridge, MA).
We all receive moral and political inheritances. Although the stories of our ancestors are not equally attractive, we all have exactly the same responsibility: to recognize our whole birthright, to address the shameful parts, and to use the best aspects of our histories to improve the human condition. I observe influential Ukrainians doing that very well right now, while the leaders and dominant voices in Russia do it very badly. And that is why I believe it is essential that Ukraine prevails.
Seamus Heaney’s narrator seeks admission to the “Republic of Conscience.”
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
Note: the immigration clerk does not show a picture of the would-be entrant, but rather of her or his grandfather. The photo symbolizes the past that we each must carry–both for good and ill. We cannot shed that inheritance without also renouncing all the other ways that our past has shaped us, including even the language with which we think.
The past also gives each of us gifts, and conscience demands that we offer them to humanity:
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
It is tempting for an outsider to evaluate the inheritance of a given people and to draw comparative moral judgments about them as a whole group. Canadians born a few miles north of the US border are dealt a hand without the cards for slavery and genocidal settlement that I carry because I was born not far south of that same border. In that sense, at least, the Canadian inheritance is better.
I am not a relativist; I would insist that some political histories and cultures are superior to others. But there are two reasons not to focus on comparative judgments of this kind. If the inheritance of a people is largely evil (which I would not say of the US, by the way), it is too easy to ignore that people’s potential for doing good in the future. And if their inheritance happens to be largely innocent, it is naïve to assume that they will continue to act well once they obtain power.
I have been visiting a country at war. To the east are people who call themselves “Russians.” They carry a thick book of history. One way to make sense of it is to say that the story began in the late 800s in Kiev. That does not imply that Kiev rightly belongs to Moscow today (the reverse would actually be more logical), but some Russian nationalists have drawn that inference. In any case, what followed after Kievan Rus has been–in this version–a long story of patriotism, suffering, military valor, victory under strong rulers, defense of Orthodoxy and other orthodoxies, and resistance to the decadence of the west and south. This is Putin’s way of playing the mixed deck that history handed him.
But it is not the only way. One could tell a story in which the diverse peoples who live within Russia are constantly being oppressed by bloodthirsty rulers from the capital, yet they show a special gift for turning their suffering into witness, resistance, and empathy. Then the best cards in the hand show Decembrists, Turgenev and Pushkin, and Akhmatova and Sakharov, and the worst show Stalin or the Tsars.
Ukrainians have also been dealt a vast and varied deck. One would have to give a different list for any Ukrainian city, but Lviv has been part of at least the Halych-Volyn Principality, the Kingdom of Poland and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Habsburg, Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empire, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Republic of Poland, the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Republic of Ukraine. Lviv can count among its famous citizens the Polish saint Józef Bilczewski, the German-Jewish-Israeli philosopher Martin Buber, the Austrian-American economist Ludwig von Mises, the Ukrainian national poet Ivan Franko, and Muhammad Assad, born Leopold Weiss, who translated the Koran into English and played a role in the founding of Pakistan.
A modern Ukrainian can play these and many more inherited cards in many ways—and can even decide whether or not to identify as a Ukrainian in the first place.
One important and influential group of modern Ukrainians views their inheritance thus: They are a pluralistic people, drawing from many roots. All of the residents of Lviv named above are part of the Ukrainian story. Ukrainians of all backgrounds have flourished best under governments that have been explicitly pluralistic, even when the center of gravity has lain far away, in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth or in Austria. That is one reason the European Union seems so attractive to Ukrainian protesters that some carried the EU flag into fatal conflicts with the police.
They also have a tradition of republican self-government that began in Kievan Rus, when the people held assemblies called veches to elect their leaders. The tradition reemerged in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, the Cossack states, the late Austrian empire (when there was a Galician parliament in Lviv) and the two Maidan uprisings, when the impromptu meetings were again called veches.
Yes, some Ukrainians were complicit or even aggressively active in pogroms, slave raids, oppressions of serfs, the Shoah, and communist atrocities; but these are inheritances that the modern republic can explicitly acknowledge and mourn.
Meanwhile, I do not currently observe an influential movement of the same type in Russia, one that tries to make the liberal, pluralistic, and humane traditions of that country central while treating militaristic machismo as a threat to the Russian people and peace. A fine article by Karine Clément gives some insight into brave Russian organizers who are creating valuable spaces for democratic engagement; but the date of that article is 2008, and the subsequent seven years have been hard ones.
The reason that liberals are influential in Ukraine and vanishingly marginal in Russia is not that Ukrainians are superior to Russians. No people is superior, and in any case, the differences in their current situations can probably be traced to local and recent contingencies, such as the greater efficiency of the Russian security and media agencies and the flood of petrodollars that fund them. But the fact remains that Ukrainians who are cosmopolitan, liberal, and republican hold considerable power in their country, and there is nothing similar right now in Russia.
It is a deep disappointment that, seven decades after the Second World War, so much of the world is dominated by regimes that are militaristic, authoritarian, and nationalist, devoted to the cult of the strong (male) leader, and content to combine kleptocratic crony capitalism with state repression. One could mention Xi Jinping, Nerendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and many more along with Putin–and American voters are not immune to similar attractions. But Ukraine is a place where civil society has confronted the authoritarian wave and now has a chance to prevail.
And that is why I stand with the Ukrainian people and believe that their country is a front line in our era’s struggle for democracy and human rights.