As Vladimir Putin was ostentatiously amassing troops on the border, I ... sent an email to two journalist friends in Kyiv:
“Ia s vami,” I wrote in Russian. I’m with you.
“We’re always mobilized,” one wrote back, “and ready to work, whatever comes.”
These women are still young, yet between them they have covered war and revolution in their own country, Belarus, Egypt and Iraq. Born around the time of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, they come from a country that has been through a lot.
During World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war that followed, Kyiv was occupied by five different armies. In the 1930s, Stalin engineered a famine that killed more than three and a half million Ukrainians. Then came the Great Terror, World War II, Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, mass deportation to the Gulag, nuclear catastrophe. When the U.S.S.R. dissolved in 1991, Russia became its successor state; Ukraine and 13 other constituent Soviet Republics became newly independent states. In Ukraine, years of corruption, gangsterism and oligarchy followed.
In 2004, the former Soviet republics in the Baltics—Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania—joined both the European Union and NATO. By then it was clear that a Russia ruled by Mr. Putin would resist any attempt by Ukraine (a country with a population more than seven times that of all three Baltic states combined) to follow their path. In that year’s Ukrainian presidential election, the Kremlin supported Viktor Yanukovych —a criminal with robbery convictions, who used election fraud and dioxin poisoning of his chief opponent to claim victory. In protest, thousands of Ukrainian citizens gathered on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s Independence Square, in what became known as the Orange Revolution.
For three weeks they froze, resolutely—and victoriously. New elections the following month brought their preferred, westward-leaning candidate to the presidency. But the Orange Revolution’s victory was ephemeral. The new president proved a disappointment. Mr. Yanukovych reappeared to run again in 2010—this time assisted by a slick Washington PR agent named Paul Manafort, who gave Mr. Yanukovych a makeover—haircut, clothes, body language—and coached him on how to scare Ukrainian Russian-speakers with threats that Ukrainian nationalists would persecute them. (Ukraine is a bilingual country, and Ukrainian and Russian are like Spanish and Italian, related but distinct.) The coaching was effective.
Under Mr. Yanukovych, Ukraine was bound to the Kremlin, and the country’s resources flowed largely to the president and his inner circle of oligarchs. A younger generation, born after the fall of the Soviet Union, looked to the prospect of EU membership for the horizon of their future. Then, in November 2013, under pressure from Mr. Putin, Mr. Yanukovych abruptly declined to sign a long-anticipated association agreement with the EU.
Thousands went out to the Maidan once again. They were largely students, young people who felt as if their future had been torn from their hands. They weren’t interested in ethnic differences or language politics. They were interested in Europe’s being open to them. Their slogan was “Ukraine is Europe.”
Mr. Yanukovych sent riot police to beat them. It appeared that he was counting on the terrified parents to pull their children off the streets. But he miscalculated: Instead the parents joined their children there. At one point more than a half million people were on the streets of Kyiv, now with the slogan: “We will not let you beat our children.” All winter they stayed on the Maidan (emphasis added).
At present, every third Ukrainian is prepared to resist a Russian invasion with armed force. An additional 21% are prepared to organize civil resistance. In any case, Russia has been engaging in a war with Ukraine for the past eight years. My journalist friends ... are readers of Chekhov and know that it is axiomatic that once a gun appears on the stage, the director must see that it is fired before the end of the last act. Mr. Putin has arranged very many guns on the stage. What choice is there but to be “ready to work, whatever comes”?
Philosophers have long struggled with how to think about the present, which cannot be grasped because it has no duration. For Jean-Paul Sartre, the present was the border between facticity—what simply is, what has happened and cannot be changed—and transcendence, an opening to go beyond what and who one has been until this moment. Revolution illuminates this border. It is as if, in Blanche’s words from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “You suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow.”