Kiev. Sirens wail. I jump up in bed and try to shake my friend Alex awake. “Wake up! Air alert. Let’s get to the shelter! Hurry up!”
He turns away. “Let me be! This shit alarm is constant.” I dress hastily. He sighs, wearily grabs his cell phone and checks a warning app. “Nothing serious! No bombs! At least not yet,” he says calmly, rolls over and goes back to sleep. Now I’m calming down a bit. I feel a bit ridiculous—an outsider who doesn’t know anything about war.
I’m staying for a few days with my Ukrainian friend Alex, who I’ve been friends with for a number of years, although we often argue about the war in Ukraine and big world politics. He opens his eyes and says with a mocking grin, “Do you still think we should negotiate with Putin?”
“Let’s not argue before breakfast!” I reply.
In 2017, I met Alex through the Couchsurfing website. He took me into his tiny, dark apartment in a huge Soviet-style building for a week. In the evenings we would meet up with his friends who were a lot younger than me and looked like a damn cool rock band with no instruments. We drank vodka with coke, listened to Nirvana and played truth or dare. They told me about the exciting days of the Maidan Revolution. I listened intently and attentively, but also expressed skepticism. I had carefully followed the anti-war movement criticism of NATO’s eastward expansion, the involvement of radical right-wing forces in the Maidan, and Western support for the nationalist policies of the new government in Kiev.
When I voiced this criticism to Alex and his friends, they often responded with ridicule and anger. But they also made it clear that they welcomed my criticism. After all, for them, the Maidan was about democracy and freedom of expression. And so we had long discussions, sometimes heated and excited, sometimes sober and level-headed. Whenever the anger threatened to get out of hand, we hugged, toasted each other and switched to lighter topics for a while.
At that time I gave a speech on war and peace at the University of Kiev. I drew comparisons between the wars in Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, and Ukraine. My listeners reacted with surprise and irritation when I criticized the policies of the West and the Ukrainian government, some of them harshly. I expressed my hope that a peace acceptable to Ukraine would be negotiable if Ukraine renounced NATO membership, consistently implemented the Minsk peace accords, and took decisive action against right-wing extremism in the army and police. Most audience members were Maidan activists who supported the army’s struggle in Donbas. However, I managed to convince them of my good intentions: “I like Ukraine. It’s your country! Nobody can tell you what to do. If you want to keep fighting, then fight! But why not give peace a chance?” Many listeners thanked me for giving them food for thought. “We don’t have enough discussions like the one today,” explained a young woman.
Only after the event did I find out that not all reactions were positive. The organizers quickly took me out of the hall through a back exit because they were concerned for my safety. They advised me to leave the premises as soon as possible. “We have extremists here who can become very dangerous if they view certain views as treason. For them your opinion is Russian propaganda.”
One evening we went to a big pub in Kiev. A band played covers of Simon and Garfunkel. Shields, helmets, and flags of the Maidan Revolution hung on a wall. I spotted several Nazi symbols—like the Wolfsangel and the Black Sun. I asked my friends about it.
“Yes, these symbols are from the Right Sector,” Alex explained to me.
“But why did you tolerate radical right-wing organizations on the Maidan?” I asked.
“I don’t like Right Sector at all,” he replied. “I’m gay. And they have a problem with that, to say the least. But hey…they fought on the front lines. They were simply the best fighters! We needed them.”
When the Russian army invades Ukraine in February 2022, I worry about Alex. “I want to get out of here and to Germany as soon as possible,” he tells me on Skype. I assure him that he can stay with me in Potsdam. Over the next few weeks, it will become clear that Ukraine is enforcing a strict travel ban on men of military age. “I support our army,” Alex tells me with a deep sigh. “But I’m just not a soldier! I don’t want to fight. I want to serve my country in a better way.”
Now I’m traveling to Ukraine again. On the bus to Lviv, I first have a friendly chat with an American who knows the country well about the effects of the war. However, when I ask critical questions about the influence of neo-Nazis in Ukraine, he becomes uneasy.
“Isn’t the Azov battalion dominated by neo-Nazis?” I ask calmly.
“I’ll tell you something now! Listen carefully!” he says loudly and menacingly. Half the bus turns toward us. He gets even louder. “I don’t want anything, nothing to do with you. Your views are not welcome in Ukraine. The Azov fighters are heroes! What you say is very dangerous. You should learn when to shut up. And your propaganda sounds a lot like Putin. Now leave and sit somewhere else.”
Some passengers look at me angrily. I am getting scared. “I just asked a question. I don’t have a clear opinion on that,” I explain loudly. But people still look at me from all sides with anger and annoyance. I smile and say, “Slava Ukraini!”—“Glory to Ukraine!” The looks become friendlier. “Slava Ukraini,” replies a young woman. I stand up and say loud and clear, “Fuck Putin!” and walk to the back of the bus.
The next day I walk around Lviv. Countless inconspicuous details are reminiscent of the war. The blockades in front of public buildings. The slogans on the walls. The conversations and worried faces of people. The war seems far away and yet omnipresent. In front of the big monument to Stepan Bandera, I wonder if the people of this city know how many Jews and Poles this man killed. Later I watch a military funeral. Ukrainian soldiers pay their last respects to their comrades. Beside them stand about twenty heavily armed men dressed in black with red and black armbands—the colors of the “Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists” (OUN) led by Bandera. As the coffin is carried past us, we fall to our knees in the rain. The widow writhes in despair. But she wears her soldier’s uniform with great dignity.
In Kiev, too, I am amazed at how largely undisturbed everyday life seems to go on for most people. “The war changed us all,” explains Alex: “But we also continue to do many things as before. Partly because we are forced to. We have to work and go shopping. Partly to keep ourselves from going insane. That’s why we keep meeting up with friends. The bars are full.” He shows me destroyed Russian tanks and some war damage in the city. He tells me how he watched explosions from his balcony: “It’s a terrible feeling when a bomb hits,” he explains with a serious expression. “Everyone is scared in moments like this. You can’t do anything against such a power. The bomb shakes the body and soul from top to bottom. Most of us remain relatively calm on the outside. But we all panic inside.”
I take an Uber to nearby Bucha and Irpin cities, where one of the most bitter battles of the war raged. The bombed-out houses make devastated districts look like ghost towns. Groups of youth play among the ruins, screaming their desperation and anger off their chests. The thunder of fighter planes overhead makes me wince. “These must be Ukrainian planes,” I say out loud to calm myself, “otherwise the sirens would be wailing.” I sit down by a trench next to a burned-out car and let my legs dangle. A tear rolls down my cheek.
An older man comes up and smiles at me. “You from America?” he asks.
“Germany,” I reply. He nods politely, sits down next to me and puts an arm around my shoulders. “War is terrible!” I say. He nods. Then he hands me a small bottle of vodka and a chocolate bar. We laugh and drink.
“How many people in Ukraine believe in the possibility of making peace?” I ask this question to all Ukrainians I talk to. Most answer me that they have little hope for peace at the moment. But everyone assures me that a minority of Ukrainians believe in a peaceful solution—even if conditions would be unfair for Ukraine. Hardly anyone expresses such views in the general public though.
A young Ukrainian tells me, “I am very skeptical about negotiations. But if I were in favor for them, I’d be afraid to say that out loud in public. Anyone who advocates negotiations usually expresses this in private—to friends. There is a minority of Ukrainians who want to negotiate.” Another young Ukrainian tells me that he is open minded about the possibility of peace. But he admits that he only expresses this view to people he knows and trusts. He assures me that many of his friends feel the same way. Ukraine is undoubtedly more democratic than Russia. But the young democracy is—it seems to me—in danger.
I experience the sometimes slight, sometimes pronounced intolerance of many Ukrainians as the dark side of the fighting community. Many wall posters display the slogan, “Be brave like Ukraine.” A certain degree of intolerance is only human and understandable for a nation united in defending its sovereignty and independence. The fighting spirit is necessary for survival. I have to admit that this unity feels inspiring, even intoxicating. But it is a danger to democracy and peace.
The war didn’t damage my friendship with Alex. On the contrary, it has renewed and deepened it—like many friendships and partnerships in Ukraine. Many Ukrainians proudly tell me how the war has strengthened their sense of community, solidarity, and willingness to help. “We stick together because otherwise we lose and perish,” says Alex. “We are stronger, braver and more grateful for everything we have.” But to save our friendship, Alex and I had to become even more tolerant, even more open-minded. Alex is angry – not only at Putin, the Russian leadership, and the Russian soldiers. No, also at all people who seem to sugarcoat the Russian aggression in any way. He admits that war is eroding many people’s tolerance for dissent. “We are attacked every day,” he says. “We must defend ourselves together. And for that we need the best weapons from the West. You have to understand that we see as a danger—and even an attack—any opinions that undermine this solidarity between us and the rest of the world.” My pro-peace views do make him angry sometimes.
Alex emphasizes that most Ukrainians are not prejudiced against Russians. He plays Russian hip-hop at full volume—aggressive, disturbing, fast. He dances along a bit and calls out to me, “Russian hip-hop is still very popular here. They rap about the hard life in Russia. We wish Russians a better life—without Putin”.
Not all Ukrainians are so tolerant. A young man tries to convince me that Dostoyevsky is a bad writer. “Russian literature is rubbish,” he claims.
I still believe that a peaceful solution is possible. But I reserve my opinions on this trip. I don’t want to come across as arrogant or naive. I listen a lot and carefully before asking a critical question. I feel that us outsiders only have any influence if we enjoy the trust and respect of Ukrainians.
The most distressing experiences of my trip were neither the sirens nor the scars of the war in Bucha, but the journey home. Many lonely hours on trains and buses force me to process what I have experienced. But this process is much more painful when there is no one to share these thoughts with.
How long and at what cost should Ukrainians keep fighting? What should they negotiate for? Should they fight and negotiate at the same time? I am not sure. I accept my doubts and insecurities. I know that this country and its people are close to my heart. My short trip to Ukraine taught me humility. And it reminded me of the value of true friendship.