The week the war began, I tasked myself with finishing writing one more chapter of my book about the infamous Ukrainian émigré writer Yurii Kosach. It never happened.
On Thursday, 24th February at around 5am, we were thrown out of our beds by an explosion uncomfortably close to our 15-storey apartment building in a suburb outside Kyiv. Car sirens all over town joined in the choir. The walls trembled. So did my hands. My heart pounded. Since then, my blood has been replaced by adrenalin.
Researching my book, I’ve studied many aspects of the Second World War and the subsequent period. After all, my biographical subject survived the war, displaced persons camps and emigration. What I’ve read in books I will now see with my own eyes: explosions, cities ruined, innocent civilians (including children) slaughtered, people living for prolonged periods in shelters without the most rudimentary human consolations, under constant threat from bombs.
For Ukraine in 2022, “Never again” has become a rhetorical flourish in countless self-serving speeches—a catchphrase uttered with about as much sincerity as the knee-jerk “Have a nice day.”
A recent survey shows that the majority of Russian citizens support Putin’s full-scale war on Ukraine. The aim is to effectively reclaim the country as Russian. In their propaganda-filled minds, we are “brothers.” Russia, however, regards itself as the “big brother” (in both a familial and Orwellian sense), with the right to punish Ukraine as it sees fit if it refuses to dance to Big Brother’s tune.
Russia’s leaders have long peddled the myth of our national friendship, of the “fraternity of the two peoples.” This myth remains so potent that even a month into the war, some western media outlets still refer to what is happening on the ground as the “Ukrainian crisis,” or “Russia-Ukraine conflict,” as if this war were a minor feud between siblings.
I often travel abroad, both as a tourist and to take part in international academic conferences, as well as to conduct research. When meeting new people, the first thing I usually hear about is how much they love Russia’s language and its literature.
“Ah, you are from Ukraine, so you must speak Russian?” (No, I do not.) “Oh, anyway, I like Dostoyevsky so much!” (I have no idea what Dostoyevsky has to do with my home country, and am no fan of his novels.) “Ok, but Ukraine is somewhere near Russia, right?” (Yes, which right now is nothing to celebrate.) “There is something happening in the Donbas and it has something to do with Russia?” (Yes, the Russia-Ukraine war began in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas.)
It’s unsettling to be so immediately and comprehensively misperceived, to be understood only through the prism of Russia and its culture. I understand why this happens, of course. Ukraine has remained largely invisible for much of the west for a long time now.
In fact, this misperception of the true nature of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia explains a great deal of what is happening to my country right now. The world knows a lot about Russian culture, and Russia’s version of its relationship to Ukraine. But that’s only one side of the story.
After the defeat of the Ukrainian National Republic that existed 1917-1920, the Bolsheviks and Communists occupied Ukraine for almost the entire 20th century. During its time as a part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine experienced the most tragic chapter in its history.
Russian policy toward Ukraine and its people was genocidal throughout the 20th century. Mass killings include the Holodomor, also known as the Great Famine, in which some four million Ukrainian peasants were deliberately starved to death; Stalin’s Great Terror and the mass execution of the upper ranks of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, writers and artists in 1937 in the Sandarmokh forest; the millions of losses in the Second World War; thousands more sent to the Gulag; still more forced into compulsory psychiatric treatment centres for dissenting from the official party line. Then came the Chornobyl disaster of 1986.
Add to all this the violent mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944, along with the thousands of Ukrainians who, unwilling to live under the Soviet regime, fled abroad after the Second World War.
Apparently, none of what Russia did to Ukraine merited outcry from the international community. Russia never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, never truly reckoned with the crimes of the Communist era. Instead, it nurtured fantasies about the restoration of the Soviet Union; and along with that a reclaiming of its faded glory and imperial might.
The situation began to change gradually after Ukraine achieved independence in 1991. But just when the country was finally beginning to assert itself culturally and politically, Moscow again tried to clamp down by supporting the Russophilic government of Viktor Yanukovych. When Yanukovych refused to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in 2013-2014, Ukrainian citizens poured into Kyiv’s Independence Square in their thousands to protest. Hundreds of civilians were executed there. Yanukovych fled to Russia.
Afterthe Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin illegally took control of Crimea and launched his war in the Donbas. (A pattern repeated this year, when he waited to pounce until after the Beijing Games to avoid incurring President Xi’s wrath.) Putin’s aim was never simply to control one or two regions. He wants the subjugation of the entire country.
History rhymes. Having inflicted the mass murder of Ukrainians in the 20th century, Russia now repeats the practice.
In 1933, eastern Ukraine experienced the Holodomor; today the region is again strewn with the rubble of burning buildings, of destroyed villages and cities. Russia is making it almost impossible to establish genuinely safe humanitarian corridors and resupply the region with food and water. Dead bodies again litter the streets, just as they did in 1933. Again mass graves are being dug in Mariupol and other cities. Residents who fled the Russian missiles and shelling to the outskirts are dying of hunger.
In 1944, Russia seized the homeland of the Crimean Tatars; in 2022 it is forcibly deporting the citizens of Mariupol to remote regions east of the border.
Hearing Russian planes and missiles flying overhead, my grandmother tells me how they hid from the Germans during the Second World War. She was three years old when that war began. I insist that the basement or corridor is the better option for surviving an attack from the sky, while my granny insists that the forest offers the best hope. Her personal experience supports her claim: when her village became a theatre of war, she and her mother hid in a makeshift dugout in a forest for months.
While Ukraine was a part of the “Russian world,” it experienced the meltdown of the Chornobyl nuclear plant. Today, Russia again threatens the world with a nuclear catastrophe, and Russians shelled a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia —a historic first. My parents remember well the catastrophe of 1986. As Putin threatens us with nuclear weapons, they tell me how they protected themselves. I hear them and can’t believe we are talking about this again in 2022.
Each Ukrainian family has its own horrific memories, now resurrected. Yale historian Timothy Snyder said Ukrainian territory is part of the “bloodlands.” Much of this blood is on Russia’s hands.
Russians seem surprised by the ferocity of Ukraine’s resistance to its onslaught. I am not. We know what is at stake for us, and for the world. I live in a country where unarmed civilians with Ukrainian flags approach armed Russian tanks to tell them to leave their land. I live in a country where people with disabilities help make Molotov cocktails with which to greet their invaders. I live in country where people are trying to bribe their way into the territorial defense forces for the privilege of protecting Ukraine. I live in a country where, when 13 Ukrainian border guards faced demands from a Russian warship to surrender, they replied: “go fuck yourself!”
During the first nights of war I lay in bed, unable to sleep, scrolling through my news feed, checking with family and friends to make sure they were okay. I also reminded myself of the rules about what to do in case of a missile attack. I was wearing my jeans and sweater. I remembered how, during the Soviet era, dissident Ukrainian writers slept in their clothes so that they might look presentable when the secret police arrived. Such visitors always arrived at night.
On 7th March, Ukrainian writers came to my mind again when I read in the news that during the shelling, the House Slovo in Kharkiv (a historical building which served as a writers’ residence before Stalin’s Terror in the 1930s) was damaged. In that house, writers used to sleep in their suits. Most of them didn’t survive that period. A century later, Russians are again bombing their home.
Today, nowhere in my country is safe. Russians attack even the dead, their shelling damaging the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre.
Each morning I fear reading the news of what’s happened while I slept. Russians bomb the Mariupol shelter holding hundreds of women and children; they shell lines of people waiting to buy bread in Chernihiv; they use outlawed white phosphorus weapons against civilians; they bomb maternity hospitals and cars fleeing the zone of battle. Mass graves, tortured bodies, burned corpses in the street, funerals held to the sound of shelling, tombs near our houses because only a quick burial is possible...
Each morning I wake up hoping this nightmare has ended. The reality of war dawns most intensely in the afternoon. I look for clues that might help me believe the struggle is worth it. Thousands of Ukrainian people, soldiers and civilians, are paying with their blood so that I might have the freedom to pen you this missive. Today, right now, they are fighting for the right to their own history. If Russia is really our “brother,” then its name is Cain.
I’m not a terribly spiritual person, but at this moment I find a singular strength in my Ukrainianness. I feel the power of unity between my “dead, living, and unborn compatriots, both within Ukraine and outside it,” as the 19th-century poet Taras Shevchenko put it. I’m thinking about the legions of persecuted Ukrainian poets and artists; about my great grandparents, who survived Stalin’s gulag; and also about the courageous Ukrainians fighting today for the sake of future generations, that they might enjoy the right to live in Ukraine and speak for themselves.
Olha Poliukhovych, Ukraine, March 2022
The opening passage of this piece is taken from an article first published by Consequence online, titled “The Week the War Began.”