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Ukraine and the freedom to breathe

“All I ask is room to breathe.”

People wait for a train to Poland at the railway station of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on February 26, 2022. - Ukrainian forces repulsed a Russian attack on Kyiv but "sabotage groups" infiltrated the capital, officials said on February 26 as Ukraine reported 198 civilians killed in Russia's invasion so far. A defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed his pro-Western country would never give in to the Kremlin even as Russia said it had fired cruise missiles at military targets. | YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP via Getty Images

It wasn’t merely a lone individual speaking those words on that day in 1993. It seemed to be a whole nation voicing the cry as we drove from Boryspil International Airport toward newly freed Kyiv.

I was part of a team going to teach in an evangelical seminary, one of those institutions that had flashed into existence throughout the former Soviet Union after the collapse of Communism.

My assignment was to teach a course on ethics, a topic that had been swept away in the era dominated by atheistic Marxism.

For three-quarters of a century, that grim movement had shrouded Ukraine and its people, stifling the liberties the God-created human spirit and soul must have like the physical body craves air to breathe.

With the lifting of communist restrictions, ethics and other biblically-based topics could be freely proclaimed, and Ukrainian men and women wanted to shout it from the housetops.

The school was located in an old factory building, stark and cold. Its walls were covered with murals depicting the mythologies of Marxism, like happy workers laboring in lush fields.

It was not just the seminary students who had an eagerness to come out from under the Marxist blanket, but it seemed the passion of a nation that had just discovered oxygen.

What inspired the students — men and women, young and old — was the new liberty to preach the Lordship of Christ without the presence of KGB-installed “Red Pastors” planted in their congregations to spy on them, intimidating and squelching any utterance that they believed to be a criticism of the Communist regime.

The streets of Kyiv were buzzing with excited people. Department stores thrived. Yet the remnants of the old times of enslavement were still here and there. Our apartment was on the 15th floor of a Soviet-era building, and the ride up was usually in darkness because the moment a fresh bulb was installed it was stolen. Grocery stores had the outward appearance of supermarkets but were characterized by long lines with little at the end.

Yet there was humor. Part of the freedoms was the ability to joke about the former regimes. One day as I walked in Kyiv with our translator, a high-ranking military man approached us. Our interpreter told him we were from America and that I had worked in the White House. The man replied with gusto and friendliness. We laughed that once we were enemies but now, we could shake hands in the open.

On another day we ate a happy Sunday lunch with a group of Russian soldiers. What made it special was that we were dining post-service in a Pentecostal church where in the times just ended the soldiers might have been there to shut it down and imprison its leaders.

I rejoiced that former enemies could joke about our proximity to the power that could obliterate entire cities.

And now, with Putin’s power-grab on the Ukraine, we are back in those dicey times.

There are differences in this present moment.

In the Cold War, the combatants warred over ideology: Communism vs. Capitalism. Yet it was much more nuanced than that. It was the struggle between regimes of despotic, enforced power vs. a system that sought to protect essential liberties, like freedom of speech and belief.

The Cold War was also a religious war: Marxist atheism vs. the Judeo-Christian theistic worldview and its implications for individuals and their society.

What we face now is more like World War One than the Cold War. in the First World War, there was the clash between titans — mighty rulers of European states who battled for dominance over Europe.

So, Putin’s anger is aroused by Ukraine’s desire to attach itself to the West, away from his control. The men in the trenches in 1917-18 would understand the dynamics.

And so can we now.

I wrote in these pages recently that when authority-holders sense it slipping away from them they will grab for raw power. Hence, Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Some analysts say he is attempting to build a new order under totalitarians like himself, China’s Xi Jinping, and North Korea’s Kim.

Whether a dictatorial movement or individual tyrants, the blanket once more tries to stifle liberties.

So, as I watch the assault on beautiful Kyiv, and bombs ripping it apart, I grieve over the dear people who so cherish the fresh air of freedom.

As with those decades ago, all they ask is the freedom to breathe.

Wallace Henley was born two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 5, 1941. After serving as a White House aide during the Nixon administration, Henley went on to become an award-winning journalist for the Birmingham News in Alabama. He is the author of more than 20 books, including God and Churchill with Jonathan Sandys, Winston Churchill’s great-grandson. Henley has led leadership conferences around the globe. He has been married to his wife, Irene, for more than 50 years. They have two children, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. His latest book, Who Will Rule the Coming 'gods': The Looming Spiritual Crisis of Artificial Intelligence, is available wherever books are sold.

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