First published in The Stanford Daily.
Be it the devout crusaders whose convictions grew from absolute faith, the American G.I. who died on a beach in France for the patriotic ideals of freedom and democracy or a science fiction writer who cynically set out to become rich by manufacturing a cult of fawning worshippers — every actor in history believes in some version of reality in which his actions are justified to the extent that right and wrong exist. It is only right, then, that the unbelievers be put to death for the glory of the rightful God. It is only right for good to triumph over evil. It is only fair for the intelligent to exploit the gullible and weak.
Assuming that the historical past is fixed and not fluid — and moreover, that in the presence of all relevant facts we somehow at long last arrive at a common definition of moral ethics — then somewhere in the complex history of Ukraine and Russia exist a set of facts that can tell us what is “right” and “wrong” in an escalating conflict between two distinct interpretations of the Ukrainian soul. Unfortunately, the past will always remain opaque to us.
Are the people of Ukraine fighting for a cause that is truly their own and not a power play in somebody’s grand strategic chessboard? Were the Ukrainians misled by fascists peddling Western propaganda about an EU dream that cannot be? Or were the ethnic Russians of eastern Ukraine taken in by a narrative woven by a Russian establishment deeply nostalgic for the rose-tinted memories of Soviet past?
If the Euromaidan movement’s occupation of government buildings and its heated protests against Yanukovych’s security forces were truly the power of popular democracy at work, then why are Luhansk and Donetsk the failure of police authority to maintain public order? Conversely, if the anti-Russian protestors were the Nazis of our time, then why is Russia the one annexing Crimea under the overt pretext of uniting its own people in a modern-day Anschluss?
It is often said that history is written by the victors, but what it often neglects to mention is that victory does not always come in the form of diplomacy and military might. The real war takes place beneath the surface, at the level where fact and fiction blur because human memories are ephemeral and malleable, and human nature longs for meaning and grand narratives. When it comes to ethnic feuds and historical disputes, what matters most is not facts, but what people remember as facts. No one wants to be remembered for indiscriminately killing innocent people, for mass rape, for gulags, for terrorism. Each of us wants to be the promoter of democracy, the liberator, the national hero, the freedom fighter.
In the era of the smartphone and in a country where mobile Internet access is often a higher priority than good governance and social justice, the troves of footage coming out of Ukraine are showing us a side of history that most of us non-historians were never forced to confront. This is not textbook history in its packaged consumer-ready form; this is raw undigested history in all its messy complexities and humanity.
We see the genuine hopeless face of a Russian lady living in eastern Ukraine who desperately cries “Nazis,” tears flowing from her eyes as she watches a column of armored vehicles loyal to the pro-Western central government roll towards her revolting town. We see the pro-unity elderly men carrying Ukraine flags, trying to peacefully march in Donetsk in support of their homeland, only to be beaten up by young men wearing Russian tricolors who think that the only viable future for their city is to return home to Mother Russia. We watched the live streams of pro-unity and pro-Russian protestors engaging in street skirmishes in Odessa that eventually resulted in the pro-Russian forces being trapped in a burning building in which at least 30 perished. Which side is just? This is a question of history and there are no convincing answers.
Most of the people on both sides of the divide see themselves as good people. They simply want the best future for the people they love. But because their world views are the products of entirely incompatible chains of narratives, their divergent visions of the future and their strong desire to do what is right force them to fight. What we want from history is a romantic story of good triumphing over evil, the heroic over the wicked, the right over the wrong, but the real human tragedy is that some of the worst deeds we as humans do to each other are simply the result of a sincere belief in our own subjective reality.
There is real grassroots support for independence and closer ties with Russia amongst the civilian population in eastern Ukraine, and it would be foolish and unfair to dismiss all of it as Russian propaganda. It is difficult with a Western lens not to question the sincerity of Russian intents in Ukraine, and that may very well be wise, but one should be careful not to get too caught up in the bubble that one constructs for oneself.
To this end, I recommend the independent reporting done by VICE News on the ground in Ukraine since the beginning of the protests. While reporter Simon Ostrovsky clearly brought with him a Western perspective, he did an excellent job of lending a voice to the insurgents in Donetsk and Slovyansk who see themselves as conscientious objectors against an illegal, non-democratic government. Regardless of what you think of these pro-Russian activists, listen to what they have to say. In a naturally pro-Western country, there is something profoundly enlightening about actually listening to the other side of the divide.