Ukraine’s resistance is a reminder of the power of democracy
Our tendency to forget and underrate the importance of democracy as a motivator is a sad reflection of how messed up it has become in the West
Many in the West are surprised by the ferocity of Ukraine’s resistance to the war unleashed by Vladimir Putin. They shouldn’t be.
Ukrainians, including the Russian speakers among them, are fighting like hell not just for independence from Russia — but for freedom from tyranny. That’s the secret sauce, and ignoring it may be the most interesting of Putin’s many miscalculations in launching the war, since this one’s lessons are global.
The universal thirst for freedom is what I remember from reporting trips to Ukraine in the cool days of late summer 1991, as independence was declared. The palpable euphoria was about joining the free world. One young person in Lviv insisted on gifting me a prized LP recording of Paul McCartney’s concert in the USSR. His eyes gleamed as he insisted that I take the unwieldy thing — a manifestation of appreciation toward the West that I carry with me still.
So searing was the sense of justice that it confused people into thinking a new era was at hand: the end of history, in the artful words of Francis Fukuyama. The new era was to be defined by democracy — not nationalism, Ukrainian or any other. The end of history did not come; rather, a parade of horrors did, from Yugoslavia to Iraq to Darfur and far beyond. And here we are today, with Putin trying to turn back the clock.
It is easy to understand Putin’s assumption that he would be welcomed by many Ukrainians, because like most Big Lies, his has a certain basis in the truth.
Ukraine’s history really is all mixed up with Russia’s, and Poland’s as well. Kiev — or Kyiv, if you prefer — is one of the cradles of Russian civilization (and there is such a thing). Borders waxed and waned with the tidal waves of empire.
And Ukraine’s borders really are not exactly right, by design. Soviet rulers used border machinations to consolidate control over a potentially restive empire. Just as part of Ukraine — Trans-Dniester — was appended to Moldova to make it less ethnically Romanian and thus perhaps less restive, so bits of Russia were moved to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to make it less Ukrainian. That’s why there was significant local support when Russia seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014, in a dress rehearsal for today’s war; the people there always were basically Russian.
On my visits, many people I met tried to teach me Russian, not Ukrainian. People in today’s Lviv were calling it Lvov, the now-detested Russian variant.
The man who has come to symbolize Ukrainian resistance, Jewish President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is himself a Russian speaker. Putin assumed Zelenskyy was a clown because he rose to prominence playing a bumpkin president on TV. Far less remarked upon is the fact that this series is spoken mostly in Russian. Think about that: It did not seem unnatural that the Ukrainian series was not Ukrainian-speaking.
Moreover, until 2014, Ukraine was headed by a pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych. Ukraine is a somewhat flawed democracy in which the oligarchs have too much power, but Yanukovych had been duly elected (before being overthrown). At that time, polls showed most Ukrainians opposed joining NATO.
What happened? Putin happened. To Ukraine, yes, but to Russia as well.
It is easy to forget that the world once had high hopes for Russia. We figured communism had become such a nightmare that liberal democracy was the only option. We failed to grasp three things.
First, communism was not just an implausible economic system frowning on private property and collectivizing the means of production; it was also a ruthless police state, which may clash with human nature less.
Second, liberal democracy was not the only alternative to a Communist dictatorship. Indeed, except arguably for brief reformist periods during Czarist times, illiberalism is all that Russia has ever known.
Third, and most critically, it was not just communism that was defeated; it was also the Russian empire, stretching from Finland to North Korea, ruled mostly by Russians and centralized in Moscow. There’s not much nostalgia for kolkhoz collective farms, but it’s easy to whip up a nationalist nostalgic cult of empire.
We were too easily lulled by the buffoonery of Boris Yeltsin, who seemed determined to make a genuine break with the past and sufficed with what was left of the Russian republic and its 11 time zones.
Unfortunately, his shambolic rule enabled a corrupt privatization of state assets and enacted a too-fast liberalization that erased the savings of an entire generation. Yeltsin’s period left masses impoverished, equating democracy with chaos, yearning for a strong hand and vulnerable to machination.
Putin took over this flawed democracy and turned it first into a fake democracy — with obedient courts, a cowed media and a murderous secret police — and now a non-democracy. They’re not pretending anymore.
It seems to have never occurred to him that the system of government he had engineered in Russia would repel the Ukrainians so much that they would fight him to the finish.
Ukraine has done things wrong. For a country almost double the area of Germany whose borders were engineered by outsiders to make trouble, it has been too fanatical about holding on to unhappy Russian-speaking regions. Its 2019 language law went too far in undermining the official use of Russian. It seems to have shied away from implementing the Minsk agreements which would have given the eastern provinces more autonomy. It has been too reliant on far-right militias with an odd neo-Nazi hue in trying to maintain control of those provinces. It poked the bear too much.
But at the core, Ukraine seems inclined toward democracy in a way that Russia is sadly not. Our tendency to forget and underrate the importance of this is a sad reflection of how messed up democracy has become across the West. Democracy, for all its flaws, remains the least bad system. The war reminds us that it’s still worth fighting for, not only in Ukraine.
(Ths article first appeared in the New York Daily News)