Calamity Again

No nation is forced to repeat its past. But something familiar is taking place in Ukraine.

A religious woman holds a cross as she prays on Independence Square in Kyiv.
Daniel Leal / AFP / Getty

Dear God, calamity again!
It was so peaceful, so serene;
We had just begun to break the chains
That bind our folk in slavery
When halt! Once again the people’s blood
Is streaming …

The poem is called “Calamity Again.” The original version was written in Ukrainian, in 1859, and the author, Taras Shevchenko, was not speaking metaphorically when he wrote about slavery. Shevchenko was born into a family of serfs—slaves—on an estate in what is now central Ukraine, in what was then the Russian empire. Taken away from his family as a child, he followed his master to St. Petersburg, where he was trained as a painter and also began to write poetry. Impressed by his talent, a group of other artists and writers there helped him purchase his freedom.

By the time Shevchenko wrote “Calamity Again,” he was universally recognized as Ukraine’s most prominent poet. He was known as Kobzar or “The Minstrel”—the name taken from his first collection of poems, published in 1840—and his words defined the particular set of memories and emotions that we would now describe as Ukraine’s “national identity.” His language and style are not contemporary. Nevertheless, it seems suddenly important to introduce this 19th-century poet to readers outside Ukraine, because it seems suddenly important to make this same set of memories and emotions tangible to an audience that isn’t going to read Shevchenko’s romantic ballads. So much has been written about Russian views of Ukraine; so many have speculated about Russian goals in Ukraine. The president of Russia on Monday even informed us, in an hour-long rant, that he thinks Ukraine shouldn’t exist at all. But what does Ukraine mean to Ukrainians?

The Ukrainians emerged from the medieval state of Kyivan Rus’—the same state from which the Russians and Belarusians also emerged—eventually to become, like the Irish or the Slovaks, a land-based colony of other empires. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ukrainian noblemen learned to speak Polish and participated in Polish-court life; later some Ukrainians strived to become part of the Russian-speaking world, learning Russian and aspiring to positions of power first in the Russian empire, then in the Soviet Union.

Yet during those same centuries, a sense of Ukrainianness developed too, linked to the peasantry, serfs, and farmers who would not or could not assimilate. The Ukrainian language, as well as Ukrainian art and music, were all preserved in the countryside, even though the cities spoke Polish or Russian. To say “I am Ukrainian” was, once upon a time, a statement about status and social position as well as ethnicity. “I am Ukrainian” meant you were deliberately defining yourself against the nobility, against the ruling class, against the merchant class, against the urbanites. Later on, it could mean you were defining yourself against the Soviet Union: Ukrainian partisans fought against the Red Army in 1918 and then again in the dying days of the Second World War and the early years of the Cold War. The Ukrainian identity was anti-elitist before anyone used the expression anti-elitist, often angry and anarchic, occasionally violent. Some of Shevchenko’s poetry is very angry and very violent indeed.

Because it could not be expressed through state institutions, Ukrainian patriotism was, like Italian or German patriotism in the same era, expressed in the 19th century through voluntary, religious, and charitable organizations, early examples of what we now call “civil society”: self-​­help and study groups that published periodicals and newspapers, founded schools and Sunday schools, promoted literacy among the peasants. As they gained strength and numbers, Moscow came to see these grassroots Ukrainian organizations as a threat to the unity of imperial Russia. In 1863 and then again in 1876, the empire banned Ukrainian books and persecuted Ukrainians who wrote and published them. Shevchenko himself spent years in exile.

Still, Ukrainianness survived in the villages and grew stronger among intellectuals and writers, remaining powerful enough to persuade Ukrainians to make their first bid for statehood at the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Though they lost that chance in the ensuing civil war, the Bolsheviks immediately realized that Ukraine should have its own republic within the Soviet Union, run by Ukrainian Communists. Ukrainian mistrust of authority, especially Soviet authority, remained. When Stalin began the forcible collectivization of agriculture all across the Soviet Union in 1929, a series of rebellions broke out in Ukraine. Stalin, like the Russian imperial aristocracy before him, began to fear that he would, as he put it, “lose” Ukraine: Even Ukrainian Communists, he feared, did not want to obey his orders. Soon afterward, Soviet secret policemen organized teams of activists to go from house to house in parts of rural Ukraine, confiscating food. Some 4 million Ukrainians died in the famine that followed. Mass arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals, writers, linguists, museum curators, poets, and painters followed.

There are no simple lines to be drawn between the past and the present. There are no direct analogies; no nation is forced to repeat its past. But the experiences of our parents and grandparents, the habits and lessons they taught us, do shape the way we see the world, and it is perhaps not an accident that in the late 20th century, Stalin’s greatest fear came to pass and the Ukrainians once again organized, this time successfully, a grassroots civic movement that won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Nor, perhaps, is it an accident that many Ukrainians remained wary of the state, even of their own state, in the ensuing years. Because the state—the government, the rulers, the “power”—had always been “them,” not “us,” there was no tradition of Ukrainian civil service or military service; there was no tradition of public service at all. If the cancer of corruption, which afflicted all of the weary, cynical, exhausted republics formed in the wreckage of the Soviet Union, was particularly virulent in Ukraine, this is a part of the explanation.

But, in the long tradition of their parents and grandparents, millions of Ukrainians did continue to resist both corruption and autocracy. And precisely because it was opposed to the post-Soviet kleptocracy, Ukrainianness in the 21st century became intertwined with aspirations for democracy, for freedom, for rule of law, for integration in Europe. By the beginning of the 21st century, Ukrainians began to object to the post-Soviet establishment, linked by financial interests to Russia, and began once again agitating for something more fair and more just.

Twice, in 2005 and 2014, self-organized Ukrainian street movements toppled kleptocratic, autocratic leaders who, backed by Russia, had tried to steal Ukrainian elections and override the rule of law. In 2005, Russia responded with a renewed effort to interfere in Ukrainian politics. In 2014, Russia responded with the invasion of Crimea and multiple assaults on eastern-Ukrainian cities. The only attacks that succeeded were in the far east, in Donbas, because the Russian-created “separatist” movement could be backed up by the Russian army.

But Ukraine’s character remained unchanged. In 2019, 70 percent of Ukrainians once again voted against the establishment. A total outsider became president: a Jewish actor born in eastern Ukraine with no political experience but a long history of making fun of those who are in power—the kind of humor that Ukrainians value the most. Volodymyr Zelensky was famous for playing a downtrodden schoolteacher who rants against corruption and is filmed by a student. In the television series, the clip goes viral, the teacher accidentally wins the presidency, and then everyone—his unpleasant boss, his unsympathetic family, rich strangers—is suddenly sycophantic. Zelensky the actor makes fun of them, outsmarts them. Ukrainians wanted Zelensky the real-life president to do the same.

During his election campaign, Zelensky also promised to end the war with Russia, the ongoing, debilitating conflict along the border of eastern Ukraine that has taken more than 14,000 lives in the past decade. Many Ukrainians hoped he would achieve that too. He did seek to establish links to the inhabitants of occupied Crimea and Donbas; he asked for meetings with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin; meanwhile, he kept seeking Ukrainian integration with the West.

And then, calamity again.

It was so peaceful, so serene;
We had just began to break the chains
That bind our folk in slavery
When halt! Once again the people’s blood
Is streaming …

Ukraine is now under brutal attack, with tens of thousands of Russian troops moving through its eastern provinces, along its northern border and its southern coast. For like the Russian czars before him—like Stalin, like Lenin—Putin also perceives Ukrainianness as a threat. Not a military threat, but an ideological threat. Ukraine’s determination to become a democracy is a genuine challenge to Putin’s nostalgic, imperial political project: the creation of an autocratic kleptocracy, in which he is all-powerful, within something approximating the old Soviet empire. Ukraine undermines this project just by existing as an independent state. By striving for something better, for freedom and prosperity, Ukraine becomes a dangerous rival. For if Ukraine were to succeed in its decades-long push for democracy, the rule of law, and European integration, then Russians might ask: Why not us?

I am not romantic about Zelensky, nor am I under any illusions about Ukraine, a nation of 40 million people, among them the same percentages of good and bad people, brave and cowardly people, as anywhere else. But at this moment in history, something unusual is happening there. Among those 40 million, a significant number—at all levels of society, all across the country, in every field of endeavor—aspire to create a fairer, freer, more prosperous country than any they have inhabited in the past. Among them are people willing to dedicate their lives to fighting corruption, to deepening democracy, to remain sovereign and free. Some of those people are willing to die for these ideas.

The clash that is coming will matter to all of us, in ways that we can’t yet fathom. In the centuries-long struggle between autocracy and democracy, between dictatorship and freedom, Ukraine is now the front line—and our front line too.