Correspondence between friends: USA/Germany
On the Situation of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
Translated from the German by Kizer Walker
I send my friend that video, the one in which Vasilyevna Petrovskaya speaks. She is the mother of Russian-German writer Katja Petrovskaya, who wrote the book Vielleicht Esther [Maybe Esther, translated by Shelley Frisch, https://www.harpercollins.com/products/maybe-esther-katja-petrowskaja?variant=32205637353506 ] in 2014. A woman whose white hair moves a little in the breeze outside, where she has leaned her walking stick against a stone wall. Vielleicht Esther concerns the buried story of “Babushka,” her father’s mother who, in 1941, stayed behind in Kyiv alone, in the apartment that all the other members of the family had fled. She spoke Yiddish—a broken family mosaic.
My friend has seen the video. She and her kids listened to Petrovskaya say that, as a history teacher and a laureate of the Order of the Smile, she has the right to speak. In particular, she speaks to her colleagues, to Russian historians, to Russian women. She addresses all age groups and all nationalities. She appeals to the responsibility of historians to contribute to enlightenment. And she says that Russian troops have come to destroy, come to destroy freedom and to destroy the fact that Ukrainians have built independence and democracy. And then she says: “We have a lot of problems, but we will solve them ourselves. We do not need Russian troops here.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtrH-xrfXkI&t=3s)
My friend writes:
Vasilyevna Petrovskaya’s message—and her messaging—are amazing. I hope her words somehow land where intended. It’s been a complicated set of emotions for me (mostly anger and upset) since this war began. It’s hard to think about anything else. Most of my reaction is to the simple facts on the ground right now—what that violent madman Putin is doing, and the mass suffering going on.
But history is also swirling around in my head, inflected by family history. We’re 100% from Ukraine (of course things did not end well for any family members that did not emigrate—those who survived the pogroms did not survive the Nazis and collaborators among the Ukrainians). It’s incredible, the democratic society Ukrainians have been in the process of building, after such terrible historical chapters… and now this destruction. Who knows if there will be any possibility to rebuild.
And then the role of oil and gas in Putin’s war machine. Have you seen some of the public letters about that? The organization I work for signed this one:
I was up all night during the takeover of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Supposedly the Russians are on their way to a 3rd nuclear site now.
Today again Bebelplatz in Berlin—demonstrating—incoming refugees at central train station and central bus station…
it looks like Putin is repeating the Grosny action—and Mr Bennett obviously is familiar with such a kind of war as well, looking at the Gaza war. I have no idea. It looks like whenever anyone owns a weapon, a rocket, whatever: it will be used.
For a moment I thought of the peaceful resistance concept, but how can you show your peacefulness to drones and rockets… they reach the target although the soldier is drinking coffee at the time. I nearly do not dare to talk to Ukrainian and Kazakh friends or Belarussian friends—I have in fact nothing to say. I know, I see, I watch, I see them dying, I see them being incarcerated, I admire them, we admire them and they disappear—they might come back as ghosts in forty years. Where are the voices of religious leaders —— I have nothing to say. I thought of Prague in 1968. I thought of Berlin in 1953. I thought of the Hungarian uprising. All these people were betrayed in the end, left alone and by themselves, ready for the years in prison. Some prominent figures were brought outside the country by diplomatic means —— most of them remained. Or: 40 million would go to exile, leaving an empty bucket which was once their country. Who owns what – who owns me – who owned me —— the Ukrainians already had been the poor, working in the EU, in Poland and elsewhere. If wheat and corn supplies become short, the African continent also will have another period of hunger. And I might go tomorrow when my neck pain gets less, will go to the central bus station and offer some tea to the tired Polish bus drivers.
My friend writes:
Even considering my very different vantage point (not being in Europe, not being involved in the things you are involved in, not knowing the people you know), you have captured so many of my thoughts of the past week: the way I found myself questioning the role nonviolent resistance could play (though I see the fantastic images of unarmed residents standing down Russian troops in some towns, the brilliantly altered road signs to confuse the invaders), anger with Israel (its own violence, plus its hosting of Roman Abramovich, plus the questionable relationship with Putin), the missing voices of religious leaders, the fate of the wheat and barley crops, and the sad prospect of the “empty bucket,” which will also be a vastly contaminated and horrible graveyard.
On the drones, I read a remarkable book a couple years ago by Catherine Taylor. Her brother was a drone operator (drinking his coffee…): You, Me, and the Violence, “a book on drones, power, and feelings of powerlessness.” (https://ohiostatepress.org/books/titles/9780814254325.html)
P.S.: A fascinating thing is going on here: Of the many American Jews that descended from the millions of immigrants from the Pale of Settlement (much of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, east-central Poland) some don’t really know what it was all about, and how it relates to their own (ethnic? national?) identity. (“Wait, am I actually Ukrainian?!”) The war seems to be releasing an impulse to figure this out. A kind of reckoning is going on. (And we’re not alone: a non-Jewish Ukrainian-American friend I’ve known for a decade took the time during her wartime distress to spontaneously apologize to me for the crimes of those Ukrainians who were on the wrong side of history in the 19thand 20th centuries.) What I’ve been seeing over these past couple of weeks, as this horrific onslaught is going on, are American Jews, with our difficult roots in the Pale, coming forward with an outpouring of solidarity with contemporary Ukrainians and the society they’ve tried to build.
ZOB Berlin – the central bus station – the group of Polish-speaking volunteers have signed in for the night. Right away they are talking with the bus drivers. Chocolate, stuffed toys, SIM cards – someone comes with a box of fancy soaps in hand and wants to donate them. Inside, in the tiny waiting room: an eleven-year-old boy kneels on a small play mat and gathers up matching Lego pieces, next to him boxes with personal hygiene items and a clothes rack with warm things … In Frankfurt am Main, a woman who has been in transit with her two-year-old for the past six days say she hopes her husband can follow – in a couple of months, she says, then she says in a year. I say nothing.