In 2016, while walking the Camino de Santiago, I met a woman from Russia. Masha and I walked together for several days and during that time we talked about both Trump (the Republican candidate at that time) and Putin. We shared our bewilderment at how such men could rise to power and the threat they posed to people everywhere.
Masha and I became Facebook friends and have often commented on each other’s posts through the years. On March 8, Masha posted that she and her family, like thousands of other Russians, had fled their homeland. I wrote to her to ask if she was okay and if she would share what her experience is like. This is what she replied:
Oh Nori, thank you so much for writing. We are not real refugees. We are doing fine. Yes, my heart is broken. Yes, Russia is doomed because of impending economic default, sanctions, its being cut off from all the modern world for many years ahead. But you can’t talk about it while Russian army is shooting innocent civilians, while there is actual genocide of Ukrainian population by Russian soldiers. You do not want me or anyone Russian speaking now about our hardships or our feelings. What can I say? We, Russians, do not support rape and murder that our soldiers are committing now in Ukraine? Please feel sorry for us too because we are cut off from Netflix and our MasterCard is no longer accepted by App Store?
The worst part for me, Nori, is that I am starting to see that the west is not likely to support Ukraine either. I fully expected Ukraine to win and Putin to be defeated. But now I am not so sure. So, if there is a message I want to pass it will be this: stop trying to scare Putin by shutting down McDonalds and IKEA in Russia. Instead give Ukrainians some real arms.
The Ukrainians are fighting Putin on behalf of us, Russians, and on behalf of the whole world. And they are doing it sometimes with bare hands. How can the world allow this?
Her words struck me deeply. And now the war continues. It’s almost unbearable to read the morning news. We humans, for all our inherent worth and dignity, can also be deeply flawed.
He fist-bumped the few of us standing there and said, ‘I am on your side. Ukrainians and Russians are brothers and sisters. We do not want to kill our kin. I wish for Ukraine to remain free.’
I recall that the same year the first Humanist Manifesto was signed, 1933, was also the year that Hitler came to power and Dachau, one of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps, was established. How can we reconcile these two images?
At the March 6 Platform where I presided, I said:
I cannot go further without acknowledging the collective pain and anguish we all feel at the ongoing unprovoked attack on Ukraine by Russia. As of today, over 1.4 million people have fled Ukraine and thousands have been killed on either side of the conflict. Russia has threatened the use of nuclear weapons if the West intervenes and has knowingly targeted civilian places, including hospitals and a memorial to the Holocaust.
This is humanity at its worst.
And yet, people from around Europe have flocked to Ukraine to volunteer to fight with their army. An entire contingent arrived from Ireland. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has created “The International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine.Over 3,000 Americans have also applied.
Prompted by Sarah Brown in Salt Lake City and Tommy Marcus here in New York, Americans, among others, began booking Airbnb rooms in Ukraine, not to stay, but so that the local hosts can get badly needed funds.
In over 48 hours, over 61,000 nights have been booked and more than two million dollars have been given directly to Ukrainian citizens on the ground. They are using this money to help themselves and their neighbors.
The Airbnb page now has a donation site that accepts money that will go directly to Ukrainians, refugees, and those helping refugees.
This is humanity at its best.
And that is the side that we here at the NYSEC uphold. We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every human and we believe it is incumbent upon each of us to do what we can to secure freedom, democracy, and inclusion for all of us. On March 4, our society organized a protest rally outside the General Consulate for Russia. For over an hour several of us from NYSEC, along with others who answered our rallying cry, marched in the frigid, windy cold, holding signs of support for Ukraine and demanding an end to the war.
The whole thing was powerful, but for me, the most powerful moment was when a Russian guard came down from the steps to meet us at the barricade in front of the building. He fist-bumped the few of us standing there and said, “I am on your side. Ukrainians and Russians are brothers and sisters. We do not want to kill our kin. I wish for Ukraine to remain free.”
Humanity at its best. It only takes a small candle to dispel the darkness.
Here at Ethical we are determined to bring all of our lights together, to create a mighty blaze of justice. And we join our bonfire with the bonfires of hope and equality that are blazing across this nation and around the world. And we work with conviction that we cannot stop until the whole world is ablaze with the glory of each person.
That’s why I’m here at Ethical. To do this work in concert with all these good people. If you are just visiting us, and if this mission speaks to you, you are welcome here to join the best of humanity. Together, we can change our world.
I believe that last sentence with every fiber of my being. That is what gives me the strength and courage to continue the work of justice; that is what draws us together as an Ethical Society. Humanist Manifesto or Dachau, Russian invasion or resilience and courage–we get to choose what we focus on. We get to choose how we respond to the worst of humanity. We get to choose to be the best. Let us continue to do so.