Ukraine for the Long Haul

Note: Because of the great interest in the courses we have offered on Dante’s Divine Comedy and Augustine’s Confessions, The Catholic Thing is now making the videos of those courses available in an On Demand format, which means you can read the texts and watch the videos in your own home at your own pace. This is a chance to make a closer acquaintance with two of the greatest writers in our Catholic tradition – figures who have much to say to us, especially in times of war like the present. Please click here or in the advertisement in the right-hand column of this page for more information. 

The world is rightly horrified by Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine and its people.  I have nothing new or especially wise to add about Russia, Ukraine, or the war. So if I may, I would prefer to say something about our reaction to the crisis.

Several years ago, there was a terrible earthquake in Haiti. And each day, when I went to Mass, the priest prayed during the intercessions for the people of Haiti. Several weeks later, however, when Haiti was no longer on the front page of the New York Times, we no longer prayed for “the people of Haiti.”  I remember saying to myself: “I don’t think everything is all fine now in Haiti.  In fact, I think things are still pretty terrible.”  So why did we stop praying for the people of Haiti?

There are many reasons why it’s not a good idea to base one’s prayers at Mass on what one finds that morning in the media, not the least of which is the transient and ephemeral nature of modern news reporting.

This is one reason I prefer the practice in the Eastern rites of doing a long list of intercessory prayers for a host of things: farmers, political leaders, workers, families, the unemployed, prisoners, the persecuted, on and on, at every Mass – prayers that are not dependent on the news cycle.

Many of us are praying for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people right now. This is as it should be.  But I fear that the situation in Ukraine will not get better anytime soon.  The most likely scenario, I fear, is that Putin subjects Ukraine to his tyranny.  If that happens, reporters will be banned from the country and the gruesome pictures we see now will stop coming – just as they are never allowed to appear from China or Iran.  The news about Ukraine will disappear from the front pages of the New York Times and other outlets of the mainstream media.  Will people still be praying for Ukraine then?  Or will the prayers stop when Ukraine is no longer “news”?

Our emotions are at a fever pitch just now. But this struggle is not going to end soon for the Ukrainian people. Even if they emerge from this invasion with their national sovereignty intact, the rebuilding efforts will take decades.  People shout, “We are with you Ukraine!”  Great.  But for how long?  Two weeks?  As long as it feels good?  Our tendency to shallowness should give us pause.

*

I knew a professor who had a poster on his door with that famous photo of the Chinese student who, during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, stood in front of a row of tanks – the so-called “Tank Man.” I remember distinctly how, at the time, many people were saying things like, “everything will be different now,” “the Chinese communist government will have to change,” “their days are numbered,” just as they are saying now about Putin and the Russians.

Well, that’s not exactly how things turned out in China.  “Tank man” was likely executed within several days of that famous photo, and thousands of other students were massacred in Tiananmen Square. And years later, when that professor with the poster on his door had a Chinese graduate student visit his office, the student asked: “Why do you have that picture on your door?  You know that never happened, right?  That’s just a piece of Western propaganda.”

Even the noblest struggles can be crushed. It happens all the time. For this reason, I have often thought that you either believe these unknown and unheralded acts of selfless heroism live on eternally in God’s glory, or you will likely just give in to despair.  People who expect perfect justice in this life are often disappointed.

So we should be brutally honest with ourselves. It’s possible that Putin will conquer Ukraine and subject it to his tyranny; that he will survive whatever sanctions the West puts on his government; that he will take note of those Russians opposing him and destroy them after they have revealed themselves, leaving him more in control than ever.  And it is entirely possible that in ten or twenty years, very few people will remember that Russia committed these horrible atrocities in Ukraine.  How many young people today know Russia sent tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush demonstrations against the Communist government during the so-called “Prague Spring”?

So if we intend to be “with Ukraine” – and I hope we are – we had better be ready to be “with Ukraine” for the long haul.  Because as much as we might like this horror show to be over within the week, it likely won’t be.  And not every struggle against evil has the happy ending of a Marvel movie.  Sometimes the bad guy wins and you can’t go back in time and get a do-over.  The dead people stay dead, and you just have to live with all of it.

Will we continue to pray for Ukrainians and sacrifice to help them when they are no longer the exciting news item of the day, when the media has moved on to some other pseudo-event designed to titillate their viewers and prop up their ratings?  I hope so.  Otherwise, in a decade, young people will be asking, “So, you mean, Russia invaded Ukraine? I thought it was always part of Russia.” And Russian graduate students will tell them: “It always was. The rumor that it wasn’t is merely Western propaganda.”

Truth is the first casualty in war. And too often, that wound festers and spreads rather than healing.  The heroic people of Ukraine deserve more than the latest news cycle.  They deserve our commitment for the long haul, our continued prayers, and our absolute devotion to living in the truth rather than in a beguiling web of lies or the soft comfort of convenient forgetfulness.

 

*Image: Two-headed Chicken by Maria Prymachenko (1909-1997), 1977 [(formerly in) Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, Ivankiv, Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine]. After seeing an exhibit of Prymachenko’s art in Paris, Pablo Picasso said, “I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian.” Sad to say, this and other works by Ukraine’s most famous folk artist are reported to have been destroyed in a fire caused by advancing Russian forces.

You may also enjoy:

Francis X. Maier’s Ukraine and the Western Conscience

Joseph R. Wood’s From Russia with Love?

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.

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