We cannot look away from Ukraine. From the images of war that feel, weirdly, like long ago and right now. And from the unbelievable courage that everyday Ukrainians—to say nothing of their president—are displaying.
Why do these people stay knowing what may come? What is daily life like in cities under siege like Kharkiv and Mariupol? What is the mood in Kyiv?
To answer these questions, we reached out to a member of Parliament, a brewer, a young translator, and more.
Here are their stories.
My Parents Are Trapped. I’m a Member of Parliament And I Can’t Save Them.
By Dmytro Gurin
I last spoke to my parents three days ago. They’re in Mariupol, without heat, or electricity, or water. There is basically no cell service there, and their phones are dead, but I was able to connect with them through a neighbor who had some phone battery left.
When I spoke to them, I learned that, in addition to her high blood pressure, my mother has a bacterial infection that she isn’t able to get antibiotics for. My father narrowly escaped artillery fire when he went to investigate the so-called green corridor, where civilians are supposed to be able to get out safely but instead are being shot at by Russians. They carpet bombed the meeting points, too. I was only able to talk to my parents for 30 seconds. I gave them instructions for what to do if they are able to escape from the siege and an address of a safe house in Lviv, where there are people waiting for them. I told them that I love them, that I am waiting for them, and that everything will be okay.
The day before yesterday, the same neighbor informed me that they are still alive. Yesterday, I was told that their building, which has 240 apartments, was hit by Russian artillery, but that no one died since everyone was huddled in the basement. They’ve been there for several days. It’s more or less safe, and it’s easier to stay alive in a group. But it’s cold, and about to get colder. The temperatures there are supposed to drop to -7 degrees Celsius soon. I don’t know how my parents are keeping warm, or what they’re eating.
As for me, I’m a member of parliament, and I’ve been told that I'm on the Kremlin’s kill list, along with some of my friends and colleagues. I’m working all day and night, and constantly worrying about my mom and dad. All of us—MPs, the president, the cabinet of ministers—remain in Ukraine (that’s all we can say) and are not planning to flee because, despite all the odds, we believe that we can win this war.
Almost every building in the eastern district of Mariupol, on the left bank of the Kalmius River, has been bombed, including the home where I grew up and the school that I attended. When I see images of the destruction of Mariupol, I think, first, about my parents, and then I become enraged. I want the Russian army dead, and their children, and their parents—their entire families. I know this sounds cruel, but they came here to kill mine.
I’m finally getting my driver’s license and I’m learning how to operate the machine gun I was given by the municipality on February 24, which I believe will soon be understood as the day that World War III began. I don’t think Putin will stop, and I believe that he will use tactical nuclear weapons to frighten us, and to frighten civilized society. So, to those of you in the West: What will you do when that happens? Are you going to join the fight? Are you willing to support a no-fly zone? Or are you just going to continue being “deeply concerned”?
Dmytro Gurin is a member of Ukraine’s Parliament.
I Hate Fascism. So I Flew to Kishinev.
By Cole S. Aronson
I hate fascism and I want to help Jews and I was tired of reading the news. So last Thursday I asked a neighbor in Jerusalem to get me to eastern Europe to do something. This morning, after a dozen hours of travel and a quarter as much sleep, I handed out candies to Ukrainian toddlers and coffee to their parents in the main synagogue in Kishinev, Moldova.
It’s hectic here. Hundreds of people in cheap hotels, tents, strangers’ homes, sofas, chairs. The synagogue is never still. I shout and am shouted at in four languages, only two of which I understand. But what’s needed in Kishinev is prosaic. A suitcase shlepped, a bowl of borscht served, a government form completed, a shot administered. The bullets and bombs are far to the north, and these refugees are safe and calmer on average than Columbia students during exam period.
Time is messing with me. I was sure Jews escaping from militant psychopaths had finished speaking Russian decades ago. Now Kishinev welcomes Jewish refugees fleeing Putin’s bombs, but in 1903 the place I now stand was the city of slaughter—49 Jews murdered, the others victims of horrific violence. The latest unanswerable argument in favor of the Jewish state is the fact that the refugees all around me in Kishinev will not wander permanently, but will get to make new lives in a land consecrated to becoming their home.
They’re almost there. In the meantime they’ll soldier on powered by hope, cigarettes, and each other—examples to a West every year less grateful for its blessings and proud of its achievements.
Cole S. Aronson studies Judaism and philosophy in Jerusalem.
It’s Freezing in Kharkiv And There Is Nothing to Eat
By Maria Avdeeva
Nine nights ago I dragged my mattress into the hallway to sleep. I’m betting that if there is an airstrike on my apartment building in Kharkiv the two thick internal walls might protect me from the broken glass and shrapnel outside. I could go to the shelters—there’s a nearby subway station from the Soviet era equipped to protect civilians from a nuclear blast— but they’re freezing, and there’s nothing to eat so for now I’m staying at home.
When I wake up, I start scrolling on my phone, checking the news apps and social media to see what and where the damage is as a result of the explosions I’d heard the night before. Then I go out and take pictures videos of the bombed-out streets and schools to try and combat Russian disinformation that says we are being “liberated” or “de-nazified” or whatever. I want to show what’s really happening on the ground.
I’m an expert on Russia, and I saw the huge wave of disinformation that was put out as a pretext for this war, but I’m still shocked by the scale of it, and that Putin is shelling cities.
The most shocking part is to see the city center in ruins. It survived World War II, the Nazi occupation. And now it has been destroyed by the nation that speaks the same language as us (Kharkiv is mostly Russian speaking, and we’re only about 40 kilometers from the Russian border).
The night it was hit, on March 2, the sounds of the jets flying low, and the mechanics of their rocket system were terrifying. I hid in my hallway until the blasts abated, and I was able to look out the window. I saw the fire and smoke less than two kilometers away.
The center used to be filled with people all day and night. It was lively, there were crowds of international students, and overflowing cafes. Now, it is empty—all of the streets are—and there is rubble all around. Since most of our men are fighting, municipal services have been forgotten. About 1.5 million lived in this city but 600,000 have fled, including my parents who I was able to send west.
If I’m lucky, I can pick up some food in the late afternoon after I spend the day documenting the damage, but today the line was two hours long to get into the grocery store. I’ll make do with what I have.
Despite what my life has become, I’m actually optimistic about our future. I don’t think this war will end soon, but do I think Ukrainians will be able to continue to control the situation on the ground. We will push and push until we win. For now, I’m getting used to sleeping through the air raids.
Maria Avdeeva is a researcher and expert on disinformation. Follow her @maria_avdv.
‘We Will Stand With Our Hands to the Tanks’
By Roman Sigov
A few days ago I said goodbye to my mother and my sister, who drove westward, away from Kyiv, the city where I was born and where my family has been for over a century. There wasn’t much to say because the stakes were so clear. All I can hope for is that I will meet them again.
For a little over a week, we had all been staying in the nearby village of Khotyanivka, at my uncle’s home, including with my 93-year-old grandmother. From the window there, I saw Russian helicopters and planes releasing rockets. We slept in the basement and watched the news on our phones.
When a group of French journalists contacted me because they needed a translator and a fixer—I’m a sociologist by training and I speak English, French, Italian, German, Russian and, of course, Ukrainian—I decided to come back to my city to help them.
Once I got back to Kyiv I saw that there were almost no people on the streets. Theaters, restaurants, and most stores are closed. There’s huge queues for medicine, since only publicly-owned pharmacies are open. All life here has been reoriented to helping our army and helping the country in any way we can. Taxis are hard to get, so many of my friends are driving newly-displaced people around to train stations and shelters, or delivering them food and medicine. Others are signing up for the volunteer groups that are manning the checkpoints and learning to use weapons to defend our city.
No one knows how long the war will last. It might get worse for us, but in a way Russia has already lost. Putin might be able to destroy cities, but in order to control us, people need to accept your power and authority. Unlike the Russian people, we’re used to our freedom and we’re not going to give it up. We will stand with our hands to the tanks if it comes to it.
Roman Sigov, 25 years old, is a translator in Kyiv.
Brewing ‘Victory Beer’ in Lviv
By Nancy Rommelmann
I came to Lviv to tell the stories of people in a western Ukrainian city in time of war. Taras Maselko is the public relations director for Fest Republic, an arts complex outside of Lviv. He spoke to me Tuesday about Fest Republic’s efforts since February 24 to combat Russian aggression and why he is not leaving Ukraine.
We are doing our best to help support our army and stop the war and keep the Russians, who are killing civilians left and right, out of our cities. We are preparing food for women and children. We are printing T-shirts—we have a shirt that says Fight Like Ukrainians—and we send all the proceeds to the national bank account for the local Ukrainian army. We also have a brewery here. For a time, we stopped brewing beer and only brewed Molotov cocktails. But on Tuesday, we started on a "Victory Brew” beer. Craft beer typically needs to stand for two weeks in the tanks. We hope in two weeks there will be a victory, and we have shared the recipe with brewers around the world who are brewing for Ukraine.
It doesn't matter if you're a police officer or a government worker or a media fixer or the guy who brews beer. Everyone stands for Ukraine. Everybody stands here to defend our families, to defend our kids, to defend our cities and our country. Whatever we will think about ourselves, our needs—“I want to have a warm bath,” or “I want to go away for the holiday”—that is not part of our identity now. Or maybe it’s more correct to say: That shouldn’t be part of our identity now. That is not bringing us closer together, to each other, to our community, to our country. If you think like, This is my house, my city, my country, and I’m going to leave it, abandon it, then you are not a patriot. That is not an option.
Nancy Rommelman is a co-founder and editor of Paloma Media.
The Road Back to Odessa
By Vladislav Davidzon
My wife said that she was evacuating the women and the children in her family out of Odessa to Romania and onto France. The women in her family do not have biometric passports, so they would need documents to get into France from the French Embassy in Bucharest. But that’s not so easy. Someone needs to take them and talk with the embassy officials and make sure they get to safety.
I said, of course, I will go take my relatives, my in-laws, to Bucharest and get them onto a plane with the French residency permits and the French documents. I took a car over the border, and I had the full refugee situation—standing in line for half a day, crossing the border, snow on my head, watching women and children weeping, getting to the other side, seeing refugee tents. I saw almost no men. They can’t cross the border because they’re almost all under conscription.
The Red Cross gave me shawarma. I said I wasn’t a refugee, and they said, but you need to eat, and I said, but I’m not a refugee, but they insisted, so finally, I had the shawarma. Do you know—it was the best shawarma I’ve ever had?
I am absolutely not fleeing. Tomorrow morning, I’m going back. Odessa is my city. It is a city of light and a city of cosmopolitan freedom that Putin wants to fight. It is a city of many kinds of people—multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious, very tolerant, charming, full of dash and intelligence and moral vigor and pith. It is the most chic city in Ukraine, probably one of the most chic cities in Europe. It is a city of glamor and a city of resistance and a city of learning.
I will not be able to live with myself if my friends are getting bombed there. I will not be able to live with myself if I know that these beautiful cobblestone streets, and our beautiful opera house, are going to be blown up by these Russian bombs. I won’t be able to live with myself knowing that I could have been there and born witness and put my body on the line while this remarkable city was on the line. This is the battleground of liberalism and democracy against autocracy and illiberalism. I am returning to Odessa because this is the city where the struggle against the failure of the West will take place. I am returning because this is a historical moment. There is no way I could live with myself without having done so.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet Magazine’s European culture critic and the author of “From Odessa With Love.”