by J. Kates
I don’t know how to write from this distance about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has put Ukrainian writers under threat as citizens of their country, foreign journalists in equal danger — we mourn the death of Nieman Fellow Brent Renaud — and also put a terrible pressure on Russian intellectuals who oppose the war.
We can trace the origins of the invasion as we will, to Kievan Rus, to 1648, to 1918, to the break-up of the Soviet Union, or to the more recent annexation by Russia of the Crimea and the Donbas.
Within Ukraine, writers have identifued first and foremost as citizens, and need to be acknowledged and supported that way, standing with their people or displaced as refugees.
In Russia, all independent media have been shut down. The New York Times, for the first time in its own history, has closed its Moscow office. Percipient independent journalists like Masha Gessen have fled, among more than 200,000 others, to relative safety, leaving behind other writers who think, as a friend in St. Petersburg writes to me, “Nothing good can be expected in Russia. But we have already lived under totalitarianism. What will happen now, only God knows…” (For the time being, e-mail, Facebook, Youtube, are still intermittently open.)
Nevertheless, opposition continues and perhaps grows within Russia. Marina Ovsyannikova, an employee with Russian state television, broke into a live broadcast with a protest sign calling for an end to propaganda. She was promptly arrested.
What we have to think about now is how we can, as individual writers and as a union committed to solidarity, support all our colleagues who are victims of war.
The most important way is for us all to research, write about, and uphold the facts as we can learn them. The Russian government has banned even the use of the words “war” and “invasion” with serious criminal penalties. We need to weigh the validity of sources — even, or especially, the ones that support our own ideas — before passing news along. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”
As a Union, we might consider material support for those Russian refugee writers out of the country whose resources have been completely cut off by Western sanctions and their own government.
One aspect of this all I can’t put aside. Every Soviet child of my generation — in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine — grew up reading the same early chapter text books in school: stories about heroic partisans in the villages, marshes, and woods of the very landscape that’s now being fought over, holding off Nazi invaders to the last man, woman, and child, and ultimately victorious. These are stories, I’m sure, that sharpen the steel of the Ukrainian resisters, and the same stories that haunt the souls of older Russians and their reluctant grandchildren.
We, too, are the ones who write the stories.
Here are a couple of resources that focus on Ukrainian writers: