‘Why don’t you get a proper job? You know all those languages, even Dutch! Why don’t you paint or draw more and make a living that way? ’I chastised my elder brother, Volodya, on the rare occasion he bothered to call me. I learned that he had changed his job yet again and was now working at Schiphol airport. He listened patiently and then replied: ‘What’s wrong with this job? I like it. I watch all sorts of people here. They are funny, rushing around with their luggage.’
In his eleven years in the Netherlands, my brother was mostly doing typical low-paid immigrant jobs. Hard work didn’t put him off. What did put him off was the xenophobic attitude he got from some employers. My brother was the sort of person who could be impatient even with those who showed love, so those who showed antipathy stood no chance: he would walk out of such jobs and never look back. Schiphol and its amusing people with their luggage seemed to suit him well. At least for the time being.
Earlier this month, I got off the plane in Schiphol late at night. My flight from London had been delayed. The airport was deserted and there were very few people with or without luggage around. I pulled my small bag along the spacious hall and imagined my brother working here all those years back. It’s been twelve years since he left the Netherlands for good. It’s been five years since he left this world for good.
I had come to Amsterdam to give a talk about Russia’s war in Ukraine. The invitation came from a Dutch professor of Slavic Studies keen to amplify Ukrainian voices. As a rule, Slavic Studies tend to be severely Russo-centric. Ukraine and other nations that fall into the ‘Slavic’ category are made to float like satellites around their big neighbour, desperately competing for resources. The disproportionate attention of scholars paid to Russia at the expense of smaller nations deprives the students of the opportunity to explore the rest of the region. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, in spite of numerous pledges from people in various fields, from academia to politics, not to discuss Ukraine without Ukraine, such conversations regularly go ahead either without Ukraine experts, or—what’s worse—with Russia experts who have no problem ‘explaining’ Ukraine to the rest of the world. This time things were different: I was invited precisely so that Ukraine could take centre stage, so that western Europeans could learn from their eastern neighbours. A rare case in the world of Westsplaining.
I was also thrilled to accept this invitation because it gave me a reason to visit Amsterdam. The last time I visited the city, my brother was still alive. Walking through Schiphol I wondered what it would be like to be in Amsterdam now that he was gone.
For years after Russia occupied Crimea and parts of Donbas in 2014, the vast majority of Europeans barely registered that the war was still ongoing, even when it was claiming lives daily. My brother who had volunteered to serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2015 was killed in action in 2017, near Popasna, in the Luhansk region, a place that was completely unknown outside of Ukraine at the time. In 2022, it is known as a town that was utterly destroyed by the Russians.
Not long before he was killed, Volodya called me from the frontline and, much like that time when he called from Schiphol airport, I tried to persuade him to change his job: ‘Why don’t you go back to civilian life? You’ve served at the front for 1.5 years. Maybe it’s time to paint again? To use your languages?’
Unsurprisingly, he didn’t take my advice this time either. He went back to the front for his second deployment as soon as he completed the first one. He said that what I hadn’t understood living in London was that this was already a European war; it just started in eastern Ukraine. From the trenches, he saw what I refused to see from the safety of my London home.
Giving talks about the war in Ukraine in London, Brussels, or Amsterdam in 2022, I notice that my audiences respond to me as I did to my brother in 2017: they refuse to accept that this is a European war. That it is affecting us all. It’s less frightening to think of it as a war that is still a safe distance away. This safety is illusionary, however, and it could slip away if we don’t exercise the freedom that is still available to us to help Ukrainians fight for the freedom that is being taken away from them. Taken away by a dictatorship for which free citizens pose an existential threat.
Being a bystander in this war is not an option, because the oil and gas we consume are already being paid for in the lives of Ukrainians. If the rest of the democratic world had not buried their heads in the sand for the first eight years of the war and if there had been the political will to sacrifice economic comforts in order to hold Russia accountable for breaking international law and occupying another sovereign state, we might not be in this situation now. If we had thought of Ukraine as part of our space, and the violation of its borders, the torture and killing of its citizens as our problem, the war might have ended in eastern Ukraine, where it started.
What we need to realise is that the war entered our safe homes long ago as misinformation fed to us by the Kremlin and tolerated by the international community, as economic blackmail that floated through the gas pipes, as indifference fuelled by fear and ignorance. Because we didn’t close our doors to it then, we are opening our doors to millions of Ukrainians who are fleeing the Russian shelling now.
Some of Ukrainian refugees came to my talk in Amsterdam. Several of them were from Irpin. They escaped just before the Russians started their raping and looting spree there. Liberated from the occupiers, their home is now slowly turning from a mass grave to a once again liveable suburb of the Ukrainian capital. They themselves are trying to settle in another capital, not feeling safe enough to return yet.
There are thousands like them in Amsterdam and millions all over Europe. I wonder what my brother would have made of this exodus of Ukrainians. He was so keen on moving back to Ukraine and couldn’t understand why I would choose the life of a permanent immigrant in the UK. He would understand these women, I am sure, because in the trenches in eastern Ukraine he saw exactly what the Russian aggression looked like. He would probably hope that at least these war refugees would avoid the prejudices he suffered from as an immigrant. He would have less understanding, however, for those who think that western Europe is totally safe. To them, he would say what he said to me in 2017 just before he was killed in action: don’t be fooled, this is a European war. It just happened to start in Ukraine.
This text was published in Dutch: 'Laat je niks wijsmaken, dit is een Europese oorlog', NRC, 3 June 2022.