Nataliia Pustilnik | 21 April 2022
On the day before the war, I sent two postcards from Kyiv to my friends in Sweden – saying that I was okay and hoping to see them in summer. The day before the war I was looking forward to discussing the final chapter of the book about Scandinavian education (bildung) in our study circle. We were going to invite a Ukrainian entrepreneur who was opening the first folkhögskola in Ukraine. The day before the war I was planning the organization of a working group on Ukraine’s agriculture sector adaptation strategy to climate change. Instead, I woke up in my studio apartment to the news that my country was bombed at night by a foreign army. It is ironic that on the very same day we were supposed to have the first training session on gender and human rights-based approach in environmental protection organized by our colleagues in Sweden. The training was, of course, canceled, but we met and discussed the current situation. Our Swedish friends were very sorry for us. As was filling up the bathtub with water (in case the water supply would be interrupted), I was thinking that the time for training was over. Now we will have to testify to our commitments to universal human rights.
I knew the response of the Ukrainian people because we have been living in war for 8 years. We became familiar with it and with the difficult choices that it presents, but I was wondering how Europe would respond because this would make a huge difference for us. I remember the surreal, but also familiar, feeling of deep sadness mixed with dead determination. It’s the same feeling I had in 2014 during the Revolution of Dignity. It’s when you understand that what is happening is unfair and unjust and you wished the world would be different, but you accept the challenge and stand up to violence. Only this time I understood, we cannot do it alone. We could and would “lay our souls and bodies for freedom”, as the national anthem says, but it would not be enough. Because the evil we are facing is threatening not only us but the whole of Europe and the world.
War is a time of testing your values both at the individual and collective levels. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, former socialist states had the opportunity to become part of the European family of democratic countries. However, they first had to prove that they are indeed worthy of it – they respect human and property rights, they have open and accessible democratic institutions, and they strive for equality. These are the values of Europe. Yet it is in times of hardship that one truly has a chance to test their declared convictions. Ukrainians are being tested right now in a brutal, inhuman war started by invaders on our territory. Each one of us is forced to look deeply into our soul and see what kind of person we have become and what kind of nation we are together. And we are holding up to our values – democracy and freedom – by standing up to violence, injustice, and tyranny. We believe that this is something Europe also stands against.
Many Europeans thought that we were naïve in our faith. But after fighting the tyrannical regime of a failed dictator Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, after failing to counter Russia’s propaganda in 2014-2015 resulting in the world being more worried about far-right movements in Ukraine, gas prices, and the economy than about the annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas, and, finally, after the standing up to the direct invasion in 2022, Ukrainians are anything but naïve. We simply ask European countries the same question they pose to every country that wants to join their union – “Do prove that you are indeed Europeans”, as was articulated by Volodymyr Zelenskyi in his address to the European Parliament on March 1, 2022.
Europe stands at a crossroads now. It can distance itself from this war, as it did in 2014, which would mean recognizing that its declared values are not universal but apply only to a small territory. I believe that would make the European project meaningless. The other route is difficult, painful, and complicated. It is to fully embrace Ukraine and breathe new life into the European idea.
Today is the 57th day of expansionist, aggressive war in Europe. I am in safety now, and I continue working for our environmental organization trying to do everything I can to help my country. I had moments of despair because I understood that every moment that Europe is being slow, somewhere in Ukraine a man, woman, or a child is being killed, tortured, or is drying from lack of food or air in a basement. Every moment historical legacy is destroyed, universities, libraries, railways, roads – everything that was created for life is now being destroyed in seconds in the name of domination. But those sad moments go away, and the same feeling of dead determination returns. It is now time for Europeans to choose. On May 8th, we will commemorate the end of the Second World War. The symbol of that tragedy is the famous phrase “Never again.” I hope Europeans would feel the same urgency to defend their values as we do. And that on May 8th, 2022, the war is stopped and we can all say “Never again” with clear consciousness.
Nataliia Pustilnik is a project officer at WWF-Ukraine working on the transformation of agricultural systems to sustainability with the help of nature-based solutions. Between 2018 and 2021, she lived in Sweden studying socio-ecological resilience at Stockholm University and writing her thesis about grassland preservation and food production. Along with the environmental work, she was always interested in the history of Ukraine and Europe.