This Is Not An Anniversary (or at least, not the one You think it is)

Ukrainian farmers have been forced to harvest grain at gunpoint. Russia has stolen over $500 million worth
of wheat.

My niece, newly-arrived from Ukraine eight months earlier, has to write a cycle of poems for English class. At her Mama’s request, I try to help. She only wishes to write about Ukraine, so we talk about the lilac trees in a park in Kyiv, the benches where she ate lunch with friends, the playground where a child was killed. Metaphor, simile, haiku, limerick. It’s a challenging assignment, but maybe it’s also a way to work through some stuff. News images fly into her poems, like the pregnant woman carried out of the maternity hospital on a stretcher, during a missile attack. A russian soldier stealing a TV from a Ukrainian home.

It’s been a year. Of TV screens splattered with images of shrapnel and blood. Of friends and family newly arrived, grief and hope in their eyes. Of fundraising,  and talks, and writing and donating, and organizing. Marches, rallies, vigils.

It’s been a year. And yet, the word anniversary sticks in my throat, and not just because of so much suffering.

This is not an anniversary, or at least not the right one. Violating several international treaties,russia invaded Crimea in on February 27, 2014. russia’s current occupation of Ukraine (there have been many, across centuries), will soon see its ninth anniversary.

The 2014 russian invasion of Donbas and Crimea was Putin’s violent response to Ukrainian resistance against russian domination. Ukrainians call it The Revolution of Dignity (then known as the “Euromaidan Revolution”). Citizens from every walk of life congregated in the hundreds of thousands in squares across Ukraine. I  As a filmmaker, I observed its aftermath through the lens of LGBT activists from Donbas who fled certain imprisonment, and possible death at the hands of puppet russian government functionaries – the media then called them “separatists“.

Until fairly recently,russian propaganda drove the perspective of western media. I recall an interview with a reporter, whose affiliation I no longer recall. I asked him why he insisted on using the language of separatism- as though the russian occupation of Donbas was a progressive guerrilla uprising. He called it “standard journalistic language”. These standards have shifted, but until 2022, standard and left media swallowed whole the propaganda of a suppressed russian language movement. 

Most Ukrainians are bilingual in Ukrainian and russian. I was shocked, upon my first visit to Ukraine in 2000, to discover that russian was the lingua franca of the nation’s capital, Kyiv. (It is no longer). I learned to swallow my indignation. Many Ukrainians have russians in their family, due to decades of resettlement, eugenics, cultural colonization, and the simple fact of intermarriage. When Putin’s rationale of an oppressed Russian-speaking minority got tired, he reverted to the myth of an organically fascist Ukraine, and the rest is recent history. 

In fact, the russian invasion cleaves to a map of Ukraine’s most valuable natural resources: gas, coal, oil, wheat. Minerals, too. According to The Washington Post, “Ukraine harbors some of the world’s largest reserves of titanium and iron ore, fields of untapped lithium and massive deposits of coal. Collectively, they are worth tens of trillions of dollars.” 

There’s no need to examine Putin‘s soul, or the noble, if misbegotten history of the russian empire. This is neoliberalism writ large. russia has already plundered about $12.4 trillion worth of Ukraine’s natural resources. This is a market-driven war, instigated by a country at the end of its rope morally and financially, a federation whose own riches have been plundered by a culture of oligarchy and theocracy, and bankrupt by war.

Indeed, this has become the invisible rationale for most governments in the western world: to govern as though people and cultures can be seen only as market. Canada‘s petroculture and its own colonization of resource-rich Indigenous territories is a case in point. If Indigenous communities, like the Cree in Saskatchewan, were moved to show solidarity with the struggle for sovereignty in Ukraine, it’s because of their deep experiential understanding of the embodied, geographical, and political ramifications of colonization.

February 24, 2023 is merely the anniversary of the world waking up to the deadly reality of russian imperialism. But it could also be said that that is the moment that Ukrainians themselves reawakened, and brought the sensibility and death-defying courage of the Maidan to the entire world. 

Perhaps it also marks the anniversary of Ukraine finally becoming worthy of interest, and even cool. Throughout the spring of 2022, I received emails and messages from people I haven’t spoken to in years if not decades. I’m grateful for every word of solidarity. But the voices of my ancestors rustle in the wind, and ask, where were you nine years ago? Where will you be after today? 

And yes, I will attend the anniversary events, including a march in Toronto on February 24, with family, friends and allies.

Anniversary or no, this horrifying occupation, with its devastating global implications, needs our deeper understanding, and all of our solidarity, to end.