500 km

Noam Chomsky, admittedly, one of most important linguists (and probably more widely) of 20th century has again spoken about the Russian invasion on Ukraine. I’d like to respond, even though I think he will never read it or care. In this post, I want to write what it has meant for me to live about 500 km from where bombs were falling. I’ve re-edited the post a number of times, I have attempted to make it less aggressive.

Before I start, let me offer a story. Many years ago, I was writing a paper with a colleague. It had some political implications and we started arguing about the Soviet Union and the United States and how to compare them. My colleague, a Scottish communist, was arguing that almost all evil in the world came from the USA, while poor Soviet Union had to defend itself against this bad, bad hegemon. My view was different. I pointed out that, of the two of us, I actually experienced the Soviet rule. And for me the main difference was that in the UK (or indeed) the USA, we freely debated such things, and in the Soviet Union, we would not be having a conversation like that at all. I don’t think my colleague was persuaded, still he somehow preferred to wear his Italian suits and drive a sporty car (communism or not, some needs had to be satisfied) rather than a Lada.

I also remember a Polish joke. An American said that in the US, he can stand in the middle of a street in Washington DC and shout: Down with the USA, and no harm would come to him. To this, a Russian said: no problem, I can also stand in the middle of a street in Moscow and shout ‘Down with the USA’ and no harm would come to me.

And now comes Mr Chomsky with his long-held views about the evil USA, saying that ‘we’, the West, should stop sending weaponry to Ukraine, as this stops negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. I am not going to put a link to his words, as I find them not only fatuous, but also harmful and dangerous. I also think that they are akin to someone proposing not to fight Nazi Germany in WWII as this stops them from negotiating.

But the point of this blog post is not to argue, it is to tell a story of the war from my perspective. It’s a story of fear. Ever since the beginning I have been scared, for me, for my family, for our way of life.

At the beginning of the invasion a number of things happened. For me, the first weeks were marked by daily and sometimes hourly checking whether Kiev had been taken. Every morning, after waking up and before anything else, I would check the news on my iPad. First Kiev, then where the bombs were falling. This is because I quickly realised that this was the closest I’d ever lived to a real hot war in my life. I live in the west of Poland, but it’s only about 5-6 hours drive to the border with Ukraine, about 500 km. That’s too close for comfort and the thought of how close we are to the war has been unsettling.

But then we all here heard President Biden who repeated that NATO would defend every inch of the NATO territory and that was comforting. Oh, yes, it was. I kind of wished he would say the little village I live in was a priority, but, let’s face it, that was unlikely. But as reassuring as such words were, they meant it was all for real. You know, politicians don’t say such things for the heck of it. The threat became even more real, my fear became stronger.

But what really made the threat real was something else entirely. First it is a little quirk I have. I like checking the planes that fly over me when I walk the dog. Almost always I reach for the phone and check what is flying above. I enjoy seeing all the various planes on all their different routes. But when Russia attacked, there was a change. The flights I saw were not only civilian. I started seeing American, British, German military planes going east or flying back going west. I couldn’t help looking at Poland’s skies on the app – there were more military planes than I had realised. Yes, they were patrolling the ‘eastern flank’. Things were really real. And my apprehension got another boost.

The second thing was that I started receiving emails about Ukrainian academics who had fled Ukraine and were looking for academic jobs in Poland. Quite a a lot of them were offered positions, although almost inevitably they were below the post they had had in Ukraine. For those desperate people, academics like me, life as they knew had just ended at they were asking for compassion, mercy, whatever you want to call it. I found it hard to take, I must admit.

Needless to say, Prof. Chomsky is a celebrity academic, probably surrounded by a little army of assistants, aides, fellows (you can’t produce all those books he published without an academic battalion at your say-so). He would find a job at the drop of a hat. After all, there are but a few who wouldn’t offer a job to the famous Noam. I wonder if he spared a thought to all those fellow academics, now desperate and displaced.

I also got several emails from the UK, from friends asking how we were and I kept replying that we were OK, just more and more scared. Because the idea that Russia could take Ukraine was (and still is) unthinkable. Indeed, when I hear that people in the west of Europe think the war doesn’t concern them, I find it extraordinary – surely, you can’t be so naïve. Or stupid. Ukraine is fighting so that we can continue walking our dogs in peace.

Of course, I am biased. I am a child of communism. I still remember my mother pleading with me to stop saying ‘politically incorrect’ things (such a very different meaning of the phrase) at school. One of my schoolmates’ father was a major in the political police (SB) and he warned my mother that I had become of interest. I was 17 at the time.

I have ‘lived experience’ of Russia, as it is fashionable to say. I suspect, Mr Chomsky’s lived experience is mostly of plushness.

Then, of course, what was supposed to be a 3-day war, continued and, daily, I could see hundreds of people queuing at the Ukrainian consulate in Wroclaw (it’s close to the University), and pictures of hundreds of thousands of refugees coming our way and being welcome here. Believe you me, Mr Chomsky, they were not tourists. They were fleeing the wonders of possible Russian occupation, seeking refuge in a NATO member-state. How silly of them. But why have you never moved to the USSR. or at least out of the USA? I must admit that I do have a few suspicions.

But as weeks and months passed, we all, I think, started getting used to the war (opinion polls confirm). Yes, there is still the unease, but somehow it becomes part of the routine. After all, we are still comfortable (remember that every inch of Poland will be protected), things are as they have been (we also have so much to worry about with the inflation, cost of living and many other things). Yes, over there, in Ukraine, they don’t do comfortable now, but let’s face it, they are over there, we are over here. And we have got used to the war. Sort of.

But then came the news and photos of mass graves discovered in the territories which had been occupied by the Russian army. Yes, we are talking about mass graves, people tortured, in Europe in the 21st century. All of a sudden, you don’t just realise it’s for real, you realise that the enemy is as cruel as it gets and it’s not a Chuck Norris movie. You realise that not much more than a promise (‘we’ll defend every inch…’) stands between us and sharing the fate of those poor Ukrainian souls. A promise is what allows us to keep the life we have now known for quite some time.

Then comes the news of shelling cities, nurseries, hospitals, blocks of flats. I keep reading that it has no military rationale. They do it because they can. So, how do you explain it, Mr Chomsky? Are you really saying that it would be better if Ukraine had no defence capabilities against such attacks? Are Russians targeting civilians against their own will? Are they destroying a society’s infrastructure with tears in their eyes?

So, the fear has come back!! In fact, you understand that it’s never gone away, it’s just got numbed somehow. I’ve been scared for the best part 8 months. What of, you might ask. Nothing much, really. I’ve been scared that I will lose the ability to drive to work, to walk the dog, to watch Netflix, to check the planes above me. Nothing major.

When I read an eminent thinker thinks ‘we’ should stop arming Ukraine because then Russians (and Ukrainians) would sit down to negotiate, the logic escapes me. Unless negotiations are those fun things you do when one party is crushed and the other takes over all their possessions. But as I get more and more irritated by the blinkered professor, I keep thinking that it’s really easy to offer those idiotic ideas when you sit in the plush leafy surroundings of MIT (do check the beautiful campus!). Chomsky doesn’t hear the shelling, people living on the Polish-Ukrainian border do. And I am so thankful that I don’t live in Przemyśl on the border. I’d be a nervous wreck by now. Being in the west, I can repeat to myself that 500 km is actually quite far away.

The other day, I read that Polish air raid shelters are being checked and Lugol’s iodine is distributed in schools. A number of friends of mine have already bought it and are making preparations for a nuclear attack. Silly them, after all, the moment we stop arming Ukraine, Russia will call it quits. Ain’t that right, Mr Chomsky?

Indeed, I would encourage Mr Chomsky to travel to Przemyśl. With two jobs in US universities, I am sure he can afford to rent a decent place for a few months. Actually, I would choose Lviv in Ukraine (a beautiful city) for him, but let’s be sensible. I would encourage him go to the border, to see all the individual human tragedies which are not caused by the West sending arms to Ukraine, but by Russia attacking Ukraine, and attacking non-military targets.

I would also suggest that threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons hardly comes from the sad and beautiful Russian soul. No, the source of it is aggression. And I do hope that if they do, NATO forces will blast them conventionally to kingdom come. I really do, out of fear, out helplessness, out of all the tragedy I have seen. But, thankfully, not yet experienced.

As I offer you insight into my continued fears, I would like to make a couple of other comments. Two things keep irritating me. First, it’s the symmetrist attitude. It’s something like: yes, Russia’s bad, but USA (and Ukraine)  is equally bad, they are all the same. It’s a fight of two evils, we don’t care.

There is much literature of USA’s atrocities, injustice, aggression. In fact, Noam Chomsky, when he was still worth listening to, also documented them. But today, I must admit, I don’t care. Today, it is the USA (and its NATO allies) that stand up to the Russian bully and, if the worst comes to the worst, I do hope they will defend my right to walk my dog unfettered, and in peace. Relativist thinking? Let me repeat – I don’t care. We’ll talk debate it till we’re blue in the face when it’s all over. And all of you living more than 500 km away from the border with Ukraine, have no right to judge this, quite frankly.

The second irritant are the arguments of the Other. Yes, Ukrainians have it bad (and boy, have they got issues and problems by the bucket!), but it’s as bad or even worse in country A, B, C, D. We didn’t help those countries, so who cares about Ukraine? Yes, people in many countries have it bad, moreover, many people, including me, didn’t lift a finger listening to the news of those far-away places.

But all it means that some places are more important to us (do notice I said ‘to us’) than others (plenty of research on this). In the same way that I care more about my children than I care about my neighbours’ children. I also care more about my friends’ than people I don’t know. And many of us (me included) have a thing about Europe as our home (though who exactly belongs to the mythical Europe is a thing of contention and quarrel), with all the values it connotes. I do feel European and it bothers me that my fellow Europeans are being killed in a senseless war.

When I listen to Mr Chomsky, so completely blinded by his distrust and hate towards America (I do wonder why he keeps subjecting himself to all the suffering of living there – can’t be the comfort, can it?), I respond emotionally. In fact, my fear turns to anger. And it’s not only because I think what he says is stupid, it’s because I think he can’t possibly understand what he says. Because in contrast to me, he is not scared. And in contrast to millions, he never had to drop everything and run for his life.

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