Wednesday, June 12, 2024
June 12, 2024

A tale of two invasions


At 5 in the morning on Feb. 24, 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

At 4 in the morning on Nov. 4, 1956, Russian tanks began a similar assault on the city of Budapest to put down a popular uprising against Soviet domination of Hungary.

What connects these two events, apart from their early morning onset, is something for historians and political analysts to mull over. For me there is a simpler and more visceral connection.

I was seven years old in 1956, living with my parents in a three-storey apartment building not far from the Danube on the Buda side of the city. By the beginning of November there had already been much drama in the country. The uprising started on Oct. 23 when the communist head of state was forced to step down after students, workers and just plain folks overran the secret police headquarters, occupied the radio station and toppled a huge bronze statue of Stalin by tying one end of a rope around his neck and the other to the back of a truck.

Of course I did not see any of this. I was only seven. I know of these events only from later adult stories and from books. What I do know more personally comes via a child’s memory.

In the evening of what must still have been Nov. 4, my parents and I found ourselves, together with the other 20 or so residents of our building, in a basement bomb shelter. After the tanks did whatever it was they did during the day, word was that the Russians were setting up artillery on a hill overlooking our part of the city. A nighttime bombardment was expected.

The shelter was somber and rather dreary, but not particularly uncomfortable. There may have been bunk beds, though 65 years later I wouldn’t swear to it. One of the tenants, an elderly WWI veteran, had brought along his old tin helmet and kept the half dozen of us children happy trying it on and learning to salute.

I guess he was keeping us occupied while adults attended to more important matters, which mainly involved tinkering with my father’s radio in the hopes it could catch Voice of America — not an easy matter in a basement. They succeeded in the end and heard that the whole Free World was apparently on our side, that they supported our valiant struggle, etc, etc. There was an air of excitement among the adults in the shelter as they of course translated the speeches into the expectation that U.S. paratroopers would soon be dropping from the sky, probably before morning.

Do I really remember these details? After all these years I have some doubts. But some aspects of these memories I’m sure are authentic. I remember the comfort and excitement of knowing that whatever was coming, we had our shared tin helmet, which could transform calamity into adventure.

Beyond this though, I remember a stronger and more palpable mood of anxiety and fear emanating from the adults. The events unfolding in the city outside were anything but adventure. Lives were at stake.

I don’t mean just the prospect of being wounded or even of dying. But the normality of everyday life was about to vanish. The small events of ordinary routine — making coffee, putting socks and underwear into drawers, feeding the hamster — were suddenly going to be wrenched from us, leaving only what Shakespeare called “bare, unaccommodated man.” (Don’t worry, I obviously didn’t read Shakespeare till at least 15 years later, so this is clearly me speaking as an adult.)

And it is this which I find heartbreaking now as I see on the news people taking shelter in the Kyiv subway, or heading on foot down highways to who knows where. They are pulling suitcases. Women push strollers containing toddlers dressed for winter. Teenagers check their cell phones. Tomorrow they may die. But hopefully they will live through whatever fate brings them and come out unharmed.

Unharmed, however, is not the same as unscathed. The stability, the benevolent dependability of ordinary lives will have been cruelly and pointlessly wrenched from them. Perhaps their ability to believe again in the normality of a world governed by reason, trust and grace.

It is this inner devastation — as much as death and material destruction — that is the profound pathos of the events in Ukraine.

The writer is a Salt Spring resident and author.

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