23 February 2023

Ukraine: a blogger's recapitulation, part one

• 2009-11

I first began making regular visits to Elektrostal, Russia, in 1994. I had no idea at the time that eventually I'd make a home there for ten years, and teach in a local college. My first goal had simply been to get to know the local Friends meeting, and, through them, the local students, doctors, and educators who had initially reached out to Friends in the USA.

Elektrostal is a relatively new city, built around heavy industry. Many of the people I met were from distant parts of the former Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan, the Russian republic of Dagestan, and several parts of Siberia. However, the greatest number of family connections were in Ukraine. Among the families I grew close to, one of them spent every summer at grandma's home in rural Ukraine.

Odesa Main Station, Pushkin Square (October 2009)
In October 2009, the board of Friends House Moscow held its annual meeting in Odesa, and Judy and I seized the opportunity to make our first visit to Ukraine. Anyone who knows Odesa will not be surprised to hear that we fell in love with the city. (Some pictures and comments in this post.)

Our next visit to Ukraine, in 2011, was totally unplanned, a quick visit to Kyiv to iron out a work visa problem. (See Judy's post about this trip.) Thanks to this unexpected opportunity to explore Kyiv, we made our first of two visits to the Ascension (Florovsky) Convent and the grave of St. Helen, which was renowned for its healing powers.

Later that same year, we returned to Kyiv and the convent after a Quaker retreat in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, on the theme "The Gathered Meeting." (I wrote about the retreat here.) We enjoyed our long walks around the city of Kremenchuk during free time.

• 2014-15

In early 2014, the popular uprising and power struggle in Ukraine came to a head. As a fellow guest at a Moscow hostel told me, the zombies were coming out

Our own Friends meeting was divided on the situation in Ukraine, but after one particularly lively discussion, we were able to agree to watch and pray through the week, forming a spiritual observatory for the events unfolding in Ukraine, with the hopes of writing a statement at the next meeting for worship. The result was this message to the world family of Friends. A week later we had another vigorous discussion on Ukraine and added a few more words to our message.

We continued to follow the situation during the occupation of Crimea, the Minsk processes, and the ongoing fighting in Donbass. With the help of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Europe and Middle East Section, we urged Friends worldwide to support Quaker fact-finding visits to Ukraine; one visitor was our meeting's own Misha Roshchin, and the other was Roland Rand of Tallinn Friends. I first wrote about this initiative here, and in January 2015 posted a follow-up report.

• 2022-23

In January 2022, as Russia was demanding security guarantees, and world powers were sending their diplomats here and there, I felt we were witnessing an "artificial crisis" that was strikingly similar to Adolf Hitler's confrontation with Poland at the end of August 1939.

Novaya gazeta, Friday, February 25,
Then, on February 24, as I listened online to explosions and air raid sirens, I tried to come up with some first principles to help me cope with my sorrow and anger.

Maybe you're able to understand why it's so hard not to keep following invasion news, despite the closing down of Dozhd TV and other Russia-based information channels, and the inevitable fog of war. Last spring I found relief of a kind on a transatlantic ocean voyage, but still couldn't keep away from the news.

For me, maybe for most of us, the hardest thing to witness is the suffering of Ukrainian people under fire—the deaths, bereavements, separations; the loss of homes, loss of light, heating, and water; the interruptions of careers and educations. But for those millions of us who also cannot turn our backs on Russia—I've spent my whole adult life studying the country's language, culture, and politics, and have years of good memories and hundreds of former students among my social-network contacts—there's another level of pain as well. (And I can barely imagine what those who have had to leave their Russian homeland are feeling!) It's as if the country we know is being held hostage, politically and spiritually, and it's no comfort that a huge part of its population seems to have accepted this state of affairs. This is a country that broke the power of the tsars, and then of the Communist Party; why such passivity now? (I know, I know: it's easy for me to ask!)

Out of these sorts of questions, I wrote about the "beautiful Russia of the future." Later, in "beautiful Russia of the future, part two" I quoted Dmitri Bykov: "It is clear that Russia crossed many red lines. It cannot live any longer as it did in the past. The world will no longer see [in Russia] a place of spirituality, a place of great culture, a place representing victory over fascism."

I'm sure that most of my posts on this war over the past year are utterly forgettable, however therapeutic their writing was for me personally. Although I've tangentially touched on the increasingly extremist descriptions of Ukraine in the Russian media (see this article from my "Ceasefire shorts" list of links), I have written almost nothing about the uses to which religion, and specifically Satan, is being put as a tool to attempt to heat up popular enthusiasm in Russia for the war. (See this discussion on YouTube about whether Zelens'kyy is the Antichrist or just one of his demons.) The manipulative enmeshment of religion into politics is, of course, a phenomenon we also constantly need to confront in the USA.

In the meantime, please join me in watching and praying, and let me know what you've learned over this past year that keeps you centered in this storm. Thanks for your company!

The two most visited posts this past year, related to Ukraine, have been the "first principles" post on the day of the invasion ("RUSSIA. BOMBS. UKRAINE.") and "the dilemmas of pacifism."

What happens to Ukrainian children transported to Russia, according to the Yale School of Public Health's Humanitarian Research Lab. (PDF.)

George Persh on war and eschatology in today's Russian/Ukrainian context.

Eschatological rhetoric, which is gaining momentum and has become part of state propaganda, is designed to justify more clearly Russia’s mission in its present and future. Russia has one path and task: to crush the forces of Satan that Ukraine serves.  And this view of the current conflict is not a marginal phenomenon but in fact, is the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was expressed at the last World Russian People’s Council, where in the presence of Patriarch Kirill the radical professor Alexander Dugin spoke, stating: “This is the war of heaven against hell… His Holiness in his special report gently hinted at the figure who stands on the other side, which defines, inspires, and organizes our enemies. This figure is very close. We do not know the times; no one does. But we can understand them by the signs, see how close they are… That’s why more and more often, we talk about Armageddon, the end of times, and the apocalypse. We are taking part in the last, maybe the penultimate, no one knows, but a very important battle.”

Forum 18: A Ukrainian Protestant conscientious objector is apparently being sent to prison.

Bluesman Jason Ricci on recovery and relapse.

James Fallows on Jimmy Carter's "ninety-eight years of an exceptional life."

This year's Quaker nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Micah Bales: "I Like An Underdog—But I'm Not One.

Life and Power: Quaker discernment on abuse and violence in the family and community.

What might the discovery of massive early galaxies mean for our current models of the universe?

OK, this has been a somber blog post, and rightly so. Still, it's good to see how much fun these musicians are having. Rick Holmstrom and his band with Nathan James. 

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