The moment Russian President Vladimir Putin marched his forces across the border into neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the world was shocked. Not that Putin was going to do it — it was an open secret that an invasion was imminent. No, the world was shocked because it couldn’t believe he actually did it.
In greater Riverdale, many in the Jewish community and some émigrés decided to act after the shock wore off.
“We allow the stories of strife, grief and stress to wash over us,” Alexandra Nyashina said after returning from her trip as part of a Riverdale Y effort last spring. “We hear the stories of loneliness, fear and helplessness. We see the hope and gratitude in the eyes of those we speak to. The memories of missiles, the visible strain of days, weeks, and months of travel all gather in the crow’s feet at the eyes of the babushkas.”
“I just want to help,” said Inna Kadaev, who joined Nyashina. The Ukrainian “people need help. They are traumatized. They need some connection to sympathetic people. Moral support. Guidance. They just want to be taken care of after having suffered the loss of their homes and, in some cases, relatives and friends.”
As for the invasion, it was the largest European invasion since World War II, pitting a superpower — Russia — against a much smaller, yet far grittier, opponent. Yes, there was ample pride on the Ukrainian side, where they waved the blue-and-yellow flag. But this was Russia we are talking about.
More than 900,000 soldiers, with another 2 million on standby — triple the numbers Ukraine boasted, according to a CNN report at the time. Nearly 16,000 tanks, 1,400 planes, nearly 1,000 helicopters, compared with Ukraine’s total of barely 3,500 in all three of those categories of armaments.
And Russia has dedicated more than $45 billion per year to defense spending, while Ukraine spends $5 billion.
On top of that, its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had spent his entire life as a comedian and actor, not a politician or even a military leader. This wasn’t going to be a long campaign.
Or so we thought. It turns out that underestimating Ukrainians’ tenacity, pride and desire to stay independent is a mistake. Especially if you’re Russia.
More than 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the conflict, according to NBC News, compared with 13,000 Ukrainians. But so have more than 7,000 civilians, including hundreds of children. Then again, it’s likely that casualties on both sides are actually far higher.
And that is the truest cost of war. Not the billions of dollars poured into it, but the lives that are damaged or destroyed, and especially those that are lost. Governments see war as territorial expansion, or acquisition of resources. Sometimes it might be necessary to remove someone truly evil, or it could simply be over what kind of faith you practice.
But in the end, all it really accomplishes is turning the world upside-down. Even after Russia bullied its way into the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine was home to 44 million people who lived their lives the same way we do — looking to leave our society in a better place than we found it. Getting married. Having kids. Spending time with our grandchildren. Working dream jobs. Counting down the days toward retirement and relaxation.
Some 8 million people have left Ukraine since the invasion, and many will never return. Even if they do, with the blue-and-yellow stripes flying above Kyiv, it will take years — if not decades — to rebuild. To heal. To move forward.
“I know a great deal of the horrors and tragedies of war,” U.S. Army Gen. George C. Marshall once said. “The cost of war in human lives is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones. I am deeply moved to find some means or method of avoiding another calamity of war.
Yet the constant deluge of horrors from war is never enough to turn us off from it. As long as there are people on Earth, there will be wars. Most of us are fortunate we haven’t been caught up in it, but we don’t have to be there to feel the pain.
Just ask Lauren Calihman and Shabbos Kestenbaum, both of Riverdale, who coincidently ran into each other in Poland last winter trying to help Ukrainians who fled the initial invasion.
That journey — along with the entire volunteering effort at large — left a strong impression on Calihman, who has a pair of grandparents who were Polish Holocaust survivors.
“It also caused me to reflect a lot on my story of my grandparents, who themselves were refugees from that area, and wound up in Riverdale eventually,” she said. “Watching the outpouring of the entirety of Poland and so many international volunteers, there was a bittersweetness to it because I realized that my grandparents and their families didn’t receive that sort of outpouring of support.”