In Stoic Ukraine, Stone Faces Begin to Crack and Cry
KYIV, Ukraine – Hunched over a bowl of borscht in a crowded restaurant, the man bragged about how many people he employed, all his political connections and that if necessary he could even kill someone ‘one and cause trouble. “go away.”
With his clean-shaven head, black sweatshirt, and hands the size of bear paws, he certainly looked like he could handle this threat. And if this openly macho construction company owner couldn’t do it himself, he kept hinting at his ties to the Ukrainian underworld.
But then his face suddenly softened, saddened.
“All my life, all my life, when I had a problem, I could solve it,” he said. “But now… with this war…” — he couldn’t even finish his sentence. He covered his face with his hands and burst into tears, tears sinking into his soup.
Ukrainians are generally good at mounting a brave front. A big part of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s message has been that they’re tough, they’re ready to sacrifice, they’re ‘unbreakable’ – that’s one of Mr. Zelensky’s favorite words.
But as the war drags on, an almost unbearable pain accumulates. And just like the sudden explosion at the restaurant, which surprised everyone at the table, especially the man himself, so many people here are trying to hide their suffering that it creates a precarious emotional landscape, full of unmarked cliffs.
“People don’t want to open up, because they’re afraid that if they do, they’ll lose it,” said Anna Trofymenko, a psychotherapist in Kremenchuk, a town in central Ukraine.
She had a metaphor for this tendency to repress emotions.
“There are two types of people in this world – the avocado and the coconut,” she said.
Avocado, she explained, is soft on the outside, hard on the inside. Coconut is the opposite.
“We are like coconuts,” she says.
Even before the war, she says, Ukrainians tended to be stoic and reluctant to move. She attributed this to the lingering haze of Soviet times when the survival strategy was: don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t open up to strangers.
Yevhen Mahda, a prominent political scientist from Kyiv, agreed.
“During the Soviet Union,” he said, “every person was a small piece of a big machine. No one expressed their emotions. It was not necessary. Nobody cared.
Although younger Ukrainians don’t have the same background, “society doesn’t change so fast,” Mahda said. “It’s a process, it’s not a fairy tale, it’s not a Harry Potter book, it’s our life.”
In Pokrovsk, a town in the east near the front line, I met a young woman sitting in an evacuation train. Her village had been shelled relentlessly, and she hurriedly fled. She was carrying 150 hryvnias in her pocket, or about $4. But she was calm and well-dressed, her neatly made-up face a blank mask.
I didn’t ask many questions, but at some point I looked at her and said, “Sorry, you’re going through this.” She looked me straight in the eye and burst into tears.
Ms. Trofymenko, the psychologist, explained that this was also part of the landscape. “As soon as you feel safe,” she said, “you let go.”
“You know, we seem very reserved, unemotional, with a lack of feelings,” she added. “But once inside, it’s a different story.”
On the Polish-Ukrainian border, in the early days of the war, I witnessed one of the greatest refugee crises of modern times. An endless assembly of women and children crossed the border, millions of them. Burdened by bloated, hastily-packed suitcases and driven from their own homes by history-altering circumstances, they were tiny, vulnerable figures, eclipsed by long roads and vast skies.
A woman wearing a green hoodie stopped to rest along a Polish highway. Due to the rule that Ukrainian men of military age are not allowed to leave the country, she was alone. She had just separated from her husband, whom she had known from an early age. She too had dry eyes – at first.
But after sharing her parting words with her husband, her composure cracked. Once she allowed herself to think about the man she loved and how she had no idea when, or maybe even if, she would see him again, and how it felt to hold him tight this last time at the border, it was impossible to cauterize her. feelings.
As a journalist, covering huge traumatic events doesn’t necessarily get easier the longer you do it. I sometimes feel my protective lining wearing away.
Recently I saw a photo of a burning building in eastern Ukraine, not far from Pokrovsk. I looked closer and felt a pang of fear. Wait a second, I tell myself. I have been in this building.
It was in the same town, Chasiv Yar, where I had an unusual interaction with a Russian sympathizer. He told me and my interpreter, Alex, that he believed the Russians were “doing the right thing” by invading Ukraine. Alex and her family suffered greatly from this war (like almost all Ukrainians), but she did not argue with the sympathizer. As a journalist, that was not his role.
At the end of the interview, the Russian sympathizer, in his seventies, happy and full of life, went into his garden and began to saw a bunch of grapes. He really enjoyed the company, he said, and wanted to give us a present.
As he stretched towards the glittering fruit, I saw Alex’s eyes fill with tears.
“What is this?” I asked.
We had interviewed so many people who had lost everything, but I had never seen her cry. She is hard. She is hard. She is, by her own admission, a coconut.
Why was she crying now?
“Because these people are good,” she says.
If someone on the “other side” – as most Ukrainians and much of the West mark Russia and its supporters – could so willingly offer fruit from their garden, what did that say about the complexities of war?
We left with the grapes, filled with emotions that weren’t so easily contained.