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March 9: Of Roots and Trees

Two weeks or so into war, there this psychic sense of things falling apart. This war, I find, is deeply connected to my own subjectivity. It’s not heartbreak exactly, it’s too soon for that, and anyway, I need my heart -to be able to feel, to send convoluted messages of solidarity strained through the sieve of Google translate, to stay whole, and of service. But still, there is this sense of something crumbling, of not my mind not being quite itself. Perhaps it is trauma. Unwittingly, my students help me with this. I am grading their blog posts on madness and disability. Many of them argue for a repositioning of madness, into a subcategory of wellness.

I have been watching my feminist colleague Anna Sharihina’s daily recordings, and reading her social media posts, from Kharkiv. On March 7, she writes:I wake up not in the morning, but several times a night – from explosions, reading the news, and then back to sleep in horror.

I interviewed Anna S in 2014 for my film, “This Is Gay Propaganda: LGBT Rights & the War in Ukraine.” Anna leads the largest feminist organization in eastern Ukraine, “Women’s Sphere.” Via her short daily videos on Facebook and Instagram, with her impeccable queer hair, and always wearing lipstick,  she tries to comfort her feminist colleagues. She recommends meditation, provides advice, says that AirPod’s noise cancelling function doesn’t work with bombs. At the beginning of the first week of war, she is defiant : she is not leaving, neither is her executive committee.  But after ten days, she starts to mention people who have left, and says she is trying to decide whether to leave herself. In that unselfconsciously poetic manner of so many Ukrainians she says, Perhaps I have grown roots here . And yet, I never thought of myself as a tree.

I can hear the sounds of shelling in the background of her video. She does not flinch.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I was heartened to see that Democracy Now, whom I’ve been haranguing for the past two weeks, has finally started to interview Ukrainian experts. I’ve supplied them with several names, including that of Olena Shevchenko, queer human rights defender from Kyiv. I interviewed her as well, in 2014. I watch Amy Goodman interview Olena as I sit my desk, grading midterm essays. Olena is pale, drawn, not her usual flamboyant self. She has fled to Lviv with her parents.  Just to leave Kyiv, where she has organized for so many years, must in itself have been a heartbreak. She speaks repeatedly of the problems of disabled and elderly people in Ukraine, stuck in buildings with no electricity and thus no elevator. She says women are being raped by Russian soldiers in Donbas. I have no reason to doubt her. Olena, who is really the star of my film, is a hard-bitten activist with an unerring instinct for truth. I recall her saying, back in 2014, “Ukraine will either go with EU or with Russia.” No in-between. I wonder if she still believes that. Somehow, the in-between is where there’s hope: the eternal resistance of Ukrainian people.