Odesa Monument to the Duke de Richelieu. Photograph by Anna Golubovsky.
This story begins more than thirty years ago, in the late eighties. There are poets working at the Odesa newspapers, many of which are faltering. A publisher visits my school classroom.
“Who would like to write for a newspaper?”
A room full of hands.
“Who would like to write for a newspaper for free?”
One hand goes up—mine. I am twelve.
In the busy hallway of the paper’s office, I meet an old man with a cane, Valentyn Moroz—a legendary Ukrainian-language poet who’s often in trouble with Soviet party officials. He is reading Mandelstam next to me, unable to sit still, unable to read quietly. His voice trembles as he reads a stanza: “Do you hear? Do you hear? This is Mandelstam, this son of a bitch Mandelstam, no one writes better than this son of a bitch Mandelstam. Don’t you know this Mandelstam?”
Moroz stands up. He takes me by the hand and leads me out of the building to the nearest tram station. He recites poems from memory all the way from the office to the station, and then on the tram all the way to his apartment.
I leave there with a bag of books and a handwritten note telling me not to come back next week unless I have read and memorized some of Mandelstam’s poems.
Thus begins my education.
That same year, I meet Yevgeny Golubovsky, a legendary Odesa journalist, when he gives a talk at my school. Moroz makes a point of telling me that Golubovsky was one of the first people to start publishing Mandelstam again after the poet’s final arrest and death in a transit camp in 1938. As the story goes, Mandelstam’s widow, Nadezhda, shared some of his unpublished verses, typed up on thin cigarette paper, with Golubovsky. When Golubovsky vowed to find a way, against all the rules then in place, to publish them, Nadezhda chuckled and nodded her head in disbelief.
And yet he did find a way. That’s the kind of man Golubovsky is.
My family leaves Odesa in 1993. Moroz dies in 2019, but Golubovsky and I remain in touch. In late February this year, when Russia invades Ukraine, his email to me describes air-raid sirens and panic, then concludes, “But now it is calm. It’s a beautiful summer day.”
This is also the kind of man Golubovsky is.
When I ask him how I can help, he replies, “Ah, I need nothing,” and when I ask again what I can do, he sends a quick message back: “Putins come and go. We are putting together a literary magazine. Send us poems.”
Golubovsky is always starting something. Some years ago, he invited a group of literary people of all ages over for tea, and so began Green Lamp, a regular gathering of poets and writers. “As a two-hundred-and-twenty-seven-year-old city, Odesa is still relatively young,” he writes to me,
But more than two hundred of these years took place on the world’s literary map. Writers as different as Lord Byron, Mark Twain, and Pushkin wrote about Odesa. Poland’s national bard, Adam Mickiewicz, lived and taught in Odesa for a while, and wrote about it. The legendary Anna Akhmatova was born here. By the early twentieth century, Odesa already had its own—very diverse and multilingual—literary tradition: Isaac Babel and Yuri Olesha were writing in Russian, Yanovsky and Sosiura in Ukrainian, Sholem Aleichem in Yiddish, and so on.
Now Golubovsky walks around the city seeing its cobbled streets covered in anti-tank devices, hearing explosions overhead. In his emails, he insists on both the importance of cultural memory and the need for new voices. At his suggestion, I begin a series of interviews with the members of Green Lamp, whose words about the first few weeks of this war you can read below. “My wish for you,” Golubovsky writes, “is to never have the experience of going about your day to the rhythm of constant air-raid sirens. The pain is experienced by the city and by Ukraine as a whole. This pain passes constantly through the writer’s breastbone.”
Every morning starts with this question. I am asked and I ask. Family asks, friends ask, colleagues, acquaintances: my lines of defense. I still can’t understand how it can be—war in Ukraine? Attacked by Russia? They are bombing our cities? Just days before the war began, I finished my latest novel. The protagonist dreams about war—dreams impacted by stories of her grandmother, who was a prisoner in the Salaspils camp. I haven’t found the strength to reread the novel yet. I still feel disgusted.
One day I will find the courage to rewrite it. I will speak as a witness. To how scary it is when air-raid sirens wail in the early morning on an ordinary Thursday. How I kept smiling while packing frantically, trying to signal to my son that I was not worried. How a warehouse exploded and burned before our eyes, less than two hundred feet away. How we spent a night surrounded by jam jars in a root cellar in Odesa. How my three-year-old nephew, who had just arrived from Kharkiv, stuttered and cried. How unwilling I was to decide whether I should stay with my husband or drive the kids away from all this. How we left Odesa at night: eight cars, women and children, cats and dogs. Some of us were driving for the first time ever. We were stopped at a checkpoint: no cars were allowed to pass through at night. One woman suddenly exclaimed, “I know the password! My husband wrote it down for me before he went to war.”
We fight our own information war. We wake up every morning and hope that it’s all over. That we can live, plan, write novels again. But for now, I just message everyone: “And you? How are you?” Hearing an answer is the only thing that matters.
After a week spent in a stupor, I walked out into Odesa’s streets to see anti-tank fortifications, barricades made of sandbags blocking the avenues. Boutiques and restaurants boarded up. People with guns on the streets. I’m writing this in a taxi. We were just stopped at a checkpoint, we were searched. It’s frightening how quickly I’ve gotten used to this life.
The most terrifying thing is the silence, when you know that the whole country is boiling in a bloody broth. Our people are amazing: never before have I seen such solidarity and care among neighbors.
A strange feeling: as if I haven’t lived before this moment. As if some kind of shell has burst, a carapace that prevented me from breathing in deeply. I don’t know what I did before the war. I’ve never been so aware of being needed, of being involved in reality.
People gathering sand into bags for fortifications. Photograph by Anna Golubovsky.
War entered my life in L’viv. I was there on vacation. An urge to go home: I got on a train back. I am still not quite sure why I went toward Odesa when most people were leaving our city for L’viv or to go farther west, abroad, to safety. I struggled to get through the crowd at the station in L’viv. People were waiting for trains to the western border, and the trains were five hours, seven hours late; some folks were sleeping on their suitcases, and kids were crying, just like they do in movies about war.
Today is March 11, the sixteenth day. The war of bullets and bombs has not started full swing in Odesa yet, but you are going to read this later, so you will know more than I do now. I envy you.
In the beginning I taped my windows, crisscross, so that even if something exploded nearby, the blast wave wouldn’t leave my entire apartment covered in shards of glass. I moved a large dresser in front of the window for better protection. As days went by, we got used to being afraid, so I moved the dresser back to the wall, and peeled the tape off.
Other cities get bombed, missiles explode, and Russian soldiers walk down the streets and sometimes shoot the locals for entertainment. Those who are leaving Odesa now see that other side of war: crying children, thirty hours of waiting at the Moldovan border, not knowing where to live, where to shower, or when to return home.
I live on the twenty-first floor. There is no one left around here. Of eight apartments, only one still has inhabitants: my dog, my cat, and me. When I hear the sirens wailing, I walk out on the balcony to see if missiles are coming.
I have been dividing my time between Prague and Odesa for many years, but when this war started, my family was on a trip to New York. For a few days before our flight to Prague we did not venture out of our hotel room other than to attend protests. We spent the entire time scrolling through the news and calling our friends and family.
Back in Prague, we found we could be of more use: the Czech Republic has already received more than two hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees. I spend my days between the refugee integration center, the train station, and a community residence for seventy-two people that my friends are building at their own expense.
I cannot write anything. I don’t have the stamina, desire, or time for it now. For many days, I have been grinding my way through a piece on the correspondence between Henry Miller and David Burliuk. I would love to publish a few letters from Miller in Ukrainian translation for the first time. And yet my mornings start with calls and letters asking for help, my days are spent on volunteer work, and by the time I am free it is already late into the night.
A seagull, all fluffed up, sits at the edge of the pier, chest against the wind. A sharp explosion over the bay interrupts its contemplation of the gray water, and it spreads its wings.
Seagulls don’t know what war is. But after sixteen days, the gulls have managed to overcome their confusion and learn not to fly too far when the sky shakes with land-mine explosions or cannon fire, not to hide when they hear the howl of sirens.
The seagulls fly over Odesa’s streets, which are usually crowded and noisy. A rare pedestrian leaves footprints on the untouched snow. In silence, the famous Potemkin Stairs climb the slope, buried in bags filled with sand. They hide the monument to the city’s founder—Odesa’s bronze soul—from the malice of artillery. But the seagulls love the sand.
The street bristles with anti-tank devices. Will they be able to protect us against modern missiles? Of course not. But there is something hoodlumish, cocky, in these six-pointed crosses known as hedgehogs. Such hedgehogs stood here in 1941, and now time has jumped off the footboard of the past.
The gull circles over the houses and flies once again to the sea.
A few days ago, I decided to listen to Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto. I wanted to clutch it in my hands like a branch, so that I wouldn’t slip into the sticky mud of hostility toward everything Russian. Rachmaninoff is innocent—he has nothing to do with Putin’s crimes. Just as Goethe was innocent of Hitler’s madness.
Yesterday, during an air raid, I hid in a bathroom, and I understood with clarity that I don’t want to sink into hate. I have made a choice for myself, and I am trying to stick to it. Hate is the language of my enemies. It is their source of strength. How else to explain the bombardments of kindergartens, maternity wards, hospitals?
I come back to Heine, who said that each new epoch needs a new kind of reader, needs new sets of eyes.
What is life in wartime? It is hard for me to choose the right word—I suppose life has narrowed to some very mundane actions: watching the news, buying groceries, cooking simple food, washing the dishes. I try to read books and even to continue writing an article about the artists of Odesa in wartime, but … here’s a thought: What is it all for, if tomorrow I—and Odesa—may not exist? War steals the pleasure from writing.
War steals many things. Even an ordinary walk by the sea is impossible—the beach on Luzanovka has been mined in anticipation of the Russian landing. Odesa now lives in a constant state of suspense, waiting for the shelling, the air strikes, the chemical attacks. We live inside the waiting hours.
The strangeness is everywhere: barricades made of sandbags and concrete blocks at almost every intersection, volunteers distributing bread and sausages. There is strangeness, too, in the snow that has been falling for three days—frost in Odesa, a vacation town, in March!—and in the courage of my neighbor, an eighty-year-old woman who survived Hitler’s war, who every evening says: “You need to have a good wash and put on new clothes, so that if they bomb you, you will be clean …”
Despite it all, I am convinced: We will get through this. Because white snowdrops and violets are blooming in all the front gardens, because pigeons are cooing on my windowsill, because we are strong.
I am not sure about literature right now, whether anyone needs it … My essays on the Second World War, which I wrote based on interviews with eyewitnesses, are no longer relevant—we have a different war, a different experience. And my other writing—my stories about angels—is too light to be timely now. The Russian language in which I write is no longer trendy. I think sooner or later every writer in Odesa will face the question of whether to write in Russian, only for Odesa, or to write for the whole of Ukraine, in Ukrainian. What choice will I make?
Odesa Opera Theater. Photograph by Anna Golubovsky.
My wife and I left Odesa for Poland. A group of friends, nine of us, crowded in a train compartment designed for four people, traveled to L’viv. Then we tried to cross the border by car, but our cars were stopped. We walked on foot for a mile in the snow and stood in an enormous crowd that the border guards called a “line to the checkpoint.” The guards left us and focused their attention on the trucks coming from the other side of the border. From time to time someone in the crowd screamed, “Doctor!” Old women were fainting. Finally, a border guard let us into the building. The crowd flooded the empty hall. We stood there for an hour. Then a guard shouted, “Run into the next hall!” The crowd flooded into the next room, only to find that we were now behind those who had been behind us in the crowd outside. The mothers with young children were hysterical.
An impossible moment: a border guard stamped our passports, and we entered Polish territory. The guard, playing Santa Claus, gave each child a candy. But it took two more hours to pass through the Polish border. Then, a bus to the information center. Another bus to the train station. A second half-sleepless night, sitting on suitcases in the hallway of a crowded, moving train. We tried not to look at ourselves in the mirror.
Finally, in Poland, friends and volunteers try to help us, selflessly. What will the future hold for us? Who today would dare to answer such a question?
As for writing: I am unable to read anything except the news—so don’t ask me about my writing. My attitude toward the Russian language has not changed. No, I don’t speak the language of the occupiers of my country. It is they who stole my language.
In these two weeks my life has changed entirely: the world I knew has become as fragile as shortbread. But people who might have been weak have become as strong as steel. I myself have felt for many days like a kind of iron frame on which the whole house hangs, on which my frightened children, my cats, and everything I know is hanging right now, including my own clarity of mind.
A strange feeling: everything around me now is what I once used to read about in books on war, thinking how wonderful it was that I lived in a different time. I don’t live in a different time. This movie is now the life of my family, my city. It is a very mediocre movie. I want to turn on the lights in this theater.
The cats are screaming in the night, trying to outscream the air-raid sirens. I find beauty in strange things—graffiti on peeling walls, a street dug up for repairs. I look about greedily. I don’t know if I will ever see this or that street again. I see photos of Kharkiv in ruins, photos of a bombed-out Kyiv. Everything is changing too fast. If you want to do something, you need to do it right now.
Doing something, anything, is medicine at this moment. When I manage to help someone, I can forget about the war. I think many people have discovered this.
Prewar life already seems unreal and faraway. There was so much in it. I didn’t appreciate it: always rushing, searching for new projects. Not enough time for basic talk. Now there is so much talk, but it is tense. Cruelly, this situation brings us back to each other.
Has Odesa changed in these first few days of war? Yes. No. There are lines of people at the gas stations so long that they are blocking traffic on the streets, lines in stores of people sweeping everything from the shelves—cereals, sugar, salt, matches—this blizzard of movement pulling the city from its usual calm, this human anthill.
Checkpoints have sprung up, but cars still weave through the streets, fewer now. Passersby go about their business; supermarkets and some small stalls and kiosks are open. On Monday, classes are starting in schools and universities. But no one knows what will happen next.
In times of war, writing goes badly. What can you do? Your mind refuses to make sense of what’s happening.
Some people have left, and those who remain have banded together. My ninety-two-year-old mother returned a couple of days ago from the store, and in her bag were several cans of preserves, given to her by women she didn’t know.
On the first day of the war, people in Kharkiv, in Kyiv, in L’viv—first among them Russian-speaking and bilingual people—started speaking Ukrainian en masse.
Some have already managed to “surrender” and transition back to their customary Russian. At first with a disclaimer—“In order to be understood by all the Russian enemies”—and then silently, without rationalization. When, hurriedly, between air raids, you try to articulate your thoughts and feelings, you involuntarily switch back to the language you’ve been accustomed to thinking in since childhood. Others keep their oath—not one more word in Russian!—and I think they will remain strictly Ukrainian speakers even after the war.
The Russian invasion showed what a source of strife regular words can be. Some fearmongers, including those from other countries, accuse me of naivete: “After the war they could ban speaking Russian in Ukraine!” But I remind them: saying what you think in the Russian language is banned only in Putin’s Russia.
A city that is preparing its defense does not make the best impression. You can’t simply pass through the streets of the city center: everywhere there are tank traps, sandbags, wire gauze.
Several times a day there are air-raid alarms, and some neighborhoods have no bomb shelters. I bring my eighty-five-year-old mom to the bathroom, the only place in her home where it’s possible to find some kind of shelter.
Through all this, Odesites are not losing their sense of humor. Across the city walls there are giant banners advising Russian soldiers to do as Ukrainians on nearby Snake Island had famously suggested a Russian warship should. In wartime, profanity is forgivable, it relieves stress.
People are volunteering everywhere, assembling sandbags on the seashore. “You’re an Odesite,” the song goes, “and that means that neither grief nor misfortune is scary for you!”
I’ve written several poems about the war. A poet should be a vibrating string that responds to everything happening around us. I am following what my poet friends are writing, and the level of their poetry has risen—the language has become very precise, strong.
There are no words nor justifications for what the Russian Army is doing in Ukraine—in Kharkiv, in Mariupol’, in other cities. Still, the task of poetry is to find words even when there are none.
Translated from the Russian and the Ukrainian by Ilya Kaminsky, Katie Farris, Natalia Baryshnikova, Louis Train, Anastasia Diatlova, NK, and Yohanca Delgado.
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