Copyright © 2021 Euromaidanpress.com

The work of Euromaidan Press is supported by the International Renaissance Foundation

When referencing our materials, please include an active hyperlink to the Euromaidan Press material and a maximum 500-character extract of the story. To reprint anything longer, written permission must be acquired from [email protected].

Privacy and Cookie Policies.

A trinket, comfort food, a hot bath sustain Ukrainian spirits in dark Russian war

Ostap Slyvynskyy. Photo source: PEN Ukraine
A trinket, comfort food, a hot bath sustain Ukrainian spirits in dark Russian war
Writer Ostap Slyvynskyy spoke with many people about how they cope with the invasion and learned they were all talking about freedom, to live their lives – and that they would not give up their speech to anyone.

“I once thought to myself that no matter what my interlocutors were discussing, they were all talking about freedom. The freedom to have their own space, live their lives as they see fit, and choose their words. Ukrainians are anti-totalitarian and value freedom of expression, which is highlighted by phone interceptions of Russian occupiers speaking to their loved ones. They are not free to express themselves even with their wives. Putin sits with them at dinner, and Solovyov escorts them to the bedroom,” Slyvynskyy says.

In recent months, I’ve spoken with more people than ever before. I’ve had dozens of conversations in random places, conversations with no clear beginning or end, and often with people I’ll never see again. These people range from volunteers and medics to anxious mothers with small children and volunteer fighters, artists, and drivers who face dangerous roadblocks on a daily basis. I’ve also spoken with women who are waiting for their husbands and men who are waiting for their wives, as well as teenagers who haven’t seen their parents in months, and seniors who simply want to live in peace.

As I engage in these conversations, I find myself wondering what I hope to gain from them. Perhaps I’m trying to understand this war, but if so, I’m only becoming more confused. The stories I’ve heard feel like pieces of different puzzles that have been jumbled together. Listening to personal stories makes it impossible to truly understand war from the perspective of a single human life, but listening to general information makes even less sense.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I want to understand those of us who have consistently undervalued ourselves. We Ukrainians have always been, it seems, the greatest mystery to ourselves. How did we fail to recognize the vast reserves of strength within ourselves and the things we’ve created? How is that possible?

I know that we are being closely watched now. Perhaps with some hesitation, because none of us knows what we’re truly made of. But the world is listening to us because we have found ourselves where few would be willing to go, in the dungeon of reality, where it is dark and frightening, but where the threads of the world are interconnected and visible. I want to understand how everyday things appear from there, how they are connected, and which of them is the most important. I’ve seen something for myself, but my knowledge is still limited. That’s why I ask and listen to others.

I often hear about other people’s homes when speaking with them. It seems that during times of war, our homes, which should protect us, are the first thing to become vulnerable. Our houses were not built for war and they have fragile walls, glass windows, flammable materials, and delicate decorations. War makes us feel homeless by robbing us of our sense of security. The experience of living in bomb shelters emphasizes the link between safety and discomfort. But we cannot live in fortress-like structures because they are incompatible with our way of life. We, like our homes, are not prepared for adversity.

Their village is occupied by Russians, but they unite online

Arina, a refugee from Makiyivka, showed me a handful of keys. “These are the keys to my house and my parents’ house,” she explained, “but I can’t go back to either of them.” She went on to say, “But there’s one keychain with two keys on it that I’m not sure where they came from. I’m still hoping to remember one day.” We both looked at the chained-together nameless keys. I couldn’t help but think that these keys represented a home that none of us have ever had.

As I walked away from our conversation, I met Vadym. He was born in the Sumy Oblast and spent many years abroad before returning to Ukraine when the war broke out. He tried joining the Territorial Defense Forces but was told to wait because there were too many applicants. He is now living in a temporary shelter in Lviv. “I have nowhere to go here in Ukraine,” he explained. “I’ve been away for a very long time.” As I looked at Vadym, I realized that he had come to protect the same house that Arina keeps the keys to in her pocket. A house that doesn’t exist, but is still there.

And I also hear about beauty. People often talk about beauty during wartime. Who’d have thought? “Beauty at the time of war becomes dangerous,” says Katia, concluding her story about how, before leaving her home under occupation, she chose the worst clothes to avoid being raped on the way. During the war, beauty becomes an intimate matter for oneself, rather than for display. I recall the impact Ida Fink’s novel Journey had on me when I first read it. It was a moving account of the Holocaust, and at the time, I couldn’t understand how someone could find beauty in such a dark period of history.

But now I know that the story was true. The heroine would not have survived if she hadn’t had that intimate beauty, which wasn’t meant to be seen by others. It is unusual to discuss such topics because war is frequently associated with sacrifice and suffering. But Maryna from Kharkiv told me how, in the evenings, she would heat water, fill the bathtub with it, pour scented oils, and light candles in her shell-damaged apartment. And a teenage girl who fled from a front-line town in the Donetsk Oblast showed me her favorite glass shell, which she had taken from her house when it came under fire. That fragile shell was scary to touch, but it was whole.

Everyone, even those who went to war, bloomed that spring

I also hear about food, which, in times of war, transforms from a mere source of calories to a deep form of interpersonal connection, conveying warmth and attention. During a war, all food is cherished because it provides comfort. I also hear a lot about the body, which is not a common topic in peacetime. Only rarely do stories contain eroticism; more often, people speak of the body as a last resort, a hope for survival, because it allows them to walk, see and hear, and think. It represents their personal freedom, and their ability to move and think.

I once thought to myself that no matter what my interlocutors were discussing, they were all talking about freedom. The freedom to have their own space, live their lives as they see fit, and choose their words. Ukrainians are anti-totalitarian and value freedom of expression, which is highlighted by phone interceptions of Russian occupiers speaking to their loved ones. They are not free to express themselves even with their wives. Putin sits with them at dinner, and Solovyov escorts them to the bedroom.

But there was no invisible third party dictating our words during my conversations with Ukrainians at train stations, shelters, on the streets, in coffee shops, and in humanitarian aid centers. We spoke our minds, often in the dark and under difficult circumstances, but they were our words, and we will not give them up to anyone.

Meridian Czernowitz’s “State of War” is an online anthology of essays by Ukrainian intellectuals about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One hundred Ukrainian authors will recount their own experiences, impressions, observations, and feelings in one hundred texts. The creation of the anthology takes place within the framework of the USAID-backed Deepening the internal cultural dialogue in Ukraine project. ©Meridian Czernowitz.
You could close this page. Or you could join our community and help us produce more materials like this.  We keep our reporting open and accessible to everyone because we believe in the power of free information. This is why our small, cost-effective team depends on the support of readers like you to bring deliver timely news, quality analysis, and on-the-ground reports about Russia's war against Ukraine and Ukraine's struggle to build a democratic society. A little bit goes a long way: for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month, you can help build bridges between Ukraine and the rest of the world, plus become a co-creator and vote for topics we should cover next. Become a patron or see other ways to support. Become a Patron!

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here

You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter

Please leave your suggestions or corrections here