Russia's war on Ukraine: Like George Orwell in 1939, we must realise that some wars have to be fought – Joyce McMillan
Once again, we seem to be standing at a moment in history when the way back to peace – the kind of peace we have taken for granted in northern Europe for almost 80 years – lies not away from war, but through it; through a victory for Ukraine that carries with it some hope of restoring an international order that respects borders and sovereignty, and honours international agreements – including the Russian-Ukrainian friendship treaty of 1997, which fully recognised Ukraine’s independence, and the inviolability of its borders.
For generations raised in peace – particularly those wrapped in the fractious but effective security blanket of the European Union – this moment comes as a profound culture-shock, as we realise that when a heavily armed neighbour is firing rockets at your cities, and openly declaring that it will not stop until your nation is wiped from the map, the opportunities for dialogue and peace-making are effectively non-existent. And for neighbours and allies, too, the obligation to support a country in Ukraine’s position against such aggression, and to seek to ensure its survival, becomes less debatable and almost absolute, creating some strange political bedfellows in the process.
As the brilliant Fiona Hill, the County Durham woman turned US presidential adviser, pointed out in her BBC Reith Lecture this week, it’s therefore hardly surprising that this shocking act of aggression by the Russian leadership has sent us back into history, to seek parallels that might guide us; and for me, that search has inevitably led back to the mighty George Orwell, and his voluminous essays and journalism published before and during the Second World War. Orwell was a socialist, contemptuous of British imperial attitudes; and – as a member of the generation who were just too young to fight in the First World War – drawn to pacifism, and the view that that war had brought nothing but meaningless slaughter.
Yet by 1937, he was in Spain, as a volunteer with the International Brigades fighting Franco and his fascists; and in 1940, in his famous essay My Country Right Or Left, he rejected what he called the “one-eyed pacifism” of his generation, recognising that Hitler must be defeated, and that he would loyally support the British war effort until that victory was won.
Many on the traditional western left, of course, still do not agree. In the kinds of internal arguments that Orwell would have recognised only too well, many prefer to remain in that ideological comfort zone where the West is always imperialist and wrong, and where Russia – as the West’s main European adversary – is therefore probably in the right. Nor – as Fiona Hill pointed out – is it wise to dismiss the force of this argument, particularly as it plays out in those countries, from Afghanistan to Africa, which have been the principle victims of western colonialism.
Yet it remains true that the international system put in place after the Second World War offers us the nearest thing we have yet seen to a road map for greater peace on Earth, for the beginnings of an international rule of law, and for the peaceful resolution of disputes and tackling of common problems. Those who want to tear up those agreements and norms can indeed point to the many hypocrisies and double standards of the nations that first devised them, including the United States and the UK; but they offer no alternative beyond a return to the brutal rule of military force, where might is always right, tyranny flourishes, war is perpetual, and the weak – whether nations or individuals – are crushed with impunity. This is Orwell’s famous “boot stamping on a human face, forever”, from his final novel, 1984; and where we have a chance to support those who choose, however imperfectly, to stand up for truth and democracy, for the rule of law and for basic human rights, we have no decent option but to try to ensure their victory.
In the first weeks of the war, I conducted an online interview for The Scotsman with Yevhen Nyshchuk, actor, film-maker and former Ukrainian culture minister, who was sitting wearing battle fatigues in the darkened backstage area of a Kyiv theatre turned militia centre, and talking about his rapid transition, at 50, to the life of a soldier. In his voice and language, I could hear inescapable echoes of that Orwell-like transition from a youthful life of pacifism, internationalism, and contempt for the very idea of war, to recognition that sometimes in history, an enemy arises who simply must be defeated; and I have seen the same utterly recognisable mix of disbelief, sadness, acceptance and resolve both in many other Ukrainians whose words I have followed since February 24, and in the speeches of President Zelensky himself, not least in Washington this week.
What that resolve will now demand – from the Ukrainian people themselves, and from those of us who say that we support them – is of course as difficult to predict as it is frightening to imagine. Yet as we wish devoutly for peace this Christmas – and feel a special gratitude for the peace still enjoyed by most of us, here in the West – we need to acknowledge anew, after the events of this traumatic year, that for victims of violence everywhere, peace is often unthinkable without justice and restoration; and without the battle, however long or costly, to reach that essential moment of victory, and of freedom.
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