«Humanness differentiates us: it makes us Ukrainians,» – editor and volunteer Bohdana Romantsova

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The war radically changed plans and turned the lives of Ukrainians upside down. Regular work days were transformed into volunteer days, and professional skills found new, practical uses. The interview with Bohdana Romantsova as part of the project «Little Stories of a Big War,» launched by Ukrainian Catholic University, narrates how Ukraine’s literary community has joined in volunteering.
photo by ucu

photo by ucu

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The war radically changed plans and turned the lives of Ukrainians upside down. Regular work days were transformed into volunteer days, and professional skills found new, practical uses. In an interview with Bohdana Romantsova as part of the project «Little Stories of a Big War,» we talk about how Ukraine’s literary community has joined in volunteering.

The discussion happened on 31 March 2022.

Bohdana was born in Kyiv in 1991, where she lived to the start of the full-scale invasion. She worked as an editor at a publishing house, organized literary projects, and wrote for the media and gave lectures. She is now involved with various kinds of work: she pours tea and makes sandwiches. On her Facebook page, she talks about the lives of people whom she meets while volunteering.

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What differentiates people from various parts of Ukraine? How not to burn out, helping 24/7, and what will Ukrainian literature be like after the war? – Read about this in the interview.

How do you manage to combine volunteering and a love of texts?

I think that there is no undignified work. Now all work that brings at least some comfort to people is necessary. And I do absolutely everything: I wash tents, make sandwiches.

In the interview I talk about the stories of people I describe on Facebook. I think this is an opportunity to give these people a forum, a small platform and let their voices be heard. This forms a polyphonic choir of voices. For the ancient Greeks, the main roles were played not by concrete heroes or demigods. The main role was the choir. This choir of voices with various stories and lives is of great interest to me, and I try to give this choir the opportunity to be heard, at least modestly, somewhere on my webpage, in some interview, in some of my materials. In this way we see how beautiful and varied Ukraine is.

With the start of the war, many of us had the task of finding and responding to various needs. But there was also another task: to realize yourself, your talents, your circle of contacts. How did you personally combine these two tasks?

In fact, I left Kyiv on the second day of the war, when active bombing had begun. I went to Lviv, without a destination. Friends and I travelled together, and we’re now in the same lodging. By the way, in the apartment I’m now in, the first Ukrainian party was created. And the desk where I work is the desk where Levko Lukyanenko sat. So you can say that literally the walls contribute to everything. 

We immediately wanted to do some volunteering. However, in the first days in Lviv there was real competition for volunteer projects. Some need arose and it was instantly met. On the fourth day we went to the Lviv train station, because we heard they always needed help there. Since then, my good friend and I are at the train station every day. We start in tents, providing information, and now we generally work in the kitchen.

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My contact network with friends helps me a lot. First of all, I’m the first to find out about needs in various places and I can buy something and help. Second, friends often have questions for me: comment on the train station, explain how to behave with internally displaced persons, what possibilities are there here, etc. I can pass information anywhere. In addition, there are now many literary projects, though they are not well-known. For example, PEN Club [an international non-government organization which unites professional writers, editors, and translators] is now preparing a big video clip that I’m now taking part in: «What is the literary community doing in wartime.» There’s also constant interaction, work, creativity. It seems that literature is not of top importance, though this is really only a temporary pause. I’m sure that we will soon return with new strength.

You have a very personal perspective on this war: because you see people fleeing from various areas. You see various stages of this flight. Do you see differences in days, in areas?

Yes, really, differences are felt, different waves. We always know which train has arrived. After only a few days of work, I was able to understand, more or less, from what area a person had come. From the start those from Kharkiv were very different. Kyiv territories like Irpin, Hostomel, and Bucha, where things were very difficult, were different, where territories were occupied and destroyed. Now Mariupol and Melitopol are very differentiated. It’s immediately clear who is from there. I really remember, for example, a teacher who went to demonstrations in Kherson daily. Even when the occupiers started to shoot at them, she didn’t stop and kept on going. I asked her: «Why did you go? Didn’t you understand they could shoot you at any moment?» But she said: «Yes, but this is my land, and I have a right to it. I will not allow anyone to use any weapon to defeat this inner strength of ours.»

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There was a man from Kharkiv who brought his wife and two small children. They survived terrible shooting. He described how they traveled past the bodies of the dead, how he wanted to stop and cover them up. But they were being shot at and they couldn’t do it. The man was afraid that the children would see this. He said this very emotionally. I didn’t ask him anything. It was a monologue. He simply wanted someone to talk to. You know, a volunteer is like a stranger on the train, very safe for conversation. This man said everything with bitterness, but at the same time with hope. He wasn’t planning to leave. He wanted to defend his land. But at the end of the conversation he brought me a sleeping mat. He said: «I brought a sleeping mat with me, but I don’t need it now. Please give it to a family that has nothing to sleep on.» I was so taken by this humaneness in wartime. I’m impressed that people don’t become bad despite terrible trials. This man, the teacher from Kherson, my friends who are now in Sumy and any minute could fall under occupation. They fight, they write, they continue to go to demonstrations, they display unbelievable humanism. Almost all who came from cities under fire came with their house pets. Many forgot their documents, some basic things. People even travelled without an extra t-shirt. But they didn’t leave their cat or dog. I think this humaneness differentiates us. It makes us Ukrainians. We are united not only through hatred of enemies. We are united through love inside the country. I see this love and try to witness to it as I am able.

Bohdana, you spoke of what differentiates refugees from Bucha, from Kharkiv. Can you give some more details, so that people will understand the particularities of these people who fled on the first, second, or third day?

Well, on the first day above all people came who’d seen the war. It was terrible for them and they tried to go as far as possible. Many immediately wanted to leave the country, for Poland, Germany. People were very afraid, that was clear. Eventually people came who held out under fire to the end, sat in basements for a few weeks, and held out in their homes to the last. I know a situation where an old lady refused to leave, though they had bombed half her house. She went to the other half and is now living there. She filled in holes with some cardboard. She said: «This is my house. Now I have half a house, but this is my half of a house. I will never leave here.»

In addition, various areas are always evident. For example, people from Kharkiv and Mariupol often are not used to speaking in Ukrainian, but they try to switch, and they very humbly ask pardon for mistakes. They are afraid to make a mistake, but they want to speak in Ukrainian. These moments are very pleasant for me. It’s always clear when people are from areas which were under fire. It’s easy to distinguish them from those who were not under fire. For example, people from Mariupol are very sensitive to sounds. People from Kharkiv react to the bell of a streetcar or when a train is coming. They constantly ask if it’s bad to hear sirens here, because many of them are from areas where you didn’t hear sirens; shooting woke them up. They are always in such a state, you know, very frightened, ready at any moment to run. They’re afraid, but they’re still trying to remain in Ukraine, and everyone wants to return home. I saw hundreds, thousands of refugees. Out of all, only one woman said: «No, I won’t go back. I’m sick of the war we have.» She was from Donetsk Region, and this was not the first year of war for her. But all the others want to return; for them this is very important.

Those from Odesa are different. They’re always joking. Today there was this lady from Odesa, punning uncontrollably (smiles). We all laughed a lot.

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People from Kyiv and near Kyiv are different. They saw everything with their own eyes, went through the worst hell. You know them immediately. These people are often in dark clothing, sad. They try to hold out with their last strength. And the smallest thing affects them. For example, warm food, some little attention, some basic normal human things which we don’t notice, because they’re already not used to these simple comforts.

Bohdana, today we are surprised by many things people or friends do. What surprises you in yourself?

In myself? I’m a person who doesn’t cry easily. I’m always in control. I’m more collected, I guess. I’m surprised that everything resonates with me very emotionally, but, still, it doesn’t de-rail me. That is, I can come home and cry, which is principally not characteristic for me, but then I go back and everything’s ok. And I’m surprised how many people have turned out to be wonderful. They’ve forgotten small insults, conflicts, misunderstandings. Now it’s not important, bluntly speaking, who likes Franz Kafka, or Marcel Proust. I’m surprised at how wonderful my surroundings are, how wonderful people around me are, how beautiful our country is. Certainly, this is the most. However much we used to criticize Ukraine before, now it reveals simply incredible heights of spirit, endurance, and everything.

What do you do with hatred?

That’s a hard question. I acknowledge it immediately: sometimes I look at various Russian stars on Instagram and write to them that they’ll burn in hell. No question, I have a lot of hatred, rage, grudges, because my friends have suffered, many of my relatives have lost their homes. However, I think this rage can be directed in some productive channel: work, volunteering, into some, you know, healthy anger, and not into something that will destroy me inside. Of course, when you’re very tired, there’s no energy particularly for hatred. At least, I really try to do this.

Also, sometimes I just walk the streets alone, and am alone and angry. I burn off this anger, so that I don’t get angry at those I live with. It’s easier for me that way. And I’ve written everything I thought about some former friends from Russia who supported the military aggression and then blocked it. This helped me a lot, as self-therapy.

Which of these things that happened inspire you and which, on the contrary, leave you cold?

I think the most characteristic thing of our time now is that we all focus on the news without a break. We’re constantly looking at what’s happening abroad, looking at maps. This is now the thing to do. I didn’t used to read the news at all; I’m no journalist. I work in literature, in events that happened long ago. I joke that all my favorite men have already died, because Joyce, Proust, and Kafka left us long ago. Really, I’m very inspired when I see that even people who have lost something (for example, my friends lost a building near Kyiv) are not sad about material things, but somehow they gather energy to fight.

There’s this great phrase that when you lose your home, all Ukraine today becomes your home. When I see examples of this, I’m truly inspired. I’m fascinated by how people are correctly re-building their hierarchy of values; they have correct values, dear to me.

Of course, it hurts to see when someone is dying, that the best are dying. This blind hatred from the [Russian] side hurts me a lot. I simply can’t believe that people of the 21st century, who have access to social media, to information, can remain so angry and so blind. This saddens and derails me. I can’t believe that people like this exist, but they do, and today they are destroying our buildings in our country.

The passivity of some European countries saddens me. When I see how countries choose, for example, neutrality, understanding that in this way they choose evil, I’m always saddened.

Not everything can be measured by money, gas, business, oil. There must be something on which we’ll set our sights. And when I see the goals of a country which are wrong, it hurts me a lot. When I see how Serbia or Hungary behave, I see cowardice; it always saddens me.

Above all, our armed forces inspire me, our volunteers and people who are moving ahead. This is a constant source of inspiration, support, and always outweighs the negative. Fortunately, there is much more around that is beautiful than is bad.

War (both far and near) is close, with contacts with dear people who are somewhere at the forefront. Are some of your relatives now in service?

My father is in the territorial defense. He went there the first day of the war. They really didn’t want to take him, because he was in the army as an officer, but they needed soldiers. But he stubbornly kept returning until they took him. He’s now near Kyiv, defending our city. I don’t know exactly where he is. They can’t say, but I know that he’s ok. And the fact that he’s somewhere there, defending our city – Kyiv for me is endlessly important, the most important city in the world – gives me incredible support. I know that there are many such people, almost all my acquaintances either themselves or they have someone on the forefront: both women and men. For example, the editor with whom I work at the publishing house is now also in territorial defense, holding a weapon in his hands and defending our country. It seems to me that now everyone in Ukraine can say that he has a relative or acquaintance who is serving. This is an example of great collective and individual courage.

Bohdana, I understand that this is futurology, but if you tried to share your thoughts, what text could you expect at the end of the war? What do you think could come into our literature after the experience of this war? 

I am absolutely convinced that we’ll have a great wave of powerful literature. We’ll have a Nobel prize winner. There’ll be a whole generation of new authors who’ll write about the war. Great traumas give birth to great texts, though it sounds terrible, and the worst acts always give birth to the best novels. I think a whole generation will write about their own experience, what they saw with their own eyes, and that’s very important. There will be books not in the spirit of Hemingway, not from a series of how a strong man went to the front and returned even stronger. There will be books trying to comprehend some of the very difficult interior processes and transformations that we are living through right now. Perhaps there will be books full of pain. There’ll be lots of such books.

I think that the main novel about the war is unquestionably in the future. We discussed this in the literary circle and were waiting for the time when the main novel about the war will appear: for example, Zhadan, Sord – are these already the main novels? And there are countless such examples. There were always people who doubted, but doubts soon pass. There’ll be many texts about the war, about individual experiences, about humanism and humanity in the war. Because the texts of the new wartime are being written not about the war but about the human being in the war, as they say in English «The human first.» Individual fate, individual experience, individual feeling. In addition, now many writers are in the war, holding arms in their hands, and these are people who know how to write, how to work with details. It’s also worth expecting from them very much that is good, new, powerful.

Can you give an example: Which authors are now in the war?

For example, Artem Chekh, author of «Zero point,» «Region number 9,» and many other good texts. «Zero point,» in my opinion, is one of the best books of artistic literature and essays. Artem has military experience and is now defending Ukraine. Artem Chapay is also defending Ukraine. There are many such examples. Those who aren’t defending are active volunteers, like Serhiy Zhadan or Katya Kalytko, who for many years has been active in this process. I think that now just about every writer is somehow tangential, if not directly, then through the volunteer movement, to the war in Ukraine.

You, certainly, keep an eye in general on artists at war, that is, graphic, caricaturists, iconographers who in various ways realize their talents in these themes that are new for them. How does Ukraine react to the war through artistic resistance?

I always am surprised at how many of us have artistic potential, how people remain creative and how our comprehension of reality is somehow so subtle, very accurate. A few weeks, maybe a month, before the start of the Russian invasion, I filmed a discussion with Sashko Komyakhovyi, who is a graphic designer and illustrator. We talked about his new work. There were many powerful visual images there. At that moment I didn’t think so, but what he depicted resonated very strongly a month later. These dark, lonely figures with spare red accents, this loneliness of a child in the war, the dynamic of war which, really, we sometimes don’t notice. The ability to grasp and show this terror and, at the same time, this fascinating power, is very characteristic of our artists.

I also see how people who earlier did illustrations for books switch to something else. For example, Oleksandr Hrekhov, from whom they used to buy portraits of Kafka and other modernists, today regularly depicts the war. And even some personages like the «Goose» of Nadiya Kushnir are becoming more militarized. This creative resistance is really not appreciated, in my opinion. It unites and inspires people. War is not only weapons, war is pictures, and much of everything. I always remember how once Picasso’s «Guernica» [a painting dedicated to the bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica in 1937] influenced me. We see something like this today. At the same time thousands of Guernicas are being born. History will show what of this will remain. However, I keep track of all illustrators: Marysa Nikityuk, Kushnir, Hrekhovyi, and others. They constantly radiate some unbelievable strength. It is impossible to write and draw weakly when the theme is so poignant.

What about the conditions of war wearies you?

What wearies me is when exasperation begins to predominate over other emotions, when I understand that I can’t hold back my anger, it starts to affect people nearby. Or when I start to get annoyed at some questions from refugees, really, you need to be a very patient person to work here. We repeat the same thing a million times. A million times we have to refuse some demands or questions. And when I feel that exasperation begins to predominate, I understand that I’m tired. At this moment, it’s necessary to pause, relax, take a day off.

The biggest mistake of the volunteer movement is to work 24/7, regardless of your own needs, the demands of the organism, your internal situation, and then burn out in a month, and everything that goes with this. For me it is very important to track my emotions, to track what is now dominant in me. Is the desire to help, to win dominant in me? Is the desire dominant in me to be detached, so that no one touches me, no one talks with me? If the second, then I definitely need to relax, be on my own, at least sit in the bathroom 10 or 15 minutes, finally shout until this passes. 

You cannot ignore your own resources.

I try to monitor things like this, because in peacetime I often didn’t notice my own resources, and this did not always turn out well for me.

Interviewer: Petro Didula

Video: Pavlo Popkov

Translator: Matthew Matuszak

Republished from UCU project «Little stories of a Big War«

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Lviv Now is an English-language website for Lviv, Ukraine’s «tech-friendly cultural hub.» It is produced by Tvoe Misto («Your City») media-hub, which also hosts regular problem-solving public forums to benefit the city and its people.



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