Reflections on Ukraine : Surviving the Unimaginable

The neighborhood where I used to live in Kyiv got bombarded several times over the past couple of days. Now every night I dream of walking through it as it once were. I then wake up in the middle of the night and lie conjuring up the familiar images. Ukraine lives in me, even as I am far away from Ukraine.

I recently gave an interview to a Spanish newspaper ABC about my book The Rooster House (Mi Ucrania in Spanish) and said that to understand Ukraine, it’s important to know that its identity made up of beauty and tragedy. And so I will share this painting by Dmytro Perepelytsya (1903–1981), a Ukrainian artist from Poltava, who captured everyday life in moving, poignant images like these. His Still life with watermelon was painted in 1937, the height of Stalinist terror, but it’s a tender depiction of summer bounty in vivid colors.

Lately, I have been thinking about my great-grandparents and how they survived the twentieth century with its wars, revolutions, famines and other calamities. I remember their stories and they give me consolation and comfort. As Asya, my great-grandmother used to say, “Seek beauty and create, because even during the darkest of days, we need art to uplift us and remind us why life is worth living.” And so I seek beauty and write.

What about you? How do you manage difficult periods in your life?

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40 Comments

  • Tara C: My life has never been in danger, nor have I been exposed close up to war, famine or revolution, so I can’t compare any of my difficult times to those things, but in general I have gotten through hard times by focusing on better days ahead and reminding myself that I’ve survived up to this point and whatever current problem I have will not defeat me. October 17, 2022 at 9:14am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a good way to find the right perspective. October 18, 2022 at 3:49am Reply

  • Gigi: I try to remember the beautiful times and places of happy days, as do you. However, I have learned that prayer to my Creator is the best and most comforting thing I can do. It isn’t always the first thing which comes to mind, but it is the best thing.
    Prayers for you and your beloved countrymen, as you struggle to regain your homeland and peace. October 17, 2022 at 9:18am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Gigi. October 18, 2022 at 3:50am Reply

  • Perfumelover67: Like Tara C, I have never been exposed to dangers in life, but I rely in my deep faith in God and my prayers to go thru the difficult personal times I have to face. That is my main support.
    My thoughts and prayers are with you and all the people in Ukraine, Victoria. October 17, 2022 at 9:35am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, it’s so comforting to read this. October 18, 2022 at 3:50am Reply

  • OperaFan: The style of this painting reminds me of some American folk art. It tells me that we are all connected from within in some ways. I love the position of the watermelon slices and the soft surfaces of the apples…
    My family prays for the people of Ukraine each night at dinner. Hugs to you from NJ. October 17, 2022 at 9:53am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it’s called a naïve style. Not much is known about his life or his paintings, and this watermelon still life is the most famous one. October 18, 2022 at 3:51am Reply

  • Hamamelis: I try to remind myself that I am not unique in my sorrow and grief, that all humans suffer. Reading the wisdom of the world, e.g. just recently the lives of the Stoics, helps to understand how other humans, not so different than I am, have survived.
    Also, I try to ‘borrow’ strength from others, still with us or not, as your great grandmother Asya, the one with the German boots, who said ‘and now let’s plant some potatoes’.
    Then I count my blessings, beauty is one of them, kindness another, and still being alive the greatest.
    With regards to Ukraine I still endeavour to give money. And recently I really told someone off who tried to ‘explain’ why the war criminal in the Kremlin was doing this! He changed his mind! October 17, 2022 at 10:57am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, my grandmother’s “and now let’s plant potatoes” is a classic. That was her way of coping. October 18, 2022 at 3:52am Reply

  • Alityke: As others have already said, I have never been personally affected by large, violent conflict.
    I cannot imagine how life has changed for you & your Ukrainian compatriots. In such circumstances I do not know how I might cope.

    I wish for peace more than anything else October 17, 2022 at 10:58am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. October 18, 2022 at 3:53am Reply

  • carole: I remember my great grand aunt, Caissie. she was close to 90 and she had developed skin cancer. It was spreading rapidly. she was given a choice: let things progress, or try to halt its progression by having her arm amputated. She chose amputation because she found life to be so beautiful. So her motto of Not Yet has since become my motto.

    I’m so sorry for what your beautiful country and its occupants are enduring right now. Best regards. October 17, 2022 at 11:19am Reply

    • Victoria: Your grand aunt is impressive and very strong. We must hold onto life no matter what. October 18, 2022 at 3:54am Reply

  • Aurora: How disheartening for you to think of beloved neighbourhood being bombed. I think happy events of the past help us to have strength when hard times come. While I was traveling in Provence it was touching how many little towns had added the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine to the French flag on top of their city halls.

    What a beautiful palette of earthy tones in the painting! October 17, 2022 at 12:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also love the tones of this painting. Earthy and yet so vivid. October 18, 2022 at 3:54am Reply

  • Hera: I totally understand what you mean. I can’t sleep either thinking the places I love has been bombed, young boys and girls protecting their land getting tortured and killed.
    I am trying to get involved in my community , trying to help as much as I can , raise awareness etc, that’s helping me a little. October 17, 2022 at 1:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: It breaks my heart when I read about it. Involving oneself in community is definitely a good way to cope. October 18, 2022 at 3:55am Reply

  • Alyssa H: Sending love,V.❤️ October 17, 2022 at 2:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, A! October 18, 2022 at 3:55am Reply

  • Fazal: Victoria, you are so right. These tragedies frequently turn our minds towards the tragedies past generations went through and remind us how we can take nothing for granted.

    It makes me sick that many rightwing elements in the US are not learning from history and looking to figures like Putin and Hungary’s Orban for inspiration. October 17, 2022 at 2:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: There are lots of those elements in Europe too. It’s hard not to become disheartened. October 18, 2022 at 3:56am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: Victoria, I’m so sorry for the ongoing tragedies in Ukraine and your personal losses. Even the loss of a sense of security or normalcy. Like so many fortunate others here, I haven’t experienced anything on that scale (and hope not to). I’m glad you are in a position to speak up for your country and culture. Seeking beauty and creating; helping other people; staying involved with my community and church; those things help me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. October 17, 2022 at 3:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your kind words and for sharing your personal strategies for coping. It’s inspiring to read these comments. October 18, 2022 at 3:57am Reply

  • Marianne: Dear Victoria, your grace during these times is humbling and inspiring. I can’t begin to understand although I have an intimation as my mother suffered terribly during WW2. This cast a shadow over all our lives. I practise stillness, feeling the peace within under the waves of reaction on the surface. I recognize teachers who come at different times; perhaps through a conversation, an observation, a kindness, a selflessness in another. You, and your strength. My rescue cat who’s devoted to me. October 17, 2022 at 5:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Marianne. I am so moved with how many of you responded with your comments and stories. October 18, 2022 at 3:57am Reply

  • Julie: Reading, comfort food (sharing it) t.v. marathon, walks, really listening to what people say, petting animals October 17, 2022 at 6:29pm Reply

  • WARA: SLAVA UKRAINI💙💛💙💛💙💛💙💛💙💛💙💛your beautiful flag is in the front of mi casita since this violence started…I have also sent all I can to help with all my love. My grandmother suffered so much from discrimination as an Indigenous woman, not just from society but also by her own daughter and granddaughter…the pain of the violence of 1492 is something that hunts our lives on a daily basis. How we are able to deal with this trauma is by laughter, beauty, music, weaving, dancing, singing, cooking, gardening and of course there are always people of the light, angels and helpers, people with good hearts…like you dearest Victoria, the world connects us to bring light, peace, love to others. Muchísimas gracias for sharing your thoughts, writing and the gorgeous painting ASHKHA SULPAY!!!! October 17, 2022 at 11:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, dear Wara! Muchas gracias por tus amables palabras. October 18, 2022 at 3:58am Reply

      • Wara: 💙💛💙💛💙💛💙💛💙💛💙💛💙💛✊🏽✊🏽✊🏽 October 19, 2022 at 11:09pm Reply

  • rainboweyes: I‘m so happy and relieved to see you back here, dear Victoria!
    Since I’ve learned about my Ukrainian roots only in my teenage years, my relationship to Ukraine has never been particularly strong. With the beginning of this barbaric war, this has immediately changed. I can so much relate to what the people of Ukraine are defending. Growing up in a mixed German-Ukrainian family in communist Poland, I remember my younger always being overshadowed by the lack of freedom. Maybe that’s why freedom and self-determination have been my most treasured values since then.
    It‘s hard to find a ray of hope these days… My way of coping is to actively help by offering accommodation and support to a Ukrainian lady who fled the country. But also immersing in the beauty of art, music, theatre and nature and indulging in other small pleasures of life provide some comfort. And reading, reading, reading… currently Michel de Montaignes Essays. His writings are so timeless and wise… October 19, 2022 at 12:09am Reply

    • rainboweyes: *younger years 🙂 October 19, 2022 at 12:11am Reply

      • Nefertari: I have not yet suffered so much, and the shadow of war will last for many years. I was afraid of war because it would make me lose everything I loved. So I admire you if this happens to me… I can’t imagine, I don’t resent anyone! And you can always rationally, choose kindness, stand up and walk out of sadness, and face these unbearableness with a positive attitude every day in your wakefulness, I can feel the power of your heart, which makes people feel calm and warm in their hearts! I hope that those who are still in distress will be saved, and pray sincerely for them, God bless Ukraine! October 20, 2022 at 10:02am Reply

  • Lydia: Dear Victoria,
    I pray. I’ve felt God’s presence when I was most lost in despair, and I’ve tried to be true to that.

    I revisit the good parts of my childhood in my imagination, especially through books I loved then. Revisiting a book I loved can be like a magic spell – for a brief stretch of time I almost become who I was, and I see the world through those eyes.

    I talk to the people I love who are still alive. Everyone is very busy now, so it can be hard for us to find time for that. It’s very precious when it happens.

    I often think about the Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. I don’t know of a more gentle, succinct description of how to live with grace in a difficult world.

    I stay interested in books and art. I love that your instinctive reaction to this terrible, devastating war is to share a meaningful, life-affirming painting.

    I am sending prayers for you and for everyone in Ukraine. October 19, 2022 at 2:36am Reply

  • Erika: Costa Rica stands for Ukraine… We are here for you & your loved ones. Love wins & one day Ukraine will be free. Te Amo Ukraine
    Ana & Erika.
    (((🌹))) October 19, 2022 at 3:10am Reply

  • Mridula: Thinking of Ukraine everyday from here in India. Im sorry India has not taken a stronger stand to condemn the war. There is so much cruelty and we must still find a way to see beauty, nurture it and pass it on. October 21, 2022 at 11:52am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Hello Victoria! What a beautiful post and gorgeous watermelon painting. It reminded me very much of Frida Kahlo’s watermelon painting. I saw it this summer when my family visited her home (Casa Azulejo), now a museum in Mexico City. October 22, 2022 at 9:47am Reply

    • Silvermoon: Autocorrect! Should be Casa Azul. October 22, 2022 at 9:48am Reply

  • Sophie: Thank you for this beautiful post and for sharing this painting, Victoria. I’m Ukrainian too — I never lived there for longer than summers with mt grandparents, but I haven’t been back since 2014 and my heart aches so much.

    Over the last few months I’ve thrown myself into a lot of different war effort projects, mostly nonprofits and academic work, as a way to cope. But it doesn’t seem to actually make me feel better, and I’ve come out much more cynical about the nonprofit world than I used to be. It’s exhausting to look at all the ego and mismanagement in so many corners of that space, and try to help anyway.

    Sometimes all there is to do is throw ourselves into art. I haven’t translated much poetry in months, but I need to get back to it. I recently met some more Ukrainian poetry translators near me and it feels like conveying Ukrainian art is more important work than some of the more disorganized and ego-driven volunteer efforts I’ve worked on. But of course, it’s also often the hardest to create in the moments when you need it the most, isn’t it? November 1, 2022 at 9:41pm Reply

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