In the late 1990s, Holly and I taught English classes during the summer semesters at a small university outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. One year, a professor joined our classes, to brush up on conversational English. Over those weeks, made longer by the famous White Nights, we had the delight of getting to know Vladimir a little more. We traded stories, and he shared books with us by his wife, who translated Russian poetry into English, and vice versa. We went mushroom hunting with his family in the grand forests north of the city, where I learned there are mosquitos that can bite through denim. But the most memorable time we spent with Vladimir was during a visit in March 2000 when he took us on a guided tour of St. Petersburg and shared stories of his youth during the siege of Leningrad during World War II.
I had studied the siege before, but viewing it through the eyes of a man who lived through it changed everything. The city looked completely different. Somehow, we hadn’t really noticed the scars from bombs that still etched their memory into the sides of buildings. We didn’t know what it really meant for musicians, literally starving, to take the stage there in December 1942 to perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, the music broadcast across the city and to the German lines on loudspeakers as an act of defiance and resistance. We couldn’t understand the human loss behind the incalculable numbers: 872 days; more than 100,000 bombs dropped on the city; approximately 1.5 million deaths, over 600,000 from starvation; 1.4 million people evacuated (many of whom also died). Vladimir spoke about how people boiled leather bound books and wallpaper glue to make a broth to fill their empty bellies. To hear his soft voice tell these stories, we wondered at the power of the human body to hold such grief and devastation, and turn it into music, poetry, and hope.
We stopped at a row of apartment buildings, and Vladimir paused, the silence settling in on us as he gathered himself. This is where he lived, he explained, when a bomb fell through a few floors of the building. Amazingly, no one was killed – because the bomb had been sabotaged by factory workers. It was a simple act of resistance, probably at great risk to the workers, and it saved our friend’s life. We lingered there, in the gratitude and reverence for those who were brave enough to do whatever they could to save a life, even in the middle of a war, even at risk to themselves. We lingered in the hope that the world could be different and that we could be part of the difference.
It’s impossible to know how often this happened, but we do know that forced labor became increasingly common in the later years of the war, and these workers had no motivation to help the Germans in the war effort. Combined with shortages of materials and poor working conditions, many bombs were defective, or completely ineffective. Richard J. Evans, writing in the New York Review, shared a similar story to that of our Russian friend: “A German bomb fell through the roof of my wife’s grandmother’s house in the East End of London in 1943 and lodged, unexploded, in her bedroom wardrobe. When the bomb disposal unit opened it up, they found a note inside. ‘Don’t worry, English,’ it said, ‘we’re with you. Polish workers.’”
“Do I Even Know Her Now?”
The world is different today, with Russia as the aggressor in a horrifying war against Ukraine. Now Russian bombs fall through Ukrainian apartments and Ukrainians flee before the violence. As I noted during the first days of the invasion of Ukraine, the last eight years of violence in eastern Ukraine created 1.5 million displaced people. They are part of the more than 84 million “forcibly displaced people worldwide,” 26.6 million of whom are refugees who have fled their home nations. They come from around the world, but more than two-thirds are from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Venezuela. (https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/ ) These statistics are a key indicator of how violent and broken our human relationships are. And the number of forcibly displaced people “has doubled since 2010,” reaching an all-time high. (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/06/unhcr-how-many-refugees/ )
With the invasion of Ukraine, we add the more than 4.3 million people who have fled their country. As Ella Fassler noted, this is “the largest movement of people in Europe since World War II.” (https://truthout.org/articles/grassroots-groups-are-making-aid-supply-chains-to-support-people-fleeing-ukraine/ ) And despite the heroic resistance of thousands of Russian protestors, the numbers released in March showed about 58% of Russians supported the invasion, with only 23% opposing it. 75% of older respondents supported this new war. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/08/russia-public-opinion-ukraine-invasion/ ) In a report by Robert Coalson for RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, a 28 year old Russian woman living near the Ukrainian border protested the war and lamented her parents’ support of it:
"‘At first, her main argument was, “There is nothing we can do and nothing depends on us,”' said Yekaterina, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of her opposition to the war. ‘Later, her argument was even worse: “They asked us for help.” The war didn't shake her. It hasn't evoked any emotions in her. I was just shocked by her reaction. / ‘Now, I am asking myself, “Who is this woman?”’ she continued, noting that her mother ‘sheds tears’ over Soviet sacrifices during World War II every year on May 9, which is marked in Russia as Victory Day. ‘Do I even know her? How can a living person become so hard-hearted about a war started by her own government?’” / ‘For the first time in my life, I felt real shame and revulsion toward my parents,’ she said. ‘Since then, I have hardly spoken to them.’” (https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-war-support-putin-analysis/31749491.html )
“While It Was Still Dark”
I’ve been carrying these diverging stories in my heart, both born out of the horror and grief of war. In stories like Vladimir’s, an act of resistance and kindness crossed borders and created community in the most astounding and unlooked for of places, like a note placed inside a sabotaged bomb: “Don’t worry, we’re with you.” In stories like Yekaterina’s, we see the shadow. Saying no to the war also meant saying no to loved ones: “For the first time in my life, I felt real shame and revulsion toward my parents.” These are choices we are constantly making: how do we connect with people across differences? When is that connection possible, and when is it time to set a hard line? And how do we find and build community when we are isolated and rejected, or when we are exhausted and ready to give up – when we need community the most?
We feel all this deeply, circling around the question of what it means to be human. Queries like these connect us with a haunting, aching pain that echo across cultures and ages in stories and songs from around the world: how can we go on? And more especially, how can we go on when the world has found a way to make things that we thought wouldn’t - couldn’t - get any worse, worse? Just last April, we were grappling with the realities of the pandemic; protesting White supremacy and police violence while watching the first days of Derek Chauvin’s trial; mourning a string of mass shootings; and witnessing the coup in Myanmar and civil war in Ethiopia, to name just a few. This year, we are still grappling with the realities of the pandemic, and still grappling with the realities of White supremacy and police violence (police violence statistics are basically unchanged), while our attention is also turned to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increased reports of war crimes; the Sunset Park subway attack; another week of mass shootings, leaving at least eight dead; and deadly flooding in the Philippines, to name just a few.
We could go through the timeline and repeat this exercise, year after year. These snapshots of human suffering take us back to that haunting pain – how do we live in a world with so much suffering, where terrible things are added to terrible things? And how do we keep the possibility of change, towards life, beauty, truth, and love, alive? I've been reflecting on a lot on stories we tell - my own and my friends', as well as history, literature, song, film - to explore the ways we humans work through this pain and keep going. Often, these stories include the miraculous and fantastic, but what is most meaningful and applicable to me is not the miracles, but the hope, reconnecting us with our humanity and community.
The power of connection, of speaking each other’s names in the midst of grief, is a beautifully human power. Our care and love for each other can call each other back from the edge of despair, back into community. We remember these stories, from ancient myths to my friend Vladimir standing at his childhood apartment building, because we know that this is how we keep pressing forward while our hearts are still broken, and while our hope is nearly gone. We know that the work we do for change might not accomplish anything, but we also know that doing something, even when it feels like nothing will come of it, is the only way we keep the possibility of change alive.
Holding a Paradox
This week, I watched a video of Ukrainian firefighters rescuing a puppy that had been buried in rubble. Somehow, the dog was alive and I was holding back tears. The video hadn’t been verified, but even if it turns out to be just a story, it is the kind of story that humans seem to need to tell. We need to remember the potential for goodness is ourselves and in the world. We can still bring life out of the rubble.
Although not as easy to put into a cheery video, people have also been coming together in amazing ways to ease what suffering they can for Ukrainian refugees. In the early days of the invasion, many of those fleeing the violence didn’t even consider themselves to be refugees and expected to return home soon. But as the invasion has dragged on, both refugees and aid organizations began making plans for how to support them “for the long haul.” This was one of the main points of the article I quoted earlier. Already, Fassler reported, “an informal, loosely connected grassroots aid network of about a dozen groups is working on establishing supply chains and long-term warehouse aid hubs in Moldova, Romania and Slovakia, and hope to set up hubs at halfway points in places like the Netherlands and Germany.” And other groups are organizing specifically to meet the needs of minorities that have faced discrimination during the refugee process, including Roma, Indians, and Africans, as well as LGBTQIA+ folx. (https://truthout.org/articles/grassroots-groups-are-making-aid-supply-chains-to-support-people-fleeing-ukraine/ )
Human beings are paradoxes in this way. We have the potential to commit – and keep committing - the violence that destroys people’s lives and homes and creates refugees. But we also have the potential to respond to suffering with generosity and justice, creating friendships that heal. Taylor Fairbank, the operations director at Distribute Aid, points out that the link between the two:
“People are fleeing climate change driven by for-profit companies, or wars driven by interests of imperialist governments… . / The West is especially complicit in outsourcing the violence that is driving its economic growth on to poor Black and Brown countries and then punishing those who dare flee to safety. So not only do we have to create a welcoming atmosphere to those who make it to our borders, but we have to support grassroots movements in our own countries and around the world that are fighting back against politicians and companies who capitalize off these harmful conditions.” (https://truthout.org/articles/grassroots-groups-are-making-aid-supply-chains-to-support-people-fleeing-ukraine/ )
This is the best meaning I glean from the hope I hear in our stories. We bear the terrifying potential for violence and harm of one another and the earth. We also bear the incredible potential for generosity and kindness, even in the most traumatic and difficult of circumstances. But it is not easy to hold this paradox, to acknowledge the terror we feel in the wake of violent injustice while also rekindling hope that a beautiful, just, joyful, loving world is possible. So this cannot be a hope that sits back and waits. It must be a hope that comes to us, even in our weariness, and says: “Please don’t give up.”
For that to work, to be sustainable, we need community. We need one another, to speak each others’ names and remind us of our humanity, and to give each other breaks to rest and regroup. Of course, we want a world where life isn’t so hard, where we get to enjoy poetry and music, gardening and good meals, without that joy being diminished by the heartbreak of discrimination, bigotry, violence, poverty, oppression, ecological destruction, and the like. That is the world we are fighting for. But until it exists, we each have to do whatever we can, both to change our communities and to encourage one another to not give up. As I learned again from Vladimir that day, outside the flats where he had survived a bomb, we live in the hope that the world can be different and that we can be part of the difference.