Poets and Pirates of Free Love – Lviv before Russia invaded Ukraine


What happens in Ukraine will not stay in Ukraine. While this may look like an isolated regional conflict, it is ultimately a global conflict.

Well, the old cliché that everyone is only six degrees apart from everyone else, it came to life for me this week. Stay with me for a second as I explain this. On Tuesday, I received a call from a Lebanese friend in Abu Dhabi. My friend’s brother is married to a Ukrainian and lived in Kharkiv, until Russian bombings prevented him from staying there, so he, his wife and teenage daughter fled and headed for the border. Can I help, did I know anyone in Poland?

I contacted a mutual friend who is Brazilian but lives in Stockholm, and had been to Warsaw where he has an office. There he met another friend – a Russian – who travels between Warsaw and Moscow for work. Together they decided to go to the border with Ukraine to wait for the brother, wife and daughter of our mutual friend. For example, a call to an American by a Lebanese woman living in the Middle East led to a Ukrainian family being cared for by a Brazilian and a Russian living in Poland. This would all sound like a joke setup, if it weren’t so true.

I spent time in Ukraine in 2013, traveling to the western city of Lviv on a Fulbright scholarship. My job was to lecture on American literature and how to use soft power – book publishing – to build cultural pride and fight misinformation. I got to know a city that had brought together many different cultures for centuries, an often painful history that also gave it a sophistication. Instead of asserting its place in the world of letters, however, Lviv is now a focal point in a real world war, one between Russia and the world.

Look no further than the groups of Nigerian and Indian students trapped in Ukraine by the fighting. These black and brown students were apparently abandoned and given low priority for evacuation, leading to accusations of racism. (In this way, we see some of America’s problems thrown back to us around the world.)

Then there’s the news that the Pentagon believes Russia is recruiting urban-fighting Syrians to fight and numerous reports of soldiers traveling to fight for Ukraine from the UK, Canada (which has the second largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world), the United States, and even as far as Japan and Jamaica.

Now the White House says there is a real possibility that Russia will deploy chemical or biological weapons. Putin also has an arsenal of so-called tactical nuclear weapons that operate in such a way that the ultimate payoff from their use literally depends on how the wind blows. The use of any type of nuclear weapon would have an immediate impact on neighboring countries, including Poland, Moldova and Belarus, as well as the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and most likely Sweden and Finland too. Chernobyl (we’ve all seen the HBO series) was bad, it has the potential to be much worse and could easily affect over 100 million people in Europe and tens of millions more in western Russia.

What happens in Ukraine literally cannot stay in Ukraine. It was never okay. After all, this war technically went international in 2014 in the Donbass region when a Russian-supplied missile shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The attack killed 298 people, the majority from the Netherlands, but also from Australia and Malaysia.

before the invasions

Lviv is – and I hope it will continue to be – a charming city. It is the cultural capital of Ukraine and was once the easternmost outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is why its architecture echoes that of Vienna. The great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who taught at the University of Houston, was born in Lviv in 1945 and his family had to flee. The city passed into the hands of the Poles, Germans and Russians before the end of the Second World War. The city is known for its cafes, where you can enjoy superb coffee and cakes, and its Baroque churches, which are among the most spectacular and magnificent in Europe.

It is also currently home to some 200,000 Ukrainian refugees and, at least so far, has not been bombed.

While in Lviv, I gave lectures, but I did much more: I recited Beat poetry on national television against the backdrop of sculptures of molten figures inspired by the reactor disaster. of Chernobyl; I befriended a Belarusian research scientist who studied the athletic biomechanics of Russian Spetsnaz special forces soldiers; I was invited to join a utopian tech community for hippie, vegan, nudist, and free-loving hackers in “the woods”; I dined at a local politician’s whose dining room featured a life-size painting of his statuesque daughter posing with a horse and whose teenage son insisted on showing me his collection of World War II memorabilia, which included a helmet SS with a bullet hole in it. Perhaps, most memorably, I was asked if the internet was a CIA mind control device.

I met famous Ukrainian writers, like Andrey Kurkov, who writes in Russian and whose latest book “Grey Bees” deals with the war in the Donbass and was published by Deep Vellum Books of Dallas. I was tricked into putting my hand in the pocket of the statue of writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch who wrote the novel “Venus in Furs” (which gave us the concept of masochism). I found one very surprised NSFW.

I can’t help but think of these people often and pray that they’re still alive as I watch the images of the war and the resulting refugee crisis play on CNN, that I can’t not to turn off. I know this place, these people — not well — but I feel connected to them. I had planned to return to Lviv in 2014 to continue my work, but the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the start of the war in the Donbass region put an end to it. Still, I kept in touch with my publishing and media friends and reported news from the area. They kept reminding me that Ukraine was at war – primarily a war of words, but also on the border – with Russia.

Watch out for the bear

I’ve spent as much free time as possible in my daily work reaching out to people I know, offering to spread their message – whether that’s simply asking for help or helping them articulate and spread their outrage at this senseless and ruthless war. This has led to nasty exchanges, much of it on social media, between people, friends and colleagues – in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere in the world – whose day-to-day publishing jobs require them to be otherwise. Reasoned and Rational, Educated and Uplifting, Collaborative and Creative.

I try to mediate, but everyone has a reason to be wronged: my Ukrainian friends are asking for help and calling for a boycott of everything Russian. My Russian friends say they don’t support the war in any way and are being unfairly punished for something Putin – an evil anomaly of history – did in their name, without their consent.

I write messages on Facebook, I call on WhatsApp and I send e-mails. Sometimes I get a response or even a phone call over the internet. It’s kind of amazing that I can still come into contact with people in a war zone, with the sound of air raid sirens in the background, and can’t get my eighth grader to respond on his cell phone.

Watching the progress of the war on TV, I feel powerless to do more. Surely I could, but what? Send money, quit my job and travel the world to fight? I’m not a soldier, just a journalist, and I hope my work will help me get closer to the truth about what’s going on. After all, the lies persist: A church-going friend of mine told me her pastor was praising the war, telling her congregation that Russia attacked Ukraine to free Hunter Biden’s sex slaves.

My thoughts keep coming back to some of the most vulnerable people I know there. One person I worry about in particular is my caretaker and translator from my trip to Lviv in 2013.

Olha, a woman of indeterminate age, wore an ill-fitting wig and drove a Lada. She was assigned to me by the United States Embassy and took her eighty-year-old mother with her everywhere in her babushka. Come to think of it, it was actually Grandma who put her hand in von Sacher-Masoch’s trouser pocket. Olha bragged about how many “books of blood” – her euphemism for crime novels – she was able to hack off the internet. Olha’s mother, who had survived World War II, liked to boss me around. His favorite instruction was “Get in Lada”. Her second favorite was the “Beware of bear” warning, which she said every time I got in the car. Lviv is surrounded by forests and apparently there is a real risk of bears randomly jumping on the roads and destroying your car. But she was saying this even as we walked through the cobbled streets of Lviv itself.

When I think of them now, what comes to mind is the thought of Olha driving down narrow, congested roads in his rickety Lada, friends and family taking the extra seats, heading towards the frontier. Her mother, now 90, wedged behind her back between two family members, giving the same instruction, now recited as a prayer or a talisman to keep the monsters at bay. Some are literal and have hair and teeth and some are figurative and have high-precision weapons that target maternities and hospitals and indiscriminately bombard “humanitarian corridors” and columns of panicked, fleeing civilians.

Beware the bear, beware the bear, beware the bear…

Nawotka is a Houston-based writer and the international bookseller and publisher of Publishers Weekly.

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