[3-min read] On a cool day in late May, three months after Putin’s military had invaded Ukraine, I met Luda Anastazievsky. A Ukrainian American, Luda had arrived at a fundraising event for refugees as a guest speaker. She wore a puffy yellow jacket with the hood up and cinched tight around her face. Despite the chill, the rest of us were gathered on the large lawn of the German American Institute in Saint Paul, adhering to pandemic precautions. We sampled Ukrainian sausages, potato salad and coleslaw sides, and sweet treats, and sipped German beer—a culinary blend representing Ukrainians who would soon be arriving in Zell, Germany.
When Luda took the podium at the front of the lawn, the audience grew still in reverence to the message we suspected she would share. She began by expressing the daily devastation she felt, how her heart was broken and filled with sadness from the media images she was seeing of her homeland. Luda told us that she was originally from the port city of Mariupol, surely understanding how we would recall the images of destruction to which she referred. And that we would know of the Azovstal steel plant that housed thousands of Ukrainian soldiers who fought off Russian soldiers on-site while being shelled from outside, and while Mariupol civilians hunkered in Azovstal’s underground bunkers stocked with dwindling supplies.
“I recall a different Mariupol,” Luda said. She remembered its Sea of Azov coastline, its libraries and schools, restaurants, and cafes. She told us that Mariupol had been a modernized city with lovely trees and parks. Now, Luda shared, eighty percent of its structures were in ruins (the estimate has been updated to ninety percent) including its drama theater which, at the time of its destruction by airstrike, was sheltering hundreds of civilians. “I always break into tears,” Luda said of seeing media images of the invasion. In an April interview, she had shared that she worries she’s suffering from secondary PTSD. I struggled to imagine how surreal it might feel to witness all that I appreciate of my city—lakes, parks, coffee shops, museums, downtown—destroyed.
Luda told us that she has family members and friends still in Ukraine, including several cousins, only one of whom she’s heard from. She maintains hope that the others have survived, but she also knows of citizens who have been taken by Russian soldiers from Ukraine and relocated to remote Russian places. Soldiers relocate captives to the far east of Russia, Luda said. In my imagination, I pulled up a map and confirmed that “far east” is furthest from what was once home, qualifying the relocation as a historical tactic of cultural suppression.
Having once studied in Russia, Luda still has contacts there. She has worked tirelessly with those contacts to arrange for the escape of her loved ones. The financial toll of assisting is significant; the psychological pressure is immense. As she spoke, I sensed Luda’s exhaustion and yet how determined she was, and how heartbroken. She needs a hug, I whispered to myself.
Listening to Luda gave me the perception of living in a time of war. Putin’s is the sort of war I associate with the past, when an aggressor would invade another country’s cities using tanks and missiles and soldiers walking through open streets and inflicting mass and random inhumane violence on other human beings, spouting fear-based rationalizations. In the media today, I have seen the faces of Ukrainian citizens in peril. They are modernized versions of the faces I studied in history textbooks in high school in chapters about world wars. I wonder what has become of the defiant faces I saw on television during an initial Russian military raid, like the teenage girls hunkered in a subway station with a cat that one of them had coaxed into a carry box before fleeing her home and taking shelter with friends. On that day, one of the girls had looked into the TV camera and stated of Russia, “It’s just like North Korea,” thus exposing my fleeting naïveté (and that of Ukrainians who couldn’t believe the invasion would happen).
“There will likely be Ukrainian families coming to the Twin Cities. Please consider helping if you can,” Luda concluded before thanking her rapt audience. I exhaled slowly and wandered to find a bin for my paper plate. And then I was face-to-face with Luda. “Thank you for sharing your story,” I told her. “It’s important to hear it from a person rather than a television.” Luda nodded, and I reached out to touch her arm. In an instant, I was pulled into a hug—two heartbroken strangers in puffy jackets, embracing.
It was one of the most comforting hugs I’ve ever received.