999 Words


A coincidental number of acquaintances have recently and independently remarked to me — matter-of-factly, candidly, disturbingly — that they plan to kill themselves when they hit a certain age.

50 seems to be the consensus. On my 50th birthday, I’m going to find a nice, high cliff and let the birds feast on me, or some variation of that theme is a combination of words I never thought I’d hear — much less with blasé regularity nowadays.

What is it about marking the half-century milestone that makes it a window or a wall for so many people?

Maybe it’s the fact that cultural epochs are measured in hundred-year cycles. One hundred years represents a clean century, and also a celebratory lifetime for select remarkable individuals. The celebrity who makes it to 100 always receives special attention. Who would forgo that? Giving up at 50 seems like quitting halfway through the race.

One needn’t look far for reasons to feel defeated.

Media index bad news and relay it to us worst first. Political, social, economic, and environmental upheavals seem to occur beyond our abilities to react to them, much less control them.

Add to that the lingering malaise that two years of rollercoaster coronavirus measures wrought. And the most deadly conflict since World War II is taking place just on the European Union’s outskirts, threatening to break quarantine.

Not in nearly a hundred years have things been this crazy.

It was at the end of the 1920s when Stalin began an official campaign to artificially manipulate the world’s wheat prices, destroying it by the ton, and, in the process, segregating and starving millions of ethnic Ukrainians. The plan came to be called the Ukrainian Famine Genocide, or Holodomor, and was among the cruelest of the 20th century holocausts. Even the Germans disapproved.

Putin is taking a page directly from Stalin’s playbook, holding Europe’s breadbasket hostage, driving up food prices, and deliberately depriving millions upon millions of people of their daily bread — literally.

After World War II ended, the West said, ‘never again,’ and ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ History, however, is not a cautionary post to maniacal powers like Putin; it’s a blueprint.

Like a facsimile or a franchise, history in the 21st century doesn’t so much repeat as reiterate. Putin is our generation’s Stalin; Covid-19 is our Spanish Flu epidemic; Taylor Swift our Mae West. This is the Moscow McDonald’s version of Holodomor, a genocide that arrives blurred and on curled paper. That’s also why everyone is walking around in flood pants and bowl cuts — because it’s about to be the Great Depression again.

It isn’t enough to remember the past, though, to prevent its reverberations from echoing through time. We have to change its course. But to alter history’s trajectory, we need stories about where we want to go, in addition to stories about where we came from, and to which we never want to return.

That is one reason that artists, intellectuals, and writers are targeted. The myth of cultural imperialism loses power when it confronts well-told truths.

The Ukrainian author Victoria Amelina on June 27th 2023 was killed in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk when a Russian missile struck the restaurant where she was dining with a Columbian delegation. She was 37, and one of 13 civilian victims who died in the attack — just another incident in an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation that is gradually escalating into a standoff between Russia and the Western world.

According to The New York Times and a number of other news sources, Amelina was working at the time of her death on her first non-fiction book, tentatively titled War and Justice Diary: Looking at Women Looking at War, to be published in English.

Amelina was born in Lviv, the city nearest to my own ancestral home, where my grandfather left for Canada in 1929. As an author and Ukrainian Canadian, learning of Amelina’s death hit home for me in multiple ways.

Amelina didn’t have the opportunity to finish her book. She didn’t even have the opportunity to finish dinner and the doubtless extraordinarily interesting conversation she might have been having with her Columbian compatriots when a Russian missile exploded into an otherwise quotidian scene: twin 14-year-old sisters and another teen taking selfies on a bustling restaurant patio; a waiter serving coffee; a woman petting her husky.

Amelina also didn’t get the chance to take her own life at 50. She was robbed of the choice to give in to despair. She was too busy chronicling it.

Amelina’s death has become emblematic of the absurdity of this war, and war writ large. It is an assault on normal life, bringing destruction to creativity, goodness, and truth. It is an attack on freedom by forcing the victim to act in defence or suffer death. Two 20th century World Wars should have taught us this.

If only we remembered. But not only are war’s horrors being normalized through the media, there are fewer and fewer people to write their stories. The world has barely slowed down, as if passing the scene of a horrendous car crash on a busy highway. We need to get back to normal after the coronavirus pandemic; we need to fix climate change; we need to go on strike; we don’t have time to fight your war.

This is NicheMTL’s 50th post and it is dedicated to Victoria Amelina — and to every civilian who has been murdered in the crossfire of pointless power struggles fought by cultural somnambulists.

The lifestyle we have enjoyed in the West has resulted in the ultimate freedom, that of ennui, and we must not take it for granted. Amelina’s death has reminded me every day since that our lives are not our own to take.

We are nearly one quarter through this still-new century. What will our collective story be in 2050? What will the view look like from that nice, high cliff?◼︎

Photo: Daniel Mordzinksi