Like most of the world, I am furious and horrified at the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As is my wont when such injustices happen, I’m doing my best to take what action I can. That can feel challenging when responding to something that’s occurring on such a massive geopolitical scale. It often feels hopeless as one comes face-to-face with one’s limited power in the grand scheme of the world.
But I can’t do nothing, so I’ve attended a Stand With Ukraine rally in my city, made what donations I can to Ukraine-focused charitable organizations, and contacted my parliamentary representative to request that the Canadian government provide more tangible support.
This, along with staying informed, is how I ‘deal’ with issues that I feel are important, but also seem too huge in scope to handle. Usually, it helps me cope with any negative or overwhelming emotions I might feel.
This time, not so much. I’ve noticed that my actions haven’t relieved my agitation and distraction as they normally do. So I started looking inward to figure out why.
The first step in my reflective journey took me straight to Ron. He loves Ukraine, having visited there several times, and I have been concerned about how the invasion has affected him. But he’s a stoic fellow, and while he’s as pissed off as I’ve ever seen him, he also seems to be taking things in a healthy stride.
That being said, thinking about Ron’s trips to Ukraine stirred up some painful memories. Our relationship was at its rockiest, and him taking multiple trips of that magnitude in a short time span became a bone of contention. On top of that, his final visit to Ukraine was in February of 2014. My anger at him travelling again was soon warring with fears for his safety when the Maidan Revolution, in which then-President Yanukovych was ousted, erupted into full-on violence while he was in the country.
As if that wasn’t enough, shortly after Ron left, I found a lump in my breast. Fortunately it wasn’t cancer, but on top of my already turbulent emotions in regards to our relationship, along with frustration at our limited ability to communicate and an overpowering worry that he wouldn’t be able to get home, adding a bunch of hospital visits into the mix, to be poked and prodded at, made for a very lonely and stressful time. Considering how close we came to ending our relationship when Ron got home, I can see why these only tangentially-related memories might have shaken me up.
But then something unexpected happened. While at the rally last weekend, I was approached by a reporter from a news site and agreed to answer a few questions. One of them was what connection I had to Ukraine, and my answer surprised me.
My intention was to say I don’t have one, but what came out of my mouth was, “My mother was from Manitoba.” The reporter nodded in understanding, as Manitoba is known for its large Ukrainian population. I shared some memories of how, when my mother visited Manitoba, she would bring home at least one Ukrainian item. There was always kielbasa sausage, straight from a Ukrainian shop in the town where she grew up, but sometimes she’d bring home other things. She gave me a Ukrainian painted egg, and once bought herself a framed piece of lace embroidery made by one of the babushkas in her old hometown.
It wasn’t until several hours later that I remembered the best Ukrainian gift of all: the outfit. It was a blouse and skirt combo with hand-stitched embroidery, and I fucking loved it. I’ve never been girly, but back then I had a love of floor length skirts, which this outfit had. And the blouse buttoned at the back, so I needed help getting dressed, which felt terribly decadent. I wore it every chance I got – which wasn’t often because it was categorized as ‘good’ clothes and therefore not to be worn around the house. But it was my outfit of choice in at least one set of school photos, and I even wore it in a village parade once, on my school’s old-timey classroom float. (Hence the apron in the photo. Apparently old-timey students wore them? I guess?)
I’d never realized how much Ukrainian culture factored into my childhood. It wasn’t overt. We didn’t talk about it much. But it was always hovering on the periphery, in food and decor and the occasional stories my mother told. During my childhood years, I developed a fondness for Ukraine and, while I’d mostly forgotten about as an adult, it was surely a factor in my reaction to the invasion.
But that still didn’t fully explain my level of upset. So I came at it from a different direction, and tried to properly define what I’m feeling. And once I figured that out, let me tell you, everything fell into place. Because that feeling?
It’s existential dread.
I grew up during the Cold War, and I feel like we’ve jumped back in time around 40 years. Then, Russia was the proverbial boogeyman, a general belief in Western society that was reinforced by my mother’s paranoia. My father was in the RCMP, and she was convinced – convinced – that because of his job, my family was one small misstep away from being under Russian surveillance. In order to stay off the spying radar, she forbade us from anything Russian, often taking it to ludicrous extremes.
For example, in school, my Big Brother’s music class was given a project to research the traditional music of a specific country. One requirement was to contact the country’s embassy for information. The students didn’t get to pick their country of study, but were assigned one by the teacher. My brother was excited to be assigned Russia – he’d always had an interest in it – but my mother shut that down hard. She contacted the school, berated them for endangering our family, and insisted my brother be given another place to study.
Then there was the ever-present wait for the inevitable nuclear holocaust, which led to me contemplating some dark ideas at a very young age. I was, for example, certain that it would be best to not survive the first wave of attack, my reasoning being that dying fast from the explosion was preferable to dying slow from radiation poisoning. I actually still agree with that assessment, but the fact that I grew up in an environment that led me to come up with it when I was all of ten years old is absolutely twisted.
And this is why I’m so upset – because I’ve slipped back into those long-outgrown thought processes like a comfy sweater. Or perhaps, since my focus has always been to run towards the bombs, a pair of worn sneakers might be a better analogy.
Whatever the symbolic language, the reality is that I’m running scenarios in my head like the ones I did as a child, planning how to get as close to the epicenter of the explosion as possible and, if that fails, ways to defend my home for the inevitable chaos that would ensue. In a conversation with a fellow fatalistic Gen Xer I, without irony or any sense of being overdramatic, said something about making sure to save two bullets – one for Ron and one for me – and my friend called out my smart planning in that respect.
These days, the boogeyman isn’t an abstract Mother Russia, it’s the very real lunatic at the head of its government. And because he is just that – a fucking lunatic – it takes the fear to a whole new level. No longer is there even the scant comfort provided by the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction – that no one will be the first to launch their nukes because of the knowledge that the enemy will launch their nukes in retaliation and then everybody gets blown up. A key requirement of MAD is that someone rational has control of the big red button, and the invasion of Ukraine has driven home the (already well established) fact that we are dealing with someone far from rational.
When I was a child, it was all so scary because I only had the faintest idea of what was going on. As an adult, having a better understanding of the politics at play, it’s not so much the fear that gets to me as the anger.
I’m angry because, like the cliché says, history repeats itself, yet we never seem to learn from it.
I’m angry because another generation of children is growing up in fear.
I’m angry because people are dying.
I’m angry because so many think it’s too far away to matter.
I’m angry because regardless of how many rallies I attend, or donations I make, or emails I send, it never seems to make a difference.
But most of all, I’m angry because the entire world is at the mercy of an old man who’s behaving like a fucking toddler.