a Kind of Refugee / 12.04.2023
“The army is our future,” says the commander of an artillery battery, “like Israel. From now on we will have to be ready for anything.” He is bright, good-looking, talkative, and restless. What is he doing at the rehabilitation center?
“I spent a year at the front line. You have to do everything quickly. Set up the mortar, fire off your rounds with enemy drones cruising overhead, and you’ve got a couple minutes to pack it all up and run before the return fire arrives.” When he was finally released on leave, “I had a bit to drink — something I don’t usually do — and one of my subordinates ended up with a broken nose. I asked our battalion psychologist to send me somewhere to settle down—just not to the psych ward—and now I’m here.”
He lived in the US for over a decade: an IT specialist who signed up for the Ukrainian Armed Forces on February 24, 2022. “My daughter is still in the States,” he says, “She’s sixteen.” This is not the first Ukrainian soldier I’ve met who’s lived in the US and could be living there still, but chose Ukraine instead.
Spring! The trees outside my window are budding. Several dear friends from my dance community who now live in Europe have come back home for a brief Easter visit. I stand beside these “girls” I used to spend hours with each week and just relish their presence. Instead of looking forward to new growth and development I’m reaffirming my roots. I need to remember what I’m fighting for.
Community is visceral. It depends on time spent in proximity and repetition: seeing, being seen, and cooperation. Unlike political bodies, structured by common law and public space, communities have their own rules (spoken and unspoken) that govern belonging. The time and energy you invest in the culture—for instance, learning how to dance the lindy hop—create the grounds for mutual respect, warmth, and affection among members of the group.
Nothing can substitute for the feeling of dancing with my favorite partner. Nothing can replace the firm residue of experience that builds up only through practice: hundreds of dances in different moods and situations, some thrilling, some befuddled by misunderstanding, some energized by being watched. Familiarity is deeply comforting.
Sometimes I think there must be something that is dear to you, privately, that nourishes you and is worth protecting, which provides a basis for your participation in politics and public life. On the other hand, isn’t political life that stands on common principles, where every citizen is equal before the law, worth working and fighting for in and of itself?
“Pavlivka” is an enormous psychiatric hospital in Kyiv, where Stas has led art therapy sessions and spent time talking to soldiers. He, Mykhailo and I are sitting in my kitchen one evening. There are purple tulips in the center of the table, a present delivered in lieu of a visit from Marianka, who was dispatched unexpectedly on a reporting trip.
“Does Pavlivka also function as a rehabilitation center?” I wonder. How do members of the armed forces end up there? Some are committed by their family members, others by the UAF. In the dim light Stas recounts, without going into detail, some of the things he’s been told.
“Don’t you think that psychological disorders could result from having no recourse to justice?” Mykhailo suggests. Imagine that you are a witness to injustice—or even a participant. Say, torturing a POW or resolving a difficult personnel issue through extrajudicial means. You know something is not right but everyone around you denies it or looks the other way. You look (and feel) like a crazy person. “If there is no rule of law, no justice system upholding common rules that everyone must follow, what can you do? Start killing people or lose your mind.”
What was life under Communism in the Soviet Union but one mass criminal operation in which every single citizen was complicit?
A House Made of Splinters is a strikingly intimate portrait of interpersonal relationships at the Lysychansk Center for Children’s Social and Psychological Rehabilitation. The documentary in this year’s Oscar competition was filmed by a Danish director in 2019 when the city was 20 km from the front line between Ukrainian-government controlled territory and that claimed by the so-called “Luhansk people’s republic.” Fives years of war have made life in the depressed region of eastern Ukraine even grimmer; children whose parents are unable to care for them find refuge in this short-term orphanage.
Kolya is a pre-teen who roughhouses with the older boys, gets into trouble with the center’s staff, and affectionately combs his little sister’s hair and reads to his younger brother. Sasha and Alina, two girls becoming fast friends, are as candid in expressing their admiration for one another as acknowledging their own meanness. We see subtle gestures of tenderness between the kids, who also call their parents to ask, “Have you been drinking again?” The women who run the center cuddle with the children; speak to them frankly about their options for guardianship (while their parents are stripped of custody in court); and as soon as one child leaves, they sigh cry and start the process all over again.
One of the center’s matrons puts it frankly: there are girls who stay with us and eventually return to the world. Some years pass, they grow up and become mothers and repeat the patterns that they saw growing up. And it’s not long before we see them again, now coming to visit their own children. It's an endless cycle.
These people’s lives lack the dimension of public life, of political coexistence. They exert power over one another directly through personal relationships. A House Made of Splinters, while reminding us of the marvelous range of human expressions of curiosity, assertiveness and need, shows that caring for one another as individuals is not enough to make a world where people can truly live with dignity.
Людянність — humanity — is at the heart of Ukraine’s resistance—both in principle and in practice. Ukrainian authors have written about the розлюднення — dehumanization — of the Soviet person, which we see ultimately in the actions of russia and russians today. Both words have людина — the human — at their root. Humanity conveys the generosity of holding other people in your attention and thinking not just of yourself. Being human involves how you relate to other humans. While dehumanization enables a person to treat other people in a way that ultimately questions their own humanity, from whence comes the term “crimes against humanity.”
I’ve always been fascinated and mystified by Ukrainians’ way of including other people in a field of “their own.” This is more than a category or way of thinking; it materializes in practice and in a certain code of behavior. The group or relationship becomes a sort of given, a unit where people coexist without being completely separate, and whatever you do, you take your people into account.
It’s a rich and terrifying gift to see people so open and vulnerable and without boundaries. Like the family I witnessed one summer many years ago at a train station in some small town, all come to see off their teenage son. Their attachment to one another was so profound that parting was visibly, physically painful. At a visceral level I found this closeness both astounding and deeply familiar.
For it is the culture of my grandparents, who were literally torn from it by the Nazis, when they took the able-bodied village youth for forced labor in Germany in 1943. My grandparents and their friends, post-war Ukrainian immigrants who worked at the thread mill and gathered at church every Sunday, would grab and squeeze and smother us kids in affection and then scold us sternly for not sitting still during Mass. They reeked of life and their love was suffocating.
It’s no wonder that people have cultivated distance, refinement, social niceties as a mark of being “cultured” and civilized to protect one another from their own raw humanity. Human closeness always harbors the potential for violence.
Was my grandparents’ repetition of this kind of touchy-feely, desperate cohesion their way of clinging to the memory of what they had lost? This intensity of family attachment was in complete conflict with the late 20th-century American world with its cars and suburbs and television. For me it was not a place of coziness or comfort; it felt awkward, a bit indecent, and like a relic from some other world.
I think the American notion of being human is about individual (including family, community) independence and togetherness through politics. American culture has traditionally left personal and family relationships to the realm of private life: mind your own business. It’s only beginning in the latter half of the 20th century where legislation to broaden the reach of citizens’ rights and to protect against prejudice began to bring the private and personal into public view and legislation.
The Soviet Union, with its state control of life, death, and personal affairs and its strict regulation of public expression, basically eliminated both private and public space. Ukrainians’ capacity to care for one another could be considered an adaptation to compensate for the complete lack of political life and law, which they’ve only begun practicing, learning, and establishing since independence in 1991. The war Ukrainians are fighting against russia’s will to compel them to Soviet obedience or die is synchronous with the realization that Ukrainians must build and maintain the political structures to protect their own lives. Nobody else will do it for them.
PS Galya and I became friends dancing lindy hop in Kyiv, where she settled after russia’s incursion into her native Donetsk. Now she lives in Spain. She’s raising money to buy a drone with a thermal vision camera for Max, another member of our dance community. You can contribute via paypal: email@example.com; or credit card: https://send.monobank.ua/jar/9SYA1zMAks
To lift your spirits and remind you what we are fighting to protect, here is a dance filmed in Kyiv in summer 2021, featuring Galya (dark curly hair), me & other Ukrainian dancers: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0amc5WaEbZg
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