Several years ago, probably just after the EU referendum, I noticed how cynical I had become. I felt disenfranchised and began to realise how very precarious democracy was. Not that I had ever felt particularly confident about UK democracy but it now seemed even more fragile. I started looking for ways to challenge my cynicism and reignite my optimism and determination to be part of positive change. I grasped at the energy the prospect of change brought me.
Russia’s full-scale invasion
Moving on a few years I had become more positive, and more determined to be part of the change I feel is necessary. Brexit had proved my pre 2016 fears for UK democracy were absolutely justified. I was in for the struggle. I fully admit, it has been difficult to maintain a positive determination for a better society. Then in early 2022 the news became even more frightening and darker with the build of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine. On the eve of the 24 February when Russia’s full-scale invasion began, I went to sleep with the biggest knot in my stomach I have ever felt. How could Ukraine resist an army so much bigger?
But resist Ukraine did and it will be a stunning and heart-wrenching chapter in history. So how does the Russian full-scale invasion relate to my re-energised determination for positive change? Brexit had shone a light on the corruption and Russian influence to undermine the UK’s already fragile democracy. I had long felt a deep suspicion that at the heart of the UK Government was a deeply cynical neo-liberalism for convenience political core. It was abundantly evidently Putin and Russia should never have been accepted or trusted.
I had watched in horror as Russia bombed Grozny, Chechnya, partially occupied Georgia, attempted to undermine Georgia’s independence and democracy and colluded with Assad’s reign of terror in Syria, bombing civilians. Further Russia has set up and funded the Wagner group, as an outreach project to destabilise and terrorise vulnerable states. It is obvious that Russia intends real harm to freedom, human rights, the rule of law and democracy.
Neoliberal realism is the enemy of peace, stability and sustainability
The neoliberal realism of Mearsheimer, who it transpires, has been funded by the Koch foundation has determined Western foreign policy for too long and to disastrous ends. It has not provided a free, stable or democratic world order or the rule of law. It has directly undermined the UN principle of self-determination. Western foreign policy determined by neoliberal realism is colonialist, patronising, and has delivered ecocide, climate crisis a pandemic and genocide. Specifically, neoliberal realism has enabled Russia to terrorise the world.
Thankfully a new ‘neo’ is emerging, neo idealism. Ukraine is now our collective frontline, defending the principles of freedom and democracy. Ukraine’s defence against Russian aggression, tyranny and genocide is our war too. On a personal level, I harbour a deep sense of injustice. The West has betrayed and undermined Ukraine for the sake of our leaders’ beliefs in the ‘great powers‘ principle of Mearsheimer, effectively removing Ukraine’s agency and ability to defend itself.
The combination of this deep-seated sense of injustice and fear for our own democracies and freedoms instilled a desire to make a difference in whatever way I could. Democracy and freedom have to be actively defended and fought for. They cannot be taken for granted anywhere; complacency and defeatism born of cynicism are democracy’s enemies. I began following the unfolding horrors of Russia’s invasion and occupation closely. I found Ukrainians determined to resist. I sympathised with Ukrainians’ justified indignation that the West was, and still is, equivocal regarding Russia’s defeat. Ukraine and its people inspired me. What could I do?
In the early summer of 2022, I started learning Ukrainian on a language app in response to my growing awareness of the colonial suppression of this beautiful language. It helped a bit knowing that by learning Ukrainian it was a personal stand in defiance of Russia and imperialism. I saw the genocide Russia exacted on Ukraine, the destruction of Ukrainian cities and livelihoods. I wanted to help rebuild. I googled a bit and found the Volunteering Ukraine website, bookmarking it thinking the war would be over in six months or so. Surely the West would stump up and see Russia’s defeat as critical for everyone’s security and peace?
Russia’s full-scale invasion continues
Sadly, I was wrong, winter 2023 found Ukraine still defending itself with a ‘homeopathic’ dribble of military aid from the West. Mearsheimeresque excuses abounded and I stewed in frustration and contempt for the cynicism rife in Western foreign policy. I was chatting with a fellow Ukrainian language student about how we both felt. Both of us understood how critical Ukraine’s sovereignty was and we both comprehended the imperialist, colonialist, and fascist nature that is Russian tyranny. We both felt the urge to do something practical to help Ukraine. I remembered that bookmarked website. We soul-searched about travel fares versus donating to humanitarian and military fundraisers, about physically standing with Ukraine, and our motivations for doing so. Was it just an ego trip or could our volunteering be more meaningful?
We concluded that assuaging our frustrations and angst was worth the trip. We acknowledged our traveller’s inquisitiveness about a country that has figured so largely in the news and will be been a pivot point in the current world order. We did some research; we found the Volunteering Ukraine and Visit Ukraine websites invaluable as starting points. We figured out the logistics of travelling to a country at war that no longer has direct flights. For us, the obvious route was to rendezvous in Krakow, Poland, catch the train to the Polish border town of Przemysl and then an onward train to Lviv.
Krakow deserves more than the very pleasant day we spent there. It is steeped in history along with its Ukrainian twin city Lviv. The Polish and Ukrainian trains did us proud and deposited us in Lviv where we were met by the landladies of the apartment, we had rented for the two weeks. This was our first encounter with the gratitude Ukrainians expressed to those who came to help. This gratitude is the hardest to accept when the West has not done enough.
Arriving in Lviv, Ukraine
Our first afternoon, we walked down into the centre of Lviv. Lviv has a jazzy shabby-chic vibe and that Sunday was no different. The sun shone and the central square was alive with street musicians and people enjoying a Sunday afternoon. My first impressions were of a city doing its damnedest to make the best in appalling circumstances. Lviv is where Lauterpacht and Lemkin studied law, they respectively created, and campaigned for the international statues; “Crimes Against Humanity” and “Genocide”. In Lviv, you are walking in a city soaked in history that resonates today. The signs of the current war are constantly omnipresent; military personnel are everywhere; the statues are barricaded and the stained-glass windows covered. Despite the fact Lviv is semi concealed its character and beauty shone through.
Volunteering is international
Our volunteering started at Lviv volunteer kitchen which prepares dried food, and especially vast quantities of borscht, for the front line. It’s an operation that has been in existence since 2014 and to which Richard Woodruff has provided an English language profile. He has helped promote its work and is a very active successful fundraiser for wider Ukrainian causes.
That first day sitting under a shaded table surrounded by volunteers from all over the world, shelling bucket loads of walnuts for muesli brought home the scale of work the frontline kitchen does. The sun was blazing but the feel-good factor knowing I was helping feed the Armed Forces of Ukraine, warmed my heart in ways only practical action can. The camaraderie of the international volunteers filled me with hope for a better future, it is one of the greatest life-affirming experiences I have ever felt.
That evening we had been lucky enough to buy tickets for Serhiy Zhadan at Lviv Opera House. It was a sell out and a very moving, wonderful evening. As ever, the war exerted its presence, on the other side of the aisle a soldier on crutches also enjoyed the performance. This may seem strange or alien to people here, but I felt deeply honoured to be in the mere presence of soldiers fighting heroically against a much larger and brutal army that has no respect for human rights and routinely commits atrocities.
The West is indebted to Ukraine
The following days were spent peeling beets, listening to the frontline kitchen playlist and weaving camouflage nets. The evenings eating out with the other volunteers will remain one of my most enduring memories; the sense of togetherness is hard to express in words. One evening, in particular, has become a most poignant memory.
Sitting at a table of international volunteers the next table of young Ukrainians noticed the English being spoken came over to thank us. It transpired one of their friends was at the front fighting in Bakhmut, this was at the height of the fighting there. I can only say we did our very best to communicate that it is us in the West that should be thankful for their sacrifices. We were desperate to communicate that volunteering in Ukraine was in some way an attempt to right the wrongs the West has done to Ukraine. The thought that young people in their twenties and younger are living with life and death of this and other wars, waged and fuelled by Russia is one of the toughest and hardest things to accept.
One of the strangest personal experiences of those two weeks was the impact on my sleep patterns. Disturbed as I was by the air alerts warning of incoming Russian missiles and drones, I felt more rested and at peace with myself than I did at home. On reflection, I am sure this is directly corresponds with actively participating in Ukraine’s resistance.
Volunteering and activism – nothing is impossible
Activism and volunteering instil a renewed sense of purpose and hope in one. This is particularly true when you are part of a community. Collective action is a panacea for cynicism and defeatism. Stress occurs when adrenalin is released to aid the fight or fight response but no physical action ensues. I remember a comment in the documentary film Winter on Fire where one participant in the Maidan protests stated it was more stressful watching the protests on TV than facing down the deadly violence of the riot police on the streets. Are we in the West too complacent about democracy and too cowed to be active citizens?
Finally, however small you feel your participation might be, it is vital for your own good that you do participate. Whatever cause is yours remember it is freedom and democracy that are the foundation for a fairer, greener and sustainable peaceful world.
We need your help!
The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month🙏