Brendan Hoban: Ukraine – Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice

Brendan Hoban – Western People

‘May you live in interesting times’ is an English expression that’s claimed to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. Like it or not, the expression applies to the extraordinary times we live in.

Not so long ago we thought Brexit was a catastrophe our economy would struggle to overcome. (And that’s still true). Then out of nowhere, though the recent evidence is pointing at Wuhan in China, COVID-19 arrived. (And it’s still here, despite all the optimism). And now Russia and President Putin, in an effort to rekindle the past glories of the Soviet Union (if such existed), have invaded the Ukraine and are threatening anyone who opposes their invasion with the spectre of the Russian nuclear option now on high alert.

All kinds of difficult choices have been thrown up by this crisis. Should Ukraine show the white flag in the interests of saving thousands of lives? Should Ukrainian exiles be encouraged to return to fight for their country’s freedom? Should fathers whose wives and children are moving overseas remain to confront the overwhelming might of the Russian army? Or prioritise their responsibilities as husbands and fathers?

War brings with it impossible choices. William Styron, in his novel, Sophie’s Choice, explored one such dilemma. When Sophie, a Polish and Catholic mother, arrived in Auschwitz concentration camp with her two children, she was famously confronted with what became known as Sophie’s Choice. The camp doctor made her choose between her two children. One would live with their mother in the concentration camp; the other would die in the gas chamber. She was forced to choose. If she didn’t choose one, both would die.

In a choice that no one with a shred of human feeling would inflict on another human being, much less a mother, Sophie had to choose and she eventually chose to save the life of her 9-year-old son, Jan, which meant sending her 7-year-old daughter Eva to the gas chamber, a choice that haunted her all the waking hours of the rest of her life. (Meryl Streep’s performance in that key scene was almost unwatchable.)

But whatever the choices that are made, history will in time register the gory details of this war and adjudicate on where responsibility and blame will lie. Long after the sun will have set on Russia and Ukraine, historians will estimate where (in the gallery of the world’s most notorious and infamous dictators) Vladimir Putin fits in.

There’s no doubting who’s side of this war has the moral higher ground. There’s no doubting who, in this situation, is on the side of what is right and true and moral.

The Ukraine’s position is that, as a sovereign, independent country they stand accused of no more than their right to exercise their democratic freedom in making choices for themselves. A right enshrined in international law.

Russia, in trying to re-build another version of the Soviet Union, has used its military superiority to bully its neighbour without any respect for Ukraine’s freedom as a sovereign state or its rights to make its own decisions about its own future.

On the scale of right and wrong, or good and evil, or what is the moral or immoral stance, Putin is on the wrong side.

It doesn’t take great insight to predict that history will place him alongside Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and the other dictators who are now universally reviled for the damage, destitution and death they visited on so many thousands and eventually, millions of people by their shameful deeds.

Meanwhile, the jury may be out on how history will judge those who looked on while the Ukrainians awaited their fate, while the Russians with their tanks descended on Kyiv and other cities, while they hunted for the Ukraine prime minister, Zelenskyy and his family as trophies to be exhibited at the end of the battle.

I suspect too that the verdict of history will be more than unkind to those on the sidelines of this uneven and immoral war who sat on their hands and worried about their own economies while the Russian army exercised a free hand in bullying, killing and humiliating a people and a nation.

As I write, the invasion of the Ukraine is almost a week-old and a line of Russian artillery extending over 40 miles is gradually edging its way towards the capital, Kyiv. For a week parents and their children in basements and other underground refuges have struggled to sleep, wondering what was going to happen, wondering when the Russian tanks down the road would eventually arrive with their cargo of death and destruction and wondering how fate will determine what will happen to the rest of their lives.

We can only imagine what that experience must be like for Ukrainian mothers and fathers holding the hands of their young children, trying to reassure them and to comfort them as the air-raid sirens warn of the approach of tanks and the whole world holds its breadth for them and for what their fate will be.

Seven days after the invasion thousands are dead, a million are refugees, untold millions have been traumatised, trillions worth of property has been destroyed and the spectre of a nuclear war is now dangled before the world.

It is a Gethsemane and a Calvary experience on an almost unimaginable scale and the voices will be versions of those of Jesus, My God, my God why have you deserted us? and Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

Spare a thought and a prayer for all those innocent and vulnerable people who are at the coal-face of this frightening version of Sophie’s choice.




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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan Hoban: Ukraine – Sophie’s Choice

    Some blasé western commentators give aid and comfort to Putin by over-insistence on the West’s mistake, both the provocation represented by Nato warheads and expansion AND the long history of appeasement that met each of Putin’s previous crimes have indeed greased the path to war.

    There may be some Kissinger-type cynics who secretly gloat that the Ukrainians are damaging Russia, thus advancing US interests on the cheap and restoring its superpower status.

    The same could be said in regard to Hitler’s invasion of Poland: explicable as resulting from the provocation of the Versailles Treaty and its exactions, the Appeasement of Munich 1938; and how it caused glee among Britain’s enemies, such as many Irish at the time.

    BUT this does not take away the right of the Ukrainians (and of oppressed Russians) to self-determination and self-defence. Russia’s oligarchic corruption and civil disarray is showing up in the hopelessness of its army as well, whereas Zelensky’s anti-corruption drive is rewarded in the high morale of his people, who may actually win this battle.

    Thucydides reports this dialogue:
    Athenians: No, not if you are sensible. This is no fair fight, with honour on one side and shame on the other. It is rather a question of saving your lives and not resisting those who are far too strong for you.
    Melians: Yet we know that IN WAR FORTUNE SOMETIMES MAKES THE ODDS MORE LEVEL THAN COULD BE EXPECTED FROM THE DIFFERENCE IN NUMBERS OF THE TWO SIDES. And if we surrender, then all our hope is lost at once, whereas, so long as we remain in action, there is still a hope that we may yet stand upright.
    Athenians: Hope, that comforter in danger! If one already has solid advantages to fall back upon, one can indulge in hope. It may do harm, but will not destroy one. But hope is by nature an expensive commodity, and those who are risking their all on one cast find out what it means only when they are already ruined; it never fails them in the period when such a knowledge would enable them to take precautions. Do not let this happen to you, you who are weak and whose fate depends on a single movement of the scale. And do not be like those people who, as so commonly happens, miss the chance of saving themselves in a human and practical way, and, when every clear and distinct hope has left them in their adversity, turn to what is blind and vague, to prophecies and oracles and such things which by encouraging hope lead men to ruin.

    Well the Melians were crushed, as the Ukrainians may be soon. The only good solution is an armistice.

    That convoy stretching for endless miles recalls Napoleon’s Grande Armée, 500,000 men doomed by the Russian winter and the burning of Moscow. Russia has already sacrificed 5,000 perhaps of its teenage cannon fodder to the Moloch of war.

    The nuclear threat is now deterring the world from an escalation that would repeat 1914 and 1939, and counseling non-interventionism, or even the choice of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys of 1940 who saved Paris at the cost of later participating in the Holocaust.

    Sophie has a lot of choosing to do just now.

  2. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Brendan Hoban: Ukraine – Sophie’s Choice

    An essay on Putin by John O’Brennan of NUIM on Dublin Review of Books.
    Go to and select the item.

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Brendan Hoban: Ukraine – Sophie’s Choice

    I’m sure what Putin would want to re-build is his own version of Imperial Russia, rather than of the Soviet Union. He’s just missed the tercentenary of its founding by Peter the Great in 1721, but rather than any foolish notions of liberty, equality or fraternity Vlad the Invader remains true to Nicholas I’s ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality’. Patriarch Kirill knows which side his bread is buttered on, just as Roman Abramovich did until today. Putin is as much the Tsarist Protector of Orthodoxy as of Oligarchy.

    As for the verdict of history being unkind to those on the sidelines, the new new normal may affect those who have so far clung to a naive neutrality in the assurance of being protected by the guys with the guns. Finland and Sweden at least allow NATO’s military exercises on their soil. Ireland South cannot always depend on the doughty fisherfolk of Castletownbere to face down the might of the Russian Navy and protect our Exclusive Economic Zone, as they did a month or so ago.

    That new new normal (NNN) may see the Americans in Carlingford and both banks of the Foyle, as well as Strangford, Bantry and Killala Bays. It’s unlikely that those ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ (see Joe@1 and the Simpsons earlier) will want to return to Killala Bay or Ballinamuck even for the Humbert Summer School.

    ‘Oh the Yanks are on the Bay,’
    Says the Shan Van Vocht;
    ‘The Yanks are on the Bay,
    They’ll be here without delay
    And your Neutrality will decay,’
    Says the Shan Van Vocht.

    But, to honour our much older heritage, perhaps NATO should send the Danes and other Vikings to Armagh, Dubh Linn by Liffey and Poddle, up the Shannon to sort out Clonmacnoise and Athlone, and even to the Galway-Mayo frontier where they would surely find themselves at home in Killary Fjord (An Caoláire Rua).

    All of which, of course, does not prevent Ireland South and North welcoming all the Ukrainian refugees who wish to come.

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