I spent a weekend in Vienna, filled with Ukrainian activities, including discussing "Ukraine and Universal Values" at the Institute for Human Sciences, and attending a reading of Ukrainian (and Russian and Belarusian) texts by Austrian actors at the Volkstheater.
I had never seen actors break down and weep on stage before. The moderator had to leave the stage to collect herself. And rather than inappropriate that seemed just right, even dignified, as if not to cry would have been not to acknowledge the weight of war and the need we have for words that can help us to feel it.
Vienna reminds me of Lviv, in western Ukraine. Its Habsburg cousin is now overflowing with internal refugees. In Vienna I thought of all the flights I have taken to Kyiv, flights that are no longer there, and of the easy train rides thence to Dnipro and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s great eastern cities, now under Russian bombs. These two cities are jewels of Russian-speaking civilization; but they are not Russian but Ukrainian cities, and so Putin must destroy them, for he has decreed that there is no Ukraine.
Of course there is a Ukraine, because Ukrainians are willing to live and die for it. Of course there is a Ukraine, because it is the Ukrainians who are consoling us, rather than the other way around. The whole weekend my Ukrainian friends were both informing me and comforting me. An acquaintance in Kyiv gives me a matter-of-fact description of her day at work. A colleague in Kharkiv tells me of the horror of the Russian bombing of the center of Ukraine’s second city, and then, without pathos, just descriptively, of the solidarity and activity of the local population… It is not that the good undoes the evil, but that we feel better when we know that others are acting, responding, not giving up.
It is just that they are keeping on, doing what needs to be done amidst the death and the destruction. That is what is comforting. Katja Petrowskaja, the author of Maybe Esther, caught this phenomenon in the text of hers read at the Volkstheater. “Amulet for the Ukrainian Resistance" ends with a mention of a video appeal that her mother, who is in Kyiv, made for Russians, which you will find if you follow the link; but the passage I have in mind is about reaching out from Germany to a friend in Kyiv, and it goes like this:
"When I hear the predictions of defeat, I call up my friend in Kyiv, I just say 'Sasha,' and she turns on the video, shows me her little boy, everyone is smiling. They know the predictions too, and it would be indecent of me to question their decision. They are the fortress, the stronghold, their mood is cheerful, they concentrate on what they are doing, they are working at peace and they comfort us when our strength and hope breaks."
Sitting in the dark in the theater my throat caught at those words. I heard a few quick sobs rise up all around me in the dark, right on that sentence, on the words "they comfort us"; and I knew that the people stifling them were the ones who call their friends in Kyiv, in Kharkiv, in Mykolaiv, in the other bombed Ukrainian cities, and who knew that it was true.
They are consoling us. Because Ukrainians are resisting, not just on the battlefield but as a society, they console us all. Every day they act is one when we can reflect, and hope. People do have values. The world is not empty. People do find courage. There are things worth taking risks for.