Palm Sunday in Perugia. Umbrians were scuttling around with twigs and leaves, but I was in town to celebrate another faith. It was the annual International Journalism Festival, which hasn’t been ‘annual’ for the past two years due to Covid. Happy reunions were applauded with the sound of countless clinking glasses, but the mood was often mournful. In the first panel I was on, the moderator, Natalia Antelava, asked for a moment of silence for the 18 journalists already killed in Ukraine. Among them was Oksana Baulina, a former colleague of Natalia’s at Coda Story news platform, where I am also a contributing editor. Oksana was Russian. She had previously worked with the anti-corruption investigation unit of Alexey Navalny, the opposition politician Putin has locked up in a labour camp. At Coda she made films about the legacy of Stalin’s gulag and how Russia has never come to terms with its history of state-organised mass murder. Oksana was killed in Kyiv. After a Russian missile hit a shopping mall, she, along with other journalists, went to film the wreckage. The Russians waited for a crowd to gather, then hit the mall again.
Watching Russian soldiers kill your colleagues, bomb maternity hospitals, schools and apartment blocks, rape teens and even toddlers in front of their parents, bind and execute innocents, fills an émigré Ukrainian like myself with cold hate. I can feel my heart hardening. But it’s much stronger for those who live in Ukraine permanently. My family was exiled in 1978, when I was nine months old, after my father was arrested by the KGB for handing out copies of banned books – including Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. I only had time to throw up over the Soviet Union as a pukey baby and then grew up in London.
Many Ukrainians I speak to worry that the war will brutalise them, that they risk becoming so full of hate it will eat them up inside. As I rode down to Rome airport I was reading WhatsApp messages from my friend and colleague Denys Kobzin, who is in Kharkiv. Before the war, just seven weeks ago, he was a famous sociologist. Now he’s joined a territorial defence unit and sends me selfies with a machine-gun slung across his shoulders. I asked him about how his unit copes with hate. He explained that the soldiers he is with see themselves as fighting to join the civilised world – which can help check the most brutal instincts.
The puzzle of how to keep your humanity while killing a genocidal enemy is also the most troubling part of Passover. This year it falls on Good Friday and overlaps with Ramadan. I’ve always found the Passover Seder a brutal affair, with its celebration of dead Egyptian firstborns, and rejoicing at the destruction of Pharoah’s army under the Red Sea. As my car passed from Umbria into Lazio I called my rabbi, Jeremy Gordon at New London Synagogue, to ask if there’s anything in the tradition that deals with this moral fallout. During the Seder there’s a line about asking God to ‘pour out Your wrath on the people who know You not’. One mollifying custom, Rabbi Jeremy told me, is to add another verse: ‘Pour out Your love on the nations that know You.’ Meanwhile in the Talmud there’s a passage describing how when the angels wanted to celebrate the drowning of the Egyptian army, God stopped them. How could they sing when His creations were dying? Even a genocidal enemy has some humanity. But if I’m honest, I celebrate every incinerated Russian tank. I tried to think about the soldiers inside them at the start of the war but I lost that moral battle by week two.
From Rome to Warsaw, and a meeting for a new project I am setting up with the legendary reporter Janine di Giovanni to document war crimes in Ukraine, and to tell the stories of the people and culture Putin wants to wipe out. His aim is far wider than merely military. He wants to destroy the very idea of a separate Ukrainian identity – the right to exist – much like Pharoah with the Jews. Our project will combine court-worthy witness accounts of atrocities with a multimedia oral history archive that can be used for long-form journalism, plays, movies, exhibitions. Storytelling as a strategy for survival. Janine has experience of similar work in Bosnia, Rwanda and Syria. It’s my first time with a war quite so close to my heart and when I pause from work I flounder. At breakfast in the hotel I suddenly find myself weeping over the boiled eggs and coffee. That’s how you recognise Ukrainians these days – they’re the ones crying in public for no apparent reason. Like Zelensky, I may be angry at God, but religion helps: the ever-returning catalogue of mass murder imprinted in Judaism puts this current evil into a context of pain and ultimate resilience. Passover seems more special this year. Should I spend it at New London? With my parents in Prague? My new home in DC? No – there’s only one place which captures the puzzles, paradoxes and victories of Passover. I’m filing this as I head down to Warsaw station, then it’s a long, rumbling ride to the town of my birth. Next year, perhaps, in Jerusalem. But this week I can only be in Kyiv.
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