Updated: Feb 26, 2022
Photo Source: Andriyko Podilnyk
In the last decade of the 20th century, I moved to start a new life in Prague with my Czech husband. I had convinced my company to transfer me first to London, and subsequently to Prague, refusing to follow my future husband in his Eastern migrations, unless I could sustain my own career. I was excited, but also a little daunted by the prospect of beginning my new future in a country only liberated from the Soviet Union by the steely determination of the Czech people.
My exodus from life in the West was an adventure buoyed by my deep belief that the days of fascism, communism, and imperialism in Europe were finally at an end. I committed to making Prague my new home. I lived and worked there for nearly a decade. I studied the Czech language, refurbished a new home in a building belonging to the descendants of Alphonse Mucha, and had my first child, while living in Prague 6, Dejvice, next door to the grandiose Russian Embassy..
Central Europe, in the 1990’s, was filled with the promise that former international crimes against myriad smaller countries were relics of middle Europe's unfortunate, violent past. During the years that Central Europe was my home, this dark history was not an abstract concept only taught in schools. It was cloyingly palpable, and hung over us in the Czech and Slovak Republics like the acrid smoke from the countries' countless brown coal furnaces. Slovakia, the newborn Slovak Republic located on Ukraine's Western border, became the birthplace of the second headquarters for my growing multinational employer.
When I severed my ties with Prague for good in 2003, the schism had been a stress-filled, acrimonious one. I still believed, however, that democracy had permanently reclaimed Central Europe. I carried home with me to the States a bond of deep respect for that central part of world civilization, with its complexly beautiful languages, cultures, and history. My personal connection with Slavic history continues to transcend my ugly memories of my unsuccessful Czech marriage.
It never entered my mind that Russian aggression could resurface in the former Soviet Bloc countries, where it had been so definitively and joyously rejected. As I watch the news of Ukraine, it feels so achingly familiar. I realize that my déjà vu is not actually mine, but stems from the countless stories shared with me by those who endured the Nazi and Red Army incursions into their homelands during World War II and its crippling aftermath.
The proud bravery of the Ukrainian people clutches my gut in the same way today that the stubborn Czech and Slovak pride did so movingly thirty years ago. There is something almost childlike about their pure desire for democracy and self-determination. Peoples who have had and who continue to face such incredible, lingering threats will not relinquish their freedom easily. They know what Russia is trying to take from them.
We Americans, I fear, have become much too comfortable with the notion that our freedoms on this North American continent have an ineluctable permanency. I can tell you that they are sacred, but also infinitely fragile. Ukraine illustrates that daily for us on the screens of our devices. What happens in Ukraine may seem a world away, but it fundamentally threatens the future of democratic freedoms, as we know them, in the West.
If you don’t believe me, ask any Ukrainian today, who asks only for the independence to build and define democracy in Ukraine..