I’ve always been a bit leery of flags. I’ve long flown the U.S. flag proudly and unapologetically outside my home, but I’ve balked at the idea of adding other banners for fear that my flagpole might become more a political advertising medium than a simple acknowledgment that, for all its challenges and shortcomings, I’m blessed to live in this country.

That changed this week.

For many, Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag has become a reminder that democracy needs to be protected from “authoritarianism and the brutality it spawns.”  Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

On Tuesday, as Vladimir Putin hit the restart button on his savage attempt to subjugate Russia’s neighbor to the west, I walked out to the yard, tied two new clips to the flagpole’s halyard and attached the blue-and-yellow flag of Ukraine just beneath the stars and stripes. As if on cue, a stiff westerly breeze came up and the two flags flapped, fiercely and in unison, toward the east.

Merriam-Webster defines “flag” as “a usually rectangular piece of fabric of distinctive design that is used as a symbol (as of a nation), as a signaling device, or as a decoration.” In this case, the first two apply: The simple blue over yellow stripes have come to symbolize Ukraine and its fight for survival. And that piece of colorful fabric now fluttering outside my window is indeed a signal – and not just to the faraway Ukrainians.

It’s a reminder of what freedom really means. At the same time, it’s a warning to us Americans that democracy, like any living organism, must be nurtured, cultivated and, yes, protected when necessary from authoritarianism and the brutality it spawns.

While we argue over what to call the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 – a violent insurrection or what Republicans call “legitimate political discourse” – the citizens of Ukraine hang onto their capital city of Kyiv with a ferocity that echoes the battles of Lexington and Concord one April morning 247 years ago.

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While we lob rhetorical bombs across our great political divide – each side convinced the other will be the death of our nation – ordinary Ukrainians take up small arms in a fight where death is not a metaphor, but a daily reality.

As we fret over who said what on Twitter, Mariupol burns.

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve marveled at these men, women and even children who seem to conclude every TV interview with vows like “We will win,” or “We will never give up,” or “Putin will never defeat us.” Their words are more than just aspirational – they’re rooted in the simple truth that they are on the right side of history here, that they will, as the license plates say in New Hampshire, live free or die.

Why not raise their flag? If Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the people he so bravely leads don’t stand as a bulwark against global tyranny, who does? Their homes are pulverized by missiles, their hospitals and factories smolder in ruins, their citizens lay dead in the streets, yet somehow this remains their finest hour.

My wife bought our flag recently at the Maine Garden + Marketplace show in Portland. It was made by Maine Stitching Specialties and sold by 1901 Maine Flag, both based in Skowhegan.

“I’ve been selling stuff for a long time and I’ve never had the response I’ve had with this flag,” Julie Swain, who owns and operates both businesses with her husband, Bill, told me in an interview on Wednesday.

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Swain estimates they made and sold 1,500 Ukrainian flags since Russia invaded the country eight weeks ago. Now, as the war plods on far longer than most expected, the demand has only increased.

The flags come in three sizes ranging from $15 to $29, with 20 percent of each sale going directly to the World Central Kitchen. So far, Swain said, flag sales have raised $6,500 for the charity, which she and her husband chose “because they’re on the ground feeding the refugees and the people in Ukraine in the war-torn areas.”

As Swain spoke, World Central Kitchen staffers were still picking up the pieces after a Russian missile struck one of the organization’s food sites in Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv.

To be sure, the fate of Ukraine isn’t going to turn on a $5.80 donation flowing from the sale of a $29 flag. That said, there are myriad other ways to help – back in early March, my wife and I became patrons of The Kyiv Independent, a band of some 30 brave journalists who have soldiered on after splitting with their previous employer, the Kyiv Post, over infringements on their editorial independence.

The point here is not the size or scope of our individual expressions of support for people who only a few months ago were living lives not unlike ours in cities and towns not all that different from Portland or Skowhegan. Rather, even as the world funnels arms and ammunition to Ukraine’s military, it’s that we share a moral obligation to support all Ukrainians – people to people – in any way possible.

As she speaks with her customers, Swain said, “they can 100 percent relate to these people whose lives are being torn apart. Everyone wants to do something to let (the Ukrainians) know we support them. … We know we can’t get involved (militarily) because it could start World War III, but it’s hard to watch people being murdered and torn out of their homes.”

That’s why, as Putin’s latest offensive rains down on Ukraine’s eastern flank, there’s something visceral about these flags now sprouting all over Maine and beyond in perfect synch with the blue skies, the yellow forsythias and the promise of spring.

They’re a way to send a message to those 4,400 miles away whose spring lies buried beneath the ashes and the rubble and the nerve-shattering thud of incoming artillery: We still see you. We are in awe of you. The more you resist this assault on your homeland, no matter how searing the sacrifice and how painful the losses, the stronger our faith in you grows.

Sure, it’s just a flag. But it’s also a reminder that the defense of democracy – here, there and everywhere – begins and ends in our hearts.


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