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The Threats of Freedom and Democracy

Abraham Lincoln described America’s democracy as a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” In other words, the supreme power is vested in its citizens and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system. The society and culture are characterized by a formal equality of rights and privileges.

Russia is not, and never has been, a democracy because its government never derived its authority from the people through free and fair elections. It is a government created by the old KGB crowd and the corrupt oligarchs who created the perfect kleptocracy.

Democracies are never perfect because they reflect the imperfect human beings who created them. But, for all their shortcomings, the US and Canada are vibrant democracies.

Russia is not, and never has been, a democracy because its government never derived its authority from the people through free and fair elections. It is a government created by the old KGB crowd and the corrupt oligarchs who created the perfect kleptocracy.

That’s why Vladimir Putin feels so threatened by the Maidan Revolution and its aftermath. The Maidan represents the second democratic uprising in a decade on Russia’s border. Its pointed rejoinder to former President Victor Yanukovich empowers “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Putin is not threatened by his enemies; they have either been cowed into submission, imprisoned or murdered. The Lilliputian opposition to his autocratic rule lacks sufficient money and “administrative resources” — a Russian euphemism for the ability to manipulate the outcome of an election.

Putin is threatened by a prosperous, stable and democratic state in Ukraine. Threatened because the hunger for freedom is contagious. Threatened because if Ukraine succeeds its Russian neighbors will discover the difference and want the same for themselves. And that’s why Putin’s disinformation machine works overtime to paint Ukrainians as fascists and raging anti-Semites. It’s powerful propaganda; it just isn’t true.

Ukraine has emerged as the most religiously diverse and tolerant of the former Soviet Republics, as the rabbis of Ukraine demonstrated in their response to the charges of Putin’s minions during the Maidan. We have also seen it powerfully illustrated through the “Spiritual Council” of Save Ukraine Now, encompassing Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims, that gives strategic direction and insight to SUN’s activities in the country. In April, they traveled together to the United States to help launch Ukraine Survival, our national campaign to alleviate the suffering of refugees in eastern Ukraine.

This new reality in Ukraine, paradoxically fostered by Putin’s belligerence, will not be reversed because the Ukrainians are determined to be free themselves. In so doing, they may become “the last, best hope” for the Russian people.

— Gary Kellner, President, Save Ukraine Now


Yesterday, Ed Kellner, my 91-year-old father, departed this life. He left behind a few shirts and pairs of pants, a pair of shoes, a pair of bedroom slippers, three Bibles, pictures of children and grandchildren, and a few odds and ends. It doesn’t sound like much.

My father and mother were successful by the standard measurements of American culture. They did well in the real estate business, well enough to retire in their fifties and not worry much about money for the next 35 years.

And yet, it all came down to what could be packed in two boxes. Except, dad left a lot more than two boxes of clothes and memorabilia; he left a rich legacy. Within minutes after I posted his passing on Facebook, the condolence messages started coming—more than 400 by last night.

Some came from friends dating back to childhood and college, others from friends and colleagues I have made as I have traveled the world or people who have heard me tell stories about his life. A number came from people I have never met, people whose lives my father touched. A pattern emerged quickly. Some people are remembered for their sense of humor, or their golf game. The people who wrote to me yesterday talked about the orphans my father sponsored in Haiti, the water wells he helped dig in Africa and the churches he helped launch in the US.

The theme was consistent: Dad was always giving.

When his time came, his earthly possessions fit in two cardboard boxes. But the legacy was huge.

Legacy was not so important to me when I was young. I focused on achievement. And like most Americans, I used hard metrics to determine success. Now that most of my career is behind me, I am much more focused on legacy, the things that don’t fit in a couple of boxes.

Oskar Schindler was not a very good man most of his life. He was a spendthrift, a playboy and a war profiteer. He made a lot of money and threw away a lot of money until he realized the value of an individual human life. Then, he spent much of his fortune trying to save the lives of the Jews who worked for him from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. By the time the Russians arrived, Schindler had saved more than 1,100 men, women and children. In the climactic scene of the Steven Spielberg film, the Jews he saved gathered to say goodbye to Schindler and his wife before he fled from the Red Army. The spokesman for Schindler’s Jews gave him a ring with an inscription from the Talmud, “Whoever saves a life saves the world entire.” Schindler broke down and wept at the realization that he could have done more, much more.

Few people have as dramatic a moment as Oskar Schindler, but we leave a richer legacy when we invest in saving lives.

War crimes and the problem of false equivalency

Supporters of the territorial unity of Ukraine in the face of an unprovoked Russian onslaught may have been saddened to read accusations about the Ukraine national army of using cluster bombs against the Russian thugs who have tried to usurp government rule. Missile attacks, supposedly coming from the general vicinity of the Ukraine Army, were said to have contained shrapnel designed to spray indiscriminately over the rebel soldiers.

The American public should understand the concept of false equivalency in comparing a national army struggling to defend its own territory against Russian thugs who halted international efforts to investigate a plane crash, impose their will by force of arms and claim to want to separate huge sections of the eastern half of the nation and join with mother Russia.

One is reminded of the efforts of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to claim his chemical attacks against his own people were perpetrated by rebel forces instead. The war crimes in the Ukraine conflict are predominately coming from the Russian side, not Ukrainians. And there is no way for the Ukraine government to investigate the matter and serve justice on the perpetrators.

Trying to turn the tables on the accuser has been used as a propaganda technique in many other conflicts as well when the usurper is accused of unconscionable actions. Observers of the international community should keep this in mind when evaluating recent accusations.

It was the kind of day when the gray seeps into your soul

A Boy and a Bandage

Last Friday I had one of those experiences that put a face on the current conflict in Ukraine.

Our SUN team traveled to a refugee center outside of Kyiv run by a courageous, young Orthodox priest—Father Nicolay. It was a cold, gray day, the first real day of fall in Ukraine, a day that reminds you that the damp cold will soon give way to the bone-chilling cold of winter. It was the kind of day when the gray seeps into your soul.

Father Nicolay took us through what had been a rehabilitation center for drug addicts and alcoholics, a facility that comfortably housed 35 men and women but now provided a home to more than 150 men, women and children.

We walked into a room filled with squealing, laughing children. Oddly, most of them were playing under the tables, pretending that they were being bombed— imitating their real-life experiences in eastern Ukraine.

Being an over-grown child myself, I waded into the group and joined the game.

After a few minutes, one little boy, maybe five or six years old came to me and inspected my right arm. He began to pat it and shook his head. He told me I was going to be alright and not to cry.

He then took a roll of surgical gauze out of his pocket and wrapped it around my wrist, tying it off as best as a five-year old can. He looked up and smiled.

I thanked him and started to take off the bandage, but he patted my arm again and told me I had to wear it until it was better.

I fought back the tears.

Here was a little boy who should be playing with trucks and instead he was playing a game that he had learned when his housed was bombed.

And I realized why Save Ukraine Now is important.

We are not trying to save a geo-political unit; we are saving the future of children like that little boy and the other boys and girls who are in that shelter and in scores of other shelters across Ukraine.

I have been carrying that gauze with me every day since that visit and I will carry it to remind me that the face of war is the face of a little boy in a refugee center.

Ukraine: A Warfront Perspective

I am asked everyday why Save Ukraine Now is important. There are so many good organizations. Is one more really necessary?

Today we received this email from a woman who has directed a home for troubled youth for more than 15 years. She describes the situation as it is today. It will only get worse when the weather turns cold in a few weeks. This is why Save Ukraine Now is important.

 Gary Kellner
Save Ukraine Now

Guest Post

By Liz Milliken, NGO director for aged out orphan projects in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians are living in harm’s way, sleeping in basements at night and trying to survive without getting bombed (yes, in the middle of a ceasefire).

A friend of ours has taken in a family, three kids and their dad. The mom was at the open market and was killed in bombings along with her unborn child. Civilians and Ukrainian soldiers are dying every day. There are elderly and disabled people (who were unable to evacuate) who are now dying of starvation, especially in big cities where they are without access to garden plots. There is little to buy in the few stores that are open and no way for folks to get money to buy anything.

I wish things like this would make it to the news in the States.

As winter gets closer, the refugee crisis is getting more complicated. Many refugees have been living at government and non-government summer camps where there is no heat and they are being moved to new locations.

The refugees in my village were “lucky” to be moved to a sport campground that at least has some form of heat and where they are fed. The Zhytomyr ministry of sports and youth has been feeding these 60 people, but now they are out of money and are going into debt with every place they purchase food from, and their days are numbered for racking up debt with no way to pay it back.

I imagine it’s the same everywhere, nobody is sure how all the refugees are going to be taken care of. My friends from the sport campground are so grateful that they are not being bombed here in Zhytomyr like they were at home. They have peace that God can work things out, even though we don’t see a way through the darkness.

A Call to Action

The situation in eastern Ukraine is dire.

According to the UN, more than 1,000,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, leaving everything they had behind. Many more are without water and electricity. Food and medical supplies are running low and in a few weeks the weather will become bitter and the suffering will become deadly.

Without such assistance, thousands of individuals will get sick and many — especially the old and infirm—will die.

Because of the many years I have worked in Ukraine on charitable, educational and political projects, I believe that a synergy of government, NGOs and faith-based organizations offers the best hope for relieving the suffering of the population in the present crisis. I am hopeful of success because every sector of society has committed itself to cooperation, beginning with the Office of the President and including business leaders, charitable organizations and churches.

Responding to the humanitarian crisis alone is not sufficient.

It is time to tell the world the truth about Vladimir Putin and the threat he represents not only to Ukraine, but also to Europe and the US. The response of the Western democracies to Russian aggression in Ukraine makes it obvious that many of the leaders of these governments do not possess the historical perspective or an understanding of what is at stake. We need to help them understand that the place to stop Putin is the Donbas, not the Vistula.

A tragic and under-reported dimension of the crisis in Ukraine is the war being waged against the religion by the separatists.Bishops and pastors have been abducted, tortured and beaten. The murder of five pastors and deacons has been confirmed. Hundreds of churches have been closed, with many churches either destroyed or taken over by terrorists, leaving whole congregations without places to worship.

Persecution has not been experienced to so great a scale since the days of Communism.

This is the situation that gives rise to Save Ukraine Now, an organization that will provide direct aid to the Ukrainian people in the recently liberated areas of eastern Ukraine and will be a strong and aggressive advocate for Ukraine to the Western governments, the media, NGOs and wider public.

Dr. Gary Kellner
Save Ukraine Now