Only days after Ukraine was invaded by Russia in January, a group of Ukrainian naval soldiers marched toward Russian forces. They marched without weapons, directly at the barrels of Russian guns, singing. This vivid image was played on the news and went viral on YouTube. What is more remarkable is that this was not an anomaly. In the face of what could be a revival of ethnic conflict, the uprising in Ukraine has made a conscious commitment to a non-violent pursuit of rights and freedom. If you spend time in Ukraine, you hear the saying:
Mi volyu vispivaly, vitantsiuvaly, vimalyuvaly, vishivaly ta vivirshuvaly. Our freedom we've sung, danced, painted, embroidered and inscribed through poetry.
In a history that (by Ukrainian account) dates back over 1,000 years, political sovereignty existed only for three brief periods of time. Otherwise, the territory was existed under the control of the Mongol, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Ottoman, Austrian and German Empires. Ukrainian independence is not predicated on its history of political sovereignty -- rather it was crafted through its arts.
Despite the absence of political sovereignty, a distinctly Ukrainian sensibility was preserved in the graphic designs of folk arts, in the philosophical words of poets, and in the historical lyrics sung by kobzari, members of a guild for blind bards. For most of the 20th century, artists fueled the social consciousness and dignity of people de-individualized under Soviet regime, despite the dire consequences they faced. Throughout history access to paper and pencil were denied to legions of Ukrainian writers, poets and artists. They suffered forced labor, physical torture and worse. Simply to sing songs in Ukrainian was a considerably political move. In one sweeping liquidation in 1932, Soviet authorities called on all Ukrainian kobzars to attend a conference in Kharkiv. They were taken outside the city and shot.
In the 1960s Ukrainian Shestodesiatnyky penned a revolution not by sword but in literature, poetry, paint and song, willingly facing arrest. When Ukraine first gained its independence, they were elected to parliament. This concurrently oppressive and vibrant environment is basic to what it means to be Ukrainian.
Notably, art drives the pursuit of human rights in Ukraine today. It is perhaps not surprising that the most salient feature of Putin's tactics is the reliance on false propaganda and blatant censorship. Indeed the pen has turned out to be the most dangerous of all weapons. A close read might also suggest that it lays the groundwork for a new vision of power, one that is playing out in the events that have occurred over the past six months.
Ukraine -- a territory roughly the size of France, is situated at the crossroads of three worlds -- European, Russian, and Eastern, bringing Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities into close and interdependent proximity. Ukraine has seen some of the greatest ethnic and ideological battles play out on its grounds. It lost nine million people during World War II alone. It lost millions more to Stalin's forced starvation in 1932 to 1933. Critics continue to point to the risk of latent radicalism. This has embedded itself in the consciousness of the people inhabiting the territory, each of whom has no doubt suffered unspeakable losses to their immediate families within one or two generations. These facts elicit the question we face collectively on a global scale -- what happens when peoples of different backgrounds and beliefs are thrust together?
Perhaps because those losses are still palpable, a hope and vision of more encompassing ideals has emerged. It is rooted in the art. In the central square Maidan, of Kyiv over a million Ukrainians peacefully protested a corrupted government for three months. A piano was placed in the square to help warm spirits. The tenacious perseverance of those on the Maidan was nourished by it. A beacon of their vision stood in the center of the Maidan, where an impromptu library constructed amidst the revolution afforded protestors a respite. The library operated on an honor system: and its workers were volunteers. Poets, artists musicians hosted performances and discussions. During the protests the library operated 24/7. Its mission posted:
The library is a symbol of our readiness for dialogue -- first, with oneself, and with one another. Please come and converse, read and reflect, speak and share your thoughts. This is important.
Ukraine's future may devolve into a confrontation and 'negotiation' between the U.S. and Russia. While the world focuses on the drama, a sea change is happening, practically unnoticed by Western media. A group of Ukrainian activists, responding to the window of opportunity they see, are busy drafting and passing reform legislation through Parliament. In a move that would have been impossible until now, the Ukrainian government responded to civil pressure and passed a law assuring independence of public broadcasting. Other legislation on the table includes a bill that would give greater autonomy to universities and another that gives more autonomy to regions.
It is a conscientious and organized movement to propose and pass reform legislation that will pave the path of the next administration, one that supports the freedom of expression, information, and diverse perspectives.
If Ukrainians persevere, and if they are heard by the rest of the world rather than treated as a 'negotiation' between the West and Russia, then wholly new terms for freedom -- those sung, danced, painted, woven and inscribed in poem -- have an opportunity now for full realization.