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agnimag
Published: Wed Mar 2 2022
Art: Andrea Chung
Dispatches from Ukraine

AGNI was founded fifty years ago, in 1972, by a Ukrainian-American writer and a group of his fellow writers at Antioch College. During Askold Melnyczuk’s thirty years at the helm, he infused the magazine with an abiding commitment to the work of Ukrainian writers and translators. Now, in response to the Russian invasion—and with Askold’s coordinating help—we will publish Ukrainian dispatches as we receive them. His own response, delivered as a speech for UMass Boston, stands as a fitting introduction to these.

The authors below:

 

Maryna, a Ukrainian designer from Mariupol; among her credits, artwork for the site A Sojourner in Mariupol: Pictures from Within
Writing from Western Ukraine
Translated by Askold Melnyczuk

**March 22, 2022. **I left Mariupol a few days ago but haven’t been able to write anything until now. The Russians destroyed my home. A bomb landed inside my room. There’s nowhere to live. My apartment building was under constant shelling by missiles and tank rounds. But the most dangerous element are the mines. Sometimes things would be quiet for an hour, and then suddenly missiles would start landing right below my window and the earth would quake. Just as you’ve decided to leave the shelter and head home to get some things, grab a little food, just as you’re climbing the stairs to your apartment, inevitably the shelling resumes, and now you’re racing back downstairs, pausing on every floor to hide near the elevator shaft.

The missiles are terrifying. Their horrible sound, which begins around 4 a.m., is hard to describe. You have only one wish in your head: that your family, friends, and our defending army survive this. You fall asleep with that hope and you awaken to it. And you feel helpless, because there’s nothing you can do from the shelter.

Russia has decided to raze my city. The bombing is aimed at apartment complexes, schools, nurseries, hospitals, bomb shelters: the city’s entire infrastructure has been targeted, leaving people without lights, heat, gas, food, medication, or any way of connecting with others. Their aim is to slaughter everyone with bombs and artillery.

Thousands of people are sheltering in Mariupol. Some don’t want to leave, others are afraid that the humanitarian corridors remain unsafe, and many hope our soldiers can still beat back the invaders. They all listen to the radio nonstop, hoping to hear that help is on the way—not only humanitarian but military aid. We have faith in our troops, but we need more support.

I managed to survive and escape, but all my thoughts are with those who have remained. I expect that every Russian soldier responsible for this destruction will one day be called to account for it. Here’s a glimpse of what my place looks like now:

March 24, 2022. A month that’s felt like an eternity. When it became impossible to get news from the front, to hear what was happened to our loved ones, it became like one long day, without beginning or end.

Today I had some news: those who remain in Mariupol have no water, no food, no medicines. Never mind light or heat.

Russia continues to destroy my city.

**April 3, 2022. **You’re drinking your coffee and thinking how those left behind have been rationed half a cup of dirty water a day, and suddenly you can’t swallow.

You wash a dish using as little water as possible, even though you now have more than enough.

You try eating but all you can think of is that those friends who remain behind in Mariupol eat at most once day, and fear for their lives 24/7.

You look out at the world around you, but all you see is Mariupol.

 

Yuri Andrukhovych, a Ukrainian writer, from his hometown of Ivano-Frankivsk
April 4, 2022
Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky
After Bucha

“The wonderful, highly talented German people, the nation of thinkers and poets that gave global culture Luther and Goethe, Nietzsche and Wagner, Kant and Hegel, SHOULD NOT be accused of the inhumane acts committed by Hitler and his closest circle and DOES NOT carry any responsibility for Auschwitz, Majdanek, Buchenwald, Dachau, or the other atrocities that were part of the Holocaust, nor for wiping Warsaw and hundreds of other cities and towns off the face of the Earth. Only a vulgar propagandist possessed by Germanophobia would now demand a rejection of everything German and collective responsibility of the Germans. The frankly aggressive attacks on the greatness of German culture and the calls for its partial exclusion and blocking are nothing but barbarian narrow-mindedness and the manifestation of a primitive black-and-white worldview. The German people suffered at the hands of Hitler and his clique no less than any other nation, and in this horribly difficult moment in its history it requires our support and solidarity.”

I cannot fathom. I cannot imagine a text like this dated, say, 1945. Is it absurd? Yes. Is it dangerous? Indeed.

I am not aware of anyone daring to make such a pronouncement publicly, either in 1945 or in subsequent years. So then why do we hearso many analogous statements in 2022?

The tragedy of the Ukrainians has been reduced to a hashtag. #BuchaMassacre is handy and localizes a mega-crime in just one town. That in reality many more Buchas have been uncovered and will be uncovered in Ukraine as our army frees more territory—this requires a separate explanation.

That Bucha is not an isolated case, although today it is the most telling one.

That Bucha (and all other towns like it) is not an unfortunate exception—not caused by the “excessive zeal of a performer” or the hysterics of “ordinary Russian boys” driven to extremes by their own war—but rather the Russian army’s planned and methodical execution of a state program whose essence is partially to enslave, and mostly to physically eliminate, Ukrainians.

We should not exist. A European nation of forty million should not exist. Our language should not exist. Our memory should not exist. They are “denazifying” us—down to the last Ukrainian. They are “de-Ukrainianizing” us—taking away our lives.

When, a week ago, a Russian functionary promised at the talks in Istanbul “a cardinal decrease in activity in the Kyiv area,” no one guessed what “activity” he meant. We thought of rocket attacks, air raids, the banal movement of armored vehicles. I say “banal” because in forty days people mostly get used to war and stop shuddering at each new siren.

But the Russians’ “activity” took other forms also. As in the first days of this war, as in fact in all of its other wars also, Russia’s army is at its most victorious when fighting a peaceful citizenry. In other words, the Russian army is a highly developed nationwide terrorist organization with a membership numbering in the hundreds of thousands, characterized by extreme cruelty. Russia has become a terrorist country. Its purpose is to sow sorrow, pain, and death. “Russia has its own special path,” as they are fond of saying.

And here you have examples of its activities.

Shooting down random passersby. All of them.

Shooting at cars in which peaceful ordinary people try to flee from death.

Shooting down all the passengers in those cars—children, women. Destroying every living creature—including household pets—with fire and metal.

Dropping bombs on people’s heads—cassette ones, phosphorus ones, all the other ones that are banned. Dropping them on hospitals, theaters, museums, libraries, kindergartens.

Mass torture and executions—with a bullet to the back of the head. Our ancestors in western Ukraine experienced this method already, from 1939 to 1941. Bullets to the backs of the heads of victims made to kneel with their hands tied—this was normal procedure in every Russian Bolshevik prison in our land. Sorry for the word “normal.” It would be more precise to say “routine.”

Mass rapes. Of women and children. Mass outbursts of atavistic evil: kill the husband, rape the wife. Do both in front of the children.

(Mr. Dostoevsky, what did you write, damn it, about that single drop of a child’s tears? Did it help your Russian compatriots?)

Mass deportations of Ukrainian citizens from the occupied territories deep into Russia. Everything is reconfirmed and repeated: terrorists cannot avoid hostage taking.

Marauding. Theft. Soldiers from Russia methodically break into Ukrainian homes—both multistory apartment buildings and single-family houses. Everywhere. They grab whatever they see: clothes, shoes, alcohol, jewelry, perfume, computers, smartphones, knives, forks . . . Behind themselves they leave in those residences the wreckage of the world they destroyed and piles of their own excrement. As a reminder of the greatness of Russian culture.

This morning I caught myself thinking: I would so much want them to be “simply” marauders. This would mean that they, despite everything, remained human. Bad and evil, but human after all.

However, what we see testifies to dehumanization. The population of Russia successfully dehumanized itself. This is an anti-world. This is a part of humanity that willingly crossed into anti-humanity.

The very day when the last Russians were leaving Bucha, finishing the last bloody episodes of the #BuchaMassacre,  faction heads of the European Parliament produced yet another address to “the people of Russia.” About their fervent wish for unity with them. About the great Russian culture. About Chekhov and Bulgakov. About Tolstoevsky too—how could they avoid this two-headed monster? About “shared values”—from Dublin all the way to, of course, Vladivostok. For some reason, not to the Kuril Islands.

How can you appeal to something that is not there? Esteemed faction heads, do you have heads on your shoulders? That you don’t have hearts I already know.

I used to think they were idiots. I’ve stopped thinking so. They are accomplices. They are preoccupied with one thing: how to whitewash the crime. How to express offense at the obviousness of the #BuchaMassacre, but in such a way that their offense does not offend Russia.

Despite these forms of undermining, our resistance has continued for over forty days, and the enemy’s impotence steadily transforms into agony.

Spring will be here, and so will Ukraine.

 

Iryna Slavinska, a Ukrainian journalist writing from her newsroom in her hometown of Kyiv
April 17, 2022
Portrait of Women on Fire

After 2014, the lives of many thousands of Ukrainian women were transformed into a hell. 

In the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, they had to adapt to living in the absurd framework of Russian occupation, without the rule of law. 

They were hit by Russian missiles, wounded, killed, raped, kidnapped, tortured. They had to leave their homes and find new safe places. Or they had to stay on in the occupied territories for whatever reason and survive in that dangerous context. They transformed themselves into goddesses of logistics, providing all the necessaries to anyone in need. They decided to volunteer, so they served in the Ukrainian army. No, in 2014 our army wasn’t ready for female sappers or snipers, but it adapted very quickly. All possible trajectories opened up, but unfortunately without any guarantee of a happy ending.

Now it is 2022. And I cannot believe I have to rewrite that description in the present tense. 

Today I’m working for Ukrainian Radio, a public broadcaster, to give our audience information—and hope, I would add. But it is so hard. Sometimes, while speaking about Bucha, Borodyanka, Mariupol, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and the other Ukrainian cities bombed and raped by Russians, I can hardly hide and hold in my tears. Radio microphones capture all the nuances of  voice, so I try to stay (or sound) calm and sure. Do you know who helps me with this challenging task? All the brilliant Ukrainian women I know and all the brilliant Ukrainian women I haven’t yet met but want to. 

They’re living in the fire of Russian aggression. But they remind me of the phoenix and the superpower of fighting back. 

My first thought is for my colleagues in the media. Since the Russian offensive re-emerged, it has been very dangerous to work as a journalist. In its latest statement, the National Union of Journalists says the Russian occupiers have killed twenty journalists since the 24th of February. One of them is Oleksandra Kuvshynova, killed in Gorinka, near Kyiv. She was working as a producer for a team of Fox channel reporters. A great Ukrainian photographer, Maks Levin, was also shot dead by the Russians. The list of journalists killed, wounded, or kidnapped by Russians would be too long. The total is frightening—148 crimes against our profession, according to the the Institute of Mass Information (IMI). 

I’m not sure that statistics can reflect the current routine of journalistic work. In Ukraine, a lot of women are journalists. So this is their reality, women’s reality. They are very brave to keep reporting on this war. Every day I hear on air the voices of our reporters from various Ukrainian cities. While they speak from bomb shelters about the landscape of towns without electricity, gas, water—they are reporting on their own lives. The Russian occupiers are targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure like TV and radio towers. Some media teams have their newsrooms or technical support offices near these towers. So all of them are in danger. 

Some of my colleagues have sent their own children and parents to safer places and stayed back to continue reporting. Or to start serving in the army as volunteers. Happily, some of them managed to be evacuated from cities on fire. Before last week, I never imagined waiting ten days or more to hear a single word from two of my colleagues. Our team wasn’t sure they and their families were alive. I cried when the first of them called. She described an exodus from her small village, which had been encircled by Russians. She and her neighbors walked with white flags in their hands, hoping the Russians wouldn’t shoot them and their children. Another colleague told me almost the same story, but about another village near Kyiv. This is a reality a lot of Ukrainians are enduring and surviving. 

In this context, I feel every report prepared by my sisters in journalism to be as heroic as any of the exploits of Hercules. 

I would say the same about every other Ukrainian woman during these days of war.

One of these brilliant women is helping provide humanitarian aid to displaced people. She sorts packages and says that she can easily tell which ones were prepared by women and for women. All of the packages contain toothbrushes, diapers, things like that. But some also include menstrual pads, hand cream, cosmetics, cotton pads, paper hankies, a hairbrush, lipstick, and other details you don’t usually have to think about. Any of these can become critically important in hard times. With such contents, you feel one woman perfectly understanding another woman’s needs. Maybe she also wanted to give the other something beautiful and offer the sense of a normal life where lipstick and perfumes exist. She supports not only the hygiene of another woman but also her emotional health. I have read a lot about women taking care of other women in a great book by Oksana Kis, Survival as Victory: Ukrainian Women in the Gulag, published by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

Another of these brilliant women has remained in Kyiv, where she hears Russian missiles flying past her windows. We text each other frequently to be sure we’re both safe. I admire her writing, especially her children’s book. The English translation has spread a powerful message and serves as a crowdfunding instrument to support Ukraine. Larysa Denysenko is a lawyer who has now started to work with women survivors of rape by Russian soldiers.

Another of these brilliant women is helping to preserve our cultural heritage. She is busy securing funds to help museums and galleries protect their collections. A lot of women work in the cultural field. Their work was often “invisible” before, but now these cultural managers and fundraisers are at the edge of a very important front line. Their work is critical for our memory, culture, and being. Since the 24th of February, the Russian army has attacked more than 100 Ukrainian heritage sites. In Borodyanka, Russians shot the head off a monument to Taras Shevchenko, our most famous poet. In Ivankiv, Russians burned down a local museum. Cities and villages need their art collections and other cultural treasures to be protected from Russian bombs.

All these women on fire know how to do extraordinary things and how to sustain routines of the ordinary. Any little thing is significant. Even (don’t laugh!) news of the only beauty salon still open, which a colleague shared with me so I could liberate my nails from a shellac manicure. 

These women in the fire of war know how fragile they are—just like our everyday lives, which changed so dramatically when the first bomb blasts echoed around our homes. Now we need hope. And weapons from our allies to protect Ukraine. And sanctions from our allies to interfere with Russia’s ability to finance this bloody war.

 

Tetiana Troitskaya, a Ukrainian journalist and philology professor from Kharkiv
April 7, 2022, written from the Lugansk region
Who Is to Blame?

The Lugansk region is where I was born. I left it twenty years ago, but my parents still live there. They live in the Ukrainian part, not touched by the events of 2014, and when I escaped from Kharkiv, our beautiful Ukrainian flag was still waving over their town, despite the fact that it’s only ten kilometers from the Russian border. Several days after my arrival, the alien army moved in.

“If you continue your flag demonstration, we will fire from the tanks,” their commander said in a serious tone.

“We don’t have any weapons,” the head of our community responded, standing on the main bridge, which was half-ruined by bombing. “We just saved our children from Kharkiv hell. You won’t fire at unarmed people. Go and fight the army.”

“We’ll give you twenty minutes, then we start firing,” was the soldier’s verdict. He added that they’d come to “protect” us, to give us petrol, which nobody had by that time. Every drop had been used for evacuation carpools.

Following the arrival of the military men, who changed all the flags to those of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and the Russian Federation, mobile connections disappeared entirely, and seemingly forever. Later, the supernet stopped functioning. These changes deprived everyone of the chance to pay for things by credit card. The banks had closed much earlier. Cash, cash, good old cash only. Having received your salary or pension, you could again buy nothing. People were thinking of driving to Poltava to use their ATM, but the roads got cut off by battles. When Lugansk Internet finally appeared, the clothing shops agreed to sell their stuff through electronic transactions that could be done by app. But not the food shops. “We’re sorry,” they said. “When we go to the supply bases, nobody gives us products for electronic money.”

Starting on the first Monday in April, Ukrainian banks introduced text confirmation. Earlier, such SMS codes had only been required for sums over 3000 hryvnia. The shift was the last nail in the coffin for our area: you can’t confirm a transaction when there’s no wireless signal. Nobody thinks of the people, numerous people across large parts of eastern Ukraine, citizens, who became hostages of the situation, and in that way were pushed into the arms of the intruders. That’s why pensioners who were promised Russian money lined up for it. They needed cash to survive.

“War does not determine who is right,” Bertrand Russell said. “Only who is left.” I don’t know. Probably it is so.

“My son can’t come back from the Mykolaiv region,” a shop assistant said. “He went for a birthday party and got trapped. The Ukrainian army is terminating passports when they see Lugansk region on them, so he can’t leave.”

“I can’t return to work at school,” whispered another woman standing nearby. “They make us give up our Ukrainian passport and take the passport of LPR. I can’t do that. My children are in western Ukraine. I won’t be able to see my children.”

“What are you going to eat?” the shop assistant asked.

“I don’t know. I am planning to plant potatoes.”

In a corner of the shop, a rather old woman in a red coat was crying: she’d found out her nephew had been shot in his car trying to leave Rubizhne.

“I am so tired of this war,” the shop assistant said.

“You think you’re tired?” a refugee from Lysychansk said. “We were forced to leave our apartments. Now soldiers are in them. There will be no apartments left.”

“Whose soldiers?”

“Ours.”

People started to say that in the city of Lugansk you could get cash from Ukrainian cards through the commercial banks. The drugstores also function there. My father needs insulin. My mom takes regular thyroid pills after an operation. Those medicines aren’t accessible here anymore. I decided to go to Lugask.

“You need a pass for that,” said a neighbor who’d visited there as a medical worker. “But don’t say in Lugansk that you’re from Kharkiv. They’ll take you to the Russian Federal Security Service.”

I went to a commandant’s office. Everybody was polite. They took my fingerprints and demanded that I show my papers. I did.

“Okay, now we know where to loot,” said one of them, laughing. However, the pass was granted.

When I watch videos of refugees from Mariupol who were transported to Crimea, I look in particular at their eyes, which are full of fear.

“Who is to blame for this war?” an interviewer asks.

“I don’t know,” a woman responds, hiding her eyes.

The question goes to another refugee. “Who is to blame?” This woman doesn’t talk.

A young girl answers in her stead: “All of them.”

Then I look through videos of people “happily asking” to be part of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” They are poorly dressed. Their faces are glum. They look down at the floor. In that posture I see Winston Smith and Julia from the last chapter of 1984. I keep silent. I understand them.

 

Kate Tsurkan, an American writer, from her hometown of Chernivtsi, Ukraine
April 10, 2022

The Medium is the Message

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, several cable news producers in the United States have tried enticing me to go on television. At this point I can recite their lines from memory as an actress does her script: What you’re going through right now must be extremely difficult . . . It’s so important to get insight from people like you who are on the ground . . . Everything that you’ve written on this topic so far is vital . . . What would you want to tell our viewers if you had the chance to do so?

This last question is worth noting because they expect only one answer: they want you to open up your soul for those five minutes or less on television, to lay bare all of your anxieties for the world to see. Your words are only meant to regurgitate the messaging that they have chosen to go with—coincidentally, it’s the very same kind of cookie-cutter messaging they use for every tragedy. The more heartbreaking the better, because they can slice up clips from your spot on TV and post them online, so your tears live forever on the internet. You have to keep in mind that you’ll never get that part of yourself back—they’ve stolen it from you. And even if you manage to survive, to live a happy and fulfilling life, that disembodied image of what the enemy reduced you to will serve as a reminder of what could have been. Does it add any meaning to your suffering or those dearest to you? Did it lead the world to close the skies above Ukraine? Did it stop abominable keyboard warriors from questioning the genocide against Ukrainians? Or is it simply a manifestation of your pain, frozen in time? I understood the risk all too well during my most recent conversation with a TV producer: it started with my article about how the residents of Chernivtsi, despite all odds, have done their best to accommodate more than 50,000 refugees in our small city. The TV producer quickly shifted to the more personal aspects of it: So you don’t want to leave your husband behind, right? You don’t want to go to Poland or somewhere else because Ukrainian men can’t leave the country right now? What do you think you’ll do if he gets mobilized into the army? How do you think you’ll feel if that happens?

I am somewhat superstitious, so I do not want to explore such possibilities for fear that I will summon them into existence. Less than a week after the war began, I had a similar conversation with an American radio producer: What do you think will happen to you as an American citizen if the government falls? At that time, I, like everyone else in Ukraine, was paralyzed by shock and disbelief. Yet I held on to enough of my common sense to know better than to answer the question. I politely told her that I refused to answer because I didn’t want to acknowledge any other possibility than the Ukrainian Army’s total victory, and the conversation ended there. I actually wanted to reply with a stream of profanities, ending with: “What do you think will happen to me?”Now that the world has seen the horrific images from Bucha and the other areas surrounding Kyiv, and we can only imagine what nightmares are being conjured up in cities like Mariupol, I must cynically confess that I do not think a person’s passport matters all that much to the Russian army, which only believes in the death and destruction of free people.

People will talk about things only when they’re ready and it is usually unwise to push them. Even a simple question like, “How are you?” has been rendered meaningless for those personally impacted by the war in Ukraine. None of us are doing all right, and we won’t be for a long time. Survivors’ stories are indeed powerful and necessary, but these days, such words risk weighing people down—especially when basic survival has become a radical act. Sometimes, it can be more meaningful to find medication that helps an elderly man live without excessive pain in his body or a tutor for a child whose education was thrown into chaos, first by the pandemic and now war. I’ve had some brief conversations with refugees about what they lived through, but I think that for most people in Ukraine the time for deep introspection will have to come later. They just want to feel normal—that’s why women rush to the salons in Chernivtsi for a manicure, or entire families gather on the outdoor terraces of cafes and restaurants to welcome spring. Yet it has to be said that for some people in Ukraine, that deep moment of introspection might never come, and their pain risks being passed on to younger generations through emotional tics and deeply rooted complexes born of misery. This is our reality.

It is incomprehensible to people who work in television and live by the rule of spectacle. The most recent TV producer I spoke to, for example, asked if I had any photographs of collection points where people in Chernivtsi can drop off items for the army or for registry centers processing refugees. I was taken aback by the question and tried to explain to her that Chernivtsi, like the rest of the country, is living under martial law. It is forbidden to go around and take photographs because police cannot distinguish between who is the enemy scouting locations for a possible attack and who is simply an admirer of Austro-Hungarian architecture. I could, in theory, find a way to obtain a press pass (even though I must make the odd yet necessary distinction that I’m just a writer, not a journalist) and coyly display it before snapping a photo of the armed guards standing outside of collection points . . . but for what?

The entire world must be made aware of Russia’s crimes for as long as this war continues. I am deeply proud of my friends and colleagues who find ways to appeal to the rest of the world, regardless of the medium. The ideal outcome of these efforts is that every Russian soldier left standing, including the demon they serve, will meet their fate in the Hague. However, nobody knows how long this war will last and how long that pursuit of justice will take. I constantly remind myself and my friends who deal with the Western media to protect our nervous systems as best we can because we’re in this for the long haul. (Although the print media, by contrast, have been quite thoughtful and supportive. I suppose the old saying is true: the medium is the message . . .) Having spent most of my life in the United States, I know what American cable news is like—our suffering is not unique to them, and we are disposable. They will be ready to move on as soon as the ratings drop, even if Russia continues to launch missile strikes on our cities, rape Ukrainian women and children, and tie up and mass mass-execute civilians. Oh, sure, these cable news anchors will come back every so often and bless us with their attention, a profound look of concern on their faces as they repeat how tragic it is that the war in Ukraine is still going on. But if we don’t challenge them to engage intelligently with our suffering, they will drain our emotional energy and move on without the slightest sense of shame.

I felt it in the words of the TV producer, who followed up with questions like: Do you know anyone who has suffered at the hands of the Russians or who has died? I am trying to get a little more color. I guess what I am trying to ask is if you have seen any atrocities on the ground where you are . . . Ultimately, I told her I wasn’t comfortable making a spectacle out of human suffering. The point of my article had been to celebrate how people are capable of doing great things even when they’re living through hell. One cannot help but be inspired by someone who learns that their house has been destroyed yet stays strong and declares, “The entire country is my home.” I totally understand. Let’s pass on tonight, the TV producer wrote to me. Our conversation ended there.

Perhaps I’m just not cut out for prime-time television.

 

Anastasia Levkova, a Ukrainian writer, from her hometown of Lviv
March 10, 2022
Translated by Sasha Tanya Gusarchuk

The Small Person of Russian Literature

A Ukrainian stops his car near Russian tanks on the roadside not far from the Ukrainian–Belarusian border. He sticks his head out the window and says, “Boys, need a ride to Russia?”

“No, we don’t,” a Russian soldier answers. “Have you got any cigarettes?”

“I don’t smoke. There is a shop further on.” The Ukrainian pauses and takes the opportunity to ask, “Boys, why the fuck did you come here? What are you doing here? We have a good life, everything is fine in our country, we don’t need help. Take care of your own country. Go home!”

“But we have orders,” another Russian answers, sad and fatalistic. In his reply one can hear: I am just a small person. How can I ignore an order from somebody of higher rank?

Russian literature is saturated with the concept of the small person. A small person overwhelmed by deep history; a small person whose life fully depends on rulers; a small person who suffers at the crossroads of the era. The protagonist of Aleksandr Pushkin’s story “The Stationmaster” is such a person, as are main characters in the stories of Chekhov, Kuprin, Dostoevsky, Gorky, and many others respected by Western readers of Russian literature.

In contemporary Russia, that small person is still suffering. They suffer on the brink of poverty and unemployment; they suffer from being unable to take flights, receive money from abroad, or participate in international competitions; they suffer from losing sons and husbands in the war.

A small person suffers from the belief that they’re small.

In his play How I Ate a Dog, Russian playwright and actor Yevgeni Grishkovetz recalls going to school as a young boy. It is morning, it is dark, he doesn’t want to go, and before him the school windows radiate poisonous light. The most poisonous of all comes from the windows of the Russian language and literature classroom.

The West may be shocked to hear that Russian literature can be poisonous. But as individuals shaped by it drop bombs on cities and kill and rape civilians in Ukraine—after all, Putin does not do it by himself—it is time to reflect on the values cultivated by this literature. It is the literature of subjugation. The literature of melancholy. The literature of longing.

There is a characteristic statement in Grishkovetz’s play: “I realized that my state can do anything they like with me. And they will want to do the worst.” This is a famous play about a small person. It offers not a glimpse of human agency, of the idea that an individual can change something in their own situation or in their country.

A Crimean Tatar friend says that when she reads Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian literature she sees a lot of suffering, accompanied, however, by a strong desire to live and be free. In Russian literature she sees only melancholy and an all-consuming longing. One of the best-known quotes by the most famous Ukrainian author, Taras Shevchenko, reads: “Keep fighting and you are sure to win! God is helping you in your fight!” In contrast, one of Dostoevsky’s best-known quotes is: “Am I a trembling animal or do I have the right?” voiced by the main character of Crime and Punishment after he kills an old woman.

Ukrainians are familiar with the concept of the small person. But it is not their concept. Ukrainians gathered on the Maidan and overthrew corrupt governments in 2004 and 2014. Ukrainians self-organize to resist their enemy. Today, Ukrainians in occupied cities face the invaders without weapons but with Ukrainian flags and chants: “Kherson is Ukraine,” “Berdiansk is Ukraine,” “Go home while you are still alive.” They do it daily.

What does a Ukrainian think when the doomed Russian soldier answers, “We have orders”? Typically they think that if the order is stupid and clearly wrong, it should not be obeyed. Those at the receiving end should discuss it with the likeminded, gather their courage, take a deep breath, and fight it together.

Unfortunately, such thinking is not given to a small Russian person.

Knowing that hundreds of small people from Russia are killing civilians, including children, in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Brovary, Bucha, Irpin, Makariv, and Kyiv; knowing that these small people rape women whose husbands have been murdered near their homes; knowing that millions of other small people in Russia support these atrocities with their taxes and acquiescence—knowing this, we Ukrainians consider Russian “culture” to be a tool used by the criminal Russian government to win and hold the loyalty of people around the world.

Do you still consider their culture to be nothing but culture?

 

Olga Bragina, a Ukrainian poet and translator, writing from her hometown of Kyiv
February 24 to March 13, 2022
Translated by Olga Livshin, Andrew Janco, and Lev Fridman
Kyiv Diary

Until the last minute, I didn’t believe this would happen. Mom’s vacation was coming up and we were going to eat sushi and binge-watch TV shows. I have two books to translate. But now the world is falling apart. Yesterday I hugged Mom and told her that I love her very much and that we don’t know why we are here or why the world is like it is, or how we ended up in this specific moment in time—we, these ordinary people who are utterly unprepared for war. I can hear more explosions.

~

Yesterday I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and came across an analogy between what’s happening and the Prague Spring. Of course, the two are not totally comparable. Anyway, my mother was five years old at that time, and her older brother was drafted into the army and sent to Czechoslovakia in а tank. He said he pretended to shoot but did not shoot. And then one of his fellow soldiers was killed nearby. He got angry and began to shoot back. As the tanks drove by, Czech people stood at the side of the road, saying: “Why are you here? Go away!” Grandma Katya heard this story and got upset. Why were they not grateful for the Soviet troops in their country? Now my mother’s brother lives in Volodarka [a small town, two hours’ drive from Kyiv]. He invited us to go stay with him. But we did not go. We stayed in Kyiv.

A panic attack hit me today at six in the morning. I am thinking about the bomb shelter and whether Valerian root will help me.  

~

We all read [the nineteenth-century Russian poet Fyodor] Tyutchev at school. “Lucky is he who visits this world in its fateful moments,” and all that. But it was just words to us. I never thought there would be skirmishes and landings in our quiet neighborhood. Our main problems had always been traffic jams on the bridge and crowded buses during rush hour.

~

We went to the bomb shelter. We were very scared: we’d read that concrete buildings aren’t any good in an explosion. A building like that folds into big chunks. But the bomb shelter was in a brick building, a clinic. Three of us sat on two stools, which we’d brought along.

Someone says there was an air raid siren in the village of Pogreby.

I say to Dad: “We got these stools in the eighties, and here we are, sitting on them in a bomb shelter. Now, there’s stability for you!”

A drunk guy on a nearby bench says to another: “This is nice, a heart-to-heart conversation. That’s how I want to talk to everyone.”

I tell Dad: “The best people in the city are here. If it weren’t for the war, you’d think it was New Year’s Eve.”

I tell Mom: “We are here, like in Akhmatova’s poem Requiem.”

Mom says: “We are standing our ground now—here—so that things don’t get worse, as they did in the poem.”

Mom also says: “It says on the internet that one of our rockets sat idle for thirty years. And then they launched it and it blew something up in Russia.”

I say: “A rocket sat for thirty years and then it blew something up? This sounds like a miracle performed by Bartholomew the Apostle.”

Mom says: “Yes, that’s what it says on the internet.”

~

For some reason, my most vivid memory from the nineties is playing cards. Yes, I watched endless TV shows, it was the bardo of stupid standup and dumb TV shows, but in the evenings my grandparents and I played Fool. Now I realize I was being shown—in metaphorical form—that life is a card game.

  ~

After our stay in the bomb shelter, I woke up at six p.m., took part in the Zoom reading “No to War” [in Ukrainian and Russian],” and fell back to sleep. I woke up at three a.m. and read that the oil depot in Vasylkiv [a Kyiv suburb] had been blown up and that everyone should run to the bomb shelter because every possible weapon on Earth was about to be unleashed on Kyiv. I decided not to wake my parents. There were explosions at night, three—two of them together, maybe five minutes apart. But still I decided not to wake anyone. I sat on the couch and read a French postmodern novel about bosses with no heads. In the morning Mom woke up and was surprised it had been such a quiet night.

~

I say to Mom: “How long did the Paris Commune last, seventy-two days?"

Mom says: “So far we’ve lasted seventy-two hours.”

In my Facebook feed, people are writing: “We’ve reached the point where we get metaphysical”—in the sense that we’ll all soon turn into souls. It’s a post about nuclear war. Everyone is afraid of that now.

My parents and Kostik are everything to me. I don’t know what our stay in this world means. I don’t know at what point World War III begins, when all literature and art turn out to be useless. But this no longer feels like Nabokov’s pre-war stories about the death of a “little man,” that ordinary person without much power, among all those vulgar burghers. Art did not save anyone.

Kostik asked me to post the debit card number for the platoon that defends Kyiv: 4149 6090 0126 6016. [In Ukraine, these allow transfers in.]

~

Until 1988, we lived across the street from the TV tower, and every day we went for a walk to the park where Babyn Yar was. (I learned about it only in the nineties, I didn’t think about it as a child.) People walked their collies and dachshunds and flew kites. We looked for traces of Bigfoot in the wilds (everyone was doing it back then, looking for Bigfoot). One time we found a hedgehog, but I was afraid to pet him. I made friends with a girl who liked Old Man Hottabych and we took turns reading that book aloud.

Then the Soviet Union collapsed. I felt no emotion about it. They showed the State Emergency Committee on TV, then they showed Swan Lake on all channels. Dad was in the army then; the army offices were closed for three days and Mom did not know where to call to find out where he was.

I’ve spent my whole life (with the exception of two years) in this city, but now Mom says: “You need to run. Soon, the Iron Curtain will be here again. Kostik and I will go to the barricades, we will fight for Kyiv.” I think to myself: What will I do out there, call them from the other side of the Iron Curtain? The way Joseph Brodsky called his parents, like in the movie A Room and a Half? Not knowing where they are and what is happening to them—never knowing? I can’t live like that.

~

  The mayor of Konotop gathered the residents and said: “We are going to fight, but we must make this decision together, because tanks are pointed at us.” Konotop’s residents decided to fight.

~

I tell Mom: “There was a battle near Kruty, just like in 1918." [The Battle of Kruty was an important episode in the armed confrontation between the Ukrainian National Republic and the Soviet Union.]

Mom says: “It’s as if we’re living inside a software program. Someone launched it, it works in cycles, and it will work until our side wins.”

For now, we have won.

~

Mom says: “Now they are bombing Kharkiv. And to think, many people who live there were on their side before all this.”

I say: “It’s like the Albigensian Crusade, when the archbishop said: ‘Kill them all. Let God sort them out.’”

Mom says: “Yes, pretty much the same story.”

~

Mom says: “Both your grandmother and your great-grandmother talked about the war all the time. It’s not like they even talked about it specifically—they lived it. Even in the sixties, war and starvation didn’t end for them. So, what they say about childhood trauma is true: I was marinated in all of that.”

I say: “They also told us in the nineties about how they were bombed.”

Mom says: “Well, by the nineties they probably forgot parts of it. But back then, it was constant. So, right now, I’m not even nervous.”

I say: “And I have read all the memoirs about the Silver Age, the Russian Revolution, and [1920s] emigration. It turns out I’ve also lived in those periods all my life.”

 

Olha Poliukhovych, a Ukrainian writer, philosopher, editor, and humanities professor, writing from her hometown of Kyiv
March 16, 2022
Contra Spem Spero

Twenty-one days of full-scale Russia-Ukraine war have passed as one prolonged horrific day.

Most of all I regret not having completed military training or my course in tactical medicine before this war began. If I had done that, I’d be more helpful.

I’m staying in Ukraine with my family and finding ways to be useful. The words of Ukrainian poet Yevhen Malaniuk echo in my head: “my stiletto was a stylus and a stylus was my stiletto.” Written almost a century ago, they’re unexpectedly relevant today.

A professor of literature, I’m daily reminded of my powerlessness before the events unfolding around me. It feels impossible to convey how radically war has already altered the meanings of so many familiar words and commonplace notions. But while Ukrainians on the ground are writing our history in real time with arms and blood (tragically, this is no metaphor), it falls to me, and others like me, to speak—to forge a language adequate to these new realities.

Knowing something about language, as well as the history of Ukraine, may give me a bit of an edge. Ukrainians are by now adept at identifying propaganda and the imperial narratives that until now have dominated the rest of the world’s understanding of our story. So much of Russian society’s image of itself depends on their uncritical acceptance of centuries of their own PR. What we see of that storied Russian soul is that it is capable of nuclear terrorism and is willing to slaughter civilians without mercy in order to dominate our cities. Yet Ukrainians have thwarted their expectations. They expected to be greeted with carpets of flowers. Instead, they’ve been met with people lining the streets, raising blue—and-yellow flags. After the Russian military attacked the city of Kherson, its residents organized a Ukrainian rally and rejected Russia’s offers of humanitarian aid.

People across the country continue to protest and to resist the troops trampling their territory. I personally can’t begin to grasp what the average Russian soldier thinks he is doing here. Their armies will never succeed in occupying Ukraine.

Russia’s initial plan to capture Kyiv in two to three days failed. (Unfortunately, the West appeared to share Russia’s assessment and acted accordingly—had they imposed sanctions at once . . . but such “what ifs” are a game for children and political scientists.) Unable to subdue Kyiv, Russians focused on attacking Kharkiv, a former Ukrainian capital. They shelled not only residential areas in the city, but also universities, colleges, and schools. The secret soul of Russia is to be found neither in Tolstoy nor in Dostoyevsky but in the pictures of the still-smoldering skeletons of elementary schools and universities, churches, libraries, and museums barely standing in the ruined cities of eastern Ukraine and beyond.

In Kharkiv the Russians shelled Freedom Square, notable for being the largest public square in Europe. What was the thinking behind bombing a large empty square? What strategic value did it hold? It’s not simply physical violence, not merely death and the destruction of millions of lives, that Russia intends. The real purpose of the carnage and the weirdly symbolic violence behind destroying an empty square is to instill fear, to embed it deep under our skins, so that the next time Russia raises its voice Ukrainians everywhere will quake. They want to control us—first by force, then psychologically. But it happens that Ukrainians choose to read Russia’s insane ruthlessness differently: we see it as a gesture of national despair, of spiritual vacuousness, an act of self-abasement and agony. Theirs will be, at best, a Herostratic fame.

They bombed Freedom Square in Kharkiv—yet we ourselves will always remain free.

Russia’s revenge on eastern cities in the Donetsk region, on Mariupol and Volnovakha, was especially brutal, violent, senseless, inhuman. From the start of Russia’s assault on Donbas in 2014, Russian hybrid forces failed to capture the targeted cities. Tonight, it seems, Russia vented its frustration by bombing Mariupol’s theater, in which hundreds of women and children were sheltering. The Russian word for children had been painted in huge letters on the grounds of two sides of the building. Perhaps that’s what made it a target.

Still these cities remain Ukrainian and, for this, pay an impossible price in blood and tears. It’s been reported that Volnovakha has been almost completely destroyed.

The logic behind this annihilation seems almost self-evident: unable to occupy these Ukrainian cities, the “mysterious Russian soul” would prefer to destroy them and slaughter their residents, to turn them into the same nothing that they feel within.

My horror is compounded by my awareness that the rest of the world is watching—billions see us on Instagram, Twitter, TV news, on websites, in newspapers and magazines. And, apparently, billions of people stand helpless before one evil man and his minions. How is this possible? What do they really fear? Is it a terror of Putin, a failure of faith in themselves, a combination of both?

Ukrainians are not the only victims of Russia’s war on Ukraine—now several international journalists are among the dead. Pierre Zakrzewski, a resident of Ireland, and a reporter for Fox News was killed a couple of days ago outside Kyiv. In Irpin Russian invaders shot Brent Renaud, an award-winning American film producer and former journalist for The New York Times. These men had survived stints in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. But they couldn’t survive Mr. Putin.

All of these deaths could have been prevented—so I believe. As soon as the war began, President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke not only for Ukraine but for civilization itself when he urged NATO to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine, or at the very least to provide our country with protective aircraft systems. The world, fearing World War III, refused. They submitted to Putin’s blackmail. I, and many others, believe if they’d called Putin’s bluff they would have stopped him in his tracks.

“When is life grievable?” asks Judith Butler. Are Ukrainians so dispensable to the rest of the world? I refuse to believe it. No: contra spem spero! I choose to hope against hope, in order not to leave the question rhetorical.

 

Liliya Malyarchuk, a Ukrainian lawyer from Kyiv
March 14, 2022, writing from internal displacement in Lviv

For now, it is much safer here than in Kyiv, though a few times a day we have airstrike alarms in Lviv too. Nevertheless, Lviv has become a safe haven for many Ukrainians who’ve had to leave their homes. According to Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor, “More than 200,000 people came to Lviv today (March 14th) from all over the country. The city continues to function. About 500 educational, cultural, and sports institutions are hosting temporarily displaced persons.”

From the beginning of its full-scale invasion, it’s been clear that the Russian Federation doesn’t care about human lives or dignity. Russia blackmails the world with nuclear weapons and destroys peaceful cities, residential buildings, and even religious sites. Nothing is sacred for Russia during this brutal war.

The entire city center of Lviv is an architectural masterpiece, with monuments dating back to the thirteenth century. It’s part of the heritage of human civilization, not just of Ukraine. It’s been on the UNESCO list since 1998. Unique cultural artifacts survived both world wars, and the city is doing everything to save them again. Monuments are being wrapped, stained glass and altars are being shielded with metal, and numerous works of art have been removed to safer locations. The last time Lviv’s residents had to guard their cultural masterpieces against destruction was during World War II. I still cannot fathom that we are going through something like this in the twenty-first century.


A wrapped statue in Lviv, March 14, 2022,
photographed by Liliya Malyarchuk

 

 

Cecilia Woloch, an American poet from Los Angeles
March 13, 2022, writing from Rzeszów, Poland, where she’s living and working as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Rzeszów

When I left Rzeszów on February 22nd for a long-postponed visit to family in Kentucky, war had not yet broken out next door in Ukraine, though Russian troops were massed at the borders and the signs were ominous. Two days later, watching the news from my brother’s living room, I didn’t know if I should return, or what I’d be returning to if I did. A Polish friend at first urged me to stay where I was, then assured me I’d be safe in Rzeszów, where American troops are stationed, after all. The U.S. Secretary of State had just visited. Rzeszów was flooded, he said, with refugees crossing the border.

So the decision to return wasn’t easy, and then it was. A friend in Los Angeles contacted me: she had a colleague in Kyiv who needed to get his wife and daughter out. Could I help? I messaged back: If he gets them to the border, I can. I contacted a handful of friends in Rzeszów, and within twenty minutes the husband of a colleague had arranged to meet the woman and her daughter at the border and get them to Rzeszów. Within thirty-six hours they were safely in Munich. The part I played was tiny, but it was something, and it made me feel less helpless, reminded me that we’re all links in a chain and what matters is our connection to one another.

On March 6th, I headed back to Rzeszów via Atlanta, Amsterdam, and Kraków, a journey of just over twenty-four hours.

The man sitting next to me on the transatlantic flight was an American doctor in family practice, heading to the border with thousands of dollars’ worth of medicines, clothing, and toys—he’d raised the money in a matter of days and was traveling on his own dime.

In the Kraków train station I met a woman who, like me, was desperately trying to get a ticket on the eastbound train, but the station was more chaotic and crowded than I’d ever seen it, the lines at the ticket machines too long and moving too slowly. We asked a man on the platform if tickets could be bought on the train. “But I don’t work here,” he said. The woman, I learned, was a doctor from Israel on her way to join a group of doctors at the border. And the man, who was still standing nearby, turned out to be a Ukrainian refugee. “Here,” he said, “it’s my gift to you,” and held out a ticket for two, the free ticket he’d been given. “Just don’t tell anyone that I gave it to you.”

The difference in atmosphere between the day when I’d left and now, when I got off the train in Rzeszów, was stark. Signs everywhere in Ukrainian, decorated with the Ukrainian flag, directed people to aid stations; refugees camped out in the main hall; and local people carried in crates of food and water, toys and blankets. If I’d felt buoyed by what felt like a surge of heroism moving toward the border, I was sobered by the faces of the refugees in the station—exhausted, traumatized, maybe in shock.

A friend—a working single mother who lives in a modest house with her kids—has been hosting Ukrainian refugees by the dozen, children and pets included. She told me that seeing the bravery of these Ukrainians has made her feel more calm and less afraid. Another friend, who has a farm on the Polish-Ukrainian border, has been bringing enormous kettles of homemade soup to border crossings and serving it hot to people who have been standing in line in the cold for hours. He’s currently crossing the border to serve food on the Ukrainian side, where the need is even greater, and he and my dear friend Sarah (working remotely from the UK) are coordinating with locals to get supplies to orphanages and assistance to individual families still in Ukraine.

The little network that formed around the effort to get mother and daughter from Kyiv to Munich remains in place; this weekend, our friend in Kyiv informed us of another mother and daughter needing to be met at the border in Budimierz. This time my colleague’s father picked them up and brought them to my place in Rzeszów. The mother, Ira, struck me as very strong—although, really, what choice did she have? But her ten-year-old daughter was still in shock and mostly didn’t speak. They’d come from Melitopol, in southeastern Ukraine, where they’d been woken at 5 a.m. on February 24th by the sound of missiles. “It shook the walls,” Ira said. Within days, she, her husband, and their daughter had packed whatever they could into one suitcase each and were en route to friends in Lviv, in western Ukraine. Now there’s shelling around Lviv, and her husband wanted to get them to safety in Poland. The hardest thing for her daughter, Ira told me, was saying goodbye to her father not knowing when she’d see him again. Ira was deeply affected by the quiet here, after weeks of air raid sirens, and by the fact that shops were open, people were out walking around, living in a way that had seemed “normal”  to her, too, until two weeks ago. Her mother and brother are still in Melitopol, now occupied by Russian forces.

I’ve spent so much time over the past twenty years trying to understand what Ukrainian identity has meant, particularly on this side of the border, in my grandmother’s Carpathians, as I think of them, where identities were for a long time in flux, and contested, and borders kept shifting, and geopolitical allegiances, and the people of these borderlands, however they chose to identify themselves, suffered the consequences of having no country of their own, and thus no right to self-determination, no power over their own destiny—the people of the margins, not easy to define but also not easy to defeat. Although I’m aware how complicated and shadowy the history of Ukraine and its people can seem—and I’m profoundly anti-nationalist—I desperately want the Ukrainian nation to triumph. And democracy. Messy and imperfect as it is, it beats the brutality and corruption of totalitarianism.

I’ve been thinking of an elderly woman I spoke with once, who’d been born in the same Carpathian village as my grandmother and had survived World War II in the borderlands only to be forcibly removed, along with everyone else left in the village, during Akcja Wisła in 1947. She emigrated to Canada, but the rest of her family went to Ukraine. “It’s a poor country,” she said. “But it’s a country.” I confess I didn’t really understand what she was telling me until these last weeks, as a country that struggled to exist now struggles for its existence. By a country, I mean a people.

Ira and I talked into the evening; we three had a simple meal together, and I hope mother and daughter had a good night’s sleep in the quiet here. The daughter seemed better in the morning—dear goddess, let her be resilient. I called a car to take them to the station, and sent them off with food for the long train ride to Warsaw, where they’ll stay with a friend of Ira’s husband for a few weeks. And then—?

Ira said she let her daughter pack anything she wanted, whatever she could fit from her now-former life in Melitopol into a single suitcase and a backpack. She chose to bring all her art supplies. Remembering that makes me hopeful again.

 

Marina Stepanska, a Ukrainian filmmaker, now wartime driver, from Kyiv
March 14, 2022, writing from Lviv
Letter from Ukraine

(first published in English on Facebook, 7:32 a.m.  Reprinted with permission and lightly edited.)

I used to be a filmmaker. Now I’m not. It feels so irrelevant now. Cinema is a privilege for societies that don’t need to survive under constant threat. It’s the most conservative and limited tool of reflection available today and, yet again, a privileged one.

I want to keep my ability to see this reality clearly, without any illusions, so there are just words left to be had. Conversations with others.

My brave colleagues are still shooting in Kyiv. This material is not for the cinema but for the Hague Tribunal. I’m not very brave or even vigorous. I admire them, but I cannot do the same.

I’m a driver now and someone who listens to others mostly. I am staying in a semi-safe city in western Ukraine and training kids to keep their minds sharp in order to be able to survive in this new reality. We call our theatrical studio group “Conversation with Friends” because we need a place to speak out loud in order to keep our minds clear.

What frustrates me a lot is the letters from international festivals and platforms inviting me to participate in different activities with Russian colleagues. They also note that “these Russians are victims of Putin’s regime as well and it would be nice to hear from you both.”

Dear international community, let me give you a hint about how to distinguish real victims of Putin’s regime from so-called ones. It’s very simple. All the victims are in Russian prisons already. They had the balls to speak out against this war in the first days, and they’ve since been arrested. The victims are already paying a price in prison, and they don’t have the ability to present so-called “independent art” on your platforms. Others just fled their country, cowardly, and others betrayed their own people by being silent, passive, and hypocritical while their country’s rulers repressed Russian minds, feeding them constant lies.

You might say this is hate speech and one should not judge an entire nation just by its passport. But my people have given their lives for being Ukrainians, for staying Ukrainians in Ukraine even under heavy shelling.

I simply cannot respect Russians who gave up on their own people and are now seeking the best opportunity to present their “art” elsewhere.

Russian independent artists, if you are the real thing, go home and start changing your country, talk to your own people, and do something for your future on your land.

Just as we are doing right now.

Maybe then, in a few years, I will want to have a conversation with you again.

 

Sándor Jászberényi, a Hungarian story-writer and war correspondent from Budapest
March 8th, 2022, writing from Kyiv about events in Irpin on March 6th

Sándor gave us his thoughts and his reporting on the war in Ukraine.

 

Ostap Slyvynsky, poet, translator, and vice president of PEN Ukraine, writing from his hometown of Lviv
March 8, 2022
#BoycottRussia: Culture Too Must Be Subject to Martial Law

No one who lives in a peaceful country will understand anyone experiencing war from the inside, living under bombs and artillery shells, in an occupied city, where people who want to escape are fired on. I have no illusions. Nevertheless, I’ll try to explain.

One of the most dangerous weapons used by Russia against Ukraine and the entire democratic world is propaganda based on lies. Culture—yes, the “great Russian culture”—has always been one of the tools of this propaganda. Many Russian writers and artists are its spokespersons today. Even when they are silent. Especially when they are silent.

Ukraine is currently under martial law—a status that renders everything abnormal. We are in a state of constant threat and distrust. We look attentively at everyone—especially those who come from the enemy’s side of the border and write in the official language of the aggressor state. We would like it to be different, but this is the situation today.

I would compare it to the visa regime. I have a lot of experience with this, because for many years Ukrainians could hardly go anywhere without a visa.

І’d arrive at the consulate carrying a presumption of guilt—just because I was the owner of such and not another passport. And not only did I have to convince officials of my innocence, I also had to prove it with documents. It didn’t matter that I’d be participating in a conference on democracy and freedom of speech.

The boycott of Russian culture that we are forced to announce today does not mean a total closure of the border, but a special visa regime. Every representative of Russian culture now carries a presumption of guilt for us, and we demand that they “present documents.”

Yes, Russian artists need to be considered for our approve list, because the years of war and now Russia’s renewed brutal aggression have destroyed our confidence in their culture as a whole. Any cooperation with Putin’s criminal government, any sign of loyalty to him, is a red light that makes cooperation impossible and blocks dialogue. This is in part an information war, and culture too must be subject to martial law. Unfortunately.

 

Halyna Kruk, a Ukrainian poet and translator, writing from her hometown of Lviv
March 4, 2022
Translated by Lola Caracas

Today I roamed the pages of the European poets I know, and read what they were posting. My thanks to everyone who’s supporting Ukraine, who is attempting to help in some way, who understands what we are dealing with right now. Your support and help are truly invaluable; believe me, Ukrainians know how to be grateful. But if you think Europe is unanimous in supporting Ukraine, you are seriously mistaken. For instance, some of the Italian and Serbian poets I know object that the conflict in Ukraine (yes, “conflict”—they don’t see the war even up close) is not enough of a reason to boycott Russia, especially its culture. And they don’t intend to tolerate these “roller coasters” of politics and cancel culture. And no one is going to tell them whom they should or shouldn’t love.

At a time when Russia is cruelly bombing Ukrainian cities and villages, and killing civilians (and their bombs are not avoiding children, no, they are aiming them quite wonderfully, isn’t that amazing), some of the Italian scientists I know are joking, do they have to give up Russian salad and Russian snoring now? At a time when Ukrainian universities, galleries, and libraries are burning, when people are dying, some European cultural figures are posting on Facebook their conviction that Ukrainians deserve this, because of their bad attitude toward Russians, because how can you behave like that toward Pushkin, Tolstoy, Brodsky, etc. (using fake evidence from Russian propaganda). This propaganda is written by people raised on the works of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and others, who quote them freely and arbitrarily, who hide behind them.

For these European colleagues, I am an unreliable source, a representative of a fake country; photos and videos of Russia ruining and shelling Ukraine are not convincing, they don’t fit their value scale, they are not suitable. Several of my Swedish and German acquaintances, in order to support Ukraine “in this crisis,” are calling for joint poetry readings with Russian poets in an action “against the war.” Against some abstract war: no one knows who started it, no one knows whose fault it is, this war that came to Ukraine from somewhere, like a natural disaster, and will еnd with the wave of a magic wand (people will be resurrected, cities and villages will rise from the ruins—we just need to apply some healing quote from great Russian literature, say, the one about “a quivering beast.”) [Translator’s Note: This is a reference to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “Am I a quivering beast, or do I have the right?” (to kill, presumably)]. It’s a pretty picture: how we will now stand shoulder to shoulder with Russian poets and be brothers, find peace somewhere in the middle, forgive each other. The majority of Russians are against the war, the Swedish organizer of my readings tells me, mixing reality with wishful thinking. If the majority of Russians are against the war, then why can’t they influence Putin’s policy in any way? Where are the real protests, not by a few individuals, but by thousands of principled people? Where are the joint letters by Russian cultural institutions? Europeans, don’t delude yourselves. From the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine, only one Russian poet has written to me, and he’s been living in Germany and condemning Russia’s policies for a while from there.

The rest, meanwhile, have started to speak against the war only since the total boycott of Russia began, threatened by the prospect of being banned from the European cultural space. The majority of these proclamations are exclusively for export, they are not voiced or broadcast inside Russia (and have never been broadcast widely). Even among relatives and friends of these people, who from the very first days were philosophically discussing in Facebook posts what day Ukraine would surrender (I saw it with my own eyes), were making bets, were analyzing different options of how it might endanger them.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine began not nine days, but eight years ago. Weren’t these eight years enough for Russian authors to voice their protest against the policy of their president and the direction of their country, or at least to publicly condemn it? Until recently, you wouldn’t get fifteen years in prison for that, even in Russia; you could still influence public thinking in some way, or at least explain your views to your fellow Russians. Do you really think it was easy for us to participate in all our acts of protest, that it didn’t cost us anything to defend Ukraine’s freedom?

My magnanimous Europeans, you who are still not ready to boycott Russia, do you really not understand that offering Ukrainian artists the chance to speak out with poets from Russia who “just want peace” is something like offering Jewish authors during World War II a forum for joining their voices with writers who didn’t publicly condemn fascism but hid behind empty slogans of “peace”? Peace on whose conditions—ours, or yours? This is precisely how you eliminate any chance that I, and the centuries-old Ukrainian culture, may have to live and function. Our culture is being physically destroyed right now, together with those who transmit it, while you are observing and discoursing on the lofty human and democratic values of a great culture.

Do you really not understand that the works of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy have long been misused, that the majority of cultural institutions in Russian spaces have been integrated into Russia’s official policy and are responsible for the creation and spread of its narrative? They function in the West as shields for Putin’s army, as Trojan horses on your turf, from which sabotage and intelligence units emerge at night and quietly conquer you. Today, the mythical breadth of the Russian soul is not leaving us a single “green corridor” to evacuate the wounded from Shchastya, Starobil’sk, or the dozens of other cities that are 80 percent destroyed, where people are hiding in basements for the ninth day in a row, under attack, without electricity or heat, without food, water, or medicine. In the last nine days, we’ve understood this perfectly, while you have not managed to, it seems. Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy are now the dead souls of Russian culture. They don’t affect anything there, they only create that mysterious image of Russia that is so appealing to you, and that misinforms you about what Russia really is right now.

Yesterday, during the shelling, my friend’s schoolteacher died. He taught Russian literature, but not a single book from his vast library protected him—not Pushkin, not Dostoyevsky, not Tolstoy. But you don’t want to know this, otherwise you wouldn’t have been inviting Zahar Prilepin, the ideologist of Russian aggression, or Elena Zaslavskaya, the bullhorn of one of the fake terrorist republics on the Russian-occupied territory of Ukraine, to a bunch of European literary events for the last eight years. Nor would you have listened to her, from your squares, as she read her revolutionary “Brodsky, let’s fight like beastsky” or something more lyrical, about “the fallen Russian boys.”

I’m also against the war, but that doesn’t stop it from killing us. I know clearly who the guilty party is and who started it against us. And I know how long this war was smoldering in your sight, but you only fed it with your interest. And now, it’s killing thousands of people—with your tacit agreement, while you are deeply into Dostoyevsky’s books, while you philosophize about some abstract “war and peace” and “crime and punishment.” While the former greatness of Russian culture blinds you to the murderous might of Russian weapons.

 

Taras Tsymbal, a Ukrainian sociologist, writing from his hometown of Kyiv
February 28, 2022
Everything goes . . .

Cervantes and Dante, Heinrich Böll and Ernest Hemingway, Shakespeare and a collection of Japanese haiku, Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jürgen Habermas, Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko, Harry Potter and George Greenby, Dr. Seuss and Astrid Lindgren, Umberto Eco and Michel Foucault, Immanuel Wallerstein and Talcott Parsons, Max Weber and Ferdinand Tönnies, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and Max Gluckman, J. D. Vance and Christophe Galfard, Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, Abhijit Banerjee and Douglass North, Joe Studwell and Eric Hobsbawm, Jared Diamond and Edward Said, Anthony Smith and Benedict Anderson, Larry Wolff and Fernand Braudel, Hannah Arendt and Norman Cohn, Rudaki and Omar Khayyam, T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Verlaine, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, Serhiy Zhadan and Yuri Andrukhovych, folk tales of Norway, Germany, Greece, Africa, Slovakia, Poland, Czechia, Vietnam, Japan, and Turkey, Ola Hnatiuk and Jan Nederveen Pieterse, Franz Fanon and Salman Rushdie, my own and my wife’s PhD dissertations, and many, many others—all embrace each other in a bizarre union to make up an improvised bookshield against Putin’s gifts.

Will humanity’s highest culture and thinking withstand the onslaught of its lowest barbarism in our dark days?

I don’t know.

But I know for sure that this culture and its thinking have recently been complicit in advancing, enabling, and tacitly consenting to this barbarism, the fruits of which we are now reaping.

Culture and thinking are in no way innocent in the tragedies that befall humanity. Imperialisms are first constructed in cultures or enabled by them.

By mistakenly perceiving Russia as a subaltern rather than a subimperialism, by gullibly trusting its narratives that exploited the West’s feeling of guilt for the World War II crimes committed in the Soviet Union, by indiscriminately treating all the “stuff” to the east of the EU border as “Russia” and perceiving the Russian voice as the only native voice thereof, by ignoring and ridiculing other presences on the terrain—by means of all of this, the world’s critical theorizing has greatly contributed to the nightmare we are dealing with now.

Critical thinkers have failed. They failed to recognize the inchoate threat until it grew too large to be contained. And their failure is no accident. It stems from a simplistic vision of the world as composed of either good or bad, where the bad is identified with whatever they criticize, and the good—with its opposite. This binary vision is a gross oversimplification of the globalized world with its multiple sub-levels, niches, cross-cutting ties, and lateral linkages. Surprisingly, critical theory is well aware of such complexities, but it has somehow failed to apply them appropriately to Russia for years.

By mobilizing guilt and former communist sympathies or connections in the West, by exploiting useful idiots from among the West’s critical theorists and their comprador intellectuals in the countries it set out to destroy, Russia has managed for years to proceed unnoticed with its business of destroying freedom.

Russia’s grandeur was definitely more attractive and worth theorizing than the provincialism of Ukraine, its narrative clearer and better understood, because of a broad awareness of Russian culture, than Ukrainians’ complicated attempts to convey the sense of their own identity, which required more effort and learning to comprehend. It’s hardly surprising that diplomacy and the media fell victim to the attractiveness of the Russian vision—but isn’t critical theory called critical because it’s supposed to be more sensitive and penetrating?

While the specters of Ukrainian Nazism, anti-Semitism, rampant corruption, and all other possible vices still roam Europe’s and the West’s intellectual scene, it is the Ukrainian “failed” state that manages to resist one of the world’s largest militaries for the fifth day in a row—a feat few countries are up to.

Isn’t it reasonable to ask, who is failed here—Ukraine or its critics?

While the world’s leading intellectuals recover from Putin’s shock therapy, it is ordinary Ukrainians, whom those same intellectuals have disdained for their lack of refinement, their insufficient sensitivity to issues of gender, the environment, animal rights, and bureaucratic procedure—bringing politics into sports, etc.—it is these real Ukrainians who are now correcting the conceptual mistakes of the highbrows as a human shield between barbarism and civilization—and they do so, as Ukrainians always do, quietly and without pathos.

Surely a revelation is at hand for intellectuals, critical theorists in particular. I hope it will not be too late. I also hope that Ukraine, which faced a choice without choice eighty years ago between turning into Lebensraum or an operativnoe prostranstvo, will this time avoid the monotony of raum/prostranstvo. That highbrow intellectuals and elite decision-makers will notice the space is populated, and Horton, finally, will hear a Who.

Finally, I hope that my bookshield will prevent my windows from turning into a myriad of projectiles during the next explosion of Putin’s brotherly love in my neighborhood, by absorbing its shockwave. And I will be able to work on my computer for a few hours longer.

 

Yuliya Musakovska, Ukrainian poet and translator, writing from her hometown of Lviv
February 26, 2022

(first published in English on Facebook, 10:34 p.m. Reprinted with permission and lightly edited.)

This is the new normal. Things you do in an air raid shelter:
—Post corporate communications to LinkedIn from your phone;
—Finish your dinner from a plastic box that you tossed it into as the sirens went off;
—Get to know the names and life stories of people from your apartment block;
—Teach your local neighbors from Georgia the difference between the words “залишитися” (stay) and “залишити” (leave) when talking about a shelter;
—Watch others’ children play, and choke with love for them as if they were your own.

Seeing my own child getting dressed and ready to leave for the shelter in two minutes makes me proud but is utterly heart-breaking. He got so used to the routine over these three days. He reads his book, plays games, or hangs out (actually, in) with several friends from the same block. He is aware that it’s wartime, and his parents are his commanders whose orders he follows immediately, without any hesitation.

I am now shaken by any sound that resembles an air raid siren. I hear it in the dishwasher starting, in an electric fan, in a distant car alarm. We went to the shelter three times today, the first at 6:15 this morning when the sirens woke us.

But we are relatively safe here in Lviv, while our brave cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Sumy, Kherson, and Mykolayiv are under Russia’s shelling—houses shaking as explosions go off; people sleeping in subway stations, cellars, or hiding in “safer places” within their apartments. With their newborn babies, their older parents, and clutching their pets.

In Kyiv, Russians left a target mark on the Children’s Hospital (peacemakers . . . right) which resulted in a targeted shelling. A small child died. Three other children and two adults were badly wounded.

I can’t believe I’m writing this right now.

I can’t believe I’m living this right now.

But I believe in the courage of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. I have faith in our amazing people.

My heart goes out to everyone under shelling tonight. My prayers are with Kyiv. Ukraine’s capital is said to expect a major attack. We don’t know what will happen, but we have truth on our side.

We all are one heart tonight.

We are Ukraine.

And we will prevail.

This is the new normal.

 

Tara Skurtu, an American poet writing from her adopted hometown of Bucharest
edited from an email exchange with AGNI’s founder, Askold Melnyczuk, in Boston

March 5, 2022. As of two days ago, DW News said over 74,000 refugees have come to Romania. I haven’t seen any in Bucharest, but I barely leave my apartment when I’m in the country. There is a growing mobilization on the ground here to help refugees, and I keep seeing more and more places taking donations, forms for taking in families, etc. Which is heartening.

And now with Russia violating the ceasefire agreement (which is not surprising) . . . oh I just hope more people will be able to get out as safely as possible somehow.

(Writing emails these days I keep finding myself at a lack of words, fingers paused on the keyboard, trying to find the most accurate words to describe the atrocities and devastation. There seem to be no words that can describe it.)

March 6, 2022. Right after you asked if I’d seen any refugees, I took a walk for the first time in days and decided to stop by the only English bookshop in town to visit my friend who runs it. He offered me țuica, Romanian plum liquor, and we were chatting on the sidewalk in front of the window display when two of his friends showed up—a couple—and with them a woman and her teen son. We were speaking English, and the couple gestured to the mother and son and said, “They don’t speak much English.” I said it was okay to switch to Romanian, and they said, “They don’t speak Romanian either, they’ve just arrived from Odessa, and we’ve taken them into our home to help them figure out how to get to relatives in the UK.” We used Google Translate and a combination of words in Romanian, English, and Ukrainian to communicate, and hung out together for the better part of an hour. The couple told me there’s a strong network of people organized to house refugees—just about all of the mobilization is happening like this. A number of refugees with cars or access to resources have made it to town here, they said, and a lot of refugees with far less are in Moldova right now, so if we wanted to donate money, giving to on-the-ground orgs in Moldova would help a lot because here in Bucharest the resources are so much greater.

Shortly after they left, a Romanian living in Canada appeared and a Romanian living in Sweden; they were on their way to an anti-war protest, and we became quick friends and drove together to protest in front of the Russian Embassy. We then went to the Ukrainian Embassy, where there was a giant wreath of dried flowers in the shape of a peace sign, yellow and blue balloons and ribbons, candles, and peace and anti-war signs. Oh, and get this: My new friends said that Bucharest is considering changing the name of the street where the Russian Embassy is . . . to Glory to Ukraine Boulevard. I have to fact-check this of course, but how wonderful would that be on all their business cards—brilliant.

I wanted to let you know about this day, it was heartening in multiple ways.

A follow-up, hours later. Tonight my friends Alex and Michelle told me they’re helping a woman and her baby and three-year-old come to Bucharest and are housing them in an apartment they have downtown. The woman is leaving Ukraine on a minibus with twenty women and children tomorrow, and it’ll take them almost a day if all goes okay. They say she’s pretty traumatized, and asked if I can help when she arrives—bring supplies, help with kids, etc.

If you or anyone you know wants to donate, let me know and I can coordinate. A little bit of money goes a long way here.

Alex also has two mothers and two kids living at his office—he’s such a wonderful human who helps people out with whatever he has daily. So good to see people taking care of people in these traumatic times.

 

Anton Shapkovsky, a Ukrainian environmental engineer from Zazimie, outside Kyiv
March 5, 2022

It was a shock the first two days. We woke up at five o’clock in the morning on February 24 from the sound of exploding shells and the howl of a siren. On February 25, at seven o’clock in the evening, an air defense installation worked near our house—the sound and sight of a rocket taking off are mesmerizing and you can’t move. Between volleys, we managed to get dressed, grab our child, and run to the basement.

It is very difficult to get out of the information whirlpool and our nerves are at their limit. There’s very little information, but we did not let go of the phone, read all social networks, and corresponded and called with friends and colleagues, finding out the situation and supporting each other. Now the situation has stabilized, everyone is maximally assembled and mobilized, and humanitarian chains have begun to line up (not official, but from person to person).

We have remained in our village for the time being, I help the neighbors solve minor technical issues with electricity, water, and heating. People organized a medical center in the area, we were lucky—and there are doctors among the residents. Now the task is to provide them with everything necessary in case of hostilities or the arrival of the wounded. On Monday we will try to get medicines and equipment. In Kyiv, pharmacies and shops are empty.

At the same time, we are working on an evacuation plan. There was an option to leave our location with my wife’s brother’s family, but we decided to stay because our parents are here and they needed our help and the baby had an intestinal virus. In addition, men cannot leave Ukraine. Now all of the family issues are more or less resolved, and we’re thinking we’ll move to a safer location.

 

Anastasia Levkova, a Ukrainian writer, editor, journalist, and member of PEN Ukraine, writing from her hometown of Lviv
March 1, 2022
Rockets at the Door of Europe. Do We Let Them Proceed?

World War III has already begun. However, only two countries are doing battle. Russia is fighting against all the world, while Ukraine fights for the whole world. Ukraine needs help, and surely it deserves meaningful assistance now more than ever.

Are you familiar with the horrifying sound of sirens? Or the sound of a house imploding under missiles? Do you know what it’s like to hear, see, and be caught in shooting and street battles?

Every morning at 4 a.m. I can no longer sleep. I can’t resist the need to catch up on the news. News about Russian soldiers destroying the cities and towns of my beloved country, and my brave and quick-witted compatriots’ response to this.

I am reading and I am waiting.  At 5:14 or at 6:28 or I don’t know when, the siren starts wailing. I must go to an air raid shelter. I am lucky to have a shelter not far from my house and to live in Lviv, which Russia has not yet shelled. But it has shelled towns near Lviv: Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk, which is only 88 kilometers away from the border with Poland.

Meanwhile, my sister, dozens of my colleagues and friends, and thousands of my compatriots, who live in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Kherson, and many other towns, are far less lucky. They are beset by sirens all the time. At any moment the sirens can begin again, and they have to rush to air raid shelters as buildings are shelled and some destroyed by missiles. The Russians are even targeting hospitals, schools, and kindergartens.

Civilians are dying. In four days, 352 civilians have died (sixteen children among them), and 1,684 have been wounded. Russian infiltrators kill people on the streets. They dress up like Ukrainian soldiers and capture ambulances and Ukrainian cars to create disguises and diversions. On their way to Kyiv, they caught civilians and placed them on armored vehicles so as to hide behind them. This is against all principles of international human rights and humanitarian law, but the Russians do not care. They see they cannot take our cities by force alone, so they resort to illegal tactics and deception.

~

Today I had a long conversation with a journalist from a famous European newspaper. I talked about Ukrainians’ cohesion, their unprecedented bravery, the phenomenon of self-organization, and how all of this has inflicted big losses on the Russian army and destroyed Putin’s initial plans.

“But do you realize he won’t stop?” asks the journalist. Yes, I replied, that’s why we need the world to help us. We must stop him.

“But the world doesn’t want to interfere in internal affairs,” he began, then stumbled and realized he was about to say the wrong thing—although, it seemed, from his own deep conviction. He paused, then continued: “the affairs of the Russian world, under Russian territories, pro-Russian space.”

You may have heard similar sentiments. Unfortunately, many in the West still think these things, which are extremely insulting to Ukrainians.

Dear Europe: Do you really still think Ukraine appeared in 1991 and that before that we did not exist as a people, nation, or state?

Remarkably, I was speaking with the journalist in a hall whose walls were covered with images: enlarged copies of beautiful banknotes of the Ukrainian People’s Republic from 1917 to 1919. But even that period is not the beginning of Ukraine’s history or its people. While it is true that Ukraine has been occupied by Russia for many centuries, I am deeply sorry that the world seems to know nothing about its resistance in the seventeenth century, and especially about its battles for most of the twentieth.

More recently, in the twenty-first, we have again had to fight. We’ve had the Maidan protests, the Revolution of Dignity, thousands of people storming the streets to express their desire to live in Europe. Have those events not meant a thing? Not to mention that this current war against Russia has been raging for eight years already. Has this not proven that Ukraine does not belong to the Russian authoritarian world?

~

In Central Europe, memories of the Soviet (which was in fact Russian) occupation are still very much alive. Does anybody want to repeat those times? Contemporary Russia is the same flesh and blood as in the Soviet period. Just as Soviet power was eager to capture more territory, so Putin nowadays prolongs this policy. In his obviously sick mind, Ukraine isn’t even the last stop, and if he sees the world concede his gains now, he will push ahead.

“We are deeply concerned,” “We are profoundly disturbed,” “We are really worried,” “We are awfully preoccupied,” “We are very anxious”  . . .

We have heard these lines time and again, from 2014, from the Russian invasion of Crimea to Donbas. Were those then “an internal affair of the Russian world”? Seemingly, the world swallowed that rationale, and it untied Putin’s hands.

~

The number of dead and wounded in Ukraine is rising by the hour. There was an explosion at the Trypillia thermal station near Kyiv, and the Russian army has already captured the Chernobyl nuclear plant, with all the frightening connotations of that. They are trying to ruin thermal and electric stations.

Have you seen photos of previous Russian work in the Moldovan territory of Prydnistrovya, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and in Ukraine’s Donbas? The images of devastated cities, towns, and villages—who could possibly want to live next to such an aggressive neighbor? Who wants to live permanently threatened by Putin’s disruptions to come?

Russians are well-versed in narratives about Nazis and a homosexual immoral Europe that threatens them, but they don’t seem to have any trouble shopping and living there. It’s high time to do away with their stories, excuses, and fake rationales—unless Polish, Czech, Lithuanian, Estonian, and maybe even Austrian and German citizens want a future in which they too have to hide in air shelters and face massacres.

~

All the world thought Russia was a powerful country with an invincible army. Today, the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Ukrainian people are dismantling this myth. Kyiv and Kharkiv have stood. Everyone in Ukraine is fighting, from the armed forces to civilians.

Since the 24th of February, Ukraine has showed that the Russian army is a colossus with clay feet. But because of Putin’s desperation, he will proceed at any cost. Therefore we must stop him before he leaves everything in ruin and devastation.

We need help and support now to overcome this invasion. All of the assistance so far—welcoming our refugees, expressing words of sympathy and compassion, isolating Russia financially—has been necessary and good; we really appreciate this. But it is not good enough. Putin does not care about sanctions, and what we now require even more are weapons, medical supplies, and air cover. We need our skies sheltered from Russian air attacks.

Sooner or later the world will have to do this, but the later it happens, the bigger the loss of human life and infrastructure. Let’s not lose time.

with thanks to Tetyana Teren, executive director of PEN Ukraine, who herself has fled Kjiv for Lviv

 

Oleksiy Panych, a Ukrainian philosopher, translator, and member of PEN Ukraine, writing from his hometown of Kyiv “to the accompaniment of sirens, explosions and gunfire somewhere not far away”
​February 28, 2022
Why Ukraine Is Europe: A Historical Parallel

In 480 BC the Greeks were in big trouble. They’d just suffered a devastating defeat at Thermopylae. Greek polises quarreled with one another and refused to give each other help. The Persian army captured and ruined Athens. The Greek fleet flocked up near the island of Salamis, but Greek strategists, representatives of the different polises, could not reach any agreement on further action. The Persian fleet, situated nearby, was much larger and more powerful.

Then the Persian king, Xerxes, made a fatal mistake: he moved his fleet into a narrow sound near Salamis to inflict on Greeks a last and utter defeat.

And a miracle happened.

First, the Greeks, all at once, stopped quarreling.

Second, they self-organized.

And third, their “ant fleet,” consisting of smaller but more mobile vessels than the Persians’, opted for smarter tactics: they used a delusive maneuver to induce the Persian fleet to huddle up, and then attacked it from all sides.

At this moment Greek “decentralization” turned into a strategic advantage: all Greek vessels acted according to the common general plan, but in the course of battle each turned into a self-governing combat unit.

~

The battle of Salamis was decisive for the destiny of Europe. If Persians had won, Greek (as well as Roman) civilization would have been destroyed, and their part of Europe would have become part of the Persian Empire.

Instead, democratic Greece defeated a much more powerful, despotic Persia.

~

In the same manner, democratic Ukraine is overpowering and will defeat despotic Russia.

We have stopped all internal quarreling.

We have self-organized.

Every Ukrainian city, every village, every group of “angry citizens”—all have turned into self-governing combat units, acting according to a common general plan.

That’s why Ukraine is Europe.

That’s why the Ukrainian steppe is the present-day Salamis.

That’s why we’ll win.

Russia is an old despotic Asia, with a political order not much different from the Persian Empire’s.

And the end of this Russian empire will be the same.

But it will come much faster.

with thanks to Tetyana Teren, executive director of PEN Ukraine

 

Kseniya Kvitka, a Ukrainian health administrator from Kyiv
March 1, 2022, writing from western Ukraine, to her friend Suzanne Crisci

Dear Suzanne, 

Thank you very much for taking time and writing to me. I appreciate your support a lot.

My heart and the heart of the citizens of Ukraine are broken. Russia and their ally—Belarus—are bombing our cities, shelling our houses, killing our people, among which there are 16 children.

My boyfriend woke me up at 6:30 on February 24, saying, “It started.” I think that was the worst day of my life. Preparing the basement, hearing the bombing sounds, I couldn’t believe it is happening for real. I could feel this feeling of fear inside me, in my chest, it is like something cold in you, something very natural, breathtaking. It is impossible to express with any words.

My 70 yo parents had to leave their flat to go to the basement when a rocket fell near their house. Babies are born in the metro, as it is the place where people hide during air strikes. There is a shortage of everything—food, petrol, medicines . . .

Our beloved, amazing, beautiful cities are shelled, destroyed, filled with fear, pain, cries . . . There are not enough words to describe it. 

We had to leave with my parents to the western part of Ukraine, leaving our normal life in Kyiv. Now we are in temporary places where we can stay for a while. Lots of our friends stayed in Kyiv or left to other cities, which are also being shelled. I do not know when we can return. Lots of our friends are in the Ukrainian Armed Forces or in the Territorial Defense Forces. Myself, I am trying to find a way to deliver medicines to Ukraine from any place possible, as there are shortages. 

We do not want to leave Ukraine, we love this country beyond words, we love these people, despite differences we have. 

I am writing this to you and I am crying. As Russians, chaired by Putin, as well as Belarusians, are causing all this for non-logical, Kafkaesque purposes. With this war, coming to our territories and killing our people, they cause in us an animal feeling, the worst possible—happiness at the death of Russian or Belarusian soldiers. I never thought it could be like this and we will never forgive what was done.       

Thinking of you and sending you lots of love.

Kseniya  

 

Serhiy Zhadan, Ukrainian poet, ​​​​​writing from his hometown of Kharkiv
Translated by Virlana Tkacz

The sky over Kharkiv is big and clear. The stars as large as walnuts. You can see all the constellations. It’s very quiet. No shelling. Hope it stays like this. Goodnight. February 27, 2022

We drove around the city just before they started shooting. People are getting organized, helping each other out. There are lines for food. A lot of soldiers and police, all on the ready, all angry, awaiting our “guest.” We drove out to the circle road, people are setting up block-posts, local guys with hunting rifles. The Russians have no idea what awaits them here. We brought two loads of ammunition for our guys. Local businessmen donate everything in their warehouses. They’ve nothing good to say about Russians. Grad rocket launchers are pounding the city of Kharkiv, killing civilians. The Russians are a horde, not army. February 28, 2022

Friends, about that school that burned down. We asked our guys who stormed it. The Russians were in there, waiting, it was turned into a supply depot. They managed to set their machine guns and were seriously preparing. But none of that helped them. Why am I saying this? We have saboteurs here, the police and soldiers are looking for them. We were checked out too. We had a generator, they stopped us at our block-post, took us aside and checked us out. Afterward they apologized and took selfies with us. February 28, 2022

Guns thunder over Kharkiv. Lots of people out in the streets—standing in lines at pharmacies & supermarkets. Lots of soldiers checking and managing the situation. Friends, do not go out without documents. Don’t go out at all, unless you must. Talked with our guys—a little tired after yesterday. Kharkiv is defending itself, Ukrainian flags fly above. February 28, 2022

Kharkiv—rockets hit city center. They’re shelling civilians. The Russians are not an army—they’re criminals. People in Kharkiv, be careful. If you can, help those who need help. Food, medicine, transportation. Let’s stick together. They can bomb our buildings, but can’t destroy our scorn. Or our hatred. February 28, 2022

The Vysochansk community needs food, medicine, and pampers . . . If you can, help them. March 1, 2022

Friends, they will not break us. March 1, 2022

Greetings from Ukrainian Kharkiv! The picture today is not like the Russian videos . . . The city is defending itself. March 2, 2022

It’s like World War II. The ideology and moral imperative of the invaders comes first. They came to free us from ourselves. They don’t even have a convincing version for the faint of heart. They want to simply destroy us, just in case, just like that. The Russians are barbarians, a tribunal awaits Russia, there’s no other way. March 2, 2022

 

Tamara Hundorova, Ukrainian literary critic from Kyiv
March 2, 2022, writing from her escape route
Translated by Virlana Tkacz

I am a refugee. It’s frightening to even say it. I feel embarrassed and ashamed, like I was made to stand naked in front of others. I never imagined this, not even in my worst nightmare. But here it is. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and am thankful I decided to leave.

Today at one p.m. we left Kyiv. Right now, we are 200 kilometers away. We are spending the night in a city I’ve never been to. I am not a tourist. We have no plans. We are simply drifting along like tumbling weeds. Sirens wail here, too. They wail all over Ukraine. Our land is holding its breath, listening, gathering strength. It needs to give birth, but it’s forced to carry heavy tanks and military equipment. My thoughts are all with Kyiv.

 

Volodymyr Dibrova, Ukrainian writer, preceptor at Harvard University
March 1, 2022, writing from Billerica, Massachusetts

The War That Can Never Be Lost

Some forty years ago President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.” At that time the USSR invaded Afghanistan and tried to suppress internal dissent.

On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a four-prong attack against Ukraine, starting a military campaign the likes of which have not been seen in Europe since the end of World War II. The military operations have been accompanied by cyberattacks and a relentless campaign of propaganda and disinformation. As far as we know, long before the February 24th assault, Russia started to install “sleeper cells,” teams of well-trained saboteurs, in almost every Ukrainian city—to cause panic, wreak havoc, capture the main administrative and military centers, and assassinate Ukrainian leaders. From the first minutes of the war Russia has been targeting civilians, using hostages as a human shield, deliberately causing ecological damage, blackmailing the world with its nuclear weapons, and engaging in atrocities that will be classed as war crimes. If the Soviet Union was an evil empire, what is the name of this?

They say September 11, 2001, was a turning point in world history. The February 24, 2022, Russian attack on Ukraine is an event of similar magnitude. The world order established in 1945, with all its demarcation lines, international institutions, and deterrents, is crumbling before our eyes, unlikely ever to be rebuilt.

Some so-called “ordinary" Americans, for whom the biggest worry is the price per gallon at the local gas station, may not notice that. The same goes for well-bred, well-groomed, and profoundly corrupt politicians of all stripes.  But it is high time for the rest of us to realize that every effort to “domesticate” Russia has failed. The only result has been the corruption of basic Western institutions, moving the United States to the brink of civil war.

One hundred years ago the country that gave the world some of the finest nineteenth-century art, literature, and philosophy was taken over by thugs, murderers, and ideologues who lie with every breath. They put on victim-clothes and have been masquerading as the heirs of the civilization they themselves crushed and obliterated. But as a Russian proverb says, You can’t whitewash a black mutt. Their behavior speaks louder than their lies: they don’t feel at home among decent people. Driven by their sense of inferiority, they crave “special attention” and demand “respect.” But no matter how hard one tries to please them, the past century shows that appeasement is both futile and extremely dangerous. Perhaps at this point the high-minded discussions about contemporary Russia (like whether its behavior is the legacy of communism or part of an “innate” quality rooted in DNA) should be left to academia. Right now the world has to stop them before they panic and jump off the cliff like those proverbial swine. Those courageous Russians protesting on the streets are too few to change Russia’s overall trajectory.  The hope we have been all harboring that the Russians will come to their senses and rise against their war machine is wishful thinking.  Anyone who has watched the Russian propaganda outlets for even two minutes understands that this is no garden-variety hypocrisy, sham, or fakery. It is a toxic substance. It does things to you.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from the unthinkable events unfolding in Ukraine is that Russia in its present form is not a project that can be maintained and shored up. The so-called “West” long ago embraced the idea that it’s easier to contain one bully than to deal with a dozen feuding, nuke-waving warlords. Ukraine has long been hostage to that “wisdom.” Well, not anymore.

The chess-playing geopoliticians have no choice but to fundamentally rethink the board. As W. B. Yeats once said, “All changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born.”

This is a real war for independence. It can never be lost.

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