To those of us who lived in Europe at the time, photos of Independence Square were immediately recognizable. They represented shared wounds and terrifying possibilities for the near future.
In December of 2013, demonstrations in Ukraine’s capital city turned violent. Demonstrators, responding to pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych’s openly anti-western trade deal, occupied Kyiv’s City Hall and Independence Square, a nearby plaza. Over eight hundred thousand protestors flooded the streets from December until February, when violent clashes between protesters and police rose to a fever pitch. In twenty-four hours, on February 20, 2014, at least eighty-eight people were killed (and hundreds more wounded) by uniformed snipers from the separatist Ukrainian army and police.1 The Ukrainian parliament voted to remove their president from power, and in less than a week Putin responded with aggression. Russian-military-backed separatist rebels began capturing strategic buildings in Crimea, leading to its annexation. Thus began the Russo-Ukrainian War, as the Ukrainian government became locked in a bitter conflict with a well-armed, well-trained contingent of rebels and eventually official Russian Armed Forces units that resulted in more than thirteen thousand deaths from 2013 until 2020.2 The conflict is not entirely resolved at the time of this essay’s writing.
Upon being given the prompt to write about a “recent or contemporary news event” in response to an exchange in Donald Marguiles’s 2010 play, Time Stands Still, that dealt thematically with distance from conflict, I was lost. I began to look back on some of the biggest conflict events of the last decade and discussed them with my roommate. We remembered the Capitol riot and BLM protests of the last year, ISIS’s push across the Middle East, the Boston Marathon bombing, Osama Bin Laden’s death, and the tsunami in Japan. But when I brought up the annexation of Crimea and the destruction in Kyiv, he was confused—he vaguely remembered something happening between Russia and Ukraine, but it faded into the background as just more global noise; the events were not something that a young teenager would spend any of their valuable time or attention on. For me, it was different. My family had just moved to the Czech Republic, only hundreds of miles away from Ukraine, and aggressive Russian expansionism was a very real fear that permeated the sociopolitical landscape of my new post-communist home. Two images showing Independence Square, one before the conflict and another immediately following some of the heaviest fighting, jogged my roommate’s memory a little, but to those of us who lived in Europe at the time, these photos were immediately recognizable. They represented shared wounds and terrifying possibilities for the near future.
In a tense moment of Time Stands Still, one of the central characters, a conflict writer named James, finds out that his story about a human rights crisis involving refugees isn’t going to be included in an upcoming issue of an unnamed but affluent magazine. He’s a journalist, wrestling between his need to cover important stories and the traumatic experience of witnessing human suffering. He protests to his friend and editor, Richard, “Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. That’s why I write these fucking things. People need to know.”3 But Richard, allowed the story to be cut. The people don’t need to know, counters Richard’s wife, Mandy. Even if it had gone to print and she’d read it, “what am I supposed to do with this information[?]” she asks, as an “ordinary person. It’s not like I can do anything.”4 An ordinary person, in Mandy’s view, is anyone lucky enough to be “born in the half of the world where people have food to eat and don’t go around hacking each other to death”: someone far enough removed from conflict that their daily life isn’t negatively affected by the tragedies in less stable areas of the world. To Mandy, there is a clear binary: either you emulate Richard’s path and put yourself in the shoes of those halfway around the globe, sharing in the danger and suffering of those third-world agents of conflict… or you don’t, and you’re free to be “ordinary.” But Ukraine isn’t a third world country, and Kyiv is the seventh most populous city in Europe.5 It is quite literally, in our “half of the world.”
One would think that a modern civil war encroaching closely on the European Union would have a proportional news presence to recent conflicts in the Middle East. However, when my family moved back to the United States in 2016, I began to hear much more about ISIS in Iraq and Libya, and much less about the war that was affecting my former neighbors. It occurs to Susan Sontag that this may not be due to a deficiency in American attention—at least, not intentionally. She argues in her 2003 book of essays, Regarding the Pain of Others, that “those whom war spares are callously indifferent to the sufferings beyond their purview.”6 The key word here is “purview,” which she’s using here to mean “the reach of influence.” Conflict in the Middle East is much more likely to influence news-consuming Americans, who are concerned about their loved ones who may be serving in the military or have a financial stake in the price of oil. Middle Eastern conflict is within the purview of Europeans as well—during my time in the Czech Republic, there were terror attacks by the Islamic State across Europe—but they are also forced to contend with the Ukrainian crisis in their backyard and cannot afford to be “callously indifferent” as Mandy is about the refugees James is covering.
Sontag would classify both Mandy and my roommate with all others who are personally unaffected by conflict as “those whom war spares.”7 They feel that their distance from conflict removes all agency, making them powerless to do anything but spectate, and, in James’s words, “feel bad, and turn the page, and thank God.”8 But is the act of spectating and informing oneself about world events not an action in itself? When award-winning photojournalist Rodrigo Abd came as a guest to Lauren Walsh’s Fall 2021 Interdisciplinary Seminar, “Contemporary Visual Culture and the Politics of Images,” we students asked him how a spectator should regard an image of pain or suffering. He answered by saying that an emotional reaction or one of appreciation is inappropriate. The only useful way to view tragic images of destruction and conflict is in order to learn about other parts of the world that you’ve never seen before, to get a better idea [or] understanding.9 of the world we live in, even if that involves confronting stories, photos, and events that may scare or shock us. As Sontag states, “sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.”10 The first step toward positive action is making an effort to be aware of worldwide events, conflicts, and tragedies. This effort is achieved in no small part by reading stories like those James writes and viewing images taken by Abd and his photojournalist contemporaries. But it is only the first step towards positive action.
The conflict that began in Kyiv was the flashpoint that started a conflict that has lasted almost eight years. It wasn’t especially difficult for my fellow high school students in Prague to stay informed on Ukraine’s crisis those first few years, especially due to its proximity to our home. Its pertinence in our lives only increased when, in 2014, two Ukrainian students joined our class after their families were forced to emigrate over fears of invasion. One told our class that she and her family lived only blocks away from Independence Square and had spent entire weeks holed up, listening to shouting and gunshots, afraid to leave for fear of being caught up in the chaos. But they made it away unscathed. Time went on, and as the conflict showed no signs of either stopping or escalating beyond local clashes on the Russo-Ukrainian border, its presence in our minds began to dwindle. We felt less threatened by the crisis and began to feel more like Mandy, using our distance and lack of agency to justify our lapse in attention. Sontag explains this cultural phenomenon as well, saying that it is when “a war, any war, doesn’t seem as if it can be stopped that people become less responsive to the horrors.”11 There wasn’t much that we, as students, almost one thousand miles away from the conflict could do besides be dimly aware of the fighting. And with no meaningful change in power dynamics between Ukrainian troops and the separatist militia, the continued hostilities lapsed entirely out of our awareness.
As of fall 2021, the crisis between Russia and Ukraine has not yet been resolved. As recently as April of this year, Russian troops have been stationed on the Ukrainian border, amounting to “about forty thousand on the eastern border and about forty thousand in Crimea.”12 The world watches, waiting for further moves to be made, but as with any war, lives have already been irreversibly altered due to the conflict. A photo shows a young Ukranian woman, stranded by the side of the road with her luggage, after a “siege by government troops has seen water, electricity and food supplies cut off” in the early days of the conflict, back in 2014.13 Susan Sontag believes that simply regarding world conflict, becoming aware of it, isn’t enough. She would answer Mandy’s question (“What am I supposed to do with this information?”) by, once again, telling her to reject the temptation to feel sympathy, as it’s an emotion as undesirable as “apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia”; Sontag charges first world spectators to “set aside the sympathy . . . for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering.”14
I believe that Sontag, while her commentary is well-reasoned, is not the final authority on how we, as spectators of conflict, should behave. Rather than a binary choice, there is a spectrum. Sontag occupies the opposite end of the spectrum from Mandy: Mandy’s contingent would choose not to even look at the image of this crying girl, blissful in their ignorance of her plight. On Sontag’s end, the regarding of tragic images should serve only to confront that “the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others.”15 To apprehend this truth is undoubtedly important, yet not always practical or even applicable. I contend that most of us should (or should strive to) fall somewhere in between, neither paralyzed by the horrors of conflict and its implications, nor completely unaware. It’s our duty as citizens of the world to inform ourselves and to resist the inclination to become insular, but not to the point where we lose sight of what’s important to us personally. In the process of writing this paper, I reached out to my former Ukrainian classmate. She’s well. She’s in a serious relationship with another friend from our school in Prague, overcame a case of “long Covid,” and is resuming her studies as a pre-med student in France. I asked her about her experience back in the winter of 2013 to 2014. She told me that the experience will stay with her for the rest of her life, and that her father keeps her updated on the current situation—but no, she doesn’t think about it very often. Time goes on.
- BBC Associated Editors, “Ukraine Crisis in Maps,” BBC News, February 18, 2015.
- Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine 16 November 2019 to 15 February 2020,” United Nations, February 15, 2020.
- Donald Margulies, Time Stands Still (Theatre Communications Group, 2010), 63.
- Margulies, Time Stands Still, 63.
- “City Mayors: The 500 largest European cities (1 to 100),” The City Mayors Foundation, September 14, 2021.
- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Picador, 2003), 62.
- Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 62.
- Margulies, Time Stands Still, 64.
- Paraphrased from Q&A with Rodrigo Abd on November 1, 2021, at NYU Gallatin, New York; notation courtesy of Tomer Keysar.
- Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 102.
- Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 101.
- Laurence Peters, “Is Russia Going to War with Ukraine? And Other Questions” BBC News, British Broadcasting Corporation, April 13, 2021.
- Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 102-103.
- Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 102-103.
- Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others.