“I’m angry, I feel angry and abandoned,” says Veronika, Nika for me, before laughing to try and alleviate the tension that my face is showing. She’s Ukrainian, from Kyiv, and has spent the past weeks looking at her city through social media feeds and trying to call her friends, who’ve spent most nights underground, hiding from the bombs.
I met Nika a few days after arriving in Madrid. She’s a close friend to my first roommate and has become one constant presence in my friend group. To be honest, I used to listen to her stories about the 2014 “revolution”, the protest movement that ousted pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych, with a certain envy. We protested in Venezuela that same year, and now I’m scared of what this invasion could mean for a country that only wanted its own democracy, and what it could mean for others fighting for that same goal. What happens if we get rid of chavismo one day and its international partners don’t like it? What’s protecting Taiwan from China deciding, on a whim, to launch its armada against the island? Is there an international safeguard for democracy anymore? But today, tyrants don’t even have to invade democratic countries to destabilize them.
Nika was glad to get a pro-European government after the protests, but she points at them for not pushing back after the invasion of Crimea. Nika was always honest about the problems of the country’s new leadership, too. She was always fast to point toward the corruption of the government and she’s actually not a big fan of Zelenskyy, though she admits he’s been a good wartime leader.
Now I recognize her impotence. Even if she’s volunteering with the Red Cross to send food and medical supplies into the country, there’s little she can do to stop the bombs. It sends me back to reading about any protest in Venezuela in 2014 or 2017, or those times when I get a message from Caracas that reads “se fue la luz” and I worry about not hearing from my parents for a few days. But you can multiply that fear by magnitudes when your country is in an honest-to-God war.
My family in Caracas is probably gonna be fine and the city isn’t getting bombed, even if a few pictures of its current decay might look like it. For Nika’s family, “being fine” isn’t even close to certain. Her mom and grandmother have escaped the country through the Polish border, and are coming here to Madrid in the next few days. But her dad decided to stay. He’s volunteering in Kyiv and can only make contact a few times a day.
“Every time we talk I hang up without knowing if he’ll be able to call again.” Many places she knows, from friends’ houses to public spaces, have appeared destroyed in the news.
Yet she still thinks Ukrainians are going to win, and she thinks Europe depends on it. “If Putin wins in Ukraine he will keep doing the same, he’ll invade other places and he will be harder to stop”. Is kind of amazing to see, while we feel like we lost our country and are trying to survive in the Pax Bodegónica, these people are fighting one of the biggest military powers in the world and resisting.
Nika’s assessment of course comes from a most sentimental place. But it has also been repeated by many analysts and journalists like the Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov or the American journalist Anne Applebaum, who has been documenting the modern backslide of democracy in the Western world. For many, Putin’s advancements need to be stopped here and now, but for Nika, it is all about stopping the butchering of her people. “We are grateful for what Europe and the U.S. are doing, but it’s not enough. In the end we are fighting this monster alone.”
Talking with a Ukrainian citizen, even one that left her country before the war, makes some social media messages basically an insult. Both the far-left and parts of the far-right here in Spain are doing some crazy rhetorical gymnastics to either justify Putin or at least go for a special kind of whataboutism on Western imperialism. I really don’t think any of those arguments can be justified if you have a Ukrainian in front of you holding back anger and tears. Asking Nika about the war was actually painfully eye-opening.
In many ways, I can identify with her right now. I can relate to the pain of seeing people on Twitter minimize your tragedy and some leaders trying to justify it, like our own Venezuelan government. But I just can’t feel the scale. Her story is that of many Ukrainian ex-pats, and the refugees struggling to find a new home. I really don’t know what the West can do; what I know is that while we only see casualties as numbers, I’ve got a friend worried about her dad and we should be doing more to help her.
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