A lot of people can speak more knowledgeably and eloquently than I can about what the Ukrainian people are facing right now in the midst of an invasion by Russia. I only add my Milwaukee perspective for the sake of solidarity and awareness.
I spent a week in Ukraine in 2018, during which I visited my friend Nellie in Kyiv. Nellie was a fellow Saint Mary’s College graduate serving in the Peace Corps in central Ukraine. One of the first things she had me do when I arrived was watch a documentary on the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14, when the Ukrainian people made their stand against the corrupt, oppressive government.
Nellie took me to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square where more than a hundred Ukrainians were killed in defense of democracy and human rights, and I was grateful to have that context in order to understand a small part of what happened there, what it had cost, and who Ukraine chose to be: a valiant, resilient, resolute people who refused to sacrifice their dignity.
Over the next few days in Kyiv, as my awareness of Ukraine’s proud and painful history expanded, that picture became clearer. Through famines and iron curtains, state-sanctioned murder and the suppression of language, Ukraine endured.
I saw that Ukrainians’ love for their country was not rooted in arrogance or nationalism or a refusal to acknowledge history, but in shared struggle, shared joy, and shared understanding of how precious self-determination really is. An understanding many Americans simply cannot grasp.
After Kyiv, I went to Lviv in western Ukraine. In light of Ukraine’s long resistance to imperialism and extermination, I was even more moved by its beauty: cobblestone streets, soaring cathedrals, museums, clocktowers, and street vendors. It is a city of spectacular churches and art, inspiring faith among believers and awe among everyone.
It is also the city where I met a young woman named Veronika, who came to my aid when I had a frightening incident on the street. She spent the whole afternoon guiding me through Lviv’s gentle, hospitable side, through parks and university campuses and beneath flowering trees. She turned a moment of fear into a day of kindness I will never forget.
So when I think about Ukraine, I think of Veronika, the Church of Sts. Elizabeth and Olga, the Easter markets and open-air book fairs and proud lion statues of Lviv. I think of Maidan, the Motherland Monument, the government buildings and shopping centers and bustling traffic of Kyiv.
I think of beauty, promise, and survival. I think of dignity, and I am angry that a despot like Putin has the gall to lay claim to any of it. Especially a claim that will tear so many lives apart.
It is true that we should not need a personal connection to care about a place. But it is also true that a personal connection is one of the ultimate powers in the universe, strong enough to end wars. Indeed, perhaps the only power that can.
As an artist, this belief is central to my work. So my hope is that sharing my personal connection to Ukraine, however small, will inspire a personal connection for others as well. I hope that sharing a story is better than silence.
Ukraine does not belong to Russia. It has only ever been and will only ever be its own nation. To Ukraine and to all democracies fighting for sovereignty against empires – including our own, we owe our vocal and material support.
Слава Україні. 🇺🇦 Glory to Ukraine.