Psalm 139

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“I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.”
—Psalm 139:22

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We love the country. The quiet. The three cars that pass the house on the busy days. The Abrahamic wash of stars most nights: go count them, if you can. The afternoons, when our boys tumble into the kitchen looking for lunch, the scent of spring grass in their hair, their cheeks pink with the early warmth of the season. But what I love most is the frequent and powerful illusion that we have left the world and its wars behind.

Lunch is serious business. Washed and seated, the boys bow their heads and plow through: Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts. The younger boy dutifully tacks on his petitions: For those left behind, for the soldiers, for Zelensky, for our friends in Europe—a pause, blue eyes measuring the room—and for kids scared by the bombs. Which is a prayer for himself. In these weeks not quite far enough from the ruin that Russia brings, he clutches my leg as NATO jets roar over this village a couple of times each week. Flying low, suggesting that despite the relative lull, this war is only gaining steam. Something yet unseen claws at the bars of its cage.

When I was their age, come Fourth of July we would walk to my aunt’s house overlooking Commencement Bay and lie on her flat roof to watch the fireworks. The best part of the show came early, the sun still high, when the Blue Angels would set off from McChord and shriek across the sky in formations so close it felt like if we’d just had a little boost we could have reached out, grabbed on, and been launched off and away and into the stratosphere.

I delivered newspapers then—simultaneously, two News Tribune routes and one Seattle Times—all in the Stadium District where we lived. I chucked the world onto 200 north end doorsteps and apartment hallway runners every day for six years. A dream job for a news junkie, which I was. I read those papers every day, front to back, even the classifieds. When it worked out, which was often, a friend with a Seattle P-I route would leave an extra copy–there were almost always extras—in our milk box in the morning and I would read that, too. And afterward, with fingers shining blue-black with newsprint that ran up to my elbows I would run home and there be directed to the basement utility sinks and the Fels-Naptha® that took off the ink and probably a couple layers of skin in the deal.

By the age of 10, I was all too aware of Vietnam. What I couldn’t get in print I got nightly from Cronkite, Brinkley, or Roger Mudd, my favorite. But the violence of that time and in that place, whichever side was responsible on that particular day, was far away and across an ocean. I’d never heard an air raid siren that was anything more than a test, every Wednesday at 3:00. I’d never experienced the sickening *whump* of air defense ordnance. And, despite my print-media-assisted fluency in the expediencies of war, despite my pre-teen amusement at the personal absurdities of politicians made indelible via the art of MAD magazine and political caricature—adding acres to Hubert Humphrey’s forehead and slope to Richard Nixon’s ski jump ramp of a nose—and despite expertise in the atomic age ethos of hunkering under our school desks (each time we practiced my friend Julio whispering what still feels like the funniest thing ever: Kiss your ass goodbye, amigo.) I never once feared a real bomb dropping on my real family. For that I would have to wait half a century.

I feared, rather, what boys then typically feared, which was girls. One girl, really. She was a year younger and her daily, too-near presence haunted me up through the ninth grade at Jason Lee Junior High. A girl whose name you have no greater chance of learning than I do of forgetting.

But there is no relief in these memories. No more than there is in work or play. Nearly eight weeks in, and I still have found no effective distraction from this war. An hour’s walk to and from the little church in the neighboring village is no help when the church is locked and a knock on a door reveals that the priest is rarely around and even more rarely in any condition to offer counsel. Friends write to tell us they are going back to Kyiv. We envy their confidence as we lament their facile, desperate optimism. Moscow is not done despite its humiliating retreat from Kyiv. Indeed, because of it, this enemy will only find contentment if it can add to the devastation of Irpin and the rape of Bucha.

Another friend, a Russian, has decided to return to Moscow and we are in disbelief. There is no convincing her otherwise. Her departure is just another accusation from on high that I have failed to do the one thing needful: to find a way to talk to my boys about the war. There will be no rest until I do.

How would you do it? How would you talk about a family crouching in a dank root cellar for a month, afraid to breathe lest it betray itself to the platoon they hear out on the street? Hoping it will pass by without bringing the war into their kitchen, conducting a search, an execution? How to explain why the price of crude oil matters more than a human life? How to explain the intercepted phone call, a Russian wife giggling, the raw, animal thrill transparent in her voice when she tells her soldier husband to “use protection” when he rapes Ukrainian women? Perhaps, from the place where you read this, you’re thinking that I should avoid talking to my six-year-old and eight-year-old about rape committed in the service of ideology? About rape at all? Perhaps I should wait at least until they stop sleeping with stuffed animals?

The older boy offers the same petition at each meal: For death to all the Russians.

Amen.

Would you judge him? Lecture him about the evils of Russophobia? Take a courageous stand against this eight-year-old alongside the profoundly unserious who are ready to condemn Ukraine for its unwillingness to negotiate with a psychopath? Or would you line up alongside those clinging to their fetishization of an ideology so spent, so devoid of human compassion, so ignorant, so juvenile, and yet so perversely and conveniently mercantile, that they’re happy to enlist the help of any celebrity mug they can find, right or left, it doesn’t matter—from craven news anchors to faded rock stars–in order to pin Russian violence on NATO? Are you content to engage in that most vile sin of this age—privileged disengagement—because the unprovoked atrocities being committed in Ukraine by Russians are too much to deal with? You can’t be bothered to care?

Then we are on different teams.

My boys’ grandparents live in a city 800 kilometers from Russian forces amassed in the east. And yet the Kremlin-sent cowards have hit that city three times this week with missile strikes. The older boy sleeps badly, up routinely at 1:00 a.m., moving from mama to his brother to me, checking. He hollers in his sleep in Russian “za chem? za chem?” (What for? What for?) I go out for my walk after supper and I know that a ways up the single road that runs through this part of Moravia I will pass a tall birch that howls in the spring wind and I know that right around that spot, 15 minutes out from home, my phone will ring and it will be my eight-year-old: “Come home,” he will say, “it’s getting dark.”

He was six-weeks old when nearly a century’s worth of Ukrainian rage coalesced into open revolt and ousted the Putin stooge who ruled the nation. When titushky roamed the streets snuffling around for violence, when students were beaten by riot cops, when snipers holed up on the veranda of a grand old Kyiv theater gunned down protestors, when the small caliber bullet hit our balcony window, when Kremlin hires threw acid in the face of an anti-corruption activist, and Moscow thugs in Crimea burned not books but entire libraries devoted to Tatar and Ukrainian literature. And then, their appetite for violence momentarily sated, when all that could be stolen or burned had been, just as the nation was hitting its stride in recovery, Covid hit. And paramedics in hazmat suits came knocking to haul me off to the hospital and he stood in the corridor of our flat, fists balled at the end of his skinny arms and howled at them: “Don’t touch my papa!”

My boy’s time of grace has been defined by violence; death reluctant to keep its distance. I trust his sense of things and I trust his prayers.

His petition is not a spontaneous explosion of anger but calculated. He’s been chewing on this, as he tends to. His prayer is provoked by the horror of war, by an ugliness that I would otherwise never have him witness. Hardly original in spirit, just honest. A remnant of that old time religion of lex orandi, lex credendi, which is, in rough translation: people will pray about what most weighs on their hearts.

From the imprecations of the psalmist 10 centuries before Christ: “Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men” to Walt Whitman, elbow-deep in the bloody dressings of America’s Civil War…
Spirit of hours I knew, all hectic red one day, but pale as death next day;
Touch my mouth, ere you depart—press my lips close!
Leave me your pulses of rage! bequeath them to me! fill me with currents convulsive!
Let them scorch and blister out of my chants, when you are gone;
Let them identify you to the future in these songs.
…to the child’s war verse my boys learn during a SKYPE call with their friend, now, too, a refugee who has fled with his family. A childish rhyme peppered with the nenormativnaya leksika—foul language—my wife would rather they never learned. They blush and offer her hugs and then recite the words again:
трусь трусь русский русь  – rus, trus russky rus  – trembling coward, Russian boy –
на войну собрался – na vaynu sabralsya – primed to go to war–
как увидел пулемет – kak uvidel pulemyot – saw the kalash aimed his way –
сразу обосрался – srazu abasralsya – and shat his asshole sore.
Amen

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Maundy Thursday and the Catholic faithful are walking the street of the village, each one twirling noisily a derkach, a ratchet, to exorcise unclean spirits. Western Ukrainians call the day chystiy chetver—cleansing Thursday. But these unclean spirits linger. We know the enemy has no intention to negotiate the peace. We know the boys understand things and we see them engaged in kid conversations just out of earshot. We know they know that we can’t go home but that we can’t stay here. They know that this week, much like last, will mean hours in some social support office alongside others dressed as badly as we are. They know that Ukraine cannot lose.

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Western Easter today. The last of the snow has melted. A spring gale nudges along cumulus clouds and out in the field across from this farmhouse my boys race from puddle to puddle, arms outstretched, chasing ducks. They want, they have told us, a pet. The ducks disagree and end today’s chase, taking wing and settling in a small pond nearby where the boys follow and stand at pond’s edge, watching, fuming, plotting. The eight-year-old turns to his little brother—gesturing, agitated, going over scenarios that will end in capture. I open the window to call them to lunch and those blonde heads, fearfully and wonderfully made, full of life in these days ordained for them, turn and race toward the house.

Bless us, O Lord…

From Moravia,

Христос Воскрес

I Sit With Her in the Dark as She Weeps

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March 20
When I was three, my father had to put down a sick cow. He had a shotgun and a sledgehammer to choose from for the job. Years later he explained to me why he chose as he did; he knew that the instrument he used was one he would likely never have the heart to pick up again.

My father built things. He occasionally also built the tools that allowed him to build other things. Twice that I can recall he sat and designed and then built a tool fit for a single, specific job, and once that discrete objective had been met, he greased and wrapped it in cloth and put it in a lower drawer on his bench, perhaps never to be used again. He was a right-tool-for-the-right-job man.

A man who thought with a pencil, he would sit and sketch with a carpenter’s pencil on little yellow lined pads and then stare at them, his glasses—he called them his “cheaters”—perched on the end of his nose. Wood, metal, glass, masonry—these were his domain.

When we ventured out into the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, he taught us the Latin binomials for the fish, the trees, and the mushrooms we encountered. He taught me to tie flies and to land a 25-pound silver salmon from a boat without a net, just in case.

One day he told me that he enjoyed my stories and asked would I like to learn how stories were built. If I would, he said, I needed to learn to read slowly. He gave me books that left me no choice but to slow down. The first book my father handed me to read was Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment; I was nine-and-a-half.

That autumn, the Soviet Union and the United States signed a trade agreement, and the first Soviet ship to reach American shores in 40 years docked in our town to unload feed grain and beet pellets. Richard Nixon, whatever else might be said, had managed to sell beets to the people who had invented borscht.

And so, against the wishes of his mother, who had no love for Russians, her family having lost their land to Communist collectivization policies, dad snuck me down on an October Saturday morning to Commencement Bay where we took out a friend’s Bayliner from the Foss sheds to get a look at that Soviet ship, the Korolenko, from up close. And for a good 10 minutes from boat to ship my father bantered with sailors who reminded me of my uncles in a language that I would later learn was Russian. “Those are your cousins,” he told me.

My father never attended college. He was a railroad engineer—a hogger, in the vernacular. He was union—Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers—and would not cross any picket line. He marched, square haircut and steel-toed shoes and railroad overalls, against the war in Vietnam. I sat with him at a union local meeting where some of the brothers wanted to support George Wallace—seemingly friendly to labor—for president of the United States. My painfully shy, taciturn father told the room that he could not support a candidate whose heart was filled with hatred.

His hours were productive hours—his hands engaged in skilled work, his brain engaged in creative design. He had Latin from school and personal study, Slovak from his parents, and Russian from god-knows-where. He listened to “the Greek Hour” and “the Scandinavian Hour” on public radio when in his workshop.

About every other month, we would go over to our grandmother’s house where my father would help her make a regular call to Czechoslovakia. When our grandmother would hang up after the call, he would sit with her in the kitchen as she wept. In 1968, after the Soviet tanks entered Prague, we sat with her long after the call had ended—until it grew dark, and then dad left my brother Paul and I to stay at grandma’s overnight and keep watch. Paul was eight; I was six.

In 1979, my father died suddenly as he and I fished the Russian River in the Kenai wilderness, Alaska. A massive stroke sent him back into the water and I waded out and lifted and carried him to shore where I started resuscitation, but he was gone.

He never got to see Soviet Communism fail, the Wall crumble, or Czechoslovakia free. Could he have imagined the changes? Could he have expected that I would break bread with our cousins—Molitoris, Červeňák, and Rákoš? Could he have hoped to drop his line and wait for a fish in the fast water in eastern Slovakia? Could he have suspected that Russia, unchecked, would always be Russia, red in tooth and claw?

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In the years before his death, we spent countless hours in the garage of our North Tacoma home, futzing with the timing on his ’59 Chevy Biscayne—the one with the big fins on the back. His work car.

Once as we worked, a man drove up in a big LTD, parked on our gravel, and came into the garage to sit and talk with my father. Dad called him Hank and Hank called dad Abs. Dad spoke little and it was no different with Hank who did most of the talking.

Hank talked about nuclear energy, on which they agreed, and about Vietnam, on which they didn’t. After Hank left, I asked my dad who he was, and he said that he worked in Washington D.C. and that I should not tell our mother he had come by. My first lesson in the compassionate deception of the women we love.

My father, most at ease in his private thoughts, most at home in the complexities of the art of creative destruction, knew he would need his sledgehammer again and chose the shotgun.

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Mariupol, a month ago a city of 440,000 by the sea, is gone. The city flattened by Russian ordnance, the dead uncounted, the living fled or forced south, and as reports are confirmed—those herded out are conscripted into the Russian military or Russian military support. Four hundred thousand: that’s Minneapolis.

Kharkiv, a city of 1.2 million, as important to Ukraine as Dallas is to America, is shattered. And Kyiv, once four million-plus, empties out more with each day. That’s Los Angeles. The count of those of us now living as refugees passed three million midweek last week. That’s Atlanta, Las Vegas, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Cleveland, Ohio, all fled in three weeks of bombing.

And now I am back in what we once called Czechoslovakia, and here for a while, it would seem. Again, the Russians are involved. Again, emotions run high as the West argues about what it could or should be doing about this war. Again, a woman I love gets off the phone with her family left behind and I sit with her in the dark as she weeps.

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Peace from the Czech Republic.

See Also:
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part One
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Two
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Three
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Four
Go Home While You Can Still Draw Breath: Dispatches from Ukraine
The Flame of Hope: Dispatches from Ukraine
How Shakespeare Can Help Us Understand the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
Welcome to Putin’s World
We Start Over but We Are Safe

We Start Over but We Are Safe

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March 13
I’ve never loved riding the bus. Some do. I’m not among them. From city buses when I was at school to the occasional Greyhound when I was homeless to the ubiquitous, spine shattering, gut wrenching marshrutky (sort of a “people’s communal taxi” from the Ukrainian word marshrut—route) that flood Ukrainian cityscapes, my relationship with riding the bus has never risen much above the level of tense.

Marshrutky, in particular. They are, apparently, the training ground for too many Ukrainian bus drivers. Immediately recognizable by their yellow-caked-with-grime-shaped-like-a-Sara-Lee-poundcake profile, they seat 20 but never carry less than 45 passengers. Their self-employed Ukrainian drivers/owners are looking to optimize fares and so pack folks in. They creak and groan across the breadth and length of Ukraine, apparently maintenance-free, for I have rarely had a ride in one that was not only terrifying but that felt like it might rattle apart into a million mismatched bits by ride’s end.

I am Steve Martin in Trains, Plains, and Automobiles when John Candy asks if he’s ever traveled by bus. Martin grunts no and Candy assures him: “Your mood’s probably not going to improve much.”

And now I have crossed an international border in what was, in essence, a full-sized marshrutka. Eighty-four of us in one bus.

We left at 10 p.m., 12 hours late. We arrived at the Polish border at 3:30 a.m. on Friday morning. There, it took us nine hours to cross. I don’t know why. Where we crossed there were no crowds, only the occasional car, a few refugees on foot. There were maybe 100 semi-trailers parked for the night, but that is their usual practice, and they cross through a separate checkpoint. There were six tour buses in front of us. Yet, in the manner of eastern European phenomenon that approaches the level of divine mystery, it still took us more than nine hours to complete the remaining 300 meters of the border control area and across the imaginary blue line into Poland.

We expected delays. What we didn’t expect was the initial leg from Ternopil, Ukraine, to the Polish border—normally a 2.5 hour drive—taking 5.5 hours. We didn’t expect the extra 45 minutes tacked on when the driver forgot five passengers and had to turn around and go back to the start to pick them up. We didn’t expect the trip from the border to Warsaw, normally 3.5 hours, to take six. And once we’d arrived in Cracow just before 10 that night and made it to our room just after 11, we didn’t expect Jarek, our six-year-old to wake up in the middle of the night with food poisoning. He spent the next day miserable and vomiting, as we made our way from Cracow to Prague first by yet another bus, and finally train.

But then, when we pulled into Prague we were met by Mark and Leslie Slouka at the station and we were safe. They rushed Jarek to the hospital and within an hour, (and certainly, a shorter hour than our marshrutka bus driver, daylight already failing, spent on a smoking break after we’d made it into Warsaw) Mark had navigated the labyrinth of Czech hospital admission procedure and our Jarek was on an IV-drip and slowly turning a little less green.

There are good people in the world. We have been led into the arms of two of the best. An eight-year-old, a six-year-old, and a couple of shellshocked parents hauling filthy backpacks have invaded their home and they are grace and mercy.

We are in Prague. The Sloukas are guiding us through this, arranging, rearranging, maintaining their poise with a lot like ours who has brought the stink of war into their home. And the thousands of you who have lifted up our names in prayer, who have written, have held us in your hearts—you have kept us sane, kept us close. You done good. We start over but we are safe.

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Back home things are impossible to read. Reading the reports, I am afraid. The noose tightens around Kyiv just as it seems to tighten around the creator of this chaos; Putin is running out of options. His pretext for war has crumbled, humiliations pile up on the battlefield, resistance grows at home, and his desperation is showing. He lashes out. He’s now bombing in the west of the country. In the areas where Russian forces have taken a city, his troops are working to identify “foreign agents” in house-to-house searches. He is opening “green corridor” escape routes for Ukrainians, but only to the south—to Russian-occupied Crimea, or to the east, to Russia.

But the refugee numbers are telling: of the 2.2 million refugees to have fled, only 53,000 have gone to Russia. It reveals, I think, a human tendency as old as time: we move away from danger. Russia, under Putin, is danger. It is a criminal state with just enough perks to keep folks’ minds off what is very wrong.

In an effort to understand what led to this, we look for reasons, for precedent, for logic. We’re tempted to make comparisons. Prominent personalities leading lives of affluence and influence in the States, Britain, and other free nations opine with impressive confidence that “the West” created Putin.

Nonsense on stilts.

That corroded view of humanity Putin invokes in the prosecution of these atrocities is the creation of his own fevered brain. It is not the West that drives him to flatten Ukrainian villages and bomb Ukrainian maternity hospitals. It is not the West that fills him with hate for those he calls “one nation” with Russia. It is not the West that orders his troops to fire on Ukrainian citizens trying to evacuate a city. It is not the West that is rounding up Ukrainian “western agents and Nazis” working for humanitarian organizations.

And in this last example, it gets personal. My wife is fluent is three languages, conversant in more. She has a master’s in political science and has been the Head of Arts for most of the past 15 years at a global British organization working in Ukraine since its independence. She deals regularly with “decadent westerners” in the arts, writing contracts that bring, apparently, decadent British art and artists—writers, thinkers, dancers, theaters, graphic artists, filmmakers, and professionals across the spectrum of the arts who help us all, in their best work, to look inside, to stop and consider the art of being humane. That’s what she brings to Ukraine.

What does Putin bring?

Perhaps I’m too close to the situation. Is my wife evil? Or is she its target? For anyone who would suggest that a person like my Anya, a person who has embraced what’s best in the realm of human creative endeavor, is the casus belli for Putin’s War, you need to look deep inside. You need to take a side. This is right from wrong. This is life or this is murder. This is peace or this is war.

Vladimir Putin threatens my home and my family.

To what degree we are lucky, to what degree we are blessed, or to what degree we are deceived by corrosive propaganda from the evil West, I will not say. But we have evaded the threat for now. I will say, can say, only this: that Putin is his own man. And that now, my personal foreign agent/mother to my sons is now safely away from Putin’s War with all her boys, here in Prague.

Best bus ride I’ve ever taken.

March 18
One step forward, one step back. Our Jarek is back at full speed, which is typically 100 MPH for six-year-olds. But now I’ve got a deep cough I picked up before we left and I’m not at my best.

When I can stay upright and concentrate, I’m working on a post.

Fact is, the cough isn’t anything I haven’t dealt with before. Just bad timing.

Truth: the place we are in couldn’t be better—quiet, remote, kind neighbors. But we’re shook. Nerves are rattled. Jarek’s godparents have decided to evacuate and I can’t blame them. There have been several missile hits in our neighborhood and just up the hill from us where our kids’ medical clinic sits.

The appetite of the beast has yet to be sated.

You’ve read about the attacks at the Mariupol Theater, no doubt. Tell me, God isn’t on our side. God, and the most inept fighting force since Dad’s Army (for those mature enough to remember that program).

The Russian force, for all its firepower, is apparently fighting by the seat of its pants. Making it up as they go.

Either that or they have met their match and then some.

No counting chickens here; Ukraine is showing what it’s made of.

So, U.S., U.K., E.U., and all the rest: send us your big guns and our men and women will do the rest.

Got to sleep. Here in the countryside—thanks to the openness and generosity of all of you, thanks to the Czechs who’ve taken us close to their hearts, and thanks to these few days of grace, where we’ve found opportunity to catch our breath—this family is finding its pace.

I’ll get something up in the next day or so. Need some sleep.

One little video of our Seva. He got to the country and immediately went to work.

See Also:
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part One
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Two
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Three
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Four
Go Home While You Can Still Draw Breath: Dispatches from Ukraine
The Flame of Hope: Dispatches from Ukraine
How Shakespeare Can Help Us Understand the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
Welcome to Putin’s World

Welcome to Putin’s World: Dispatches From Ukraine

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Millions staff writer Il’ja Rákoš and his family lived until recently in Kyiv, Ukraine. What follows are his Facebook posts from the ongoing Russian invasion, many of them written from a bomb shelter, reposted with his permission and the assistance of his friend Mark Slouka.

We’re about to make our way to the border. Don’t know what to expect there. Reports range from “30-hour wait to cross” to “not all that busy”. If I had a choice I wouldn’t be leaving at all. I can’t put my wife and my boys at risk for the sake of my principles. Ukraine is home: we’ll be going back when this is over.

Choice? None. Welcome to Putin’s world. It feels as if we’ve been stripped of all agency. It’s felt like that for a while now, if I’m honest.

To be completely honest: if it weren’t for Mark Slouka (dare I call a writer of that heft a “colleague”?), we’re not quite sure what we would do. Our options were clear. Become a refugee and become a burden to somebody else. In our case that was relatives in Slovakia, some government or foreign aid agency, or the Slouka clan. Flipped a coin, Mark, and you lost.

With luck, with grace, we’ll be in Prague in two days’ time. And then what. The only thing I know is that we are at a point where we depend heavily on some combination of the EU rule of law, the good will of nations, and the kindness of strangers. Mostly on the latter.

My sister and brother in the US have been privy to detail of what that means for us practically. And apparently, they’ve acted on their insider status. They say some of you have sent money to help us out already. I don’t even know what to say about that. “Thank you” is not enough to describe how we feel. I can’t lie: I am floored, humbled, and devastated all at once. That it would come to this.

They insist that I pass the information on, so I’ll do it. Contact my little sister Barbro Rakos on Facebook. I don’t know how it works, but Barbie knows the details.

I can be pretty sanguine when the situation calls for it, but this isn’t one of those. When we’ve settled we’ll be doing paperwork, looking for work, decompressing – probably in that order. And the whole time we’ll be leaning on the goodness of others.

The fact that you all read what I write, well, it’s the gold standard for a writer. I can only say thanks. You lift us up. We know we’re not alone.

One other thing: I’ll keep writing these, keep trying to put a picture of the lives of these people before you.

June 13th would have marked my 26th year in Ukraine. Crossing the border feels like sailing off the end of the world. Between Covid and this my hair’s gone solid silver this year. Hey, I earned it.

My heart is too heavy these days.

Peace to you from Nenka Ukraina

Il’ja, Anya, Seva, & Jarek

See Also:
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part One
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Two
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Three
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Four
Go Home While You Can Still Draw Breath: Dispatches from Ukraine
The Flame of Hope: Dispatches from Ukraine
How Shakespeare Can Help Us Understand the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

How Shakespeare Can Help Us Understand the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

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Have you read much Shakespeare? There are, as like as not, any number of folks reading this who are confident they’ve led fairly normal lives without a stitch of help from an English poet from 400 years ago. They might also rightly be wondering where this is going. I mean, what does Shakespeare have to do with the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Good question. I confess: when I start one of these I, like you, am never quite sure where they’re going to end up. One thing I am certain of however, is that all of us, to one degree or another, are struggling to figure this thing out. Why would Putin do this? Why lay waste to a neighbor whose worst sin, demonstrably, was that it didn’t want to be besties anymore? (I know lots of cool kid slang.) Ukraine was, if anything, ghosting Russia. QED.
Ukraine, with its Jewish president, wasn’t being run by Nazis. Ukraine hadn’t attacked Russia. Had no plans to. Ukraine wasn’t, my Russian-speaking wife and sons assure me, persecuting native Russian speakers. Friends who come from Donbas, a region where Russian speakers are predominant, insist that they, as Russian speakers, felt no threat toward their lives, their homes, or their businesses in the Donbas. That is, not until the Russian military, aided by their criminal proxies in Ukraine, showed up and started torturing people and blowing things up.
The western media, in its glancing friendship with clarity these days, hasn’t helped much. In that finest and foulest expression of free speech, they’ve given airtime to every bargain bin, testosterone-fueled explanation for this war that they can identify. This one says, “It’s NATO’s fault.” That one, “Ukraine has Nazis.” The other, “Putin wants a new world order.” (Fine, that one has some merit. To a point.) But, “Trump did it.” “No, Biden did!” The urge to transmogrify this very eastern European (and yes, it is a continent) story into some sort of American-generated palimpsest isn’t helping anyone. And needs to stop.
So, who can say what led to this? Who knows? I hate to say I told you so, but…
In Richard III, Shakespeare writes some lines that help if we want to begin to figure out what’s happening in Ukraine, 430 years after the Bard put it down on paper. The speech starts with Now is the winter of our discontent.
Admit that you’ve heard that one. Maybe not since high school, but you’ve heard it. That’s Richard, perhaps the most horrible of the horribles ever committed to the page. And Richard wants things. He wants to be king. He wants to be loved. He wants to succeed no matter the cost. And he wants to get everybody he feels has ever slighted him in a room (metaphorically) and rub their noses (not quite as metaphorically) in it once he becomes king.
Back to Richard. After he’s told us how wintry his life is, how discontent, he says this:
Grim-visag’d war hath smoothed his wrinkled front.For me, that’s where the lights went on about Putin and the why of this war.
In 2014, Russia openly attacked Ukraine. Twice. In Crimea and in the Donbas. Ukraine lost territory—land equivalent to the states of Massachusetts and New Jersey. Ukraine lost population, around 4 million residents. Chicago, roughly. Ukraine lost billions of dollars in assets in heavy industries that were pillaged, then dismantled and sent to Russia. In return, the Ukrainian economy was hammered and the country had, overnight, 1.7 million internal refugees. But those unjust, unsolicited, criminal Russian military attacks produced a curious effect. Grim-visag’d war hath smoothed Ukraine’s wrinkled front.
Brutally assaulted, shamelessly robbed, Ukrainians picked up the pieces and moved on. The violence we endured had convinced us of one thing: Peace, prosperity are the desirable alternative. And they are work.
And so, in Ukraine, movies were made. Music was written. Poems and books, too. Art painted and hung on walls. People went to restaurants. Participated in sports. Planted crops. Had banner harvests. Secured trade deals. Boosted their incomes. Diversified their economy. A solid middle class developed. Babies were born in numbers this country hasn’t seen in 30 years. Ukraine opened its borders to the EU. Modified tax law. Voted in elections.
On this last point: in the election of 2019, Ukrainians threw out 70% of their Parliament. 70%. Imagine. Americans, imagine. The old slaves to corruption weren’t doing the job and Ukrainians sent them packing. Ukraine put useful tools—apps, hotlines, consumer protections—into the hands of average citizens to help them get the best out of their government, including the tools to turn in a crook when the best was not forthcoming.
Ukraine was moving on.
And then, hunched and stewing in his own juices, his soup tasters nervous, his courtly sycophants wringing their hands and averting their eyes, Richard decided he’d had enough of Ukraine in its weak piping time of peace. Putin, rather. I meant Putin. Putin decided.
And now we are attacked. And Putin smiles and murders while he smiles.
Whence this war? From one heart filled with envy, bent on revenge, choked by pride, covetous of what he could never possess except by force, at the head of a police-cum-mafia state that has been defined by, terrorized by its security apparatus, its siloviki, for centuries.
I hold out hope that books are true and that this will not—if Shakespeare has his say—end well for Putin.
+++
I have taken my wife and my boys to a safer part of the country. The odds are good that we have lost our home and that we won’t see our city again. I don’t mean to discourage—the Ukrainian forces have fought bravely, relentlessly, in the defense of the peace. Their ferocity is borderline miracle stuff. But they are outgunned badly. And you must retain your skepticism with every report hinting at imminent Ukrainian victory. We are just—I have lost count—12 days into this.
And in these 12 days, more than a million Ukrainians have fled the country. Russia has shelled or destroyed 211 Ukrainian schools. Indiscriminate Russian shelling has destroyed medical facilities, and flattened residential areas in Kharkiv, a city of about 1.2 million residents. The refugees from Kharkiv are swarming the main railway station there—the refugee crisis is just beginning. Russia fires on civilians using “green corridors” to evacuate, and, at long last, we have the inevitable appearance of the flotsam on the tide of war, that most debased marker of Russian and Soviet force—rape.
My family, we are not yet refugees, technically. We haven’t crossed the border. Silly, these political definitions, aren’t they?
Yesterday, as I started writing this, in this relatively peaceful western Ukrainian town, the sirens went off. It was just after 3:00 p.m. and they blared for a full 30 minutes. Followed by jets—don’t-know-whose, don’t-know-wheres—one after another overhead, in such rapid succession it felt like sorties. These lasted about 15 minutes. And then, dead silence for the next two hours followed at six by the sirens again: all clear.
The security of this place is temporary. There is nowhere to run to ensure safety. A fact made readily apparent to us here, with Auschwitz lying a few hours drive west, Chernobyl 90 minutes north, and Babi Yar, a 10-minute drive from my flat. And now, with Russian heavy armaments and tens of thousands of Russian troops laying waste to Kharkiv, Donbas, Mariupol, Kherson, the list too long to allow completion—one can only speculate where the new memorial to mass death will be placed.
I won’t bamboozle you with myths about a Ukrainian paradise. It’s not. But when not being attacked, this nation is trying; the most substantive proof of that lies in its efforts to cut off ties with its primary abuser, Russia. And that has irked the little man in Moscow.
+++
Hold your loved ones close. Don’t lose heart or give in to fear. A life defined by resentment, envy, or revenge is no life. It will lead to nothing good. Another old book says it straight: “…an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
A friend has lent us a small flat for the time being. We house families for a day before they move west. It’s like Soviet summer camp here. I can only speak with any certainty for myself, my family: we are struggling but do not lose heart. We are stressed. We wait for Vovchik to carry out his nuclear threat. We take solace in reports—no matter how slicked up by our own media—of any humiliation of the vaunted Russian War Machine.
In the end, we know no more than you do and next to nothing for certain save this:
Envy breeds envy. Resentment, resentment. Madness, madness. And left unopposed, war.
Peace from Ukraine
See Also:Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part OneSlava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part TwoSlava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part ThreeSlava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part FourGo Home While You Can Still Draw Breath: Dispatches from UkraineThe Flame of Hope: Dispatches from Ukraine

The Flame of Hope: Dispatches from Ukraine

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Millions staff writer Il’ja Rákoš and his family live in Kyiv, Ukraine. What follows are his Facebook posts from the ongoing Russian invasion, many of them written from a bomb shelter, reposted with his permission and the assistance of his friend Mark Slouka.
So, I’ve lost track. I know if I scroll back to the home screen on this phone I’ll see what day it is but right now it’s too much trouble.
Earlier, an old man in a grocery store (shelves are full in this part of the country) chirps at his wife that if she doesn’t get moving they’ll be late for mass.
So, I knew it was Saturday, but by the time I got home, loaded with the vegetables for borscht, the veal ribs, a Drohobytska kovbasa, and a kilogram of oatmeal (here’s a chance to learn some Ukrainian {I’ll write it in English} *borsch ta kasha yizha nasha*) and an anniversary chocolate bar for Anya (big spender me) (and, if you weren’t aware, Ukrainian chocolate is as sumptuous, more so, as anything you’ll find in western Europe)…but by the time I got home to cook, I’d forgotten again. Friday? Sunday?
Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m not tracking real well. We’re trying to help friends traveling from Kyiv with lodging before they head for the border. Trying not to think about money. Caught a bad chill in the train station and when I get hit by a coughing fit folks nearby clear out. Trying not to think about my lungs. I boiled some chickpeas the morning of the day we left Kyiv. Was going to make hummus. I put them in the fridge to cool. That’s how many days? Four?
It’s easier to shop for borsch ingredients, easier to regret the waste of perfectly good chickpeas, than to think about vacuum bombs, burned villages, a million refugees in a week, and a war led by a certifiable asshat.
I have a friend, Roman. He’s a tall drink of water with a thick mop of black hair shot with silver. He’s from Kherson in the south, a sleepy midsized city at the heart of Ukraine’s agricultural wealth. The grapes, the melons, the peaches, the wine. Think San Joaquin Valley + Wine Country California without the mountains or the traffic. This kid from Kherson makes movies. In fact, we shot a movie there in October.
I say “we”. Because, for all his genius, despite the bright blue flame of vision that makes his work shine, Roman keeps casting me in his films. This is the second one I’ve done with him. And I’m starting to detect a pattern.
In each film I’ve played a stuffed shirt. A blowhard, know-it-all, western world dilettante carpetbagger. In the first I’m an EU bureaucrat/misanthrope. In the latest film, let’s just say that I know something about snake oil. Can’t say more, the film’s still in post-production. (Look at me with all the movie lingo.)
Roma makes movies that depict an everyday absurdity that, regardless how far removed it is from your reality, will claw at your heart. Of people looking to make something of value, some contribution to the progression of the species, and who are attempting it in a place where the flame of hope is sputtering but hasn’t yet gone out. Not quite. Not today.
Roma’s creative team consists of his mom and his wife, Darya. I can’t find the words to describe how delighted I am that these people are my friends. Still, the next time Roman casts me as a jackass I’m just going to ask him straight out if he shares my affection.
These last two days the Russian assault on Kherson has been relentless and Roma’s city is finally overrun.
Love you, Roman. Like Kyiv, like Kharkiv, like Chernihiv, Kherson Abides.
You out there reading and wondering, I’m okay, just tired. My friends, these beautiful, smart, talented, kind people are hurting.
Do this: watch Roma’s film “Volcano“. (Ignore the chubby guy in the first scene. He’s dropped a lot of weight since then.) Watch the film. Meet the twisting path that is my friend Roman, and put some hope in your heart.
Peace  from western Ukraine.
Saturday. Gotta be. I need to sleep.

See Also:Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part OneSlava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part TwoSlava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part ThreeSlava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part FourGo Home While You Can Still Draw Breath: Dispatches from Ukraine

Go Home While You Can Still Draw Breath: Dispatches from Ukraine

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Millions staff writer Il’ja Rákoš and his family live in Kyiv, Ukraine. What follows are his Facebook posts from the ongoing Russian invasion, many of them written from a bomb shelter, reposted with his permission and the assistance of his friend Mark Slouka.

Today’s post will ramble, meander. No way around it. Clothe yourself in mercy before you attempt what follows because I’m struggling to find the words and hoping that typing will help.

Where to start? Last night, Russia bombed Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – the Zaporizhia Atomic Energy Station. The plant has 6 nuclear reactors and produces around 20% of all the electricity in the country. It sits in Enerhodar, an ‘energy town’ of 50K residents on the Dnieper River about an hour’s drive from Zaporizhia, a city of 750,000 or thereabouts, maybe a 7-hour drive south of Kyiv. If we haven’t all learned it yet, it’s time: the radioisotopes released in a nuclear explosion don’t care much about driving distances. Or international borders.

They bombed a nuclear power plant. The biggest one in Europe. Let that sink in.

This morning, I read that the fire at the power plant is out. I’m failing to reign in my cynicism right now because I expect the Russians are not done bombing things that are better left at peace.

So far, that list includes kindergartens, hospitals, train stations, apartment blocks, dormitories, neighborhoods, rural townships, public squares and, at last count, one major university.

If this is what “Russian liberation” looks like, I’ll take slavery.

When we think about Russia vs Ukraine, I hope we’re not getting the mental picture of a hockey match. This ain’t that. It might be true that “there are no winners in war” but one thing for sure: there is also no second place. There will be no silver medal in this fight.

“Russia vs Ukraine”, it turns out, is also NOT about a lot of other things.

For example, despite their best attempts to make it so, it’s not a story that Twitter junkies can boil down to a meme. It’s not a “take” that social media influencers (I just vomited in my mouth a little) or traditional media types can manipulate to build a career or, dear God, a “following”. Though I’m sure neither will bat an eyelash before they try. It’s not a toy to toss around like we’ve managed to do with every other serious social problem. It’s not a competition in the Victimhood Olympics, or the Gender Tournament, or the Race Sweepstakes. And conflating it with those, well, shame on you.

No.

Ukraine v Russia is a bloodbath. It’s lives shattered in what was a largely peaceful, if struggling, country. It’s the disruption of a nation resolved to build the institutions necessary for any functioning democracy. And above all, it’s the masturbatory fantasy of a psychopath who owns more 40-foot-long tables than any decent person should ever possess. Is Putin worse than Hitler? Don’t know. Does it matter? Is that a race, too? All we know are facts. He doesn’t blink at bombing a nuclear reactor or a kindergarten. Six of one, half-a-dozen of the other.

So, media and wannabe media: Grow up. Snark from the privileged who’ve never known a day’s want in their lives is beneath contempt. Save the drama for your opera career, the comedy for your Netflix romp, the irony for your rave. And another thing: I get that the folks here who are under attack in Ukraine are not your target audience, nevertheless, we’re kinda busy right now. Too busy to click on your shit, anyway. My advice is get a hobby to burn up all that excess energy. Or get into another profession, because you’re bad at your job.

Enough of that. Here is what this war is. I’ll stick to what I know first-hand.

It’s our friend, 6-months pregnant, and her husband trapped in a small town with their great grandparents, both in their mid-90s. They’ve decided to try and run–driving out tonight because the shells stopped falling two days ago. My wife, my diamond, is sick with fear for her friend.

It’s our other friends, dynamic, beautiful sisters both in their 7th month, sitting at the edge of Kyiv with their parents. When will the gas lines, the water lines, the electricity in their town fail?

It’s our upstairs neighbors in Kyiv, the godparents of our younger boy. The husband is about my age. He sits at the entrance to our building all night, ready to sound the alarm if the marauders roaming the streets would approach. With Kyiv now under strict curfew—lights out at 8—he sits in the dark.

It’s a friend’s entire home-village out east where the locals fill a road to stop a column of tanks that wants to pass through, screaming at them in Russian (so the invaders can understand) “Domoi Poka Zhyvoi” – “Go Home While You Can Still Draw Breath”, until the tanks turn around.

It’s our friend in Siberia who writes: “my heart bleeds. I understand why you hate us. I can’t justify Svetlana Vladimirovna”. She used an old Soviet code: Svetlana Vladimirovna, or SV, is slang for Sovietskaya Vlast – or The Soviet Authority.

She is afraid to write the word “Putin” in her message to us. Let that sink in.

Recently in a series of interviews looking at his 20 years in power in Russia, Putin disparaged people like our friend, calling them “barigi” – kind of know-it-all-uncle Russian epithet for “an independent businessperson”. Kind of. (Space prohibits fuller explanation of this dystopia. Another day maybe.) Anyway, it’s not a nice word. It’s ignorant. It’s a word used by people who pine for the days of the smashing success of state-run, state-owned, state-regulated, state-distributed Soviet style economics.

This is not a fair fight, let alone a necessary one. But it’s the fight Ukraine has been handed and these people will fight it. They are coming at it with courage, unity, and an efficiency and determination that is otherworldly. Unfortunately, they’re not coming at it with much else.

Will it be enough? Enough to bloody the nose of this bully and send him home? Will courage be enough given the Russian capacity, and apparent appetite, for wanton destruction? Why can’t I get the image of Ralphie fighting Scut Farkus in A Christmas Story out of my head?

We, the four of us, are trying to make decisions. But unlike the choices you face when walking into a Starbucks, we don’t know what’s on the menu. Not now, not six months from now.

How far will they go? Will they hit our building, our neighborhood? And even if they don’t, even if it withstands this like it withstood the Russian Revolution, World War I and World War II, will there be a home to go back to? If Putin succeeds in hanging Zelensky and installing his puppet in Kyiv, would it even be possible to go back? Would it be wise? Would you, if you could?

Here endeth the ramble. Yikes. For a guy with no words.

Peace from Ukraine

p.s. We missed our wedding anniversary. Just plum forgot. It was three days ago–the night we slept in the railway station. Wonder what we’ll do next year? The good thing is Anya seems to have forgotten, too.

Our boy’s school wall with graffiti commentary on global economic systems.

Four months playing brass.

See Also:
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part One
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Two
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Three
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Four

Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Four

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Millions staff writer Il’ja Rakos and his family live in Kyiv, Ukraine. What follows are his Facebook posts from the ongoing Russian invasion, many of them written from a bomb shelter, reposted with his permission and the assistance of his friend Mark Slouka.
Briefly, we’re safe but not yet out of the soup. We received a phone call – a man had room for 4 in his car to Kyiv’s Central Railway Station and we took the leap.
The man is part of the Territorial Defense Corps that you may have heard about. It’s any able body that can go through training in order to do anything for the defense of the country. From working as a cook, a field or urban medic, part of a crew that lugs sandbags to create block posts/checkpoints in the city (these are everywhere in kyiv’s main arterials now and it’s spooky). They also are trained to pick up a weapon.
When this is over and the media ghouls start obsessing on the body count, a significant portion of the dead will be regular folks – not professional soldiers – who took time off their job writing software, teaching kindergarten, laying brick to defend their homeland from an enemy arriving in tanks. That is Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Corps.
Conspicuous among them are folks who should be growing roses and spoiling their grandkids. Young and old, Ukrainians are in this together.
It’d probably terrify most western nations to learn that in most Ukrainian public schools there’s a class called grazhdanskaya oborona – civil defense. A leftover from Soviet days in which boys and girls are taught to assemble, disassemble, maintain and, importantly, use a rifle. A Kalashnikov. My wife can shoot, as the saying goes, the eye out of a bird flyin’.
To maintain peace we must prepare for war. I wish the world were different. It is not and no amount of wishing or politics – clearly – will make it so.
We bought tickets for 3 trains and managed to get on one of them. People brought their pets–dogs, cats, birds. Our boys made friends with one woman’s rabbit.
The cars were packed, overpacked, every seat, every space that was not a seat. Some people sat in the toilet. COVID be damned.
Our tickets took us only 80% of the way to our goal. With the wind whipping through the station we slept bundled up on the granite floors of the train station in [redacted], to the west. Curfew in the city from 8 o’clock on. This morning it’s my hips that are made of granite.
Clothes on our backs, two backpacks, documents, phones, water. Snowing in [redacted].
A friend picked us up and took us the last leg – a 90-minute drive that lasted 5 1/2 hours because of all the checkpoints.
Soldiers, police, firearms. Camouflage. Jarek gets car sick and it was a rough ride for him. Seva made up riddles – first in English, then Russian, then Ukrainian. Anya is struggling. Kyiv is besieged. Her home.
Today, our neighbor called to say he felt the windows in our building rattle from a large explosion nearby. Shortly after, he called again to say a missile had hit Kyiv’s Central Railway Station – the place where we waited for hours yesterday before getting our train.
The depot is standing and the trains continue to run, if not exactly on time. The residential heating main for that part of Kyiv was destroyed. No heat in below freezing temperatures.
Vladimír Putin has created out of whole cloth – gibbering and drooling about “Nazis” and “genocide” – an excuse to wage war. He and his cronies refer to it as “a peacekeeping mission.”
The reality is that Ukraine is under relentless assault from a rogue state and its criminal president and his clan.
Political solutions will not stop the criminal and the chaos he lusts for. This nation’s sole temporal hope lies in the truth that the terror has not gone unchecked – Ukraine, Ukrainians, are fighting for their lives.
What hurts is the seeming truth that so many celebrated world leaders are committed to seeing this fight through…to the last Ukrainian.
Writing on a phone, apologies for the fractured grammar, the typos, the frenzy. We are safe.

See Also:Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part OneSlava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part TwoSlava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Three

Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Three

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Millions staff writer Il’ja Rakos and his family live in Kyiv, Ukraine. What follows are selections from his correspondence with his friend Mark Slouka from before and during the Russian invasion, reprinted with permission.

From: Mark Slouka
Dec 13, 2021, 7:05 PM

Hey Il’ja:

We’ve been wondering how you guys are bearing up in regard to this situation with the Russians. Do you have contingency plans?  I’m guessing this is a bargaining move on Putin’s part, essentially a play to squeeze certain guarantees from the EU vis a vis Ukraine, but still . . . On this end, nothing new to report: a gray, drizzly December, cases through the roof.

When’s your book thing coming out with The Millions?

S pozdravem s Prahi,

From: Iľja Rákoš
Dec 13, 2021, 9:06 PM

Salutations from the east!

Russians, goddamn Russians. A constant news item for the last 7 years, so, in that regard nothing new. What is new is that, in contrast to seven years ago, they’ve now moved major hardware and field hospitals into Donbas–the territories in the east where the insurrectionists are in charge.

Business as usual, it would seem. Berlin ’53, Budapest ’56, CZ in ’68, Georgia ’89, Latvia & Lithuania ’90, Georgia again ’91, Azerbaijan ’91, Moldova ’92, Tajikistan ’92, Chechya ’93, Georgia ’08, Ukraine ’14, Crimean Ukraine ’14.

And that’s Moscow’s attitude toward its friends.

However, there’s one major difference that should prevent a repeat performance this time, and it’s a big thing: What the hell will they get with an invasion of Ukraine?

For one, the guerrilla resistance will be fierce. Ukrainians have had a slice of civil society and they aren’t looking to turn back the clock. And second, Donbas is an albatross that Russia, fiscally, can barely afford.

Ukraine is the same size as Texas. Donbas and Crimea are about the size of New Jersey and Massachusetts. What’s left over is still a sizable territory with a population of 40 million who have no interest in Soviet-style immiseration. That’s a pot they’d be hard pressed to keep from boiling over.  Reasonable estimates say they’d have to put 450,000 troops on the territory just to hold everything up to the Dnieper.

Putin’s writing checks that I hope Biden is smart enough to know he can’t cash.

The fun part: our “activist” neighbor (and she really does know everybody) has already asked if I’d be ready to join the partisan effort if it came to that. Like the kids say, it just got real.

There’s good commentary on this on Russian DOZHD and EKHO MOSKVY. Your Czech will help with the Russian talkers. Some good, solid analysis there.

Putin’s bluff, risk/reward is way out of balance. His objective is just to keep the west engaged while he gets what he’s actually after: no hard promises on NATO for Ukraine, some sanctions lifted, no new sanctions, and Nordstream 2 online with no obstacles. If Biden cuts Russia off from SWIFT banking, makes hay with Beijing, and gets some petroleum concessions, Putin will be out of options.

He’s a one-trick pony, Putin is. It’s just that his one trick works every time. Never discount the grudge he carries–it’s real. But never overestimate his capacity to act on it.

I’ve got relatives in eastern Slovakia we could bunk with, and we’ve got the means to get farther way, if necessary. Light on our feet these days.

No sweat with the tech conversation. I have a lot of reading to do in order to sound semi-competent, so more time is good. Any work I’ve done to this point won’t be wasted. And it’s good to hear you’re getting meaningful work. Does that mean a novel soon?

Ignore the infection numbers. How much have you ever learned from government-generated numbers anyway? Keep yourself and yours safe.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja

From: Iľja Rákoš
Mon, Jan 10, 12:24 PM

Hey, Mark

Checking in to see if the calendar has advanced in the CR. It seems to have stalled here. Though stalled is fine when I glance over at Kazakhstan. What a mess. I’m trying to put together the core of an essay around a thing I’ve been telling the folks back home for years now: that the USSR never really ended, it’s just taking a long time to “rebrand”, as they say.

When Tajik, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Azerbaijani troops led by, ahem, Russian peacekeepers descend on Almaty is anyone really fooled anymore?

The US and EU pundits are so wrongheaded on this, I can’t process it. Sure, first as tragedy then as farce, but what do you call it when the same approach has been in play since 1953? Hungary, East Germany, CR, Poland, the Baltics, Georgia, Ukraine: when Moscow doesn’t get what it wants it invades.

Putin is a one-trick pony: he seeks reunification. The west just doesn’t get him at all, affording him far too much respect as a grand strategist. He ain’t. He’s reactive. He’s a fireman committed to (re)building a society where FIRES ARE NOT ALLOWED.

Sorry if this sounds manic–it’s not. We had a pretty good Christmas/New Year, omicron notwithstanding. This is just ugly.

Hope you and yours are well and that the writing is going well.

Drop a line when the occasion and the spirit coincide.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja Rákoš

From: Mark Slouka
Thu, Jan 20, 1:32 PM

Apologies for the silence, my friend.  It’s been a combination of things.  For starters, Zack’s got omicron (relatively mild symptoms so far) and Maya’s in quarantine, Leslie bashed her leg and can’t sleep much while it heals, which means that I don’t sleep much, which is serious. How’s that for a list of lame (sorry) excuses?

Everything you say about the USSR essentially rebranding itself is spot-on, alas.  There are limits to reunification, of course, given NATO’s expansion, though he’s capable of testing those limits down the road – the real nightmare scenario, especially if we happened to have, say, DeSantis in the WH. But even short of that, the situation with Ukraine is extraordinarily ugly, so I gotta ask, and feel free not to answer if you think it unwise: Do you have contingency plans?

On this end, nothing much changes, day to day: We take our walks, the sunlight gets a bit longer each day.  The clock ticks, the cat vomits up a hairball.  I’ve got no complaints; from a certain angle, this is paradise.

Keep me posted, man.  You and yours are in our thoughts these days – a lot.

Best all around,

Mark

From: Iľja Rákoš
Jan 24, 2022, 1:28 PM

You folks need to mend up. I hope the boy’s omicron subsides and the limbs heal up. Nothing worse than being housebound when the best entertainment option available is just a nice walk out of doors. Take it easy, you bohunk. At your age, I mean!

And given the fact that the world has gone mad, no call for apologies, ever. The world has gone mad.

Nothing is simple any more. To pick up our 2nd-grader from school requires 20 minutes of preparation just to get out the door. My travel pack: the Covid vaccination certificate I wrangled from a private clinic; my Ukrainian “Green Card”; 2 K95 masks (1 ‘operational’, 1 spare) for me and 2 for the kid; my subway pass; my detachable spikes to stay upright on post-Soviet icefields (aka, sidewalks); a shopping bag, in case I’m tasked with picking something up at the market.

So, despite the sinus-infection with all the requisite symptoms of Omicron (though, no access to tests, or vaccines for the boys), we just cross our fingers, burn incense to a selection of deities, and avoid society wherever possible.

If it weren’t for those pesky Russians…

They hacked the power grid, the entire UA government, the banks last week. We’re having regular outages of everything an urban dweller depends on and everything just gets a little harder. Evacuation is tricky because the boys aren’t vaccinated (no access here), Anya isn’t American, and I’m not a tech-millionaire (or non-tech millionaire). Longing for the days when grandpa could travel from Prešov to the US as a 14-year-old with $40.

Hell, I have the $40.

Just frustration. The miracle of the internet and 24-hour-news do nothing but muddy the waters of understanding. Lots of Ukrainian/Russian pundits (a few of them pretty solid thinkers) don’t think there will be an attack. The question to ask is: what does Russia need Ukraine for?

Militarily, it would overwhelm this place.

Geographically, it would realize Vlad’s dream of an unbroken Nova Rossiya, stretching from Rostov to Moldova, via  Donbas-Mariupol-Kherson-Odesa, landlocking Ukraine and grabbing all the Black Sea oil and politically sinking Ukraine as a nation-state, further destabilization of the EU, and the fracturing of NATO.

Domestically, it solidifies his hero status among the Russian mouth breathers of seemingly endless supply. But, it – none of the above – doesn’t really SOLVE real problems like Russia’s revenue, poverty, opposition, and corruption issues. Nothing.

Militarily, it just adds another unaffordable headache for Mother Russia. Kyiv is bigger than Latvia. Ukraine is Texas with twice the population. Could he hold that? Half of that? Vlad’s shopping for a shiny new Hummer but his garage is too small to park it. He can barely manage the Donbas (a trainwreck) and Crimea (a trainwreck with some nice beaches). Unless he intends to gas us (see Syria) or wage 2 wars (see Chechnya), the Russian beast is armed to the teeth but impotent in real world terms, (none of this excludes the possibility of demonstrative tactical strikes on Ukrainian military targets).

Geographically, a land grab would spur relentless, lethal opposition everywhere along the path. Great. Guerrilla warfare has been absent from Europe for too long!

Politically, Sweden and Finland would probably make good on their threats to joining NATO. Frankly, I’d rather have the Finns supporting Ukraine than the Germans. Germany’s craven “can’t we all just do business and get along?” status has worn out its welcome here. (This incident would make a nice case study in the “The Elimination of the Humanities” conversation: what happens when toothy politicians don’t study classical ethics. [God knows it’s bad enough when they DO study classical ethics.])  And, my advice: IGNORE anything you hear about Putin’s desire to “install a puppet Russian government in Kyiv”. The openly “pro-Russia” parties here (there are 2) represent about 15 seats (of 320) in Parliament. The only way Ukraine goes “pro-Russia” is at gunpoint.

Allow me an aside to drive this point home. In Jaromír Navrátil’s gut wrenching The Prague Spring 1968 (a national security documents compendium) the records show that the KGB beat up Černík so bad that he could barely speak when Brezhnev had him (and Dubček) hauled to Moscow to “negotiate”.  Moscow 2022 is identical to Moscow 1968.  It took the Czechs & Slovaks 20 years to overcome “normalization” but they did it. Ukraine is significantly further down the road toward a truly free society and Moscow may – via limited political and military intervention – succeed in delaying the inevitable, but they won’t stop it. Ukraine wants out. Outside the occurrence of a general exodus, the critical mass to resist Russian incursion/takeover is well-established here.

Domestically (the Rakos household), we’re looking to get Anya an emergency US visa. We’ll see how that goes. The boys and I (despite their vaccination status) have options. If, however, they don’t grant her request, we’ll head to the west of Ukraine which should be far from the action.  Wait it out there.

Good Christ, Mark.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja

From: Mark Slouka
Jan 29, 2022, 8:11 PM

So has this last week made us any wiser?  Has the lens cleared?  Not for me, my friend.  I seem to know less and less about less and less, which is interesting.

Has the world gone mad?  Who could doubt it?  If we’re talking about the upper-case world – the tilt toward European-style fascism back in the States, the disinformation campaigns which seem to toggle between lunacy and farce, the climate crisis which lies ahead of us as we drive, pedal to the metal across the flatlands – the evidence is everywhere.  The picture improves on the lower-case level of personal experience: the conversation I had with the food-delivery guy tonight, who was so touched that I’d come out and talk to him and carry my own bags, the dinner the four of us had last night for me and Maya’s birthdays, the smell of basil, a good song . . . but the bigger world keep interfering.

And you’re dealing with the bigger world in spades.  Has Anya heard anything about her visa?  Do you actually have a place in western Ukraine where you could hole up?  Jesus, what a time.  My guess right now is that Putin is engineering a walk-back, arguing that this was all Western propaganda/hysteria, that they were simply conducting ‘exercises,’ etc.  Which may give them a way of tip-toeing back until they figure out a better way, a surer angle.  Then again, given the build-up on the Bellarusian border, he could go in tomorrow.

On this side, nothing much to report.  We’re slogging ahead, waiting for the light to return.  My dreams are living my life for me.

Keep me posted, man.  Seriously.  And all best, more now than ever, to you and yours,

Mark

From: Mark Slouka
Sat, Feb 12, 12:59 AM

okay?  Bearing up?

Tell me something, when you get the chance.  Anything.

M.

From: Iľja Rákoš
Sat, Feb 12, 10:23 AM

Sorry. Busy as a village dentist, trying to arrange the deck chairs. (Now THAT’s a metaphor!)

Briefly, but I’ll get back at you this afternoon, Scout’s honor.

The US media is fucking with us all. “Imminent attack” reads to all of us here like total bullshit.  There may be method, however unintentional, in that message.  Biden’s crew has handled this, in my opinion, masterfully, and I don’t put it past them that they are feeding the NYT and the WSJ the opinion of “imminent attack”.

What we know: Biden has 1)Publicly called out Putin’s plan very early. This got the EU & NATO to close ranks and cheat Putin of the surprise factor. 2)The State Dept has been consistent, rejecting Putin’s “rollback to 1997” demands outright and underscoring again and again Ukraine’s sovereignty as the objective. 3)offered sensible proposals on US/NATO-Russia security arrangements with the goal of turning the page of Russia-West relations 4)Delivered real weapons to Ukraine but ruled out US military involvement 5)increased troop deployments in Poland & Romania 6)Got the EU & UK on board on backbreaking economic sanctions, and (contrary to reporting) essentially got Germany to promise to abandon NordStream 2 if Russia attacks.

Sum it up: Biden has balanced threat, cyberthreat, intelligence, diplomacy, defence, deterrence and retaliatory sanctions WHILE coordinating with EU allies (the kind of alliances Trump tried to hamstring).  Take this the right way, but we haven’t had this level of competence in the State Department/White House since Bush, Sr.

The wild card remains, however: Putin is batshit crazy (don’t know if you heard the post-Macron interview where he talked about Russia’s nuclear capacity and its implications for the EU, but…), so anything can happen.

Personally, if I have to listen/read another pundit doing casualty projections I’m going to punch the next short-timer journalist I meet right in the mouth.  Lots of irresponsibility for all the obvious reasons from our friends in the legacy press.

Funny story. I’m walking my oldest to his trombone lesson and I get stopped for an interview by a 20-something and a cameraman for one of the oligarch-owned, Russia-friendly news outlets here – old timey agit-prop channel.  The guy, well-spoken, says – “do you see any future for the children of Ukraine?”

Knowing the purpose of this interview (foreign guy with kid condemns Ukrainian corruption on camera for broadcast in the LNR, DNR, and RF) I play with him for a bit, finally telling him – “yes, Ukraine has a real problem”.  Now, he’s all jazzed up, and asks “can you be specific?” so I tell him: “we haven’t figured out how to get rid of all the fascist cocksuckers the Kremlin pays to shit on Ukraine’s party!”

Not sure if they’ll air that.

We’re defiant. The US has told us “Get out in the next 48 hours” but the US Embassy staff, it turns out, has not left.

I don’t want to turn my family into victims of my principles, and we truly, have no clue what’s coming, but I am confident of this – when the US State Department starts talking directly to US citizens in extreme terms “Get out! Now!”, it’s probably lying.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja Rákoš

From: Iľja Rákoš
Feb 14, 2022, 10:34 AM

Greetings from ground zero.  Monday morning and empty streets. We got word that schools are going remote for two weeks but haven’t heard any specifics.  We’ll see.

Stay safe.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja Rákoš

From: Mark Slouka
Feb 14, 2022, 6:30 PM

I’m hoping that with Olaf Scholz in Moscow tomorrow, nothing will happen, though with the Russians you never know.  As you know.

Talk soon – hang in there,

Mark

From: Iľja Rákoš
Feb 14, 2022, 7:12 PM

Had the same thought about Scholz. Send a prominent enough world leader to the Kremlin every other day for the next 8 or 10 years and we might just outlast the cretin.

I’ll be at the computer whenever you get free.

Iľja

From: Mark Slouka
Sat, Feb 19, 12:40 PM

Hey Il’ja:

So I don’t know what contingency plans you guys have should things go sideways (or where things stand with Anya’s emergency visa application) but I’ve talked it over with Leslie and Zack and Maya, and we want you all to know that you’re welcome to stay at our house in [redacted] for a time until you get your situation sorted out.  It’s a small, quiet town (a 15 hour drive from Kjiv), with groceries and everything else available 10 minutes away.  Additionally, I’m told that the Czech authorities are basically prepared and ready to offer aid, so conceivably a quick trip to the embassy in Prague could get you guys set up for a while.

The news lately (always to be taken with a spoonful of salt, naturally), is that the Russians have lists of journalists, dissidents, etc. who would not fare well in case an invasion were to occur – hence this letter.

Think about it, okay?

Best,

Mark

From: Iľja Rákoš
Mon, Feb 21, 11:19 AM

Hey Mark,

Sideways is the only way we know how to live; we’re more afraid of things going straight–that’d bring chaos.

We’re beyond grateful for the offer. I think this tribe would horrify you, but I’m authorized (by she who runs things) to respond with a qualified “yes”.

Qualified, because we still think the homunculus from Moscow is posturing. He’s got bigger goals than Kyiv–a city, parliament, economy–which he can control with a lesser, manageable incursion into the Donbas.

Of course, I’m the guy who trusted the episcopate to be ethical.

Should Putin attack, here’s our plan: we go west to [redacted] (about 5 hours west of Kyiv, about 4 hours from Poland). We make sure Anya’s family is set up, and then we head to CZ, via Slovakia or Poland, whichever is open for business.  Which should give you plenty of time to stock up on foie gras and Chateauneuf de Pape for our arrival.

Of course, the trains will have to be running. We’ll figure it out, and we’ll be in touch.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja

From: Iľja Rákoš
Mon, Feb 21, 3:54 PM

Another detail. Don’t know the ins and outs of this, but Anya may have trouble crossing the Polish and/or Czech border. Ukraine has “free-travel-regime” status in the EU but we’ve been warned that Poland is making noises they’ll rescind this if there’s an attack. Understandably, they don’t want a million Ukrainians showing up for Sunday brunch.

I will try to verify, but in the eventuality, would it be possible for you to issue a letter as a US citizen to say, “yes, we let this unwashed Ukrainian, passport so-and-so, stay at our place, etc. ?”

I’m calling the Prague US Embassy to check what they know. The Kyiv Embassy is gone and all the phones/pc’s have been burned. The State Department doesn’t want another situation like with the Taliban.

I’m hoping this is just excess of caution, but shit.

I’ll get back to you. Lots of rumbles. Lots of hawks with no skin in the game speculating on body counts. Mediocrities, one and all.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja

From: Mark Slouka
Feb 21, 2022, 7:30 PM

Of course I can write that, and the fact that I’m a dual citizen might help a bit.  Or not.  Also, we know a lawyer who works with immigration issues here who might have some advice – if you like, I’m happy to ask her.  Just let me know.

Did you get through to the embassy in Prague?  I’d be shocked (pleased, but shocked) if you did.  Every time we try to reach out to them we get precisely nowhere until we show up in person.

Just so you and Anya have all the necessary info., I want to make sure you know the house (foie gras notwithstanding) ain’t exactly Pemberley from Pride and Prejudice, and that [redacted] is ten minutes by car, not foot.  Don’t know if you’ll have a car.  If so, no problem.  If not, you can always grab an Uber or taxi for relatively little and do all your shopping in town.  And though the weather will be cold for a while yet, it’s a goddamn beautiful part of the world – woods, ponds, the whole shebang.

Okay, back to you,

Mark

From: Iľja Rákoš
Feb 22, 2022, 10:29 AM

Happy DNR and LNR Independence Day!

Things getting weird here now that the troops have crossed the border.  All the hawks are coming out, screaming about “if Russia can ignore the Minsk deal and Budapest Article 6, so should we.” The bloodlust is insatiable.

I’m holding out hope that Putler’s sights are still set largely on the east and the south. Crimea needs Ukrainian water and he’d love to render Ukraine landlocked–all he needs to do is push across the south to Odesa, linking up with Moldova. He’s making all the “historically Russian land” arguments now, the path looks to be inevitable. Still, he’ll have a fight on his hands.

Got through to the CZ Embassy via a “special, secret number”. Friendly, helpful American voices told me: we MIGHT be able to expedite a visa for Anya; that they have official agreements with the Poles, Slovaks, Romanians and Hungarians to let Americans “in certain categories” through and have US staff at all border crossings to make sure it gets done. At the very least, I got Anya’s name on the list. Unprompted from me, the CZ Embassy guy asked for all her info. I was impressed.

Plane, train, or automobile is the question at this point.

No sweat about the house or the car / shopping issue–we walk, we bike–we’ll figure it out. Living in Ukraine makes you tough. A taste of that Czech countryside would go a long way, though.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja
 

From: Mark Slouka
Feb 22, 2022, 10:59 AM

Okay, the news re. the border crossings from the embassy guy sounds almost encouraging.  Must be that “special, secret number.”  What do you need at this point?  I can print out the letter, sign it, then scan it over (snail mail could take forever, if it even arrived).  And how about our friend the lawyer?  Should I talk to her?

If yes on the letter, I’d probably need your-all’s passport numbers, full names and some sense of what you think the letter should contain.  Then I can get it to you in hours.

Let’s hope this all stops well short of the worst, but no harm in being prepared.

M.

From: Iľja Rákoš
Feb 22, 2022, 11:26 AM

Great. Scanned, signed (additional instructions below) will be enough. I have a good printer.

Don’t need the lawyer just yet. I’m figuring these forms out and, it seems, if the Embassy is under orders from Blinken to give priority to refugee families’ needs we should be okay. American Citizen Services at the Embassy has been good, in our experience.

Of the problems we can handle, (too many we can’t) it is the border crossing that most concerns me. Our experience: the level of professionalism of the Slovak, Hungarian and Pole border/customs people has always been good. The Ukrainians are awful. The Romanians – depends on phases of the moon or something. If we need the letter, it’ll be the Ukrainians we’ll need it for, and English is fine.

One cautionary note: DON’T put any info more sensitive than your address in that letter. Also, if you have a “Stamp” of any kind lying around, even the one you use to stamp “From the Library of Mark Slouka” inside your books, put that at the bottom and put a big, flourishing signature over it. Stamps impress Ukrainians. I wish I were kidding.

And again: the Prague Embassy already has Anya on their radar.

Here are the passports:

[redacted]

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja

From: Mark Slouka
Feb 22, 2022, 1:07 PM

Okay, I’m on it – heading out with Zack to a stamp place that apparently does them immediately – I’m assuming everything is to be in English, yes?  And the gist should be that I, blah blah, am offering you and yours blah, blah . . a place to stay at x, etc.  Sound about right?

And re. my information, should I put in my American and/or Czech passport number or my Czech obcansky cislo?

M.

From: Iľja Rákoš
Feb 22, 2022, 1:19 PM

Don’t make a special stamp, you overachiever. But then, hey, it’ll be a good conversation starter. Make the inscription something suitably smartassy – “The Bite Me, Asswipes Foundation” – the Ukrainians won’t be able to read it and the Czechs will likely launch an investigation.

We found good direct flights. Monitoring them for now.

The text sounds right.

About the personal info. I’d do so with caution. You DON’T want your data in the Ukrainian database. I’m neckdeep in it already–too late for me.  However, if we fly, no Ukrainian will ever see the letter, only the Czech customs people and they’re likely already on to you.

Pain in the ass me suggests the following: TWO scenarios / TWO letters.

Scenario 1 – we fly *** we use Letter 1 with ALL your relevant data (we burn Letter 2).

Scenario 2 – we make a land crossing *** we use Letter 2 with ONLY your Name, address, and obcansky cislo.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja

From: Mark Slouka

Tue, Feb 22, 7:27 PM

Okay, so here they are, and to say they look cheesy is an insult to cheese.  Still, knowing the absurd value Czechs put on credentials I probably should have put in my eight grade science award (given to me out of pity).  The stamps look absurd – the best I could do.

Let me know what’s next – as you can, when you can.

Best,

Mark

From: Iľja Rákoš
Tue, Feb 22, 7:47 PM

Internet is out tonight, but cell service is still up. I’ll look at these on a big screen in the a.m. and get back at you.

I owe you.

In the good news Dept 2 things: Germany put the bureaucratic kibosh on Nordstream 2; Im hoping Uncle Sam can show some backbone soon. And, the Prague Embassy and I are having a productive exchange; already got some guidance and they promise more to come.

Thanks again.

From home to home,

Iľja

From: Iľja Rákoš
Feb 23, 2022, 9:41 AM

Wonderful. Thanks to you and Leslie and the kids.

The letters are perfect, listing the degrees is a nice touch, and the stamp is classic; I hope it can be useful in the future.

Still monitoring here. We will stick it out for the time being. We can move rather quickly but before we commit we need to see how far the Moscow nedomirok is willing to go.

The pressing issue: am I required to start addressing you as Dr. Slouka?

peace, gratitude, from Kyiv,

Iľja

From: Mark Slouka
Feb 23, 2022, 11:09 AM

Dr. Slouka, Ph.D., please.

Glad you think those ridiculous letters might help.  Keep me posted if you can.

From: Mark Slouka
Thu, Feb 24, 8:59 PM

I’ve been thinking of you all day, obviously, watching events unfold that you’re in the middle of.  Reality has outstripped apprehension, to recall Melville.  Terrifying, heartbreaking . . . what can I say that you haven’t thought a thousand-fold?

My guess, trying to put myself in your position, is that the main thing now is to just hold it together – get as much sleep as possible – and seize the chance when it comes.  The house in [redacted] is there for when that time comes, and Leslie and I are driving up tomorrow just to stock up a bit and hide the key somewhere where you can find it.

I’m thinking of you, man – of all of you.  If I was a man of God, I’d pray – hell, I may try it anyway.

Hang in there,

Mark

From: Iľja Rákoš
Fri, Feb 25, 11:07 AM

Just a note.

Bombs falling in Kyiv. Ukrainians have been shooting down bombers and fighter jets with Turkish drones, and other anti-aircraft.  National Guard here is fighting like men who are protecting their families. Russians are headed for a Viet Nam experience.

Older boy is pretty spooked, younger boy is fierce. Anya’s a she-bear.

Ukrainians are a different breed, I tell ya.

Russians are hitting residential areas directly. No mistakes, re “military objects” here.

I’m up and down out of the pit, trying to write things. Sirens going off again. Better get down there.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja

From: Mark Slouka
Fri, Feb 25, 8:48 PM

Following everything we can in the news, but haven’t heard from you all day.  If you get the chance, let us know that you’re all still okay, okay?

Thinking of you guys,

M.

From: Mark Slouka
Sat, Feb 26, 11:37 AM

Just a quick note to let you know that I talked to Adam at The Millions and also to Jenny Egan, who was (or still is) president of PEN America, to see how best we could get your words out to people.  Adam’s ready to post anything you do, and Jenny’s put me through to folks at PEN who should get back to me very soon with their ideas.  Of course it’s all up to you in terms of whether and where you post – the last thing in the world I want is to put you in any more danger than you’re already in.

Hang in there, man.  More soon,

Mark

From: Iľja Rákoš
Sat, Feb 26, 6:44 PM

Jesus. What do I say?  Anya’s on me to get my ass in the chair.  Struggling mentally.

The current situation is, what’s the word?, fucked.

Scraping fresh florescent spray paint off our building walls – sabotage markings. Putin’s playing the criminal card. The mayor’s broadcasting gas mask tutorials.  The fact that the Ukrainians are fighting back seems to have pissed off the Russian brain trust.

We’re home tonight. Windows taped up, bathroom set up for sleep. These people are amazing.

I’ll write more.

peace from Kyiv,

Iľja

From: Mark Slouka
Sat, Feb 26, 7:53 PM

If you weren’t struggling mentally under this extraordinary stress and sleep deprivation, there’d be something very wrong with you.  And yet, despite it all, you’re writing some amazing posts (the video brought me to tears) which I believe could make a difference in terms of public opinion and perhaps even help counter motherfuckers like Tucker Carlson and Bannon.  I’ll do what I can – can’t promise anything, alas.

Hang on, more soon . . . and if you can, please keep writing.

Mark

From: Iľja Rákoš
Feb 26, 2022, 8:31 PM

Hey – found a way out of the city. It can’t happen till after curfew is lifted Monday, but is reliable.

Encrypting everything but will share details later.

Sirens and bombs. Hanging with neighbors in the stairwell. It’s reinforced.

Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Two

-

Millions staff writer Il’ja Rakos and his family live in Kyiv, Ukraine. What follows are his Facebook posts from the ongoing Russian invasion, many of them written from a bomb shelter, reposted with his permission and the assistance of his friend Mark Slouka.
Feb. 28 at 8:03 p.m. EEST
My kids call her Grandma Lena. She’s not really their grandmother. Grandma Lena is a neighbor who serves in a role that is vital to the way this place works. If she, along with all the ‘neighborhood grandmas’ throughout this part of the world didn’t exist, most of eastern Europe would probably crumble. They are the backbone, the memory, the fiber, and often the op-ed page of the neighborhood and thus, the nation. I would argue that until you have been properly chewed out by a Slavic grandmother for not wearing a hat on a cold day you remain an incomplete human being.
Our Lena has always got treats, but doesn’t hand them out until you’ve finished the meat pastry she has for you. She typically bakes enough to feed Coxey’s Army, as my old father used to say. Her laugh, her smile, her unfailingly generosity, and her voice that carries for blocks when required.
Grandma Lena knows books. She knows culture. She can recount a history of Kyiv that will bewitch you for hours. And something else you should know: smiling, treat-bearing, story-telling grandma Lena, now 71, also has a job. She’s a scientist. She teaches physics and writes books on radio physics at the Ukrainian National Academy of Science Physics Institute.
This past August, when Ukraine was still deciding whether it could afford to give the Covid vaccine to foreigners, Lena hooked me up. The Physics Institute had been designated as “essential infrastructure” and was given an allotment of several hundred doses of Pfizer designated for Institute faculty, staff and their immediate families. Including me, as it turns out. Shortly after Lena christened me her newly minted nephew. I cherish the title.
I met this woman 14 years ago when I moved to Podil, a Kyiv neighborhood of such discrete charm that resistance is futile. It’s a quarter built on a human scale (rare in places where the Soviet Union once called the shots), filled with Russian Empire architecture, set on the banks of the Dnieper, and home to Kontraktova Square and the cobblestone magic of St. Andrew’s Descent. Podil is Kyiv’s heart. It is theaters, art galleries, cafés, and hidden yards that recall a simpler, peaceful time. A district you can walk. On a bright May morning when the chestnuts are blooming and the neighborhood rings with the voices of young mothers calling after their little ones, you would fail to convince me that there is any place on earth better suited to human society than this thousand-year-old neighborhood.
And it is here, in the playground that fronts a building that sits perpendicular to mine, both structures going up during the reign of Nicholas II, that I can sit and talk with grandma Lena. Though not now.
Tonight, fit, rigorous Lena, lies in a hospital far from our neighborhood. In 2020, she and I contracted Covid about two days apart. I ended up in a hospital, Lena toughed it out at home. This fall, it hit her again. But then just as her recovery began to gather steam, lesser minds than Lena’s decided that Europe needed another war. Lena’s heart failed. Try as I might, I can only begin to grasp her grief at what can be lost when the gate is finally breached and the brute is inside.
Once upon a time, shortly after the Soviet Union fell apart, I read radio physics under a professor at Novosibirsk State University in Akademgorodok, Russia. In that, my first long exposure to the beating heart of the old USSR, I met men and women of such intellectual rigor, such dynamic life force and cultural refinement that I wondered how it is we could ever have counted these people as enemies.
The irony. Last night and this morning rockets scream down on Kyiv, Chernihiv, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, Vasylkiv – Ukrainian cities most of you will likely never visit, and who could blame you? Still, tonight, I thought I’d tell you that if you should manage to visit one day, after you’ve hit the the tourist spots, make sure you take a walk in a neighborhood. The places marked by squares and parks marshaled by grandmothers, tough as iron, meat pies hot and waiting. Be hungry.
+++
We can’t visit Lena and we miss our friend. This morning, I talked to Borya, her husband, a physicist of international reputation. He is a hard man, a man of hard opinions. He rarely asks questions; he makes assertions. When I asked after Lena, he managed “she’s resting” and hung his head.
+++
Last night was another filled with sirens and blasts and blood-chilling silence between volleys. Let’s just agree to put that sentence at the head of each of these updates until the bastards figure things out. There are victories to report, losses too, but you’ve got CNN (I pity you) for that.
Leaders – for lack of a better term – of these two nations are meeting in Belarus to talk. And I can’t afford the energy it takes to care because—talks ongoing—the bombing hasn’t stopped. Nothing will come of these meetings. Mockery, prevarication, and threats perhaps – the language of mediocrity. I don’t care. I’m sick of pundits, sick of the bloodlust, sick of craven pronouncements of military strategists and the think-tank troglodytes posturing and sermonizing and tweeting from a million miles away. This is a family place, so I’ll say it in Ukrainian: Шлях би їх трафив.
Nerves are bad. Our boys are scared. My wife is afraid to go for a walk around the block. I wish we had better news. Kyiv has just been hit – 6:30 p.m. –  somewhere near the center. We pray for deliverance from the terror by night and the destruction by day. I pray for my friend to come home, sit in the park, and tell me how wrong I am about Brodsky’s Christmas Cycle of Poems.
Peace from Kyiv

p.s. I would attach a picture of Lena, but these are insecure days. One day, when the orcs have gone home.  Instead, a few pictures of Old Podil, Kyiv. And a short video.
Mar. 1 at 10:49 a.m. EEST
Blue on gold is the flag of sovereign, democratic, free Ukraine. Heaven and earth. The open sky above the field of grain.
Joseph Stalin attempted to starve Ukraine to death in the artificial, Soviet-enforced famine of 1932-1933. Conservatively, 5 million Ukrainians died of starvation in years of abundant harvest. Stalin turned the fields red.
Vladimir Putin is now, in 2022, attempting to choke Ukraine to death, filling the sky with rockets. He has set as his targets the homes of Ukrainians. Doctors, teachers, retirees, children. He is now, the satellite images verified, sending a miles-long column of military hardware to Kyiv. It is within 25 miles of us now. And he calls on God to guide the invasion. The fetid, craven patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has endorsed this war. He offers a demented prayer for the destruction of “the Ukrainian invaders.” They would turn the heavens black.
Look at the Ukrainian flag. It is the flag of people who live free, who die free. It is not in competition with the flags of other nations who have suffered the devastation of war, and I am glad to see these photos of it flying in my hometown, my country, and on your pictures here.
But as much as I want you to embrace the romance of the idea of an open sky above a field of grain, I want you to look hard. Ask yourselves: are there other lands where clear skies and abundant crops would be a desirable alternative to their present existence? An existence too often defined by missiles, invasion, immiseration, and death, of power unhinged and unleashed to feed on the poor.
In Africa. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. In Myanmar. In China. In Russia. I can’t list them all; can’t manage it. But they are there. And often, they are there in your own cities and towns.
I am lifted up by your support, but I am not alone. Look up at that flag and then look at those in distress all around you and – as you have not despised Ukraine in this fight for its life – do not despise anyone in their time of need.
We are safe for now but we are headed for cover where we can find it. Safe spots are compromised. The streets are unsafe.
Going offline.
Peace from Kyiv
Илля, Анна, Всеволод і Яромир
Слава Україні – Героям Слава