IN EARLY MARCH, ten days after Vladimir Putin sent his army into Ukraine to begin a mass slaughter, I got a message on an encrypted application from my friend Inessa in Moscow. We had known each other for nearly thirty years. But it had been seven years since we last spoke.
By then Inessa and I both knew that Putin’s anticipated blitzkrieg had failed: Kyiv had not fallen in three days. But the slaughter continued. It was a rare historical moment in its absence of ambiguity—an unprovoked invasion, for nothing. We were watching it all, live-streamed on the internet. Or rather, I was watching it all. Information in Russia was censored. Yet it was impossible that Inessa, so well educated, would not—did not—know.
“I had thought that the very worst in my life had already happened—I lost my parents,” Inessa wrote. “I could not have imagined something like this.…”
Then a second message: “I am afraid that in Russia a civil war is about to begin, and then—terror.”
I AM NOT A NEUTRAL OBSERVER of this war—I have been living it from afar, through my friends who are in it. My attachment to Ukraine has its origins neither in Ukraine nor in Russia, nor in America, but rather in a provincial part of the Czech Republic, where I arrived some twenty-eight years ago, during the last days of summer in 1994, to work as an English teacher. I was the only American in a small town with a market square freshly painted in shades of lime and tangerine, and I wanted to be liked. The people in the town, by and large, did not like me.
Other women my age were very much liked. Milena worked at a vaguely Italian café that served pizza and wine. The café was young and bright, like Milena, and other young, bright people gathered there. When the café was not busy, she would open her shopping bag from behind the bar and show her girlfriends her new purchases: black stockings, auburn hair dye, violet nail polish. In sparkling eye shadow, heavy mascara, tight jeans, and the clingy tops of a dancer, Milena always looked beautiful, and at home. She seemed content to mix drinks, happy to be in the world that could be touched like the spoon she twirled between her fingers.
I was jealous of Milena and her ability to enjoy the present moment. Men admired her. No one harassed her. Of course, she had a boyfriend to protect her. I was nearly always by myself. My own makeup was not so heavy, my clothes not quite so revealing, my brown hair undyed. Even so, men called to me, taunted me, followed me around the painted square, as if it were understood that this was okay, that the usual rules did not apply to foreigners. I was unprotected by social conventions. The other women in the town saw everything, but none reached out a hand.
Except Galina, a Ukrainian woman about fifteen years older than I was, who taught at the school with me. She did reach out—one of those moments that alters the arc of one’s life. She made tea, translated for me, told me who in the town had good will, if misplaced, and who could not be trusted. Today, near thirty years later, as a historian of Eastern Europe, as I find myself unable to turn away from a country turning to embers in a ghastly war, I understand that my connection to Ukraine came into being through this unexpected friendship, against the backdrop of those men and their catcalls. Perhaps it was natural that we, two English teachers, the only two foreigners working at this school, were drawn together, despite our differences. I was an agnostic Jew; Galina was searching for faith in that passionate, desperate way captured in the Russian word bogoiskatel’stvo, “God-seeking.”
When you slept with a man, you also cooked for him, she explained to me.
Galina and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Mara, had arrived shortly after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution of 1989; the Iron Curtain had just fallen; everyone needed English teachers. She had grown up speaking Russian and Ukrainian; at the university in Kharkiv she learned English and German. By 1994, when we met, she spoke Czech very well, incomparably better than I did then—or later, when I had learned it fairly well. Even so, her accent marked her as being from the East, for the Czechs the least desirable kind of foreigner.
Galina was escaping a bad marriage in Soviet Kharkiv. She believed that different words came to the center of our lives at different times. At present hers was escape.
“Yours,” she said to me once, years later, “is attached.”
We became attached to each other. We had nothing in common. Or perhaps we had much in common: we were both overly emotional and overly expressive in a culture where communication was restrained. We shared an anxiety about manners and customs we might unknowingly violate. We both liked to talk about love and sex and the unarticulated assumptions hidden in different relationships. Mara liked to light candles when we talked in their little kitchen at night. Galina cooked for us; this was my introduction to the sweet cottage cheese called tvarog. When you slept with a man, you also cooked for him, she explained to me. Whether he was your husband or one of many lovers, it was no matter—you cooked for him.
In autumn Galina’s mother, father, and brother visited. They made the long trip from the east Ukrainian region called the Donbas, where they lived in a miner’s settlement very close to the Russian border—which just a few years earlier had not been a border. The Soviet Union, which was to have lasted forever, had dissolved shortly before New Year’s Eve of 1991, and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was handed its independence. Galina’s whole family worked in the mines. Galina’s mother, a Soviet feminist, had continued to work in the mines even while raising small children. When I met them, they were warm toward me, although we had no common language.
Galina was in a much more vulnerable position than I: she had a young daughter, no money, and only a Ukrainian passport, which made it impossible to leave the small Czech Republic without a visa for each border crossing. With difficulty she managed to get a visa to England to chaperone a group of students visiting London. In her mother’s absence, Mara moved upstairs to share my dormitory room on the second floor. She spoke little English, and I spoke very elementary Czech. Even so, sitting on the small bed across from mine, she listened patiently as I looked for words to tell stories about life on another continent. I was happy to have her company. She was easy to take care of—too easy: she asked for nothing and expected nothing. Her whole manner of being seemed to apologize for her own existence. In the evenings, when I would ask whether she wanted to take a walk or go out for ice cream, she always politely declined.
Once in the middle of the night a noise woke Mara up. It was coming from the small fenced-in yard below us, overgrown with weeds where the large dog she and Galina had adopted slept. I woke up to the sounds of Mara getting out of bed, putting on her clothes. She was very nervous; she wanted to check on the dog.
“I’ll go with you,” I said.
We put on our shoes and walked through the dormitory, then through the empty school building and a labyrinthine underground corridor to reach the yard adjoining Galina’s apartment. Mara called to the dog. I heard rustling plants, an animal scampering. Something moving in the dark. A groundhog. There had been some encounter between the dog and the groundhog. But all was well now. It was over.
In January of 1995, I left for Prague. Galina wrote often. She addressed her letters “Dear, dear Marci.” She found the English “dear” alone coldly neutral—unlike the Russian dorogaia or the Czech drahá, which were so much warmer. In April she enclosed a clipping from Le Monde on post-Soviet Ukraine’s precarious existence. “We’re free,” a student in the article said, “but starving.”
Even knowing how her friends and family were suffering there, Galina missed her troubled life in Ukraine; she never came to feel comfortable in the Czech town. One day the headmistress of a school in a modest city closer to Prague offered Galina a teaching position. Mara did not want to start over, but Galina gave her no choice.
In the city, Galina had a better job and a brighter apartment, with space and light. Foreigners were less conspicuous there. Still, she was not happy.
“Meeting people is like a chain of painful experiences,” she wrote to me, “…Trustworthy, reliable recipe is to escape (here it is, finally, my favourite word!).”
I always wrote to Galina in English and to Mara in Czech. In the summer of 1999, when I learned Russian, I wrote my first letter addressed to both of them. My letter shook her, Galina wrote back to me. She could not believe that I could express so much in Russian so quickly, so much that I had never even expressed in English. She had cried when she read it: she had always felt we were sisters, and my letter in Russian had proven it to her. Galina began to write to me in Russian. She and Mara had gone to see a theatrical production of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. “It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand,” Ivan tells his brother Alyosha, a novice in a monastery, “It is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept.”
Galina took Alyosha’s side. Love is always painful, Galina told me; this is the price we pay for the love of a man, as opposed to the love of God.
KOLYA, LIKE GALINA, had escaped from Soviet Ukraine. Like the husband from whom Galina had run away, Kolya had grown up in Lviv, in western Ukraine, speaking Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish before moving to Kharkiv in the east as an adult. Later, when we were both in Warsaw doing archival research for our dissertations and I already spoke Polish, I heard how Kolya’s Polish was almost seductively antiquated, as if bejeweled. He charmed the middle-aged women who worked at the archives simply by speaking. Once at a party in Toronto he explained to a Polish student why he had learned Polish so well, growing up in Soviet Ukraine: “girls spoke Polish.…” And Kolya liked girls a lot.
We met at the university in Toronto, in a Soviet history seminar. Kolya loved the Russian language, but he hated the Soviet Union—the surveillance, the lies, the absence of freedom. For years he had studied English by himself and prepared his escape from an empire whose borders were closed. Afterwards he learned German while living in a refugee camp in Austria. By the time we met, he had already lived at least nine lives: as a soldier in the Red Army, a history teacher in Soviet Ukraine, a truck driver in the American midwest.
In Moscow I dressed in a way I never did in other countries; I wore short, closely fitted skirts and glittery purple eye shadow, just like the Russian women.
Kolya was bald and handsome and very fit; he wore a trench coat when it grew cold. In the winter, when I saw him waiting for me in front of my apartment building, framed by snow, he looked like an urbane KGB agent from a spy novel. He relished playing soccer—especially with other Soviet émigrés, who shared his understanding that the game should be rough. He craved a space where aggression was sanctioned. This habituation to violence was something I had never encountered. Parents where he came from beat their children, he mentioned once, without condemnation. Had he been beaten as well? No, he said, but his case was different, their family was Jewish.
In the Soviet Union, he often took brass knuckles along to weddings. Just in case. The nature of things was that men would drink too much and begin a fight, it was sensible to be prepared. He found it difficult to understand the rules of civility in the West: why was it not appropriate to smash a beer bottle against the head of a man harassing a woman at a bar? Were men not permitted to protect women? This disgusted him less than it bewildered him: it simply made no sense.
We grew very close; this, too, was an unexpected friendship, set amidst an intense reading of Soviet history. When Kolya told me he loved me, I knew that he would never touch me. I felt safer with him than I had ever felt with anyone. We took very long walks, often at night. I was descending into the literature on the Stalinist purges, determined to grasp the terror, learning things Kolya had always known. When at times the imaginative projection into the past felt too real, the terror too close, it was Kolya who calmed me. In response to my constant anxieties, he told me: “In Russian we have a saying: ‘It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room—especially if there is no black cat.’”
ALTHOUGH KOLYA AND GALINA were very different, they shared an acceptance of fate.
This was not, I slowly came to understand, by chance. As I learned Czech, then Polish, I discovered that in Slavic languages, what in English would be the subject of the sentence—I, for instance—often became the indirect object, as if life were something that happened to me, and I was less the actor than the recipient of action. In 1993, I met Inessa, a graduate student from Moscow who was spending the fall term at the university in California where I was an undergraduate. Inessa possessed a peculiar combination of delicacy and strength that seemed to come from the acknowledgment that fate existed and had its own prerogatives. She was twenty-eight years old, yet seemed younger. She was self-effacing in a way I had never encountered before, as if she felt herself to possess no natural rights in this world but bore no resentment about that. She was willing at any moment to sacrifice herself on behalf of others, even to disappear, should that be better for them.
Inessa was an only child. Never before had she been so far from home. She was distraught over her mother, who was ill with cancer. In the evenings she gazed at photographs of her parents and cried. Once we talked about why she had not yet married. Inessa believed that different people were suited for different roles: some women were good wives, good mothers, or good sisters. She was a good daughter.
Some time after Inessa returned to Russia, her mother died of cancer. “I feel as if I had died myself,” she wrote to me. When I visited her in Moscow seven years after her stay in California, she looked younger, yet more sophisticated, pretty in a way she had not been before. Only now that the mother she had loved more than all else was gone, could she grow up. She lived with her widowed father and their cat, caring for them both.
In Moscow I dressed in a way I never did in other countries; I wore short, closely fitted skirts and glittery purple eye shadow, just like the Russian women. On the metro I read Russian women’s magazines with long articles about how to maneuver a lover into proposing marriage: “it’s necessary to take action.” I wanted to be unnoticeable. I was not exactly afraid to be alone in Russia. I was only aware in a heightened way.
I came to love Moscow precisely because it was so hard to love Moscow, a city not ravishing like Petersburg, a city on an inhuman scale. Amidst the enormity of Moscow was a brutality absent in Petersburg. Often in the capital it seemed people used verbs only in the imperative. Yet Inessa loved this harsh city, Inessa who was an orchid, the antithesis of brutality. Moscow was her home, she saw what was beautiful there.
Being orphaned gave Inessa her freedom—yet it was a belated freedom; the moment for creating her adult life had passed.
We spent one afternoon at the café in the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum. Sitting on a chair in the café was an enormous, very black cat, whose mesmerizing face was inerasable. And then I understood: this was the cat, the hog-sized Behemoth from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, his dark satirical tale of Satan’s visit to Moscow. Inessa loved Bulgakov. As a girl she had cried her way through The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov’s juxtaposition of Stalin’s Moscow and Pontius Pilate’s Jerusalem spoke to her own experience: evil may be endemic, yet one could still clutch at Satan’s acknowledgment that “manuscripts don’t burn.”
When in 2002 I left Moscow to do archival research in Kyiv, Inessa came with me to the railway station and put me on the train. The conductor realized that she was not coming with me and became agitated. He did not think it was safe.
“You’re not going to let your friend go alone?” he asked her.
Inessa reassured him: my boyfriend would be waiting for me at the train station in Kyiv. The conductor accepted this. Of course it was not true. I did not have a boyfriend. And I did not know a single person in Kyiv.
DURING MY TIME IN MOSCOW, Inessa introduced me to her friend Olga, a kind, gentle Christian who supported herself by translating novels from English. Although her vocabulary was rich, Olga never spoke to me in English; she had never been abroad, and English existed for her only on paper, in novels.
Like Inessa, Olga, too, had spent her entire life in Moscow and had never married. She lived with her mother and sister, an unwed mother, and devoted herself to helping raise her sister’s son. Although she earned very little money, she was, like Inessa, generous and uncomplaining. The three of us visited parks and museums and galleries, walking the streets of Moscow, finding the buildings where great writers had lived. In autumn of 2006, Inessa’s father died. Being orphaned gave Inessa her freedom—yet it was a belated freedom; the moment for creating her adult life had passed.
Olga, too, was nearly past child-bearing age, yet soon after Inessa’s father’s death, Olga’s eyes met those of an artist who had long attended her church, and they saw each other as if for the first time. They married. Olga left Moscow and moved with her husband to a village in the woods, where they attended Orthodox services at an octagonal pillar church built of red brick. She sent me photographs of the bare, snow-covered forest in winter, of the trees blooming in spring, of the white masonry stove that warmed their house. She sent photographs of her husband’s minimalist art evoking the lush colors of the forest on a monochrome background, combining modern form with the seemingly timeless Russian village.
GALINA WAS ACCEPTED for graduate studies in Slavic philology in England. “The distance between people here is too big,” she wrote after she had arrived in Britain, “And in Russia it is too small.” By then Mara was no longer a child. She finished her degree; she married a kind engineer and stayed at home with their two children. Mara remained by choice in that small city where the headmistress had given her mother a job: while her mother had wanted to escape, Mara had longed for rootedness. Galina could not give what she did not have.
In 2004, the Kremlin supported the manipulation of the presidential election in Ukraine. That November hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians went out to the Maidan, Kyiv’s central square, to protest rigged elections. Galina visited me in Vienna during what was called the Orange Revolution. It was difficult for Galina’s family to understand what was happening in Kyiv, a city that felt remote from their lives in the small mining town.
We talked, too, about Mara.
“Mara has always known she can trust you,” Galina told me that day. “Because of the groundhog.”
Because of the groundhog. I had forgotten about the groundhog.
Soon afterwards, in a small community of Dominican nuns at a Canadian monastery, Galina received the habit. There she finally found peace; for the first time, her letters were happy ones. She feared only bears, which occasionally visited from the nearby forest.
Nearly a decade passed before war brought her back to the secular world. In November 2013, Ukrainians again gathered on the Maidan. And unlike what had happened in 2004, what happened that winter of 2013–2014 was a real revolution. This time Ukrainians came to the Maidan after the Kremlin-supported gangster president named Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a long-anticipated association agreement with the European Union. It would have been a chance, a foot in the door of Europe. Young people felt that their future had suddenly been taken from them. The peaceful protests might have faded away had the president not responded with such violence—mass beatings, kidnappings, tortured bodies found in the woods. The Maidan became a whole parallel world; Yanukovych’s regime became ever more savage. The tension broke in February 2014, when the president unleashed a massacre; snipers on rooftops of high-rises fired down at the Maidan.
Afterwards, Yanukovych fled across the border into Russia, where Putin sheltered him. Days later, “little green men” in unmarked camouflage appeared on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Putin declared now part of Russia. Galina’s hometown was among the places in the Donbas taken over by Kremlin-sponsored gangs of separatists, attempting to create breakaway states.
By now Galina’s elderly father was bedridden; her mother walked with difficulty. Galina returned to the Czech Republic to be closer to her mother, who spent whole days crying. In April 2014 her father died. Even though she was not far away, Galina could not travel to his funeral; it was too dangerous. Battalions loyal to the Ukrainian state exchanged fire with Donbasian separatists—some local, some who had come from the other side of the Russian border. When winter arrived, Galina feared her elderly mother would starve, or freeze. Sometimes there was no water. The post office stopped working; Galina could not even send a Christmas parcel. During the shelling, they had to hide in the cellar.
Galina wanted to cross the border into Ukraine, but her mother and brother warned her against it. She did not return to the monastery. She took off her habit and began wandering again. The war in the Donbas was her bridge back to the world. It was not a joyous one.
“It is a not a simple ‘transformation’—the passage from one state of existence to another,” she wrote to me. “Time is necessary for understanding what will come.”
To Galina it felt as if she were looking on as her family endured misery in a biblical fight between good and evil.
“I am absolutely sure that kind of evil taking place where people have already suffered so much,” Galina wrote to me, “cannot be fought with human efforts alone. We do need God’s help. And while the Russian state relies on Putin, or rather Putler, Ukraine totally and completely relies on Divine Providence and God’s help. I am absolutely sure that Ukraine has chosen the better part. This is not only my faith, but indeed ‘fides et ratio.’”
When Galina had anxiously asked them if they were safe from the separatist gangs, her brother had answered, “We are the separatists!”
Galina’s mother and brother understood things differently, and unlike Galina, they were there, in the Donbas, the victims of a war they had never wanted. They were ethnically Ukrainian, but more profoundly Soviet; Russian was their language. When Galina had anxiously asked them if they were safe from the separatist gangs, her brother had answered, “We are the separatists!” Twenty-some years of Ukrainian independence had done them little good—on the contrary: they saw more stability in Russia. Salaries and pensions were higher there; in Ukraine there was never any certainty they would be paid at all. They saw that Putin had reined in anarchy; they, too, wanted someone strong in charge, who would defend the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas against the American-sponsored fascist coup in Kyiv—this was, after all, how the Maidan was described on Russian television; it was all they had heard.
“Putin lies,” Galina wrote.
“Interestingly,” she told me, “Mum and brother are happy to hear that you send them greetings and speak about you with warmth. However, they would probably blame America for their suffering.”
The family’s closest friends took the other side: they were against the separatists. The line of division in the Donbas ran through many families and many friendships. “Objectively,” Galina said, she could understand her mother and brother: they felt closer to things Russian. They saw stability in Russia where there was none in Ukraine.
Galina’s mother and brother knew that Galina did not agree with them. And so they said nothing more to one another about politics. Galina only asked them practical questions. Were they cold? Thirsty? Was the post office working, could she send them food? She had resolved to be silent; it was morally impermissible to judge people who were living in inhuman conditions. She did not believe she would be able to withstand such conditions herself.
“I would run away somewhere,” she told me. Escape. She was not proud of that.
Galina prayed that God would open Putin’s eyes to the evil he was committing.
Unlike Galina, Kolya had found a place for himself: he was a history professor in a small college in the American southwest, where he lived with a woman from Lviv he had known in his youth, who was now his wife. And while he had less faith and was less gentle, he understood Putin’s lies much as Galina did.
“Although I am as disgusted by the right-wing Ukrainian nationalism,” Kolya wrote to me now, “I’m too consumed by hatred of Russia and everything Russian. In a few words, to ‘seduce’ the population in Russia is not that difficult and as historians we know a lot of precedents. Putin is telling the Russians what they WANT TO HEAR and that’s the end of the story.”
Inessa, whose father’s family had come to Moscow from Ukraine before her birth, was quiet in her sadness. When the “little green men” appeared on the island of Crimea, she wrote to me in a text message that she hoped only that there would be no blood.
Olga sent photographs of her husband’s paintings. She wrote to me about their cottage in the forest, which required work and care but made them happy. In the background of her everyday peaceful life was the war in the Donbas. Ukraine did not feel like a foreign country to her; so many people had family on both sides of the border. Olga did not know how Americans, and how I personally, related to this tragedy—she supposed I could not but be influenced by American television, by Western propaganda, and she did not want to provoke resentment—so she would say nothing more.
I pushed her.
Olga acquiesced. She began with Dostoevsky’s Demons: a work of genius. How, having read such a novel where everything was laid bare, could Russians nonetheless have been so blind to the danger of revolutionary movements? She had in mind the Maidan.
“Revolutions”—Olga wrote, now moving to the present tense—“never lead to anything good.”
Olga was certain that the West had interfered in Ukraine, and that it had done so only out of malice: Russia had always been a “thorn in the flesh of the West.” It was Putin—Olga wrote—who had pulled Russia out of an abyss. Under his rule, life for ordinary Russians had become calmer, kinder, more stable. She was grateful to Putin, too, for supporting family values, for protecting children from “gay propaganda.”
That Ukraine, our neighbor, as a result of careful work by the West…has become Russia’s enemy—how are we supposed to like that? And now we have in power there, if not fascists, then the kind of nationalists who are no better than fascists and at the head of state—an oligarch, and what’s good about that? Russia supported the previous government, not these bandits. And again Russia is to blame? It is a pity that, thanks to the West, Ukraine is no longer our friend. Poor Ukraine revealed itself to be a bargaining chip in Western games against Russia.…
By now I knew many people in Ukraine. For all of them, the Maidan was an impassioned protest against corruption, state brutality, helplessness in the face of the arbitrariness of power. It was worth dying if that was the price of refusing to be ruled by gangsters. My friends in Ukraine who had spent the winter freezing on the Maidan knew only too well that there had been no American conspiracy behind them: on the contrary—they had been desperately hoping for support from the West. They had been left on their own.
“What will be further, Marci, will be as God wills,” Olga added. “Time will tell.”
I told Kolya about Olga’s letter. There was no opportunism in her. She believed that the story Putin told on Russian television was true.
“Many Russians argued the same during and after the Stalin era (I don’t even want to mention Hitler),” Kolya answered me. “Now they say that Boris Nemtsov was assassinated by CIA to disgrace Russia, as if there is anything left to disgrace.”
IN JUNE 2015, a year after the war in the Donbas had begun, I went to Dnipropetrovsk, a city in eastern Ukraine where not long before a large crowd had spontaneously gathered in the center of the city and taken down the statue of Lenin. At night a young historian took me on a long walk through her city, past streets—Karl Marx Avenue, Komsomol Street, Lenin Embankment—that had not been renamed after the fall of the Soviet Union. She was soft-spoken, self-effacing and self-reflective, very much like Inessa, and I thought of the walks Inessa and I had taken around Moscow.
“Is it dangerous there?” Inessa asked anxiously by text. No, I assured her, it was not. In any case, not that day. The front remained some hundred miles away.
“I am waiting for you in Moscow,” Inessa added. Instead we planned to meet in Kyiv that October. But in October Inessa did not come to Kyiv, and she did not tell me why. She no longer wrote at all.
I found an old photograph of Inessa, Olga, and myself in front of Boris Pasternak’s dacha in the village of Peredelkino. The dacha was lit by the sun. The three of us were standing in the shadow of the trees, Inessa and Olga in pale jeans, I in a long black skirt. We looked tanned and cheerful. Peredelkino looked green and lush. Beckoning. I sent the photograph to Inessa but received no reply.
On my way back to America from Kyiv, Galina and I met in Prague. She wore a plum-colored hat; she had bought it for our meeting. I had not seen her since she had entered the convent over a decade earlier, yet she looked and felt to me unchanged, as if we had been apart only a few weeks. The weather was warm and wet; we wandered through Prague in our hats, the rain soft and unobtrusive. We decided to look for a quiet restaurant, preferably French, and Galina asked a trio we passed: did they know of such a place? Yes, said one of the men. He could recommend the restaurant where he worked as a waiter, he was on his way there now. He heard Galina’s accent, he asked her where she was from; they began to talk about the war in eastern Ukraine. Inside the restaurant the décor alluded unpretentiously to the 1940s. We talked about the Donbas, her parents, truth.
We talked, too, about our meeting in the little Bohemian town more than two decades earlier and about my feeling irresistibly drawn to Ukraine now, mesmerized by the Maidan, by the miracle that was not mine, unable to turn away—all as if a strange coincidence. Galina disagreed. As the Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer had written—she told me, now switching to Czech—“Coincidence is not a kosher word.”
GALINA NOW LIVES in a Czech town. When women and children began arriving as refugees from Ukraine, she volunteered to go to them, to translate, to help them adjust, if only for a short time. Just before the invasion, I had sent her Daniel Stein, Interpreter by the Russian novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya. It was a long novel, but Galina had already finished it. She was bringing it to a Ukrainian woman fleeing the war—she wrote—and would tell her it was from me, a gift from a stranger.
Kolya is dead. He died suddenly, unexpectedly of a heart attack four years ago, only in his sixties.
I no longer write to Olga. It is not possible, not safe, especially for her.
After the war began, I found Inessa on an encrypted application. She remained in the same apartment, now alone with two cats. She does not believe Putin, but also cannot believe the war is truly for nothing. I have been sending her—always encrypted—videos and reports she cannot easily access in Russia. I know that what I send her is unbearable. War is a juxtaposition of the purely concrete with the purely metaphysical. The images overflow with physicality: missing limbs, mangled bodies, bloodied faces. And the question, immaculately distilled: Where does evil come from?
Each time I click “send” I fear she will read my message and poison herself. To live in a totalitarian regime is to be implicated in it. She feels shame and despair—but no power to resist.
The last thing Inessa wrote to me was this: on her way home she bought lilacs, just for herself, something to mitigate the awfulness. On the street an old woman’s gaze met hers. It would have been impossible to express in words what the old woman wanted to say, but it was all there, in her eyes. Inessa gave her the flowers. The woman embraced her and began to sob. And so they stood there, on the street in Moscow, holding each other.
There are no more words, Inessa wrote.