“What Remains”: The Reverberations of War in Poland and Ukraine

Volunteers hand out food and drinks to Ukrainian refugees near a Poland boarder train station. Pakkin Leung CC-BY-4.0.
In the days and weeks following Russia’s February 2022 invasion and military occupation of Ukraine, scholars with expertise on the region weighed in on the ongoing crisis. Their meditations, insights, and professional experiences are collected here as the “Ukrainian Dispatches.”

 

“Do not forget to eat your vegetables” was not the message I expected to receive from a friend who now spends her days in and out of bomb shelters in Kyiv. In fact, this is just one of several positive messages she’s sent me in the past week. We communicate through Facebook Messenger almost daily, reminding each other to eat well and sleep when possible. Our mutual encouragement of self-care stands in opposition to the indiscriminate killing that is taking place across Ukraine as a result of Russia’s invasion. The very fact that a Ukrainian—who lives in an active war zone—sends me reminders to take care of myself speaks to the innate resolve of the Ukrainian character. The war has made Ukrainians anything but selfish.

The messages I receive from my friends and colleagues in Ukraine make me feel close to them now that I am no longer in the country. I arrived in Warsaw, Poland in late January after being evacuated out of Kyiv by the Fulbright Program. I had been living in Kyiv since October 2021 when I arrived to start my Fulbright grant. I planned to be in Ukraine until June to finish research for my dissertation, but the prospects of war forced our program out of the country. Due to a friendship between the Ukrainian and Polish Fulbright commissions, we came to the Polish capital to wait out what we thought would be a short time period before we could go back. We had little idea then what would unfold.

During my first couple of weeks in Poland, I stayed in regular communication with friends in Kyiv. Like everyone else at the time, we spent countless hours debating how seriously we should take threats of war. Before I left the city, the atmosphere was calm, and everyday life hummed in rhythmic fashion. I felt safe in the capital, but it was hard not to notice the different world views starting to emerge across news outlets. While I was still in Ukraine, I watched the Facebook and Twitter pages of the United States Embassy in Kyiv announce the arrival of planeloads full of what seemed like unlimited amounts of ammunition and weapons. I didn’t know anything about missiles or war supplies then, but I started to research the types of military equipment they were delivering. My Google searches for the best borscht in Kyiv were replaced by searches for “anti-tank” and “anti-aircraft missiles.” I tried to understand what was being delivered and why. It was an exercise in distinguishing words from actions. Then came the notifications that US diplomats were departing from Ukraine. At the time, the news hadn’t been verified, and we had not been told we were leaving. The informational grey zone started to form. Should we carry on with life or prepare for war? The answer seemed to be both. I couldn’t help but think of Sergey Sergeyich, the protagonist in Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, who inhabits a grey zone of his own. Caught between military campaigns in Ukraine’s east, Sergeyich remains determined to live his life and care for his bees despite the backdrop of war. I wondered to myself whether I, too, should carry on with my life and keep tending to my “bees.” The decision mattered little. Whatever grey zone that existed between war and no war became charred in black the moment the Russian military began shelling and bombing Ukraine.

I started to feel the impact of the shelling through the messages that one of my best friends continued to send me as he and his wife and newborn daughter made the harrowing journey from Kyiv to Warsaw. On the road for more than a week, they stopped in different cities each night so they could find a place to stay and locate bomb shelters that would help keep them safe during the nightly raids. Every time the air raid sirens sounded on their journey, he sent a group message to me and our other friend with the siren emoji. Any time a message appeared on my phone from him, I knew they were in for another difficult night. We waited anxiously for the “all clear” message that routinely followed the ones regarding sirens. Fortunately, they made it safely to Warsaw. They are living with me in an apartment while they figure out what comes next. Although the war is still raging, the aftermath for those who have left is starting to unfold. As someone who researches and writes about the aftermath of tragedies in Ukrainian history, this has become a moment for me when the personal and scholarly have connected in unexpected ways.

I arrived in Ukraine in October 2021 to finish research for my dissertation. I spent my days in archives and libraries thumbing through pages of the past looking for material to help me write about the aftermath of the 1932-1933 famine (Holodomor) and the 1946-1947 famine. My larger dissertation project focuses on the issues and problems left behind for survivors to deal with in the immediate aftermath of famine, and I specifically write about how the effects of the famine continued to reverberate for years to come after it officially came to its slow conclusion. In other words, my research questions to what degree events of genocide, tragedy, and crimes against humanity really come to an end, and my dissertation explains that such events leave in their wake incredibly difficult issues that individuals, communities, and global actors grapple with well after the event itself ends. Now that I am working on the border of Ukraine and experiencing first-hand the displacement of Ukrainians (and others), I cannot help but think about what the aftermath of this war will bring for them and their country.

As I’ve transitioned (temporarily) from writing about the aftermath of famine to experiencing the aftermath of war here in Poland, I find that the scholarship that originally influenced my own approach to studying Ukrainian history has provided me with a framework to better understand the types of issues that will remain after the war is over. I often think these days about the title of Tobie Meyer-Fong’s 2013 book, What Remains. This book, which I first read at the recommendation of one of my committee members—who is also a dedicated scholar of aftermaths—is a study of how people coped with the cataclysm of civil war in China during the Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century. In addition to its academic contributions, the book is significant because it reminds us that war does not end neatly. After it is over, people must cope with loss, confront the dead, rebuild what has been destroyed, and learn how to live with what’s happened. It is clear from the destruction that has already been done in Ukraine that a tough reckoning awaits. The news here in Europe routinely shows dead bodies sprawled out across streets, mass burials of those who have died, and carnage from ceaseless bombing campaigns. As a historian of the Holodomor, I never thought that the mass graves and corporeal confrontations that I write about in my dissertation would be streaming live across my television in 2022. We now wait to see what remains for Ukraine.

In many ways, the reverberations of war are already here. It only takes one visit to the border to see how many people are currently displaced from their homeland because of what’s happened. Hundreds of thousands of people cross the border from Ukraine into Poland each day. It is a common sight to see mothers holding the hands of their young children as they usher them into the protected grounds of the European Union. Crowds gather at the border as they wait for someone to pick them up and take them to their final destination. Fires burn in old barrels to keep people warm as the frigid temperatures set in each night. The endless news cycles regularly show the scenes at the borders, documenting the displacement and uncertainty that has befallen those who were forced to leave. Less seen are the effects of war that elude cameras. The tears that follow those who break down in the back seat of a car after a long journey; the psychological torture of having to separate from family; the constant pain that one endures when regularly checking in with family members in Ukraine to see if they are still alive. The effects of the war do not stop when Ukrainians cross the border. Trauma is not delineated by neatly drawn map lines.

There are now over 1.5 million refugees who have left Ukraine. It is on track to be the largest refugee crisis since WWII. I’ve worked with some of these refugees in Poland in an attempt to find them housing, jobs, and money. The streets of Warsaw are busier than ever, and I hear much more Russian and Ukrainian being spoken on the streets than I did when I first arrived here. Poland, along with the rest of Europe, is starting to feel the effects of the war. Those who make it here are in their own type of holding pattern. They are uncertain whether to make their temporary home more permanent or whether they should treat their time here as a sojourn. Just tonight, I met some very courageous women who arrived in Warsaw from Dnipro. Over cups of hot tea, they told me their stories of leaving Ukraine. When I asked them how they were holding up after their border crossing, a university aged woman replied, “I think I need a therapist.” Her answer was a reminder of this war’s human cost, the invisible toll that cannot be simply understood from a news report or picture on the internet. The effects of this war will be long, and we need to be ready to deal with the consequences of what will happen.

The number of people leaving Ukraine will continue to increase as long as the war forges on. Getting to the border of another country is already a feat, and we should do everything we can to assist those who leave Ukraine for other countries. But we would be wise to remember that a successful border crossing is not the end. The challenges ahead are many, and we must be sensitive and understanding of the grief and pain that Ukrainians will endure as they attempt to make sense of what they are living through. Even when the war ends—and it will end—we must consider the reverberating effects that the war will leave behind. Just because the war will eventually end doesn’t mean that it will conclude in the minds of those who lived through it. There will be a process of coming to terms with what happened in 2022, and we should prepare ourselves now so we can help in the best possible way.

My friend who checks in regularly with me to make sure I am eating my vegetables offers some hope of what the aftermath of war might look like. Tonight, when I messaged her for our usual “vegetable check-in,” she told me she not only ate her veggies but also paid bills and washed her hair. She called her day “almost normal.” Her words were a reminder, at least to me, that “what remains” after war is not only death and destruction, but persistence and determination. For now, she endures. We all do. We follow her lead.

John Vsetecka is a PhD Candidate in History at Michigan State University and, until January 2022, was serving as a Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine. His dissertation explores the social and cultural memory of the Soviet famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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