APRIL 20, 2022
THERE’S A HELP STATION for Ukrainian refugees in the German town of Hilden, not far from where I live. My role here is like being a shopping concierge at a consignment shop. “What can I help you find?” I ask, “A jacket for you? Shoes for your kids?” Everything is given without payment.
Near the entrance is a corner for toiletries. Long rows of tables stretch across the school gym, holding stacks of neatly folded clothes, labeled by size and type. Boxes of shoes occupy the far wall. One corner has a toy station. Off the back of the gym, there is a separate, hook-filled equipment room, holding coats for all sizes and seasons. Beyond what is displayed, cardboard boxes with items carefully categorized by type and size wait in reserve. It is all indicative of the outpouring of material help that Germans have rallied to supply. This is the mythic German organization I had heard about.
I spoke with three women who had arrived from the Zhytomyr region and Kyiv, without their husbands and sons who stayed behind to fight.
“We taped a white sign with the word children written on both sides of the car, just hoping that we wouldn’t get shot,” said one. “We couldn’t drive straight along the road. We had to weave through wrecked and burned cars. It was just a war zone, everywhere. I couldn’t believe it. At some point we realized it wasn’t safe to go forward but it already wasn’t safe to go back. We drove by burned-out cars — they held people inside. Aside from the holes made by projectiles, the weight of tanks had completely mangled the road. The whole time I just kept praying that we wouldn’t wreck a tire. If we got a flat tire that would be the end. It’s a miracle that we didn’t get a flat tire; there were so many holes in the road.” The woman came back to the help center as the news of the atrocities in Bucha broke. “How close to Bucha do you live?” I asked her. “Myrotskoe — from mir, for peace. It’s about four kilometers through the woods, six kilometers if you go around by road.”
I see the absurdity of Vladimir Putin’s insistence that there is no Ukraine separate from Russia. In the 13th century, the Mongol invaders negotiated separate arrangements with the Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia than they did with Moscow. The dynastic continuity that is sometimes invoked for the historical unity of “all Russia” was effectively a dead letter in Moscow by the 14th century. The 17th century saw the first efforts to establish a sovereign Cossack statehood on Ukrainian lands, still long before anyone had given much thought to the concept nation-state. In the 18th century, over 100 years after Moscow conquered Kyiv, Catherine II acknowledged that Ukrainian traditions of self-governance posed a challenge to Russian imperial aspirations. In the 19th century, the Russian imperial government attempted to deny the existence of Ukrainian language by decree. Yet, in the 20th, the Bolsheviks who took power in the name of anti-imperialist ideology could not deny the existence of Ukraine.
All these facts undermine Putin’s instrumentalized myth about timeless unity. But Russia is now trying to bomb Ukrainian cities into submission. Historical arguments have not won the day, and this complicated history itself, to my mind, is secondary to the modern principle of self-determination.
At the help station, another woman from Zhytomyr didn’t want anything besides the light rain jacket she’d taken; she wasn’t planning to be here long. She brought nine children with disabilities from the school where she worked. “It was my duty to get them out and bring them here. I have brought them here. I have fulfilled my duty to them, and now I am going back.” She is going back to a battle zone to join her own adult children in defending their homeland.
I remembered a day out climbing near Lake Tahoe long ago. A rescue helicopter had appeared over the cliff and landed near the base. My sister was climbing at another part of the crag that day. Before I could get down to the base to find out if she was alright, I felt like a caged animal. This woman had the look of a caged animal about her.
I helped another woman from Kherson find the right-sized diapers for her adorable daughter. She balked at taking the whole box in case someone else needed them. We hear that a lot from these people who have left their worlds behind. “Take them. They’ll come in handy,” I told her.
She was a Crimean Tatar, born in Uzbekistan because her grandmother had been deported there by Stalin. The family returned to Crimea in 1994. They were not able to repossess the property they had been forced off of decades earlier, so they settled in Simferopol. But after the Russian annexation, life there became intolerable. “We couldn’t live there anymore. The repression got to be too much … They treated us Muslims like we were all terrorists.” In 2018, they moved from Russian-occupied Crimea to Kherson on the mainland.
They left Kherson when the bombing started. They got out, she told me, but so many of her friends, neighbors, and relatives couldn’t leave. And now they’ve closed off exiting, she said, holding back tears.
During one shift, a friend in Russia sent me some videos. I played them on low, not wanting to expose refugees to them. Four distressed people describe being shot at by the Ukrainian army. My friend wrote, “Is the tragedy of Mariupol being covered in the American media?”
I notice that all the pro-Russian videos I’ve seen lately have commercials about children suffering from cancer. I’m told that’s not how the algorithms work, but I can’t help but wonder if the content is designed to dilute the effect of heart-wrenching videos about Ukrainian children — killed, injured, displaced, terrified — who are suffering from war. Can’t we make children safe before using them as pawns? How do we break free from the webs of propaganda? Effective propaganda isn’t just about disinformation — it’s deflection and dilution, too. Some of my Russian friends these days — when they are done railing against Ukrainian corruption and the Azov battalion — have taken to telling me there is so much wrong in the world that we can’t fix.
A young woman from Kharkiv showed me a short video on her phone. It was taken from a window looking into a residential courtyard and out to a street. A few rifle-toting men in black coats with a white chest strip move hastily through the courtyard, looking right and left. “Those are the Russians, with the white on their coats. And this building here,” she pointed to a corner on the screen, “it used to be two floors higher.” I could have missed it, but indeed the top is gutted.
“I saw the first missiles that fell on Kharkiv,” she told me. “It was really early. I had gotten up to get a glass of water. I was standing in my kitchen, looking out the window, and I saw this huge flash. And then several more.”
“What did you think was happening in that moment?”
“I was completely empty. I couldn’t think. Total emptiness. I couldn’t move. My feet were frozen to the floor. I didn’t scream. Only later did I start to shake.”
So, what do I do in this moment? Do I engage with my friend about these videos now? The Russian propaganda ecosystem has been the air she breathes for the past two decades, even as she thought she was holding her nose. I opt for a smaller task: I help a small child pick out a toy while his mother finds some clothes that fit.
Erika Monahan is an associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico, temporarily based in Germany. She is the author of The Merchants of Siberia: Trade in Early Modern Eurasia(Cornell, 2016) and an associate editor of the journal Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History.