As I write this, we are fast approaching the second anniversary of Ukraine’s second Independence Day on 24 August since Russia’s attempt at a full-scale conquest of Ukraine, following Ukraine’s initial independence in 1991, after the collapse of the USSR.
By the time this appears, there is no doubt there will be further changes in Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian housing and infrastructure; its defensive line consisting of rows of “dragon’s teeth” (concrete pyramidal barriers), densely packed minefields and lengthy trenches. Surprises are possible, but the next few days will more likely adhere to the apparent pattern of the last several months. I say apparently because the changes have been incremental and not noticeable unless you dig deeply into the Twitterverse, learning to distinguish between information, disinformation, and wishful thinking.
Why should we care about Ukrainian Independence Day with other news stories of daily atrocities hitting closer to home? We must care because the real inspiration for Ukraine’s revolution is ancient Greek democracy and philosophy, followed by the American Revolution, and finally, the International European rules-based world order, which emerged following World War II. And, presented with a choice in 1991, Ukraine chose to aspire to the democratic rules-based order of the West over the oligarchy of authoritarian Russia.
It’s worth noting that the archaeology of the Black Sea region is strongly connected with that of ancient Greece. Histra was the name of Archaic (6th century) Odessa, which maintains a tradition of Mediterranean architectural styles leading to its recent designation as a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE site.
The renaming Histra to Odessa by Catherine the Great in 1795 references its importance as a thriving port and pays homage to Homer’s Odyssey.
It was part of a larger project by Catherine and Prince Potemkin to Hellenise the region in the name of Orthodoxy, and it was accomplished by the renaming of many other cities, including Kherson(issos ) and any town with a -pol (as in polis) ending. These renamings were also part of a larger late 18th-century project to divide the Ottoman Empire between Russia and the Habsburgs.
Greeks (many from Chios) were encouraged to migrate to Odessa, attracted by commercial opportunities. Their relationship with ethnic Jews in the area was not always friendly and fuelled by the suspicion that they would sit comfortably within modern conspiracy theories.
Many Greeks were later expelled because of Bolshevik distrust of the merchant classes, yet a solid Greek presence of approximately 150,000 Greeks persists in Ukraine until now.
Thus, despite the strong classical ties to the Black Sea region, many aspects of Ukraine’s Greek identity are part of a late 18th-century socio-religious construct. And, yet, despite the vagaries and ambiguities of modern history, modern relations between the two nations are solid. And Ukraine is not alone in embracing a historical construct heavily influenced by ancient Greece.
Birth of a new Polebrity (Political Celebrity)
From time to time over the last year, people have asked me why I have so strongly supported the Ukrainian struggle over the struggles of other peoples’ yearning for democracy. Eastern Europe is one of the few regions of the world I haven’t visited, and I claim no Eastern European or Slavic ancestry. I answer in two words: Volodymyr Zelensky.
I did not pay much attention to the immediate moments of the Russian invasion. I expected Zelensky to flee, stashing his cash in the boot of a Mercedes and hightailing it to the Polish border. Once there, he could establish a government in exile, propped up in absentia by the Western powers but having little tangible effect. Or producing new TV shows.
Instead, Zelensky remained with his most senior government officials, appearing in a video recorded in the public square, with the simple message, Tyt, (we are all) here, (we will stay) here.
Most of us initially missed that Zelensky is much more than a comedian businessman. His speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in September 2021 revealed him to be a talented, charismatic, savvy, and empathetic leader.
Since the Russian invasion, Zelensky has become a global political celebrity, with speeches finely tuned to the experiences of the audience he is addressing. As a fan of political satire, I am reminded of a skit seen decades ago, where a comedian impersonating a US President took a foreign policy trip to be photographed with foreign leaders every time his ratings fell. This scenario has been weirdly repeated for real in the past year and a half, with foreign dignitaries making the problematic pilgrimage to Kyiv to get the obligatory selfie while showing their excitement in having their “Zelensky moment.”
In his European and American speeches, particularly in London, many remark on Zelensky as Churchillian, echoing Churchill’s famous line, “We will never surrender.” When I watch Zelensky’s energy, optimism, and tireless courage in visiting all parts of the battlefield and in in securing Ukraine’s place among Western democracies, I see George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Orphaned at a young age, Lafayette was captivated enough by the Declaration of Independence written by Jefferson to both support and join in the American Revolution. He was a general by age twenty and used his family fortune to raise an army, serving under and alongside Washington, where he lived like his soldiers. He lobbied the French government for additional support. Remembered as the “Hero of Two Worlds,” Lafayette’s sacrifice and example shows us why Western democracies must freely support Ukraine’s battle for survival against genocidal Russian attacks.
Zelensky’s intellectual journey is mirrored in his very successful TV series, Sluga Naroda (Servant of the People), with many episodes available on YouTube. A brief background is in order here. When people see Zelensky dismissed as a comic or a clown, they miss the significance of his intellectual journey. Zelensky obtained a law degree en route to creating a medium, first for his variety show evening Kvartal and later for his famous comedy show, in the form of a production company, Kvartal 95. Kvartal 95 is named for the district where Zelensky and many members of his acting troupe grew up and formed their friendships.
Those who dismiss comedy as a profound medium, neglect the difficulty of devising humour that sometimes needs to cross cultures, deliver a serious message, and turns out highly talented people that go on to play serious roles. Fans of the TV series Dexter might remember that comedian John Lithgow played everyone’s favourite “Big Bad,” the Trinity Killer. I hope readers can come up with many more examples.
Servant of the People: Stardom or Tsardom?
Greek democracy and its influence both on Ukraine’s struggle and on Zelensky is a powerful theme in the modern history of Ukraine. – and history, beginning with the Greeks, was a strong theme in Servant of the People.
The first episode introduces us to Zelensky’s character, Vasya Holodboroko. Vasya is an earnest, middle-class history teacher, divorced and back living with his parents, sometimes behaving a little bit spoiled, but passionate about teaching history and making sure his students learn it. When this means locking horns with the school administration, which gives more privileges to STEM subjects, Vasya’s tirade is surreptitiously recorded by a student who puts it on YouTube.
The video goes viral and enables his students to crowd-fund the necessary funds to ensure he is on the presidential ballot. His surprise win results in many comedic moments. From there the series engages with Vasya’s attempts to wean the Ukrainian government away from corruption. The second season had a bigger budget, more varied plot lines, and an edited-down version released as a movie. The third season was curtailed, running during Zelensky’s real-life political campaign.
One thing that characterises the entire series is that the episodes are interspersed with Mittyesque moments whereby Vasya comes face-to-face with historical figures, both heroes and anti-heroes, which steer his path in various ways. They appear in dreams, during stressful encounters with the Verkhovna Rada (unicameral legislature), and my favourite one, when the figures in a wax museum come to life. On a grander scale, these events reveal the role of history in reminding us that a humanities education teaches us civics, ethical behaviour, resilience, bravery, and the questioning of what our values should be.
Most significantly, episode two of the first season opens with Vasya dreaming, a copy of Plutarch’s biographies covering his face, and we are invited into a dream where Plutarch and Herodotus are considering Vasya’s choices as a new leader. They discuss some of the timeless features of what makes the ideal state, topics that were important in ancient Greece and central to the political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and which we have struggled with ever since.
Should Vasya focus on making a better democracy, and what does that mean? Is his role best suited to anarchy, federalism, oligarchy, or socialism? Should Vasya take his opportunity to pursue his self-interest: to embrace autocracy and Tsardom or kingship? Plutarch and Herodotus discuss Ukraine’s economic strengths and weaknesses, noting its agricultural and industrial wealth, yet its economy is weakened by the draining of the economy by influence peddling and grifting oligarchs. The dream concludes with geography, with Plutarch and Herodotus noting that Ukraine is in Europe. This segment is only a couple of minutes long yet sets the direction for the entire series and eventually for Volodymyr Zelensky leading a fight to determine Ukraine’s political future.
Greek Influence in the Present
Whether Volodymyr Zelensky might call to mind Churchill, Lafayette, or Pericles, he is the face of freedom and optimism. In contrast, his head of security, the famously never smiling Kyrylo Budanov is the face of stoicism and cunning.
Our personal realizations of individual liberty may vastly differ, but the desire for the chance to realize them remains a unifying force among free peoples. Greek history and the Greek experience are woven throughout the history of modern Ukraine and its current struggle to secure its place in the West. This deserves celebration and caution because, as noted above, many Greek names found in Ukraine were given by Catherine the Great, who was, herself, a Hellenophile.
And, yet this is more evidence of how captivation with our Greek past continues to inform the present. Ancient history is everywhere in this conflict. I cannot think of the creation and (the sometimes fragile) unity of NATO without thinking of Thucydides and the Delian League. I can only think of Putin’s Potemkin invasion if I think of the story recounted by Herodotus of King Croesus and his ill-informed interpretation from the Delphic Oracle: that if he attacked Cyrus of Persia, he would destroy a great nation. The great country was his own, and it remains the classic example of ancient Greeks, most notably Hesiod, warning us about hubris, outrage that violates the natural order.
While art imitates life in Sluga Naroda, the battle of Ukraine for its independence harkens back to other examples of art imitating life in ancient Greece. We see this most vividly in the sculptural program of the Parthenon, where the metopes conflate art and history, repeating the themes of civilization over barbarism, chaos over order, and freedom over servitude with Centaurs fighting Lapiths, Gods fighting Giants, Greeks fighting Trojans, and Greeks fighting Persians.
At the time of my writing this piece, we won’t know if the situation in Ukraine will show a dramatic change or will remain in what appears to be a holding pattern by its Independence Celebration. Ukraine is working hard to liberate its eastern districts and cut the land bridge connecting Russia to Crimea (illegally seized by Russia in 2014). As noted above, the Russian defences are characterized by multiple lines of Dragons teeth (pyramid-shaped concrete blocks) designed to slow down tanks, densely mined fields, and manned trenches.
Despite naysayers, progress has been made in eliminating Russia’s land bridge in eastern Ukraine, although it needs to be better covered in the mainstream media and finding reliable sources can be difficult. In the last week, the Ukrainian Forces have had increased success in damaging the Kerch Bridge, connecting Crimea to Russia through the introduction of water born Sea Baby drones, constructed under ground, and able to traverse long distances.
For those wanting to learn more about Black Sea Archaeology at the University of Melbourne, we are fortunate to boast a developing tradition of interest in Black Sea studies dating back to at least 2004, when my former colleague, the late Gocha Tsetskhladze, joined our program as the classical archaeologist, specializing in Black Sea archaeology. He in turn, influenced the late Antonio Sagona who established a joint project with Georgian archaeologists at Rabati, and his project continues under the leadership of Andrew Jamieson and Claudia Sagona.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has just visited Athens where Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis pledged support in the form of pilot-training F-16 fighter jets, Greek shipping for Ukraine’s grain, and in the reconstruction of Ukraine. Mitsotakis voiced support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion and condemned Russian “war crimes”.
Zelensky’s speeches, entitled A Message from Ukraine, can be purchased on Amazon, with proceeds supporting the Ukraine war effort.
www.United24.gov.ua is the official charity of the President of Ukraine
Vatnik Soup is a YouTube channel and a website belonging to Pekka Kallioniemi, a specialist in algorithms, knowledge distribution, and in distinguishing real from false information on social media. The site is of value for anyone concerning the spread of false information on the internet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcHWu9ZpCsM
Ukraine: The Latest is a daily podcast and YouTube channel by The Telegraph providing daily updates on Ukraine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxEG2RT-yS0
Inside Russia is a YouTube channel by Konstantin Samoilov, who gives a daily live-streaming podcast on his life in Russia, on current events in Russia, and on his life after fleeing Russia for Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Louise A. Hitchcock – Professor of Aegean Bronze Age Archaeology, Classics and Archaeology, University of Melbourne