We choose sides in distant wars for ideological reasons, moral and legal reasons. We study the history; we analyze the arguments for each side. We are political animals. But sometimes, we also have personal reasons.
In 2012, my wife and I spent a few days in Kyiv. Along with two other Dissent editors, Marshall Berman and Michael Kazin, we had been invited to Poland by the editors of Krytyka Polityczna, a left magazine celebrating its tenth anniversary. We were dispersed to different Polish cities, where our friends had discussion and study clubs, and then Judy and I were sent to Kyiv, to meet with a small group of young men and women who published a Ukrainian edition of Krytyka.
We arrived in Kyiv in time to join a rally for democracy and pluralism in a small park in the center of the city. Not many people showed up, but we were heckled by a group of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, who followed us, shouting and waving their fists, after the rally ended. Our hosts took us to a small restaurant (thankfully, the nationalist gang didn’t come in), where we sat and talked. The Krytyka people in Ukraine were hard-pressed, fewer in number and weaker politically than their Polish counterparts. But they were earnest and committed leftists.
Kyiv in 2012 was a grim and dreary city. We were put up in a second- or third-class hotel, a nice place, which was also a brothel. The tough looking pimps, with very young girls in tow, made no effort to hide their business. The city felt corrupt, as its ruling class then was—a factionalized oligarchy, with politicians who looked east and politicians who looked west, none of them committed to anything beyond the oligarchy. At that moment, the Ukrainian president was pro-Russian.
The Kyiv leftists were an egalitarian, disorganized bunch, but one of them, who looked leader-like, took us on a walking tour of the city, many parts of which were in urgent need of investment and repair. He paused on a block of old apartment houses. “This is the former Jewish quarter; my grandparents lived up there,” he said, pointing. I didn’t ask what happened to them; nor did I tell him that two of my grandparents came from Belarus, only a short distance to the north. It wasn’t surprising that a Ukrainian leftist was Jewish. Ten years later, it is amazing that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a Jew.
The Maidan Revolution happened in February 2014, a riotous affair, politically confusing, whose immediate cause was the refusal of the pro-Russian president to sign an economic agreement with the European Union. The ultra-nationalists who heckled us two years earlier were certainly involved. They supported the revolution, hoping to create an authoritarian state; one of their goals was the suppression of the language and culture of the Russian minority. By contrast, Russian-speaking nationalists in eastern Ukraine, looking toward Moscow for support, opposed the revolution, claiming, among other things, that it was NATO sponsored and a “Zionist coup.” They were not interested in independence and certainly not in any kind of ties (military ties were not at issue) to the West. Instead, they called in the Russian army. Putin was already organizing an intervention; Russian soldiers seized Crimea and, fighting without their uniforms, promoted secession in the east.
The young leftists whom we had met in 2012 were, I am sure, active in Maidan, and (judging from reports and interviews at the time) their numbers had grown. They weren’t part of any of the successor governments, but they were, on a small scale, a force for pluralism—they were defenders of minority rights. In the months that followed Maidan, the Ukrainians succeeded in fashioning a democracy, fragile and flawed, like all the others, but still a Ukrainian democracy. The ultra-nationalists became one faction among others, never dominant. Zelensky, born in eastern Ukraine, whose first language was Russian, was elected president in 2019 in free and fair elections. He isn’t a leftist, but he is a liberal—and remember: he is the one who said no to Donald Trump’s demand that he supply information damaging to Joe Biden.
I think of the Russian invasion of 2022 as an attack on the young people who edited and wrote for Krytyka Polityczna with whom I talked ten years ago. That’s a highly personal view, but in time of war it’s important to know who your comrades are. Zelensky is also a comrade because he consistently defended the rights of the Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, even while Ukrainian soldiers were at war with (some of) them. Actually, Ukraine has been at war continuously since 2014—against a counter-revolution supported from the outside by a reactionary state, a situation not uncommon in the history of revolutions.
But the war that began just days ago with the full-scale Russian invasion, soldiers in uniform now, is very different; it is a direct challenge to Ukrainian independence and democracy. And it has been accompanied by the movement of Russian troops into Belarus—not only to invade Ukraine from the north but also to shore up the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko, who almost faced his own Maidan just a year ago. The war has been almost universally condemned, with “explanations” and apologies that amount to support coming from three groups: political realists, who believe in spheres of influence and want to recognize Russia’s sphere; right-wingers who admire authoritarian leaders and see Putin as one of their own; and leftists who are sure that the United States and NATO must always be the only bad guys. The three have this in common: they aren’t looking hard and close at the actual war.
Condemnation has mostly been based on an entirely correct reading of international law. The Russian war is an unprovoked attack on a neighbor, an independent and sovereign state. It is clearly illegal. It is also, and this is more important, unjust—it is a crime not only legally but morally, too. Imagine the crime this way: the Russian invasion is an act that forces peaceful, ordinary men and women to risk their lives, to fight and die, for their country. Putin seems to have believed that most Ukrainians would not do that—because, he said, Ukraine isn’t a country separate from Russia. In their hearts, Ukrainians are Russian, and the war was meant to remind them of that. But the actual Ukrainian response on the ground, on country roads and city streets, has shown Putin to be wrong. Ukraine is indeed a country; the proof is the willingness of its citizens to fight for it. To force them to fight—that is the crime of this war.
Ukrainians with very different political views are fighting together. The ultra-nationalists are there; they have been part of Ukrainian life for much too long. But there are also people like the kids I met in 2012, and many more with them, who are fighting for their country and also for their democracy. And there are many, too, who are fighting because they believe in a Ukraine—the one their president has championed—that welcomes all its citizens and recognizes the rights they all possess. I don’t know what the outcome will be; sometimes heroism and justice together win in the end, but sometimes they don’t. Whatever happens, we, on the left, should call this country, whose courageous citizens have proven its value, “Our Ukraine”—a democracy whose value we too recognize.
Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.