My Journey into Ukraine’s Democratic Revolution: When Determined Democrats Meet Authoritarian Conspiracy Theorists

By Doniphan Blair

This is the final part of our week-long feature on Ukraine to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. You can read Part One here, Part Two Here, Part Three Here and Part Four here.

THE WAR had ramped up with alarming alacrity in September 2022.

Vladimir Putin had mobilised 300,000 soldiers while the Kremlin ran a rigged referendum in Russia-annexed parts of Ukraine.

On September 30, the Kremlin celebrated “Ukrainians rejoining the motherland” in Moscow’s Red Square with pop music performances, a military spectacle and speeches.

At the same time, President Zelenskyy signed Ukraine’s official application to join NATO.

That same night, the last one of September and a Friday, the rain pisses down, as it has almost constantly for three weeks.

I think of the soldiers. It must be brutal soaked to the bone, trying to move through swollen streams and muddy fields, especially when on the attack, as many Ukrainian fighters have been since a few days before the deluge started on September 10th.

My room is cold, and I have a bad cold, although it’s not Covid, I know, since I just took a test. Ukraine did not miraculously escape the pandemic, as it sometimes seems, it’s just that Covid’s mortal threat is far overshadowed by that of war. Hence, no one mentions it, unless someone actually gets sick, and only one in a thousand on the street masks.

The sirens start around midnight and howl for a half an hour straight, longer than the four or five other air raid signals I’ve heard in Ukraine.

“Does that mean a real attack?” I text Andrii on Instagram, their preferred communication platform. “It’s bullshit,” he responds. “Should I go down to the basement?” “No. You will get sicker.”

The sirens wail intermittently until 4 a.m., long enough for me to entertain dark-night-of-the-soul scenarios: What if the Russians bomb Kryva Lypa to punish Ukrainian free thinking at one of its sources? “Kryva Lypa is old. Its buildings have big walls,” Andrii said earlier that day, tapping a wall, “Only direct hit breaks this.”

It strikes me as tragic but also absurd and then disgusting and grotesque that my new friends and I, the community of Kryva Lypa, the people of Lviv, the people of Ukraine, a burgeoning, nation-building democracy, are now ensnared in a modern, mass-murderous war.

“It is already World War Three,” according to some Russia analysts, like the preeminent English-American Fiona Hill, who was Trump’s Russia expert but provided damning testimony at his first impeachment, which was all about Ukraine, oddly enough.

Indeed, it concerned Trump’s attempt to blackmail President Zelenskyy, whom Trump considered corruptible, but then Trump’s exposure as corrupt by a Ukrainian-American, ironically, the U.S. Army intelligence officer Alexander Vindman, who listened in on Trump’s “perfect phone call.” Trump’s scam—to withhold essential weaponry until Zelenskyy enacted or merely announced a phony investigation into President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who was paid $11 million from 2013 through 2018 by the Ukrainian company Burisma—was probably suggested by his so-called Ukraine expert, Paul Manafort. Trump and company also repeated Kremlin conspiracy theories like Ukraine is not a real country, it is the most corrupt country in world, and it, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee’s emails in 2016.

Putin has worked with conspiracy theories his entire professional life, first as a K.G.B. agent, then as president. Shortly after his appointment, in fact, he blamed Chechens for the highly suspicious Moscow apartment bombings of September 1999 in order to start the Second Chechen War. Wars work well with the conspiracist formula that reality is an illusion, enemies are out to get us, and only I can save you.

Donald Trump has long allied with Vladimir Putin and other conspiracy theorists and promoted false narratives, from birtherism to election denial, but some of his followers have tired of the deceit, as indicated by Republican losses in the midterm elections. Putin, however, has state media and police and military power at his disposal, plus 70 years of classical Soviet indoctrination and 20 years of the modern Russian version.

As it happens, the former’s noble fantasies, propaganda and double speak was easier to deprogram than today’s cyber-powered cynicism, grievance-baiting, what-about-isms and conspiracy theories, which complement the ubiquitous graft. The Kremlin elite believe they have crafted a powerful enough narrative and gravy train and conned enough people, in Russia and abroad, with the big lies of “Ukraine is Nazi” and “America overthrew Ukraine and is using it to destroy Russia,” to legitimize yet another one of the region’s prolonged bloodbaths, either in a years-long war or nuclear attacks.

As dawn breaks over Kryva Lypa, I finally realize what’s been bugging me since Rosh Shashana.

When I was 12 years old, I did a school presentation about and solicited donations for Biafra, where two million people eventually starved to death in Nigeria’s civil war (1967-70). In 1983, I started reading the history and literature of the Holocaust and attending conferences, in an attempt to heal myself, my family and my community. To a limited degree, I spoke out about the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, as I wish more people had for European Jewry.

My first published piece, “Interview with Bruno Lowenberg”, was about a Berlin bookman and survivor of Dachau and won a North-West Journalism Award (1983). I co-created “Our Holocaust Vacation” (2007), a documentary about my family’s return to Poland with my mother, Tonia Rotkopf Blair, an Auschwitz survivor, which showed on PBS, and I edited her book, “Love at the End of the World: Stories of War, Romance and Redemption” (2021, Austin Macauley).

But I neglected Ukraine.

As the first of October brightens into a gray, rainy day, I realize: Not only did Obama and Merkel drop the ball on Ukraine, I had.

When Russia voided the Budapest Memorandum, by invading Crimea and the Donbas, there should have been more governmental sanctions—if not military intervention or at least arms shipments by the Memorandum’s signees—but also people protests.

That I didn’t recognize Ukraine’s Woodstock-nation moment in 2014, nor its harsh repression by a colonialist overseer, or that I can’t even convince some of my hard-left friends that is what has happened—even after telling them about my two-month encounter with Ukraine (my loud exchange with Lyudmila, an 80-year-old physics professor and Russian-Jewish-American, at a Hanukkah party in the Oakland hills, was embarrassing)—is a personal failure of grotesque proportions, given one of my life projects is to oppose genocide.

I only started reading Snyder and Applebaum after February 24th—ordering their books that very day, in fact—although I had read about and endorsed the thesis of Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (2010) that both Germany and the Soviet Union sought to colonize and depopulate Ukraine.

I raced through his “The Road to Unfreedom” (2018), even while taking 25 pages of notes, so gob smacked was I to learn that the American conspiracist movement, which I had been researching and opposing since 9/12, and writing and publishing on since June 2020, borrowed many of its methods and claims as well as hacked emails from Russia.

All authorities lie constantly is the radical, new Russian worldview, according to Snyder, who observes that, “[Russian] politicians first spread fake news themselves, then claim that all news is fake, and finally that only their spectacles are real,” on page 11 of “The Road to Unfreedom”.

That they are both more honest about the spectacle and better at it is how they sell it simultaneously to a naive public as well as conspiracy professionals. In their post-truth world, as well as perpetrate endless conspiracy theories, they can erase bothersome facts, assuage enormous suffering through denial, and endorse evermore outrageous fantasies, including their hybrid of postmodernism, socialism, fascism and Russian traditionalism, which will save the world, they claim, from western imperialism, decadence and gender dysphoria.

I also gobbled up Applebaum’s “Twilight of Democracy” (2020), a precise, personal and comprehensive view of liberal democracy’s decline in Europe. Poland’s  lurch to the right surprised me, since it seemed to be doing a great job of integrating with Europe, when I visited in 2005, and it had made immense progress since 1997, when I was there filming “Our Holocaust Vacation”.

Applebaum had a ringside seat, since her husband, Radek Sikorski, was Poland’s Minister of Defense from 2005 to 2007 (he also led the E.U.’s admirable attempt to mediate between the Maidanites and Yanukovych). She details how the Poles were overcome by “the politics of resentment,” polarization, anti-democratic practices and what has become a worldwide religion, conspiracy theories. “’[T]here was no such thing as an accident [to him],’” a friend of Applebaum told her about Lech Kaczyński, Poland’s president from 2005 to 2010, “’If something happened it was the machination of an outsider. Conspiracy is his favorite word.’”

Along with Snyder, Applebaum has long reported on related problems in Russia—notably in her books “Gulag: A History” (2004, Pulitzer Prize winner) and “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine” (2017)—and foreshadowed or predicted the current catastrophe.

The all-clear siren sounds around 7am, and I hear doors opening and chairs scraping as Kryva Lypa’s waiters and baristas start another business day during wartime. That’s when my thoughts turn to the Maidan.

If the Russians go nuclear, it suddenly hits me, the Maidan will surely be ground zero. If the Russians are already attacking libraries, memorials and other cultural institutions, they will obviously want to destroy the central symbol of Ukraine’s independence movement.

As horrific, unimaginable and destructive as nuking the Maidan will be for Russia, Europe and the world, as well as of course for Kyiv and the people of Ukraine, those are the Kremlin’s stakes, which it has been raising since a few days after the war started.

Given Russia’s systemic corruption, poor weapons, untrained soldiers and tradition of extreme violence, there will eventually be nowhere else for them to go for a path to victory. Nuking the Maidan will be counterproductive, politically, strategically and militarily, most analysts agree, but more militant and angry Russians, like members of the white supremacist mercenaries, the Wagner Group, now central to Russia’s war effort, get a perverse pleasure from being world-class killers.

“Never Again” seemed like a reasonable goal when I was coming up, but history suggests there will always be more genocides, that all weapons eventually get used, and some sort of nuclear attack is just a matter of time. Contemplating those conclusions can be psychologically devastating but we have to embrace the possibilities.

Nevertheless, the horror can’t go on forever, history also indicates. Someday it will end, and Ukrainians will rebuild, restore and heal, as they did after the Holodomor, the Great Terror and the Nazis. Indeed, the kids of Maidan grew up hearing how their grandparents did exactly that, they just enjoyed three decades of democracy, which they refuse to renounce, and they love each other dearly.

It may take a decade or two to vanquish the Russian Federation, to give them enough death to inspire treaty adherence, to scrub Kyiv of radioactivity and reconstruct the Maidan in all its glory—to put Berehynia back on her golden pedestal—but Ukraine will survive, of that I suddenly feel certain, having gotten to know the kids of Maidan.

I lull myself to sleep in my tiny bed, which finally warmed up, imagining how the Maidan will look during its first Victory Day celebration, which I am determined to attend. I see happy faces, despite the horrific death toll and suffering, because surmounting that soul-crushing sorrow is an obligation of Ukraine’s geographical-historical destiny. I hope my decades of Holocaust and mystical studies are enough to offset my own sadness and help them with theirs, especially when I see some of my Ukrainian friends and, if the road to peace is long and they survive, their kids. I also hope to meet an incredible crew of freedom fighters and lovers from around the world, including, I hope, anti-fascist Russians. 

I left Ukraine on October 9th, the sky still dark with impending storms. 18 hours later, the air raids in Lviv and Kyiv were real, as Russia began its strategic bombing campaign against power and water facilities. In Lviv, the missiles did not kill anyone directly but the electrical blackouts did. None of my friends were seriously affected—they claimed it was nothing new, or they posted photos of candle-lit dinners—but I felt I had deserted them.

Things will get bad as temperatures drop, surgeons operate by flashlight, the elderly and young freeze, and World-War-One-style trench and artillery battles rage across the 500-mile eastern front. Meanwhile, the Kremlin keeps upping its ante: more infrastructure bombings, more relentless attacks, more soldiers mobilizing, more torturing of civilians, and more threats of their nihilist nightmare, nuclear holocaust.

Imagine what a populous, prosperous and peaceful country Russia would be today if they hadn’t killed so many of their own people as well as others. Despite their world-class literature, their leaders appear unfamiliar with a central fact of human history: If bullies were so successful down through the ages, we’d still be living in caves.

It will be tragic, it will be brutal, it will be genocide, even without the detonation of nuclear devices. Unfortunately, the efficacy of our ideas—and how they trickle down to civic society, culture, technology and discipline—are periodically tested by those who fantasize that extreme amorality and brutality can bring victory.

During this difficult moment of historical transition to a digital, diverse and civil-rights-supportive world, the kids of Maidan may end up saving not only Ukraine but the spirit of democracy.

Featured Image: Author

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