The energetic host at a democracy conference in New York posed a thought-provoking question to the attendees: “If you were 30% braver, what would you do to be a better ancestor?” Delegates were encouraged to share their responses in small groups. In my group, comprised of experienced activists from diverse regions, reflections on courage and legacy unfolded. As others shared their thoughts, I hesitated, hoping to remain unnoticed.
When prompted about my silence, I attempted to evade the question, claiming it was challenging. In reality, my answer was immediate, but as the group turned its attention to me, I found myself hesitating to express it. “If I were braver, to be a better ancestor, I’d join the army – the Ukrainian armed forces,” I finally admitted.
The revelation was met with an uneasy silence, a reaction not unfamiliar to me – a sentiment my friend aptly calls a “Ukrainian killjoy.” Those of us deeply impacted by the ongoing war often find ourselves steering conversations towards the conflict, unintentionally overshadowing discussions about family, future, and optimism. The prevailing image of Ukraine in global thought is synonymous with war, destruction, and weaponry, hindering the enthusiasm for dialogue about the nation’s broader identity.
Throughout history, Ukraine has been viewed primarily as a buffer between Eastern threats and Europe. Despite regaining sovereignty in 1991, Ukraine faced skepticism and exclusion from international forums. Despite efforts to redefine the narrative, portraying Ukraine as a cultural crossroads, the prevailing perception remained that of a buffer zone with an unclear identity.
In 2022, after Russia’s invasion, Ukraine attempted to reshape its narrative as a courageous nation challenging a formidable adversary. However, the international focus waned in 2023, akin to a fleeting interest in a TV series. The war in Ukraine struggled for attention against other global crises, notably the Israel-Gaza conflict.
As Ukraine grappled with “Ukraine fatigue,” characterized by diminishing international investment in its victory, the urgency of support became evident. Conversations shifted from peace and reconstruction to the endurance of an unrelenting fight. The discrepancy between the external perception of Ukraine’s progress and the actual challenges faced by its people highlighted the need for sustained international commitment.
Despite personal sacrifices and the loss of loved ones, the world’s attention often focuses on Ukraine’s war narrative rather than its broader cultural and historical context. Refugees, including those from Ukraine, face difficulties in conveying the complexity of their experiences. Meanwhile, the war’s impact on academic and literary representations of Ukraine remains limited, with a dearth of dedicated programs and curricula.
The narrative of Ukraine as an underdog persists, but the war’s reality requires a more comprehensive understanding. While international interest may have shifted, Ukrainians continue to grapple with the consequences of the conflict. The perpetual focus on war overshadows Ukraine’s multifaceted identity, hindering efforts to promote a nuanced understanding of the nation and its people.