And we are free
Of Europe and Asia alike, at liberty
To live … which means to die slowly
from ‘The Sunlight’ by Ihor Pavlyuk,
translated by Steve Komarnyckyj
in A Flight Over the Black Sea (Waterloo Press, 2014)
Bring back 2020. As if climate catastrophe, mass extinction, pandemic and surging inflation weren’t enough to be dealing with, Europe, America, and Russia are mired in armed conflict in Ukraine, shattering post-war dreams of peaceful economic union, and pushing the twenty-first century over the threshold into a terrifying new world order. As the media fills with heart-breaking images of rampant atrocities committed by Russian soldiers, themselves being sacrificed wholesale by their leaders, and commentators offer bleak geopolitical prognoses, it feels a surreal privilege to be writing these words from my vantage point – a reasonably comfortable life unfolding on the pebbly shore of a small island. Here in Brighton, much as I have dedicated time each day to fundraising, editing, and translating for Ukrainian friends and colleagues, I can also, and do, read books and the Guardian, meet friends, collaborate on creative projects, go for a swim, surf the internet for insightful and informative perspectives on it all. How is it, I wonder, that I am free to shape my days, plan trips, die slowly in the most generous sense of the phrase, when my friends in Kyiv and Lviv, and so many in Gaza, Yemen, and elsewhere, live in fear of being buried alive in their own homes? I am not a political analyst, but as has long been the case for me, taking time to read and think and write about global injustice seems the least I can do with what increasingly seems the arbitrary gift of my time on this earth.
What is immediately clear is that, while for Europeans this war still seems unthinkable, for Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghanis, Burmese Rohingyas, and others, state terror, war, persecution, and torture have long been a permanent existential condition. The fact that America, Canada, Britain, and Europe have actively sponsored or passively allowed most of this suffering makes it difficult for many people, I know, to join the Western chorus of outrage at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and outpour of compassion for its blonde, blue-eyed victims. I couldn’t agree more that the hypocrisy and racism of both governmental and media responses to the war is staggering. The point of pointing out hypocrisy, though, is surely not to block the road to justice in a stance of self-righteous indignation, but to push forward down that long arcing path – to insist on liberty for all. And so I would like to respectfully urge all who value freedom to view the invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to build solidarity – against our common enemies of autocracy, militarism, imperialism, racism, hypermasculinity, and other violent, hierarchical, exploitative mindsets, all of which threaten not just our own continued existence as a species.
Liberty & Rhetoric
The language of freedom is, of course, prone to rhetorical flourish. Such clarion calls are not necessarily hollow, however. Across the world, but especially in Europe and North America, Putin’s invasion summoned stunned memories of Soviet tanks in Hungary and Prague, and Nazi forces in Poland. In governmental chambers across two continents, Western leaders have stood and applauded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s insistence that, in resisting Russian occupation, his people are fighting not just for their own freedom but Europe’s and the world’s. Much as I hate to agree with Boris Johnson on anything, I believe this claim to be profoundly true. Not only are the Ukrainians fighting to defend their democracy, and by extension democratic values, against the palpable threat of totalitarianism, but we only have scant years to save the planet from runaway global warming – as environmentalist Bill McKibben has warned, given the Russian economy’s fundamental dependence on oil and gas, success in that struggle depends hugely on victory for Ukraine. McKibben also makes the wider case that fossil fuels feed autocracy: ‘hydrocarbons by their nature tend towards the support of despotism – they’re highly dense in energy and hence very valuable; geography and geology means they can be controlled with relative ease. There’s one pipeline, one oil terminal’. It is frustrating then, to observe that the world itself has not been entirely convinced by Zelenskiy and the West’s dramatic declaration of global common cause.