A year ago this week, we were preparing to leave for our first post-COVID-outbreak trip beyond either of our two home countries. We were headed for France, and excited to travel there. Passports and residency cards in hand. Electronic French COVID vaccine passports loaded on our phones. Roller bags packed for more than two months of journeying. And yet, our excitement was tempered by Russia’s war of choice with Ukraine.
It was very early on. Our neighbors in Portugal thought us crazy to be headed off to travel for a couple of months while this war was just starting to rage. We watched news broadcasts much of the day and evening, mostly CNN International, as it broadcast images of destruction, air raids on Kyiv. We watched as thousands of Ukrainians lined up to flee to bordering countries, while thousands more lined up to stay and defend their country. We were reading books about Europe’s last major war on its continent. Books like All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale. The general consensus was that Ukraine would fall. And fall quickly. Europeans and others were fearing which country would be next. NATO was pledging support, but in what form and for how long?
As we touched down in France, Ukrainian flags were starting to appear everywhere. On municipal buildings, in squares, in restaurant doorways, in the windows of apartments and homes. It seemed there were more flags in yellow and blue than even France’s own red, white and blue. As we moved east, into Italy, the support for Ukraine seemed to not waver, spring was coming, and Ukraine was holding on. Just as in France, flags adorned many homes, shops, and public places. We observed rallies for Ukraine across major cities. Marches and protests. Notes in our Airbnbs and hotels to conserve energy so as to not help fund Russia’s war.
Today, Ukraine still holds. Kyiv still stands.
But Russia still persists. Persists in destroying apartment buildings, hospitals, and schools. Persists in committing atrocities against civilians: children and grandmothers. Persists in taking down power and infrastructure. A war literally and metaphorically against the light.
All those years ago, as we naively sat in our “map room” researching cities and towns, trains and cruises, countries and provinces, we had planned several trips to Russia. Poked pins in cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Novosibirsk. Alas, it seems, today anyway, like those may never happen or if they do it will be a long time from now. Russia, which once seemed to be opening more to the world, now seems to be going the way of those other countries to which we believe we may never visit. It is sad, for our quarrel, and that of the world, is not with the Russian people or its culture, but its leadership and its assault on freedom and democracy.
The will of Ukraine and its people must prevail, must be victorious. Democracy matters, even in those places where it is with challenges. Freedom matters. A free press matters. And the world must never let this autocratic war of choice by one man prevail.