"We constructed Putin. We made this happen." Michael Katakis In Dialogue With Kateryna Mikhalitsyna
In order to comprehend the events of recent days, PEN Ukraine has launched a series of conversations entitled #DialoguesOnWar.
On April 1, Michael Katakis, writer, photographer, held a conversation with Kateryna Mikhalitsyna, poetess, writer.
This is a transcription of key moments from that event. You can check out the recorded conversation here.
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: When we met in Lviv, it was around 2018. You were presenting your book, Ernest Hemingway: Artifacts From a Life. Actually, somehow it happened that the Ukrainian translation of your book came out before the book was released in America. At that time, you said that Lviv and Ukraine seemed like a point of freedom. These words are now especially dear to me. We are a point of freedom. It actually helps me to stay strong whenever I feel despair coming over me. The idea of being a point of freedom helps me to survive. So thank you very much for those words. And I guess we can discuss that idea more deeply.
Michael Katakis: There is a line in one of your poems that I was reading last night. It really affected me. It says, "...and she keeps her tears back with all her gall. She’s silent and strains for air with words unvoiced." Can you tell me what your day has been like today in Lviv? And are you finding a way to have a voice in some way?
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: Actually, before we started talking, I was thinking about who I actually am right now. Am I a mother of three kids? Am I a children’s writer? Am I a poet? Who am I? And the closest identity I feel a connection with is as a human being, trying not to survive, but trying to find a way to help. Even if this help is finding a voice and trying to speak with children. My children. They are different ages. The youngest is five years old, and the oldest is 16 years old. In between is my daughter, who is 12-years-old. So they all experience the war and this situation in different ways, and I need to cope with all the ways they are feeling right now. I need to help them cope with the situation, with the war, with an abnormal education, with abnormal situations with friends, with an abnormal life all around them. Just half an hour ago, I got back home from a warehouse. I was with my youngest one. He and his five-year-old friend helped us, their mothers, sort medical supplies and find whatever different army units need. It’s a part of volunteering. Even if you’re not an official volunteer with a volunteer jacket. We all have these things we need to take care of for somebody else. Like finding somebody a place to live or just helping people from the eastern parts of Ukraine get here. Sometimes it happens totally unexpectedly.
For me, the war started at 7am on the 24th of February with my daughter waking me up, saying, "Mama, please wake up, the war is here." It’s something I will never forget. I don’t think she’ll forget it either. Then the sirens sounded and everything stopped. Since that moment, there are no dates, no days or weeks. There is one, long period of time after the war started. Then, in a day or two, we all kind of woke up from the initial panic with no idea what to do. We are two adults, three kids and an adopted dog. And we need to take care of all of them. The war was not totally unexpected for us, because we’ve had this eight-year period of frozen conflict in the eastern regions of Ukraine. The war was not unexpected, but it was — and still is — unbelievable in its scale, absurdity and cruelty. So, after this initial shock, we had a small council with our children, because they have their own thoughts and feelings. They are ready to decide with us. Would they like to leave the country? We have friends in Poland, England, and Lithuania. We had a lot of options. But the children said, "We would like to stay here. We are Ukrainians." And we had nothing to say to them. Because we are also Ukrainians. Lviv was — and still is — a relatively safe place to stay. And we cannot leave it. We cannot leave it empty. Because if not us, then who?
We are all engaged in volunteering in every possible way we can. We’ve been making nets for the armed forces. It’s a kind of meditation and something that my daughter or mother-in-law can do. My son, he’s the oldest. He came with me several times to sort medicine. This is what he holds as important. After a week of war, he went back to studying. He is in the 11th form, which is the last for Ukrainian schools. So he needs to take his university entrance exams if there are entrance exams to take. But instead of that, he said, "I must do whatever I can to support those who are around me." He has new friends who came from Kherson. He helped them create at least an illusion of normality here, after what they saw in their hometown. My youngest comes along with me and half-plays and half-tries to help sort medicine. He always asks who he’s gathering medicine for. I say it’s for our army. He prefers to call them "unknown angels," because he doesn’t know their names. And it’s true, they are our angels in a way. At first, he was very afraid each time the sirens sounded, and then my husband and I explained, "The siren means that there are people who are protecting us from the missiles and bombs. They are doing whatever they can to protect us." After that, he always asks us which angels we are gathering medicine for. So that’s how they perceive it.
Again, I don’t think of myself as a children’s author right now. This part of me has completely shut down for the time being. But I am a person who has already written something for children and can draw and play with them. So that’s what I do in the library, because the libraries in Lviv are centers for books, culture, and networking right now. They connect people to talk about experiences and how to feel better psychologically. Librarians and artists gather children around themselves and just play and make fun, just to help. Especially for refugee children. So that they feel they are cared for, that there are places that provide at least illusionary safety here. And we do whatever we can to help. That’s what we do almost every day. At the end of the day, I almost always feel like I did almost nothing. I feel completely exhausted sometimes because it’s just talking and playing, talking and playing. That’s all. But I know we are all in this together.
Michael Katakis: Remember when I told you in Lviv that, to my shock, I found the future? After speaking to the young people, their dreams were magnificent and forward-looking. They were positive. They were also very clear about their concerns about Russia, about their situation. But what I found extraordinary was I found a future there, but I also found a lot of dreams that were minus the cynicism of other places that had not endured or were always on the precipice of war. Now with the way I watch from a safe distance here in California, I realize that I found courage there, too. I didn’t understand it at the time. I found the courage that I had been searching for— the courage of conviction, the courage of the difference between right and wrong against my own personal self-interest.
I’ll never forget being in London about 10 years ago and saying to someone in government, "You have a lot of dirty money going on in Europe, and what you’ve done is you have allowed people who are monsters to devastate their country and come to yours. And you say, ‘We’re open for business!’ You take that dirty money and you somehow think you will remain clean. We do it in the United States, too." And this person completely agreed with me. Then they said something that I have never forgotten. They said, "You see, Michael, we are all part of the criminal class now." And so the reason I am upset with my country and with Europe and the UK is we’ve been traveling down this road for some time. As a matter of fact, we constructed Putin. We constructed him. If we are going to be truthful now, we enriched him. We made this happen. We betrayed the Budapest Memorandum. We made promises we’re not keeping. Business corrupted everything and ourselves. Now we have a decision to make. Do we love children the way we say it or do we love our money and business more? Do you like to think what you like, write what you like, speak what you like? Or do you like the systems of China and Russia? This is no longer about Ukraine. It is about our morality or our lack of morality. We will decide if our country is something worthwhile or just a store disguised as a country. This is now a Rorschach test about morality. I wish that people in my country and in Europe would simply keep quiet and supply, fight and do the right thing by Ukraine. That is simple. It really is that simple.
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: It is that simple, but it is hard to believe this simplicity. You asked me about a line in my poem. Actually, it was my youngest son who asked me when the war started— are we alone in this war? The answer was stuck in my throat because I wasn’t sure whether we were alone. We are not alone. We are very much united as a people right now. I have been reassured by my friends in different countries. And I believe them. Kätlin Kaldmaa, who is also a PEN member, wrote to me that the Estonian nation is being built together with the Ukrainian nation. I strongly believe in what she said. Yet still I cannot find an answer for my son. Are we alone? No, we are not alone. Poland gives whatever it can to our refugees. Everybody gives unimaginable amounts of help to those who come. But we still don’t have a no fly zone. Children are being killed. There is no other way to protect them. This is simple. But this simplicity is not easily transformed into action, even though we all understand how simple it is.
Michael Katakis: If the children are still being killed and we are not involved, then you are alone. The words are not enough. I said to you earlier that if I could have a Ukrainian passport and become a Ukrainian citizen today, I would. The only problem is the condition would be to possess the courage that I see there. And I am not sure that I do.
This reminds me of my father, who was a resistance fighter in World War II. My father, like so many people in Ukraine, was just living his life. He was just taking care of his children. He was just trying to live. Then the Nazis invaded. My father was left with three choices: collaborate, leave, or fight. He fought. It damaged him for the rest of his life, some of the terrible things he had to do. He was correct in the things he had to do, but after that, he could not stay in his country anymore because of the ghosts of the monster. The monster comes in many forms. Hitler then. Putin now. The person in Belarus. The monster is always with us and history has taught me one thing — it seems only the Ukrainians understand — you can never negotiate with the monster. You can never say, "Please only kill half of our children and we’ll agree with you. Only bomb one hospital and we will then make peace." It doesn’t work. But I have to be careful about how I talk. Because the bombs are not falling on me. That’s what the world has got to understand. Ukraine does not need opinions and words. They need things that stop the bombing of schools and hospitals. That’s what they need. If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing anything. And you’re just like me: words, words, words. We need more than words. We need so much more. I feel impotent. I feel ashamed of my country. If I was brave enough, I would hold a Ukrainian passport.
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: In a way, you are doing more than just saying this. There are many different points of view on what we consider a cultural boycott — not just a business boycott — of Russia. I know you’ve banned all of Hemingway’s publications in Russia. You do what you can do. We all have some amount of power, and we cannot escape the amount of power we have. You do what you can.
Michael Katakis: Yes, we do what we can.
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: I’m sorry, do you have any reaction from the Russian side? I know how Ukrainians reacted after your decision, but I don’t know how Russians did. Please share.
Michael Katakis: Oh, yes. The response from our Russia representative in New York was— you know the typical business response is, "You know, there are people in Russia who are against the war, and we don’t want to deprive those people of being readers." Nonsense. The Russian people are responsible for what’s happening. I am not interested in rationales or nuances. Ernest Hemingway went to Spain and put himself in harm’s way defending a principle against fascism. So how do we do this? How do I do business in Russia for the Hemingway estate, selling books, when they are destroying libraries and schools? So I give them profit for destroying the books and schools of another country? No. No, we will not be part of that. No, we won’t listen to any excuses. I just told the Serbian publisher we were negotiating with, "Your country’s position on Russia— you are a collaborator in misery. We cannot participate with you." Now, I’m going after Israel and India as well. Because Israel is shameful, the way they’re behaving, and I can never look at them the same way again. This is a time not of, "Oh, I support you. I feel so badly for you—"
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: And a "but" appears.
Michael Katakis: No "but." I will never go to Shell gas stations again after they bought oil from Russia. I won’t. That means nothing to them, but it means something to me because, in the morning, I must shave and look at myself in the mirror. I have to have some self-respect. I have to have some belief that there’s a modicum of decency within me. But I cannot do business with such people and will no longer do business with them in my lifetime. That’s how I feel.
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: This is huge. It’s not just words. Both you and I work with words, so we know the strength of it. It’s not a weapon, but, in a way, sometimes, it might have more of an effect than a physical weapon. Maybe this is a belief I’m holding onto as a person because if this tiny magical thought that words can cure was taken away from me, I would fall numb. Because I know that I can help with words, like what I do with children in the library.
I was very pleased to hear you gave an interview to an Australian radio station, and you told them about the library, about how your father brought you to the library. And the library told you that all these books, all the words in them, are tiny threads that weave a magical carpet that will take you wherever you want. Weaving that carpet by playing, drawing or creating stories is my way of helping children to recover from their experiences. In the six weeks of war, I’ve never asked any of the refugee children what they experienced. Instead, I wanted to make them smile. That’s all I can do.
Michael Katakis: The words that you’re using and describing are of enormous value. The words that are being used by the West — "we support you," "we feel bad" — are useless. Your words have power and meaning. Our words are meant to accept no responsibility. I cannot accept those kinds of words. We’ve been using them for too long in too many places, and we’ve been profiting from the monster.
To my friends in Europe, I will say to them: I’m sorry that you need Russian oil, but children are worth more than the oil, so please put on another sweater. Forget about the oil and sacrifice. We’ll try to sacrifice here, too. I don’t know how yet.
I think that if I was a younger man, if I was in totally good health, I know — I think I know — that I would be in Ukraine. I would be doing anything that I could. "Do you want me to lift a box? Tell me what to do." Even then, I know that would not be enough. For me, from the West, the only thing that matters to me— are the children safe or not safe? That’s all I want to hear. And if they’re not safe, how do we make them safe?
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: They are not safe, even if they are here, in relatively safe Lviv. Or somewhere in Poland or Germany or wherever. But the notion of safety is being disrupted, because what is safety? If nobody here in Ukraine knows where the bombshells fall the next day, the next hour, or whenever, then we have no safety at all. Even if we pretend to have it for the sake of our children.
You mentioned that when you look into the mirror, you would like to see yourself as you are and not to look away. But when I look in the mirror right now, I don’t know who I’m seeing. I don’t know this person. I have no time. I have no inner strength to reflect on the changes that are going on in me right now. I’m more a person of action than a person who thinks. Though, I like to think, and, in a way, it was my favorite thing to do— to think, rethink and feel everything around me. Now, I prefer to do. I don’t know the person I’m looking at in the mirror in the morning. I don’t know who she is and how she is still changing. I don’t know how much she will change in the future, hearing the news, reading about rapes. We should know all the war crimes committed by Russia and Russians. Because we need to collect them and send them to The Hague. So that Russians take full responsibility for all they’ve done. Being a woman and reading about the rape of some other woman somewhere in Ukraine is awful. But I need to read, I need to know that this has happened. Because now it is a part of my identity. This is what frightens me.
Back to the children— we have an uneasy history. There were many events when Ukrainians got killed for being Ukrainians. I have to explain this to my children in the 21st century, like the Holodomor or other Stalinist crimes. My children ask, "Mom, could I be killed because I’m Ukrainian?" Yes, you could. Not for being a girl, not for what you’ve done, but only because you are Ukrainian. This is awful. This is the word that’s stuck in my throat. It is hard to say. But I’m forced to say it because that’s what’s happening.
Michael Katakis: You make me reflect. I am listening to you, and I’m hearing what you’re saying. I’m being forced to think about what my father must have felt, what he went through. Gore Vidal once said, "Americans know nothing, because they remember nothing." I think he was right. I remember my father after a long time, when he was a very old man. He surprised me by saying he wanted to go back to Greece. He had not said that in 40 years. We went back to the island of Crete, and we stood at a small cemetery that had a lot of German names. My father, who never spoke about these things, looked up over the lemon and olive groves. He looked down at two names, then looked up again, then down. At that moment, I realized he had killed those two people. And that he could never make peace with it, even though it was war. He looked out on the field and said, "It’s like a garden." I thought to myself, "If it’s a garden, the harvest is only regret."
So when you talk about your children, your children will now have to live with this situation. That’s the other murder that’s taken place. The murder of innocence. I don’t know if that’s an international crime, but it should be. I don’t know if Mr. Putin knows this — and I hope that it’s true — but he can never be allowed in the civilized world again. Ever. Anyone who does business with Mr. Putin cannot be allowed into the civilized world again. All I know is that I’m waiting for you to just get relief. I’m very tired of all of the rationalizations from my country and Europe. We’re sending you more aid. If the children are still threatened, all of this is meaningless to me. And I’m sure it’s meaningless to you.
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: That’s why I’m more about doing. When New Year came, I was hoping this would be a year of less doing and more being. Now, I’m fleeing into action, because I don’t know what I should do with all the emotion that will explode when I stop. I’m not ready to deal with that right now. I need to be a working human being. I need to do what I am doing right now.
Unexpectedly, I hadn’t written any adult-oriented poems in half a year before the war. I started writing them on the 18th of February. I am part of the New York Literary Festival — New York in the Donetsk region. It was founded by Viktoria Amelina last year. We still hope to have a second festival in the autumn in New York. And we will do what we need to make that happen. We had an online meeting, and we asked our colleagues from New York, "How are you?" One of them answered, "It’s still okay, something explodes, and after that, there is rain and silence." It’s not a proper translation, but that’s how the poem started—with her line. I actually took the line. I don’t know how I write them. They just come to me. When I stop doing something, the poems come. All I need to do is stop and write them down, even if it is just my Facebook page. Somehow, they are being translated into different languages, so people respond to them. I cannot explain how I feel. I just write. It gives me strength to survive. It’s my way to stay safe.
You sent me a poem, "The Leader." I don’t know when you wrote it, but for me, it’s as if you wrote it just recently. It’s about Putin and Russians and whatever. I tried to translate it. I made a public promise to try to translate it, because it seems very important for me, so thank you for that.
Michael Katakis: Thank you for translating it. I am honored by that. Actually, it was written a while ago concerning Trump or any oligarch or any monster. A monster always appears as a leader. But I want to ask you, because I am very curious— when I was in West Africa during the civil war, one of the questions that kept running around my mind was "How do people whose neighbors and others turned against each other, how do they restart?" In your lifetime, how do you begin a relationship again with Russians? Because this will end. How do you come back to seeing the Russian people as something other than how you’re seeing them now?
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: I am listening to you, and I have a cold running along my skin. I don’t know the answer right now. I guess my children, Ukrainian children, could maybe find an answer. But I don’t have one for you right now. My first reaction is I don’t want to. I don’t want to find any way to connect. Before I even let myself think about that, I think I need to find a way to restart something in me, to rebuild myself, to rebuild this sense of safety. Only after this is rebuilt for my children, for myself, for others in Ukraine, will we have the strength to think in that direction. Right now, it’s only a cold feeling on my skin. And the feeling to push it away and not to think about it.
Michael Katakis: Do you believe the reports that the majority of Russians don’t believe what is happening?
Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: It’s not only a report, I have some close people who called their relatives in different parts of Russia. They said, "You know, you are bombing us. I am your sister, uncle, aunt, whatever. And your son, brother, father, or whatever is bombing our country."
They say, "No. We aren’t doing that. It’s not true."
Again, "I am in Ukraine. I am in Kharkiv. A bomb has just fallen on the building next to me. It was a school, a library, not a military object. It just exploded. I can show you the explosion. I can show you the ruins. This is what I’m seeing with my eyes, through my windows."
The person on the other line says, "It’s not Russians. It’s not Russian forces. It’s your Nazis, it’s those Ukrainian nationalist fighters from whom we will free you."
These are real people telling things to real people. It’s not just a report. This is very, very terrible. They don’t believe they are bombing us. Even if they see a real person showing them a picture of an explosion from their window, they don’t want to know. That’s why they are responsible for what is going on.
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