There is nothing like a common enemy to unite a group. When that enemy is Vladimir Putin, the process is positively noble.
What better way to combat a horrific invasion occurring thousands of miles away than through public dialogue? The common person is powerless when hearing of the atrocities committed against innocent civilians. One of the most common ways to seek this power back is through language. Identifying the enemy is the first step to his eradication.
Unfortunately, Putin is himself well familiar with the power of language, asserting continually that his goal is the “denazification” of Ukraine. By painting Ukraine as the aggressor, even when the facts scream the opposite, Putin spins a narrative that strengthens his idea of Russian identity while demonizing the outgroup–the Ukrainians. In the modern liberal world, invasion is no longer a legitimate means of expanding empire but is rather a gross violation of sovereignty and internationally established standards of human rights. As such, Putin must play semantic games to justify his aggression.
The horrific injustice of such a strategy seems quite transparent. Here in Connecticut, we have reacted by adding Ukrainian flags to our Facebook profiles, putting up signs outside our homes, and raising funds and supplies for displaced persons. Still, it is imperative to consider how closely our strategy resembles Putin’s. Of course, our intentions are benevolent, our reactions stemming spontaneously from a sense of outrage and a deep respect for the value of human life. But we, too, are quick to make Putin and Russia synonymous, to demonize an entire corner of the world in order to regain our faith in humanity.
The war in Ukraine is certainly a situation of quite clear victimhood. However, the world in which it occurs is anything but. As the East vs. West cultural dynamic heats up once again between the United States and Asian and Eastern European countries, it is tempting to project all of our subconscious anxieties about the foreign and unfamiliar onto Russia. Precarious global economic relations and the growing climate crisis compound this tendency.
Russia is, though, in reality, a nation of great diversity and cultural heritage, in possession of traditions and opinions that both support and diametrically oppose the singular viewpoint propounded by Putin. We ourselves only have to reflect for a moment to recognize our own great heterogeneity as a state, and as a nation. Group identifiers can be protective, but they fail to tell the whole story. This is true for foreign communities as much as our own.
Instead of responding to calls for the denazification of Ukraine with a more rigid definition of Nazi, we need to deconstruct the label entirely. We would be wise to do this with more local issues as well–bipartisan cooperation is critical to foster effective change within social justice movements much closer to home, and it is not to be attained by spewing hatred or keeping a closed mind. The walls we build around ourselves by doing this are flimsy, and do more to keep us in than anyone else out.
In light of this, how can we support Ukraine during the war?
No one individual has all the answers, but we must begin by looking at specific economic, social, and political needs, by taking a nuanced look at the historical moment in which the war is occurring and acting accordingly. By refusing to subscribe to the binaries which empower Putin, whether they be between East and West, Russia and the United States, success and stagnancy, or morality and immorality, we can build a world not in reaction to evil but in spite of it.
Jill Keegan lives in New Hartford.