The Lives Transformed by War

Ukraine in Focus

Kyiv has come under heavy fire, and while half the population has left, two million people remain, working to defend their city and care for each other. The photographer Alexander Chekmenev captured striking portraits of twenty-eight of them, presented in a photo essay for the New York Times Magazine.  

From Odesa, Nataliya Gumenyuk writes for Rolling Stone of those who are staying to fight, be they construction workers, IT specialists or retirees, and those who are staying to offer both practical and moral support to the war effort, from chefs to artists. This includes Boris Khersonsky, a Ukrainian Jewish poet writing in Russian who was prominent in samizdat circles in the Soviet era. He tells Gumenyuk that “I am already intoxicated by freedom, I won’t succumb, and I didn’t do so even in the USSR.”  

While the residents of Odesa have been bracing themselves for weeks awaiting the predicted full-scale Russian attack, the Russian onslaught of the northern Ukrainian town of Okhtyrka left it a “flame-licked, smoke-choked, and rubble-strewn shadow of the place it once was,” as Gumenyuk writes for The Guardian. She spoke to those who had remained, documenting the atrocities committed by the Russian military, burying their family and friends, “looking past the debris of the present and towards a phoenix-like future for Okhtyrka.”  

Life has been transformed in western Ukraine as well, even if in less lethal ways. Jurko Prochasko describes "die neue Lemberger Normalität" in a wide-ranging conversation with FAZ (in German; with Katja Petrowskaja and Tanja Maljartschuk). Ukrainians from farther east have fled to Lviv and other cities, towns, and villages of western Ukraine, finding a safe haven while remaining fully aware that their place of refuge could itself become unsafe at any moment if the Russian assault expands westward. Prochasko is continuing his psychoanalytic practice, even if “proper analysis” is not possible: it requires free association, which the war has rendered an impossibility. Still, he says, asserting the desire and right to free associate is another way to fight against Russian aggression. 

In The New Yorker, Andrey Kurkov reflects on how the war will change the mental worlds of Ukrainians: “After the war, the ruins of dozens of cities and thousands of villages will remain; millions of homeless Ukrainians will remain. There will be bitterness and hatred. And, when the children play War, it will be this war. They will dig its bullets and grenade fragments out of the ground. And cars will be damaged by mines left near the roads. A war never ends on a specific date in a specific year. The war continues as people continue to die from their wounds, from its consequences.”  

Ukrainians’ mental worlds will surely be the most enduringly affected by Russia’s war of aggression, but the impact will not stop there. In The Financial Times, Maria Stepanova considers the imagery and allusions used by Vladimir Putin to justify a senseless war, and our obligation to see through and reject them: “Resisting today means freeing ourselves from the dictatorship of another’s imagination, from a picture of the world that grasps us from inside and takes hold of our dreams, our days, our timelines, whether we want it or not. A battle for survival is going on right now in Ukraine; a battle for the independence of one’s own rational mind. It is going on in every house and in every head.” 

The changes wrought by this war will affect societies profoundly. As Ivan Krastev observes in a recent Spiegel interview (in English; German here), “[W]e shouldn’t make the same mistakes as in 1989. Back then, we thought the East would change dramatically, but not the West. Now, Russia is going to change dramatically. But so will we.” 

Poland will certainly be changed, and already has been, by the unprecedented influx of Ukrainian refugees. The country has gone from one of the most homogeneous in Europe to offering shelter to the fourth-largest number of refugees in the world. The initial show of solidarity, the emergence of a new Polish Willkommenskultur, has been remarkable; as Karolina Wigura and Jarosław Kuisz argue in The Guardian, “this unprompted outpouring of compassion and empathy is primarily molded by geography and shared history.”  

Still, Polish civil society alone cannot cope with such numbers. And while the PiS government has been startlingly welcoming to Ukrainian refugees, this support hardly comes without strings attached, as Sławomir Sierakowski describes for Project Syndicate in his discussion of “Poland’s refugee crisis in waiting.” Sierakowski observes, “There are already signs that the EU and the US will come to terms with semi-authoritarian rule in Poland, accepting it as the price that must be paid for solidarity against Russia. In that case, Polish democracy will become yet another victim of the war.” 

Hard choices lay ahead – ones that must be approached with full awareness of the consequences of past choices. Serhii Zhadan writes for Der Spiegel (in German) of the West’s collective responsibility for the war, and the responsibility of the German-speaking world in particular, with its years of tolerating and tacitly accepting the falsehoods of Russian propaganda about “civil war” and “Ukrainian Nazis,” and its insistence on bargaining with the Kremlin. And it is not only Ukraine that Europe has failed with its inaction, he underscores: “Dear Europeans, make no mistake: this is not a local conflict that will be over by tomorrow. This is the third world war. And the civilized world has no right to lose it, if it considers itself civilized and independent.” 

Read: Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic Communication (whose deputy head is Mykola Balaban) offers daily roundups of the most important developments in the war. 

Listen: Timothy Snyder discusses the “myths that blinded the West to Putin’s plans” on the Ezra Klein Show 

Watch: At the latest Debating Europe at the Burgtheater, panelists including Serhii Plokhii and Dariusz Stola offered insights into the consequences of the war for Ukraine and Europe.