Good vs. Evil; Wings vs. Drones

On Iranian and russian drone attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure

Lina Kostenko poem

Last Monday, 17th October, as russian bombs once again exploded all over Ukraine, I saw this poem in its Ukrainian original appear on my Instagram feed, between images of exploding buildings and filthy plumes of smoke.

Its author is Lina Kostenko, one of the giants of Ukrainian literature. Now 92 and the most recent winner of France's highest award, the order of the Legion of Honour, Kostenko wrote this poem in 1958, around the time her literary career took off. It was a time of change in Ukraine: following the death of Stalin and the relative relaxation of repression in the USSR (of which Ukraine was then part), artists, writers, and thinkers were able to raise their heads along with everyone else and start to openly express how a different, free society might look.

Until the beginning of the 1960s, Ukrainian cultural figures openly organised clubs, exhibitions, meetings, and performances, published works, and instigated discussions, formulating what a democratic, independent Ukraine might look like, with creative expression, dignity and human rights at the centre. They would later be known as the “Sixtiers”.

Lina Kostenko played a leading role in the “Sixtiers” generation. Her first three collections of poetry (Earthly Rays, Sails, and Journeys of the Heart) were published from 1957 – 1961, and were instrumental to reviving Ukrainian-language lyrical poetry. Each of them were sold out within days of being released.

In this poem, “Wings”, echoes of a universal motif take form, with the figure of the bird providing a vehicle for imagining human freedom. Billy Taylor's song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, that later became an anthem of the US Civil Rights Movement, comes to mind, in which the same desire is expressed,

Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky How sweet it would be If I found I could fly I'd soar to the sun And look down at the sea And I sing 'cause I know How it feels to be free.

The bird allows for the visualisation of human flight from the trappings of earthly reality; looking to the sky, we can see what life would be like were we able to shed the weighty oppression pinning us down here, on the ground.

And what sort of people would we be able to be if we weren't held back by the hatred of others?

It's no coincidence that this poem appeared that Monday.

As Kostenko's poem willed its readers to raise their eyes to the sky and dream of goodness and bravery, war machines performed the opposite flight: Iranian-supplied drones sent from russia rained down on Ukrainian homes.

These drones are nicknamed “mopeds” by the Ukrainians because of how loud their engines are. They chug conspicuously through the sky, not travelling particularly fast, and pick up attention with their large triangular shape.

Everyone down below can see and hear them coming.

Guardian reporter Daniel Boffey described seeing a kamikazi moped drone that day in Kyiv in this article – “a certain sense of fatalism took over as the drone hovered directly above, turning this way and that”, Boffey wrote.

Ukrainian policemen jumped out of their patrol cars, shooting vainly up into the sky, to prevent the mass of metal from spinning down on to the citizens of Kyiv.

Then, with its target chosen, “it dived.”

That day, in one of the strikes, a young couple, Viktoria and Bohdan, expecting their first child together, were among the victims killed. They were asleep in their bed when the drone hit. One moment they were embracing – and the next, their lifeless bodies packed away, separated from one another, in body bags.

The hopeful flight of aspiration that Kostenko describes, present in every culture from the universally recognised dove of peace to the symbolic morning ascent of the sun: it was perverted that day.

The warm, beating body of a bird, its feathered wings spread out in flight, catching the light of the day in flashes of colour and speed – replaced by a dumb, servile metallic mass, programmed by its russian and Iranian creators only for destruction.

It's entirely befitting of russia, a country which only knows how to loot, deport, murder, and ravage. Indeed, it is exactly what they did to the “Sixtiers” generation. From 1962, artists and writers were rounded up, sent to Gulag concentration camps, and murdered. Others, like Kostenko, were publicly shamed, intimidated, and prevented from writing for decades.

It's 2022. The world is cast into two camps. Those who are for evil and those who are against it.

And it is no coincidence that russia finds a willing ally in Iran.

Because just as the Iranian authorities enable the suppression of Ukraine's ever present fight for freedom, they maim and murder the protesters who are speaking out against their iron grip over Iran.

The demonstrations are hardly covered in Western media and yet every day, Iranian women, girls, and their male allies come out to denounce the governing regime's hold over their lives and liberties. On the streets, in universities, high schools and public spaces, the Iranians shout for an end to the theocracy that wishes to stifle them, knowing that by doing so they risk enduring beatings, rape, and murder.

The Ukrainians and Iranians fight exactly the same evil. It's not just an evil that shows its face in the same way, from torture methods to oppressive, fanatical control. It is an evil that allows two murderous countries to collude with another and strengthen their alliance. Indeed, the Iranian government will now not only provide russia with drones and send its own drone operators to train russian troops on occupied Ukrainian soil, but is also shipping over other military equipment including ballistic missiles to replenish dwindling supplies.

And it's not an evil from which anyone living in a democracy is far removed. russia has made very clear its plans to extend its empire across the European continent once Ukraine falls. Xi Jinping outlined Chinese plans to retake Taiwan in the last few days at the CCP summit, something which American intelligence has confirmed. North Korean has sent ballistic missiles flying over Japan in the last month.

Let us take courage from the words of Lina Kostenko's poem. The optimism it breaths is easy to love. It is the fierce, angry optimism that wills Iranian women and girls forward, and the optimism that fuels Ukrainian resistance against occupation and death. It is the optimism that must inspire us now.

It's time to all choose what we want the world to look like. And then act on it.

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