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Peter Roskam is a former Republican U.S. representative from the Chicago area. He wrote this column for the Chicago Tribune.
For the past two weeks, the world has witnessed resilience in the Ukrainian people that has been truly remarkable and inspirational. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy symbolized this tenacity when he repudiated the idea of fleeing Ukraine by replying, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Ukrainian mothers are making Molotov cocktails ready for Russian aggressors. For those familiar with history, this should come as no surprise. Ukraine as a nation has faced suffering like few others in the last century, and its capacity to endure hardship foreshadows success against the Russian invasion.
This was driven home for me when I served as an international election observer in Ukraine’s 2014 presidential election following the civil unrest known as Euromaidan prompted by the Ukrainian government’s unpopular decision to suspend signing the European Union-Ukrainian Association Agreement in 2013. Ukrainian citizens immediately rose up and overwhelmingly went to the streets, making clear they understood and rejected Vladimir Putin’s manipulation. They wholeheartedly embraced integration with Europe and repudiated Russia’s menacing overtures. What followed was a maelstrom of hardship — the Revolution of Dignity, Russian occupation of Crimea and war by Russian separatists in the Donbas region.
Our delegation gathered in Kyiv for briefings the day before the election in May 2014. We toured the protest sites and witnessed scars of violence. There were burned-out cars, pockmarked buildings and memorials to those who lost their lives. We saw the hotel windows from which Russian-influenced snipers killed vulnerable protesters only weeks before and ghostlike graffiti of Putin’s silhouette with a red bullet hole through his forehead.
I was assigned to the northern city of Chernihiv, which last week came under heavy Russian bombardment. On our drive out of Kyiv, we stopped at the Bykivnia Forest, off the main highway just out of town. The stately trees, clear sky and quiet country road belied the memory of that place. Blue and yellow ribbons, the colors of Ukraine’s flag, were tied around trees as far as I could see. It was hushed there, and I came to learn why.
Bykivnia was the site of mass graves for thousands murdered by the communist secret police from the 1930s to the 1940s. Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s political prisoners were accused, arrested, tortured, shot and then brought to Bykivnia Forest, where they were buried in secret. The Soviets denied responsibility well into the 1980s but were forced to acknowledge this crime in the face of overwhelming evidence. Some estimates place the number of victims at 200,000.
On a far grander scale was the Holodomor. This was Stalin’s man-made terror famine, in which 7 million to 10 million Ukrainians starved to death while much of the world looked the other way. Ukrainians have seen the face of international violence like this and remember.
I saw witnesses to this suffering in the Chernihiv polling place to which I was assigned. On the second floor of a school, two elderly Ukrainian women labored up a long stairway to vote. They were dressed in traditional clothing with scarves over their heads. Their ankles seemed swollen, but their gait was certain and steady as they walked past the colorful blue and yellow patriotic draping and dropped their ballots in the clear ballot box.
What captured my attention was the matter-of-factness about them. I wondered about them, but the language barrier prevented me from interacting. So I watched, and I wondered some more. I guessed they were the age of my mom, who was born in 1930. I asked myself, what did they live through? What had they seen?
They would have been born into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, completely absorbed within the Soviet Union with all its stifling tyranny. They survived the Holodomor famine. They lived through the Nazi invasion and subjugation. They persevered through the reassertion of communist domination with decades of oppression in the Cold War. They lived through the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, national independence in 1991, the Orange Revolution, Euromaidan, war with Russia in the Donbas and Crimean annexation.
These women were not cynics, nor were they naive. They were witnesses to history whose presence asserted a dignity to the aspiration of Ukraine’s national sovereignty. They were believers.
Ukrainians now lead the world in defending the ideal of democracy and standing against tyranny. Thank God they are as faithful to their past as they are hopeful for their future.