Orbis Books has published a short book called Ukraine Diary by Henri J.M. Nouwen with an introduction by Borys Gudziak, a preface by Robert Ellsberg, and an afterword by Laurent Nouwen. The diary itself was written in the 1990s and deemed unworthy of publication. Now Ukraine is a hot news story. The preface, introduction, and afterword were written just recently and all in perfect harmony with the Western propaganda in which all that is wrong with the world emanates from Russia. The book includes virtually no acknowledgment that anything occurred in the 30 years between the writing of its various parts. The Russian empire simply waited for no explicable reason and then, after an empty 30 years, attacked, for no explicable reason — and attacked very Christian Christians. The introduction even expresses shock that, these many years after 1945 there is suddenly war again in the world — as if the years between the 1990s and 2020s existed but existed as a period of peace on Earth. The same introduction tells us that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a complete surprise but that Europe/NATO is newly united and that the whole world is turning against Russia. (It’s not the sort of book that provides footnotes for anything.) “Miraculously,” we’re told, “David stands up to Goliath The Russians’ brutality galvanizes widespread global solidarity with the victims.” The Ukrainians are “taking a stand, risking their lives for God-given principles and values.” There’s no mention of what those might be or explanation of why they would be worth anything in comparison with principles and values people actually thought of on their own. The same introduction argues against nuclear disarmament and blames that for the war.
The actual diary packaged into this little book is, of course, less focused on the Western party line as understood in the 2020s. It’s part trivial details, part an account of a newcomer learning a bit about Western Ukraine, part a very caring chronicle of the needs and sufferings of people, including physically handicapped and otherwise disadvantaged people. Nouwen writes:
“I have always known about the Holocaust as the blackest hour of our age. But now, after listening to Borys and reading different articles and books, I know that during World War I and the subsequent failed struggle for Ukrainian independence (1914-1920) between 2 and 3 million people died. Now I also know that during the year 1932-33 close to 4 million Ukrainians were starved to death when Stalin withheld food from the people to force them into submission, and that during World War II, when Nazi and Russian troops moved through Ukraine in rapid succession, close to 7 million inhabitants of Ukraine lost their lives. Now I know that in the 1930s virtually the entire political and cultural elite of eastern Ukraine was summarily executed or deported to death camps, and that during the 1950s hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of western Ukraine were forcibly sent to Siberia. Now I know that in the thirty years between 1929 and 1959 some 15 million Ukrainians perished due to war, famine, and political, cultural, and religious purges. The most recent disaster visited on Ukraine was the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which has contaminated a large region of northern Ukraine and Belarus. And now I know that until very recently most Ukrainians have never enjoyed real freedom. The immense suffering of the Ukrainian people is not as well known to the Western world as the immense suffering of the Jewish people, but it is no less real.”
This shows admirable concern to learn of the extent of suffering of various groups of people, but why is the Ukrainian people something separate from the Jewish people? Is there not a great deal of overlap between the two horrors Neuwen describes? Were not many of the Jews killed by Germany in fact Ukrainian?
And did not the suffering continue during the missing 30 years? Might not the author have cared about new forms of poverty, new coups, new wars, new racist riots and massacres, had he been alive? He writes very movingly about really treasuring the value of particular people. Would he have wanted to exclude any from his concern? He writes already in the early 1990s that both communism and capitalism have failed. He predicts, quite accurately, the rise of oligarchs, and worries, in fact, that the West will turn Ukraine into a third-world country. But does he understand eastern Ukraine, when he writes that many “Russians” live there, while never mentioning people who speak Russian and identify with Russian culture and with being Ukrainian — people like Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Jewish president and (if the Pentagon had anything to say about it) future saint?
Perhaps we can at least imagine that Nouwen intended to understand Ukraine in subtler terms than does his book’s afterward which tells us that “evil” is attacking the “sons and daughters of God,” and must be defeated.