Image credit: Fountain by Skovoroda “Not equal equality”. Skovoroda Museum / Public Domain.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Ukrainian philosophe Hryhoriy Skovoroda penned a prayer for the city of Kharkiv, which he called Zakharia, a name that passes through Hebrew and Aramaic to mean “the one remembered by God.” Oratio ad Deum in Urbem Zacharpolim read:
Захарія прорікає, що в тебе сім очей.
Сьоме око — місто Захарія.
Цим семи очам ти єдиний, Христе, зіниця.
Сліпі очі коли закрита зіниця.
О розкрий свої очі, зглянься на нього.
Так місто Захарія буде справжнім сонцем.
Zachariah prophesies that you [God] have seven eyes.
The seventh eye is the city of Zakharia.
For these seven eyes you, Christ, are the only pupil.
Eyes are blind when the pupil is closed.
Oh, open your eyes, look upon him
And the city of Zakharia will be a true sun.
Skovoroda’s biblical language refers to the seven eyes that thrice appear in the sacred text, including in the book of Zachariah, Zakharia, to call for the restoration through love of moral sight and radical transformation to a shining city.
In December, Ukrainians celebrated Skovoroda’s 300th jubilee several months after Russian forces targeted his literary house museum near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, just 19 miles from the border with Russia, destroying the building and its contents—rare manuscripts, ceramics, coins, and other objects—and after Russian forces leveled the library, auditorium, and classrooms of Skovoroda’s namesake national pedagogical university in Kharkiv.
Together with Skovoroda’s museum and university, Russian bombs and missiles have destroyed in full or in part over 520 primary and secondary schools and 23 institutions of higher education in and around Kharkiv, an area about twice the size of Maryland. Local journalists, war crimes investigators, and residents have photographed and made videos of many of these sites. For all the reasons Susan Sontag once enumerated, I’m using words instead of images here.
Arguably, these deliberate attempts to destroy the material relics and reminders of Skovoroda’s life and work are contributing to the realization of his metaphysics. Like so much else the Kremlin has done in this war, it’s a strange plan when material intent and spiritual results appear as opposites.
Amid Russia’s attempts to de-territorialize Ukraine’s population, what does the violence transforming lives rooted in specific places and communities into uprooted lives marking time mean for human communication? What can be known now about places and people who have remained under fire?
Before the war, my efforts to understand people’s experiences depended not only on sustained face-to-face communication with my colleagues and interlocutors in their language or dialect but on my acquired familiarity with the environments amid which people made their lives. I reasoned that to make any claim to knowledge about a place, I needed to live in it myself long enough to know something of its folkways—to recognize a road out of Kharkiv by a particular stand of birch trees rather than a sign, to be able to find a bus terminus in Uzhhorod named for a department store that was no longer there, to navigate city blocks in Voronezh through the courtyards of apartment buildings rather than along sidewalks. To know whether an elder came from a village north or south of Kharkiv—from whether her o’s sounded like a’s or u’s. To begin to try to see the world through the eyes of people who lived in a place, I needed the ability to read the pentimenti of everyday life, to gain situated knowledge of that which was unseen or erased yet still remembered.
I wanted to understand how people around me explained the world in which they live, so the capacity to read landscapes through the eyes of some of my interlocutors also meant knowing local historical details, such as how adjacent settlements built on the sandy soil southeast of Kharkiv had divergent histories, one inhabited by bonded laborers (Bezliudivka) and the other by free people (Vasishcheve), and that some local people thought that explained differences in the contemporary economic development of the two places. It meant grasping why, as I was living on a collective farm in the middle of Voronezh region in Russia, people in the neighboring village who took the same bus to the district center and whose families had lived there for generations spoke not Russian, but a dialect of Ukrainian.
My attempts to understand meant deliberately exposing myself to the frictions of the built environments and life of a place and participating as fully as possible in reciprocal relationships that sometimes developed around research but were not only for research. For me, this was an analytical as well as ethical and human requirement; as I have written previously, interpretation of information gleaned from interviews or single conversations may go awry in the absence of knowledge of the relational contexts in which people live.
One year, several days a week, I would drive an eggplant-colored Niva—a Soviet-designed 4×4 that could handle the spring mud on unpaved roads—out to former state farms around Kharkiv. From a tram in the city center, I would disembark at a garage in the north of the city, a forest of corrugated metal compartments that provided just enough shelter to protect vehicles from snow and rain. At its entrance, the garage attendant kept a dog he named Jusi who slept in a cardboard box. Jusi’s name was just close enough to an abbreviated and formalized version of my own (in Slavic languages, the -ka sound at the end is a diminutive, so Jessica often became Jesi) that he affectionately called me Jusi too.
On winter mornings, I would play with Jusi, reconnect the car battery to the engine, then chat with other drivers while we all waited a few minutes for the vehicles to warm. Some days, I would drive out to villages on my own, while on other occasions I would pick up a colleague from the regional administration in Derzhprom, the monument of constructivist architecture that sits opposite Karazin University on Kharkiv’s Freedom Square, or from the Kharkiv district administration in Kholodna Hora. At that time, some functionaries had unfunded mandates with meetings to attend outside the city but no budget for gas. Driving out to villages in Kharkiv district—Babaii, Vysokyi, Tsyrkuny, Rus’ki Tyshky, Lyptsi, Vesele, or northwest to farms around Derhachi, Zolochiv, Bohodukhiv, or south to Chuhuiiv, Lozova, Blyzniuky—conversation was further enlivened by people on foot to whom we gave a lift, usually elders who otherwise walked for kilometers or waited for a bus.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, people in these and other communities in and around Kharkiv have been objects of not only daily shelling and missile strikes but of sustained occupation, organized rape, torture, mutilation, massive theft, fire, sustained educational disruption, and deliberate destruction of hospitals, clinics, schools and every possible repository of cultural and especially rural life imaginable. Roads and fields are everywhere mined. Some rural roads that had been pockmarked lunar landscapes when I drove them were freshly paved under Zelenskyy (actually paved, not just paved on the books), a relative respite for the sappers who now work constantly to restore the possibility of movement. Even for those who remain, whose communication has not been reduced to the screen of a smartphone, access is everywhere limited, blocked by explosive possibilities wantonly and generously strewn by fleeing Russian forces.
Over the last year, a trajectory has been perceptible in people remaining in and around Kharkiv. Widely noted among those who stayed, it seeps through daily texts, phone calls, and emails with colleagues and friends and long-term interlocutors that at first sweated panic and nerves, then seeming acceptance, then fear and sometimes drink, then landed somewhere in transcendence. Through abiding fear and pain and exhaustion emerge persistence and certainty and faith—if not in God, then in each other.
A municipal employee recently interviewed on a local television channel described this phenomenon using a familiar concept in the social sciences, saying “Kharkivite is already a kind of ethnicity.” But others describe a different, more profound shift taking place, a posture made possible by the practice of love—neither eros nor agape, but something like philia, a love not of attachment to abstract principles but emanating from deep embeddedness in relationships. Talk of love, expressed and named freely, is of kokhannia, of odna velyka rodyna, one big family, not rodina, Russian for motherland, a transposition and expansion reverberating throughout society of soldierly love for patria, certainly, but mainly for company brothers and sisters.
As a scholar studying the borderlands of East and Central Europe, I spent decades doing fieldwork in small villages and towns along Ukraine’s international borders. My aim, whether on homesteads in the shadow of Ukraine’s highly surveilled border with the European Union or in the villages that punctuate vast expanses of industrial monoculture—sugar beet, sunflower, wheat—along Ukraine’s border with Russia, was to understand people’s relationship with the land and with each other, and the politics those relationships reflected and produced. The works of political ethnography I’d published as a result of this and other fieldwork, including The Post-Soviet Potemkin Village and Staging Democracy, were the direct result of not only my own work but of other human beings’ generosity and willingness to share their experiences with me.
For a number of years, my work centered on rural communities in and around Kharkiv. In the 1990s, I started conducting field research, then taught research methodology and epistemology in the Russian language at a graduate summer school at Karazin University, and launched projects with friends from Kharkiv through local organizations serving women. My research also took me to villages across the border in Russia, impoverished communities south of the city of Voronezh where the Kremlin is now hypnotizing young men with promises of canceled debt in return for agreement to murder Ukrainians in their homes—then emptying those young men into black plastic bags at an industrial scale. But that story is for a different time.
Like much ethnography, my writing was profoundly anchored in specific places and concerned specific people. Now that Russia’s war has exploded communities across Ukraine, questions arise about knowledge—about what can really be known right now. Even as professional networks shift and expand to keep lives and careers afloat amid the war, people’s intimate circles have shrunk to include only the essential. Everyone reports fragmented knowledge, a partial view, understanding based mainly on the experiences of the people close to them.
People’s view of a situation is always partial and the same questions apply here as to any other situation. How much information, what kind, and from what sources is enough to begin to understand? Fieldwork permits in-context dialogue to check interpretations, correct distortions, and fill in blind spots. But now my own communication with people who have remained in areas under constant attack transpires through the screen of a six-inch long piece of plastic and electronics. If before, as a scholar and a pedagogue, I valued embeddedness and contextuality as a precondition for communication, now everything I think I might know arrives through texts, phone and Zoom calls, and Telegram channels.
This disembodied feature of communication is part of the experience of war for many Ukrainians. Millions of Ukrainians, often with young children in tow, have left the country for destinations within the battle environment but outside the hot war. Millions of others have lost their homes to Russian shelling or missiles or occupation and are displaced within Ukraine. And millions more have remained where they were before this invasion, anchored by limited financial resources, an elderly or infirm relative who cannot be moved, an attachment to place more expansive even than attachment to life, a fierce refusal to change how or where they live.
Stalin-era rural starvation campaigns and mass executions of poets and other intellectuals followed by industrialization made Kharkiv a mainly Russian-speaking city by the end of the twentieth century and many of my relationships there unfolded in Russian. The version of that language spoken in Slobozhanshchyna, an expanse that includes Kharkiv and the surrounding countryside as well as other cities and settlements within and beyond Ukraine, is different from the standardized Russian dictated by Moscow during the Soviet period. Kharkiv’s linguistic distinctiveness is defined not only by the city’s well-known special words for objects like ballpoint pens or clothes hangers, both produced in factories there from the nineteenth century but also for its particular lilt and vowels, its names for animal and plant life.
Yet since the full-scale invasion, many people have moved consciously to everyday use of the Ukrainian language, and talk with some people from Kharkiv now takes place exclusively in Ukrainian. Apologies or announcements that a word in the language of the occupier is entering the conversation can sometimes precede Russian expressions. I do this when I forget or just don’t know a word in Ukrainian, and friends and colleagues do it as well. An avoidance of microaggression, friction, pain. From a distance, Russian as it is spoken in Kharkiv remains a language of intimacy, of some relationships that cannot be changed now after so many years. But even friendships three decades long have shifted, sometimes awkwardly at first, with conversations between people for whom Ukrainian is a mother language for no one, including mistakes and hesitations by all parties, but steadily and obstinately in the language of the Ukrainian state.
Some talk is reportage, what friends and colleagues and research interlocutors tell me when I let them know that I’m about to write or present or talk with someone somewhere who can do something, and it would be helpful to have a conversation to prepare. It can happen that the form follows that of a regular interview. Other times, as just after the summer’s counteroffensive, my interlocutors speak in sentence-long paragraphs, as if Henry James had written screenplays for horror movies:
They shot up the solar panels and four or five combines, the telescopic French ones, May 3rd they blew up the fuel depots, 200 tons of diesel, tons of gasoline poisoned everywhere, it’s all mined, what a horror, May 8th they shot at us from helicopters as we left, three hundred cows for two weeks the cows weren’t milked, you know what that means, two weeks, can you imagine? the bomblets fell into the shed, no one would go in there to milk them, two weeks, one thousand tons of wheat they shot through….we put everything on fifty-four train cars, it took three days, they shot us while we were evacuating, cluster bombs on the roofs, there’s no way to sell anything, the ports are blocked the land route is too narrow, of eleven thousand hectares twenty-five hundred are working, the rest is ruined there are no warehouses the beetles are getting it all, my sister’s house got hit, they shelled us from Kozacha Lopan’ every day.
Talk also includes discussions around logistical coordination, a volunteer’s routine known to people across Ukraine and the world. Hundreds of texts to move laptops from the European Union to Kharkiv for students in de-occupied towns and villages, emails to find medical opinions, who can bring a package across the border for Nova Poshta, did you send the numbers for the bank wire, what address can we give the truck from Poland?
A third kind of talk includes more interesting and challenging texts, exchanges centering around encouragement, and simple human concern. The ones that begin, Iak vy tam trymaietes’? How are you holding on? Some find this common formulation hurtful, for what exactly are people supposed to hold on to? And so the question also emerges in abbreviated form, as, Iak vy, shcho vy? How are you, what’s going on for you?
With some relationships, this communication and the answer to these questions have a form that precedes its content, a set structure and set of conventions from which no one deviates. That narrative is all telos, an arc toward victory, persistence, resilience, together we’ll win, we’re working, soon we’ll vacation in Yalta. Even amid repetition the emotions are real, like whispers over prayer beads that reach that quiet and sure place within us that humans find amid chaos by telling ourselves and each other, over and over again, that it will be okay. In these exchanges, discouragement is an unaffordable and useless luxury. For now, my role as researcher and ethnographer has shifted from observer, questioner, one who analyses, to one whose job is to lift up, encourage, love.
But I wonder sometimes who exactly is supporting and comforting and reassuring whom. From people of a certain age, people who remember the Soviet Union, the answer to variations on “how are you?” is almost always the same. Vse bude dobre. Everything will be fine. Vse dobre. Everything is fine. Yet everything is far from fine. Historian Timothy Snyder remarked upon this phenomenon early in Russia’s full-scale war, noting how Ukrainian colleagues reached out to reassure him. As if they had nothing else to do, nothing to feel other than empathy for those who witness their pain.
Yet for those who sit on the other end of smartphone screens, asking after people, organizing shipments of support, a consistent and abiding feeling reverberates. Our interlocutors have become better than we are. People who spend their days ignoring air raid sirens, organizing local humanitarian aid, and trying to do their jobs despite it all care not only about and for each other but also for people they’ve never met. Sometimes suffering turns people inward, but from Ukrainians under fire, I encounter only concern for others: Ukrainian rescue teams needed at home should go to Syria and Turkiye. Are the hurricane victims in Florida alright? And for refugees from everywhere in the previously colonized world, we are so sorry that before we didn’t understand.
For me, this is unexpected. Notwithstanding evidence to the contrary that had already emerged in Ukraine during Russia’s provocation of war in the Donbas, I had imagined that the full-scale war would make people ugly, that the violence needed to repel an invading army might transform society such that it would resemble its aggressor, that violence would beget violence. But so many people in Ukraine have made a decision, a conscious decision, a decision they talk about openly. It’s become a commonplace that people are becoming better, even as the people who act inhuman are becoming worse. Soon after the February invasion, a colleague in Kyiv, a rector of a university there, put it this way, “We want to show that humans can be different.”
Jokes that weave through these exchanges connect viral sociality and state-amplified comedy. Some refer to Zelenskyy’s tongue-in-cheek call to Russians to sabotage, “Stop smoking wherever you feel like it. Smoke where they haven’t felt it yet,” referencing the Kremlin’s “careless with cigarettes” explanations for the cotton plumes of smoke that rise over explosions on Russian warships and territory.
The complicity of shared understanding in these jokes draws and redraws the boundaries of community and allies. Scaled up, it reproduces the boundaries of the demos amid the massive displacement of people caused by attempts to de-territorialize the Ukrainian state. Comedy serves as shibboleth; who understands traces national borders. Who has the right to laugh and when is a different question entirely.
During this war of two walls—the number that civilians in apartment buildings know to put between themselves and the outside world during attacks from the air—this sincerely felt yet mutually conscious theater of encouragement has a fourth wall. A rare break in it can be an illuminating event, a precious shared moment of candor followed by a return to the mutually agreed-upon script. Such breaks seem outside time and space, points of human light and warmth radiating briefly through the smartphone screen in defiance of dark and cold, in between the hard and relentless work of the komunal’nyky who rebuild the grid after every missile strike.
What can I say I learn about my interlocutors’ experience in the war from these conversations and exchanges? Notwithstanding the frequency of communications and their emotional valence, I haven’t the faintest idea what friends, colleagues, interlocutors are going through. Connection is real, but comprehension seems beyond what is possible.
Not only individual political subjects but whole social ontologies have shifted. Personal transformation is taking place at a societal and relational level. People are different with one another. What that will look like after victory is hard to foresee or imagine.
In my active roles, I participate as I listen and observe, but my positionality and current location preclude much understanding. There are no air-raid sirens to keep me awake at night, only my status as a citizen of a guarantor nation of the Budapest Memorandum, with its security “assurances” in English and “guarantees” in Russian and Ukrainian—guarantees that Ukraine accepted three decades ago in return for relinquishing the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. I can mute Telegram channels and go back to sleep.
In this war, resistance to Russian aggression is equipped and organized and supported as much through volunteer networks as through the generous but slow-walked bankrolling from European countries whose promises and delays Ukrainian linguistic inventiveness has come to describe as “Macroning” and “Shultzing around.” In this situation, there is no space outside politics. My own understanding of the ontology of this war challenges dualist ethnographic frameworks, yet the experiential chasm between there and here reasserts, demands, a clear division between “I” and “thou.”
Yet even as shared embodied experience is elusive, impossible, these exchanges reveal and instantiate transformations in relationships, ongoing seismic shifts in how people decide to be in the world and what they decide to value. Through rubble and ruin, destroyed lives and dreams, glimpses of light emerge. In the dark of suffering electrical substations, eyes widen. Відкрита зіниця. The pupil is open. Across the distance, eyes see with the heart. A colleague writes that although there is no connection, our text exchanges somehow continue nevertheless. Something is happening, plans are being drawn (and local journalists are asking questions to ensure everyone has a say in them), people express certainty the city will be better than before. And although now I cannot know through my own witness, I believe them. Tак місто Захарія буде справжнім сонцем. And the city of Zakharia will be a true sun.
Jessica Pisano is an Associate Professor of Politics at The New School. She is a trustee of the Kharkiv Karazin University Foundation in Ukraine.
Her latest book is Staging Democracy: Political Performance in Ukraine, Russia, and Beyond (Cornell University Press, 2022).