We see the same photos from the front lines, if we dare to look. We hear the same war stories, new and old, if we care enough to listen and remember.
But if we can muster a small measure of the courage and national pride that Ukrainians show, in the face of autocracy to its full extent under threat of death, then I fear for the fate of democracy here at home.
But that’s not our story. He is theirs. And I suspect that what we see in our Ukrainian brothers and sisters is what we Americans have seen and admired in ourselves. Perhaps that will be enough to turn the tide here at home enough to recognize true freedom again for what it is.
About 25 years ago, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, I stood in a newsroom in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, and spoke with a dozen journalists, new to this field, new to democracy, new to freedom of the press and new – like the rest of us – to a world where there was no Berlin Wall separating East from West.
I was there with two other people from The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina – one from human resources, the other from advertising – to examine the business operations, top to bottom, of a small tabloid . In addition, I was there to give some journalism lessons.
These proud journalists were as eager to put the bad guys in jail and call rogue cops as they were to weave stories of how a willing country first embraced freedom. They clearly understood that they were walking on the front lines of history and that it was their job to tell the story well for generations to come. Their country was plagued by political and economic corruption, greed and income inequality that depressed living standards. They understood that it was also part of their job to tell these stories, no matter where they led.
It was fair to wonder at the time how long that would last. These Ukrainians were not naive. The history of the 20th century has given no quarter to this. Despite the remarkable disintegration of the former Soviet empire, they could still feel the presence of the fatherland’s influence, especially in the southeastern corner of the country where statues of Lenin – toppled from their pedestals in more western cities – stood still for a long time, dark limousines, tinted windows, rolled through the streets of the city.
And before the oppressive Russians in the east, it was the Nazis in the west.
During World War II, one in four Jewish victims of the Holocaust was murdered in Ukraine. Victims were not transported by train to Poland’s notorious killing fields, gas chambers, crematoria and concentration camps. No, these victims were taken from their homes, taken out of town and shot.
The answer to any question about the way forward after WWII, 1991 or today is simple: we can’t always accurately predict what will happen, but we can grab a journalist’s notebook and pencil. and be ready to save it for history. This is the message I left them.
And, now, here is the story playing out. The news came via the feed here at the newspaper. The injured, pregnant Ukrainian woman who had been carried on a stretcher from a maternity ward that Russia bombed last week had died – along with her baby.
Perhaps you saw his picture in the newspaper last Thursday. It was printed everywhere. People have seen her. They saw his anguished face. They saw her in video and photography, caressing her bloodied lower abdomen as an emergency team carried her through rubble caused by Russian indiscriminate bombs.
As The Associated Press reported, the woman’s hip had been detached, her pelvis crushed. Her baby was born by caesarean section but showed no signs of life. Realizing she was losing her baby, doctors said she cried out to them, “Kill me now!”
Across Ukraine, a peaceful country just a few weeks ago, its people are now counting the war dead, their war dead, and among the victims are pregnant women and babies. Compatriots and women took up arms.
Nothing will ever be the same again.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, can never win this war. Ukrainians – proud and stubborn – embraced democracy 30 years ago. They took their first sip – and it was good. It was refreshing. And now people under 30 know nothing else.
there is no turning back. But what lies ahead, I promise, won’t be easy to see – if we bother to watch with our eyes wide open.
J. Damon Cain is editor of The Registry-Herald. To reach him, send an email to [email protected]