Solidarity against Fear
From the Series: Russia’s War in Ukraine, Continued
When I first joined the Anthropology Department at Luther College in Iowa in 2010, I was invited to pick a book for discussion among our students and staff. I chose Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. In the book, anthropologist Douglas Fry (2007) argues that although fighting and conflicts have accompanied humans across time and space, we are not inherently violent. Wars are not an inevitable part of human experience. Quite the opposite is true: despite glorification of militarism in many nation states, wars are an anomaly. My home country, Ukraine, is currently being subjected to this gruesome outlier of human experience. This is what I have learned from my friends and family in two weeks of war.
“We are like working bees in a beehive,” said my friend, who volunteers full-time in one of the main volunteer hubs in my home town. “Or like ants,” suggests another friend, volunteering in a different hub that operates out of the central movie theater. Small but numerous efforts collectively wish Ukraine into victory and peace. After the initial shock—that is, waking up to sirens for the first time and realizing that every part of Ukraine has been bombed in Russia’s thus-far unsuccessful attempt to destroy Ukraine’s military aviation—the town of just over 260,000 people has mobilized into a self-help network, and has swelled by another 20,000 in a matter of days. Some pass through, some stay a few nights, others decide to stay longer; they look for a microwave or a long-term place to park their car. I have been searching for a better word than self-help to describe this nonlinear, chaotic mobilization. “Self” has expanded and subsumed individual families and neighborhoods into a much larger entity that spans continents.
“We do not have personal bank accounts anymore, Maryna. I mean it.” This is from my friend, as she digests her long day at the volunteer center serving internally displaced people. Today, she found a way to locate medication for a woman from Mariupol (a Southern port city under very heavy shelling as I write this) who escaped with her three grandchildren. Yesterday, she brought her cat carrier to a family on the move. A few days ago, it was a blender for a family with a ninety-year-old grandmother who cannot eat solid food. There was a six-year-old who, at the sound of the sirens, started needing to wear pull-up diapers; there was an older gentleman with a similar need. “Life is playing out in different colors now,” another friend repeated several times. She spends her days weaving kikimory—camouflage nets for Ukrainian Armed Forces’ tanks and soldiers as well as many other volunteers. On a video for the volunteer group social media page, her hands appear perfectly manicured with red nail polish, but on our phone call she says she is embarrassed about how they have grown out. Then she laughs at how silly her comment is, given the circumstances. I catch myself wonder how I would ever be able to justify spending money on a manicure. Life is playing out in different colors.
“Our fanciest hotel in town is now a place for the internally displaced people.” It is almost like one has to get in line to help. Territorial defense units joke that you have to have special connections to be accepted into the groups that patrol the town. Similarly long is the line to sign up for the army service. In the first days of war, folks were turned away but asked to come back to give blood: one is not allowed to drink any alcohol for at least forty-eight hours before donating. Now it is no longer an issue. My hometown banned the sale of alcohol and the curfew begins at 9 p.m. Lights are out. I am on the phone with my friend when five armed policemen knock on her door because they notice ambient light coming from somewhere in her high-rise apartment building. They politely ask to check her phone. She hangs up and calls back soon, laughing about the experience. It was the wrong window. People joke that NATO will soon beg for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to join the alliance. Ukraine denies NATO’s request. My friend tells me that the best way to help is to actively look for a way to help, and make sure nobody’s precious time is wasted on being an intermediary. Imagine spending your day looking for ways to help. Who could use money today? Who needs hard-to-find medicines? Who needs a place to stay? A friend asks if she could volunteer for a couple of days to relieve another friend for the weekend. She politely refuses, “We have a system here.” Ukrainian towns are becoming potlatching communities. The point is not to out-give; rather, giving makes the most sense.
Humor is the best medicine. Worry and empathy do not really help. What helps is suspending disbelief, doubt, or rationalization. What helps is 100 percent support, unconditional. Victory is ours and we talk seriously about which world leaders should be invited to Kyiv to celebrate Ukraine’s victory and which ones do not deserve the honor. We share memes and stories, we laugh at four Russian tanks destroyed by two Ukrainian flags without a single bullet shot by Ukrainians. Ukrainian Americans are learning to inhabit a new time zone, staying awake when night falls in America but the sun rises in Ukraine. Telegram channels keep them apprised of the sirens, live, in real time.
In his classic essay, “Some Food We Could Not Eat,” Lewis Hyde (1979, 45) tells us to take reciprocity seriously; “When I give to someone from whom I do not receive (and yet I do receive elsewhere) it is as if the gift goes around a corner before it comes back. I have to give blindly. . . . When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.” Ukraine needs the collective action of the world to shake off an aggressive and unscrupulous enemy for whom the lives of Ukrainians and Russians—or anyone really—are just tokens in some game. Russian Commander in Chief, if you were nobly trying to liberate Ukrainians, as you claim, you’d be on the front line, guiding your troops and inspiring them instead of cowering in some bunker. But it is not only Ukraine that needs the collective action of the world. The world needs to do it for its own sake. The world must decide to act based on its belief in democracy, peace, and the freedoms we enshrined in international law. The world must decide not to act out of fear.
Lithuanian member of the European Parliament Petras Austrevicius has powerfully stated during a visit to Lviv: “We cannot fail to respond to . . . victims among civilians in the 21st century. . . . There are two ways to end this war: collective victory or collective defeat.” I am asking the universe for words to convince the world to think of Russian’s war in Ukraine, and any war, as their personal business, because peace matters. Living in the world guided by fear is not tolerable. Losing whatever it may be while trying to collectively win against something that is clearly wrong is not really a difficult choice. Some things are obviously wrong, like shooting civilians attempting to flee via legitimate humanitarian corridors, or shelling a pediatric oncology hospital or a maternity ward, or intentionally taking steps to put the world on the brink of a nuclear disaster. Some things are obviously right, like helping each other, taking risks for each other, practicing what you preach.
Ukrainians do not want to live in a world of fear. I know there are many European, North American, African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and many more people who have reached out to me since the beginning of this war to share this belief. So many have risen up to this challenge and are fighting with everything they have, be it by joining the territorial defense or baking bread for displaced people, or handing cash over to whomever needs it more than us at this moment. Hyde (1979, 50, 51) points out what may initially seem like “a paradox of gift exchange”—that is, “When the gift is used it is not used up. Quite the opposite in fact: the gift that is not used is lost while the one that is passed along remains abundant. . . . Our emotions are not used up in use. The may rise and fall, certainly, but they become strong and sure as we use them and only die away when we try to keep the lid on.” What if we stopped fearing the worst and instead acted urgently and collectively as community of the world to stop Putin from terrorizing us and using Ukraine as his battleground?!
Fry, Douglas. 2007. Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hyde, Lewis. 1979. “Some Food We Could Not Eat: Gift Exchange and the Imagination.” Kenyon Review 1 (4): 32–60.