Bucks County Courier Times
Crisis in Ukraine: Through TikTok and textbooks, American teens getting front-row seat to history
While watching the Winter Olympics last month, I wondered if history was repeating itself in Russia. I’d read about a military buildup on the Russian-Ukrainian border since October, and now, I couldn’t help but think about how Putin had sent troops to Crimea right after the 2014 Winter Olympics.
In the days leading up to the invasion, I was surprised to see how transparent the White House was being with intelligence information. I associated foreign conflicts as spars handled by intelligence agencies and executive privilege and Cold War secrecy. The White House revealing that it had intercepted information about Russia’s plans was an invitation to Americans and the rest of the world to take a front row seat and keep up with events in real time.
I also imagine that the transparency was meant to counter and paralyze the potency of parallel disinformation from the Kremlin.
The result of the US’s swift response to Russia is a rare unity across the country about the need to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty, as evidenced by applause from both sides of the aisle at Biden’s recent State of the Union address.
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When Putin invaded on Feb, 24, four days after the Olympics ended, I observed the conflict from two perspectives: that of a teenager and that of a history student.
As a teenager, I was again reminded that we live in a world of instant information. Rather than seeing video footage of the war through a medium like TV, I could swipe a few times on TikTok and see a video recorded by an eyewitness.
For teenagers all over the world, the accessibility of these videos is eye-opening: We are seeing these primary accounts because those filming are not separate from us. The difference between us and refugees is random chance that we were born in the U.S. and not Ukraine.
Seeing 15-second footage of refugees crowding onto trains on route to Poland, of a car barely squeezing out of the fumes from a nearby missile strike, even of Russian soldiers crying in interrogation and saying that they’d been told the invasion was just an exercise, has reminded me to adjust my perspective of my troubles and appreciate how lucky I am.
Not all the footage is disheartening, either — the Ukrainian people have proven themselves to be very brave, not least with President Zelensky joining the defense himself.
It is heartening to see unity from the West in its sanctions against Russia. Before the invasion, the trans-Atlantic relationship seemed to be leaning toward the “strategic autonomy” championed by French President Macron. Putin united the West against him, and it did so in a sweeping fashion, with countries like Switzerland breaking its tradition of neutrality, and Germany not allowing weapons to be transported through the country, respectively. The biggest economic sanction passed, banning Russia from SWIFT, also is an amazing precedent.
As a student, all kinds of connections to what I studied in world history last year fired in my head when watching the news.
Most obvious is Putin’s “justification” for war being to rescue Russians in Ukraine, mirroring Hitler’s claims of rescuing Germans in Czechoslovakia. As in 1939, Europe is trying to recover from the economic and emotional fallout of a war — in 1939, it was World War I and the influenza; in 2022, it is the COVID-19 pandemic. The difference this time around is that Europe has learned that appeasement will not work, even if there is still rebuilding to do at home.
Putin’s justification for invasion, including Ukraine historically belonging to Russia, is ironic. Historically, Russia belonged to the Mongols. Historically, parts of France belong to the Greeks. Given Europe’s history with territory wars, Putin’s claim opens a can of worms.
I think it’s possible that another one of Putin’s reasons for war is to distract Russians from his domestic troubles. The dissident Alexei Navalny has found some success gathering an opposition and rousing protestors, causing Putin enough trouble to warrant an assassination attempt in August. He is still active now in support of Ukraine. Thousands of Russians have been arrested for domestic protests against the Kremlin.
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Of course, a real revolution by the people is no easy feat, but in the face of an escalating war and imminent economic attrition, maybe Russians could make their anger heard.
To me, that evokes an image reminiscent of the October Revolution, when Lenin led Russian civilians in a coup against the tsar and birthed the Soviet Union. One of Russians’ grievances in 1917 was an unpopular war. Could Navalny be a new Lenin? I don’t know. A revolution materializing, though, would be like coming full circle for Russia — as the will of the people created the Soviet empire, so could the will of the people topple the vestiges of the Soviet empire embodied by Vladimir Putin.
I don’t know enough to predict anything that will happen with this war; few people can. But in this past week, I’ve been reminded a lot of Mark Twain’s quote: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
If history can offer Ukrainians and the rest of the world any comfort, it is that allied forces will prevail.
Lily Wu is a junior at Hatboro-Horsham High School in Pennsylvania. She’s editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, on the girls’ varsity tennis team and runs a book club with friends. She loves Greek mythology.