“Sir, what’s your opinion on Russia v Ukraine?”
In the vocabulary of a child, it sounds harmless, like a friendly football match. It tears away the shock and the hysteria. It tells a story of immediate information, of children monitoring the dawn of war on the screens of their smartphones. It seems almost absurd, watching a war unfold in real time.
I couldn’t answer the student because I don’t know enough about what’s going on in Ukraine to give anything like an informed opinion of my own. My meddling with Russian affairs amounted to nothing more than a short-lived attempt at after-school Russian classes in my sixth form days. The two other chaps in the class went on to study Russian at Oxbridge. I had no such intentions. I happened to be studying the Russian Civil War in A Level History, I was intrigued by the art style of the Soviet propaganda machine and felt like learning a new language. Not for the first time in my life, I felt like a foolish hobbyist amongst eager professionals. I don’t think I ever made it to the second class.
I chose to focus on Arabic instead, for equally casual reasons. I didn’t want to be a spy, or a civil servant, or an ambassador. I don’t have the cunning or the sense of national pride. All I wanted to do was to read my history books, and to draw back the curtain on al-Andalus. I had the chance to explore an entirely different world, and I took the other road. God only knows where my life might have taken me had I made it to that second Russian class.
As the fighting intensifies in Kiev, I remember flashes of my brief stop in the city almost seven years ago. Bearded, sweat-scarred and looking forward to coming home, however briefly, after two trying months in Amman. The decision to take advantage of a twelve-hour layover and make a flying trip out to Kiev from Boryspil Airport was a fool’s fancy on my part, as it so often is, but it did mean that I got to see with my own eyes a city that is now in headlines around the world.
That was back in 2016, only a couple of years after the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent annexation of the Crimea. The city was quiet, but the stress lines were there to see, if you looked closely. Beneath the People’s Friendship Arch, a monument to Russian and Ukrainian unity, a messaged daubed in Cyrillic: “Slava Ukraini” – Glory to Ukraine. The nationalist call-sign, forbidden during the years of the Soviet Union.
The blue and yellow of the national flag was everywhere, almost as fiercely ubiquitous as the rojigualda in the months following the 2017 Catalan rebellion. Even the street artist dressed as a minion in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) seemed intentionally patriotic.
The blue and yellow from the city streets of Kiev has since fanned out across the web. Profile pictures bear its bicoloured hue. Thoughts, prayers and shares tell the story of the conflict to millions. And while part of me feels this is the way things should be, there’s something that keeps cropping up that I feel the need to talk about.
As is becoming customary in the Instagram Era, there’s just as much anger on my social media feed about the underrepresentation of conflicts happening elsewhere in the world as there is about the fighting taking place in Ukraine. For every “thoughts and prayers” post there’s a story bemoaning how much less of a fuss was made over Israel’s actions in Palestine, or the Indian occupation of Kashmir, or the assault on Yemen, as though one ought to be losing one’s head every time a gun is fired anywhere around the world. All of them immensely valid causes, no more or less than the chaos unfurling in the land of the Rus right now. Still, the phrase “pick your battles” comes to mind, and perhaps I’ve never used it more accurately. You can’t fight every war.
War. It’s not a word I’m used to using in the present tense, jaded as we are in the West by decades of relative peace. Thousands of us – maybe even millions – have never known what war means beyond what we studied at school. There’s a strong argument against the virtue-signalling “thoughts and prayers” response trending across social media, but maybe that’s just the knee-jerk reaction of a generation so far-removed from war that the word has all but lost its meaning.
Thoughts and prayers for the people of Paris after the Notre-Dame fire. Thoughts and prayers for the people of Afghanistan. Thoughts and prayers, but never enough of them, and never going to all the right places at the right time.
“There’s so much human suffering that the whole world should be wailing.”Joy Chambers, My Zulu, Myself
Taking the colonialist argument off the table, just for a moment, I don’t know whether we’re even capable of feeling a genuine sense of outrage at every injustice there is in the world – even my generation, which does a very good line in being outraged and incensed at everything. Every injustice, though? How can you fight for every cause and still remain true to your own beliefs? That much pain would be enough to tear the soul apart. It’s bad enough being a bleeding heart about the natural world – which, when the chips are down, is the first thing people forget to care about.
Fight, by all means. Resist. Shout about the things you care about. But pick your battles, and don’t attack those who didn’t come when you called, just because the fire in their hearts was not burning so bright.
What’s my opinion, then? Bewilderment. Jaded bewilderment, like so many of my generation. Bewilderment at the aggression. Bewilderment at the inaction. Bewilderment at the comparison to the Sudetenland saga I’ve heard so many times this week.
I studied the Soviet Union for years, but I’m no nearer an answer than any other armchair expert – probably because of my innate aversion to 20th century history, having studied it to the exclusion of every other century at school. Before I speak out, though, I will do what I do best. I will read. I will research. I will inform myself, as we were so often commanded to do during the BLM movement. I will speak to those who know more than I do, when the time is right.
While the world watched the city of Kiev, five islanders returned from the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It was their first independent trip home since they were forcibly removed by the British authorities during the 1970s as part of a deal to secure Mauritian independence. Mauritius wants its territory back. The Chagossians just want to go home.
Just one more injustice to add to the pile. Perhaps the whole world should be wailing – but for whom? Our world is full of people who think differently, and long may that be so. I will defy my generation and risk the use of a colonial poet to conclude, because I do believe Kipling had the right of it in this verse… BB x
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great judgement seat,
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor breed, nor birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the Earth!