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Don't Forget the Private Sorrows of Ukraine

Ukrainian refugees housed in an athletics facilty, Moldova

The best quote I’ve discovered about war is from Ian McEwan’s novel Black Dogs (1993). His main character reacts to World War II in Europe:

He was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust. . . . For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories.

With all the media available today we do sometimes become aware of war’s “private sorrows,” but not often enough. When we consider how important our own sorrows (like the death of a loved one) are to each of us, we should pause longer to reflect on all the deaths, maiming, and other tragedies that wars inflict.

Like the general public, historians (including myself) often fail in this regard. We are better at providing mind-numbing statistics regarding all the deaths and injured than we are at conveying much feeling for the millions of individual tragedies caused by wars. Sporadically, however, I have tried to correct this defect. On the first page of my book An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008), I quote McEwan and then add,

Some feeling for all these tragedies is also sometimes conveyed by first-hand accounts. A few early ones are provided here, and readers can only attempt to imagine some of the other millions of tragedies which lie behind the gruesome statistics of the remainder of the century.

I then provided excerpts from the writings of a few U. S. soldiers that killed Filipinos at the very beginning of the twentieth century--in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) “as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from violence, famine, and disease.”  Here is just one sample:

Our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, and children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino was little better than a dog, a noisome reptile in some instances, whose best disposition was the rubbish heap.

Almost all wars have produced such “private sorrows.” But I have only occasionally touched upon them--see, for example, “A Memorial Day Lament for Capt. Wilfred Owen, Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, and the Needless Dead of Foolish Wars."

Now, however, having just observed the one-year anniversary of the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems appropriate to describe just a small percentage of the individual suffering wrought by this tragic war.

One of those tragedies occurred last year on the first day of summer, June 21. It happened in a pine forest near the Ukrainian Donbas city of Sievierodonetsk, and it killed a professional Ukrainian-Jewish couple in their early thirties, Taras and Olha Melster.

They had grown up in Kropyvnytskyi, a central Ukrainian city of 230,000, surrounded by wheat fields and relatively unscathed by the physical damage inflicted on so many other Ukrainian cities. The couple knew each other from age eight on, engaged in environmental protests together, went to college--he studying electrical work, she art--and married when they were 25. Six years later, they were living in a small apartment, owning a big dog, not yet having children, but hoping to soon. He was constructing websites, she had created an online decoration business. Like so many other Ukrainians of various ages and professions they both volunteered for military service, in their case on the very first day of the Russian invasion back in February 2022.  

Even though the couple had little military training and she was the only woman in their unit, they found themselves on the front lines because of her persistence and major losses to more experienced soldiers. Their job? Hold their trench despite heavy Russian shelling and bombing; prevent the Russians from advancing. But after particularly intense Russian bombardment, another soldier discovered the couple’s bodies “next to each other, ripped apart.”

Another Ukrainian tragedy occurred the following month. But since I’ve already described it, I’ll just summarize it here. In July 2022 in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, about 160 miles southwest of Kyiv, Iryna Dmytriev, a thirty-four-year-old single mother, is pushing a pink and black stroller. In it is her only child, four-year-old Liza, who is afflicted with Down syndrome and was also born with a defective heart. When she was seven months old she required five-hour heart surgery. 

As Iryna and Liza are walking Iryna suddenly hears a frightening noise above. She looks, sees a “massive” missile, and spontaneously huddles over the carriage trying to protect her daughter. But it did no good. The Russian missile killed Liza and severely injured mother Iryna, who was hospitalized for a month, with her left leg shattered and missile fragments requiring removal from her stomach and left arm. About the killing of her daughter Iryna said, Liza “was my life. . . . What Russia took from me cannot be forgiven. All my plans are destroyed.”

Another example of the “private sorrows” of wars that McEwan wrote about occurred in Dnipro, the Ukraine’s fourth largest city with a population of about one million. It’s on the Dnieper River, about 243 miles southeast of Kyiv. On January 14, 2023 a Russian cruise missile hit the apartment building where Anastasia Shvets, age 24, lived on the sixth floor with her parents and a cat. She was the only survivor in her apartment. According to Ukrainian authorities at least 44 other people in the building were killed and 80 were injured.

Anastasia’s mom had worked in a bank, and her dad had been a mechanic until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when he lost his job and later volunteered to build roadblocks to secure the city. Anastasia and her mom also took in stray cats, fed them, and looked for people to adopt them.

On the day the missile struck, the daughter and her parents had just finished lunch, but the latter remained in the kitchen, where they made candles for Ukrainian soldiers hunkered down in trenches. Working a night job at a bakery, Anastasia left the kitchen to sleep for a while. But just minutes later she heard a “massive roar,” and the kitchen and most of the apartment was blown apart. Her parents’ dead bodies were pulled from the rubble the next day.

As with many Ukrainians, this death was not the first to bring her grief. The previous September her boyfriend, Vladyslav, died in battle during a Ukrainian counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine. All this tragedy has left her living with an aunt and grandmother, taking sedatives, being on sick leave, and being frightened of air-raid warnings and loud noises.

A final example of the war-inflicted suffering is that of Andrii Mishchenko, his wife Olha Taranova, and their 11-year-old daughter, Sasha. From living together in Kyiv, they parted like many couples early in the one-year-old war. In their case at the Ukrainian-Slovakian border. He eventually ended up on the front lines in eastern Ukraine doing dangerous reconnaissance work. She and Sasha are now in Trossingen, a small town in southwest Germany, which has also welcomed other refugee Ukrainian mothers and children. Fortunately, because she can work remotely, she is able to continue earning income from the IT (Information Technology) job she had in Kyiv.

Andrii and Olha communicate mainly by cell phone. Every morning he tries to send her a heart emoji; she responds with an electronic kiss, but also tries to send him videos of her and Sasha. In one exchange he wrote, “Kissing and hugging you tightly”; she replied, “I am yearning for you.” He responded, “Miss me but do not be sad.”

Once he ordered flowers to be sent to her German address. She used the flower box to send him German chocolates, a box he now keeps beside him when he sleeps.

One can only imagine the anxieties of this man and wife, separated by more than a thousand miles and warfare, when they cannot communicate. That was the case for three straight weeks in September during Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Since they parted in early 2022, the family has only been able to get together twice. The first time was in Kyiv in August, but only for about four hours because Andrii’s unit needed him back quickly for a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region. The second time, in December in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, they were able to spend five days together. They talked about Olha and Sasha moving back to Kyiv, but because Andrii would worry too much about a Russian missile killing them there, Olha agreed for her and Sasha to return to the safety of Trossingen.  

The four sketches outlined above are just a small sample of the innumerable hardships and tragedies suffered by the Ukrainian people. We can read statistics like 13 million Ukrainians displaced from their homes (8 million of them now refugees in Europe), but they don’t mean much unless we think of millions of individual cases, most of them worse, like those of Olha and Sasha. Ditto for linking the at least 100,000 Ukrainian troops killed or injured with the Kropyvnytskyi couple Taras and Olha Meltser, found dead, “ripped apart,” in a trench together. And ditto for connecting the at least 8,000 Ukrainian non-combatants who have been confiramed killed and nearly 13,300 injured with the four-year-old child Liza (killed in Vinnytsia) ); her mother Iryna (injured); and the parents of 24-year-old Anastasia Shvets (killed), all non-combatant victims of Russian missiles.

The four cases mentioned above are just a minuscule sample of what McEwan called “a near-infinity of private sorrows.” And none of the four deal with cities or villages like Mariupol, Kherson, or Bucha where some of the worst atrocities occurred. (See, for example, “Putin’s Mariupol Massacre is one of the 21st century’s worst war crimes,” a late-February 2023 “60 Minutes” treatment of Kherson, and an AP News account of Russian tortures and executions in Bucha.)

Nor do any of our four cases mention Russian missile or other attacks (a total of 707) on Ukrainian medical facilities that occurred in 2022. Nor do any of the four deal with the effects of the war on children’s education. (A recent UNICEF report stated, “Recent attacks against electricity and other energy infrastructure have caused widespread blackouts and left almost every child in Ukraine without sustained access to electricity, meaning that even attending virtual classes is an ongoing challenge.”)

Nor have our tragic examples mentioned rape, sending some Ukrainian children to Russia, or the imposition of Russian propaganda in Ukrainian areas seized by Russia--all of which have occurred. Nor have I written about all the Russian deaths--reportedly more than Ukrainian ones--nor Putin’s increased domestic curtailments.

And for what purpose have all these evils occurred? Primarily because in Vladimir Putin’s head all kinds of evil Ukrainian and Western threats whirl around. Some, like NATO’s expansion, may be genuine dangers; but others like the Western desire to dismember Russia, or Ukraine being dominated by neo-Nazis, are more like paranoid delusions.

The present essay has not addressed the need for a diplomatic solution to end the war. Nor has it minimized the risk of it leading to an escalation and perhaps even a resort to nuclear weapons. Moreover, the sources cited may not all be 100 percent objective. But, as one critic of the escalating level of Western military support for Ukraine has written, “There is no valid excuse for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its horrific ongoing war on that country.”