It was still snowy the March day I arrived in Przemyśl, a picturesque city of 60,000 in southeast Poland, on the Ukrainian border. Two weeks earlier Russia had invaded Ukraine, and tens of thousands were fleeing every day.
I was halfway through a master’s degree in Slavonic studies at Oxford at the time, and entranced by Russia, the walls of my room plastered with maps of the Moscow metro and postcards from the various cities I had visited. In my adolescence and early twenties, I had organized my future around Russia, its fascinating strangeness and enormity. I was working on a thesis on Josef Brodsky and the effect of internal exile in the Soviet Union on his poetry, for which I had planned a research trip to Arkhangelsk, in the far north (where he lived in exile for eighteen months), for Easter. And then Putin invaded, and the juxtaposition of my academic research into Russian dissident culture in the late Soviet period and images on the news grew unbearable. How could I have failed to see the potential of something like this happening? Each time a friend wrote to me, concerned about whether I was OK, I felt tremendous shame. Desperate to do something, I booked a one-way plane ticket to Przemyśl.
The city has a complicated history, having been claimed and reclaimed by the Ukrainians, tsarist Russia, the Soviets, and the Poles, as well as by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, many times since the Middle Ages. Temporarily occupied by Russia during World War I, it was returned to Poland in 1918, and after a brief stint as part of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, it was divided between Germans and Soviets during World War II. Until the war, it had been populated predominantly by Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, but the Jewish population was decimated by both the German occupying forces’ genocide and deportation by the Soviets, who also deported the majority of the Ukrainians living in the region. Since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Ukrainian population has been steadily growing, as descendants of those who were deported return to their ancestral homelands.
That first day I wandered Przemyśl looking for somewhere to get a cup of coffee. Through the Internet I’d found an apartment at the eastern edge of the city; the route from there to the Old Town went by the train station. I hadn’t realized this, but the station was one of the main entry points for refugees, with evacuation trains arriving from Odesa, Kyiv, and Lviv all day. I gave up on finding coffee, went to the reception point, and said I spoke Russian. Someone with the local authorities handed me a high-visibility vest, after which I worked things out for myself. Volunteers weren’t given any training. I stood in the middle of a beautiful central hall, with mock-Greek frescoes on the walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, as a seemingly endless crowd of people approached me, asking for help. In certain basic ways, for those first few days I was no better prepared than the refugees; I also didn’t speak Polish or know the train timetables. My asset, however, was that my home wasn’t under threat—and I could provide reassurance, some small calm, among all the chaos and noise and distress.
I took newly displaced Ukrainians to cafés, bought them coffee (at first with my own money, and then increasingly with donations I received as a result of social media posts). I tried to help them experience a bit of peace after hours, if not days, on packed evacuation trains. People would tell me, sometimes elatedly and full of pride, other times in a state of mourning or shock, about their lives. There was the deputy director of a major art gallery in Lviv, who had lunch with me and my group of volunteer friends, extolling the virtues of Ukrainian literature and telling us of his plans to travel in Europe until he could peacefully return home. Another day I met an elderly woman with some form of dementia who was trying to go back to Ukraine; when I began to explain that she had missed her train, she slapped me around the face with her handbag, screaming obscenities before being pinned down, sedated, and taken away by the Polish Red Cross.
Consistently the most distressing encounters were with the very old. Along with people who, like the old woman who hit me with her handbag, were unable to understand what was happening to them, there were also many who clearly remembered the Soviet Union. Many of them had, up until February 24, when bombs started falling, believed Russia to be their brother nation. Most had refused to accept the prospect of war until the moment of the invasion. Weeks later, they remained in shock. One woman told me that her parents, both Jews, had fled Germany for the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis, and now she was fleeing back to Germany. She wept. Another woman, when I tried to tactfully describe the refugee center as “a center for Ukrainians,” burst into tears: “I’m Russian, not Ukrainian!”
The volunteer community was a diverse one—people came from all over Europe, and as far afield as North America and South Africa. Some came to provide particular skills—nurses and psychologists, chefs and translators. Others simply arrived, responding to the desperate need they had seen on the news. Language was always an issue, and the local volunteers were often clearly frustrated by this onslaught of people, next to none of whom spoke any Polish. Nonetheless, an enormous feeling of solidarity existed among the volunteers, and only increased as the support at municipal and state levels, which was substantial at first, decreased.
With three other British volunteers, all students and academics, in April I formed a loose group that eventually became KHARPP (the Kharkiv and Przemyśl Project), a charitable organization providing humanitarian aid in Przemyśl and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, close to the Russian border, and a constant target for Russian shelling. Similar groups were created by other volunteers, and together we worked to fill the gaps left by the big aid organizations that, for the most part, failed to turn up until months into the war—if at all. The Polish Red Cross was there from the first days of the crisis, operating a medical room at the train station; Caritas, the charitable arm of the Catholic Church, turned the station café into a mothers and children’s room, and the American charity World Central Kitchen provided food for both refugees and volunteers. Beyond this, it wasn’t until the summer that any meaningful international NGO presence arrived.
The existence of small, grassroots groups like ours was used by the local authorities to justify the withdrawal of local support starting around July, when the medical room was closed down. When I complained to Wojciech Bakun, the mayor of Przemyśl and member of the right-wing populist party Kukiz15—which has, among other things, advocated building a wall between Poland and Ukraine—about the removal of crutches and wheelchairs as well, he said that the refugee crisis was over, those now arriving were “tourists,” and there were enough grassroots and mutual aid groups present to deal with their needs.
Three families stand out from my first day in Przemyśl. In the mothers and children’s room run by Caritas I met Irina, a young mother from Donetsk Oblast, in the east of the country. She arrived with four plastic bags and her four-year-old daughter. She had never left the Donbas before and had no idea where to go or what to do. Remarkably calm and stoical about the situation, she stressed to every volunteer who spoke to her that the most important thing was finding a kindergarten for her daughter, in whatever country that might be. The pair spent five days in a local shelter before being relocated to Germany. I bought them a suitcase and visited them every day that week, bringing small presents—a doll, some face paint, a yo-yo.
That day I also met Anoush and her ten-year-old son. Originally from Armenia, they had been living for five years in Kharkiv. When I met her in March she told me they’d gone to Ukraine in part to escape her abusive husband. Neither she nor her son had a Ukrainian passport. The Polish government was providing free train tickets, but only to those with Ukrainian citizenship. This, of course, meant that poor migrant workers and international students were ineligible for free tickets, and it therefore fell to individual volunteers to buy tickets for them. Having helped Anoush and her son onto a train to Warsaw, I sent them a link to a website I had been forwarded on Instagram where they could apply for free housing. In June, three months later, Anoush called me from the Netherlands, asking if I could transfer her thirteen euros for a train to the nearest town, so that she could follow up on her state benefit payments, which she had yet to receive.
Finally, I met a thirteen-year-old girl named Vera, from Luhansk, traveling with her mom, grandma, and little brother. I thought she was a volunteer when I first encountered her, as she sat in a circle with the younger children and played with them. Hers is the most optimistic story I’ve encountered so far. Her family is now settled in an apartment in Germany, where she is going to school and learning German. She still comments on every Instagram story I post from Ukraine, with crying and heart emojis.
On my second day in Przemyśl, another volunteer who was handing out food at the border asked me what had motivated me to help. I replied that as a Russian speaker I had felt a responsibility to do so. “You know they’re coming from Ukraine, right?” he said.
A lot of people ask the language question: Do the Ukrainians crossing the border object to communicating with me in Russian? On my Twitter feed, Ukrainian academics and writers vow never to speak the “language of the occupier” again, but Russian has certainly not, in my experience, been banished from Ukraine. Ukraine remains a bilingual country. Being able to communicate in Russian is what allows me, along with multitudes of other international volunteers, to assist those fleeing war.
Yana, a refugee from Kharkiv whom I met in July, had crossed over with her two daughters, aged five and one. She confessed to me that she was panicked by the language question: Russian was her first language, and while she could speak Ukrainian, it didn’t come naturally to her and was not the language in which she spoke to her children. They planned to settle in Germany, where they would inevitably be speaking Russian at home while the children spoke German at school. When would they learn Ukrainian? And what would happen when the family got back to Kharkiv and her children couldn’t speak a word of the official language?
One grandmother from Kyiv started speaking to me in Ukrainian. I apologized and asked if she would mind speaking in Russian instead, as my understanding of it was far better. “Thank God!” she replied. “I find it easier too. I just thought you’d rather speak Ukrainian.” The Ukrainian soldiers I’ve met in Kharkiv all communicate in Russian. In Lviv and the other areas in the west of the country, where speaking Russian on the street was once considered unacceptable, you now hear it everywhere, as a result of the thousands of displaced people from eastern regions. Yet simultaneously, one woman I met from Mykolaiv, a predominantly Russian-speaking city before the war, flat-out refused to speak to me in Russian. She would communicate via broken English or nothing at all. Another woman I met from Donbas who had escaped with her two children spoke to them in Ukrainian. The children would only respond in Russian, and so it was clear that speaking Ukrainian within the family was a recent switch.
It’s complicated. At a bookshop in Kharkiv in September, having driven to the city to deliver an ambulance full of aid, I went looking for a copy of Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov, a proud Ukrainian writer who writes in Russian. I assumed that if I could find it anywhere, it would be here. I was wrong. The bookshop workers told me that they had gotten rid of all Russian-language books on the first day of the war, but they could offer me a copy of Kurkov in Ukrainian translation. Kurkov is banned in Russia, which raises the question of where you can find his books in the original at this point. Kurkov has stood firm in his belief that Russian-language Ukrainian culture exists independently of Russia, though he recognizes that the next generation of Ukrainians will be unable to write in Russian. He has also commented on the “distrust, and sometimes even hatred, [that] is being shown towards Russian-speaking authors and intellectuals, who must now show themselves to be three times more patriotic than their Ukrainian-speaking counterparts.”
The complexities of Ukrainian-language politics are no less present in the deaf community. In the chaos of those first weeks, an international deaf charity working on evacuations from hotspots found my Instagram account and asked me to act as their coordinator in Przemyśl. Putting aside the absurdity of the fact that an English Russian speaker with no knowledge of any sign language was the main point of contact for the Ukrainian deaf community at the busiest border crossing, this was a job that I was honored to take on.
There are around fifty notes on my phone documenting my conversations with deaf refugees in those first months of the war. My experience was that the deaf people I met were generally quadrilingual, fluent in both Russian and Ukrainian sign languages, as well as able to read and write (and sometimes lip-read and speak) the oral versions of the two languages. Often the two sign languages mix, creating a deaf version of the Surzhyk dialect, which freely combines Russian and Ukrainian and is spoken throughout much of central and eastern Ukraine. Yet deaf refugees from the east and west of the country are sometimes unable to communicate with one another, especially if there is a generational difference, with young deaf people from the west able to sign only in Ukrainian, and older deaf people from the east limited to Russian sign language.
My time on the border fundamentally altered two aspects of my life. The first change—which happened surprisingly abruptly—is that my pacifism died. I grew up Quaker; my antiwar convictions had been at the core of my spiritual and political identity. Facebook albums from my strident high school years are full of photos of me at rallies holding up signs with slogans like “BOMBING FOR PEACE IS LIKE FUCKING FOR VIRGINITY.” In the days following the invasion I stood awkwardly at protests in London and Oxford as the Ukrainian diaspora called for Western nations to send weapons to the Ukrainian army. When my Ukrainian friends shared links to donate to the army on their Instagram, I would swipe past.
Later, looking at the thousands of people crammed into the Przemyśl train station, the elderly men and women forced to sit on the floor, the children who had not washed for days, the hundreds of dogs and cats that were disturbingly silent and as traumatized as their owners, all I felt was rage. Once I would have argued that rage needs to be channeled into dialogue. But at the border, the impossibility of dialogue when one country is ravaging another became abundantly clear.
A few years ago I spent a weekend in Perm, a bleak industrial city near the edge of Siberia. I had loved its brutalist architecture and surrounding mountain landscape. I recently passed through Lyman in the eastern Luhansk region of Ukraine, where, on a bus stop in front of a flattened house, a Russian soldier had graffitied “PERM.” The idea that the boys I sat next to at a bar there might be the ones who had occupied Lyman until its liberation in September, murdering its residents before tagging their hometown’s name on the bus stop, is an unconscionable—and terrifyingly real—prospect.
The second change I’ve noticed since my arrival in Przemyśl, which in hindsight seems inevitable, is that I have lost my ability to consume Russian culture. I cannot finish my thesis on Brodsky because I can no longer open a Russian book. This is not out of some moral imperative but because I am overwhelmed by guilt. Dostoevsky’s nationalistic tendencies, which I had previously overlooked, are now all I see. His treatment of Siberia as a place of healing and mysticism recalls the attitude the British once held toward India. Even the writing of dissidents is tainted, such as Brodsky’s unpublished poem “On the Independence of Ukraine,” which is filled with ethnic slurs against Ukrainians, describing them as khokholy, a term that originally referred to the hairstyle worn by Ukrainian Cossacks, now used in Russian to derogatorily refer to Ukrainians in general.
Contemporary Russian culture is built on its literary heritage. Learning to recite Pushkin (whose poem “Poltava” treats Ukrainian national heroes as traitors to Russia) is central to the national education, as it was for Ukraine under the Soviet Union. In October Putin quoted from Dostoevsky’s Demons in a tirade against what he deems the “cancel culture” of the West.
In a recent article for Times Higher Education, the US-based Ukrainian scholar Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed argues that the Slavonic studies field has failed to deal with colonialism and chauvinism in Russian literature, choosing to focus instead on “the mysterious Russian soul.” She is not calling for the “cancellation” of Russian culture but for a recognition of the need to “meaningfully explore” Russian literature, to see if it is able to offer any answers. In principle this seems like the right approach, but for now, enjoying the same Russian literature that is used by Russian elites to defend their maniacal war feels, for me, impossible.
A few weeks ago in Lviv, an elderly man from Kharkiv sat next to me on a park bench. He couldn’t work out how to use his phone and asked for my help. We got to talking, and he told me about his two passions: theater and music. He adored Scriabin, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov; nothing brought him so much joy as the Russian composers. The night the bombs began to fall on his beloved Kharkiv, he put away his cassette tapes, which he left in his apartment when he fled to the relative safety of Lviv. Because North Saltivka, the region he is from, has been bombed relentlessly, he doesn’t know if his apartment has survived. It’s not unlikely that Russian bombs have destroyed his music collection, another irony of this obscene war.
Ten months on, as Europe looks ahead to a winter of soaring gas prices and an ever-growing number of refugees seeking shelter, life for the Ukrainian refugees already in Europe is often bleak. A few weeks ago I got a call from Irina, the woman from Donetsk whom I met on my first day in Przemyśl. She asked if I could find accommodations for her and her small daughter in Germany—she has been in Nuremberg since March, four people living to a room. She is miserable and hates what her life has become. At times she even thinks of suicide, she told me. She wants to go home. Her village has been occupied by the Russians since close to the start of the war, and the truth is that, even if it is liberated by Ukraine, it’s unlikely that her apartment is intact.
I have nothing to offer her. Everyone I speak to in Germany who works with refugees says the same thing: there’s no room. It’s hard to be a pacifist when the person on the other end of the phone is telling you she is suicidal. It is hard not to long for the United States to send more weapons.
Since I first arrived in March, the situation in Przemyśl has calmed down. KHARPP maintains its presence, meeting and supporting those who travel out of Ukraine with emergency accommodations, suitcases, and tickets for further travel. Many are going back, too, having outstayed their welcome in Europe, where the government support that was once so generous is now drying up.
There are other reasons for returning, of course. One elderly woman from Donbas whom I tried to dissuade from returning told me that she had to: there would be nobody else there to harvest her garden. Others go back to territories that Russia may soon occupy to ensure its soldiers don’t squat in their homes. There are also those who left in the opposite direction—families from Mariupol and other occupied territories who were forcibly deported to Russia, and travel from there to Poland in order to reenter Ukraine and reunite with family members, or to restart their lives in the west of the country. Some people bounce back and forth—Natalia from Kyiv left Ukraine in March, then returned in May, and left in June again after a strike on an apartment block in her area. She texted me recently saying that she was back in Kyiv, but the increased strikes made her want to leave once again.
I am spending more time in Ukraine, traveling the country from Lviv to Kharkiv and the Donbas with KHARPP, working on direct aid, and preparing homes for winter. This involves repairing windows destroyed by shock waves from explosions, patching up roofs damaged by shrapnel, and buying and setting up boilers and wood stoves to ensure that people have heat even if infrastructure is damaged. In the spring I will return to the UK and finish my master’s, this time with a dissertation on eastern Ukrainian literary identity. I had never been to Ukraine before the war started, and I can’t think of a stranger introduction to a country’s culture and language than the one I’ve had. I have learned Ukrainian superstitions from grandmas scolding me for sitting on the steps outside the station (because it will make me infertile) and discovered regional tensions through arguments about who is most deserving of the final spot on an evacuation train.
Meanwhile I’m learning the Ukrainian language through the prism of war terminology. My Ukrainian teacher taught me the “rule of numbers”—different quantities require different noun declensions—by enumerating the appropriate iodine dosages for different ages in the event of a nuclear attack. I don’t know the names of any farm animals in Ukrainian, but I can say “air raid,” “occupied territory,” and “refugee.”
—November 10, 2022