I cannot carry out my daily routines or indulge in luxuries like running water, food, shelter and access to medication without my soul cracking apart at every new report of bombings of hospitals, residential neighbourhoods and historic structures, breaches of ceasefires, senior citizens camping out in train stations, and endless other acts of brutish inhumanity. It seems insensitive, if not disrespectful, to even entertain thoughts of art or literature or beauty in times like these. However, a friend then reminded me of a piece of wisdom penned by Primo Levi, the Italian chemist, Holocaust survivor and author of many engrossing books: fiction, memoir and essays.
“Writing sad, crepuscular poems, and not all that beautiful, while the world was in flames, did not seem to us either strange or shameful: we proclaimed ourselves the enemies of Fascism, but actually Fascism had had its effect on us, as on almost all Italians, alienating us and making us superficial, passive, and cynical,” he wrote, in 1942. “Fascism was not only a clownish and improvident misrule but the negator of justice; it had not only dragged Italy into an unjust and ill-omened war but it had arisen and consolidated itself as the custodian of a detestable legality and order, based on... the silence imposed on those who think and do not want to be slaves, and on systematic and calculated lies.”
I thought about poetry when I learned the meaning of the Ukrainian flag. Adopted only 30 years ago, the two equal horizontal lines of azure on the top half and marigold on the bottom are a nod to the colours of the flag of the 12th-century Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia, which encompassed parts of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. Yellow and blue have been on the flag since revolutionaries assumed power of Ukraine in 1848. When the communist government took over, the flag went the way of other emblems of autonomy. But, in 1992, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s parliament officially restored the blue and yellow flag.
The colours do indeed nod to the nation’s history, but here’s where the poetry comes in. They also offer a vivid tribute to its present: the blue symbolises the sky, streams and mountains while the yellow is the nation’s golden wheat fields, its fertile earth, as rich as its cultural legacy.
Agriculture has been and continues to be inextricably linked to Ukraine. It was known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, and its standing in the region preceded the USSR and continues to endure. According to IHS Markit, an information and analytics company, Ukraine is one of the main world exporters of grains – primarily corn and wheat. Barley is in there, too. In 2021, it was the second-largest supplier of grains for the European Union and a large food supplier for low- and middle-income countries in Asia and Africa. The longer the current conflict lasts, the more farmers will abandon their land, the more prices will increase, the more trade will be upended by port closures or, worse, destruction, and the greater the risk of food insecurity not only in the region, but across the globe.
It appears as though the distillers in major whisky-making nations are in a good place right now, given that the Scottish and American producers source their grains elsewhere and many are making efforts to source locally. But I suspect (and hope) that, should the time come, readers of these pages would gladly sacrifice their precious drams if the alternative means depriving populations of sustenance.
Russia’s unprovoked attacks on Ukraine put the supply-chain issues that we’ve been talking about for the past two years into stark relief. They elucidate how so many nations can be dependent on a single one and that reliance might be built on a fragile house of cards.