Monday, March 31, 2014
What War Means
When I worked as a university instructor in Kiev in the academic year of 1994-95, my students were mostly young adults in their late teens or early twenties, who were already bracing themselves for the second great public trauma of their young lives. The first had come suddenly in the spring of 1986 when as young children many of them had been rounded up with little or no warning and whisked away to the south, preferably to the countryside or to some city on the north coast of the Black Sea such as Sebastopol or Yalta. Many were fortunate enough to escape levels of radiation from the Chernobyl catastrophe that would cause cancer, limit their longevity, or stunt their growth. Others were not so lucky.
The second crisis came not as a result of a sudden accidental explosion, but rather as a surfacing of tensions with deep historical roots—specifically, a structural conflict between the twin forces of Ukrainian and Russian nationalism, exacerbated by divergent economic prospects and regional power struggles. I recall visiting a student’s home in Lviv in western Ukraine during the Christmas holidays in 1994. She confided to me her family’s worry that her brother might have to be conscripted to fight the Russians in Crimea or in the East, where secessionist sentiments were brewing thanks to a lower-than-Russian average wage in Ukraine and a raging inflation that was quickly making the Ukrainian currency next-to-worthless in world markets.
Today’s crisis is a continuation of this ongoing conflict, but one sharpened by several changed conditions on the ground. One is the poisoning of relations between pro-Russian and pro-Western factions in the country’s Parliament (I am not just using the wording “poison” metaphorically—recall the attempted assassination of the increasingly popular Viktor Yuschenko by dioxin poisoning in 2004, which left him permanently disfigured, and which helped to precipitate the “Orange Revolution” later that year). Since then, the question of how best to balance the need for good relations with Ukraine’s major creditor and supplier of energy, Russia, with the growing desire for gaining membership in the European Union became increasingly difficult: the attempted impeachment of Victor Yanukovych (and the release of his opponent from prison) show that like other fledgling democracies, Ukraine has not yet learned how to share power.
Meanwhile, another one of my students from 20 years ago reports that “the number of victims of police and snipers in Kyiv is growing every day (people are dying in the hospitals) and is already 100 … My family is OK. I just need to explain to my nearly 6 year old girl why people are flying to the sky forever and what ‘war’ means.”