A Letter from Lviv: Courage in Ukraine and Beyond
Today marks three weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine on all fronts and a bit more than a month since I came from London to Lviv, the westernmost Ukrainian stronghold. At the start of the year, I was a special projects curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and a research fellow at the Birkbeck and Goldsmiths colleges of the University of London. Three months in, I have helped my Ukrainian parents evacuate from the east of the country to Germany and joined the civic response to the Russian war in my homeland.
I spent the eight years since Russia first invaded Ukraine panicking and frying my brain with the impossible logistics of saving everyone I loved from the inevitable further escalation. Accepting that I could not outsmart the fates and would not outlive my worst nightmares was surprisingly liberating. Like many western intelligence agencies, I realised that the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent at the start of the year. Unlike many western intelligence agencies, I acted on my insights. In February, I travelled to Lviv. Today, I remain in this city, which has become a haven for the internally displaced and would-be refugees.
While helping my friends, relatives, and complete strangers navigate their escape from under the Russian bombs, I have been confronted with the impossible choices of others. Was remaining in eastern Ukraine safe? Was the prospect of reaching Lviv worth spending days on the jammed roads which could be shelled at any moment? Was crossing the Polish border and venturing further into the unknown even reasonable? What I can give is not an answer but my hand. What I can promise is a temporary shelter in the city of the displaced.
From 2 am till 7 am, I lie in my bed listening to the longest-lasting siren since the day of the invasion. I feel protected by the thick walls of the nineteenth-century building where I’m renting a corner. The residents of Lviv call these buildings ‘Austrian’ in honour of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which once ruled over these lands. I am reminded of the Ukrainian cities to the east of the Dnieper, on the territories once colonised by the Russians, and of their no-frills apartment blocks made of concrete. These buildings are now being turned into dust; their Russian-speaking residents, slaughtered, tortured, or made to flee.
For two days, a retired couple whose testimony I translated for the French radio stood on their feet in a crowded evacuation train from Kharkiv to Lviv. While they were making the journey, their house was bombed. ‘Kharkov is our home’, they told the reporters using the city’s Russian name, ‘we will come back when the invaders are thrown out’. What the invaders did not account for is that with every act of destruction and violence, our love for our home, our land, and each other is growing ever more fierce. It won’t let us surrender.
On a regular night during wartime, I take some valerian pills and try to sleep. Then a news alert brightens my screen: there has been a massive explosion at one of the four Ukrainian nuclear power stations. My heart misses a beat. I sit in my bed. I realise I’ve been dreaming. I close my eyes only to be interrupted in half an hour by another alert: the governmental quarter in Kyiv has been erased by the Russians. My heart misses a beat. I wake up. Another nightmare. I take more valerian pills.
I haven’t really slept since it started. Or has it been one ongoing nightmare?
Rage at the invaders and pain for this country keep all of us awake at night. And if we manage to doze off for a couple of hours, we jump in our beds — be it in the bomb shelters of Kyiv, crowded rented apartments in the west of Ukraine, or guilt-infused bedrooms abroad — when the enemy fire hits places and people we love.
I come from Zaporizhzhia. Always so strange to the western ear, this name has become somewhat familiar since the Russian military shelled and then captured the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Since the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine in 2014, this scenario has haunted me. On 2nd March, I submitted my latest article about this threat to a British newspaper. That same night, I woke up with a start at the very moment the Russian military shelled the building of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. I knew what happened even before checking the news. I spent the rest of the night praying the way I never knew I could. Today, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is under the control of the Russian occupiers who had fired from tanks at the largest nuclear station in Europe.
My cousin is also in Zaporizhzhia. She is a restoration artist at the Museum of Zaporizhzhia Cossack History. The Zaporizhzhian Cossacks are the quintessential heroes of the Ukrainian past. Warriors who escaped serfdom, they established a semi-autonomous proto-state which existed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The museum where my cousin used to restore works of art is where the Zaporizhzhia Cossack Host used to be before its demolition by Catherine II of Russia.
This month, my cousin has spent night after night in the corridor next to the load-bearing wall, listening to the air raid sirens. She has refused to leave Zaporizhzhia. Recently, she has sent me a photograph with an assault rifle. An artist, a poet, a boho girl with bangles and braids, she looks anything but natural holding a weapon. I wish I could stand between her and anyone who would make her use it. I can’t. But Ukrainian allies worldwide can — by enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Having failed to crush the Ukrainian army on the ground, Russia is waging its war against the civilian population, targeting hospitals and museums, nurseries and objects of critical infrastructure — with rockets and 500-kg bombs. While the aim is to undermine the morale and break the resistance, what these attacks lead to is more boho girls, schoolteachers, and farmers taking up arms. Ukrainians have no choice but to fight for their lives whereas the west is choosing whether to supply us with the means of air defence we desperately need.
The fear of the Kremlin has crippled western deterrence and allowed the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. The fear of a direct confrontation with the Russian military is crippling Nato’s support of Ukraine and allowing the Russian military not only to slaughter Ukrainian population but to move towards the Europe proper, which Nato is obliged to defend. Russia has recently launched 30 rockets at the training base in Yavoriv, Lviv region, killing 35 and wounding 134 people. The distance from Yavoriv to the Polish border is about 20 km. The war is already at the European doorstep, while Russian nuclear terrorism renders meaningless the very concept of doors.
Watching our allies watch us fight for our freedom and theirs, I dare ask them to have courage. Or is this quality limited to one country, one nation, called to shield the world from the Russian aggression with the bodies of its civilians?
We would like to say a heartfelt thank you to Dr Sasha Dovzhyk for taking the time to write this piece. While we have left Sasha the freedom to express her wishes of a no-fly zone, we as a blog would like to acknowledge that we understand the complexity of military solutions as such. Our focus remains on the devastating human suffering and not the endorsement of any specific military action for which we do not have the expertise to engage in discussion or advocate. More discussion on such military action can be read here.
Inspire the Mind continues to be deeply saddened by and concerned about the terrible events in Ukraine and our thoughts and prayers are with the people affected. It is heartwarming to see the kindness and solidarity shown in these frightening times with campaigns such as the Emergency Appeal from a fellow KCL/IOPPN psychiatrist who will be delivering medical supplies to those in desperate need.