Paul Greenberg

"I care not who writes a nation's laws," a sage once remarked, "but who writes its songs."

On one of the last nights their country was still whole, well aware that it would soon be cleaved, and the conqueror would begin to pick up the pieces, a great crowd gathered at the Kiev Opera House for a concert in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko. It was a bittersweet occasion, mixing hope and fear, past pride and the humiliation now sure to come. It was a victory of the spirit even in the face of defeat in the field. For all knew they stood alone as their country's "friends" offered only empty words of support.

The hall was packed as the music said more than speeches could about Ukraine's plight. When the formal concert ended, the whole house rose as one to sing a familiar patriotic hymn that might as well have been the national anthem that night. Eyes clouded with familiar tears, but the faces were defiant.

No one could look at those visages, and hear those voices, without being assailed by a host of memories of crises past, of freedoms lost and aggressions triumphant. Scenes flashed by like outtakes from old newsreels. There were the Nazi troops goose-stepping through old Vienna in 1938, when the few Austrians who were not cowed could only sing of freedom -- softly, fearfully, as it disappeared.

When the Germans marched down the Champs Elysees and under the Arc de Triomphe in June of 1940, teary-eyed Parisians might sing the Marseillaise in protest, but if they were prudent would do it only quietly, under their breath. Yet the spirit of resistance was not crushed, and the New World would yet rise to the rescue of the old. The spirit of freedom is a hard thing to extinguish in the hearts of men. Like songs of hope.

Lest we forget, not just Ukrainians now mourn -- and resist. Among the resisters in Kiev was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a fierce critic of Russian tyranny just released after a decade behind bars, and, still unterrified, rallying to freedom's cause. "I want you to know," he told a rally in Kiev's Independence Square, "there is a completely different Russia."

We in the West forget that, too. There is still a Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, of the zeks in the Gulag and the protesters in the streets of Moscow. There is still a Russian soul, and the Russia that produced the music of Shostakovich and Rostropovich, Slava himself, master of the cello and freedom songs. And that Russia and those Russians will yet be heard from again.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


 


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