Ukrainian soldier rescuing a tiny baby from the devastation caused
by Russian shelling near Irpin in Kyiv oblast | Photo: Timothy Fadek, CNN

Author’s Note: I’m thankful to Askold Melnyczuk whose words made me want to write in the midst of this war in Ukraine. I’m also grateful to Askold for editing my prose, so that my voice could reach the English reader.

What use was literature if it didn’t move people to action?
—Askold Melnyczuk, Ambassador of the Dead

March 5, 2022 

The week the war began I tasked myself with finishing one more chapter of my book about the infamous Ukrainian émigré writer Yurii Kosach. Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve been working mostly at home for going on two years. This time, I needed a change. “Tomorrow, let’s go to the café and work there,” I said to my husband. We looked forward to enjoying our second cup of morning coffee in the cafe down the street while we worked.

It never happened.

On Thursday, at around 5 am, we were thrown out of our beds by an explosion uncomfortably close to our fifteen story apartment building in a suburb outside Kyiv. Car sirens all over town joined in the choir. The walls trembled. So did my hands. My heart pounded. Since then my blood has been replaced by adrenalin.

“So it’s really begun,” I thought. Still, part of me doubted my own senses. No, not possible. Automatically, I grabbed my phone and scrolled furiously through the news feed: Heavy loud explosions all over Ukraine, from west to east, from north to south. I called my parents—they were hearing the explosions too.

Without the slightest provocation, Russians attacked Ukraine’s peacefully sleeping cities. After weeks of denying that it had any plans to invade, Russia’s arrival was abrupt, mean and cruel.

The first nights of the war I could not sleep at all. The first time I was able to close my eyes was when we were in the car, fleeing Kyiv—but not for long: the sounds of shelling followed us.

Now I’m in a place where missiles haven’t begun falling yet, but I keep hearing them in my head. I listen to silence and I don’t trust it, especially once night descends.

Researching my book I’ve studied many aspects of WWII and the post-war period. After all, my subject survived WWII, Displaced Persons camps, and emigration. I never expected that my research would have such practical applications. At least, not this soon. All these things I’ve studied in the stalls and nooks of libraries from Lviv to Kyiv to New York to Boston, all these theories about WWII have, overnight, become blueprints for a possible future. What I’ve read in books I will now see with my own eyes: explosions, cities ruined, innocent civilians (including children) slaughtered, civilians terrorized, people living for prolonged periods in shelters without the most rudimentary human consolations, under constant threat from bombs; later, the influx of humanitarian aid, and the launching of the grueling process of rescuing people from the ruins of their former homes, to be followed by mass evacuations, and, maybe hardest of all, the inevitable crossing of the border.

Again, in Ukraine, in 2022.

“Never again” has become a rhetorical flourish in countless self-serving speeches, a catch phrase uttered with about as much sincerity as the knee-jerk “Have a nice day.”

The world watches as Russians terrorize, rape, and slaughter Ukrainian civilians; again the world is treated to the spectacle of people living in shelters, of bombed and ruined Ukrainian cities, towns, villages. Dead bodies in the streets. Again.

Russian devastation of apartment blocks in Chernihiv on 4.03.2022
Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP

People don’t really want to see war, not the real thing. It makes them uncomfortable. And I understand that. People would prefer to call what is happening in Ukraine “crisis” or “conflict,” effectively neutralizing the violence and horror of a reality that’s being endured minute by minute by millions.

No, dear world, not this time. This is not a conflict or a crisis. This is war. But the word is too weak to describe what is happening on the ground. Having failed to capture Kyiv or any major city or achieve any of their primary military objectives after the first days of war, the Russians have now pivoted to targeting unarmed civilians, shelling residential areas, hospitals, schools, universities, administrative buildings, centers of humanitarian aid, kindergartens.

Russians use barrel bombs and vacuum bombs (the most powerful non-nuclear weapons around) against the Ukrainian civilians. These are actual WMDs: real weapons, threatening real mass destruction. This isn’t simply an invasion of Ukraine by Russia, this is the GENOCIDE of the Ukrainian people by Russia under the full gaze of the world.

The backstory to Ukraine-Russia relations is hardly news.

Russia has succeeded in multiple mass killings of Ukrainians throughout the course of the 20th-21st centuries. This includes the Holodomor, also known as the Great Famine of the thirties, in which some four million Ukrainian peasants were deliberately starved to death; Stalin’s Great Terror and the wholesale execution of the upper ranks of Ukrainian intelligentsia, writers, and artists in 1937 in the Sandarmokh; the millions of losses in WWII; thousands more imprisoned in the Gulag; additional thousands forced into compulsory psychiatric treatment centers for merely for holding an opposing opinion. Add to that, the Chornobyl disaster of 1986.

Who is responsible for all these mass killings of Ukrainians in the 20th century?

Russia never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, never condemned the crimes of the Communist era. Instead it nurtures hothouse fantasies of the restoration of the USSR, and along with that a reclaiming of its faded glory and imperial might.

Ukraine has already paid unbelievably high price for being a part of the “Russian world.”

This war is not about relations between Ukraine and Russia only. Today Ukraine is a shield against a bloody barbarism seething to burst out into the wider world, watching and waiting and hoping that no one rises up to protect Ukraine, because, if no one tries to stop it now, that means the entire world is in play. Russia’s leader has finally lost his grip on reality. His enemy today is not Ukraine but the West, followed by the rest of the world. Tripping down memory lane, Putin revels in Cold War rhetoric, right down to threatening us with nuclear weapons.

Today in Ukraine Putin is testing how far he can go, seeing what he can get away with. If we don’t stop this evil in Ukraine, who knows what country might be the next? His imperial ambitions will never be sated.

Today the face of evil wears the mask of indifference. What does this have to do with me? is the defensive pose some might choose to take. But make no mistake: indifference means complicity with mass slaughter.

In 2014 the world was silent as hundreds of protestors, huddled for warmth in Kyiv’s Independence Square, were shot during the Revolution of Dignity (Euromaidan). The world did nothing when Crimea was annexed. The world was silent when the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Donbas was launched by Russia in 2014 (with over 14,000 Ukrainian military and civilians dead thus far). But I repeat: This is not only about Ukraine. The world did nothing when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was hit by a Russian-made Buk missile in July 2014, incinerating 298 passengers and crew members. The Buk was fired from a territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists in Donbas. And the world was silent.

People’s indifference, their claims of helplessness, their silence about the unfolding war crimes only legitimizes, encourages, and multiplies the unfolding evil.

For ten days now I’ve been seeing horrifying pictures of this unprovoked war erupting across Ukraine. I too have felt desperate and helpless. The “survivor complex” about which I’d read so much is no longer a theoretical notion. It’s now firmly embedded in the psychological landscape of the average Ukrainians today: that haunting guilt that you’re not hearing the bombs exploding around the friends, family and colleagues you’ve left behind. That gnawing guilt that you could do still more to force the enemy from your homeland. That tragic sense of guilt for all you failed to do for those who have died, whose tomorrows will never dawn.

I also think about the Heroes who risk their lives for my Ukraine and my people now. It’s thanks to them there’s hope that the true meaning of the words “Never again” might regain their luster. But the world has to react and act now so that the bombs at last leave off waking up any more civilians.

Olha Poliukhovych

Dr. Olha Poliukhovych is an associate professor at the Department of Literature of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. She is a co-founder and managing editor of the Kyiv-Mohyla Humanities Journal. In 2017–2018 she was a Fulbright Fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University. In 2020 she co-founded the NGO New Ukrainian Academic Community (Kyiv).

Share This