Ukrainian Lessons — Frank Garrett

I’ve been microdosing for the past week now. It helps me to sleep at night, to put my phone down at least until morning when I once again check to see if Kyiv or Kharkiv or Mariupol has fallen, if President Zelenskyy is still alive. There’s an eight-hour time difference between Dallas and Kyiv, doubling, it seems, the same eight hours I’m restlessly dozing, trying not to let the latest dispatches from old journalist friends covering the war weigh too heavily on my mind.

Though I know that that world and those lives could be snuffed out before my alarm goes off, I delay checking the news until I’m at least out of bed and dressed. My morning routine has become more focused and solemn, less ambiguous, since Putin decided to escalate the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine that he began eight years ago. With the latest development—that the Russian military is at present targeting journalists—I spend my waking hours refreshing the social media accounts of those old journalist friends of mine just to prove that they too are still among the living.

Over the past several days I’ve blocked and reported every social media account that, if even vaguely, mentioned “imperialist [sic] NATO.” That phrase has become my most recent shibboleth, much like the older shibboleth “the [sic] Ukraine,” dividing the people who actually know what’s happening in the world from those who lazily parrot Putin’s talking points. If NATO were to be in the empire-building business, it’d be doing a piss-poor job, unless the empire it’s helping to build, by sitting on its hands, is Russia’s.

NATO expansion—a concept once so benign that even Putin’s own government wanted to be a part of it—has become the international relations equivalent of “states’ rights” when discussing the American Civil War. It could never adequately explain any action of the Russian leader, who most likely has never won a free, fair election. Nor could any actual aggression by Western leaders or institutions ever justify the Kremlin-sanctioned murder of Anna Politkovskaya or dozens of other journalists and dissidents, Russian war crimes in Syria and human rights abuses at home, the shooting down of MH17, or Putin’s own stated policy advocating the genocide of Ukraine’s people.

Such a willful misrepresentation by bad faith actors and the slow-witted only seeks to obfuscate and ignore the will of free people seeking to democratically determine their own future while under the threat of violence, of obliteration, by a hostile nation. As former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who was instrumental in Latvia’s application for membership in both NATO and the EU, succinctly remarked in a recent interview, “It was our conviction and our choice. So Mr. Putin has nothing to say about it. His pretensions to rule the world, to be the tsar of the whole European continent are a total madman’s dream.”

It’s been twenty-two years since I lived in Ukraine. Since then, I’ve lost touch with most of my Ukrainian friends and with the family I lived with on the outskirts of Lviv, idyllically surrounded by apple and cherry orchards. Lately I’ve been revisiting the detailed journal I kept of my time there.

Photograph of a tombstone of a woman lying on a bed surrounded by fresh flowers. From the Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv.
Lychakiv Grave, Lviv

One of the host fathers gave us a tour of the Lychakiv Cemetery just outside of town. He’s a heavy smoking, seemingly downtrodden rail of a man who claims a pedigree descending from Polish dukes. He only speaks Ukrainian. We enter the cemetery through the main gate, near where Ukrainian songwriter Ihor Bilozir was recently buried and the grave of Ivan Franko.

The tombstones and mausoleums are all extravagant. There is no doubting the importance of their contents: Ukrainian, Polish, Soviet, Austrian, French heroes from art, music, politics, and war. I am in awe seeing the graves of people I have studied. This graveyard itself is a battlefield. We are warned: it’s okay to be tourists here but we absolutely cannot speak Polish. This warning is directed at me, the only one of the group who has a background in Polish. I bummed a cigarette from A—.

Photograph of Saint Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv.
St. Michael’s Monastery, Kyiv

Kyiv is a big, exciting city with lots of things happening. Our time was spent sitting in cafés or near the fountains of the main drag drinking beers or good coffee, watching the National Opera perform Zaporozhian Beyond the Danube, wandering by candlelight through the Pechersk Lavra catacombs of 118 saints, looking at frescoes 900 years old, and dancing at diskoteka Shar till 2:00 AM. I bought a miniature icon of St. Stephen.

Every European suburb has some particularly horrible and gruesome tale to share. Or to hide.

This morning on our way out of Kyiv we stopped at the monument commemorating Babyn Yar. Every European suburb has some particularly horrible and gruesome tale to share. Or to hide. That space between the city and the country should serve some better purpose other than the setting of human catastrophes. I still have a hard time looking at antiques in Europe, fearing the original owners are lying in a heap of ash and dirt on the outskirts of a town surrounded by Khrushchyovka apartment buildings. It’s the same with lynchings in the South. Only the architecture is different.

The group is hiking to some mountaintop where Ukrainian Romeos unsuccessful at love throw themselves at the rocks below. The two language professors are sunbathing before the predicted rain begins. A chilly breeze is blowing, and I had to wear my jacket on the walk to the sanitarium just up the hill to buy juice. Grapefruit was all they had, so I returned empty-handed to our camp, musty and mice-infested. I regret not bringing a pencil—there is a gorgeous palace here I would like to sketch.

Last night we cooked shashlik and drank several liters of Obolon beer each. On our last day in the mountains, we hiked to a meadow by a stream where our teachers conducted language class. We reviewed the vocabulary for weather and temperature. The guys attempt to convince one of our teachers that Uzhgorod, the name of the nearby town we visited a few days ago, means “where the beautiful girls reside.”

Later we talked about our personal lives: our goals, professions, where in the US did we come from, and how did we manage to find ourselves in Ukraine? A— told the teacher I was a writer, so she asked me about the things I write. “Culture, language, places I travel.” In Ukrainian I sounded like the kind of person I always wanted to be. On our walk back to the cabins to pack and leave, I asked my teacher about Cuba. She had taught there decades ago. I practiced my bad Texan high school Spanish, and she responded in her heavily Ukrainian-accented Cuban Spanish.

Black-and-white photograph of shops near downtown Lviv where ghost signs in Hebrew and Polish are bleeding through the paint.
Ghost Signs, Lviv

In the black-and-white photograph I took off one of the side streets near downtown Lviv, Polish and Hebrew letters are bleeding through the faded communist paint. Before the war, this city had the third largest population of Jews in the world. Even longer ago, Lviv was Lwów, a significant Polish city…. In contemporary Lviv, barely a word is whispered about this colorful past. When the Soviets rolled through, every sign was whitewashed, and history tamed, made to fit nicely into its revolutionary textbooks. The dialectic was painted over.

But emerging from beneath the shoddy paint job are signs of a more diverse past: to the left of the door and house number, one can clearly read Hebrew letters. To the right, przewozowy can easily be made out—Polish for transport or shipping. It appears that the new slow-motion revolution of decay will not be silent. Even the walls will speak their hidden languages. The most progressive of revolutions will simply point backwards into the past. But even more of consequence is that each revolution’s days are numbered.

In Ukrainian I sounded like the kind of person I always wanted to be.

Like anyone who has studied the history and literature or spent much time in the country, I’m not surprised by the resistance or sheer heroism of the Ukrainian people. They will fight to the death.

But they shouldn’t have to.

In the aftermath of the “madman’s dream,” in whatever form that takes, we’ll need to set aside some time to reassess and perhaps redefine what we mean by European and Western values, what we intend to do with our institutions. As the ongoing destruction of Ukraine and her people shows, those inspirational values and those aspirational institutions have proven incapable of protecting a democracy from unmitigated destruction. We have been allowing Putin’s murderous regime to go unchecked for decades, and that’s the most heartbreaking reason for this otherwise senseless war.

Perhaps the uncanniest thing about watching the war unfold from afar is its sheer quotability. It’s been a long time since I heard or read Ukrainian curses on a daily basis. Even though decades have passed since I studied the language, the curses, despite almost everything else dissolving, remain embedded in the linguistic and emotional parts of my brain. Every day now starts with the classic Пу́тін – хуйло́ [Putin is a dickhead] followed by countless variations of іди нахуй [go fuck yourself].

But more importantly, there are those two other phrases that I often hear and even more often think about: Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes! Слава Україні! Героям слава!

Writer and translator Frank Garrett has been doing this for so long that he has an undergraduate degree in Soviet studies. He has been a Fulbright scholar (2001 Poland), a FLAS fellow (2000 Ukraine), and an associate at the Summer Research Laboratory on Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (2003). He is essays and features editor for minor literature[s] and can be found @limmoraliste.