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A personal reflection on nationalism and the war in Ukraine

Last Wednesday, mid-pub night, my phone lit up with a news update — Putin had officially announced that Russia would begin a “special military operation” in Ukraine. I went numb.

When trivia ended, I returned to my room and began scrolling through my camera roll for photos of my time in Ukraine. It didn’t take long for the emotions and the exhaustion to overwhelm me. To explain my thoughts and feelings on the war requires an account of my relationship with the country, of which this article is my attempt.

My mind has been stuck on the same question since that Wednesday: how do you sit by and watch a country you love, but that is not your homeland, fall apart? In the past few days, I have been unable to escape from the complexities of nationalism and the good and bad that accompany a love for a country.

For some context, my family and I lived in Kyiv, Ukraine from 2011 to 2014. I attended middle school at a local international school. My memories from the city are filled with my middle school friends, who I credit with molding the foundation of who I am today. I love them dearly.

I’m a Russian minor because of my time in the country, and much of my academic work ties back to those years. But my experience was not all rosy — Kyiv ingrained within me a permanent RBF and fast-walking speed as I never felt at ease walking around the city on my own.

It’s this overwhelming cache of both good and the bad memories that heighten with each news story — as I reload websites mapping the bombing in Kyiv, I look for markers in relation to my former apartment and school. This happened last Wednesday when the Russians bombed the main train station in the city. It was the primary landmark visible from my balcony window, and the location of the start of many a beloved school trip. It’s strange to look back on old photos and know that the view I once had is now gone.

To understand the conflict is to grasp the competing roles that nationalism plays. Euromaidan, and the initial grassroots push towards western European influence that began in 2013, was driven by students who wanted Ukraine to move away from Russia’s orbit. The ensuing fight over the country brought Ukrainian identity to the forefront.

From the outside, it looked like a fight between Europe and Russia over the former Soviet bloc country. Inside the country, it was more complex — there was the clash between western and eastern ideology, but it was underlined by a desire for a Ukrainian state that is not defined solely by the military alliance it orbits. This is the desire of Ukrainians: to control their own fate, to live in a country of their design. It’s not for the West to take over Ukraine and erase its identity. It’s for Ukrainians to protect their right to design their destiny and pursue whatever path they deem most appropriate; other powers be damned.

In the beginning of February 2014, when the Euromaidan conflict was still escalating, one of my

Ukrainian classmates, Vlad, exasperatedly asked me — the sole American in my grade — why the United States would not send in troops. I explained to him that it is not the United States’ war to fight.

I still believe that sending troops would relegate Ukraine’s identity to nothing more than a piece of land. Ukrainians, and their fight for independence, would no longer matter. Vlad did not like my answer. He felt that to withhold American troops meant assured destruction for Ukraine, his home. I can’t begin to imagine his pain.

Like many of my classmates, the war in Ukraine has reminded me what it is like to live between loyalties. The United States will forever be my home, yet the delay, and at times shallowness, of sanctions is at times incredibly frustrating.

As Vlad exposed in my homeroom that Wednesday, living outside of the country your passport is from opens you up to hurt from both your official and adopted homes. I’ll never stop caring about the Ukrainian cause, and because of that, it feels like a cruel twist of fate that the war had to occur in a place that only eleven years ago I could not even place on a map.

And yet, I’m not Ukrainian; to claim this battle as my own would be to erase the difficulty and trauma millions of citizens cannot escape, unlike myself. It’s an uncomfortable combination of guilt and helplessness, of sitting in awe of your Ukrainian friends who are handling the situation with such grace and poise even when their worlds are on the line. My home, my culture, and my identity are not at stake. But this war still hurts, a lot.

When I think of nationalism, I often think of the ugly feelings it brings out. In retrospect, I saw this during JanPlan 2021. As I researched the Euromaidan movement for my independent study, I was confronted with the dark reality that some of the parties who marched in the protests of Euromaidan were neo-Nazis. In my thirteen-year-old American mind, to be aligned with the West meant you had to be good. Nuance has taught me that nothing is quite as simple as that.

Today, too, there are gray areas. It’s hard to watch the violence. The unprovoked Russian tank that ran over another car on the road has come to define malice for me, but it’s also hard to see Ukrainians across the country prepare Molotov cocktails and learn how to defend themselves with high powered assault-style weapons.

 I know it’s in the name of defending their country and of innocent victims, but it’s a tricky line to walk. Where does self defense end? I don’t know, but I can say that just the words “Molotov cocktail” bring out the fearful thirteen-year-old in me. No matter the outcome of Putin’s war, I know the death toll on both sides will be too high, even if it is most offensive to see innocent Ukrainians killed.

Nationalism, in all its iterations, is an empowering force. It’s the reason Ukrainians have repelled the Russians for so long and have proven to the world that their country is stronger than statistics might suggest. Any Ukrainian, or person who cares for Ukraine, could have told you this before. It’s heartbreaking, yet moving, to see Ukrainians prove time and time again how much they care. It’s also gut-wrenching, watching yet another video of a father saying goodbye to his children as he returns to fight a war that might punctuate the end of his life.

Multiple days in, and I’ve continued to oscillate between feelings of numbness and intense emotion. Moments of distraction are followed by the guilt of letting my mind wander elsewhere.

There is so much to do to help the fight, such as sending physical and monetary donations, but I believe that one of the most important foundations for aid is to understand why Ukrainians are risking their lives for a war that analysts predicted they would lose, against a despot who has completely lost touch with reality.

In my broken Russian (and the irony that Ukrainian is not the language I learned while in the country), I’ll continue to echo Слава Україні, Glory to Ukraine, the slogan of a country that, no matter what my passport says, will always be part of my identity.

~ Madeleine Hand ’22

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