Why I can’t look away from Ukraine – Garden & Gun
In the spring of 2017, while passing through a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine, the car I was traveling in was waved on the shoulder of the gravel road past the burn barrels and sandbag locations . You may have recognized the waving men from movies about drug traffickers or terrorists. They wore the black masks with the eye and mouth holes cut out. They wore their Kalashnikovs slung over their hips. When one banged its barrel against my window, the sound was an incredibly dull thump.
I was in the back seat next to a photographer friend, my press cards hastily slid under the seat at the insistence of our driver. Up front was another friend, a professor of Russian studies who was living in Kiev at the time. He jumped out of the car and had the good sense to listen. Were they pro-Russian separatists or pro-Ukrainian militiamen? It was important. Luckily, my friend spoke both Russian and Ukrainian, and everything he said worked. A few minutes later, we passed the checkpoint. I reached under my seat to retrieve my now crumpled press credentials and leaning forward, paused for a moment to release the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. There I was, a Southern boy, who was once again far from home.
By this time, I had been making inroads into Eastern Europe for nearly fifteen years. My wife and I grew up in rural South Carolina, but in 2004 we were living something like a dream. I was teaching fiction writing at the College of Charleston while we lived in the third-floor apartment of a pre-war mansion on Limehouse Street alongside the original battery. We walked everywhere. I could barely imagine why we would leave town. But that year, I received both a writing scholarship and a scholarship for a playwriting program in Prague. We realized we could just go. My wife quit her job, I left my pickup in my parents’ garage and we flew to Berlin, where we continued our winding road south, then east, then east again. ‘East. At the request of a friend who had grown up in Košice, eastern Slovakia, we found ourselves deviating from the usual tourist route. Eventually we made it to Prague, but it was Eastern Europe that had sunk its hooks into us.
Looking back, I think it was because it reminded us so much of the rural South we both knew. Prague and Budapest may have been castles and cobblestones, but the villages of Eastern Europe were so much like small towns in the South. Big families got together for Sunday dinner, gossip, wacky aunts. Everyone your cousin. I remember the Romanian woman who refused to drive the right way on a one-way street. She put a finger to her very red cheeks and shook her head sadly. It was the other way around when she was a girl, and who in town was to change such a thing? I remember a giant meal in the house of our Slovak friend Maros’ parents, dish after dish, pushed by his doting mother – so much food that I almost fell asleep on the way home in our borrowed Skoda.
We kept going back and in 2014 we found ourselves living in Slovakia with our young children, next to Ukraine. At the time, I knew almost nothing about what was happening in this former Soviet possession. I vaguely knew that there had been a revolution that overthrew the pro-Russian government and that in the far east the Ukrainian army was at war with pro-Russian separatists. But that didn’t affect us. We went to Christmas markets in Poland and swam in the Adriatic. Our son lost his first teeth in a former communist resort in the Hungarian mountains, catching us off guard and he had to make do with a five euro note and some Croatian kuna.
But in the end, it got to us – how could it be otherwise? Eventually I became obsessed with what was happening in Ukraine and in 2017 I was finally able to travel first to Kyiv and then to the eastern regions. I immersed myself in this world and at the end of 2019, just before starting a stay in Romania, I published a novel about the war. Bird of Fire was a high-octane thriller, a beach read, but a beach read deeply rooted in what I had seen, heard, and felt.
Looking at the images from Ukraine now, I started to see everything again. The square in Sloviansk where I had seen a young boy and girl – brother and sister they must have been – holding hands so they could share a single pair of roller skates – I now saw grainy images of phones laptops of Russian soldiers. The market where the old women sold honey, jars of pressed sunflower oil and – because I assume that was all she had – a single boot – on CNN, this market appeared like rubble. A BBC reporter was standing outside the Kiev train station interviewing families waiting to board, and I remembered that I was standing exactly there, backpack slung over my shoulder.
I saw more too. I saw the young married couple that morning and afternoon holding guns, for the future they had imagined now had to be fought. I saw the kindergarten teacher with tears in her eyes and a gun in her hand. She barely looked at the camera and her voice was a whisper, but what she said was clear: “I just want to live in my country.” And then there was Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Jewish comedian turned Ukrainian president who, when offered a chance to flee the country, said, “I don’t need to be driven. I need ammunition.
There is something naive, something perhaps reprehensible in romanticizing the suffering of others. But it’s also something very human, and I find myself unable to look away. I tell myself that watching is a moral duty because what else can I do? Send some of my money and all my prayers. I did both. I texted and emailed, sat at my keyboard and cried. None of this seems enough.
It is probably impossible for us Americans to literally imagine defending our homes. You probably can’t imagine it. I know I can’t. Our public life is cynical, partisan and monetized. But if the kindness and determination not only of Ukrainians, but also of everyone I have met in Eastern Europe has taught me anything, it is that there is a different way to be in world, a kind of generosity and courage, and this morning, just this once, I did not pray for the people who were fighting in the streets of Kiev or huddled in the metro stations of Kharkiv. I prayed for us. I prayed to my God, just one day, just one hour, just one second, let us know what it’s like to be Ukrainian.
Mark Powell is the author of seven novels and directs the creative writing program at Appalachian State University. Her new novel, Lioness, comes out in April.