When we began to put this issue together, the course of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine was still uncertain. As we go to print, some 15,000 Russian soldiers and several thousand – it’s not known how many – Ukrainian combatants have already died. Up to 14 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, including the 6.6 million who have left the country. Most have gone west (over half are in Poland), but nearly a million people have been bussed over the border to Russia, voluntary and involuntary refugees processed and dispersed to halls and schools across the country. Many people have fled Russia too – some 4 million people have left in the wake of Putin’s hardening repression, temporarily or for good.
Most of the refugees are likely to eventually return (many already have), and cities will, I suppose, be rebuilt. Putin will be remembered for war crimes, kleptocracy, and a grandiose and vacant ideology of aggrieved nationalism, military hubris, patriarchal orthodoxy and brutal homophobia. The sacred homeland requires military sacrifices; medals and privileges comfort the survivors. We recognise – how could we not? – this scenario of choreographed authoritarian ritual, harking back to a glorious past. Sana Valiulina, in this issue, reminds us of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet–Nazi agreement to carve up Eastern and Central Europe between the two would-be empires.
By the time you read this, things will look different again. We might have peace. We might have been drawn into a third world war. Or – most probably – the war will develop into something in-between, a prolonged and inconclusive conflict turning into a running sore of global politics. Channel 4 News’ international editor Lindsey Hilsum’s ‘Letters from Ukraine’ gives a rare insight into war reporting from behind the scenes – lodging where you can find it, air raid sirens, international colleagues, the serendipity of good interviews. Journalist Daniel Trilling collates fragments from his interviews over the years with refugees from different war zones, to reveal, with the greatest of gentleness, the existential sadness of exile. Volodymyr Rafeyenko, Ukrainian writer and poet, was in his home, a borrowed dacha near Kyiv (he and his wife had fled once already, years ago, from the conflict in Donbas), when the invasion began. Shrapnel and shells fell on roads and gardens. First the internet connection failed, then the electricity. The Rafeyenkos fled, with difficulty, and later found out that civilians had been executed in the village down the road. In time the history of this war will be written, and what feels like one deranged man’s brutal fantasy will no doubt be revealed to have multiple causes, long- and short-term. But the ultimate responsibility for every broken body, every bombed-out street and building, every refugee, is Putin’s. It is ironic that United Russia, the ruling party that gained a platform on the politics, above all, of stability, should have supported this deeply destabilising invasion.
Our theme of conflict is internal as well as external. Janet Malcolm’s text is about her mother, and her complicated maternal love. The family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939, and only fragments of their social world survived. This extract, as steely and insouciant as Malcolm herself, is taken from her last book, Still Pictures, a posthumous memoir.
Suzanne Scanlon writes about her breakdown when she was a student at Columbia in the early 1990s, followed by a long stay on a psychiatric ward. She describes the pressure to ‘remember’ abuse that never happened, in accordance with the then prevalent notion that severe mental distress, particularly in young women, was likely to be caused by early sexual abuse, subsequently suppressed and forgotten.
Sarah Moss lucidly describes a recent episode of anorexia. She fell into a mode of relentless efficiency, running mile after mile, working hard and cooking organic meals for the family while hiding her deeply serious illness from them. All the virtues of thrift, of ‘up and doing’, of healthy cooking and exercise fed into a compulsion beyond her control.
Jane Delury’s short story ‘Fault Lines’ is about intergenerational eating disorders, in prose deceptively quiet. How come, in an issue on conflict, the writing turns so quiet? Not so in George Prochnik’s piece, ‘Talk America’. Trying to make ends meet as a writer, Prochnik worked for a while for an American catalogue company. It was his unenviable task to man the complaint line, managing the enraged customers who were told that they had to spend more money to send back whatever useless thing they had bought, when the bulk of the price was postage and packaging in the first place. A con, of sorts, or at least a hard sell.
This spring I lost my closest friend, Swedish writer Johanna Ekström, to cancer. ‘Hold on to the afterlife of the beloved, it’s the only thing / that’s yours’, Peter Gizzi’s poem in this issue begins. I hold on, I realise, to a comforting image of Johanna’s afterlife. She is with my father. He, like her, was a resolute and irreverent atheist. I see them outside, in some sunny meadow, talking, laughing, deeply content. I can’t quite hear them, but I can see the wind on their faces, a faint summery breeze.
‘Having Recently Escaped from the Maws of a Deathly Life, I Am Ready to Begin the Year Anew’ is the ironic title of one of Sandra Cisneros’s poems. It’s a celebration of things she loves, from snoozing dogs to chocolate eclairs and salami. It is good to be reminded that there is a world out there beyond grief and suffering; beyond dull notions of virtue and obligation – an anarchic world of cream cakes and dreams and sun.
‘I will cease waiting for someone to do something about the / war, the walls, the guns, the drugs, the stupidity of leaders, / and ally myself with citizens who practice the art of tossing / their shoes at heads of state’, she writes.
Loves it, Johanna would have said, quoting Paris Hilton’s cooking show (Johanna loved camp TV).
When she was told she had three months to live, a well-meaning oncologist suggested she might feel her cancer was unfair. ‘You might feel why me, why is this happening to me’, he carried on, not quite reading her expression.
‘Well, why not me?’ Johanna asked, once she stopped laughing.
Why not me. Isn’t that wonderful?