Thank you for inviting me to pray with you this evening. I have been asked, as a Ukrainian-American and a child of immigrants, to talk a little about the situation that is taking place in my father’s homeland.
Ukraine is a country in Europe that before this year many people never heard of – which is curious as it is, by just the measure of size, the largest European country that is exclusively on the continent. Russia, its neighbor to the north and east, is, to be sure far far larger, some 10 time zones larger, but 9 of them are not European (and some argue that even the 10th is just an accident of geography.)
In any event, depending on how you look at it, be it 8 years ago, or last month, Russia invaded Ukraine and since then I have had the opportunity a few times to speak about why that has happened. I am here to offer a few thoughts for you to reflect on and think about.
The history between Ukraine and Russia is long and complicated. If we go back just within 150 years or so, you will see how Moscow and St. Petersburg, banned our language, liquidated our churches, exiled our artists, silenced our leaders and enacted an artificial famine that devastated our population. But I think it is sufficient to set the stage with a more recent context by saying that in 1991 both Ukraine and Russia emerged from the collapsed Soviet Union as free and independent nations. It was supposed to be a new day.
Both purported to embrace western ideals and democratic systems and sought ways to move forward in the new millennium. Both stumbled, and faltered. The former Soviet Union left a fertile ground for corruption and graft and what is called ‘kleptocracies’ emerged. ‘Kleptocracy’ is when corrupt leaders use their political power to enrich themselves at the expense of the people. However, unlike eras of the past, before worldwide instant communication and social media, these things did not go unnoticed. Voices condemning corrupt practices would ring out in protest. More importantly, there were concrete and definite benefits towards reform that enlightened self-interest made worth pursuing. Trade agreements and alliances that would enrich not just a few of the ruling elite, but the breadth and depth of the entire society became attractive and if they required reform, then so be it. Reform would take place. In Ukraine it did, but Russia it did not.
Since 1991 both countries have had 7 or so elections. Through those, Ukraine has had 6 different Presidents. Conversely, since Boris Yeltsin, who was the first post-Soviet Russian President, Russia has de facto had but one ruler, Vladimir Putin. And that is a key difference between these two Slavic nations.
Democracy works because it has built into it a turnover of rulers that does not allow them to settle in and become monarchs or dictators. We have no royal family in the United States; in fact George Washington specifically did not pursue additional terms of office because he wanted to avoid setting a precedent of a ruler staying in power too long. Change is in the DNA of United States of America and it is a key ingredient on successful democracies. It is also the biggest threat to Dictators and Autocrats for their rule is contingent on maintaining a status quo where they power is unchallenged. But, when the laws of a realm are subject to the whims of the rulers, there is no rule of law. When the rights of the people are contingent on the benevolence of the state, there are no rights. When a sovereign nation is forced into neutrality and its lands are annexed by neighbors, then there is not sovereignty.
Ukraine is not just defending itself from Russia. Western Civilization, the Rule of Law, the inalienable rights of people and the sovereignty of all nations is being defended against an old wickedness that has seized an opportunity to strike out when it thought the world was sleeping.
Mr. Putin has establish a despotism that the world accepted because of a romantic fondness and self-serving adherence to a platitude that long ago proved to be a falsely high-minded but shallowly interpreted called “self-determinism.”
“The Russians have a despot because they want/need a despot” was what was whispered in the world’s halls of power. Much the same was said about the Ukrainians in the 1990s. But as alluded to, change is the one constant state of human advancement. When despotic tendencies and oligarchic corruptions reached an intolerable level, the Ukrainian people rose up and did something about it (the best examples are 2004 and 2014.) They rejected the corrupt path of least resistance of business-as-usual in former Soviet Republics and embarked on a path of true reform and change. A new generation of Ukrainians read the lofty words of their constitution, (which incidentally was crafted by not only the finest legal minds of Ukraine but also leading jurists from around the world) and actually believed them. But when they acted on it, by letting their displeasure be heard and forced a new election, their country was invaded and violated by its former oppressor and a large part of it annexed with another part imbued with foreign elements that began waging a war against its own people.
2022 was not the first battle of the current Ukraine-Russia War but merely the first time when Moscow no longer bothered to waste time with thinly layered smokescreens of their role in an aggression that had already taken far too many lives before February 2022. This generation of Ukrainians have lived in a state of undeclared war for the last 8 years but they never envisioned a future, like the rest of the world secretly had, of accepting Crimea and eastern Ukraine’s lands to be defacto formally Russian. They never believed that such a grotesque larceny and unrepentant pilfering would be allowed to go on unchecked. They had faith in their elected leaders and in their nation that justice will be done. And if their leaders let them down, then they elected new ones to carry out their will because that is how democracies work. Left to its own path, Ukraine would have found a solution to its “Russian problem” and Putin knew it. They would have shown their powerful neighbor that theirs’s was a better way and progress could be had if one believed in the rule of law and worked for it. Since any true transparency in Russia’s civil society would reveal the farcical despotic nature of Putin’s regime, it was not a chance Moscow was willing to take.
Small minded Putin apologists and political opportunists are now saying that the solution is for Ukraine to be declared “neutral.” How this is something all sides want and it would be a small price to pay for peace. But that is naïve and foolish. No nation’s character can be forced to be “neutral.” No peoples can have their essence unwillingly subjected forever. The Ukrainian people made their voices heard and loudly proclaimed that they are very much European in culture, and western in orientation. It is in their nature – how one be neutral to their nature? The Ukrainians were progressing in creating a new future where each voice is heard, and all matters are openly and freely discussed and debated. They had turned the corner on becoming a transparent rule of law society that did not shy away from uncomfortable questions that all democracies face. This is what is feared in Moscow, for it would be proof to her subjects that the civil grass is indeed greener on the other side and that is something Putin could not accept.
A day or so ago, Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelynsky, thanked the American people for their support. I heard it in the original Ukrainian (translators do the best they can, but that is why it is so good to know more than one language. There is no substitute for hearing things in their original tongues to understand the cultural context and nuances that are lost in translation.) President Zelynsky thanked the American people and it was the correct thing to do because, in its most basic nature, that is who is responsible for everything the United States does in the world. The good and the murky, the public and the secret, we, the people, choose from among ourselves persons to enact our will in protecting our vision and carrying out our Mission. That is what a democracy is. The people are the bearers of sovereignty and the exclusive source of authority in a democracy. It is “We the People” who are the power. The State is there to protect their freedoms so that they may carry out their daily lives free from dangers judged unfair by modern sensibilities. That is how the US was envisioned and what Ukraine was striving for. On the other side, we have one man to thank for this current backwards barbarity that is dominating the news, Vladimir Putin, because that is the nature of despotism – where a single person is unfettered by laws and reigns far above his people.
Mr. Putin has sought to justify his actions by saying that Ukraine and Ukrainian do not exist. Denying our existence has been a card played by the rulers of Russia many times over the centuries. They have denied our existence for so long, that even if we didn’t exist, we would have been brought into reality just by their denials. It has had quite the opposite effect. Not only is our existence affirmed in the eyes of the world, but nowadays, people of Ukrainian descent have never been more proud of their heritage. Folks that used to say they were from Russia because they did not wish to confuse Americans with a long explanation of what and where Ukraine is no longer need do so and so proudly proclaim their Ukrainian roots. Each day brings news of herculean resistance, defiance and determination against overwhelming forces. All that is tangible and uncontestable proof that we Ukrainians in fact do exist and that we have always existed and that lends itself to an optimistic, but necessary, conceit that we will always exist – no matter what Moscow or anywhere else in the world decides.
But I assure you, do not worry. We as a people and we all as a species have survived far more than this and we will make it through this as well. For all our stumbling and grouping we continue to move forward, sometimes two steps forward, sometimes one step back, but always made more capable by the experience. We have learned that when we give voice to the injustices we see, we participate in a global community that is journeying step by step to a promised tomorrow where all are able to live together in harmony and peace.
Nicholas Rudnytzky is a lecturer of university-level topics for over 25 years in Central and Eastern European Studies. He is a published author and editor, and currently serves as the Dean of Academic Services at Manor College. He is also the Vice-Principal at the Ukrainian Heritage School in Jenkintown, Director of the St. Sophia Religious Association of Ukrainian-Catholics, President Emeritus of the Ukrainian League of Philadelphia and an active member of the Shevchenko Scientific Society. Professor Rudnytzky has conducted numerous lectures internationally covering a range of topics including the Ukrainian Cossacks, post-industrial folk heroes, Ukrainians in the diaspora, and modern American Popular Culture through the Prism of International Understanding. He has coordinated and organized countless educational conferences at area universities. Professor Rudnytzky is married to Christina and has four loving children who are all active participants in the Ukrainian-American community of Greater Philadelphia.