Documenting Ukraine Grants
When I crossed the border with Poland after volunteering in Ukraine during the first five weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion, I came across a warehouse-turned-refugee centre that reminded me of the central railway station in Lviv. Separate zones are allocated for the basic needs of displaced Ukrainians: food, shelter, health care, and transfer. Most new arrivals look lost––but Anya did not. Сonfident and collected, she came to the information desk to look for a ride to Kraków. She found me, heading in the same direction and with a spare seat in the car. On the journey west, she told me she was on her way from Mariupol. She had spent 21 days in the city under siege, melting snow to drink and cooking food over open fires under constant Russian bombardment. When she reached relative safety––the eastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia––she celebrated her survival with a new tattoo. Her left wrist was now decorated with the map of Ukraine and a little red anchor marking her proud port city of Mariupol on it.
Today, Mariupol is razed to the ground by the Russian army. My native city of Zaporizhzhia, albeit on the frontline, remains a symbol of safety for those who manage to escape the Russia-occupied territories in the south of Ukraine. The southern Ukrainian steppe, often referred to as the “Wild Fields,” is the frontier where the existential battle for the future of Europe is fought. Comprising the Donetsk, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Mykolaiv regions, now partially occupied by Russia, this space was integral to a succession of colonial visions: of the Russian Empire, of Nazi Germany, of the Soviet Union, and of the Russian Federation. However, this space and its people have always possessed a vision of their own destiny, firmly tied to the idea of freedom. The steppe was the heartland of Zaporizhzhian Cossacks, the forerunners of Ukrainian statehood. The very name Cossack means “free man.”
My proposed book of creative nonfiction essays, Wild Fields of Ukraine, will explore the past and present of this space through the testimonies of Ukrainians: those who remained to fight the Russian invasion and those who were forced to flee. The book will tell the stories of Ukrainian resistance I collected after moving from London to Ukraine in February 2022: of my family and friends, whose evacuations I coordinated; of strangers, whom I helped to shelter in safer areas of the country; of fellow citizens, like the girl with the Mariupol tattoo, who are now dispersed all over the continent.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has expanded far beyond the Wild Fields of my birth. And while the Russian army is firing missiles over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, the dangers of this war are no longer contained within the borders of Ukraine. The urgency for the rest of the world to learn the lessons of Ukrainian resistance is now existential. The stories of the Wild Fields are full of these lessons. My book will bring them closer to readers worldwide and, perhaps, make the south-eastern Ukrainian steppe a little less wild and a little more understood.