The war has led to several Ukrainians seeks refuge in neighbouring European nations (AP file image)
Hunched over a bowl of borscht in a crowded restaurant, the man was bragging about how many people he used to employ, all his political connections and how, if he ever had to, he could even kill someone and make the trouble “go away.”
With his clean-shaven head, black sweatshirt and hands the size of bear paws, he certainly looked as if he could make good on that threat. And if this overtly macho owner of a construction company couldn’t do it himself, he kept dropping hints of his links to the Ukrainian underworld.
But then his face suddenly softened, saddened.
“All my life, all my life, when I had problem, I could fix it,” he said. “But now … with this war ...” — he couldn’t even finish his sentence. He covered his face with his hands and burst into sobs, tears plunking into his soup.
Ukrainians are generally good at putting up a brave front. So much of the messaging from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on down has been that they are tough, they are ready to sacrifice, they are “unbreakable” — that’s one of Zelenskyy’s favorite words.
But as the war drags on, an almost unbearable amount of pain builds up. And just like the sudden outburst at the restaurant, which surprised everyone at the table, especially the man himself, so many people here try to conceal their suffering that it creates a precarious emotional landscape, full of unmarked cliffs.
“People don’t want to open up, because they’re afraid that if they do, they’ll lose it,” said Anna Trofymenko, a psychotherapist in Kremenchuk, a city in central Ukraine.
She had a metaphor for this tendency to bottle up emotions.
“There are two types of people in this world — the avocado and the coconut,” she said.
The avocado, she explained, is soft on the outside, hard on the inside. The coconut is the opposite.
“We’re like coconuts,” she said.
Even before the war, she said, Ukrainians tended to be stoic and reluctant to emote. She chalked this up to the lingering haze of Soviet times when the survival strategy was: Don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t open up to strangers.
Yevhen Mahda, a leading political scientist in Kyiv, agreed.
“During the Soviet Union,” he said, “every person was a small piece of a big machine. No one expressed their emotions. It wasn’t needed. No one cared.”
Although younger Ukrainians don’t have the same baggage, “society doesn’t change so fast,” Mahda said. “It’s a process, it’s not a fairy tale, it’s not a Harry Potter book, it’s our life.”
In Pokrovsk, an eastern town near the front line, I met a young woman sitting on an evacuation train. Her village had been relentlessly bombed, and she fled in a hurry. She carried 150 hryvnias in her pocket — about $4. But she was composed and neatly dressed, her carefully made-up face a blank mask.
I didn’t ask many questions but, at one point, looked at her and said, “Sorry you’re going through this.” She looked right back at me and burst into tears.
Trofymenko explained this was part of the landscape, too. “As soon as you feel safe,” she said, “you let yourself go.”
“You know, we seem very reserved, unemotional, with a lack of feelings,” she added. “But once you are inside, it’s a different story.”
On the Poland-Ukraine border in the earliest days of the war, I watched one of the greatest refugee crises of modern times. An endless assembly of women and children streamed across the border, millions of them. Burdened by hastily packed, bulging suitcases and cast out of their own homes by circumstances that were upending history, they were tiny, vulnerable figures dwarfed by the long roads and huge skies.
One woman in a green hoodie stopped for a rest along a Polish highway. Because of the rule that military-age Ukrainian men are not allowed to leave the country, she was alone. She had just parted with her husband, whom she had known since they were young. She, too, was dry eyed — at first.
But after she shared her parting words to her husband, her composure cracked. Once she allowed herself to think about the man she loved and how she had no idea when, or maybe even if, she would see him again, and how it felt to clutch him that last time at the border, it was impossible to cauterize her feelings.
As a journalist, covering huge traumatic events doesn’t necessarily get easier the more one does it. I sometimes feel my protective lining wearing down.
Recently, I saw a photo of a building on fire in eastern Ukraine, not far from Pokrovsk. I looked closer and felt a pang of fear. Wait a sec, I said to myself. I’ve been to that building.
It was in the same town, Chasiv Yar, where I had an unusual interaction with a Russian sympathizer. He told me and my translator, Alex, that he believed the Russians were “doing the right thing” by invading Ukraine. Alex and her family have suffered immensely from this war (as have just about all Ukrainians), but she did not argue with the sympathizer. As a journalist, that wasn’t her role.
At the end of the interview, the Russian sympathizer, who was in his 70s, cheerful and full of life, plodded into his garden and started sawing down a bunch of grapes. He really appreciated the company, he said, and wanted to give us a gift.
As he stretched toward the glistening fruit, I saw Alex’s eyes fill with tears.
“What is it?” I asked.
We had interviewed so many people who had lost everything, but I’d never seen her cry. She is tough. She is hard. She is, by her own admission, a coconut.
Why was she crying now?
“Because these people are good,” she said.
If someone from the “other side” — as most Ukrainians and much of the West brand Russia and its supporters — could so happily offer fruit from his garden, what did that say about the complexities of war?
We walked off with the grapes, filled with emotions that were not so easily buttoned down.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
By Jeffrey Gettleman