While studying Political Science and Communications in Bar Ilan’s International Program, I’ve met people from all over the world. My class, however, is predominantly Russian. The ratio of Russians to Ukrainians is about 6:1. Due to the Ukrainian Crisis, the tension in the air was palpable in recent lessons. As an uninvolved American, I listened quietly and attempted to unpack both sides of the conflict, and only recently came to a conclusion. I was moved the most, not by the arguments of a Russian or Ukrainian, but by a Georgian.
At the outbreak of the war, I was consuming only Western media, convinced that Putin was the devil-reincarnated: greedy, power-hungry, and selfish. Zelensky embodied nobility, legitimacy, and selflessness. One of my professors, a New Yorker, basically said as much in class. This led to an uproar from the Russians, and then a debate ensued. Russia is only protecting itself from Western threats, they said. After all, Russia is one of the most invadable countries and has been compromised many times throughout history. The Mongol Empire in the 13th Century burned and looted its foremost cities Kiev, Vladimir, Ryazan’, Chernihiv, as well as others. In the 16th century, the Crimean Khanate, supported by the Turkish army, invaded central Russia, devastated Ryazan, and burned Moscow. In the 17th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth occupied Moscow and the Kremlin. During the Great Northern War in the 18th century, the Swedes invaded Russia. The beginning of the 19th, was dominated by the Napoleonic Wars, which was one of the bloodiest points of world history. Lastly, and most famously, in the 20th century, Nazi Germany invaded Russia towards the beginning of World War II.
Nowadays, Russia fears isolation and conspiracy. Most of its neighboring countries have banded with the West to form NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose mission statement is to “safeguard the Allies’ freedom and security by political and military means.” Being that the United States has always held a pro-democratic and anti-socailist stance and is the main power of NATO, Russia is worried that it will be forced out of its position as a main political actor and world power. Due to this legitimate concern, Russia is attempting to block Ukraine from joining NATO and reestablish it as a Russian-controlled state. Yet, after watching the atrocities that were being unleashed on the Ukrainian people on the news, I still wasn’t convinced.
A Russian Perspective
One of my Russian peers, who had served in the Russian military, explained to me after class that he was anti-war, but pro-Russia. He meant that he didn’t believe Russia should have tried to take Ukraine, however, now that they are at war, he stands behind his country and wishes to see them succeed. When I heard it from this perspective, I couldn’t fault him. After all, if hypothetically, Israel invaded Iran and faced world criticism, I and millions of other Jews and Israelis would stand behind Israel and the IDF.
However, after hearing what my Georgian classmate had to say, I was swayed to sympathize and stand with Ukraine. My Georgian classmate is eighteen-years-old and not Jewish. He came to Israel for affordable education and new opportunities. He was six years old when Georgia had their own altercation with Russia in 2008. His father was from South Ossetia, his mother from Georgia. Ossetia lies on the Russian-Georgian border, its northern half belonging to Russia and southern half belonging to Georgia. Since the 1920s, South Ossetia had wanted independence from Georgia and Soviet Russia was all too eager to help them extricate themselves from Georgia and unite them with their Russian-controlled northern counterpart. On August 1st, 2008, there was an (most likely orchestrated) explosion near the capital of South Ossetia, injuring five Georgian policemen. That night, intense fighting erupted between Georgians and South Ossetians, killing six Ossetians. Later that week, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili called for an immediate ceasefire from both sides. Attacks on Georgian villages became frequent after that. The day after the broadcast, there were Russian tanks along the border of South Ossetia. Russia invaded Georgia, claiming to conduct “peace enforcement.” In five days, the Russian army took control of South Ossetia and expelled Georgian forces. Russia launched airstrikes throughout Georgia, killing hundreds and forcing thousands to flee, my classmates’ family included.
Unlike present-day Ukraine, the Georgian Crisis didn’t make international news and did not receive the aid of western countries until the very end. At the time, the Beijing summer olympics were being held and most news channels weren’t interested in covering a foreign conflict. There was a movie made about this called “Five Days of War,” which follows the story of an American war reporter who films the ongoing events in Georgia, but cannot get American news networks to broadcast the story.
The Boy from Georgia
My classmate relayed to me what his life was like at that time; how he’d hide in his home from the Russians and feel his room shake as the debris fell from the ceiling, how scared he felt all the time, and how he would never forget the sight of his mother crying. His father, Ossetian-born, was drafted against his will to fight alongside the Russians. His uncle, his mother’s brother, was drafted to the Georgian army. His family became enemies overnight, placed against each other, leaving only him and his mother to pick up the pieces. They moved from village to village, trying to outrun the approaching Russian army and overhead threats. They made it all the way to the Georgian capital on foot and lived there in a shelter until the war was over. He has barely spoken to his father since then, only on his birthdays, and has not seen him as his father has lived in Ossetia since the war and Ossetian-Georgian relations are still negative. His mother, overrun by grief and poverty, left him in the care of her parents and went to work abroad to make enough money to support them from afar. With some unknown resilient strength, he found the courage to leave Georgia upon graduating from high school and come to Israel alone to make a life for himself. Despite going through so much, he is amazingly positive and is wise beyond his years.
“Because I know what it’s like,” he told me, “I’m with Ukraine.” After listening to his story about growing up in a war-torn country and watching the film he recommended on the 2008 conflict, I felt thoroughly convinced that he was right. In 2008, Western countries came to Georgia’s aid in the end and they are gathering again for Ukraine now. May Ukraine liberate themselves soon and restore autonomous freedom once again.
“Out of suffering has emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” –Kahlil Gibran