This morning I made refugee coffee. The kind you can make anywhere when you’ve got finely ground coffee, a mug and a way to boil water. Two heaping teaspoons, add boiling water, stir until it froths, then cover and let it sit. Add milk or honey (if available) before enjoying.
Yesterday I went out for water and the smell of grilled meat was wafting in the air. Shashlyky [kebabs]. That’s what Ukrainians used to do on nice spring days in my neighborhood. They’d take their “kitchens” (family, friends, food, drink and utensils) outside to the park across the street, occupying little patches of land with blankets or folding chairs around a small fire, with the sounds of their voices, music, simply enjoying each other’s company.
That’s what President Zelensky—in a public address in January last year—said that Ukrainians would be doing in May, making shashlyky as usual.
This time a year ago I was not even in Kyiv. And whoever remained was defending it from russian attack. Missiles, rockets, bomb shelters, block posts, people in uniform patrolling the streets, extended curfews for the special forces to capture russian sabotage groups.
My body is reluctant to reconcile the aroma and the fact that we are still at war.
Now my neighborhood is full of people who’ve relocated from other parts of Ukraine where it’s unsafe or unlivable. I can tell by the way they speak Russian, their manner, how they dress that they’ve come from places further east or south. And also by the way that they look around, taking in the canal and its resident ducks with a fresh gaze: it’s new and not home… yet.
Often they stroll together—several adults and their dogs, not only couples but parents and grown children, old friends. People from small, close-knit communities sometimes evacuate together, traveling in a large group, chipping in to rent a house with many rooms, carrying a piece of their community to an unfamiliar Ukrainian city.
I pass a small group on my morning walk, two grown women chatting brightly about something or other with that warm intimacy that radiates between people when they’re with “their own”: it overflows into the space around them and I too feel uplifted.
I have no aversion to the Russian language when I overhear it spoken by women in my neighborhood walking their dogs with their family. It reminds me of my friends who grew up in Donetsk, who left their homes in 2014, when russia’s orchestration of local separatist movements made it unlivable. Most of those friends now speak Ukrainian.
Ukrainians should speak Ukrainian in public space, particularly in public service and especially in schools and universities. Yes, it’s work to learn a language that you haven’t spoken your whole life. But still. Being Ukrainian is work. If russia is waging war to annihilate Ukraine—its people, culture and history (along with making its land unlivable)—then it is the duty of every Ukrainian to assert and insist on Ukraine’s existence. Isn’t that what we are fighting for?
The Soviet Union mixed everything up. “Internationalism” meant everybody has to speak Russian. Wars (or “special military operations”) were launched in the name of peace. Being Ukrainian today means defying the persistence of Soviet doublethink.
Being a citizen of the political nation Ukraine is demanding. Being a citizen of any political nation must be demanding.
It’s commonplace to consider living in the US or Europe a privilege, one that people from all other countries seek (though you see how many Ukrainians would rather live in their own country). It is a privilege to live in relative safety, the way you and your compatriots choose, while protected by your nation’s nuclear arsenal. Privilege comes with great responsibility. When did people forget that privilege as such is demanding?
Last week the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for russian president Vladimir Putin, who is accused of being responsible for war crimes in Ukraine, including the unlawful deportation of children. The following day, the internationally wanted criminal president of the RF traveled to illegally occupied Crimea, appearing on camera visiting an art school for children.
The photos glare from my computer screen like a sick joke. The RF is trying to make a mockery of the international institutions set up to protect the lives and freedom and rights of individual human beings under international law. russia will continue to kill hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians—along with its own citizens conscripted to fight in Ukraine—as long as the international community, which still treats russia as a member, allows it.
For all its words and actions to help Ukraine, it still seems like the West’s priority is avoiding confrontation with russia. russia’s affront to the international community and its principles challenges each Western person to think seriously about these post-WWII institutions. Are we courageous enough to live up to principles like international law and universal human rights?
The ICC’s public issuance of an arrest warrant was brave and well-timed. russia’s response was unsurprising. Will you throw your weight behind the ICC’s official accusation or take it as just another event in the reality TV show #Ukrainewar?
Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov reminds us that if the Ukrainian Armed Forces clear the country’s entire territory (within its 1991 borders) of russian occupying forces this is still not tantamount to Ukraine’s victory. For the RF has already claimed four regions of Ukraine (in addition to Crimea, which was illegally annexed by the RF in 2014) as its own territory. Yes, counter to international law, but what is the international community willing to do to defend its own international law?
According to Portnikov (and other particularly clear-sighted Ukrainians I know), the West must exercise its political will to incorporate Ukraine into NATO. It must offer a NATO security guarantee over all the territory under Ukrainian government control at the moment of joining. “As soon as russia understands that a step onto our territory is a step toward nuclear war—and not the sort where they have impunity, but a nuclear war where nuclear bombs fall on Moscow—they will leave us alone,” he says.
Sometimes I worry whether Western countries are not acting from a hope that if they refrain from responding with force to russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory and thus respect for state sovereignty as such then russia’s assault will diffuse until everybody forgets about it. That’s not how deterrence works. If NATO is willing to sacrifice Ukraine’s territorial integrity and autonomy, then it discredits the power and purpose of the alliance.
Looking away, evading commitment to Ukraine’s victory, deferring to other authorities or to group consensus is a dangerous game to play. We already see its results on the battlefield. “US and European officials have estimated that as many as 120,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded since the start of Russia’s invasion last year,” reports The Washington Post. For the first time I find myself thinking about NATO troops participating directly in halting russia’s advance.
War makes everything very concrete. Like the body that falls to the ground to avoid flying shrapnel or the body whose legs are blown off by a landmine. Like the ordinary physical movements of civilian life. Turn you eyes to the left. Can you look straight up at the same time?
War forces you to choose which side you’re on.
PS If you’re serious about supporting Ukraine’s victory, please help Hero of Ukraine fund the production of combat drones: https://heroesukraine.org/en/ukraine-backfire-drones/
Paypal: email@example.com (Illia Shpolianskiy)
AND keep advocating your national government to act decisively with haste to stop and reverse russia’s advance. The world depends on it!
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I like this sentence "When did people forget that privilege as such is demanding?" nice piece