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Paul Vallely: Despair is not an acceptable response    

11 March 2022

What can ordinary people do in the face of barbarity, asks Paul Vallely


Demonstrators express solidarity with Ukraine in Trafalgar Square, on Wednesday

Demonstrators express solidarity with Ukraine in Trafalgar Square, on Wednesday

WHAT are we to do with our sense of impotence, our surge of anger, our inner shriek of moral outrage at the war in Ukraine, where it is now clear that Russia is not intent on fighting the Ukranian army, but on murdering civilians and sending a tsunami of refugees into Western Europe?

One prominent British general this week asked: does Nato fight Putin now or fight him later? But the consensus is against a no-fly zone, which risks starting the Third World War. And the politicians now so full of bombast previously reduced our army to its smallest size in more than three centuries — and cut back on armoured vehicles, arguing that we would never again see a tank war in Europe.

The sanctions that the West have imposed instead are severe enough to have caused the rouble to be drastically devalued. Russia’s credit rating has plunged to junk status. But still the missiles and shells rain down on Ukraine’s cities. What can we ordinary people do in the face of his barbarity?

In Russia, some brave souls are protesting. Some 10,000 have been arrested for publicly criticising the invasion, a seemingly foolish option, given the crushing power of a police state that has just introduced a 15-year sentence for even using the word “war”. The fool for Christ who stands up to naked power, as a kind of revenge of the repressed, is part of the Orthodox tradition, as Rowan Williams has pointed out.

But protest hardly seems prophetic here. Of course we can give money and send clothing, but that does not feel enough. Some ex-soldiers have talked about going out to fight, but the Chief of the Defence Staff has said that that would be “unlawful and unhelpful”. The peoples of neighbouring countries have opened their homes as well as their hearts with extraordinary direct generosity to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Mothers in Poland even left a line of pushchairs and baby buggies at the railway station for arriving families.

It is hard to say whether such direct action will be open to us. Last weekend, Poland had admitted 885,303 refugees, Hungary had welcomed 169,053 and 157,000 had entered the rest of the EU, while the UK had allowed in just 50. After the Home Secretary said that she was “surging our immigration capacity”, a BBC reporter found that at Calais the surge consisted of three officials handing out Kit-Kats and telling desperate refugees to go to Paris or Brussels to get their biometrics done. Perhaps we could contribute towards a daily payment for those families who have taken refugees into their homes in Europe.

There is another avenue: consumer power. We can support companies which have announced that they have stopped supplying Russia — and avoid others. Firms such as McDonalds, Starbucks, PizzaHut, Pepsi, and CocaCola only fell into line after campaigns on social media threatened boy­cotts unless they followed suit.

These may seem paltry responses to the multiple rocket-launchers devastating hospitals, schools, and homes. But they are weapons that you and I have. The Russian Orthodox mystic St Silouan, when beset by demons, heard God saying “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” Ukraine is our present hell. And despair is not an acceptable response.

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