Last November, I needed a video editor to produce lecture videos for an online course. So I did what one does these days. I posted the job on a global hiring platform and found Sofia, who had the visual sophistication and technical skill I needed. I gave no thought whatsoever to her location: Kyiv, Ukraine.
In January, as the headlines began to blare, I thought I’d better acknowledge the situation there. I lightly asked how the mood was. “It can’t be easy having 150,000 Russian troops staring down at you,” I wrote. She responded that people are indeed tense, but she just tries not to think about it. I didn’t mention it further, not wanting to make her think about it.
Then, on the Monday before the invasion, it seemed time to check in again. This time, she wrote of good days and bad days and trying not to panic. She had taken a survival skills course and was stocking up on food and medicine.
The next morning, I wanted to do something to cheer her up. I had just been to a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights accompanied by the Oakland Symphony, so I found a clip on YouTube of the boxing scene and sent it to her, hoping it was an appropriate choice. She wrote back an enthusiastic “Thank you! Just what I needed! Hilarious!” I commented that Chaplin was way ahead of his time with his lampooning of hyper-masculinity. “Exactly!” she replied.
On Wednesday, I saw the U.S. intelligence reports predicting a 4am invasion, 6pm Pacific time. I posted a message to Sofia saying, “I imagine it’s not easy to concentrate on work at this point. But then I think maybe work affords you needed distraction. Just let me know how you’re doing.” I kept an eye on the news while Sofia slept, and at 7pm, the first reports appeared. Before I went to bed, I messaged again, “I’m so sorry this is happening. Please know that many people around the world are feeling anguish on your behalf.” In the morning, I found her reply, “Woke up at the sound of explosion today… ” I asked if she had time for a Zoom call. She said yes.
“Is it quiet where you are now?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “we haven’t heard any explosions since about noon.” It was 7pm her time. A couple of days earlier, she, her sister and her husband had gone to her parents’ just outside of Kyiv. I told her we are seeing images of explosions and tanks crossing the border, but we aren’t seeing anything about the Ukrainian military yet. How are they doing? “They are excited,” she said. “They’ve been waiting for months. But our government already reported that a Russian unit surrendered. They don’t want this war.”
I asked if she wanted to try to keep working. She said yes. “Except it’s hard because so often you forget what you’re doing.” I told her I understand. I was living in New York when 9/11 happened. I remember well the inability to concentrate. I let her know that whatever she can manage is fine. We agreed we would keep communicating on Telegram, her preferred messaging app.
Since then, I have messaged her every morning and evening, sending tranquil or upbeat photos and saying encouraging words. She responds with deep appreciation, giving updates and sharing memes going around.
The second day, she reported that she and her husband went back to their apartment in the southern part of Kyiv to get some things but decided to stay to volunteer with making first aid kits and giving blood. Then they discovered the advantage of having air raid sirens to warn them and an underground parking garage in which to go. “In suburbs,” she wrote, “you’re always worried that something will fly in your house at any moment.”
I sent her a photo of my front deck, with blue and yellow balloons tied to the railing. She sent me back an animated gif of a cuddly dinosaur with hearts shooting out of it.
Then she reported a day of looking for food for the volunteer center and spending two and a half hours on line at the grocery store. She apologized for not finishing the edit revision. I said, “Please don’t apologize for not doing work! I will assume nothing is getting done until you tell me you have the bandwidth to focus again.”
She sent me a photo of a two-person tent on the concrete floor of a brightly lit parking garage. “This is our sleeping arrangement for tonight,” she wrote. I sent a photo of a California beach. “Beautiful!” she replied. Then she teased me about how cold it is in San Francisco, because I had told her earlier that people here start complaining when it hits 50 degrees. I checked the temperature in Kyiv that night: 35 degrees.
I told her I had seen so many stories of people saying, “Go fuck yourself!” I had the feeling that had become Ukraine’s rallying cry. She sent me the YouTube video of the radio communication between the Russian warship and the Snake Island border guards that started it all. I couldn’t stop laughing at the in-your-face audaciousness of the Ukrainians.
I told her I watched the documentary, “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” and was amazed at the bravery, dignity and integrity of the Ukrainian people. She wrote back that her sister is in the film. I told her I stopped it at one point because I thought I saw someone who looked like her. She sent me a gif of Dwight from “The Office” saying, “It’s true.”
I expressed my frustration that the Russian people aren’t out in force enough yet to protest this war. She wrote me back a long explanation of Russia’s oppression of Ukraine, going back to the Soviets making them second class citizens, calling them Nazis, killing their intellectuals and making Ukrainian the language of rural and illiterate people, when in fact Kyiv is 665 years older than Moscow. I said, “Oh, I see, Putin is exploiting that history of prejudice.” “Exactly!” she replied.
Meanwhile, the edit revisions kept coming, despite my insistence that I don’t expect anything from her. When she finished part 7, I said, “Now please stop working!” I sent her a $300 advance and told her she can work it off when peace is restored. She wrote that it brought tears to her eyes, but she’d already started part 8, so she’ll just finish it first. Then she wrote, “Again air raid sirens. Have to go.”
I have been careful not to ask questions, not wanting to make even the slightest demand of her. But I had little sense of her daily life, and my anguish was growing. Friday, I asked for another Zoom call. She came on barely visible and apologized for having no light on. They hadn’t covered their windows yet. Only her face could be seen by the glow of her computer screen. I was glad I had a white wall behind me to help light her up. It was 6pm, her time.
She told me she and her husband are still in Kyiv, but they are mostly staying with her sister, whose apartment is in the same building but on a lower floor. They feel safer there, closer to the parking garage when the sirens blare. Her mother is with them, too. Her father has gone to join the citizen defense forces. Her husband is a developer, so has been working with the cyber forces.
Sofia has been volunteering for the Creative Forces of Ukraine, making anti-disinformation videos aimed at Russian citizens, to expose the truth of the war. But the work requires sorting through endless footage of violence and destruction. She can only do so much at one time. And it’s hard not to get distracted by scrolling the news. I told her I understand, I’m having the same problem.
I asked if she’s still sleeping in the parking garage. “Yes! Of course!” she said. I said it must be cold. “Oh yes, it’s very cold.” Do you have a good sleeping bag? “Yes, but I sent it to the military forces. We have another that we sleep on top of and then put blankets over us.” “Really, it’s not so bad,” she said. “We have hot water, heat and electricity.”
I joked that I want her to teach me how to say, “Go fuck yourself!” in Ukrainian. “Oh no, no, no,” she said. “These are very bad words. These are Russian words. Very aggressive. Ukrainian swear words are not like that. They are lighter and a bit funny.” I imagined Ukrainians, in a fit of pique, yelling Shakespearian insults at each other.
I told her I keep thinking Ukraine has such a beautiful flag, so bright and cheery and with an elegant simplicity. She told me it represents wheat fields and blue sky.
I am awed by the visual poetry. And I can’t help noticing a pattern: a bright, cheery flag; light, funny swear words; a comedian-as-president.
As we prepared to part, she said the call had cheered her. We had a long silence. I said, “God bless,” and felt tears welling up. She said, “Thank you.” Another long silence. Finally, we parted. The bubble we briefly shared, giving her an illusion of relief and me a hint of war, was split, sending us back to our respective realities.
I follow the news closely, then carefully word each message to avoid any unintentional display of American cluelessness. Even still, on Friday night I had a slip when I was in Oakland and saw a Ukrainian art piece projected on the side of a building, captioned with the words, “Art bombed by Putin” and “Boycott Russia.” I sent her a photo of it and said, “Maybe you’re familiar with this artist?”
The next morning, I found her reply, “This is Maria Prymachenko!” She pointed out that the name appears in the lower right corner (duh!) and included a link to the Wikipedia page. I wrote, “Please excuse my ignorance about Ukrainian art!” and dutifully studied up on this 20th century artist, of whom Picasso once said, “I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian.”
Looking for a Bay Area rally to lend my presence to, I read that at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sunday, a group of artists would be replicating one of Prymachenko’s most famous works, “A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace.” I worried that it might be hard to find, feeling slightly desperate to get a photo for Sofia, perhaps to amend for my ignorance. But coming onto the plaza, the rally was easily apparent.
Walking closer, I came around the tower and made my way through the crowd. Suddenly, stretching in front of me on the concrete was a burst of flowers framing the white and blue spread of a serene and pleading dove.
At 10pm that night (8am Monday in Kyiv) I sent the photos off to Sofia. I woke up the next morning to a dancing cherry with this message: “This is so cool! [smiley face] This amazing support really gives hope. [smiley face with hearts] Thank you for sharing this!”