Tatiana Retivov. Levels of Loss. Second Week of Russia’s War Against Ukraine

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Tatiana Retivov. Levels of Loss. Second Week of Russia's War Against Ukraine


“incidit in Scyllam cupiēns vītāre Charybdem”
[into Scylla he fell, wishing to avoid Charybdis]

— Erasmus

And so, we enter the second week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I want to say, the last week, but that is wishful thinking. As my friend and I drove through Bukovina exploring different exit routes out of Ukraine, I watched the stark borderline winter/spring landscape stream past me in black and white. Anti-tank hedgehogs graced the crossroads along the way. Young men in camouflage suits brought down trees and moved endless bags of sand and dirt to barricade roads and make it impossible for tanks to pass. I thought of loss, how to measure and categorize it, it brought me to Dante’s circles of hell and his system of categorization. I do not, however, intend to chart the landscape of this Hell nor map it in detail, because it defies accurate measurement at this point.

My friend, the journalist Sophia Kishkovsky, commented on my previous text, about “how a lost world can be lost twice.” My grandmother managed to carry an icon through the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and WWII. One hundred years have passed, and the icon was passed on to me, will I be able to keep it from being lost?

I wrote in my previous text about “Sophie’s choice”, mine mainly had to do with pets, but so many have been forced to make much harder choices, for example leaving bedridden parents or grandparents behind, in a constantly shelled city, such as Kharkiv, and taking one’s children to safety. The guilt and heartbreak are unbearable in such a situation. How does one measure and compare different experiences of loss?

At this point, all I can say is that there is a certain frame of mind, or “zone”, that one enters when under incredible duress, and one begins to make decisions that one never would have entertained in normal circumstances. For example, people kept telling me that I should leave Ukraine and rent a place in some country in the EU, but before the missile attack on Kyiv, I just could not bring myself to act, to make such a decision. But eventually, some kind of survival instinct kicks in, and one enters this zone of clarity, one begins to shed all that is irrelevant. Everything is reduced to what is really needed in order to survive. In times of peace, I could not imagine leaving any of my 4 cats and 2 dogs behind, to date, I have left all of them behind, except for one dog. I did so lucidly, thinking more of their safety and well-being than my own feelings of comfort and companionship. Already during the process of our 48-hour trip out of Kyiv, the dynamics of our relationship changed dramatically. The two dogs who before could not bear to be apart had entered into another zone of being. This zone makes you economize any trivial emotions or habits, you become accustomed to drinking whatever is offered, eating when you can.

Thus, as the first week of the war drew to a close, under pressure from family and friends in the US, I decided I should cross the border. At the same time, my friend Tamara was in the process of helping mothers with children and the elderly leave and come to our community in the Ukrainian Bukovina. On Saturday, March 5, Tamara drove me to the border of Moldova, which was easy to pass through, there were no lines, and then we moved on to the border checkpoint over the river Prut from Moldova to Romania. The line of vehicles waiting to cross was about 3 km, it was moving very slowly, a couple of cars every 20 min or so. A friend of a friend who had shown Tamara the way from the Moldova border to this checkpoint drove us all the way up to the front of the line and dropped me off there with my dog and all the belongings that I could carry. I would be helped to get across the border by a volunteer who carries those without cars across the border. Next to the checkpoint, on both sides, the volunteers had set up tents with food, hot soup, tea, coffee, cookies, and fruit. On the other side of the border, my dog, Odina (named after the god Odin), and I would be met by a couple of formidable women, part of an extended Romanian family with poets and scholars living in the US and Canada, all of whom were communicating with me via WhatsApp. The connection was made by Ilya Kaminsky, a well-known American poet originally from Odessa, with whom I had been coordinating a variety of publishing projects, and the American poet of Romanian descent Mihaela Moscaliuc, who was the one that made the connection with the family of her friend Diana Catargiu, a professor in Canada.

What is remarkable, is that I am still in Bukovina. It should be noted that the “territory of what became known as Bukovina was, from 1774 to 1918, an administrative division of the Habsburg Monarchy, the Austrian Empire, and Austria-Hungary” (Wikipedia). The northern part of Bukovina is Ukrainian, with its center being the city of Chernivtsi, the southern part is Romanian, represented by Suceava, which is where I currently am. And as I write this section of my text, on 9 March, it is the birthdate of the Ukrainian national poet, Taras Schevchenko, and I am proud to announce that one of the formidable ladies hosting me here is my namesake Tatiana, the wife of the late Ion Cozmei, poet, writer, and translator of Shevchenko. I find it remarkable, that I am still in Bukovina, and that the spirit of Shevchenko lives on here.

But back to the Ukrainian Bukovina that I left behind, the hut that I was staying at, a pyatistenok, which means literally “of five walls”, i.e. a traditional two-room hut split in half by a huge wood stove made of clay and tiles. It heats the entire house. There were 4 beds in that house, and next door there is a bigger house where a couple of families can sleep. It too has a woodstove. The day after I left, 31 people with pets arrived from the Kyiv oblast’, where there continues to be shelling and shooting by snipers and the like. There is no such thing as a safe green corridor if arranged by Putin and the Russian forces. Over the past three days, evacuees trying to get out of the region were constantly bombed, shelled, and shot. The 31 people that made it to Bukovina included children, mothers, and two elderly people, one with Alzheimer’s, the other recovering from a stroke, three cats, and three parakeets. Five more people are on their way. I am glad I was able to move on and make room for some other evacuees.

Just today, on March 10, I received an urgent call from an art history scholar friend of mine who was in Kyiv to take care of her son who has major health issues, is a diabetic, and has problems walking. A volunteer took them to the Romanian border, however because of her son, who is between the age of 18 and 60, they were unable to cross. He did not have the right medical documents. At this point, from Romania, I am trying to help them find lodging in the Bukovina area that I had stayed in. Hopefully my friend Tamara will be able to help, although she is in the process of moving supplies to the Kyiv oblast’ and coordinating the movement of other evacuees to Bukovina. Thus, coordination goes on, wherever one is.

Clearly, the loss of life is the most important loss we are now experiencing. Over 2000 civilians dead in Putin’s quasi-attempt to “save them”. Hospitals, including a maternity ward in Mariupol’, shelled. During the meeting going on right now (March 10) in Istanbul between the Foreign Ministers of both Ukraine and Russia, Lavrov still maintains that they are not taking aim at civilians and is in absolute denial. One of the missions of this Russian “military operation” is “denazification”! The cynicism of Putin’s motives defies proportion. It is extremely ironic that in the city of Uman’, which is a yearly pilgrimage site for over 10,000 Breslov Hasidic Jews in commemoration of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) who is buried there, the temple has been currently modified into a bomb shelter and any citizen of Uman is welcome. Jews protecting Ukrainians from Russian Forces, is this what “denazification” is about? Where is the logic? As most of Ukraine, before the Bolshevik Revolution, was a part of the Pale of Settlement (“a western region of the Russian Empire with varying borders that existed from 1791 to 1917 in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed and beyond which Jewish residency, permanent or temporary, was mostly forbidden” Wikipedia). This is perhaps what differentiates Ukraine from Russia, historically a large Jewish population. In Uman’ alone 17,000 Jews were exterminated during WWII.

The loss of one’s home, homeland, country is surely the second most significant loss. And, by the same token, a country’s loss of a large part of its population is equal to that of the loss of said country. By the end of this week, out of its population of 41.65 million, Ukraine will most likely have lost over 2 million of its citizens in Putin’s hybrid war operation of “denazification”, which will ironically result in, hurrah, the UKRAINIZATION of all of Europe! As Jean de La Fontaine said, “a person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it”. And voila! Welcome to a major demographic shift in store for all of Europe. May this be one loss that becomes a gain, eventually.

Eight years ago, in March of 2014, when the Maidan Revolution was in full force in Ukraine, I posted this quote on Facebook from the Ukrainian-Jewish dissident psychiatrist, Semyon Gluzman, who in 1972 had been sentenced to 7 years in a harsh regime labor camp (the Perm political labor camp). Gluzman wrote in 2010: “When I ended up in the labor camp zone in 1973, among the political prisoners convicted to serve time in the Soviet camps, up to 40% were Ukrainian, that is an approximate assessment, as I saw it, though I did not really engage in actual counting. There was no such quantity among the Belarusians, the Uzbeks, nor any other nationality, though the KGB was active in all of the Republics. This points to there being a special enzyme [ferment] of resistance in Ukrainians, a desire to live differently. This country has a European future, because it has in its past [such major experience] of resistance.” Indeed, how relevant this is for us today. Though I wonder how many of the hypothetical 40% Ukrainians were actually Jewish as well, as Gluzman himself is.

As we now know, most of the evacuation corridors remained far from safe in this past week, with constant shelling and snipers shooting directly at cars and people seeking to escape by foot in the areas outside of Kyiv, such as Irpen’. Buses and cars evacuating women and children from Mariupol were brutally shot at. We have all seen photos of the thousands of potential evacuees outside of one train at the Kharkiv Central Train Station, most likely en route to L’viv and then possibly on to Poland or Germany.

Bottlenecks at the Polish borders are horrendous, humanitarian, technical, and military assistance blocked from Poland for immediate entry, as everything needs to be verified. Ukraine and its borders are being infiltrated by saboteurs. Or commandos, as they are also called, though I must admit this is the first time I have either written or actually uttered the word, as it is not part of my literary lexicon, I don’t usually watch those kinds of blockbuster movies. “Commandos are a military unit trained and organized as shock troops especially for hit-and-run raids into enemy territory,” as per Merriam Webster. They might ask for food, safe passage, or to spend the night at your home, one must be extra careful. A subway station sheltering children and pets was infiltrated by such malicious units that brought toys with ammunition and explosives in them. Toys lying around in yards and on benches should not be touched. The commandos go around marking doorways, yards, streets with strange signs (a cross in a circle, a Z, just a cross) made in a special luminescent and night reflecting paint to serve as markers for missiles. Ukrainian citizens are urged to cover any such sign when they see it with tar, mud, or anything that can block its luminescence.

If one encounters a suspicious character, one should get him to pronounce the Ukrainian word “palianytsia”, which refers to a type of Ukrainian bread baked in a traditional wood stove, the dough is kneaded at intervals and then an incision is cut into it before baking it. The word is used as a shibboleth in the Ukrainian language, to identify people for whom the Ukrainian language is not native. In any case, it takes practice, and when taken aback, a non-Ukrainian would have difficulty understanding or pronouncing it. The word for Ukrainian Railways works as well. Other options are to say “Glory to Ukraine” in Ukrainian, and wait for the standard response, or get the suspect to sing the Ukrainian anthem, which every Ukrainian now knows by heart.

Now back to the bread, “palianytsia”, it is believed that its etymology is Greek and it is derived from the name for the Greek bread “pelanos”, also known as Demeter’s divine bread, which could be made with hops, wheat, honey, poppies, barley, and probably yeast-based fermented dough. There was a large Greek community on the Black Sea, between Odessa and Nikolayev, originally called Oliviopolitis or Borisphen, the Greek word for the river Dniepr. Later it got shortened to Olvia. Perhaps this ancient bread contains the magical enzyme that provides sustenance to the resistant and unbreakable Ukrainian spirit.

The baking of this bread is connected with the tradition of fasting/feasting and breaking of the divine bread during the Eleusinian mysteries, which were participated in while Demeter searched for her daughter, Persephone, for 9 days.

When I first set upon my journey to the dissolving post-Soviet Empire, I decided to come to Ukraine, despite being by heritage closer to St. Petersburg, through my mother and my grandparents. As a poet and writer, I began to identify myself as “Psyche in the Wilderness.” I even wrote a short novel and a collection of poems by that title. As I mentioned previously, I have been in Ukraine since 1994, before that, I also traveled in Russia as well. At the beginning of this ominous year, and in anticipation of a potential invasion by Russia, I upgraded my self-identification of “Psyche in the Wilderness” to the “Metanoia of Psyche in the Wilderness”. As per Wikipedia, metanoia is “a transformative change of heart…, a spiritual conversion, repudiation, atonement, and reformation” in Christian theology.

However, the term is also used in literary studies, and in rhetoric, it is defined as an act of self-correction in speech or writing, the act of retracting a statement just made. Metanoia and epiphany are often used by literary scholars to describe various transformative experiences by James Joyce’s characters in all of his literary works. So, I guess for me, the retraction of a statement really has to do with my retraction of the faith and trust I had over the past 30 years in “perestroika” and “glasnost’” as the so-called foundations of the new, revived, post-Soviet world, in the future of Russia, and the position that I took within that context, in my life, work, and world views. Clearly, they failed us big time, if this is where we find ourselves, on the verge of WWIII.

In the 1990s, one of the Ukrainian interpreters and translators that I worked with, Igor Kistenev-Kavkazskiy, translated into Ukrainian and Russian the play “Translations” by Brian Friel. The play is about language and cultural imperialism, namely that of Ireland and England. It was produced in translation on stage in Kyiv and was a great success. To understand the complexity of the issues involved in any kind of cultural imperialism, this play is amazingly informative, it deals not only with language, but with cartography, marking territories, and naming them. Perhaps such writing can be considered as a step toward a kind of healing between imperialism and national/ethnic diversity. Literature can and does indeed play a significant role in overcoming diversity even in the post-Soviet world, among Slavic and Baltic nations. EastWest Literary Forum, where this essay is being published is an example of such an effort.

I would like to note that until this war, there was a lot of cooperation between publishers, bloggers, and contemporary poets, writing in Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusan, there were many literary festivals and awards that were inclusive and overcame borders and boundaries. Poets writing in Russian in Ukraine were translated by their Ukrainian counterparts. Poets in Russia translated contemporary Ukrainian and Belarusan poets. Now, this literary world is in shambles, and not just in Ukraine, many Russian poets and bloggers had already left Russia and established themselves and their projects in literary communities in the Baltics, in Germany, and other countries. The literary exodus from Ukraine is now also in progress. One of the major poets of Kharkiv, Irina Evsa, has managed to get evacuated to Germany. Literary magazines published in Ukraine are of course down for now. Literary friends in Russia are being declared foreign agents and are under threat of persecution, many are shutting down their social media accounts and lying low or leaving.

But when it comes to Russia and its silent majority, they are clearly brainwashed zombies. It is no wonder that hackers have taken to posting the real war news by hacking the Russian national television stations transmitted via the internet. In 2014, Putin was depicted as Hercules in an art exhibition commemorating his 62nd birthday by reimagining Putin’s heroic activities as inspired by the 12 labors of Hercules! The Russian silent majority sees Putin as a hero equivalent to Hercules. In fact, one of the Herculean labors, the 10th one, according to Herodotus occurred in the area of Ukraine that was once inhabited by ancient Greeks and eventually by the Scythians. According to legend, Hercules fell asleep and lost track of his horses in the woods. While searching for them, he encountered a half woman and half snake who promised to help him find his horses if he would lie down with her. As a result, she had three sons by Hercules, one of them was Scythes, and he was the only one who came to any good, thus Scythia was named after him.

Outside of Russia many now see Putin in the context of the David and Goliath meme, though for me the meme has been relevant since the 1990s, in the context of the relations between Ukraine and the Russian Federation even back then, it became more and more pronounced with the Maidan, and now it has become a grotesque and brutal recreation of the scenario. May the Ukrainian David find the appropriate slingshot to destroy Putin, the pseudo-Goliath with illusions of grandeur.
In the first days of the war, 24-25 February, the Russian Navy and the Black Sea Fleet with one missile cruiser and one patrol ship attacked the Snake (or Serpent) island in the Black Sea, 120 km off the Odesa coast. It was guarded by 13 Ukrainian Border Guards. One Ukrainian Search and Rescue Boat was seized, and an entire garrison was captured. Reportedly the Russian Patrol Ship, named after Vasily Bykov, a prolific Soviet Belarusan writer about WWII, was attacked on 7 March by a Ukrainian multiple rocket launcher system and destroyed. As Carina Cockrell-Ferre wrote about the island on Facebook, the ancient Greeks who inhabited this island, called it the Island of Achilles. They believed that it was formed from land that was brought from the bottom of the Black Sea, by the goddess Thetis, one of the 50 Nereids and daughters of the ancient sea god Nereus. Thetis created this island in order to bury her son, Achilles, who perished during the Trojan War. As the island was being captured, the Russian military voiced an ultimatum over a loudspeaker, identifying itself as a Russian warship and suggesting that the Ukrainian border guards lay down their weapons and surrender in order to avoid bloodshed, otherwise they will be bombed. The border guards replied: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”. This prompted an air and naval attack that destroyed the island killing all 13 Border Guards. The reply has now become a tragic meme and can be seen in posters and signs all over the country and on the internet. Thirteen mothers now identify themselves with Thetis. Legend has it, according to the Greek inhabitants of this area, that Thetis will continue to come to mourn the death of Achilles on this island in the winter when the winds are howling, for she has been doomed to live with her grief forever.

About the Author:

пхото ретивова
Tatiana Retivov
Kyiv, Ukraine / Suceava, Romania (Bukovina)

Tatiana Retivov was born in New York to Russian émigré parents. She studied English and French literature at the University of Montana, where she received her B.A. In 1981, she received an M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literature from the University of Michigan. Tatiana has lived in Ukraine for over 20 years, she initially arrived here as an interpreter for an American company. Since arriving here, she has also engaged in literary translation and writing. Currently, Tatiana is the curator of an Art and Literature Salon in Kyiv, she has also established a publishing house, www.kayalapublishing.com that publishes prose, poetry, and non-fiction in Ukraine.

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