UKRAINE AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES
OKSANA SERHIYIVNA MARKAROVA
ADDRESS TO THE GRADUATES
BOSTON COLLEGE COMMENCEMENT
MAY 22, 2023
Dear University President Father Leahy; Chairman of the Board of Trustees John Fish; His Eminence Cardinal O'Malley; members of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Regents, honored guests, ladies and gentleman – and, the most important people in the stadium today, graduates of the class of 2023:
What a pleasure and honor to be your Commencement speaker today and have a big responsibility to share with you something that you might find useful and maybe cool as you enter the real life. It's you who will be shaping the world and taking your University motto – Ever to Excel – to everything you do in life. And you will need all the knowledge, all the energy and all the strength to do it.
What gives us strength?
As the Ambassador of Ukraine, I hear this question every day. Ukraine is in the news every day: the devastating missile attacks on our power grid and our residential areas, the grueling fights, the miserable life and atrocities under Russian occupation. So people ask me, “How do you people do it? How does your brave President Zelensky do it? Where do you find the strength?”
When Russian missiles hit Ukrainian cities and the Russian infantry walked into the Ukrainian countryside in the early hours of February 24, 2022, many experts across the globe gave my country three days before it falls. How could Ukraine counter what was believed the second most powerful army in the world?
453 days on, Ukraine is still standing. We’re still fighting. We’ve repelled the invaders from the northern part of the country. We’ve liberated Kherson – a city of 300,000 – and countless towns in the South of Ukraine. Our armed forces have taken a heroic stand at the town of Bakhmut and have repelled endless Russian attacks for nearly nine months.
What gives us strength? This was the title of a poem penned by Ukrainian classic Lesia Ukrainka more than a century ago. She was born in 1871 (Boston College was already teaching [its] first students for seven years then) and lived in the Russian empire, which ruled Ukraine–essentially a Russian colony at that time–with an iron fist. Even publishing in the Ukrainian language was punishable by prison.
Lesia Ukrainka wrote a poem about a carpenter in Jerusalem who was hired by the authorities to craft crosses. These were needed to execute three criminals. The dirt-poor carpenter didn’t put much effort into these crosses. One in particular was sloppily made from a particularly heavy kind of wood. But what could the poor carpenter do? It was cheap, hasty work. The economy was in decline; beggars couldn’t be choosers, you see?
And so this carpenter spends his day lamenting his poverty and his arduous toil, which sapped all his energy and strength. And then he sees a crowd marching past his workshop. People gleefully watch as three prisoners carry their crosses to their place of execution. The revelers cheer as soldiers cruelly force one of these prisoners get up and walk after he’s fallen down under the weight of his cross.
The carpenter watches as the pale-faced prisoner falls down again, unable to bear the weight of the cross. Just as a soldier is about to lace him with a whip, the carpenter finds himself next to the prisoner helping him raise the cross. “I made this cross so heavy. It’s my job to carry it,” the carpenter says.
He straightens his spine, his arms find their old strength, and his eyes burn with determination as the carpenter bears Jesus’ cross to Golgotha.
What gave him strength? What did the Ukrainian poet mean by this apocryphal story? What does it have to do with the Ukrainians’ plight today? And why am I sharing this story with you on this glorious day?
Throughout my life, I find three things give me strength.
These three things are what gives the Ukrainian people the strength during these difficult 15 months. These three things are what filled the apocryphal carpenter with the courage to defy the Roman guards, to fly in the face of public opinion, and to do the right thing. And this is what I would like to talk to you about.
First, a word you've heard a lot from you professors and parents: responsibility.
Just as the carpenter in the poem took it upon himself to bear the burden, so did Ukrainians raise to the challenge of full-scale invasion.
If someone would think that the first sounds of explosions sent all Ukrainians to duck and cover – they’d be wrong.
In the 31 years of renewed Ukraine independence, we’ve built our democracy and protected it more than once against any attempt to violate its essential principles like free elections and freedom. It wasn’t a perfect democracy by any means. We hadn’t finished honing it. We were still rooting out the remains of the totalitarian and corrupt Soviet legacy.
But, what we have learned was that it is solely up to us, the people, to protect our freedoms. In 2013, we took to the streets to oppose the corrupt president who was about to sell out to Russia. In 2014, we took up arms when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and invaded our Eastern lands. In 2022, we heard the explosions and we stood up to protect our country.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine wasn’t a simple land grab. It was a blatant violation of the rules-based world order. It was a genocidal attack aimed to destroy Ukraine’s statehood and its freedom-loving people. A free Ukraine has always been a thorn in Russia’s side. A strong, successful, democratic Ukraine that is a full-fledged member of the Western democratic world, has always been Russia’s worst nightmare.
So we went to fight not just for our land and our national identity. We went to fight for democracy itself. We would not, could not bear returning to the dictatorship that had ruled our lands for centuries in the past.
Our democracy was, like that poorly crafted cross, still unwieldy, and rough in places. But it was ours. We could not bear losing it. Just like the carpenter in the story rose up to take the responsibility for his craft, we rose to stand against the threat to our democracy.
Facing such a massive threat was a frightening experience. When you see the enemy’s tanks in your street, when you hear the enemy’s steps in your house, when your neighbor’s son is taken away by armed strangers, when a missile hit destroys a hospital, a kindergarten, a house–it’s chilling. It’s easy to panic. Your lizard brain tells you to hide away, to submit, to give up. The easiest thing to do is nothing. And it’s also the worst thing to do.
Which brings me to the second thing I would like to talk about today–taking action.
The poor carpenter spent his time complaining, feeling like a hapless victim. Yet, as soon as he decided to act, his strength came back. There is a world of difference between being thrown into the arena and stepping into the arena. In that split second when you choose to act, you change from a victim to a hero, [as] when our president took out his phone on the first day of aggression and recorded "We are here; we will not surrender."
It is for the same reason that on the first day of Russia’s invasion, thousands of men lined up to the military recruitment offices. It's for the same reason my husband, who is with us here, was on the first flight to Ukraine. Students and professors, librarians and scientists, engineers and doctors, entrepreneurs and parliamentarians chose to take action, put on a uniform and go do something rather than sit back and complain.
Is it for the same reason that thousands of people started collecting donations and procuring military equipment for the army – from combat boots to Kevlar vests, from medical kits to camera drones to anything needed. At the same time, people helped accommodate millions of internally displaced persons who fled the bombarded cities and occupied villages. They opened their houses to these people, they put clothes on their backs and bought toys for their children.
It's for the same reason businesses relocated their manufacturing facilities to safer areas and software programmers learned to write code in bomb shelters.
Its for the same reason Americans started supporting Ukrainians – from helping those in the U.S., to sending support or even traveling to Ukraine, to putting Ukrainian flags outside of your houses, to supporting your President Biden and both parties in Congress in providing us with so much needed help to defend not just Ukraine’s independence and existence, but democracy and freedom and international rules everywhere.
All these ordinary people committed truly heroic feats.
That moment when you decide to act is when you stop being an ordinary person and become truly extraordinary. You excel!
So what is the third thing that gives you strength? It's love.
Not love as in “hearts and flowers,” although as a happily married woman I can tell you that helps, too.
Love as in “love thy neighbor.” Love as in “sharing is caring.” Love as in when you see someone suffer, you reach out and help.
Yes, like that carpenter who went to help the exhausted man, beaten and tortured, who was carrying his own cross uphill, to his place of death. Like all those people who brought food and water to share with their neighbors while sheltering in subway stations and underground garages. Like all those who baked pastry and served hot tea to families that had narrowly escaped death or occupation. Like all those countries who opened their borders to the Ukrainian refugees and helped them find a safe haven after the violent nightmares of war. Like all those people donating to treat the wounded, give psychological help to the victims of rape, and give new limbs to children, as in our Ukraine House Unbreakable program.
Love is always about taking responsibility for someone. Love is always about taking action. Love is about support and help.
Never ask yourself, “Should I help?” Ask yourself, “How can I help?” This is how we become strong. By being there for other people, so that they are there for us when we need it. By showing love, giving love, by simply loving. Loving our family, loving our country, loving each other.
Love seems like such as simplistic answer, doesn’t it? No, it isn’t. Everything great ever accomplished in the world was done out of love. Love gives you strength to perform miracles.
Love is the Ukrainian people’s most powerful weapon.
Russia set our house on fire, fuelled by hatred. We fight out of love for our country, our people and our freedom. That’s why the free world supports us. That’s how I know we will prevail.
Twenty-five years ago I came to the United States for the first time. The first American city I laid my eyes on was Boston. I remember how amazed I was to see this city, steeped in history yet brimming with innovation. I remember walking down the street and thinking, “This place feels like freedom.”
All these years later, I am privileged to work in this country, to work with many incredible people and to be here today. As I look at you, as I feel your boundless energy and your eagerness to start your new lives, as I think of all the opportunities and adventures awaiting you, I can’t help thinking, “This place still feels like freedom.”
And on this very important day, I ask you to remember: Freedom is not a given. Opportunities are not a given. Democracy is not a given. We all have many battles to fight in, many obstacles to overcome, many challenges to see through. Where will we get the strength? In our responsibility to take action for what we love. Choose to do that, and in that moment, you will become truly extraordinary.
The apocryphal carpenter knew it over 2,000 years ago. The Ukrainian poet said it 120 years ago. It is still true today.
God bless you all. Thank you all very much, and good luck!