The names of the places that families are fleeing create a map of human suffering.
By Keith Gessen
newyorker – March 29, 2022
In Lviv, on the western edge of Ukraine, most of the time the war felt very far away. Its shadow appeared, fleetingly, in the beautiful old cavernous Greek Catholic churches throughout the city, where people filled the pews and wept, and the priests, who perform the Byzantine liturgy in Ukrainian, called for God to protect the nation from its enemies; and in the basements and hallways and underground parking garages where people sheltered during the frequent air-raid sirens, most often at night; and in the old city after 8 p.m., when the curfew was approaching and all the many small restaurants and cafés closed; and in the many schools and nonprofits that had been turned into shelters for the people fleeing the bombing in the east of the country; but, still, most of the time, during the fourth week of the war, people in Lviv followed the bloodshed in the same way that everyone else in the world did: on television.
The one place in Lviv where the war was never far away was the train station. Built in the early twentieth century, when Lviv was a cosmopolitan, multiethnic city called Lemberg and was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is a grand, attractive building two miles from the old town. It has also been, since the start of the invasion, as the Lviv-based sociologist Alona Liasheva put it to me, “a hell on earth.” It was the westernmost hub of the Ukrainian train system, in a country that still relies primarily on trains; most of the three million people who had fled abroad in the past weeks had passed through it, as did the hundreds of thousands who had fled westward but remained in Ukraine, including in Lviv.
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Every hour, a train arrived in the station from the east and disgorged a large group of women and children. It was only women and children, because men were not allowed out of the country, and, anyway, most of the men had chosen to stay home to fight. The names of the places that families were fleeing—Sumy, Kramatorsk, Kharkiv—created a kind of map of the worst fighting, delayed by a couple days, because that’s how long it took them to arrive.
Everyone who got off the train seemed to tell the same story. They had hoped to stay, to wait it out, and then it just became too much: the bombing, the lack of sleep, the conditions in the basements or underground subways—in Kharkiv and Kyiv—where they spent their nights. They reproduced the sounds of the bombs that drove them to the train station: “Ba-bakh, ba-bakh.” Sometimes, they said, the bombing kept to a regular schedule—eight in the morning till about lunchtime—but other times it just went all day. “Ba-bakh, ba-bakh.” A woman with a small child said that she had packed so quickly, in such a panic, that when she finally had a chance to look at what she’d brought she burst into tears. It was all socks and underwear, not sweaters, blouses, and other things that she couldn’t easily replace.
Some of the people who got off the train knew where they wanted to go and how to get there. Most did not. There were volunteers inside the station and outside of it, but there were too many people coming off the trains. The scene was chaotic. Many people wanted to get to Poland; others to Germany, Spain, Greece. Some wanted to stay in Lviv, at least for a little while. Others hadn’t thought that far ahead.
Every few hours, a train left the station for the Polish border. Ukrainians didn’t need a ticket, just their passport. The line for the train started in the tunnel below the platform and then snaked out into the main terminal, and sometimes out into the street. People stood in it for hours. They waited and chatted with one another and tried to keep their children from crying. Sometimes they were given a choice without warning. One of the volunteers, a tall, broad-shouldered fellow named Stas, who in peacetime worked at a board-game store in Kyiv, would approach the long line and tell them that the train to Poland was indefinitely delayed. They could wait if they wanted, but, if they were willing to walk a little bit, an elektrichka, a commuter-rail train, was leaving for the border momentarily. One day at the station, Stas went down the long line, repeating this information. People had a choice, but they had to make it immediately. The stress of the situation showed on their faces. At first, no one moved; they didn’t want to give up their spot in the line that they had kept for hours. Then one family went, and then another. Soon the elektrichka was full and departed for the border.
One of the families on it was Nina Rudenko’s. She watched the elektrichka depart with her son, her granddaughter, and her great-granddaughter aboard. The family had fled Kharkiv five days earlier, but Rudenko did not want to go to Poland; she wanted to remain in Ukraine. Rudenko, it turned out, was a seventy-four-year-old professor of music at a university in Kharkiv. She had taught the piano there for a half century and had published two books. When the bombardment began, she had wanted to leave, but her son had wanted to stay. Then it became too intense for both. The trip to the train station in Kharkiv was the scariest part.
Rudenko took me to a room in the station for women and children, where she and her family had been staying for the past three days. It was a large, open space with rows of old wooden armchairs. Rudenko said that the chairs were fine to sleep on, just like sleeping on a bus, though they didn’t look that comfortable. One part of the space had been converted into a children’s playroom. There was a small mat, and children’s books, and lots of stuffed animals, including a gigantic pink bunny. One boy of around three had found two plastic tennis rackets and began whacking the chairs with them. His young mom looked up from her phone and gently asked him to stop.
As it happened, I was about to go meet a friend, a Ukrainian graduate student from New York, at the music lyceum turned dormitory where he had been staying since fleeing Kyiv two weeks earlier. (He had hurriedly packed four days’ worth of clothes, his laptop, the first chapter of his dissertation, and one book, by Habermas.) I invited Rudenko to come along. She agreed, and when we arrived it turned out that she had been at the lyceum during happier times. She knew the director, a violin teacher, and the director’s wife, a piano teacher. We sat for a while in the director’s office, drinking coffee and eating cheesecake. The director said he was sorry that he wouldn’t be going to Moscow anymore—they had some wonderful pianists there—but he wasn’t that sorry. The places he was now interested in sending his graduates were to the West: Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin.
It took some time, but the director and his wife talked Rudenko into staying at the lyceum instead of the train station. Before going back to get her things, she sat down at one of the school’s many pianos and played a sonata by Haydn. When she made some mistakes, she was embarrassed. “I haven’t been practicing,” she said.
This great movement of people, this exodus, had discombobulated Ukrainian society, but also galvanized parts of it. The evening after escorting Rudenko to the music school, I met up with Liasheva, the Lviv-based sociologist. She had moved to the city from Kyiv four years earlier, while finishing her Ph.D. Her dissertation was about housing issues in post-Soviet Kyiv. When the war began, and suddenly tens of thousands of people needed housing in her adopted city, she started trying to help. She found a room here, a bed there, helped convert an office space into a shelter. She also sorted and organized the many packages of aid that arrived from abroad. After several weeks of war, she was angry and exhausted. “There are all these romantic ideas that people have about war,” she said. “But it’s not like that. It’s the worst thing ever. You see so much pain every day. It’s not romantic at all.”
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Liasheva’s volunteer group sent medicines to cities where heavy fighting had shuttered pharmacies. They distributed the medicines through the trade unions or mailed them directly to people in Kyiv or Kharkiv. “And I have learned so many things. But they’re not, like, philosophical things. We get all these medicines from abroad,” she said. “So I’m spending all my time just reading these labels and trying to understand them. It turns out there are so many kinds of diabetes. Now I know what they’re all called, in Polish, German, and Italian.”
Liasheva’s family had recently arrived from Kyiv, and she had escaped to the apartment of an artist friend, where she was soon joined by many other artists and their wives and children, mostly from Kyiv. Then the women and children left, leaving only the men, so now Liasheva was living with a bunch of men.
She was amazed at the amount of support and solidarity that Ukraine was receiving from the rest of the world, though also occasionally unsettled by it. “I’m getting job offers—like, good job offers, in Europe—from people who I met once at a conference.” She said that her boyfriend—“a no-name artist who fixes walls and does his art on the side!”—was approached about having his art displayed at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. The intellectual debates over Ukraine on social media made her roll her eyes. “I’m just, like, ‘Send money, bitches.’ ”
Liasheva is a committed leftist who has translated the work of the Marxist geographer David Harvey into Ukrainian, but she said that the war was changing her thinking along many fronts. “I used to be against doing anything for the military,” she said. “But then my friend Taras, who is part of our collective, joined the Territorial Defense in Kyiv. So now when the Territorial Defense needs supplies I try to do it, because Taras needs supplies. But, also, I’m thinking, Alona, what are you doing?”
When I suggested it was understandable that she would want to punish the Russian Army, she shook her head: “I still think that the Russian soldiers are like my younger brother. They just had the bad luck to go to not-good schools, to not have that many resources, and to be born in fucking Russia.”
I asked Liasheva if she hid during the air-raid sirens, which tended to happen in the night, and she said that it depended on whether she had to do something early the next morning. If she didn’t, she’d get up and move her mattress into the hallway; but, if she needed to get some sleep, she usually stayed in bed. “Especially if my boyfriend isn’t getting up,” she said. “Then I kind of lie behind him so that if the window breaks it’ll mostly hit him.” She added that when the war started she thought she was going to leave Ukraine. But now she had gotten used to it. She was going to stay.
At the station, the trains kept coming and people kept spilling out of them: dislocated, terrified, traumatized. I thought of the famous passage in “Origins of Totalitarianism” in which Arendt describes the plight of stateless refugees, their loss of rights because rights can only be protected by the state. These people had not lost their rights, but they had lost their homes. And they were adrift, now, in a sea of deprivation—cold, fatigue, confusion, despair.
A woman in her mid-seventies was struggling with her bag and I asked her if I could carry it. Her name was Victoria, and she was from Mariupol, where she had once worked as an administrator at the port. “Where do I go?” she asked me. We walked out of the station and approached a tent with a red cross on it, but it was empty. Then Victoria found one of the volunteers. “Where are the buses to Poland?” she said. The volunteer pointed to the parking lot full of buses. “Will I get refugee status?” Victoria asked.
“That’s up to you,” said the volunteer.
“Who will be there to meet me?” Victoria said.
“Volunteers,” the volunteer said. Then the volunteer asked, “Do you have any family there?”
“No,” Victoria said. “I have no one.”
She had stayed in Mariupol as long as she could. In the first days of the war, she’d remained in her apartment, but then she’d gone out on her balcony and seen that they were shooting from school No. 15. She didn’t know who they were, but she could see it from her balcony. So she went into the basement of school No. 26. She stayed there for two weeks. At first, they cooked hot food three times a day. Then they cooked it less often. Their provisions dwindled. Then members of the Azov Battalion, a far-right group that has been key to the defense of Mariupol, brought some. (“But they’re fascists,” I said. “I’m just telling you what happened,” Victoria replied.) The bombing seemed closer and closer. On the fifteenth day, someone said that a humanitarian corridor had been created and people could get out of Mariupol, and Victoria left. In her heavy bag, she had her clothes and a one-kilogram canister of honey. She brought it, she said, because she didn’t know whether there’d be food wherever they were going.
In front of the Lviv train station, someone pointed us toward a man waving the French tricolor. They said he was taking people to France. Victoria asked me, “Should I go to France?” I didn’t feel qualified to answer. But, I thought, I was perhaps more qualified to answer than the local volunteers, most of whom were in their twenties.
“France is richer than Poland and has fewer Ukrainians, so you will have more resources,” I said. “On the other hand, no one there will speak Ukrainian.”
“Should I go?” she asked again.
When the man with the flag said he was taking people to Bordeaux, I pictured Victoria among the vineyards, relaxing in the sun, and told her she should go.
We walked together with the other people who’d decided to go to France. One family was from Kharkiv and had spent two weeks sleeping in the subway there. People started getting sick—fever, vomiting. Finally, after the bombing became too much, they decided to leave. Another woman, Nataliia, a lawyer from Zaporizhzhia, a city in southeastern Ukraine that has seen heavy fighting, said that the first time she heard the air-raid sirens she and her daughter went to the nearest bomb shelter. It was closed. So was the next one. “And all this time the sirens are blaring,” she said. Her daughter, who is ten years old, was terrified. Finally, they went to the bomb shelter at the house of culture, where her daughter had taken drawing lessons. But the woman at the front told them that their bomb shelter was full. They went home. A few days later, with their little dog, they left. Nataliia said that on the train to Lviv they were packed together like sardines, but the worst part was the stories she heard from a family whose village wasn’t far from where she lived. As the building above them was destroyed by shells, the family had sat trapped in its basement. On the train ride to Lviv, the kids twitched and moaned in their sleep. “I wept half the night,” said Nataliia.
As we approached the vans to France, Nataliia wondered who these nice French people were. “Are they going to just take us into the woods?” she asked. The Frenchmen turned out to be farmers. They grew nuts and plums and, of course, grapes. Watching the news, they felt that they had to do something for Ukraine. A network of French nonprofits had collected some money and supplies; the farmers had driven the donations to Lviv in four minivans, and now they would be driving back with refugees. It was a twenty-five-hour drive, and they had two drivers in each minivan, who would trade off. They were not planning to make any stops.
When I told Nataliia that the men were farmers, she joked, “Great. They’ll take us to a field.” But they departed in good spirits, and Nataliia wrote me from Casseneuil, in southwest France, that they had arrived safely, and no one had been left in a field.
On my last two days in Lviv, the air-raid sirens went off more than usual. A few days earlier, several missiles had struck an airplane-repair facility next to the Lviv airport, the first time something had been hit within the city limits, and people who had earlier been dismissive of the sirens now took them more seriously. Though not too seriously. The Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak postponed our meeting at the Vienna Coffeehouse because of an air-raid siren. Then it stopped, and we agreed to meet, and then it started again; by this time, though, Hrytsak was already on his way to meet me and just kept going.
At the old coffeehouse, he talked about Lviv’s history as the home of political ferment, the birthplace, while it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of both Polish and Ukrainian nationalism. (It was also a hotbed of Zionism, he said.) At that time, roughly the middle third of the nineteenth century, the historic capitals of both Poland and Ukraine—Warsaw and Kyiv—were under the yoke of the Russian tsars, who kept a close eye on such things. Hrytsak also talked about Vladimir Putin. He said that Putin’s central mistake was believing that western Ukraine was the only place that believed in the national idea of Ukraine. (As it turned out, it wasn’t.) And he talked about his disappointment with Russia—not just with Putin but with Russian liberals who have never acknowledged the territorial integrity of Ukraine. I asked Hrytsak if he was saddened by the loss of Russian culture that the war would inevitably bring. “Yes, it is a loss,” he said, “but not a great loss.” He said that even the most fervent Ukrainian nationalists had read Dostoyevsky, but that Russian culture had become toxic; had always, perhaps, in its great Russian chauvinism, been toxic; but that a Russian defeat in Ukraine could cure it at last of this toxicity. “And then it will become for us just a normal culture, like French, German, or Polish culture did.”
On my last day, a Sunday, people were out and about in the center of the city. A band had set up near the monument to King Danylo Romanovych, who founded Lviv in the thirteenth century. Young couples walked hand in hand, talking in Ukrainian, as did mothers with their children, from the east, speaking Russian. In the evening, I went by Liasheva’s place to drop off the one thing she had asked me to bring from Poland that did not require a pharmaceutical prescription—whiskey. Liasheva had recently managed to find their household some wine—even though in most of the country alcohol sales were forbidden—by getting a friend to send fifty boxes through the mail, labelled “juice.” But they had a large household, and people were always coming in and out, and the fifty boxes were almost gone. An artist from Kyiv named Sergii accepted delivery of the whiskey and shared some of it; he talked about how strange it was to be in Lviv, to see all the people in the cafés drinking coffee and relaxing, while back home his friends and family were still experiencing missile strikes every day. On the other hand, he said, many of the people in the cafés had also fled from there, and who was to say how they should spend their time, how they should seek to recover.
Earlier that day, I had met a striking-looking young woman named Ivanna Kutsenko. She had red hair, a suffragette tattoo on her neck (“No God, no boss, no husband,” in Ukrainian), and a tattoo of barbed wire just below her hairline. She had grown up in Rubizhne, a small city near the separatist capital of Luhansk. When heavy fighting erupted in 2014, she was a babysitter for a family and fled with them to Moscow. She had a nice time in the Russian capital—she even found a boyfriend—but she missed Ukraine. She decided to bike back. When she crossed the border, she said, at Belgorod, she had such a feeling of lightness and happiness. It made her feel like she never wanted to live anywhere but Ukraine again.
She moved to Kharkiv, joined an anarchist collective, and co-wrote a book on freeganism, its methods and its ideas. She was just about to launch it when the war began. When the missiles started falling, she decided that it was time to go. She had already seen war in Luhansk, and she was not interested in seeing it again. She tried to hitchhike, but all the cars were full. As the city was being bombarded, she went to the train station, but she couldn’t, at first, get a seat. There were too many people fleeing. On her third attempt, she made it, enduring a long and harrowing journey that included a terrible fight between two groups of men over one spare seat. After arriving in Lviv, she threw herself into volunteer work. “I felt guilty that I had survived,” she said. “I saw all these people in the cafés chilling, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to help.” She volunteered in the train-station room for mothers and children. I asked her if the children were traumatized, and she said that the mothers were having the more difficult time.
She also worked with people coming directly off the trains. If they were crying, she said, she approached them with some warm tea, and then she hugged them. “You can just feel the person relax when you do that,” she said. “I hug them, and I say, ‘It’s O.K. You’ve come here after a long journey. Now you’re safe.’ ”