On the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

In Kyiv you live under the sword of Damocles. Every day: what if Russia starts bombing using jets, what if they nuke, what if they invade from Belarus. It is very difficult to live under those conditions. If you don’t have milk or eggs you go out to the store to buy them. If you don’t have security — if someone is constantly threatening your health and your life simply for the crime of living — what do you do, then? 

During a trip to Avdiivka in the east I found myself near the “zero line” talking with an old woman, one of the handful of civilians who had remained. It had been a good neighborhood before the war, and most of the families had means or opportunity to leave. The woman and her disabled husband were in one of those situations where they weren’t wealthy themselves, had nowhere else to go, no family, so they’d stayed. Russian artillery had ruined their shed, and sprayed the walls of their modest home with shrapnel, and cratered their garden. She was telling me in that characteristically Ukrainian, laconic way how they survived — precariously, stoically, day by day — when the Russians opened up with automatic grenade fire on a position some hundreds of meters away, starting a firefight.

Shed ruined by mortar fire, Avdiivka, Ukraine

The Ukrainian soldiers accompanying us said that it was time to go. On our way out we encountered the woman’s husband near the end of the driveway sitting in his wheelchair. A series of explosions and the rattle of machinegun and small arms fire nearby hastened our departure. As we jumped into the waiting cars, he began to wail like an animal. A soldier wheeled him back toward the house and shelter. We took to the road, bouncing past the empty houses. A pack of feral dogs ran from the fighting — I tallied a poodle, a shi tzu, and a collie (among other breeds) —pets that were left behind by their owners, a dystopian vision of what in other circumstances might have made for an uplifting Disney film.

Two days after that I was back in Kyiv, worrying about Russian threats to blast the city and destroy Ukraine, talking with my then-girlfriend (now wife) about what to do if things got worse; where we’d go. How not to end up like that old couple in Avdiivka. 

That was in 2016. 

I wasn’t going to write anything for the anniversary of Russia invading Ukraine last February. The small tragedies and catastrophes my family and friends have endured and encountered — the violation of basic human dignity, the diminishment of human rights, the fear, the killing, the disruption of every aspect of our lives — is a small portion of that of the widow or orphan, the kidnapped children who had to watch their parents murdered and are being raised by Russian strangers. What could I write or say that would meaningfully contribute to this grim tapestry? Of what use could I be?

This morning I woke up, as I did a year ago, with little sleep, facing a full day of work. I was thinking about what was going through my head then, and I realized that there was one insight I could share that might be useful to people whose first meaningful encounter with Ukraine was during the events of the last year.

That moment, the invasion, was one of the worst of my life, followed by one of the worst years. I’d trade anything for the invasion to be reversed; for Russia to withdraw its forces and change its violent and imperialistic ways. 

Some of the shrapnel and bullets found on the property of an Avdiivka resident between 2014-16

But having lived under the threat of death and destruction so long, to worry every month or so whether Russia was going to bring ruin to Kyiv and Ukraine, the invasion also came as a relief. This is what I wanted to share with people I know, many of whom heard me say something like this when I lived in Ukraine: to be next to Russia is to be crazy. Most Americans cannot imagine coexisting with an existential threat bent on erasing not just them, personally, but everyone and everything they ever knew. I learned in Ukraine what it felt like to have a knife at my throat; to be weak, vulnerable, a target.

Ukraine was always going to resist Russia’s invasion, just as they’d resisted in 2014, and as they have so many times before over the centuries. In the past it has always been held back by friends or abandoned by potential allies, restrained in its purpose to free itself from that fear — never given the means to end the persistent bullying at the hands of its wicked neighbor. Few Westerners know (though many can, if they examine the details of their own personal lives) the impotent anger and rage that Ukrainian people have had to endure while Russia casually indulged in every manner of physical and psychological aggression. Russia invaded — twice now — a year ago today, for the second time in the 21st century. Is it any surprise that Ukrainians have fought back? Can anyone blame them for wanting to finish this war — once and for all — and to finally know peace? 

Published by fancypencilhand


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