Out of sight, out of mind: Let’s not delegitimize the Russian invasion of Ukraine

By Niklas Walker

Monday afternoon, my roommate came back from class and told me that one of his classmates asked the professor what would be the appropriate way to joke about Ukraine. Thankfully, the professor replied with “you shouldn’t,” but the entire interaction had me scratching my head.

Over the last week, I’ve felt like I’ve been in a different world than some other students – students who can laugh and joke about the war crimes happening 5,000 miles away. It got me thinking: do student activists stop working as activists when issues are happening outside of the United States? 

Do we think of crises less when they aren’t happening in our own backyard? With the seemingly endless distance between the United States and Eastern Europe, and the constant humor surrounding it on places like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, have we subconsciously devalued the Russian invasion of Ukraine? 

Some context: I’m a Lithuanian American journalism student. My mother was born in Šilutė, on the western coast of Lithuania. Born 30 years into the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, she lived under the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union until she moved to Germany at the age of 18. Her family lived under the same Iron Curtain until Lithuania finally declared its own independence in 1990, and became the first Soviet-occupied state to do so. This led to three years of Russian violence, with two separate massacres of peaceful Lithuanian protestors, until the final remains of the Soviet Army left the country in August of 1993. 

So, you could say I’ve had beef with Russia since birth. 

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So far, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been eerily similar to the violence the Soviet Union inflicted on Lithuania. As of two hours before sitting down to write this piece, Russian military bombed the Ukrainian TV Tower, killing five and injuring more – a move practically identical to the events of Jan. 13, 1991, where Soviet forces occupied the Lithuanian TV Tower and slaughtered 14 Lithuanian civilians in cold blood. The parallels are horrifying, and they paint a much scarier picture than one that many Americans are currently aware of.

The Russian War Machine has not evolved. In the 30 years since the January events in Lithuania, it has not diminished or become any more diplomatic. These are imperialistic movements by a government with a lust for power. Lithuanians today are calling Vladimir Putin “Putler” – combining the Russian President’s name with Hitler’s – in case you needed the Lithuanian stance on this invasion to be made any clearer. 

Since the announcement of Russia’s “special military operation” last Thursday, I’ve seen minimal activism for an event that threatens global security in the way this one does. I feel as though Emerson students – and honestly, Americans in general – may not realize how this event really affects them, when truthfully, it has the potential to affect the entire planet in ways we haven’t seen since World War II. 

For one, economic sanctions on Russia will squeeze the global economy. Major countries like the U.S., the U.K., Japan, and even the historically neutral Switzerland have enacted economic sanctions on Russia. This will lead to heightened oil and gas prices, a disruption in supply chains for major industries like farming, travel restrictions due to Russia and Ukrainian airspace becoming no-fly zones, and even a more volatile stock market. Those are only the things that will affect American life right away. In the long term, this conflict will greatly affect American imports and exports, and the trickle-down nature of these industries could mean a deep impact on every American’s wallet. 

More importantly, however, the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens the basis of our global security. For those who don’t know, a huge reason for the Russian invasion was Ukraine’s interest in becoming a NATO ally. NATO is a military alliance between 28 European and two North American countries that agree to mutual defense in case of attack by an external party. 

Ukraine – which shares a border with Russia – is labeled as an aspiring member, much to the displeasure of Vladimir Putin. For Russia, a country with no NATO allegiance, having NATO bases a border away in a country that they had been at odds with for nearly six years was not ideal. As a matter of fact, last December Russia urged NATO not to include Ukraine in their alliance, something that NATO quickly refused. 

Countries that are a part of NATO — Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia— all have an extended history with Russian invasion. For many residing in the Baltic states, the fear is that the fall of Ukraine could escalate into a Russian “revenge tour” on NATO territory. This act would be considered a declaration of war on 30 countries, the U.S. included, and could lead to what would effectively be a third World War. The line has been drawn in the sand, and it’s up to Russia to cross it. 

With all this context, the question stands. Have we devalued the invasion? Why are students in classes asking how to crack jokes about a war that has already led to hundreds of casualties – women and children included – in less than a week? I’ve sat in classes where the invasion is reduced to “they won’t be drafting me” jokes, or “World War III am I right?” types of comments. Are people truly ignorant of the situation, or do they simply not care? 

The presence of social media activism surrounding the invasion is lacking as well. One of the only posts I’ve seen regarding Ukraine was one Emerson crypto-fan’s flex on how much Bitcoin had been donated to the country. While it’s great that large amounts of money are being used to fund the heroism of the Ukrainian people, it was the student’s only public acknowledgement of the invasion, or at least the only one I saw before I blocked them. 

They also did not post crypto-wallet info, or a link to the tweet asking for donations. It was simply a desperate cry for crypto validation using the topical nature of the invasion, and that is sick. If you’re going to use the death of civilians and the invasion of a sovereign nation as a vessel to promote the scam that is cryptocurrency, kindly go outside and touch some grass. 

I also rarely see the shallow infographic-based activism that has become so popular in the last two years. Perhaps this is a good thing, and internet activists have finally realized that hitting “share to story” is not real activism, but it does worry me that there could be a lack of actual awareness as well. 

So many people around me ask “why is this happening?” or “how does this affect us,” which is the biggest reason I felt moved to write this. Hopefully some of the context above helps people understand how this affects the entire world, not just Eastern Europe. 

Let’s be sure to take this seriously. There’s a time for jokes and there’s a time for action. Now is the time for action.

If you find yourself inspired after this but have no idea how to help because of the distance, I implore you to donate directly to charities, or directly to the Ukrainian military. Don’t “buy from Ukrainian brands” like the infographics might tell you. Instead, use your dollars towards organizations like the Lithuanian charity Blue/Yellow, who have committed thousands of dollars to Ukraine since the first outbreak of Russian violence in 2016. Support the Ukrainian Armed Forces, whose donation links can be found on the official Ukrainian Twitter page. Finally, you can donate to the Kyiv Independent, an English publication for Ukrainian news, and an invaluable resource for minute-to-minute updates on the situation in Ukraine at large. 

Can’t donate money? Spread awareness, but not hollow, pretty infographics made by freshmen MassArt graphic design kids. Post links to promote direct help from others who can directly assist. I would even cosign the posting of pictures and videos of Russian atrocities and war crimes. This situation isn’t pretty, and it shouldn’t be made out to be. Sometimes we need a reality check to light a fire under us and make things click. 

Hopefully you have a much better idea of what has the world glued to the news. Remember not to devalue these global crises, not only with Ukraine, but with Yemen, Syria, Libya, and other countries that may not get the screen time Ukraine does, but also suffer under the radar of the rich, white “Insta-activists” that can be found at Emerson. 

Activism doesn’t stop on American soil. True activists will fight for human rights around the globe. If you take anything from this, just remember that activism is possible, whether you’re five miles away or 5,500 miles away. The truth is, you never have to sit back and watch things happen.