I woke up to a message in English from a friend named Alina in L’viv Ukraine on Thursday morning, two weeks ago. I had stayed up late the night before, watching the breaking news of Russian troops bombing the outskirts of Kyiv, clutching my phone and reaching out to as many friends in Ukraine as I could — to do what, exactly, I didn’t know. What are you supposed to say when war starts ravaging your friends’ communities?
The message from Alina said “Hi — everything is starting today in the morning. I am shocked. All people are afraid and panic as almost every city got a fire.”
Conflict is familiar in Ukraine’s history. So is courage.
In 2004, significant Russian interference in a presidential election resulted in an unpopular pro-Russia candidate being declared the winner on state run media. When the announcement was made, a sign language interpreter who appeared on the screen communicated that this was a fraud.
“Do not trust the results of the central election committee,” she signed. “They are all lies.”
In part due to her courage, one million Ukrainians took to the streets of Kyiv and occupied the cold city center for two months, chanting a phrase that translates to: “Together we are many; we can’t be overcome.” This successful protest was called the Orange Revolution.
During that time, I lived in Ukraine as an LDS missionary. I don’t know that I’ll ever have a better masterclass on what it means to cultivate a sense of community — a sense of pride, of justice, of morality. The yearn for integrity I saw in Ukrainians at that time almost seemed baked into the people themselves.
One evening during the Orange Revolution I was in the back of a bus when a woman and her two children came onboard and took the seats in front of me. The woman passed her bus fare forward through the crowd of passengers toward the driver.
Her son, around age six, whispered, “The bus is crowded. Nobody would notice if we didn’t pay. Why are you paying?”
His mom whispered back to him, “Because we’re Ukrainian, and Ukrainians do the right thing.”
That story is so representative of the people I have gotten to know in that country in the years since as I’ve returned many times to study and work and visit friends.
In 2014, Vladimir Putin reared his ugly head again in Ukraine, pressuring leadership at the time to forgo ties with the west. Residents in Kyiv again took to the streets. After armed police opened fire on the peaceful protesters, the people of Kyiv united, barricading the center of their city, and engaging in a bloody and horrific battle. Their beautiful city center was charred and damaged until their corrupt leader fled via helicopter to Russia.
Since 2014, Ukraine has been fighting pro-Russian forces along its eastern border. Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have died in this conflict already.
Those of us who know the history, and the people, know that this is a war Putin can’t win. We’ve watched videos of the woman offering Russian soldiers sunflower seeds to put in their pockets so at least sunflowers will grow on Ukrainian land when they die. We’ve seen videos of Ukrainian farmers stealing Russian army tanks. We’ve watched President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inspired leadership on the streets with his people.
Yesterday I asked Alina what I could send to her. Her family is poor, and I offered to find a way to get her some money.
“A lot of people need. As we have already gave all money which we had, I am volunteering and helping and trying to work too as much as I can to gather money and buy all equipment and medical stuff.”
When I insisted, she replied again, no. “The first and the second days we were afraid but now we are ready for everything and we are helping each other what we can.”
Her best friend, Sasha — a young man I’ve known since he was 5 — followed up Alina’s message with one of his own. “Don’t worry Eli. Thanks for everyone who’s help us. It can be scary but we believe in better.”
These are not a people who can be conquered.
Eli McCann is a Salt Lake City attorney, writer and activist who has deep connections to Ukraine. A fundraiser for Ukraine he helped to organize has so far raised some $150,000.