A group of university students asked me how Ukrainians have been able to stand up to Russian forces.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget,” I replied. They looked at me confused.
“It’s an allusion,” I explained. “An allusion to Russian and Ukrainian history and to America’s recent past.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proclaimed, “We will not forgive. We will not forget” following Russia’s recent attacks on civilians and historical sites.
A master of rhetoric, he chose the exact words President Biden used after the Aug. 26 attack on the Kabul airport that resulted in the loss of 13 American soldiers and several civilians. Biden declared, “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Bergholz, a poet and journalist during World War II, is most known for being the voice of Leningrad radio during the 900-day siege beginning Sept. 8, 1941. She became the image of Russian citizens trapped behind city walls and a voice for constant hope.
While the Germans spread propaganda, Bergholz confirmed that the citizens were still there and still standing strong.
Bergholz comforted thousands by reading the news and her poetry on the radio throughout the siege that claimed the lives of over 650,000 people – most due to starvation.
This parallels Zelenskyy’s “we are all here” video released on Feb. 25, 2022, in which he assured Ukrainians that their leaders were still in the capital. “Our soldiers are here. The citizens are here, and we are here,” he said. “We defend our independence. That’s how it will go.”
Bergholz’s poetry, specifically the Leningrad Poem, defines how Russians and Ukrainians see the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II) and the evils inflicted upon them.
Her words sound eerily familiar to Zelenskyy’s. In February 1942, she encouraged the people, saying, “But we believe … no, not believe, we know that victory will come. We will achieve it together and Leningrad will be warm and light and happy again.”
It is ironic that Vladimir Putin, who grew up in Leningrad, is now besieging multiple Ukrainian cities and threatening the same types of horror witnessed by his grandparents. It is baffling that he can claim to be liberating Ukraine from “modern-day Nazi’s” while employing the same tactics and rhetoric they used.
This is not the first time Kyiv has been surrounded. As part of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941, German forces pushed into Ukraine and reached the Irpin River, 10-12 miles west of Kyiv on July 11.
Due to Ukrainian and Red Army resistance, the Germans were functionally stalled until July 30. This led to Hitler’s decision to redeploy German forces headed to Moscow to encircle Kyiv, hoping to deprive Stalin of resources.
In early September, the Germans began the largest military siege in human history, spanning from Irpin to Lokhvytsya over 150 miles to the east. By Sept. 26, Germany had taken Kyiv, captured over 600,000 Red Army troops and caused over 60,000 casualties.
Immediately after taking the capital of Ukraine, the Nazi reign of terror commenced, which led to the horror of Babi Yar. On Sept. 29-30, German forces murdered over 33,771 Jewish residents of the city. Ultimately, over 200,000 Jews would be killed and buried in the ravine.
Sadly, Russian forces bombed a radio tower on the edge of the sacred site on March 1, 2022, leading Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, to call on Jewish people worldwide to stand up for freedom.
The second battle of Kyiv occurred from Nov. 3 to Dec. 22, 1943. The offensive began with heavy bombardment of German forces by Russian artillery.
The Red Army was able to liberate Kyiv within only three days and to push the Germans back to the 1939 Polish border by January. Unfortunately, the old city was devastated, leaving many districts as hollow shells of their former glory.
For most Ukrainians, World War II is more than a painful memory. It is part of their identity. It is a reminder of the horrors that come with foreign occupation. It fuels the resolve, voiced by President Zelenskyy, that they will not be subjugated.
They remember more than the crimes of the Nazis; they remember periods of Russian and Soviet control as well. They remember the persecution of the Ukrainian people, and the “russification” efforts.
Their grandparents tell of mass starvation in 1931-32. The countless leaders and pastors who were shipped off to the Siberian gulags were grandfathers, fathers and brothers.
Therefore, Putin needs to be mindful. Ukrainian men and women remember the past. They have seen Kyiv fall and rise again over centuries. They have tasted freedom and had it taken away.
When Zelenskyy says, “We will not forgive. We will not forget,” he is calling on the world to stand up for freedom. To stand against oppression.
His call comes from a people who already know the cost of freedom, and the world must not look away, close its ears or sweep crimes under the rug. To do so is to open the door for terror and fear to reign, which will diminish democracy, religious freedom and human rights in the region.
The world must continue to support Ukraine, ensuring that “no one is forgotten, and nothing is forgotten.”