It was the night the Russian army started bombing targets all around Ukraine while also attempting a futile paratrooper landing in Kyiv. My Franco-Ukrainian wife was back in Paris while I was reporting in the Ukrainian capital. Much of my February had been spent sitting around the lobbies of high-end hotels in the company of friends and colleagues from CNN and the Wall Street Journal. We spent those anxious prewar weeks ordering drinks on their expense accounts, debating when exactly the Russians would start bombing. As that moment finally came, my very even-keeled and practical...
It was the night the Russian army started bombing targets all around Ukraine while also attempting a futile paratrooper landing in Kyiv. My Franco-Ukrainian wife was back in Paris while I was reporting in the Ukrainian capital. Much of my February had been spent sitting around the lobbies of high-end hotels in the company of friends and colleagues from CNN and the Wall Street Journal. We spent those anxious prewar weeks ordering drinks on their expense accounts, debating when exactly the Russians would start bombing. As that moment finally came, my very even-keeled and practical wife called me in tears. The first thing she asked me to do was rip up or burn the red Russian passport gathering dust in a drawer back home in. Every Russian disgusted by the invidiousness of their army’s barbarism, she said, must now make a choice and demonstrate his values.
The second thing she asked me to do was to leave Ukraine, meet the women in her family, including her angelic nieces — now refugees in Moldova — and get them to France. Getting the men out was another matter. My stubborn father-in-law, a crusty old sailor, refused to leave. His own parents had waited out the Romanian occupation of Odessa in World War Two. He was concerned that some idiot would break into his garage and steal all his homemade hooch. He was not going anywhere.
When I arrived home in Paris with my refugee relatives in tow, I asked former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (probably the only man from New Jersey who always wears a bowtie) to join me in front of the Russian Embassy. We met next to the squat Brutalist monstrosity — a glorified nuclear bunker near the Bois de Boulogne. As my wife requested, I brought my Russian passport and a lighter.
In hindsight, the murder of 300 Russian-speakers huddling in the basement of a theater in the Russian-speaking city of Mariupol by the Russian Air Force was a harbinger of the barbarities to come. The Russian pilot who fired the missile that would kill all those Russian-speaking Ukrainians was ostensibly doing so to protect the Russkiy Mir (Russian world). In a modern-day manifestation of absurdism that would make Joseph Heller smile, the main democratic iteration of the “Russian world” was being cleansed of its fascist taint via a “denazification” campaign based on the premise that any opposition to Moscow is a manifestation of fascism. The Russian army which set upon Ukrainian towns and villages unleashed a campaign of butchery, rape and marauding against the civilian population. Unlike the cynics in the Kremlin and on Russian state television, who know full well that the fascist narrative is not serious, the Russian men abusing the people of Ukraine, stealing their lives and their washing machines, seemed to have internalized the nasty fantasy. But the Mariupol theater bombing was a mere preamble to what the world saw as the Russian army retreated from its indefensible positions around the Kyiv oblast.
The footage coming out of Bucha at the beginning of April showed unbelievable carnage. American warnings of kill lists turned out to be correct: men and women who had been active in local politics or the 2014 Maidan movement were targeted for murder, and hundreds of Ukrainian men were executed simply for being military age. On his return from observing the butchery in Bucha, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky looked like a man who had aged ten years in six weeks. Addressing the United Nations Security Council, he said, “It is obvious that the key institution of the world designed to combat aggression and ensure peace cannot work effectively.” Zelensky demanded that the council either eject Russia and reform itself, or go the way of the League of Nations. This stands as a direct counterchallenge to postwar institutional arrangements that mirrors Putin’s own: What exactly is the point of saying “never again” in Europe when we see these horrors?
The hatred the Russian war has engendered in the Ukrainian population is intense. It will doubtless last generations and the final cleavage of the Ukrainian state from Russia has likely already taken place. My social media feeds are full of Ukrainian intellectuals denouncing the Russian state, accusing Russians of complicity and vowing to cease speaking Russian at home. My Ukrainian-American friend Larissa Babij is asking her friends to purchase drones for the Ukrainian military in lieu of a birthday gift.
Back in Paris, I kept hoping that the 200 Impressionist masterpieces of the Morozov collection, on loan from Russia for a show at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, would be interdicted by the French as the first tranche of reparations from Moscow. After being expropriated by the Soviets, the Morozov collection consisted of many paintings that had originally been purchased in Paris. The French, intent on returning them, don’t appear to understand that handing them over to Kyiv would be a gesture as poetic as it would be worthwhile. I, however, appreciate the truth in symbolic gestures: that sunny spring afternoon near the Bois, beside the foreboding embassy, and with Ilves and other friends as witnesses, I burned my Russian passport.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2022 World edition.