Monday 10 October. The First of the Mass Missile Strikes on Energy Infrastructure.

What Ukrainians can teach us about the strength and bravery needed to win this war

Shahed drone targeting Kyiv, credit AFP A Shahed drone closing in on a target in Kyiv, October. Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP

It felt like the 24th of February. Again, I was going into the office shaken, having awoken to messages in the family group chat about relatives and friends sheltering in basements whilst explosions rocked the city around them. Again, I was refreshing the news every few minutes to know where had been hit next, waiting on updates on everyone's safety, knowing that perhaps every second that I wasn't in touch, the situation would have changed forever. Like the morning of the 24th, rain pelted down outside, and it was too grey, too cold and damp, too real.

And as I moved through my day, working on tasks in the office, eating lunch in the cafeteria, forcing myself to take calls and questions unrelated to the war whilst Ukraine burned because here, things aren't on fire, things are supposedly alright and life is carrying on, a familiar sensation returned with sharpness: that feeling of others being locked out of my pain.

It is a pain most of us have felt in life – it's what defines trauma and tragedy.

But what makes it hurt so keenly is that I understand full well that I, along with all other Ukrainians, am purposefully engulfed by the messiness of this war. Our isolation is part of the express design of the russian perpetrators.

What do I mean by this?

In the days leading up to and after the 24th of February, I was asked too many times whether it was all happening because of NATO expansion. There have been many takedowns of this claim: we have all become experts in firing off facts that prove time and time again that this war isn't about NATO and that yes, Ukraine and “the West” did in fact nothing whatsoever to provoke russia. I feel so well trained now to unemotionally show why it's a falsehood that at times it feels robotic.

But what upsets me so much about those interactions is that as the NATO-expansionist argument forms between me and the conversant, I feel shivers as I see too the spectre of russian propaganda rearing its ugly head. Like the imperial double headed eagle that snarls on russian tricolours, its sharp tongue flaming out from between the beak, it slivers out of the air and looks at us both. Winking at me cruelly, knowing full well that I, like it, know the truth, it turns to goad the speaker on, provoking them in their blissful, comfortable ignorance.

Today, as I read the newspaper headlines that framed the shower of missiles that exploded all over Ukraine as solely, and even an expected, fair play response to the bombing of the Crimean bridge, subtly echoing Putin's address earlier that day, playing into the fear of “nuclear armageddon” that threatens to paralyse Western support for Ukraine, I felt it again.

It's frustratingly familiar. It's there when I'm asked whether Ukraine is the same country as russia, whether the languages are similar, or am told that really, Ukraine has no history at all. It was there a few days ago when Ukrainians were once again equated to russians and Belarusians in the Noble Peace Prize ceremony, banded together into that blood drenched trio of brotherly nations. It was there when foreign experts predicted Kyiv would fall in three days, or headlines declared that the Ukrainian nation was being “born” in the fire of the resistance. It was there when Angela Merkel blocked Ukraine's accession NATO, and turned all her attention to consolidating German ties with russia.

It was there and laughing when I was asked whether me being Ukrainian meant I was a Nazi at a university house party. The next day when I walked into a college bar and tried to avert my eyes from the massive hammer and sickle flag hanging on the wall, it cackled to itself in the corner.

Myths about Ukraine have been disseminated so far and wide that even on respected Western university courses, students are still taught that russian history began in Kyiv, during the Kyivan Rus', (a powerful political grouping of states that centred in Kyiv during the 10th – 13th centuries). This is a falsehood brought over as a cultural export by russian emigre professors who escaped the USSR and covertly smuggled their imperialism into the curriculum to be lazily accepted by Western academics.

And like with all of these examples, whilst it is easy to debunk (short answer: the myth of russia's Kyivan beginnings was a political narrative created in 1674 in a text authored by Inokentii Gizel and other Kyivan monks in order to curry favour with the Muscovite occupiers), it has stuck. It explains why Ukraine seems to new and at the same so oddly similar to russia. It is exhausting to hear and recognise.

Because it is exactly the argument used by russia to explain that Ukraine is in fact historically, fatefully tied to it. And having passively learn it, the Western public is in no state to argue, and Ukrainians endure the genocidal invasion they do now: the West can't really meddle too much because they'll make the bear angry. It is in its own territory, after all.

So why does today feel different? Why am I writing this now?

Before getting on my bike today to cycle home from work, I put on my headphones to try and cheer myself up. As I'm sure all the above has shown, Ukrainian language podcasts about our history, culture and literature are my go-to mood lifters. There, everything is in its right place. russian myths are actively addressed.

I put on the third episode of the “Cultural Tribunal”, a podcast set up by the media company The Ukrainians to unmask russian imperial acts of looting Ukrainian culture and individuals, and claiming them for their own.

In this episode, host Yana Suporovs'ka turned her attention to the world famous avant-garde artist, Kazimir Malevich. Everywhere he is referred to as russian – even by experts at Christie's, Yana told listeners, where his work sold for a record breaking amount at an auction a few years ago. And yet, in his documents, in his diaries and autobiography, Malevich referred to himself as Ukrainian.

So why would russians want to claim him for their own? Why, as Yana put it, did russia feel they had to steal a whole person and his identity?

To explain this, Yana talked to Tetyana Filevs'ka, an expert on Malevich and director of the Ukrainian Institute. Tetyana explained that it is because of the russian project to create a world famous reputation for themselves that would advance their imperial project, consolidate their reputation as a “great power”, and simultaneously blot out the competing achievements of their colonies. One of their main exports in the art world is the russian avant-garde, which would never be complete without the inclusion of the most important artists of them all.

I listened and I agreed. But one thing that Tetyana said at the end struck me and changed my understanding of the day, the events leading up to it and my response,

“Whilst so many Ukrainian artists and writers like Malevich have been taken by and lost to russia, their works remain. And it is those works that have been critical in the formation of modern Ukrainian identity. We do not have a primitive, village-like culture, as the russians tried to convince us and the rest of the world. We are a modern, European nation – those artists and those writers made works that reflected that. And it is exactly that same spirit of resistance and courage formed in their works that the world so admires in us now.”

Want to win? Be like the Ukrainians

Ukrainian courage and resistance, Tetyana showed, comes from those who came before us: writers, artists, thinkers, and just as often, members in our own families who were subjected to the same brutal aggression and genocidal intent as contemporary Ukrainians. They set the path with their experience and reflections; it is to their example that we turn.

It follows then that for the West to help Ukraine win this war, the hazy fog of russian propaganda that plagues everything from headlines to “expert” opinions, and even down into the most ordinary of conversations where lazy assumptions are repeated: it must be cleared. The two headed eagle, revelling in its duplicity, must choke on its own tongue, too thick with venom for its own good. russia wants you to be aloof and for Ukrainians to drown in the complexity of the situation.

Feeling afraid? Exhausted? To be scared, to be tired, to leave Ukraine to her supposed fate because she is just really a vassal of the russians, no matter how much Ukrainians might deny it, is to beckon that terrifying creature of war towards yourself.

See, listen, understand, learn from Ukrainians.

This war has opened our eyes to the ancient Gorgon; if you let it come any closer, it'll open your eyes too.

Thank you for reading my blog.

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