Over the last 500 days, not a great deal has happened in Kyiv’s twin city, Edinburgh. We’ve had a new shopping center opened, they dug the road outside my house to put some new internet cables in, and they’re talking about more tram lines.
Some might crave, and I’ve no doubt that many in Kyiv would, to have this anodyne peace and continuity, the slow pace of a city where outrage is expressed among neighbors by the presence of unauthorized garden waste in the wrong recycling bin.
But sometimes, cities are called to greatness and in their pantheon across history, when that call comes, great sacrifices that seem unfair and unprovoked are, nevertheless, the stuff of heroic deeds that inspire and fortify.
I don’t claim to speak for Edinburgh city, but I live here, and I talk to my butcher, my fishmonger and my friends, and let me say that we stare in humble wonder at the example set by our twin city and what she stands for. Are we still worthy of her union?
Last year, when this war started, I saw an exchange on Twitter asking for the closest historical parallel to the attack on Ukraine. That’s always a question that will stir argument (as indeed it did). It depends how you measure the whole situation. Most of the suggestions took their cue from the wars of the twentieth century.
But for me at least, if I had to pick a situation that resonates with Ukraine’s struggle, I would choose the Battle of Salamis.
In 480 BCE, the ancient Greeks, having ensconced in their fine city Athens the world’s first direct democracy, faced a threat from the ever-ambitious autocratic Persians. The Athenians and their allies were desperately outnumbered (as they were in many of their entanglements with the Persians).
The battle was preceded by annihilating Greek defeats at Thermopylae and Artemisium. Yet through these catastrophes, the populist politician Themistocles rallied the liberty-loving Greeks to engage the Persians again. They would defend their freedom at all costs.
Xerxes, the hubristic leader of the Persians, piled his navy into the Straits of Salamis, a narrow water body between the mainland and Salamis, an island not far from Athens. He thought this would be a sensible strategic staging post for the final showdown.
However, stuck in the narrow straits, unable to maneuver effectively, the Greeks took their chance and struck a decisive blow. The Persian ships rammed each other in the confusion and chaos, and it soon became abundantly clear that it was a catastrophe for the Persians.
The fleet was routed. Xerxes was sent packing for good; he left Athens and its allies to their liberty and their peace.
There are of course many differences with the current situation. Salamis was a naval battle and it’s fatuous to point out that the nuances of the political situation that led to a battle two-and-a-half thousand years ago are different from the Russo-Ukrainian war.
But obvious academic arguments aside, in broad scope, what emerged at Salamis was an outnumbered force of people defending their democracy and their land from an autocrat. They went into war not with the intention to conquer, but to defend. And what they sought to defend was their freedom and their cities from barbarism.
They were not intimidated by the might of Xerxes (ten years earlier, his father Darius had demanded a gift of ‘earth and water’ from Greek city-states as a token and symbol of submission. Athens and Sparta had more self-respect than that and refused, and so Darius killed the Athenian ambassadors and threw the Spartan ones down a well.
The delightfulness of dictatorships has never changed. If the Persians had higher buildings, perhaps Xerxes would have thrown them out of a window).
The Battle of Salamis continues to inspire largely because of this fundamental narrative of a free people overshadowed by a leviathan but throwing everything and everyone into the fray to defend their independence.
Whatever the shortcomings of ancient Greece (it was still a democracy mired in slavery and subjugation, but then most ancient states were), the exercise of brute violence and power for the sake of imperial domination always repels the freedom-loving independently minded human.
That is why, millennia on, the battle still arouses the admiration of those whose empathies tilt towards the free and those suspicious of power.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has the same elements about it and in that sense, it has an historic significance. The outcome of Salamis is said to have shaped the modern world. Some historians claim that had the Greeks failed, Athens would have been cowed, the age of democracy would have come to an end, and the blossoming of philosophy and the early foundations of science snuffed out.
The most extreme interpretation is that a defeat at Salamis would have spelled an end to the emergence of western civilization. We would be living in a very different reality.
These “what-if” stories are always fun to contemplate. The victory of the Nazis over Britain is another one of those over-a-beer conversations that makes for gripping books. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), history denies us the chance for a re-run, so we never know how pivotal any matter in war or peace really is for what comes after.
We don’t know what the outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian war is for the whole of humanity, but on this score, because we are living through it, we do at least have the chance to choose between possible outcomes by our own behaviors.
We can see what the potential endpoints might be. Would the war stop at the Ukrainian border? What would happen to Ukrainians themselves if Russia achieved victory? How would the peacefulness of the world be altered by a capitulation to imperial brute force over peaceful borders? We know exactly what the answers to these questions are.
What we can also say about the war is that Ukraine has awakened the world. It has shaken democracies out of their twenty-first century complacency that democracy will last forever. It has reminded us that our quiet city lives can at any moment be ruptured by the brutal plans of the despot.
It really doesn’t take much of an imagination to understand that Kyiv could be Edinburgh and Bucha could be Bruntsfield.
It has awakened us to our failure to stand with Ukraine earlier, but at the same time it has vivified international institutions. It has alerted us to weaknesses in the international order (the UN is clearly not functioning as it should) and it has roused a fire in the belly of all people who value liberty.
Unfortunately for Russia, whenever and however this war ends, it will enter into the history books alongside Salamis as an historic battle of freedom against imperial tyrannical might and it will inspire generations to come, however awful the sacrifices.
But like Xerxes, if you didn’t want to end up in the history books like this, then the solution was not to attack your freedom-loving neighbors.
So back to my original concern. Is Edinburgh a worthy twin? Well, that’s something that Kyiv has to decide, just as the city-states of ancient Greece allied with Athens owed a debt to the city that did their fighting for them and acted as the shield for their freedom.
I’m pretty sure what I can say is that the population of this ‘Athens of the North’, as our city has sometimes been called since the 18th century (perhaps a little too grandly; but our castle does look a little like the Acropolis if you squint, and we’ve had a few good minds over the centuries), stands in awe.
And we stand in quiet admiration of the fight, the suffering, the barbarism that Kyiv and Ukrainians have endured to defend the simple idea that a people should be left in peace to pursue their own freedom according to their own designs.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post
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