The Axe vs. The Icon

Posted: Mar 25, 2014 12:01 AM
The Axe vs. The Icon

"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.

The simple-minded depiction of Ukraine as a Russian province torn by another of the world's pointless language wars (remember the fuss over Quebec's wanting to secede from Canada?) is too simple.

To quote Julia Ioffe in The New Republic: "A map produced by the New York Times, for instance, represents Ukrainian in orange and Russian in blue, and announces that it depicts a simple split between the speakers of these languages. And yet, the fault line is hard to see: There are heavily orange dapples in the west, and intense blue spots in Crimea and Donetsk, but most of the rest is a brackish mingling of the two. It would take a very talented surgeon to carve the two languages apart -- or a charlatan to claim it can be done."

Any such map, contrary to the schematic drawing in the Times, would look more like a Jackson Pollock than a line drawing. And the Times would also have to explain why some of those fiery speeches in Kiev against this latest invasion of their country were delivered in Russian.

If there is a clear line today in Ukraine, it is not between Ukrainian and Russian speakers -- the languages are closely related anyway -- but between those who love freedom and those who don't. It is a line between a younger generation that has grown up Ukrainian, whatever language is spoken in the house, and that wants to stay Ukrainian, and an older generation who put on their Soviet uniforms and medals and parade around any statues of Lenin still extant. But the arc of history, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., still bends in the direction of hope. And freedom -- if men will it.

This struggle for a Ukraine free and whole again isn't about one national language or identity versus another, but about the sanctity of international borders, and whether they can be changed unilaterally, by force, and whether those caught in the middle can still be saved -- like Crimea's Tatars, exiled once before by Stalin, and whose property even now is being expropriated by the new Stalinists led by Comrade/President Putin.

The line between good and evil, as Solzhenitsyn once wrote, doesn't run between ideologies or nationalities but down the middle of the human heart. And, to quote a lover of both liberty and order named Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Our current president is proving himself adept at doing just that -- pretty much nothing -- as he appeases one tyrant after another, whether in Moscow or Teheran or Damascus or ... wherever the next threat looms.

Our president does take pains to cloak his impotence in fine words, but they fool fewer and fewer Americans or anybody else. And certainly not this new crop of aggressors, who always spring up like noxious weeds if the fields are neglected long enough.

Remember when the president of the United States was, almost ex-officio, by virtue of his office, also Leader of the Free World? Those days are but a memory now, but they linger. In songs and in hope. Like the freedom songs the civil-rights marchers used to sing in churches and around courthouse squares -- and as they were being marched off to jails all across the South. But in the end it was their refrain that proved more powerful than billy clubs and police dogs: We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome . . . someday.

Someday arrived sooner than any of the singers, or any of us, might have imagined. And it will arrive again, as it did in Birmingham and Atlanta, and will arrive in Kiev and Moscow, Teheran and Damascus ... if we but will it. And sing it.

Stalin once asked with a sneer how many divisions the Pope had. Mikhail Gorbachev found out. For one Mahalia Jackson singing "We Shall Overcome," one Ukrainian singing his nation's anthem, is worth more than all this new tsar's invasions and subsequent evasions about them.

One can never tell when the moment of truth will arrive, and the scales drop from the eyes of even the most supine Western leaders. But that day will come.

After appeasing Herr Hitler time and again, confident he had secured Peace in Our Time, even high-collared, diplomatic-to-a-fault, blind-to-reality Neville Chamberlain awoke with a start when Hitler teamed up with Stalin to divide Poland one well-planned day in September of 1939, and poor Mr. Chamberlain was forced to recognize the truth, and tell his people:

"You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. ... Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against -- brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution -- and against them I am certain that the right will prevail."

It did. But only after a long and terrible struggle that might not have been necessary if the West had been resolute from the first, and listened to its conscience -- and hymns.