This story is by Tanya J Wojtowych and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Once Upon a Time, the Evil Empire crumbled and all the little nations lived Happily Ever After . . .
Of course, we all know Happily Ever After is for Fairy Tales—not for real life. Especially not now. Especially not for Ukraine.
Thirty years ago, Ukraine gained freedom from Soviet Russia. There were celebrations for the momentous victory. Generations of brave individuals had fought relentlessly for this moment. Their sacrifices were not in vain. On August 24, 1991, Ukraine declared independence.
Ukrainians could finally envision a Happily Ever After.
But freedom is not static and independence never lasts for EVER. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. There were growing pains and stumbling blocks as the infant nation navigated the trials of “free”. “No pain, no gain” was an unrealistic mantra for a drained and exhausted population. Totalitarian control does not breed strong leaders and ambitious individuals don’t always have the good of the many at heart. Qualified leadership was hit and miss.
And there was always that meddling Big Bad Bear next door. . . working quietly . . . plotting . . . scheming . . . waiting for the right time.
Independence was not easy, but day by day, month by month, year by year, two steps forward, one step back, the toddler grew, walked steadily, learned and set off to seek its fortune in the world. Living conditions improved. Political and economic structures gained stability. Ukraine finally gained notoriety beyond the infamous Chernobyl.
The majority of the population was finally living Happily. Ever would be secured only After the dark eastern clouds evaporated. This too-familiar threat could not be ignored, but neither could it hinder the great opportunity for lasting Independence and Freedom.
In Fairy Tales, trouble is always brewing, so the tale unfolds. We know that Happily and Ever After coexist only on the last page, just before “The End”. Right before the book closes and a tiny voice begs for just one more Once Upon a Time before bed.
Ukraine made strides stabilizing its precarious position as the borderland between east and west. All the while, that cunning Bear wasn’t just resting in his lair, he was also gaining strength and was grooming himself into a friendlier, more affable fellow. In 1994, jovial “peacekeepers” felt so comfortable with the camaraderie between neighbors that they persuaded Kyiv to give up its nuclear arsenal—to “Brother” Bear for safekeeping. The world would be a safer place if “children” didn’t’ play with matches.
In exchange for unquestionable defensive capability, the US, Great Britain and RUSSIA GUARANTEED territorial integrity to the younger nation. Bolstered by this documented promise, the Ukrainian government agreed to lease its naval base in Sevastopol to the Russian fleet—in exchange for a treaty recognizing the inviolability of Ukrainian borders. Signature by signature, sovereignty was verified on the national stage.
It appeared that Ever After COULD be more than words.
Freedom opened infinite horizons; the blossoming country no longer looked only in one direction for prosperity, but connected with both east and west.
But the Big Bear didn’t like to share. When he saw how well his little buddy was doing, it made him anxious to keep this neighbor to himself. HIS Happily Ever After relied on maintaining control that was rapidly slipping through his overbearing paws. He had to act before it was too late. And whatever he did must be in a manner that wouldn’t make him LOOK like a Big BAD Bear.
It all seemed so wonderful. Just like in the Fairy Tales! There was the Gingerbread House and Red Riding Hood’s “Sweet” Grandmother, and now . . . the Snuggly Ole Bear. What a fellow! He fooled just about everyone by acting more loveable . . . While all the while he was tiptoeing forward on his soft padded paws with his strong furry arms reaching out . . . for one enormous Grimm HUG.
Ukraine saw him coming and called for help, but if anyone heard, they couldn’t believe it was true. There was so much else going on in the world.
Fortunately, the taste of Happily empowered Ukrainian civil society. If no one else could see the pawprints on the sand, they would defend themselves! Ukrainians rejected the Russian-backed candidate of a rigged election and initiated the peaceful Orange Revolution to bring new elections and a western-oriented leader.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER, it seems, was rescued from the claws of defeat.
From that time on, Moscow viewed Kyiv’s western orientation as an external danger and a threat to its own increasingly authoritarian regime.
By 2014 Bear had bolstered himself up so much that he was ready to take action. Basking in his glories as host of the Winter Olympics, Vladimir Putin addressed his Federal Assembly in March 2014; Ukraine, he explained, had not played fair and must return the Crimean “gold”. Russia, “had not only been robbed, but had been plundered” during the confusion of the 1991 Soviet dissolution; the valuable territory must be returned.
The propaganda war is a continuum, firing strategically without end, so the first “real” ammunition wasn’t fired until February 2014. Only the Ukrainians heard it. It wasn’t as if Bear was hiding anything, there were soldiers and guns and dead bodies. But until 8 years later, when he spoke the word himself, no one else believed it was “war”.
When Ukrainians alone stood to stop that first invasion, he figured his conquest must be just and thus continued. He built the longest bridge in Europe to connect the country he ruled to the one he was aiming to steal. A physical connection made occupation clear.
But they didn’t give in—they kept fighting–alone. It wasn’t until February 2022 when Russia officially declared War, that the world finally noticed what Big Ole Friendly Bear was up to. By then, more than 14,000 patriots had lost their lives defending Crimea. He didn’t need to tip-toe anymore. He could finally seal the deal and fix things as they should be.
The world was more distracted than ever. Big Bear would redraw the lines on the map the way he wanted them and write his own ending. His primary miscalculation was in thinking 8 years of battle would weaken the attacked.
Ukrainians knew him too well. They had been sharpening their Tridents and training their knights. They alone realized what the aggressor had in mind and that he would never give up. What they didn’t know was how easily his menacing growl would frighten the others.
So the horrific war continues; it intensifies and kills innocent victims, who only want to live in peace. The fan club increases and goes wild as the mighty minor awes the crowd with its dexterity and determination. But while the competition rages into overtime, it is becoming ever clearer that the home team darling is alone on the field.
Just as Freedom and Independence are much more than words on a declaration, determination and bravery are defined by actions and not intent. As President Zelensky continues his pleas for decisive support, Ukrainians continue to die to define their nation’s sovereignty.
The freedom-loving world has been paralyzed by an evil spell. There are countless Knights in Shining Armor and Heroes abound—on the battlefield—which is the entire Ukrainian nation. But the fairy godmothers and wizards and superheroes are frozen—watching. We sport the blue and gold colors; we gasp in horror; we condemn, report, prognosticate, advise. But our convictions are words on pages that hold no meaning.
From our front row seats, we are reminded of bravery and kindness and selflessness. But when Bear mouthed the frightful words, he paralyzed our crowd. “Nuclear Deterrence” failed miserably from preventing bloodshed and instead is enabling a long and bloody war in which only one country is sacrificed—for values we spectators claim to hold dear.
The Ukrainian people are suffering the greatest loss. They are also claiming the greatest victory. The multitude of races and religions and histories are working together for a secure future—rather than tearing each other apart over the unchangeable past. Every day binds them more strongly, united, proud and above all, brave.
Ukraine’s Happily Ever After has already begun. Security has been achieved by the Ukrainian forces themselves. The number of innocent lives lost before The End could be reduced—but only if the spell of paralysis is broken. Despite the tragic pictures we see every day, the horrific stories of evil and terror and bloodshed, it is the Ukrainians who are winning. They are showing a world that has lost its way the ultimate value of Unity and Independence and Bravery. They are illustrating the ideals we assumed had disappeared between the pages of the Fairy Tales.
We can only hope the world will learn vicariously and that the next Once Upon A Time is the beginning of a much better story.