Thoughts from an American About the Invasion of Ukraine

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Eugene Volokh |

Many people have e-mailed me to ask whether I still have family in Ukraine, so I thought I’d post briefly to say that, fortunately, no-one we’re close to is still there. I was born in Kiev, as was my mother, and my father’s family moved there when he was young. But we left in 1975 (when I was seven), and haven’t really stayed connected.

I also don’t have any real sentimental link there. To the extent I have a cultural link to that part of the world, it’s to Russia, because Russian is my native language; indeed, I don’t speak Ukrainian, and I don’t recall even ever hearing Ukrainian spoken—Kiev was a highly Russified city at the time. I grew up with considerable connections to Russian culture, because of my parents’ deep connection that culture, but none at all to the Ukrainians.

Ethnically, I’m Jewish (Jewish was an ethnicity in the old country), so if I were to have any felt connections to an ethnic group, it wouldn’t be to Ukrainians. But in any event, my “mystic chords of memory” link me to my non-forefathers in America, not to anyone over there. (You might have noticed that I call the city of my birth the Russian-derived Kiev, not the Ukrainian-derived Kyiv, partly because that’s how I grew up thinking about it, and partly because that’s the traditional English-language term; we, which is to say we Americans, say Russia, Moscow, and Ukraine, not Rossiya, Moskva, and Ookraina—likewise with Kiev.)

I therefore approach this as an American, not a Ukrainian-American or a Russian-American or even a Jewish American. But as an American, my heart goes out to the Ukrainians, the victims of what appears to be a senseless, unjustified attack by a dictator on a flawed but basically free and democratic country. In the annals of human history, this will not go down as one of the great atrocities; the Putin-Hitler rhetoric strikes me as ridiculously overstated (though, who knows, it’s early days yet). Nor is Putin a Stalin or a Lenin, and, thankfully, the Russia of today is not the USSR of 1938 or even 1970 or 1980. And the reality is that powerful countries invading their feeble neighbors, for no better reason that to grab territory or enforce obedience, is pretty much the norm of human history; the attempt (however imperfectly successful) to reject that norm over the last several decades has been the marked exception.

But even putting things into perspective, Putin’s actions strike me as inexcusable, and I very much hope that they will backfire. And while I would not have faulted the Ukrainians for accepting the inevitable and surrendering (just to use one indicator of what they’re facing, the Russian active military is five times the size of the Ukrainian), I am deeply moved by the gallantry of the resistance we’ve seen so far.

In any event, I appreciate that all this is pretty banal, which is why my first inclination wasn’t to write about it. My views on the subject are probably no different, and certainly no better informed, than those of millions of others. But some people had, as I said, written to me to express their sympathies, and I thought I’d write this in response.

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