The war in Ukraine has coincided with a life-threatening health crisis in my family. The two subjects have become linked for me: every day I pray for the survival of my loved one and for Ukraine.
Everyone I know is rooting for Ukraine, but most people feel gloomy about the country’s prospects of prevailing against a nuclear-armed superpower. Some even caution against valorizing [Ukrainian President Vlodymr] Zelenskyy and his countrymen and women, lest doing so contribute to a “war fever” that leads to World War III and a nuclear holocaust. When I talk with my friends, I acknowledge these sobering possibilities. We discharge a certain amount of anxiety as we go back and forth discussing this. And then, once we feel a little calmer, I raise the question: What do you think of Zelenskyy?
The first female friend I asked paused for only an instant. “He’s pretty fantastic,” she said, going on to tell me how he came to fame playing penis piano. Then I asked a second female friend and she said—actually, I can’t remember all four or five expressions of absolute delight that came out of her mouth about him, because I was agreeing so heartily, but I know “hot damn!” was among them. He’s so funny, I heard from others, he’s hilarious, and brave and smart and so funny. In a couple of cases the conversation turned to versions of the traditional political query, “Would you want to have a beer with him?” except that our thoughts ran more toward things like whether we’d date him (assuming an alternate universe in which all parties concerned were unmarried, of course). In all cases, however, the conversation very soon moved away from Zelenskyy the man to his nation: to the humor and perseverance and spirit that the Ukrainians are showing and of which he is merely the paradigmatic case.
I don’t see how the Russians can go ten feet against people like that, said one friend, recounting the story she’d read of a Ukrainian grandmother who consulted YouTube to learn how to make Molotov cocktails out of her empty bottles. I replied with the story I’d heard of a different elderly lady who took down a Russian drone by throwing a jar of pickles at it. Another friend told me about the Ukrainian street signs the highway department had altered to swear at the would-be conquerors, directing them with the help of arrows in different directions to “go f— yourself,” “go f— yourself some more,” and “go f— yourself back in Russia,” and yet another friend sent me a video of Ukrainian soldiers singing reggae in the face of a military siege. Don’t Worry, Be Happy, they assert with Bobby McFerrin, while Putin threatens and stews. These people seem to me like instant folk legends, classic characters worthy of the great Slavic and Yiddish writers— some of whom, of course, were Ukrainian. Gogol was, for instance, and Sholem Aleichem. Remember Fiddler on the Roof, with Tevye and Golde? They hailed from Ukraine.
They’re outgunned, Putin’s crazy, I’m terrified people say. And yet: the Ukrainians are badass and funny, as my editor Greta Ode summed it up. She told me the story of a middle-aged Ukrainian woman who engaged with a youthful, gun-wielding, armor-wearing Russian conscript. She told him in no uncertain, spicy terms he should go home. She gave him sunflower seeds, directing him to put them in his pockets. As she turned to go, she delivered a parting malediction: “When you lie down they will grow from your rotting corpse,” informing him he and his comrades now had a curse upon them. Badass indeed.
Some of these many anecdotes will become apocryphal in time (some are already well on their way), but thanks to phones, video, and YouTube, the core elements of bad-assery can be verified.
I won’t opine on what policy makers should do about Ukraine, or try to prognosticate on what will happen, and I have nothing to add to the many suggestions already in circulation about how ordinary people can help. But I’m honored to be publishing Sonia Kowal’s essay on how the investment community should be responding to the crisis, as well as the other pieces in this issue that speak to aspects of Ukrainian culture and history, as well as to the broad themes of heroism and inspiration that the Ukrainian people have made so timely.
Zelenskyy first inspired me with his refusal to be evacuated from his capital to lead a government in exile. “I need more ammo, not a ride!” he famously declared as he swore to stay put and defend. At a time when humanity faces existential threats from climate change and biodiversity loss, his response and that of his people—that if we are going down, it won’t be without a fight—seems to me like the kind of heroism we need. It’s helping me to revitalize my own activities, and to consider, even in the face of heavy odds, how to cultivate hope.
So I invite you as you read this issue’s pages to imagine, at least briefly, that laughter and love and common sense are strong forces, and that even in the face of cruel stupidity and brute force, they might prevail. Take a leap of faith, and believe: in survival, in the future, and in Ukraine.
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