I left Ukraine 20 years ago. But it never left me

The New York Times
Krakow, PolandWritten By: Zanna Sloniowska © 2022 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Mar 09, 2022, 11:42 PM IST
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Ukraine flag (representational image) Photograph:(AFP)

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Departure, however final it seems, is not forever

A few years ago, after I gave a talk in a small Polish town, an old man sidled up to the table where I sat. “In what language do you dream?” he asked. “In all the languages I speak,” I answered honestly (I’m basically trilingual). “You are a person,” he replied with a slight note of condemnation, “without identity.”

I smiled. His comment was not unusual: I’d heard a version of it many times in the years since I settled in Poland. There was, apparently, only one proper way of being Polish and only one way of pronouncing Polish words. But there was something he, like other Poles reared with a narrow sense of national identity, didn’t understand. I am from Ukraine — and Ukrainian identity is porous, inclusive, multilayered and, crucially, a work in progress.

If Poles didn’t know that then, they’ll get a chance to find out now. More than a million Ukrainians, under brutal attack from Russia, have crossed the border into Poland. Waiting with their children and old relatives in long, slow lines, they said tearful farewells to their husbands and sons and stepped into a new life. It is a tragic upheaval.

My own experience when I left Ukraine almost 20 years ago, by contrast, was not painful at all. There was no war and I was not a refugee. I realize how lucky I am. But I know what it’s like to leave your home and country behind, and to start anew. And I can say that the departure, however final it seems, is never forever. You carry both within you, always. They are a constant presence, sometimes near, sometimes far, lighting up the path to the future.

I was born in Lviv in 1978. Then in the Soviet Union, the city had belonged to Poland for about 400 years and been a place where Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and Armenians lived side by side. In my youth, I was suffused with this borderland identity and thought of myself as existing at the intersection of cultures, never fully beholden to one. So when the Soviet Union fell, I wasn’t very interested in the new Ukrainian state. Instead, I longed to see Paris, Rome and Madrid, with their churches and museums, even if it meant half-starving, sleeping in parks and hitchhiking.

After my travels, I wanted to settle somewhere — and chose Poland, fulfilling my grandmother’s dream of living in the country. I didn’t even call it emigration: My hometown, after all, was only about 185 miles away. But after Poland joined the European Union in 2004, the border between the two countries, previously so easily passed, was garlanded with barbed wire. To get into the country, Ukrainians had to wait in a special line, much longer than E.U. citizens.

I began to dream about the abolition of the border. If Ukraine joined the European Union, say, I would be able to cherish once more my borderland identity — and things could look a bit like the Second Polish Republic, the interwar state where Poles, Ukrainians and other nationalities lived side by side. It was not, of course, an idyll: The Polish state dealt harshly with minorities, and Ukrainians who wanted to study in their own language or practice their religion faced oppression. Between Ukraine and Poland, there are still many “no-go areas.”

At the time, I didn’t really think of myself as Ukrainian. I was from Lviv, spoke Russian, Polish and Ukrainian, and lived in Poland: That seemed like enough. But as I was dreaming about the border falling between us, the Orange Revolution — a series of protests that expressed not only Ukrainians’ opposition to corruption but also, more profoundly perhaps, their European longings — broke out in Ukraine in 2004. At a solidarity demonstration in Krakow, I found myself, for the first time in my life, holding the blue-and-yellow flag. It was, my friend said, the conception of my Ukrainian identity.

For the next decade or so, it went no further. I have relatives and friends on both sides of the border, and I was regularly here and there. I followed events in Ukraine at a distance, as if wary of what could come from full immersion. I knew some educated, talented young Ukrainians who tried to build the new country. After a couple of years they were broken, burned out and bitterly disappointed by corruption that seemed to be unconquerable. In Poland, meanwhile, I continued to build a life for myself. I married, had children and worked away at my first novel, inspired in part by the colorful Ukrainian revolution.

Then another revolution spilled out onto Kyiv’s streets. Based at the Maidan, the city’s central square, protesters bravely demanded the government reverse its decision to abandon an association agreement with Europe and commit to a pro-Western path. Across five fateful days in February 2014 things turned violent, and peaceful demonstrators — about 100 of them — were killed. This, which became known as the Revolution of Dignity, gave birth to my Ukrainian identity. During those days I started to call myself Ukrainian for the first time.

I was joined by hundreds of thousands of my compatriots, who moved to Poland in the aftermath of the protests and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Taxi drivers, hairdressers, doctors and teachers started to make the harsh rustling sound of the Polish language lingering and melodious. The historical taboos were still there, but so were love affairs, business deals and newborn Ukrainian Polish children. The strict E.U. border was still there, but the spirit of a renewed Second Polish Republic was hovering in the air, too.

Now the mingling and melding of the two countries has reached new levels. From the first day of Russia’s invasion, my mobile phone has been ringing almost without interruption. There was hardly one Polish friend or acquaintance who didn’t express solidarity or wasn’t ready to invite refugees to their home, not one who didn’t want to drive, to feed, to heal, to give, to support. It has been an astounding outpouring of fellow feeling. It was like the fever of a new love: Ukrainians flags were suddenly everywhere.

The border has changed, too. These days Ukrainians can cross it without documents, without Covid tests. They can bring their pets with them. They can make free calls and have free train tickets. When they cross the border, all the doors in Poland are open for them. Poles have even started to translate their cartoons into Ukrainian — to help refugee kids to laugh and relax after nights spent listening to air-raid sirens.

The very meaning of the word “Ukrainian” is changing in Poland. It used to contain such nuances as, for example, “the Easterner” or “the village man” or even “wild man.” Now it sounds different. When the word is uttered, I hear “the brave warrior” and “our brother.” For those leaving their lives behind, under the pressure of bombardment and attack, the fraternal salute seems exactly right.