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Opinion: Ukraine's geographical tough luck

June 10, 2022

Author Julia Stachiwska was forced to flee her home in Bucha. Although she could now return, she would not find safety there, as she writes for DW.

An aerial view of the bombed-out Ukrainian city of Bucha
Guest author Julia Stachiwska says the Russians didn't come to Ukraine looking for 'some kind of agreement'Image: Fanny Facsar/DW

In my hand, the keys to my apartment, which somehow survived the invasion. Russian soldiers took up quarters after I fled but actually put their dirty dishes in the sink. "I got lucky," I say to myself with a sense of irony.

Of course, it would have been better not to have had such "luck" — if Russian soldiers and rockets hadn't attacked us on February 24, if there hadn't been eight years of war in the Donbas or if Crimea hadn't been annexed, if we could have all just remained in our homes and vacationed at the seaside.

Perhaps then I might have been in Yalta, penning a column on Ukrainian authors who summered or convalesced there. Like poet Lesya Ukrainka, for instance, who wrote her version of "Iphigenia in Tauris" there; or poet and doctor Stepan Rudanskyy, who helped build a water supply system for the city.   

The keys I hold hang from an Asian hedgehog fob. The funny key chain is a souvenir from Zaporizhzhia. It's from the Cossack Museum on Khortytsia, the biggest island in the River Dnipro. Between the 16th and 18th century Khortytsia was one of the centers of the so-called Zaporozh Sich, the autonomous state formation of the Ukrainian Cossacks. If you'll allow me to draw a romantic parallel, it seems to me that little has changed over the centuries and that Ukrainian "Cossacks" are once again being forced to fend off invading Muscovians from across the "Wild Field" — the steppe landscape that is today southern and eastern Ukraine.

Julia Stachiwska
Guest author Julia Stachiwska is a Ukrainian poet, illustrator and journalist

'No return to safety'

Though the rhetoric of a fight for European values is wonderful, the men and women on the front lines today are standing up first and foremost for their own country. I fear, "reaching some kind of agreement" is not much of an option here, for the Russians didn't bring their rockets in search of "agreement."

Although I could theoretically open my apartment door with the key I kept, I would not be returning to safety. A month-long writer's residency in Austria has afforded me the sweet illusion of security and normalcy in life, it is a place where one can seemingly make plans for the future. Here I got a sense for how people see the situation: "No. That's not going to happen to us. All those wars are somewhere in the East — whether Middle East, Far East or Eastern Europe."

It's hard to believe, but even I, a woman of the "East," never thought war was possible. As far as parallels between conflicts in the Balkans and the current war in Ukraine, I'd like to cite the essay, "Orientalism," by Ukrainian author Andriy Lyubka. In it, he claims that war in Eastern Europe is only possible among the Orthodox and the Slavs. Eastern Europe is not the EU he says. In "Old Europe," on the other hand, there will never again be war — for Europe is in NATO and Europe learned the lessons of World War II — it remembers decimated cities and millions of dead. Hence the cry: "Never Again!"

The worst thing about Austria was that the sirens that awakened me on my first morning here were so real, they were no hallucination, even if they were only a test. It was if they were telling me that the luxury of freedom and safety are as invisible as the air around me. But here, one ignores the sirens like one ignores an annoying fly, or a plague that will never visit upon the place. That is a predictable and healthy reaction from a people whose country simply has better geographical luck.

Conflicts are no longer local

Still, even those from "my East" failed to understand the conflict in Syria, for instance — its people remained distant: "Sure, but that's somewhere in the Middle East. It has always been turbulent there and anything can happen. There are some refugees trying to flee to the EU and people are shamelessly using them to create tensions at the borders — like Belarus at the Polish border. One feels sorry for them, but what can we do about it? They're just unlucky." But now we see the same bombs and rockets that fell on Aleppo rain down on Ukrainian cities.

I remember a supermarket cashier who moved to Bucha from Donbas complaining to me that no one in Kyiv cared when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014. She had a point, it was, after all, only the Donbas, "Ukraine's East — where anything can happen."

Conflicts may be marginally localized these days but there is no longer such a thing as local conflicts. They are no longer taking place in some, "mythical East," for that "East" is shifting ever-farther west.

Ukrainians returning home despite war

Julia Stachiwska is a Ukrainian poet, illustrator and journalist. A graduate of the art academy of Zhytomyr, the city where she was born in 1985, she is the author of numerous books and studied at the Ostroh Academy and the Kyiv-Mohlya Academy. 

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.