a Kind of Refugee / 30.11.2022
Evening. Walking home from the metro in the dark I wait for a handful of pedestrians to gather to cross the street. The traffic light at this busy intersection is off. Our clump of bodies forges into the street and the oncoming cars slow down, just enough to let us pass and then keep going. This negotiation happens in action: we don’t spend time coming to an agreement through words or glances. Sure it’s risky, but not scary. We used to depend on the traffic lights to direct our movements through this shared space; now it’s a matter of personal timing, watching your surroundings, and trust. Shining a flashlight makes you more visible to the drivers, so does wearing reflectors.
I scan the buildings on either side of the road to see which ones have power (lots of lit windows) and which are out (only a few windows glimmer faintly from battery-powered lamps or candles). The hum of generators that keep cafes running has become commonplace.
While the city and country boast of the “invincibility points” they’ve set up for people to warm up and charge their devices when there’s no power at home, in fact most people—in typical Ukrainian fashion—find their own ways to cope. I’ve taken to working at cafes; my friends found a few tables in a neighborhood shopping center where there’s wifi. The sort of self-organization where individual sharing (whether by people or businesses) meets individual needs remains more reliable than municipal “organized” solutions.
We’re preparing for more attacks. Somebody said November 28 but that day and the next passed relatively uneventfully. Still I live in a dual mindset: one part anticipating conditions getting much worse and making plans for surviving; the other living from day to day, following my own priorities (what to write, who to see, when to dance) as long as nothing gets in the way. Sitting and waiting for russia’s next missile barrage is unconscionable.
The foreign journalists I talk to, seasoned war correspondents who’ve reported from Georgia, Iraq, Bosnia, marvel at the comforts of civilization one finds in Ukraine: delicious coffee on every corner in Kyiv, imported craft beer at the gas station on the way to Mykolaiv!
In cozy, elegant cafes, over flat whites, they give me practical advice from lived experience. Put each candle in a wine bottle: if you fall asleep, it will burn down into the bottle and not set your house on fire. A gas-powered heater with a vertical grille that projects heat into the room is better than one that warms the ceiling.
War correspondents are people with a surplus of curiosity, intelligence, thirst for adventure, who go somewhere else to see strife firsthand and report on it to the folks back home. In conversation it’s easy to imagine I could be one too. But no: while I share the desire to be where the action is, I’m also very attached to my home.
Nine months of incessant russian attacks on Ukraine, each day bringing the possibility of a countrywide blackout, and I’m having flashbacks to February: I just don’t want to leave my home. It’s a base, primal feeling (prior to being a political stance). Like an obstinate child that does not want to give up whatever is bringing them delight. Only there is nothing fun about waking up each morning to see: Do I have power or not? What do I have to do most urgently that I can in these conditions before they change? I can stay because I’m not responsible for anyone else (not even my cat who’s still in Poland). I am responsible for maintaining my connection to my home and making this home livable. Here it becomes political.
Light brings a lightening of my mood as well as lightning-speed thought, moving from one action to the next. With darkness comes a slackening of spirits. It’s easier to refrain from making an extra effort—to open the computer, to leave the house, to get up from the chair while the candle burns bright. That we humans dominate over nature is a deadening fiction: in fact our life is always a struggle with our environment.
In February, amidst speculation that russia could disable Ukraine’s Internet and communication networks I only dreaded the result without giving much thought to how it could happen. I used to consider things like artificial light and heat part of my environment, without knowing exactly how and where they are generated through specific mechanical (or nuclear) processes. A missile sent from russia that hits a power station or transformer can cause enough damage to a system of interrelated, moving parts to leave millions of people without electricity.
My friend Sasha pointed out the similarity between the Ukrainian words for light світло (svitlo), holiday свято (sviato), and world світ (svit). While in Russian there is no etymological connection: свет (svet), праздник (prazdnik), мир (mir).
Actually the Russian word мир (mir) means both “world” and “peace.” Which presents a fundamental conceptual difference from a world based on human political agency. The latter world requires light to illuminate the free (thus unpredictable) human action that is at the heart of political human existence, which is distinct but inseparable from nature and biological existence. While peace is an abstract ideal.
It seems that abstract ideas and knowledge, the kind you’ve read, imagined, even thought through detached from any kind of personal experience (it doesn’t move you), provides a sense of security. You think you “know” and thus have power. The impotence of Western people (which is not ultimate) comes from losing touch with or actively suppressing contact with concrete matter, with what is really happening. As long as individuals and their political bodies live in dreams and projections, privileging their fears of (or enchantment with) those imaginary images, they remain powerless to fight russia and actually empower it to keep waging war against the world of light.
Monday I climbed the stairs to the 14th floor to spend a few hours in my friends’ dim kitchen discussing renting a house with a wood stove for the next couple months. How much water would we need in bottles in case the power goes out and the pump from the well stops working? How much does it cost to buy a generator; and is it better to buy a small one or one that is a bit more powerful; which will be more efficient? Where will the three of us sleep if the wood stove heats only the first floor? Yes, it’s worth investing a few hundred dollars to have a place available in the event the city heating system fails.
My friend calls the next day to say the owners decided to rent the house to somebody else. We’re back almost where we started, though it was worth starting to think about this more concretely. “By the way, do you have power?” No, she says. And just as I’m about to invite her to come share ours I see that it’s gone out too. I can do nothing but laugh, verging on hysteria, but really, it’s funny.
The waning daylight brings insight: I used to think that you go to the place of action to gain experience. To see with your own eyes, to smell, hear, sense, be moved by moving around in it. Ah no, it’s FAR more humbling. You go and get embroiled in reality to meet your own limitations.
Heroic acts are visible from afar. When you surpass your own limitations, glory shines through. But every day of ordinary life—including when you’re living through history—is just that: deeply humbling. You can’t always be exceeding your limitations. And yet you still have to be ready to at any moment.
PS Historian Timothy Snyder, who is broadcasting his Yale course “Making of Modern Ukraine” online (highly recommended!), has traveled to wartime Ukraine, visited ruined homes in Chernihiv, and talked at length with President Zelensky. Now as an ambassador for Ukraine’s national fundraising platform United24, he is promoting a campaign for an anti-drone system for the Ukrainian Air Force. You can contribute here: https://u24.gov.ua/shahedhunter
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