“Nezlamnist” – the Face of Ukrainian Resilience
As seen by an Indian scholar domiciled in Kyiv
This is a guest post by Dr. Mridula Ghosh, an Indian scholar, based in Ukraine, with expertise in East Europe and post-Soviet states. Dr. Ghosh, who has lived in Ukraine since the late ‘80s, is one of the handful of ex-pats I know who chose not to evacuate from Ukraine despite the war.
A shorter version of this article was published in Bengali recently.
October 10, 2022, Monday. It was an autumn morning in Kyiv, sunny and warm, usual for this time of the year, “Babine lito”, the Ukrainian equivalent of Indian summer. War has entered the daily lives of all of us – Ukrainians and foreigners alike. Sirens signaling air raid are heard almost daily, from the remote West to the East of this country. Regions closer to the Russian borders and occupied territories face additional artillery strikes. Rest of the country holds its breath to combat the missile strikes and sigh in relief when the alert is canceled. Life goes on.
This Monday the same alert siren sounded around 7.30 a.m. and within an hour several severe blasts were heard in Kyiv. I could see some huge thick black smoke in clouds filling the sky. Thanks to friends and social media, information travels no less quickly than the sound of the blasts. The blasts happened near me, about a kilometer in radius.
Another alert comes for everyone to go to a shelter. I run to the nearest metro. And after reaching its depths, this is what I found: lots of people on their way to work, no pushing each other, no panic, no anger and no discontent. Enormous patience that will lower the highest mountains on earth. A resolve in each face, like stone sculptures. There was no lack of warmth. I spotted Anka Felhusen, the German Ambassador, in the crowd. She is fluent in Ukrainian and is very friendly. But nobody bothered her with attention. I thought that they did not recognize her. Anyway, what started in a few minutes was amazing. All people in that metro started singing a Ukrainian song. The melody rocked the walls, not only soothing both the spirit and the body, but adding to that hardened zeal to protect the soil, language and culture. Today, everyone realizes that this is a war against Ukraine and everything Ukrainian.
Massive strikes that started on February 24 brought a shocking realization that steeled everyone’s nerves. A month later, the barbaric Russian army was routed on the outskirts of Kyiv. Russian military high command camouflaged its humiliating retreat under the cover of “goodwill gesture” in the same way as Putin ordered his unprovoked brutal genocidal invasion into a neighboring state, to be called a “special military operation”, which left behind thousands of defenseless civilians, men, women and children, wounded, raped, kidnapped, tortured, killed and buried in mass graves in Bucha, Gostomel, Irpin and Borodyanka, all in the outskirts of Kyiv. Then came Mariupol, Izyum, Liman, Kupyansk, and the same horrors were revealed.
All the time inside the metro shelter, I was thinking of the hardships of people. Kids having their classes, people working online from their shelters. I also teach online, sometimes from a shelter. I was talking to one of the ladies standing near me. She happened to be a senior civil servant, taking her grandchild to the kindergarten and then heading to her office. She said, “Russia did not gain anything from this war. International reputation has been down to zero.” I recalled, one of my African friends telling me, “Wherever they march, these Russian soldiers, they carry death, destruction and deceit”, citing Syria, Central African Republic, Mali, Georgia and Ukraine. The lady understood my country of origin to be India and purposefully said, “I know, sanctions are biting Russia, but there are cunning entrepreneurial tricks to avoid them. Well, Russia has made a lot of deals with your country, India.” I always face these questions. And I have to bear the consequences of foreign policy makers in Delhi. It is hard, when you really love your country of domicile and its people and clearly see the ground reality, but your country of origin lets you down. Eyebrows are raised. I cannot just shrug my shoulder and escape!
I have to bear the consequences of foreign policy makers in Delhi. It is hard, when you really love your country of domicile and its people and clearly see the ground reality, but your country of origin lets you down.
Ukrainians have a lot of respect for Indians. Without embarrassing me the lady continued, “We understand. Military hardware, business etc. It is not easy. But I think the Indian people understand, and I think your leadership understands as well. Never mind. We will win and then the whole world will like to befriend us.”
This firm faith in victory is rooted in the love of the homeland and identity, which is also the root of Ukrainian resilience. As an Indian, with my profuse readings of Gandhi and Tagore, I see it as based on the simple truth of the “satyagraha” that Mahatma Gandhi held so dear; that the Ukrainians are a postcolonial nation with a great history and identity, not yet fully known to the world but having every right to exist. For generations, they suffered from Russian imperialism and colonialism, people paid for it with their lives in gulags and political prisons, in human-made famine of the 1932-33, during the repression of the intelligentsia and so on. Today the same spirit runs through their veins. It is expressed in a range of ways: from the daily lives of hard working civilians, to the very skillful maneuvers of the army to defeat the “so called second army” of the world with limited weapons, to the way the Ukrainian leaders are pleading to the world for help and not always getting enough of what they need.
As an Indian, with my profuse readings of Gandhi and Tagore, I see it is based on the simple truth, the “satyagraha” that Mahatma Gandhi held so dear; that the Ukrainians are a postcolonial nation with a great history and identity, not yet fully known to the world but having every right to exist.
All these are so similar to the anti-colonial struggles that was fought in the Global South. But we are accustomed to looking at the face value of textbook concepts, based on prescribed old dogmas, where anything anticolonial or postcolonial has to be anti-West. We do forget that we overlooked Russian colonial expansion and imperialism. We never looked critically at the Russo-centric academics in the West and the Universities putting their main focus on Russia and then on the other former USSR republics, each of which possess a very clear identity, never to be mixed with Russian.
To add to this, the Russian propaganda was skillful to use the old concepts and their role as the bulwark of anti-West, and weave an intricate design of semi-truths in our post-truth world. People with leftist inclination as well as nationalists in the Global South are quite gullible to these propaganda. That is why Putin finds it easy to manipulatively appeal against US domination and western colonialism of the developing world, while Russia dominates and topples regimes and engages in covert operations all over the world.
The resilience of Ukrainians should be seen in contrast to the Russian expansionist spirit. As of today, hundreds of people, men and women, are joining the army in Ukraine. Professionals and even elderly men with weapons in their hands are defending their motherland. But in Russia, as per estimates by Forbes, between 300 thousand to 1 million 200 thousand men left the country after Putin announced limited mobilization on 21 September. Why this escapism in the wake of an aggressive expansionist war? Because within Russia itself, there is a growing discontent about the war against Ukrainians, which did not grow into a serious movement yet. In spite of that, Ukrainians do not wait till a change of hearts takes place in Moscow. They think, “no matter what, we have to win, and we will win.”
After the air raid was called off, life returned to normal. Children with their parents, some in prams, some toddling beside strolled in nearby parks and start going to shops. Beauty salons opened, café served their clients, pharmacies and groceries operated as usual. But Ukraine suffered during these Monday’s attacks. Eight people died, ninety injured, several buildings and social infrastructure were damaged in many places in Ukraine.
These were purely attacks against civilians, no military target, no mythical “denazification” and “demilitarization” as they were announced in February 2022. One of the young males in the metro came up to us and said, “Russians cannot win in face to face battles, so they are targeting civilians. These are terrorist tactics. What is the difference between these attacks and the ones launched by Al Qaida?” The lady agrees, and continues, “We are appealing to the whole world to recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.” I sigh, sensing that these efforts of Ukraine recently were not bringing the results even after appealing to the US. Perhaps, the reasons lie in the diplomatic back channel talks and high risk areas.
However, my interlocutors do not have grudges against anyone. War is no time to harp on one and the same thing. We have to move on. The young man adds, “It’s our war. We have to fight ourselves, armies of other countries will not do our job. I am on vacation now. In a few days, I am going back to the front. Possibly to the Kherson region.”
I wonder what should be the one word in Ukrainian that can describe these people, somewhat synonymous to resilience. While bidding me good bye, the lady says, “Yes. We may be killed in this war. But we cannot be broken.” Eureka! That is resilience! She indicated. Yes, it is that one word. I remembered, the word in Ukrainian is, “Nezlamnist” - Un-Breakability.
— Dr. Mridula Ghosh.
Indian scholar, based in Ukraine, with expertise in East Europe and post-Soviet states.