One of the memorable experiences of my big OE many years ago was leaving Russia and arriving in Finland. There was nothing to announce the train had crossed the border – no checkpoint, as I recall – but it was soon evident.
After two weeks on the Trans-Siberian, passing flat landscapes of birch trees and towns of brutalist concrete, we were suddenly looking out to manicured farms and charming barns painted in bright colours.
The officialdom on the train had changed too. Gone were the surly guards who'd checked every compartment to ensure nothing or no one was leaving the Soviet Union without permission, gone were the severe women who'd delivered tea from the samovar. They all must have left at the last stop.
In their place were relaxed, blond-haired chaps in little blue railway caps. The atmosphere had palpably lightened. That evening in Helsinki we walked the streets breathing the intoxicating air of freedom. Never had neon light looked so beautiful, never had flashy advertising promised so much fun.
It was 1978. Saturday Night Fever had just opened in cinemas. We bought tickets. "You should be dancing," the Bee Gees sang - and they were so right.
You don't really know the meaning of freedom and democracy until you have seen a country without them. They are just words taken for granted, not things you ever think you'd need to fight or die for. That's what Ukraine thought. Right up until Russia invaded, Ukraine's Government complained that British and American warnings were scaring its people unnecessarily.
That's what Finland thought too, right through the Cold War Finland thought neutrality was the safest way to live beside Russia. It doesn't think so now. Nor does nearby Sweden, with its long history of non-alignment. Both now want to join Nato.
Vladimir Putin has just shown us why so many countries on Russia's western border have joined Nato as soon as they could. Post-Communist Russia is a caricature of capitalism and democracy, where the smartest agents of the former state were able to buy or steal its assets and resources, establishing an oligarchy that today controls its commerce, courts, media and elections.
Democracy is a delicate flower, depending on many institutions – an independent judiciary, a free press, professional law enforcement and an impartial public service, especially when it comes to counting votes.
Watching the Australian election results last Sunday night, especially Scott Morrison's concession speech, it struck me again how lucky we are that we can take it for granted a person with power will relinquish it once the votes are counted. It is a miracle really.
Sadly, the miracle can no longer be taken for granted in the country that considers itself the model of democracy. Donald Trump has shown how easily an electoral system can be undermined. All it takes is one side to disbelieve the count, not even needing evidence of electoral malpractice.
Pivotal states governed by his party have since purged their electoral offices, which means the other side might not trust an adverse result from those states next time. It is a tragedy.
But it need not stop Nato becoming more discerning about the countries it will admit in the wake of Russia's actions. Finland and Sweden certainly, but Turkey's objection to them should invite a review of Turkey's democratic credentials.
The same tests should be applied in the "Indo-Pacific". Why is India in the "Quad" (with the US, Japan and Australia) that met in Tokyo this week? India is a deeply corrupt, superficial democracy at best, and unreliable. It was one of 40 countries that have abstained in the UN General Assembly on resolutions against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
That is 40 states (out of 193) clearly not outraged that a country should be invaded, its cities shelled, civilians killed and atrocities committed, because it doesn't want to be like Russia.
Jacinda Ardern, in her Anzac Day address last month, rejected the view that the war in Ukraine is about democracy, preferring to see it as a battle to maintain a principle of international law that no country should invade another. I think it is more than that.
It serves New Zealand's foreign policy purposes to frame the war this way so as not to antagonise China, which always proclaims the non-interference principle though it has seen nothing to criticise in Ukraine. But democracy has been in retreat in many parts of the world, attested by that UN vote.
It is a trend that can be turned around now. Western alliances should declare their protection will be extended only to countries that maintain the vital organs of democracy, because these are essential to the freedoms that are worth the fight.