My story in Foreign Policy:
Volunteers have no official agreements with either the Ukrainian Army or with the DNR and its Luhansk equivalent, the LNR. There is no guarantee of safety from shelling, despite white flags or notices on windscreens declaring there are children on board. Every day, volunteers risk being turned back, robbed, or detained. They have been attacked by supporters of the rebel republics who want to charge extortionate fees to take families out of war zones. Those from Protestant churches are a special target for because of their faith. But still they go to besieged towns every day, doing a job that no one else will do.
It wasn’t just me trying to get away from Ukraine horrors and headaches at the Lviv Publisher’s Forum. Four days of books, books, books and more; jazz, verse, philosophy, fairytales…
I was there to present the Ukrainian translation of Dream Land. And of course, to meet friends and fellow writers from all over Ukraine and from Crimea – Crimean Tatars who had come to read their poetry, play music, walk the cobbled streets listening to the jangle of Ukrainian and Russian and English and Polish – and feel like they could breathe again.
“The people here are beautiful,” one said as we walked round Lviv. She didn’t mean their features or their clothes; she meant the feeling of freedom they carry around inside them. The feeling the Crimean Tatars have had taken away from them in Crimea.
We talked about how hard it would be to go back to Crimea when the forum was over. But how hard – now the Crimean Tatar Mejlis building has been surrounded and searched today by armed police, now yet more Mejlis members’ houses have been searched – I for one did not guess that.
It’s been a good few days for Dream Land, which has been nominated for Ukrainian book of the year. It’s been a horrible few days for the Crimean Tatars.
Time to start writing that sequel at last…? I don’t know if I can. But someone has to.
I hold by what I wrote in this piece: the stereotype that ‘Ukrainians are fascists’ is as incorrect and damaging as the stereotype it has replaced, that ‘Ukrainian women are prostitutes’.
Minutes after the piece was published I saw a facebook post of photographs of pretty Ukrainian girls enrolling in the National Guard Institute in Kyiv, with the invitation to compare them to the ‘genetic material’ of Novorossiya. I saw that post had got over a thousand likes from Ukrainians. And I realised that putting sexist and fascist stereotypes together in one article about Ukraine was sadly, not at all a stretch.
I still hold by my opinion:
If the ‘prostitute’ label was extremely harmful for Ukrainian women, the ‘fascist’ label is harmful to the country as a whole, because it becomes not just a justification for open Russian aggression in Ukraine, but an excuse for other nations not to condemn that aggression. If ‘Ukrainian women are prostitutes’ then unfortunately in many people’s minds they ‘deserve’ rape, abuse and exploitation. These days, in thrall to a new stereotype, much of the world seems to assume that since ‘Ukrainians are fascists’, they ‘deserve’ the loss of Crimea and the Russian-supported war in the east in which thousands of entirely non-fascist civilians as well as soldiers from both Ukraine and Russia have died so far.
This matters too, because war reduces people to many desperate strategies to stay alive, and war encourages extremism. If the east Ukraine war continues, or is permitted to become a ‘frozen conflict’ sapping Ukrainian economic and civil development, those Ukraine stereotypes may edge towards becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
“Our job is to tell the history of our region. Today, our sorry history is our war.” My East Ukraine story in here in Foreign Policy about Slovyansk museum’s latest collection, trying to make sense of those terrible, absurd months of occupation in 2014 when armed militants looted, murdered – and bought tickets to visit the museum on their days off.
A ‘separatist helmet’
I’ve been keeping a mental record of new Russian words I’ve learned since March – I initially wrote up some of them as Word of the Day or Week or Month, until they got too numerous and there was too much else to write about. But the list is still in my head, getting longer and longer, filling me with more and more dismay.
Why the hell have I had to learn words like гранатомёт (grenade launcher). Like огневые точки (gun emplacement). Like вторжение and контузия and осколочное ранение (invasion; concussion or shell shock; shrapnel wound).
Like отчаяние: despair.
(I’m in Ukraine, so you could say I should be learning these words in Ukrainian. But they belong to Russia, these words. All of them.)
The hypocrisy and duplicity of Russia over its actions in Ukraine actually physically hurts.
Every time someone says to me ‘but it’s all because of those neo-Nazis in Ukraine’, ‘but Maidan did it first’, ‘but Crimea was always Russian’, ‘but if there are Russian soldiers in Ukraine, they are there voluntarily because the locals want them there – and anyway, what about all the Americans there?’ – it’s like being hit over the head with a blunt object.
Every time I hear ‘But what about…. what about… what about…’ from Churkin, from Putin, from Lavrov, I remember that Soviet disease I encountered all the time in state organisations when I first arrived in Post-Soviet Ukraine nearly twenty years ago: lying and evasion and being too scared to take responsibility for anything. I’m not to blame for my bad behaviour, because someone else behaved badly first. Always shift the blame.
I don’t encounter that disease so much any more in Ukraine, though of course it’s not gone. It is clearly still rampant in Russia.
There are brave people in Russia fighting the lies and the hypocrisy. There are human rights representatives and mothers speaking out about their lost sons in the Russian army who were forced to sign papers that they are ‘on leave’ before being sent to Ukraine, who are returning to be buried in unmarked graves.
Please, you people in the rest of the world who keep saying ‘but what about the neo-Nazis… But what about…’ Well, WHAT ABOUT THEM?
What about those mothers in Russia searching for their sons? What about all the 45 million or so non Neo-Nazis in Ukraine? What about the fact that two wrongs do not and never will make a right?
My plea for empathy, over on ABBA today
Photos retrieved by rescue workers from a residential building destroyed by shelling in Nikolaevka, East Ukraine. Almost two months later, no one has collected them from the grass outside