By Dr. Jaclyn Maria Fowler
Department Chair, English and Literature
The first time I boarded an airplane, I was just shy of my twenty-first birthday. Because I was a kid from the rural areas of northeast Pennsylvania, the borders of my world extended as far as Atlantic City and Baltimore, where my uncle lived.
The rest of the world, as far I had experienced it, existed between the pages of the National Geographic magazines my dad received each month. Although he raised six children on an electrician’s salary, my father’s subscription to this magazine never lapsed, even in lean times. While we couldn’t afford a plane fare or train pass, he made sure we could travel in our dreams.
A Story about Russia and Exerting Control over Foreigners
When my first experience with real travel landed me in the Soviet Union, I was prepared for the differences in language and culture because of those National Geographic magazines. I was not ready, however, to be the target of abject cruelty.
A few weeks into my studies at Leningrad State University, a government minister called a meeting of all Americans in a common room at the dorm. I was too young and too naïve to be nervous.
“I regret to inform you,” the minister announced gravely. “America has invaded Iran.”
“What?” a young girl screamed. “Oh, my God!” another shouted.
“You will not be able to leave the Soviet Union,” the minister said. He closed his notebook, nodded to the other attachés in the room and left without answering a single question.
I sat mute, not knowing what to say or how to feel. I was deep in my own swirling thoughts, wondering how long it would be until I’d see my family again.
Then, a hearty laugh pierced the dread that had descended over the room. It was a professor, Del, from Arizona State.
“Who’d be telling us if we invaded Iran?” he asked us. We looked at each other dumbly.
“The U.S. Embassy. Not that dumb S.O.B.,” Del laughed. “It’s a warning,” he said.
We – the American students – still didn’t understand. “You’re acting too American. Keep a lower profile,” Del warned us.
We looked back and forth from him to each other, trying to find our voices and quiet our rapidly beating hearts. “Why?” my friend finally asked.
“Why what?” Del responded.
“Why would they do that?” inquired my friend. “To keep you afraid, unbalanced,” Del answered.
Getting News about the Status in Ukraine from My Former Student
For the last few weeks, there has been very little news from Lviv. I haven’t heard from my former student Anastasiia S., whose wartime experiences in Ukraine I’ve relayed in previous blog articles or from Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU).
I finally – finally! – got word this past week that Anastasiia is well. The first line of her note, however, took me back to the Soviet minister’s propagandistic visit to Leningrad State University so many years ago. She wrote:
“We live on the unstable surface. There are days without sirens that are completely normal, but sometimes the sirens shout a couple times during the day and then at night – it strongly interferes [with] daily routines. School children stop learning, adults stop working, shops are closing, and everyone are advised to go to the bomb shelter or at least hide behind two walls.
“My family has already had both experiences. In many cases, safety comes first – before leaving for any place (shop, market, café or park), you think about the nearest bomb shelter.”
Related link: Ukraine: The Wanton Destruction of Homes and Loved Ones
Keeping Ukraine Unbalanced Is Part of Russia’s Strategy
The Soviets have perfected the art of making other people feel unstable. During my long stay in the Soviet Union, I became impervious to its terror. Feeling unsure, unsafe or unbalanced was normal, like putting on sneakers before running. As students going to a Russian university, we adapted to it and learned to temper our expectations.
Now, Putin is using the old Soviet trick of creating instability through his words. He lies, saying that the Ukrainians are Nazis, without any evidence whatsoever. And in Ukraine, where he doesn’t value Ukrainians, he also uses bombs and his military to create destruction and death.
So when Anastasiia S. wrote to me about how Putin’s nuclear threats resonated with Ukrainians in the lead-up to Russia’s Victory Day celebration, it was a palpable reminder of one man’s need to profit from another’s fear and instability. She says, “I personally consider myself to be a psychologically well-equipped person – I know how to reassure myself and others, how to distract attention from the troubled news, and stay as productive as possible under the given circumstances.
“But still, breakdowns happen. There was a huge hysteria as russia closed [in] to the celebration of Victory Day, the 9th of May.
“Everyone here was waiting for massive bombarding, even a nuclear attack. A considerable amount of people even left the city for this period.
You know, in russian propaganda, Lviv is a main pro-Nazi city. They like to scream on their TV channels that Lviv needs to be destroyed as the main source of evil. That is complete insanity, considering the multicultural history of the city and the amount of diverse, displaced people who are now staying here.”
Ukraine’s Formerly Safe Lviv Suffering Russian Attacks
At Ukraine’s westernmost border, Lviv is 60 miles from Poland and 600 miles from the Russian border. Since it’s considered a relatively safe distance from the war in the east and southeast that Russia provoked in Ukraine, Lviv has welcomed almost 200,000 internally displaced refugees, a number that is more than one-quarter of its pre-war population. It has also become the staging ground for most foreign correspondents and diplomats.
But over the last few weeks, Putin and his military have sporadically turned their ire on Lviv. Intermittent and indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations is meant to remind those in Lviv that the long arm of Russia can still reach them.
It is an act of shamelessness, an act meant to bring instability to people of this medieval city. Putin shakes their sense of relative safety every time he sends his evil calling card. Anastasiia notes:
“I clearly remember the 7th of May. It was Saturday and I ran to the service store to pick up the charger for the laptop. Then the consultant suddenly announced that the fighter-bomber was flying to the city, and they are closing [in].
“It sounded ridiculous, because Lviv is too far from the front line, but in the general anticipation of the Victory Day catastrophe, you started to believe in nonsense. The siren really started in half an hour, but it was about [the] usual possible missile attack.
“That time, nothing came to Lviv, but we spent a couple of hours in the Polytechnic University basement. I figured out that this location is one of the best options in my area to hide in case of nuclear strike.
“What is interesting is that since that occasion, we haven’t heard any sirens. At the same time, our intelligence reports that the enemy has prepared all missile carriers for use and massive missile strikes are possible.”
“Last night, we had sirens for almost two hours. In the morning, officials announced that a russian missile attack hit Lviv’s military infrastructure facilities, where my husband is. He is okay, but we only get more information a couple of days later.
“This is a typical story of war. You wait for the air alarm to stop and even if nothing exploded near you, it does not mean that it did not explode somewhere else. You just have to counteract [your] own anxiety and wait for the official information, which will come in after a delay.
The Uncertainty Created by Russia Continues for Ukrainians
Anastasiia is my friend. She is one of many Ukrainians I have grown to know and love over the last two years.
As the ground shifts one way and then the other way in Ukraine, I recognize her fear of instability, the inability to have expectations and the lack of routine. In 1987, I remember the Russia minister’s words that caused such fear for me. For Anastasiia – as well as her husband, children, students, friends, and neighbors – Putin’s words are delivered on the backs of long-range missiles and cluster bombs.