For more than a month, the world watched as Russia began encircling the nation of Ukraine, all the while insisting it had no plans to invade. Now we watch as the horror unfolds daily.
We’ve heard of artillery shells falling on a nuclear power plant. Kindergartens and theaters bombed. Apartment blocks and entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble. A tank obliterating three people in a car. Hundreds of orphans walking into Poland, some unaccompanied, dazed and crying into their scarves.
We’ve seen civilians defusing a live Russian bomb by hand. Residents drinking water from water heaters after weeks of surviving freezing temperatures with no electricity or heat. Air strikes on at least 20 health care facilities, including a maternity ward and a children’s hospital.
The Ukrainian response to such an onslaught has captivated the world. The polling service “Rating” reports that 88 percent of Ukrainians believe they will repel the Russian attack, and 98 percent support the actions of Ukrainian armed forces.
More than two million have fled for safety, but those who remain have hardly surrendered. They are fighting back with Molotov cocktails and hunting rifles in support of their military, which has performed better than anyone—especially Vladimir Putin—imagined.
Peter Wehner wrote in The Atlantic that “what drove support for Ukraine were the human virtues being displayed in a terrible human drama.”
“It was seeing ordinary people—including the young and the elderly—act in extraordinary ways to defend the country they love, against overwhelming odds. It was seeing people do the right thing at the risk of death when nearly every instinct within them must have been screaming: Do what you have to do to survive, even if survival, though not dishonorable, is less honorable.”
He continues, “Whatever fate awaits them—and right now the Russians are laying siege to cities that are home to millions—the people and the president of Ukraine [Volodymyr Zelensky] have shown that love of honor never grows old, even to a world that is sometimes indifferent, weary, and cynical.”
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said about fighting injustice, “If a man has not discovered something he will die for, he is not fit to live.”
In its tragic history, Ukraine has grown familiar with suffering.
I visited the country in 2018 and found the main tourist sites were monuments commemorating human atrocities in their nation’s past. I toured the Famine Museum, a memorial to the millions of Ukrainians who died of starvation in the 1930s when Soviets took over their farms and confiscated their crops.
Other museums recounted the occupation by Hitler’s army in World War II, when Kyiv alone suffered a million casualties—more than the total number of American casualties in the entire war. In the countryside, the fighting destroyed 28,000 villages.
The following day I visited a grassy ravine at the edge of the city. Today Babi Yar is a park, a peaceful sylvan setting, nestled in a neighborhood of shops and houses; but the very name conjures up scenes of genocide. Babi Yar was Hitler’s first act of mass murder in his campaign against the Jews. SS soldiers rounded up the city’s Jews, stripped them naked, and machine-gunned them at the edge of a cliff.
Around 22,000 died the first day and 12,000 the second. More than a million Jewish Ukrainians died in the Holocaust, including many relatives of Zelensky—a Jew, who understandably finds it revolting that Vladimir Putin tried to present him and the Ukrainian government as part of a “neo-Nazi” movement.
Hitler’s defeat led to four more decades of Soviet occupation. When the USSR collapsed, Ukraine at last saw an opportunity to become independent. In 1990, 300,000 Ukrainians formed a human chain in a show of unity, linking hands along a 340-mile route from Kyiv to Lviv.
The next year, 92 percent of the population voted for independence from Russia. In a separate agreement, the new nation gave up its nuclear weapons (the world’s third largest stockpile) in exchange for security guarantees. As one of the signers, Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Democracy got off to a rough start in Ukraine. If you think US elections are dirty, consider that in 2004, when the Ukrainian reformer Viktor Yushchenko dared to challenge Viktor Yanukovych—the party backed by Russia—he nearly died from a suspicious case of dioxin poisoning.
Ignoring the warning, Yushchenko remained in the race, his body weakened and his face permanently disfigured by the poison. On election day, an exit poll survey showed him with an 11 percent lead, and yet the incumbent government managed to reverse those results through outright fraud.
In one of the little-known twists of history, deaf people sparked a peaceful revolution. On election night, the state-run television station reported, “Ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Viktor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.” However, government authorities had not taken into account one feature of Ukrainian television: the translation it provides for the hearing-impaired.
On the picture-in-picture inset in the lower right-hand corner of the television screen, a brave woman raised by deaf-mute parents gave a very different message in sign language. “I am addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine,” she signed. “Don’t believe what they [the authorities] say. They are lying and I am ashamed to translate these lies. Yushchenko is our President!”
Inspired by their translator, Natalya Dmitruk, deaf people texted and emailed their friends about the fraudulent elections. Soon other journalists took courage from Dmitruk’s act of defiance and likewise refused to broadcast the party line. Spontaneous protests broke out in major cities, and the Orange Revolution was born.
In Kyiv, 500,000 flooded Independence Square, many of them camping out in frigid weather and wearing orange in support of Yushchenko’s campaign colors. Over the next few weeks, the crowd swelled to a million at times. When outside observers proved election fraud had occurred, courts ordered a new election—and this time, Yushchenko emerged as the undisputed winner.
Ten years later, the Russian-backed candidate that Yushchenko defeated was serving as president. He had amassed a fortune of $12 billion and lived in a mansion complete with a private zoo, a fleet of 35 cars, a golf course, and an underground shooting range—while most Ukrainians were living in poverty. When he halted the new nation’s tilt toward Europe and instead sought closer ties with Russia, Ukrainians took to the streets once again. Parliament ultimately ordered new elections, and a pro-Europe president won.
A bearded guide named Oleg led me through memorials to the “Heavenly Hundred,” a list of names honoring the 130 people killed by snipers firing from government buildings during the 2014 uprising. Another 15,000 demonstrators were injured in the same protest.
“This was an internet revolution,” Oleg said. “As word spread online, taxis began offering free rides to protesters from all over the city. I set up a prayer tent in the midst of half a million protesters and spent 67 days there. We provided a place for prayer, and distributed bread and hot tea to activists and police alike. And now I make trips to the front lines in an armored van, ferrying supplies of food and water to the soldiers and civilians caught up in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.”
Shortly after the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity,” Russia used the opportunity to seize the Crimea peninsula and two other regions, starting a minor war that set the stage for the full-scale invasion we are watching now.
I think of the poignant poem by Ann Weems, “I No Longer Pray for Peace.” Like many Americans, I feel a sense of helpless despair as I see the death and devastation in Ukraine. How can we pray?
I pray first for the 40 million Ukrainians left behind, struggling to survive as jets scream overhead and tanks target their homes and hospitals.
I pray for the refugees streaming into Hungary, Poland, Moldova, and Romania, as well as the thousands lucky enough to escape to faraway places such as the UK, France, Canada, and the US. I pray for the husbands and fathers who remain in their homeland, risking their lives to repel invaders. I pray for the host families who meet refugees at border crossings and train stations with offers of free lodging.
I pray for the Christian ministries such as Mission Eurasia and New Hope Ukraine, many of which were based in the bedroom community of Irpin, scene of some of the fiercest fighting.
One of the leaders stated in a newsletter email, “We’ve learned to love and to hate on a whole new level. We’ve discovered what it means to hate evil to the very core of our being. And we learned to love the truth. The truth that sets us free. … Many of us just don’t have any tears left. Now we all are just so angry about all the injustices done to us, and we ask the Lord of Hosts to display His righteous judgment.”
I pray for the Russian soldiers. British intelligence has intercepted some of their panicky phone calls home. They were told they would be welcomed with flowers, as liberators, and instead find themselves in the midst of a bloody war against Ukrainians determined to resist. TheNew York Times issued a report saying that some demoralized Russian units have laid down their weapons and surrendered, or sabotaged their vehicles, to avoid a fight.
I pray for the Russian people, who are hearing an entirely different version of events. It’s a limited military operation, they’re told, with no civilian casualties. Meanwhile, the hostile West is trying to strangle their country economically. Those who protest the war are arrested, and just using the word war on social media risks possible jail time.
I pray for my own country, that we would not grow weary of higher gas prices and a falling stock market or fail to support those who stand up for freedom and justice.
Yes, I also pray for Vladimir Putin. Did not Jesus tell us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? It would take a colossal miracle for a dictator with such ego-driven determination to experience a change of heart—the kind of miracle the exiled Hebrews witnessed in Nebuchadnezzar’s day (Dan. 4).
Tish Harrison Warren wrote recently of the maternal rage she felt while staring at the image of an anguished Ukrainian father holding his young son’s lifeless, blood-stained body: “An innocent child was violently killed because Russia’s leader decided that he wanted a neighboring sovereign country as his own.”
She found an odd kind of solace in the imprecatory psalms, which call down God’s judgment on evil. “This is the world we live in,” she wrote. “We cannot simply hold hands, sing ‘Kumbaya,’ and hope for the best. Our hearts call out for judgment against the wickedness that leaves fathers weeping alone over their silent sons. We need words to express our indignation at this evil.”
For Christians, Putin offers a cautionary tale. After the Soviet Union dissolved, formerly atheist Russia warmly welcomed an influx of foreign missionaries who taught Bible in the public schools, established a Christian university, and organized a host of evangelical ministries. Many of them praised Putin, who rebuilt churches and took their side on Russia’s version of the “culture wars.”
Eventually, though, most foreign-based ministries were forced out by a strategic alliance between Putin and his staunch supporter, the Russian Orthodox Church. The official church gained access to power and government sponsorship, while Putin gained a loyal following.
In light of this, Russell Moore draws a lesson we dare not ignore: “Evangelical Christians should watch the way of Vladimir Putin—and we should recognize it whenever we are told that we need a Pharaoh or a Barabbas or a Caesar to protect us from our real or perceived enemies. Whenever that happens, we should remember how to say, in any language; ‘Nyet.’”
Philip Yancey is the author of many books including, most recently, the memoir Where the Light Fell.