Bret Stephens: Keep the czars far away from us, in Moscow or Mar-A-Lago

The faces we see in Ukraine are not the faces of strangers.

(Petros Giannakouris | AP) People who fled the war in Ukraine leave Przemysl train station in Przemysl, Poland, Tuesday, March 15, 2022.

A great-grandfather on my mother’s side had a big mouth. The trait seems to run in the family.

Ivan Grodzensky — his first name was Israel before he Russified it — was living a prosperous life in Moscow in 1914 when he was overheard at a restaurant denouncing Czar Nicholas II for getting Russia involved in World War I. The czarist secret police imprisoned him, but he got out.

Four years later, Ivan was arrested again, this time at the hands of the Bolsheviks. For what? “He was not considered reliable,” my relative Gary Saretzky, a cousin who is our family’s unofficial historian, told me. “Either he was sent to Siberia or shot immediately. He drops out of the picture altogether.” Millions of other unreliable Russians would meet the same fate in the following decades.

Another great-grandfather, Barnet Ehrlich, this one on my father’s side, had a frame shop in Kishinev — then a city in the Russian province of Bessarabia, now the capital of Moldova — when in April 1903 a vicious pogrom swept the Jewish quarter. Gangs of armed men looted Jewish stores, burned Jewish homes, raped Jewish women and murdered nearly 50 people.

Barnet spent the pogrom standing behind the door of his home with an ax to strike any attackers, but the house was spared. The family immediately decided it was time to emigrate to the United States. As for the Russian government, its ambassador to Washington, Count Arturo Cassini, called the pogrom an instance of “the peasant against the money lender and not the Russians against the Jews.” It’s a textbook instance of deploying an antisemitic trope to deny an antisemitic fact.

I thought of my forebears a few days ago while watching the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, give an interview to the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg. I thought of them again a few days later while watching scenes of a Russian missile attack on a shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, which left at least 18 people dead.

Lavrov’s interview was a master class in what Joseph Conrad once called a Russian official’s “almost sublime contempt for truth.” The 2014 Maidan Revolution, Lavrov said, was a “neo-Nazi uprising.” The massacre in Bucha was a “staged tragedy.” Regarding Ukrainian civilian deaths: “I’m telling you the Kyiv regime is shelling its own citizens.” Later in the interview, Lavrov allows, “Russia is not squeaky clean,” and “we are not ashamed of showing who we are.”

The Russians deny that they struck the mall. The mendacity is as bottomless as the cruelty; each reinforces the other.

After Ivan was taken the second time, his wife, Xenia, found a way to escape Moscow with her four children, gold coins hidden in a seam of her dress. They reached the Latvian port of Libau, moved westward to Berlin in the 1920s and fled again for Italy after the Nazis came to power. Among my mother’s earliest memories, besides the Allied bombing of Milan, is of being hidden under a nun’s habit for reasons she didn’t understand.

My mother and grandmother came to the United States after the war, penniless, as displaced persons. With only one exception that I know of, the relatives left behind in Latvia were murdered in the Holocaust.

Barnet and his family arrived at Ellis Island in 1906. He found a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for $8 a week. For them, there would be no more pogroms. The Jews who failed to get out of Kishinev in time would not be so fortunate.

I tell these family stories not because they are unique but because they are common.

The exhausted faces you see in the Ukrainian women and children crossing into other parts of Europe; the agonized faces of the Ukrainians recovering from injuries sustained in indiscriminate Russian fire; the sunken faces of the Ukrainians who survived Russian captivity in filthy cellars — these are not the faces of strangers. For tens of millions of Americans with relatively recent immigrant roots, they are the faces of our parents or grandparents. That’s true irrespective of whether their roots lie in Russia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Iran or Venezuela.

America’s concern for Ukraine is now palpably on the wane. The war is dragging on, Kyiv isn’t winning, and the United States is in an uproar over Supreme Court rulings, Jan. 6 committee hearings, inflation, a potential recession. Problems: We have them.

But to understand the stakes in this war, it helps to personalize them. Ukraine’s fight isn’t just about its own freedom. To borrow a line from “Fiddler on the Roof,” it’s about keeping the czar “far away from us.”

It’s also a reminder of what we are struggling to keep at home. A nation that welcomes immigrants, particularly poor ones. A nation in which it’s safe to loudly speak our minds. A nation that upholds the rule of law. A nation whose leaders — current or former — can’t just get away with an “almost sublime contempt for truth.” A nation that keeps faith with those struggling for freedom abroad. A nation that won’t sit still when freedoms slip away at home.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.