I have watched the war in Ukraine unfold over the past several months with sorrow and horror. Many Americans have shared these sentiments, and it is now common to see Ukrainian flags flying on front porches and plastered on store fronts. I am heartened by this outpouring of support, but my own love, support, and empathy for Ukraine go further back. In February 2014, while Russia was setting its war machine into motion, I was competing under the Ukrainian flag in the Sochi Winter Olympics. As Ukraine stood on the brink of a war that would ultimately lead to the crisis we face today, my Olympic teammates and I strove to honor the Ukrainian people and give the world a glimpse of their spirit through our athletic performance.
Last spring, an American friend told me that she understood that Putin was the “bad guy,” but asked why she should see Ukraine as the “good guy.” Many conservatives in the United States, disoriented by Russian propaganda and the American tendency to view the world through our own political lens, are asking the same question.
How do I begin to answer? I can cite the Ukrainian people’s desire for freedom and recognition of human dignity, as witnessed by the 2014 Maidan Revolution. I can recount the historical injustices inflicted on Ukrainians by a tyrannical Russian state. I can mention Ukrainians’ willingness to give their lives to share in a “Western” legacy that many Americans are doing a remarkable job of disowning and dismantling.
While all these responses point to important truths, I have found that personal witness is also a powerful and necessary part of the answer. I share my perspective in the hope that I can bear witness to the country that was and is Ukraine and that I can give other Americans a window into the beauty and heart of that country. As the United States becomes increasingly divided over aid to Ukraine, it is more important than ever that the national conversation begin with the understanding that Ukraine is “the good guy” in this fight. The ability to view the Ukraine crisis with moral clarity is essential, not just for crafting a successful foreign policy, but for reaffirming America’s own principles. Conservatives should be especially eager to identify the war’s good and evil actors.
From Athlete to Patriot
For me, Ukraine is not a distant country with unfamiliar faces. It is my memories, my friends, my hopes and dreams.
My connection to Ukraine is unusual. I am American born and raised, but for seven years I competed as an elite ice dancer for Ukraine and ultimately represented Ukraine in the Olympics. (My ice dance partner was Ukrainian, and for various reasons we represented his home country.) Ukraine was the first foreign country I visited, when I was a teenager. I will never forget that first visit to Kyiv—the excitement of seeing another country for the first time, the trepidation of navigating a city whose language I did not speak, the awe of looking out my hotel window to see glittering golden domes scattered across the skyline. I felt an immediate kinship to the Ukrainian people whose love of freedom, hope for the future, and untrammeled resilience resonated so deeply with me.
Over the years, I visited Ukraine more than twenty times, sometimes staying for months at a time. Representing Ukraine on the world stage cemented my love for the country and created a sense of belonging. I never felt “less American” for that; rather, the American and Ukrainian facets of my identity have strengthened and deepened one another. I have always sensed a similarity between Ukrainians’ and Americans’ love of freedom, and seeing each culture through the eyes of the other has allowed me to more fully understand and appreciate both. When I was finally granted Ukrainian citizenship so I could represent Ukraine in the 2014 Winter Olympics, I was full of pride and gratitude. I still am.
My experience in Ukraine inspired me to pursue a master’s degree in international affairs, where I focused my studies on Eastern Europe and Ukraine. As a Catholic, I rejoiced to discover that my beloved Ukraine also had a rich Catholic history and culture in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and I wrote my master’s thesis on the role of the Catholic Church in Ukrainian identity formation. I encourage my fellow Catholics, in particular, to learn about the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church—its history, its martyrs, its educational institutions, and its ongoing contributions to Ukrainian culture and society and to the universal Church.
Ukraine and American Self-Reflection
The lessons I have learned from these experiences in Ukraine remain with me. Eight years ago, I proudly counted as friends some of those who risked their lives to stand up for human dignity on the Maidan. Ukrainians continue to show remarkable courage, sometimes sacrificing their lives, in defending the values such as freedom and human dignity that Americans also proclaim. A central premise of the American project is resistance to tyranny, commitment to freedom, and respect for the dignity of each human being. In resisting Russia’s attempt at annexation, Ukraine provides a powerful image of a people whose national identity and political principles are so precious they are worth dying for. At a time when Americans are increasingly divided over the meaning and validity of our country’s principles, Ukraine’s example reminds us to recommit to our own moral and political foundations. When I skated, seeing an American represent their country inspired many Ukrainians. Now, Ukrainians inspire me to be a better American.
In order to heed Ukraine’s example, Americans must recognize Ukraine’s moral high ground. A friend of mine commented last February, “the world will now know a heroism once thought reserved for the days of premodern warfare. No matter the outcome, all will remember that this was Ukraine’s finest hour.” I pray that history will prove him right, but I fear that some have already forgotten.
Not only does the Ukraine crisis provide an opportunity for renewing America’s commitment to its core values; it is also an occasion to underscore the importance of moral truth in our era of moral confusion and relativism. Conservatives should be particularly eager to do this: they should be quick to recognize the justice of Ukraine’s cause and to unequivocally condemn Russia’s actions. Instead, too many conservatives are promoting an isolationist, partisan “realism” that halfway justifies Putin’s actions because American leaders were supposedly “almost forcing him to go in.”
Conflicts, of course, are usually complicated, and it is not always easy to assign blame or clearly distinguish between good and evil. At the same time, we should be wary of failing to call good and evil by name. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in both conception and execution, is a clear moral evil, while Ukraine’s response has primarily been a story of heroism and genuine dedication to freedom, democracy, and human dignity. Acknowledging this does not require us to canonize President Zelensky, overlook Ukraine’s long struggle with corruption, agree with every US foreign policy decision since 1991, condemn all Russians, or disregard allegations of unjust conduct on Ukraine’s part.
I often reflect on a Facebook message I received in 2014. A Ukrainian man I had never met wrote right after the Olympics to thank me. His words still seem as though they could have been written yesterday:
You inspire many young men and women here in this difficult time for my country. We don’t know our future. Maybe there’s no good future for us at all. But we hope for a better life. And we need symbols of beauty, goodness, and purity. That’s why we need you. Please be with us in these draconian times. Good luck to you and God bless you.
I don’t know if this man is still alive, but in my imagination, he speaks for his countrymen, articulating their undying hope and courage. I no longer skate competitively, but I stay with Ukrainians the best way I know how: by sharing my experience and by praying. As a Catholic, I entrust both Ukraine and Russia to the ultimate symbol of beauty, goodness, and purity: Mary, Queen of Peace.
Finally, I invite my fellow conservatives to confidently join me in saying, “Glory to Ukraine!” Only a conservative movement with the moral courage to say this can unite Americans around a shared understanding of truth and of American identity and values. In doing so, it may yet help to save Ukraine—and revitalize our own republic.