This post is written by a guest, Adriana Helbig. A description of her credentials follows the post. She is so passionate about what is happening, that she went on a hunger strike for a week in Pittsburgh.
“If not I, then who?” said Ivan, 27, an engineer in Lviv, western Ukraine, when I asked whether he would respond to the draft letter he had received in the mail earlier that day. “If not I, then who will fight for everything that my great-grandfather died for at the hands of Soviet occupiers during WWII?”
Ivan had thought he would be the first generation in his family not to see war. But he was prepared to leave his wife and two small children to fight in a war that had started as a street protest against then-President Yanukovych, who had backtracked on a promise to sign an agreement with the EU, forging closer ties with Russia instead. Since those cold winter protests known as “EuroMaidan” (“maidan” meaning “square,” referring to Independence Square in Kyiv where the protests took place), there has been much bloodshed in Ukraine.
Before he fled the country, Yanukovych had ordered the army to fire on its own people. In March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. In May 2014, secession movements in Eastern Ukrainian regions like Luhansk and Donestk, proclaimed breakaway states with the help of personnel and weapons from Russia. And Ivan, without any formal military training, was being drafted into an evolving war zone in Luhansk and Donetsk as the world continues to question who is fighting whom and to what end.
The conflict has become complicated by Russia’s denial of involvement and a misunderstanding in world media whether this is a war between two countries or a civil war within Ukraine. Before receiving his draft letter, Ivan had been volunteering in Lviv, building coffins for fallen friends who had been sent to the ATO (anti-terrorist operations) in eastern Ukraine. Many young boys from western cities and villages were being conscripted, unintentionally fueling regional divisions in the country.
“Do not send your boys from western Ukraine to kill us in eastern Ukraine – we are all Ukrainians” I overheard from a woman’s cell phone in Lviv, clearly speaking to relatives in the ATO region. But if not young men like Ivan, then who will fight those who shot down ML-17 in eastern Ukraine, and who will rebuild the buildings and roads that have been destroyed, and who will help the grieving families who have been trapped in a region taken over by Russian-armed militants who wish to break up Ukraine? And why does Putin want to destabilize Ukraine? To continue to exert their power that has extended more than 300 years when the lands were usurped into the Russian Empire and then claimed by Soviet rule?
Ivan’s closest friends pooled their small wages and purchased the equipment he would need to enlist – boots, camoflage clothing, a bullet-proof vest. The Ukrainian army is so underfunded that soldiers are responsible to procure their own gear. Though he is in the reserves, his military training consisted of a few weekend sessions in high school. He had never held a gun, let alone know how to shoot one.
This man, guided by a love for his country, is going up against Putin-supplied weapons in eastern Ukraine. And he is Putin’s worst nightmare. The person who will fight for what he believes in. If not I, then who? That is the question we must ask ourselves: If we do not care what is happening in Ukraine, then who will?
Adriana Helbig is an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race, and African Migration (Indiana University Press, 2014). She has conducted extensive ethnographic research in Ukraine since 2001 and went on a week long hunger strike to protest Putin’s aggression in Ukraine in response to the shooting down of ML-17. She resides in Pittsburgh, PA, with her partner Nancy Murrell.
I was inspired to seek a guest author by the article in the NYTimes “Why #RussiaInvadedUkraine Matters”
by Christia Freeland