The war in Ukraine shows that history was not dead – it was just sleeping


I watch the current violence in Ukraine with a conflicting mix of feelings. Some will be recognized by most Westerners: horror of the destruction and admiration for the Ukrainian people.

However, I also find reason to deeply question what this war has revealed about our so-called “Western values”.

Like Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has never hidden who he is. The names of his atrocities are infamous: Grozny, South Ossetia, Crimea, Aleppo. Yet despite this long track record, many in the West chose not to believe that Putin was who he told us he was all along.

But history was not dead, just asleep. Now we have woken from our slumber, to things thought impossible only a few weeks ago: Putin an outcast; the oligarchs scramble to save their yachts; an outpouring of money, arms and volunteer soldiers for Ukraine. Putin, who has worked so hard to divide us, has given us our most unanimous cause since 9/11 – at the sole cost of destroying a country of 40 million people.

And yet, on the other side of the veil, there are worrying signs.

Why didn’t we react like this for Syria when the same tyrant bombed their cities to rubble? Or for Afghans, Rohingyas, Rwandans? The hypocrisy is blatant. Poland and Hungary, recently accused of using tear gas and water cannons on Syrian refugees, are now hosting hundreds of thousands of fleeing Ukrainians.

Why this metamorphosis? I let Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov say it: “These are not the refugees we are used to,” he said in February. “These people are smart, they are educated people…there is not a single European country left that is afraid of the current wave of refugees.”

Apparently I’m not the only one conflicted.

Added to this are the Ukrainian border guards who remove Indian and African students who are escaping from kyiv from the trains. “Ukrainians first,” they shouted, but no one was checking passports. It was clear who was first, and it was not a question of citizenship.

More seriously, the most effective combat unit against the Russians is the shamelessly fascist Azov Battalion, which Western taxpayers are now paying to arm themselves to the teeth.

Even in the stream of idealistic Westerners rushing to Ukraine’s “foreign legions”, there are strong similarities with the idealistic Islamists who rushed to join the Islamic State group. There is a strange parallel to fervor, righteousness, certainty.

The uncomfortable question is: “what values ​​do we defend in Ukraine?”

George Orwell, in his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale,” spoke of another European war to which many idealistic Westerners flocked: the Spanish Civil War. He pointed out that many of those who went there to fight simply replaced Francisco Franco’s fascism with another toxic orthodoxy: the Communist Party.

He asked, “What are you doing… getting rid of such primal things as patriotism and religion? You didn’t necessarily get rid of the need to believe in something.”

And what do we believe in? Is there a statement that still speaks for all of us? What are these “Western values?”

The cultural clashes that have plagued us in recent years — over vaccines, so-called “freedom convoys,” Trumpian dystopia, trans rights, and #MeToo computing, to name a few — ones – might lead Orwell to draw the same conclusion he made from 1930s Europe: “the demystification of Western civilization has reached its climax”.

Now Putin has united us. It has emerged from the embers of the Cold War and entered our collective consciousness with such blatant evil that it defies manipulation, fake news and false narratives.

But what sleeping beasts will he awaken in us?

Times of trepidation are also times of opportunity. Now is the time to remember the ideals our ancestors fought for. “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples,” as the Charter of the United Nations says.

We cannot simply replace one rotten ideal with another. Violence, fascism, xenophobia and intolerance are our real enemies. We have to push back the Putin in all of us.

Antonio Michael Downing is the author of “Saga Boy” and a lecturer at Conestoga College.


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