One of the joys of living in St. Michaels has been the opportunity to meet so many fascinating people from all walks of life of life who provide rich perspectives from their varied experiences. Two people who have become dear friends are Sandy Cannon-Brown and Omer Brown. Sandy is well known from her work producing and directing environmental films as well as her leadership with the Chesapeake Film Festival. Not as well known is her husband Omer who is one of the nation’s leading experts in nuclear policy and whose work has brought him into contact with people all over the world, including someone by the name of Volodymyr Riabtsev.
Volodymyr is like so many who live in St. Michaels these days, people who have had interesting careers and accomplished much now in retirement hoping to lead a quiet life. He is like our friends with whom we enjoy pleasant evenings, ones full of laughter and the sharing of unusual stories in a place of relative security.
Volodymyr Riabtsev is retired from senior positions in the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, including serving as Ukraine’s Charge d’Affairs in Japan. Omer became friends with him when they worked together in updating Ukraine’s nuclear laws following the Chernobyl accident, and he has kept in touch with him as Russian forces tear his country apart.
At the outbreak of the invasion, Omer asked Volodymyr if the things we were reading in the media about Ukraine were true. He replied, “Unfortunately it’s true. Ukrainians are fighting heroically. But the military equipment of the Russian army is better. Now Kyiv, Kharkov and southern cities are being attacked. All residents are ready to fight. Not enough weapons for volunteers. Victory, if it come, will cost Russia dearly.”
Volodymyr said more on March 3 in a note to Omer. He began his email with “Dear Omer.” How many emails do we send each other, most not bothering to even include the name of the person we are addressing? But here someone in extremis begins with the salutation Dear to remind us of how we should all treasure one another.
“Now I realized and know that the war is war, and even my modest strength can be useful for defense.
“Yesterday and today I helped in organizing the defense in the Kiev region. We made anti-tank barriers in the direct translation “anti-tank hedgehogs”.
“Today the fighting is going on 15-20 km from my location. Explosions and shots are well hearable.
“I believe that I can do something more useful for the defense of Ukraine. The attached photo confirms my intentions.”
And he included this photograph:
Fiona Hill, the former Senior Director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, was recently interviewed by Politico regarding what Putin’s intentions were and where things are headed. The interviewer reflected, “There are people who are saying we’re on the brink of a World War III.” Ms. Hill’s response was, “We’re already in it. We have been for some time,” pointing out the invasion of eastern Ukraine that began in 2014. She continued, “People shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that we’re just on the brink of something. We’ve been well and truly in it for quite a long period of time.”
Ms. Hill’s observations were considered alarmist by many, but I am sure that Volodymyr watching Kiev being subjected to bombs and rocket attacks in advance of Russian soldiers coming down his street would agree with her.
My point in writing this article is that the next time you sit down with friends for a meal here on the Shore, please bow your heads and think of Volodymyr, someone not much different from yourself, but whose world that held such promise following the fall of the first Iron Curtain is collapsing all around him. Despite that hopelessness, what you see in his face is the reflection of someone at peace with the world into which he has been shoved, someone comfortable with his fate, someone committed to the higher goal of freedom and willing to give his life in the pursuit of it. All of us should strive to have the courage of Volodymyr Riabtsev and heed the message that he sent in another email:
“I state that brutal battles are going on. The fact is that Ukrainians are fighting desperately and without self-pity.
“But it must be admitted that the Russians are also fighting aggressively.
“I do not think that Ukraine can win this war due to the power of military forces. But the Ukrainians will definitely not give up. Defending their land and their families, the Ukrainian people become “wild” and are ready to die but repel the enemy.
“Of course, there will be big losses. Many people will die. It’s amazing that this is possible in the 21st century. But it happens and it’s true.
“Let’s support Ukraine.”
Jeff McGuiness was the senior partner of a public policy law firm based in Washington, DC, and founder of HR Policy Association. He was also a partner in Mathews Brothers for ten years. A fine arts major in college who served as a photographer in the Air Force during the Vietnam War Era, he has picked up where he left off 50 years ago with Bay Photographic Works. He lives in St. Michaels, MD.