Roman’s parents are at the festival, and I see where he got his good looks. Roman’s mother, poetess Svitlana Povaliayeva, is a Buddhist. She is said to have been a laissez-faire mom, calling her children “bodhisattvas,” and letting them chart their own paths. She supported Roman’s decision to enlist and is now bearing her loss with amazing composure. As she watches her dead son’s peers repose on the Protasiv Yar meadow and dance at the Beet Hall she delights. Roman would have loved this. Is this a façade that covers her maternal grief, willfully pushed to some impenetrable depth of her soul? Or did her Buddhist worldview equip her to carry her loss with so much acceptance, to dissolve herself in the current of the now, in which her child is only a memory?
I later buy Svitlana’s latest compilation of poetry “Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Sunshine.” One of the poems is titled “Messenger.” If I were to translate it into English, it would go something like this:
First, he wrote,
Then only responded,
Then only read.
Then delivered messages stayed gray for several hours, days — unread.
Then undelivered messages burned the eye with their white circles,
Eventually turning gray like snow.
And filled with color suddenly like earth in spring:
He read them.
Like snow in spring,
Like March grayness in May,
Like all color at the end of life.
The last read message,
Like a photograph on a grave,
If protected by glass,
If visited at times to lay flowers…
That night comes the largest drone attack on Kyiv since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Of some 52 Iranian-made Shahed drones, essentially loitering munitions packing up to 20 kg/45lb of high explosives, launched by Russia that night, 40 head for Ukraine’s capital. The guest bedroom where I’m staying is on the top level of the top-floor apartment, right under the eaves.
I wake up to the wailing of an air raid siren. It’s about 12:30 am. Instead of jumping to my feet and rushing to the shelter, I lay still and take in my situation. There’s nothing between me and the Shaheds, ballistic and cruise missiles Russia is lobbing off at Kyiv, but a blanket, a roof, and probability calculus — as well as Western-supplied air defense systems and their deft Ukrainian operators.
I recall discussions in the West a year or so ago about the imprudence of supplying Ukraine with US Patriot air-defense systems because they are very complex and take up to 18 months to train in. I wonder how long it took to train the guy who knocked out of the sky seven out of seven Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles, which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin bragged were invincible to air defenses. I later learn that the name of the Patriot operator is Vyacheslav, he’s 30, and it took three and a half months to train him. His identity is kept from public view, but inside the Ukrainian military he is a celebrated hero. That night, none of the 40 drones get through.
I wake up at 8 am to find a barrage of texts on my phone from Yura: “Are you okay? Are you not afraid? Our neighbors are going down to the brothel, do you want to join?” The brothel is a local establishment that is exactly that, a brothel. It lets neighbors in during air raids and provides a welcome alternative to the building’s assigned bomb shelter: though it’s in the basement, it has Wi-Fi and beds. I miss the chance to check out the local brothel because, incredibly, my musings about roofs and air defense lull me to sleep, and I’m dead to the world during the most massive Russian drone attack of the war. It’s both embarrassing and surprising because I have been sleeping poorly since the Covid pandemic. Missiles, brothel bomb shelters, deep slumber of an insomniac. How bizarrely unexpected.
On Monday, May 29, 2023, I have a busy day, packed with meetings and interviews. My time in Kyiv is limited and I’m trying to make the most of it. I make my way to a library housed in a grand old building at the end of Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main boulevard. I am recording an interview for a documentary about Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament. Serhiy the director and I set up in a lovely reading room, lined with tables and green lamps, complete with large arched windows and chandeliers. We go through his questions, and the librarian ladies are being as quiet in going about their tasks as only librarians can be.
About an hour into the interview, we hear an air raid siren. It feels like a déjà vu: last January, on my previous trip to Ukraine, I was recording an interview for another documentary at the same library when it was interrupted by an air raid. Normally, you get half an hour or more before the strikes come. We decide to continue and breeze through the remaining questions. The librarians seem unsure but accommodate us. I carry on for another five minutes, when suddenly, a loud explosion splits the air overhead, the whole grand old building shakes, the large windows rattle in their frames. Camera rolls. We drop everything and together with the librarians run out onto the street and to the pedestrian underpass beneath the European Square. A few dozen people are sheltering there already. The cannonade above continues for another 30 minutes.