We’re heartbroken by the news from Ukraine. So much unnecessary death and suffering, families separating or going in hiding or walking miles to find safety. For those of us in other parts of the world, the worst part is surely the feeling of helplessness. It seems wrong to be alive while elsewhere adults and children are senselessly dying, wrong to continue living as though life were somehow normal. Albert can’t stop thinking about the viral video of a Ukrainian soldier saying goodbye to his young daughter, who is being evacuated while he will stay to fight. He picks her up and holds her, sets her down, then breaks down in tears. Our own two-year-old daughter has the same puffy jacket, makes the same gestures. “Would I be able to do the same?” he asked me. “Leave behind my family to fight?”
Taiwan and Ukraine aren’t at all the same, of course, but the similarities are irresistible. Both are young democracies in which the memory of authoritarian rule is still fresh. Both bristle at the territorial ambitions of a neighboring superpower whose leaders claim “family” ties and espouse annexation by force. Ukraine, as Masha Gessen has said, proved that its people were “willing to die to live in a democratic society,” and activists in Taiwan too have died dreaming of a free country, their killers never brought to justice. Ukraine, continues Gessen, has “battled the demons of post-totalitarian society, creating social cohesion … and a political will to live in a better society,” and so has Taiwan. Despite its problems, Ukraine has embodied hope for Russians that democracy was possible, just as for the Sinophone world Taiwan offers hope of a flourishing and free society.
So it’s impossible to live here and not wonder what would happen in the event of a Chinese takeover. Would Europe, the United States, and international corporations be as venial, ineffective, and gutless as they have been this week? “What’s clear now is that nobody will come to our aid,” said a Taiwanese protester we met yesterday who admired the bravery of Ukrainians. “We can’t depend on anyone else. We have to fight for ourselves.”
Indeed, there’s an ancient, unchanging spinelessness—the incapacity to stand for anything, to have any values at all—that you can spot immediately, no matter which country is in peril. This is what it looks like in 2022: the Italian government creating an exception of luxury goods to its sanctions against Russia, because oligarchs should still have their Prada. YouTube monetizing the propagandistic Russia Today network, recommending it across the platform.Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who sat on the board of Russia’s energy multinational Gazprom, urging his nation to maintain “strategic ambiguity” even as Russia readied its soldiers and bombs.
That none of the major international institutions prevented this invasion also makes us think hard about Taiwanese progressives’ strategy in their struggle for international recognition. For so long, membership in the United Nations has been the goal for seekers of independence. But last week, when Russian tanks began rolling into Ukraine during a UN Security Council meeting, we saw the organization’s farcical ineffectiveness as an international institution. “Why did we fight so hard to join?” Albert wondered aloud. “If China launched an attack, the UN would still be arguing over whether to condemn military aggression.”
Solidarity protests have been in full force here in Taipei, mainly taking place in front of the Representative Office of the Moscow-Taipei Coordination Commission. (Because of Taiwan’s lack of diplomatic recognition, foreign “embassies” have comically forgettable names.) We met a Taiwanese person who had come from Taichung, an hour away by train, who said she’d been praying for Ukraine before the war started. We met a student of sociology and social movements in Hong Kong, who told us, “People who love freedom should stand up for each other and support each other.” We met someone who had followed the Crimea invasion carefully, who briskly laid out the two forms of self-sufficiency, agriculture and energy, that would be essential for Taiwan in the event of Chinese takeover. We also met Estonians who recalled bloodshed on their own soil, a Russian who demanded more from his country, Ukrainians who told us they were thinking of their families and loved ones back home, and Americans and Taiwanese who, like us, wished they could do more.
At yesterday’s protest, protesters gave each other sunflowers, holding them up to the sky during chants of No war, no war. The sunflower is another accidental commonality between Taiwan and Ukraine, perhaps the most buoyant one: Ukraine’s national flower happens to be the talismanic symbol of Taiwan’s dreamers, more than five hundred thousand of whom took to the streets and camped out at the legislature in 2014 in protest of the way a trade pact with China had been rammed through. The emblem wasn’t lost on anyone yesterday, fusing as it does two histories, two democracies, two peoples for whom a free world truly means something.
We’ll close with a message from a new friend Alex, a Ukrainian-American in Taipei:
“I feel a lot better than I did two days ago. First day was shock, sadness, disbelief. Now I’m still worried and sad, of course, but also angry and determined. My family is in the U.S., but I have friends and classmates back in Kharkiv. Some have evacuated to West Ukraine or to the countryside, some are hunkering down, one is stuck in Kiev with an assault unfolding around her.
It’s now clear that Putin won’t stop until he's stopped. Ukraine will do its part, but the rest of the world has a choice of whether to help.
We’ve gotten some help, but we need more. I wish everyone who is supporting us would do something—protest, petition, share information, educate, pressure their country to help, donate, even if it’s an insignificant amount. Every little bit helps. The number of people involved is more important than a large contribution. I hope we can set a precedent and send a message to every future maniac who is willing to sacrifice lives to try to conquer other countries that simply wish to be left in peace.”
Helpful lists of NGOs on the ground are here, here, and here. A few specifically:
NGO that arranges life-saving equipment for Ukrainian soldiers (only takes bank transfers)
Hospitallers working at the frontline (only takes bank transfers)
NGO that aids traumatised children (only takes bank transfers)
Army SOS, which helps fund the Ukrainian army (takes credit card)
Save Life, which funds protective and other defensive gear for the Ukrainian army (takes credit card)
NGO that provides medical aid and evacuation assistance (takes credit card)
Here are some links on how to stay informed and be engaged:
Yuliya Komska shares this list of nonprofits that do good work and are transparent with their reporting.
Some other historians to follow on Twitter: Victoria Smolkin, who is from Kyiv and one of Albert’s classmates from graduate school, Steven Seegel, who wrote a book on the city, and Faith Hillis.
Another one of Albert’s classmates from graduate school, Kevin Rothrock, is the managing editor of Meduza, one of the best news sites on Russia. We highly recommend this conversation with Faith Hillis at the University of Chicago for The Naked Pravda podcast. Kevin has also compiled several Twitter lists: the first on journalists on the ground in Ukraine and the second on Anglophone experts on Russia.
Speaking of war correspondents, read the work of Joshua Yaffa, who reports from Kyiv.
For a good analysis of the broader implications of the conflict, read Shane McLorrain and Noé Sainderichin’s multi-part series in Tocqueville 21.
The Mandarin version of this newsletter is here.
Upon receiving public pressure, Youtube announced five hours ago that it had blocked Russia Today and several other Russian channels.
Not enough bias - not subjective enough - B-