My parents escaped from the Soviet Union for political freedom. I have found from my experiences that evolution is not solely the transmission of genes, but also of hopes and dreams. Their desire to spread liberty lives inside me.
It is also carried on by my relatives in Ukraine, who spill their sweat and blood on battlefields and in factories to hold true to these principles. In America, we consider them freedom fighters who yearn for autonomy from an encroaching political powerhouse. The opposing rebels are painted in the same light in the Russian Federation. Two peoples, fighting for the same ideals, give their lives for a land that only 16 percent of Americans can find on a map.
The date was February 23, 2014. Pro-Putin Ukrainian President Yanukovych succumbed to the pressure from a bloody, five-month-long riot, and decided to pull back his mercenary guards and flee the country. The event spiraled into the Russian annexation of Crimea and a Russian-sponsored separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine that plagues the country and its impoverished inhabitants to this day.
The date was June 23, 2015. It had not been long long since Russian separatists had shot down a civilian plane, killing the nearly 300 innocent people on board and then (per usual) denying any and all responsibility. Despite the poor track record with flights, my family showed little fear in visiting our relatives in Ukraine. After all, they live more thaan a hundred miles from the battlefields, and I had not seen my grandparents in ages. We soon realized they too fight the war.
Prices are high and supplies of essentials are low. My aunt, a physician, witnesses every day how trucks carrying injured soldiers, and even body parts, arrive at the hospital. Many young men are beyond salvation. However, she has learned to do whatever can and needs to be done. These are the daily casualties of a war that the West helped to start, but has long since forgotten about.
My septuagenarian grandfather, who drags his swollen legs to a military factory on three buses daily, fell ill while we were visiting. His heart is weak, and due to the shortage of medications and emotional burden of war, he was hospitalized. His job pays under a hundred dollars a month, five times less than the inflated cost of the life-essential drugs he needs.
If he were to retire, he would receive half as much. Unless you are an oligarch, retirement in Ukraine means starvation. Savings are worthless thanks to the astronomical inflation of the currency brought about by war. Worst of all, he is unable to even apply for a green card to the United States, because Ukraine considers his knowledge of military production a “state secret.” The only secret is that their technology is woefully behind that of Russia and the developed world.
My cousin Alex, inspired by his mother and grandfather, has enrolled in medical school. Unfortunately, he stands the risk of being drafted into the Ukrainian military at any point. He fears joining the scores of maimed young men that his mother treats daily. He is an avid swimmer and medical student like me. He has grown up without knowing half of his family, as have I. However, unlike me, he was not born in the United States, and is not even allowed to visit for a few weeks, let alone immigrate.
His and his mother’s plights are especially shameful considering that the United States is expecting a shortage of 120,000 physicians by the year 2030. Nevertheless, under the orders of the U.S. State Department, Alex has been denied a visitor’s visa countless times. The United States is all too eager to waste billions supporting “democracy” abroad. Yet they cannot afford the money to improve legal immigration to help provide essential freedoms, such as the ability to see a doctor, here at home.
My relatives are the faces of the many victims of U.S. military involvement. Ukraine’s revolution, fueled by empty Western promises of European integration and CIA propaganda, has ground to a standstill. The war rages on with no end in sight, fought with Russian and American weapons and Ukrainian lives.
Despite the seven hundred civilians who perished in the “revolution,” and the thousands of young men who continue to die every year, the Soviet culture of oligarchs and kickbacks rebelled remains unchanged. As much as 50 percent of the nation’s annual healthcare budget is embezzled and stolen, as is likely the case with other sectors as well. Recently, Ikea was unable to open its first Ukrainian store because the company could not figure out who to bribe, and why. Whether under new leadership or old, Ukraine’s legacy of corruption has persisted, warding away foreign investment and skirting its chances at entering the EU.
In fact, the only way Ukraine can seem to get any attention anymore from the United States is through military involvement. When the pro-Russia separatists mistakenly shot down a civilian plane in 2015, Ukraine was thrust back into the news cycle for a few weeks. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has any incentive to tone down the hostilities. With every bullet fired, the Ukrainian government gets more military aid from the West, while Putin wards NATO away from his borders. Ukraine has even stooped to inviting wealthy tourists to shoot, drive tanks, or detonate explosives as a means of raise funds. Of course, the Ukrainian people get nothing.
Ukraine sought the right to self-determination but ended up a perpetual clashing ground for two competing superpowers. Although the conflict has lost the world’s attention, thousands of young Ukrainian men continue to perish annually. According to my aunt, who interacts with the soldiers daily, many are sent out without proper training and equipment. They are a lost generation. Some gladly agree to the pitiful salary (with bonuses based on battles fought), while others are drafted against their will. Those fighting on the Russian side go completely unregistered, dying as mercenaries without their families ever learning where or why.
The soldiers tell my aunt that sometimes the battles are more show than substance. Both sides agree to planned artillery fire in order to please their sponsors. “You bomb our warehouse at 6, we’ll bomb yours at 8, both Russia and the United States will be happy, and our middle-man employers will offer us a small bonus for our troubles.” This is the kind of Catch-22-esque “struggle for democracy” on which we waste billions of dollars.
As George Santayana adroitly put it, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The Ukrainian “struggle for freedom” is matched only by the suffering of the denizens of Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Syria, who have seen their lives and livelihoods perish in a geopolitical game of poker. No one ever calls the bluff, and the proxy wars carry on, eating away at the surpluses of the developed world, and squandering entire generations. Among these are my grandparents, aunts and cousins, who could benefit both their country and ours better in peace than war.
We must learn from our past mistakes and work diplomatically with Russia rather than antagonizing them with special investigations and unproven accusations. We cannot blame and punish their voiceless citizenry for the authoritarian regimes under which they live, many of which we, at one point or another, helped to enable.
Our best path forward is to welcome Russians, Ukrainians and other victims of autocracy into our country, and back into the fold of reality and freedom, with open arms. At the same time, we must never give in to relativism and relinquish our moral high ground over communism, teaching these lost others by example. Halfway across the world, my family must fight and die for the freedoms that we take for granted. The best way to honor their sacrifice is to uphold the rights we preach, at home and abroad.